Ten Best lists are like anchovies—people tend to love 'em or hate 'em. Happily for inveterate compilers of such things, more people seem to love 'em than hate 'em. Film publicists and theater operators know they can exploit them in their advertising. Filmgoers enjoy making a ceremony out of agreeing or disagreeing with the reviewers they've been unceremoniously agreeing or disagreeing with during the past twelve months. And those same reviewers appreciate the opportunity the Ten Best ritual confers, to get a new and, shall we say, at least tentatively definitive perspective on the experiences of a year in the life.
No two film years shake out quite the same. Some years one spends vividly and pleasurably embattled defending—or deploring—a clearly emergent trend in the way movies are being conceived, made and seen. Others are hopelessly, or gloriously, miscellaneous, In some years, the signal masterwork of the season arrives early on and the rest of the current cinema jockeys for position behind it; 1974 was like that with Chinatown, 1975 with Nashville, whereas 1984's Paris, Texas and 1985's Ran didn't turn up till Christmastime.
Nor does every film year obligingly lock into place with the critic's year-end deadline. Sometimes it takes a while for the shining virtues of the best films to become apparent or, perhaps more accurately, for audiences and critics to recognize them. Likewise the fundamental shallowness of many self-important or fashionable movies that wear embarrassingly thin over the long haul. Peter Bogdanovich had a point when he proposed that 1969 was a good year in which to compile a Ten Best list for 1939 (and the list he compiled made better sense than, say, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' nominees for best picture at the time). Nearly a decade would have to pass before I knew that The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes—was the great film of 1970; it hadn't quite made my Ten Best list back then, and sank from commercial sight after a single week.
Film year 1987 seemed more scrambled than most. For one thing, there were a hell of a lot of movies—so many that some couldn't obtain a proper release (including a number of big pictures that have been set back till early '88); and even films that were doing respectable business sometimes had to be taken off screen prematurely, so great was the pressure from the "product" in the wings. (Thank God for video.)
Many of the year's best films wouldn't appear until the shag end of autumn, and the early months were dominated by carryovers from 1986 (Platoon, Hoosiers, Sherman's March). Consequently, much of '87 was consecrated to small pleasures. In director Robert Benton's Nadine, Kim Basinger finally made good on her over-extended line of credit. In Tom Holland, Whoopi Goldberg at last drew a director capable of crafting a competent action programmer, Fatal Beauty, and allowing her to interact meaningfully with her male costars (Sam Elliott and Ruben Blades), not to mention the rest of the human race. Brian De Palma, like Francis Coppola on Peggy Sue Got Married the year before, appeared to get straight and do healthy, vigorous work as a director-for-hire on The Untouchables. For at least a few reels of Dragnet, Dan Aykroyd's awesome Gatling-gun delivery as the nephew of Joe Friday sustained a rare and unprecedented comic piquancy.
The British invasion, while not marked by such decisive victories as in '86, nevertheless maintained a high level of attack with Defence of the Realm, Withnail and I, The Good Father, Wish You Were Here, The Whistle Blower and, from the sweeter sector of the Irish opposition, Eat the Peach. Two Brits gone west directed glossy thrillers. Adrian (Flashdance) Lyne made Fatal Attraction, technically his most accomplished piece of work, if still loathsome; I prefer Ridley Scott's gloss, in Someone to Watch Over Me, to Adrian Lyne's gloss, but there's no question Fatal Attraction tapped, however authentically or inauthentically, into a lot of the fear and loathing at large in this plaguey time. Bob Rafelson's gorgeous, fascinatingly absurdist/oblique Black Widow was infinitely superior to both of them.
We got two zany action-cartoons, Paul Verhoeven's A-list Robocop and Jack Sholder's The Hidden, deliriously and deliciously proud to be a B. Thanks especially to Terry O'Neill's performance in the title role, Joseph Ruben's The Stepfather stepped way up in class as a horror-in-banal-real-life movie. At the other end of the cost spectrum, Elaine May's Ishtar with Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, and mind-bogglingly awful song lyrics by M/H/B and Paul Williams demonstrated that a megabucks catastrophe could still be funny and endearing.
For me, so far at least, the cinema of 1987 has issued few clear imperatives, Ten Best List–wise. That is, I'm reasonably confident as to what films belong on the list and why, but not about their ranking. Therefore, the following honor roll is announced in no particular order—although numbers one and two definitely are numbers one and two.
HOPE AND GLORY
John Boorman; Great Britain
"…England awoke from the big sleep of the Thirties into a dream of war. It was a magical, marvelous time for a child, with only the occasional queasy moment—just the right mixture of exhilaration and terror." —The London Blitz according to John Boorman, in 1939-40 a seven-year-old suburban middle-class lad, and in adulthood a world-class filmmaker.
Boorman's has never been an inconspicuous talent. Watching his previous films, one feels, even shares, the strain of his reaching. Mostly, he's reached for some neo-pagan splendor (the backcountry rite of passage in Deliverance, the pre-civilized shaping of England in Excalibur, the engineer father seeking his lost son among the tribes of The Emerald Forest); reached for a heroic vision, and a style equal to expressing it. Much of the joy of Hope and Glory—a warm, loving, vibrantly funny movie about Boorman's own family during the early days of World War II—resides in the ease, the sheer celebratory pleasure, with which the director tells his tale.
At one point, Boorman's camera bends, dips, turns and tilts to follow the roof-scraping progress of a "rogue balloon" above the family's street, and incidentally to catch the myriad neighborhood reactions to the event. The planning and rehearsal necessary to bring off the scene must have been prodigious, yet the effect is that the camera eye glances, at any given second, just where and how the viewer's own eye would glance if he were part of the scene. It's as though Boorman's whole history were crystallized in that moment: he participated in it as a child, then spent his adult life perfecting a craft that would enable him to recreate it with unpretentious immediacy half a century later.
JEAN DE FLORETTE / MANON OF THE SPRING
Claude Berri; France
Two Provençal landowners (Yves Montand and Daniel Auteuil) scheme to acquire a plot of ground adjacent to their property. They pursue their objective by wily peasant means, to the point of destroying the heir to the land (Gérard Depardieu), a city fellow whose innocent desire to "return to nature" cannot protect him against sirocco and drought. Ten years later, his daughter obtains revenge, while Fate itself exacts a more terrible retribution.
Jean/Manon is a definitive instance of "prestige picture"–making, a species of cinematic endeavor I tend to disdain. Big cost (the most expensive French production to date). Big reverence for a literary antecedent (a novel—and film—by Marcel Pagnol). Big stars. In short, the sort of "Tradition of Quality" movie that dominated French cinema thirty years ago, with all the aesthetic value reposed in production values, showcase performances, and script, and nary a hint of directorial personality. The French New Wave (Truffaut, Godard, et al.) surged into being at least partly in reaction against that state of affairs.
I mention this because some of my dearest filmcrit friends harbor distinct reservations about Jean/Manon, and I respect both the friends and the reservations. But the story Claude Berri has to tell is so powerful, the performances are so fine, and the high production costs were expended so effectively in the service of evoking a place, a time, and a way of life, that I had to put my critical prejudices on hold, and be moved.
John Huston; U.S.A.
From The Maltese Falcon through The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Red Badge of Courage, Night of the Iguana, The Man Who Would Be King, and Wise Blood, the late John Huston was responsible for many distinguished literary adaptations. Never imposing a "Huston style" on his material, he always strove to find—and mostly succeeded in finding—the aptest way to let stories speak for themselves on screen. His last completed work, this eloquent film version of James Joyce's best-loved short story is characteristic: technically self-effacing, without a wasted movement or a fraudulent gesture; life-size, rigorously undemonstrative, but casting a spell that will linger and deepen. With Anjelica Huston, Donal McCann, Dan O'Herlihy; screenplay by Tony Huston.
MY LIFE AS A DOG
Lasse Hallström; Sweden
"It's not so bad if you think about it. It could have been worse." That's the credo of Ingemar, our congenitally doleful and at the same time impish juvenile hero. One can't blame him, His father's semipermanently employed loading cargo on the other side of the globe, his mother's ebbing away with tuberculosis, and whoever's in charge of the way the world works is always losing track of things—like the Russians, drafting a hapless pooch as cosmonaut and shooting her into space for the good of science, without a thought for what happens when her food supply runs out. Actually, her food supply has already run out before Ingemar's story begins. This memoir of a year in the late Fifties, when another Ingemar became world boxing champion, is framed as a sort of double-flashback, so that the predominantly comic film reverberates with sweet, ineffable sadness. With Anton Glanzelius (one of the cinema's great child-performances, by a nonprofessional who's reportedly more interested in football than in acting); from the novel by Reidar Jonsson.
Platoon won the Academy Award for the best picture of 1986, but wasn't put into general release until early 1987. It took writer-director Oliver Stone ten years to get it made. It took longer than that for us to get ready to watch a Vietnam War movie that wasn't an allegory of something else (e.g., The Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now). Once the time finally arrived, Platoon became the focus of virtually a religious experience for the country and proved worthy to the occasion. With Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Willem Dafoe.
Barry Levinson; U.S.A.
Screenwriter Barry Levinson made a promising directorial debut in 1982 with Diner, then seemed to lose his way serving the legend of Robert Redford in The Natural and impersonating Steven Spielberg on Young Sherlock Holmes. For this movie he returned to his native Baltimore, the locus of Diner. The evidence strongly suggests that this fellow not only can go home again, but should, at every opportunity.
Richard Dreyfuss, Danny DeVito, and their fellow "tin men" may be a decade or two older than the guys in Diner (though the period is only a couple years later, 1962), but Levinson's ear is just as sharp at catching the inspired dislocations and lyric looniness of their talk; his eye is similarly acute at framing the grungy glory of the spaces they inhabit. He's also sympathetically attuned to the tin men's aspirations: the title refers not only to their job as larcenous aluminum-siding salesmen but also to the fellow in The Wizard of Oz who longed for a human heart. Barbara Hershey is a key factor in putting both Dreyfuss and DeVito in touch with theirs.
Woody Allen; U.S.A.
As I said, Ten Best–ing often affords perspective to the critic as much as anyone else. I spent most of 1987 comfortably convinced that for once I could leave a Woody Allen film off my year-end list. This January release about turn-of-the-Forties radio and the people who listened to it was charming, to be sure, but inherently trivial, and much too random—the kind of rambling divertissement only a director assured of a loyal following and indulgent producers could get away with. Then I realized that I'd also spent the year flashing back on many inimitable moments and moods from Radio Days. And when I checked it out of the videostore on Ten Best eve, I discovered that this evocation of lost community packed a real wallop. Question: If the recent nation-uniting story of Jessica McClure had had the same outcome as the Polly Phelps episode in Radio Days, would the media have turned off their cameras and mikes this time?
MADE IN HEAVEN
During the 1940s a young man (Timothy Hutton) loses his life while saving someone else from drowning. He goes to Heaven. He meets a girl there, lovely girl (Kelly McGillis); woos her, wins her, then loses her—because the time has come for her to be born. He strikes a bargain with a curiously demonic angel: send him back to be reborn as well, and give the two of them thirty years to find each other and make a match for eternity. Interesting situation.
It seems only a certified original like director Alan Rudolph could have come up with such a premise—a game of choose-me for eternal stakes, in which missing each other by inches defines the widest gulf in the universe. What's remarkable is that Rudolph didn't come up with the premise at all, two other guys did (screenwriters Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon); yet finally, few films have ever been so decisively, or exhilaratingly, written with the camera.
Barbet Schroeder; U. S. A.
Go figure. I didn't expect to like Barfly. The ingredients seemed ripe for pretentious self-indulgence: fringe-dwelling, professionally inconoclastic literary cult figure (Charles Bukowski); foreign director with at least partially soft-headed susceptibility to seekers after esoteric sensation (Barbet Schroeder of More and La Vallée); terminally manneristic actor with a growing list of debits (Mickey Rourke); problematical actress who tends to make ten bad movies for every good one (Faye Dunaway). Put all these people together in a movie about lushes and what could possibly go right? Just about everything, as it turns out. A swimmingly funny walk on the wild side, thoroughly original yet richly classical. Best screenplay of the year, hands down (which is altogether the best way to write a screenplay like this, especially if you happen to be crawling on the floor at the time). Ravishingly, but also truthfully, photographed by Robby Müller.
NO WAY OUT
Roger Donaldson; U.S.A.
The classiest thriller of the year was also its most gratifying movie-movie, a throwback to the assured professionalism of the Old Hollywood, when stylishness was a function of intelligence and witty indirection, rather than fashionability. An ingenious adaptation (by Robert Garland) of the minor suspense classic The Big Clock, No Way Out relocates its action from a fanciful, dark-tower version of the Time-Life empire to the Pentagon. The hero (Kevin Costner giving his first truly stellar performance) is still handed the paranoid task of finding the man officially tagged with murdering his boss's (here, Secretary of Defense Gene Hackman) mistress—while pretending he doesn't know she was the boss's mistress, and wondering how to conceal the fact that he himself is the (innocent) mystery man.
No Way Out was a hit. However, a dismaying number of reviewers (often the same people who praised such cattle-prod thrillers as Suspect and Stakeout) insisted on making the most literal-minded attacks on its "plausibility," and on a snapperoo of a twist ending that actually strengthened the story logic. Meanwhile, in the fascinating way that movies have of seeming to make themselves as much as they are made, this summertime release provided ironical counterpoint to the North-Poindexter, "front-man"/"cover-up"/"protection from full knowledge" circus then under way in the nation's capital. That's entertainment.
The best movie I saw for the first time in 1987 was probably Axel Corti's "Austrian trilogy"—God Doesn't Believe in Us Anymore, Santa Fe, Welcome in Vienna—a brilliant chronicle of Austrian Jews struggling to escape from Hitler and then returning to their transformed homeland after the war. However, ORF/Austrian TV, for which the films were made in 1981–1986, is apparently determined not to release them theatrically.
The film it hurt most to leave off the Ten Best was David Anspaugh and Angelo Pizzo's lovely slice of rural Americana, Hoosiers. Also close, and by all means a cigar: Suzana Amaral's Hour of the Star (Brazil), Ross McElwee's shaggy-dog documentary Sherman's March, Eliseo Subiela's Man Facing Southeast (Argentina), Robocop, Steve Martin and Fred Schepisi's Roxanne, Mike Newell's The Good Father (Great Britain), Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, Brian De Palma's The Untouchables, Luis Valdez's La Bamba.
Gillian Armstong's High Tide and Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi's funny Sammy and Rosie Get Laid would probably be on my top list if I were sure they were going to be officially released before the end of the year. Deepest and most apprehensive apologies to Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun (yet another great childhood film?), Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, Woody Allen's September, Hector Babenco's Ironweed, Alex Cox's Walker, James L. Brooks' Broadcast News, and Eric Rohmer's L'Amie de mon ami, which could not be seen before declaring this case closed.
January 1988 Pacific Northwest
Copyright © 1987 by Richard T. Jameson