Maybe it was me, maybe it was just the world, but I can't recall a movie year that felt as out-of-kilter as 1985. Before it had reached its midpoint, I was already in a position to put together a respectable Ten Best list. However, most of the titles on that list represented unfinished business from 1984. And as 1985 wore on, few among the brand-new films made credible bids to stand alongside them.
As always, some notable year-end releases didn't win a Seattleplaydate till January or February of this year: A Passage to India, The Killing Fields, A Sunday in the Country, Stranger than Paradise. Then, an unusually high number of interesting films turned up that had stumbled at the starting gate in 1984 and been more or less abandoned by their distributors. In some cases, they were given a second chance at screen life only because the people who had made them literally carried them around the festival circuit, and also (if I may be permitted a communal pat on the back) because the press rallied to their cause. Songwriter, Heartbreakers, Mrs. Soffel, A Year of the Quiet Sun, Return of the Soldier, and A Flash of Green were not only more artful than the vast majority of movies that had no trouble obtaining wide release—they were a hell of a lot more engrossing and entertaining, too.
Add Blood Simple, whose release was shrewdly delayed to fall during the post-Christmas dry spell (though it had already been seen in our May '84 Seattle Film Festival), and Sergio Leone's intact Once Upon a Time in America, which was first issued in a mutilated version in 1984, and you have enough estimable leftover cinema to unbalance any twelvemonth. Only the holiday arrival of several of the very best films of the year saved '85 from looking like 1984, Part Two.
Herewith my ten (or so) top pix as we edge into '86:
1. Ran – Akira Kurosawa's reworking of King Lear is everything a masterpiece is supposed to be—a transfiguring aesthetic and emotional experience, a perfect fusion of content and form, the summation of a world-view and a towering personal style. In Ran, human nature is destiny, and landscape a map of the soul. Amazing imagery one will never forget: the Great Lord Hidetora on the hunt, rising in his stirrups like a demon as he draws his bow; the fatal rhyme between an empty scabbard dangling down the stairs of a burning castle, and a silken sash trailing along the floor of an impromptu nuptial chamber; a soundless battle in which war is a storm and blood is a sunset; the Lady Kaede, working her witchery on a lordly pawn, bending incuriously to crush a locust; an eyeless boy tap-tapping his way to the cliff-edge of the world, where he will be forever stranded.
2. A Year of the Quiet Sun – Pick almost any year out of the past decade and Krzysztof Zanussi probably made one (or more) of its best films (Camouflage, Ways in the Night, Contract). A Year of the Quiet Sun marks an advance for this most intelligent of writer-directors in that, from beginning to end, its images reverberate with an almost painful spiritual suggestibility. The story deals with a desperate affair between a Polish woman (Maja Komorowska) and a lonely member of the U.S. Occupation force (Scott Wilson) in a small border town in 1946. There is nothing literally autobiographical about this film, yet the first scene, between the woman and her mother on a crowded refugee train, is refracted through the point of view of an unidentified boy who will not appear in the film again. Zanussi and his own mother weathered the war years as refugees perennially on the dodge. The presence of that boy is one evanescent suggestion of how richly this postwar anecdote of a world adrift subsumes the larger story of History within the personal poetry of an artist—an artist who has lived more of that history than most Americans can begin to comprehend.
3 & 4. The Color Purple and Prizzi's Honor – Kathleen Murphy has observed that the two best American movies of the year deal with the rise of a strong matriarchy behind the ritual machinations of complacent masculine power structures (respectively, Southern Negro society in the early decades of the 20th century, and the Mafia). Steven Spielberg's film The Color Purple is emotionally luminous; Huston's Prizzi's Honor, icily ironical. The Color Purple, in every shot setup and movement and cut, displays a bright young talent in his prime, who has assimilated the lessons of the masters of popular filmmaking, from Griffith to Ford, Disney to Capra. Prizzi is the work of a seasoned master, so casual in his authority as a chronicler of human folly and as a connoisseur of choice screen spectacle, he seems to be spinning tales from an armchair by a winter's fire. Both are wonderful to have around. Both have earned their triumphs.
5. Once Upon a Time in America – A phone is ringing at the beginning of Once upon a Time in America. That phone rings and rings and rings, over a series of scenes in diverse locations. It will be hours and years before we know why. Sergio Leone's epic fantasia of Jewish gangsterism traces a trajectory of love and deceit, desire and frustration, dream and obsessive memory, through three disparate but linked epochs in modern American history—the immigrant era of the early Twenties, the violent gang warfare of the Thirties, and the bitter rewards of institutionalized power in the Age of Nixon. The Ladd Company and Warner Bros. released a two-and-a-half-hour version of this film, laid out in chronological sequence, in summer 1984; but the real movie arrived only this year, in the director's three-and-a-half-hour cut. The scenario moves back and forth across time according to a symphonic design that has less to do with unreeling a plot than with orchestrating spaces and actions and moods, evoking the tarnished glow of the American Dream from the perspective of the ashes. Even in the longer cut, Once Upon a Time in America falls short of the masterpiece Leone yearned to make (and the one he did make in Once upon a Time in the West); but few films have aspired so high, or achieved such magnificence.
6. Stranger Than Paradise – Jim Jarmusch's $120,000 wonder about a newly emigrated Hungarian girl, her American cousin Willy, and his smiley pal Eddie at large in the American land—which is to say, Cleveland and Florida. The movie has affinities to Wim Wenders (who donated the film stock), Yasujiro Ozu (who would appreciate the geometric circumspectness of the camera strategy), and Andy Warhol (who would probably know these people even though they've never been famous for 15 minutes). But it's really an original—a contemporary fairy tale that does not believe in fairies, a sad comedy of haplessness that means no one harm, an otherworldly documentary shot on location in some of the most "normal" places on the planet Earth. Most implacable gin-player in history: Willy and Eva's Aunt Lotte ("I am the winner!").
7. George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey – Much more than an anthology of classic film clips, this is a movie with a strong emotional line all its own. George Stevens Jr.'s tribute to his director father is an authentically heroic account of an artist in the American grain, both overrated and neglected, whose personal and professional integrity made him (to borrow a Frank Capra phrase) a lighthouse in a foggy world. Incidentally, this beautiful film, lavishly praised by reviewers and enthusiastically promoted by its exhibitor, set a house record for low attendance. Remember that, the next time somebody tries to tell you what an avid movie town Seattle is.
8. After Hours / Heartbreakers – Call this a Michael Ballhaus double feature: The former Fassbinder cameraman's sleek, dark/bright visuals play a crucial part in making both these smart, urban movies among the most vibrant of the year. Martin Scorsese's After Hours is a dazzling black comedy about a late date in Manhattan gone horribly wrong. Bobby Roth's Heartbreakers, an adult comedy about love and sex and belated growing-up in L.A., is as artful and stylized as Alan Rudolph's earlier mapping of similar terrain, Choose Me (they belong on the same home videocassette—by all means, Maxell Gold!).
9. Blood Simple – Diabolically clever contemporary film noir set inTexas, with Dan Hedaya as a corpse who won't stay down and M. Emmet Walsh as a good-ol'-boy private eye so sleazy-greasy he leaves a stain on the screen. The heroine's final attempts to escape an all-but-unstoppable menace play like a childhood alone-in-the-house nightmare come true, step by agonizing step; and the film's final line and image qualify as the most exhilaratingly outrageous ending in recent memory.
10. A Nightmare on Elm Street / The Company of Wolves – Your dreams can kill you or cure you. Wes Craven's Nightmare, a genuinely and advisedly scary horror film, represents the first breakthrough in that much-maligned genre since John Carpenter's Halloween. Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves is as arty and academic as Nightmare is mainline-commercial and instinctive, but I felt both movies take firm hold of a couple of very miscellaneous audiences, and that counts for a lot.
Close, and by all means a cigar: If I'd had a second look at Alan Rudolph's exuberant Songwriter, Bertrand Tavernier's A Sunday in the Country, David Lean's A Passage to India, Peter Bogdanovich's Mask, Gillian Armstrong's Mrs. Soffel, and Paul Cox's My First Wife, any or all of them might have crowded onto my list somewhere. Other good things: Karel Reisz's Sweet Dreams, a conventional country-Western biopic elevated by extraordinary performances (Jessica Lange, Ed Harris, Ann Wedgeworth); Sydney Pollack's Out of Africa; Woody Allen's exquisite The Purple Rose of Cairo; Victor Nunez' A Flash of Green; Henry Jaglom's unexpectedly appealing Always; David Hare's Wetherby; Hector Babenco's Kiss of the Spider Woman, not up to the challenge of Manuel Puig's novel, but superbly played by William Hurt and Raul Julia; Phillip Borsos' One Magic Christmas; Luis Puenzo's The Official Story; Gavin Millar and Dennis Potter's Dreamchild; two more tasty horror films, Lifeforce and Fright Night; and the movie that gave me more sheer pleasure (largely for personal reasons) than any other all year, Lawrence Kasdan's Silverado.
Memorably mixed bags; Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon, Roland Joffé's The Killing Fields, Fred Schepisi and David Hare's Plenty.
Atrocities: Agnes of God, Goonies, Maxie, Rocky IV, Santa Claus—The Movie.
Irrelevancies: Back to the Future, Desperately Seeking Susan.
Supporting Actor of the Year: Brian Dennehy, Silverado, Cocoon, Twice in a Lifetime.
Best "Best" category: Supporting actresses: Anjelica Huston in Prizzi's Honor; Ann Wedgeworth, Sweet Dreams; Hanna Skarzanka, A Year of the Quiet Sun; Margaret Avery, Akosua Busia, Oprah Winfrey, The Color Purple; Amy Madigan, Twice in a Lifetime; Tracey Ullman, Plenty.
The Weekly, January 1, 1986
Copyright © 1986 by Richard T. Jameson