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The Ten Best Films of 1991

by Jack Sommersby

From big business to Harleys to drugs to tuna-fish sandwiches to Jesuits to the Holy Grail. 1991 was some year, huh?

And the winners are...

1. The Fisher King
2. Black Robe
3. Once Around
4. The Vanishing
5. Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man
6. Rush
7. Frankie and Johnny
8. The Prince of Tides
9. Straight Out of Brooklyn
10.Other People's Money

Actor: Nick Nolte (The Prince of Tides)
Actress: Michelle Pfeiffer (Frankie & Johnny)
Supporting Actor: Max Perlich (Rush)
Supporting Actress: Thora Birch (Paradise)
Director: Terry Gilliam (The Fisher King)
Screenplay: Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King)
Cinematography: Kenneth MacMillan (Rush)
Production Design: Mel Bourne (The Fisher King)
Editing: Mark Warner (The Fisher King)
Music: Eric Clapton (Rush)
Nudity: Bobbie Tyler (Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man)

Well, 1991 was certainly a year for money-making/critically-praised films, but very few of them were any good. Ron Howard's Backdraft looked to have been given $100 million for the special effects and a buck fifty for the nonsensical screenplay. James Cameron's soulless Terminator 2: Judgment Day benefited from a marvelously creative physical performance by Robert Patrick as the villainous T-1000 yet lacked both the narrative drive and emotional richness of its predecessor. Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear was its famous director's first widescreen-shot film, and though the framing was marvelous and Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis' cinematography gorgeously lurid, the protagonists were uninteresting stiffs, Robert De Niro's villainous turn was quintessentially hammy, and the last third was so over-the-top it elicited as many unintentional laughs as a Dubious Dumbya speech. Grand Canyon was another self-indulgent, self-important Lawrence Kasden wankfest, and Star Trek VI was poorly scripted and resembled a third-rate Agatha Christie mystery rather than a dazzling excursion into science-fiction territory (even though its director, Nicholas Meyer, was responsible for Wrath of Khan -- by far the best of the series). Kevin Reynolds' Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was good-looking but overproduced and burdened with catastrophic miscasting in just about every role; John Irvin's Robin Hood that debuted on TV the same year was much more robust and exciting. And, of course, there was Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs, which was odious, overstated, and obsequious in spelling everything out for its popcorn-munching audiences. I salute Scott Glenn's superb portrayal of Jack Crawford and Craig McKay's razor-sharp editing, but the trivial dramatic arc is dismaying (the heroine needs to confront a demon and slay another to excise her internal demons -- gag!), Jodie Foster's obviousness as the heroic Starling, and Anthony Hopkins' hambone special as the infamous Dr. Lecter. (Michael Mann's 1986 Manhunter, flaws and all, still remains the best of the Lecter series.) Other stinkers that sent even the critics gagging were (appropriately enough) Mel Brooks' unfunny Life Stinks, Richard Franklin's needless sequel F/X 2: The Deadly Art of Illusion, Clint Eastwood's awful The Rookie, Mike Nichols' brain-dead Regarding Henry, and Russell Mulcahy's repugnant Ricochet.

But, fortunately enough, a fair number of good-to-excellent films managed to make themselves known to the filmgoing public. Hector Babenco's At Play in the Fields of the Lord was a lucid, thought-provoking adaptation of Peter Matthiessen's difficult novel. Eric Red's Body Parts was a perfectly watchable horror flick about an evil-incarnate arm. Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers was a stylish psychological horror story set in an ungodly seductive Venice. Alan Parker's The Commitments was hurt by shoddy characterizations but buoyed by fantastic musical numbers and location shooting. Randa Haines' The Doctor was the best of the year's stiff-professional-needs-an-emotional-overhaul endeavors, with William Hurt excellent as the title character who tells his interns that in the operating room he prefer they "cut more and care less". Peter Faiman's Dutch offered up a good-natured leading-man turn by Ed O'Neill and a rare non-pious John Hughes screenplay. Eleanor Coppola's Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse documented the notorious trials and tribulations involved in her husband Francis' production-plagued making of 1979's Apocalypse Now. Mike Figgis' Liebestraum was atmospheric, sexy poppycock. David Zucker's Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear didn't quite sustain its uproariousness from start to finish, but it still offered up a hell of a good time (with its Titanic/Hindenberg/Michael Dukakis gag a scream!). Mary Agnes Donoghue's touching domestic drama Paradise showcased Elijah Wood and Thora Birch in their preteen years, along with first-rate, deeply-felt performances by Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson as grieved parents. Michael Tolkin's daring and disturbing The Rapture examined the dark underside to a born-again Christian's blind adherence to her newfound faith. Wolfgang Petersen's Shattered was a supremely suspenseful Hitchcockian thriller until its ludicrous final sections. Joseph Ruben's Sleeping With the Enemy disgraced Nancy Price's piercing novel yet managed to grip from start to finish thanks to its director's consummate skill. Lucas Reiner's The Spirit of '76 offered a "close-up look at the most embarrassing decade in history" accompanied by semi-sharp social satire, the likes of David Cassidy and Leif Garrett, and the Starland Vocal Band's classic tune Afternoon Delight. And Herbert Ross' True Colors was an entertaining political drama that gave James Spader and John Cusack well-written, expansive roles.

And even if the films themselves weren't that good, there were some marvelous performances to be had in them, anyway. Character actor William Sadler was bitingly funny as the Grim Reaper ("Be seeing you real soon", he passingly remarks to a smoker) who gets on the receiving end of a wedgie in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. William Russ and Glenn Plummer gave generous shading to their roles as a has-been veteran pitcher and talented up-and-comer in Pastime. The always-welcome John Heard projected genuine menace as a villainous bigamist in Deceived. Val Kilmer's stalwart Jim Morrison characterization gave the otherwise-deplorable The Doors some charge. Bruce Willis was appealingly gruff as the hero of The Last Boy Scout and terrifically terrifying as an abusive husband in Mortal Thoughts. Stephen Hill was heartrending as gangster Dutch Schultz' world-weary accountant in Billy Bathgate. Gary Busey breathed much-needed life into his role as Keanu Reeves' laid-back, seasoned FBI partner in Point Break. Kevin Kline gave his finest comic performance as Sally Field's ex-actor beau in Soapdish -- the scene where he's reduced to performing Death of a Salesman at a Florida dinner theatre full of clumsy waiters, noisy motorized wheelchairs, and hearing-impaired geriatrics will have you rolling on the floor in hysteria ("Yeaaaaaaaah --the mayor of Providence!", Kline repeats when someone loudly complains, "Whadyhesay?").And Scott Bakula proved charismatic and charming as the over-the-hill college quarterback in Necessary Roughness. Their performances were so good, in fact, that they usually made non-recommendable films worth taking a gander at. Even in Backdraft, the year's worst film, there Kurt Russell was injecting more humaneness and dignity into the proceedings than was even remotely warranted, while Donald Sutherland and Robert De Niro took their supporting roles and, like Russell, and succeeded at gliding over the raw cinematic sewage passing itself off as a film not deserving of being drawn and quartered or tar and feathered or whatever other just punishments it merited. As for the films that boasted as high a quality overall as the acting gracing their praiseworthy presences...

Kevin Hooks' snappy Strictly Business was one of the year's most jocose comedies in its telling of love-struck, uptight businessman Joseph C. Phillips finding himself smitten with singer Halle Berry and protective of Tommy Davidson's business-aspiring mailroom clerk. All three actors are wonderful, with Sam Rockwell making an impression as Davidson's well-meaning trainee rival and Samuel L. Jackson appropriately loathsome as an abusive boss. Danny De Vito gave a career-best performance as a corporate raider who aims to take over and liquidate Gregory Peck's family business in the comedy/drama Other People's Money, Norman Jewison's savvy adaptation of Jerry Sterner's acclaimed Broadway play. The miscasting of Penelope Ann Miller as De Vito's romantic nemesis is a demerit, and so is the cop-out happy ending that comes out of nowhere; still, the dialogue is indelible, the game Peck is completely delightful, and the cinematography by the great Haskell Wexler (especially in De Vito's high-rise office scenes) is aces. Seventeen-year-old Matty Rich's gritty Straight Out of Brooklyn was the best of the year's "hood" melodramas. Unlike the overpraised Boyz 'N the Hood, it doesn't wear its emotions on both sleeves and overstate the obvious. Rich's staging lends it a you-are-there vitality and edgy unpredictability that enables the audience to feel as close to the protagonists as we'd probably like; when they decide to embark on a crime scheme, the tension is palpable and as unnerving as sitting on a powder keg. Excellent stuff. Barbara Streisand's lovely The Prince of Tides isn't exactly the most subtle film in the world, but for an affecting big-budget soap opera you can't do much better. Nick Nolte is simply magnificent as an out-of-work South Carolina teacher who travels to Manhattan to tend to his suicidal sister, who's being treated by psychiatrist Barbara Streisand, who delves into the family's past and unearths a terrifying childhood secret. Streisand's direction is, for the most part, quite good (though there's one unforgivably awful shot of a paperweight being thrown at Nolte), but Streisand has miscast herself in a pivotal role: like Liza Minnelli, she's "on" too much of the time when she's in front of the camera, so we keep thinking of the actress, not the character. But the two stars share good chemistry and rapport, and Nolte's gradual unlayering of his character's emotional turmoil is beautifully done. Kudos also to James Newton Howard's evocative score.

Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man may not seem like a praiseworthy film. Think again. Mickey Rourke and Don Johnson play the title characters, who take it upon themselves to save their beloved neighborhood bar from being closed down by greedy bank president Tom Sizemore by robbing one of his bank's armored vehicles. Thanks to Lonesome Dove's Simon Wincer, the expert action sequences have crunch, and the easygoing charm and humor are allowed to seep out of the material gradually -- nothing is bombastically forced upon us in an attempt to be endearingly 'cute'. The two stars play off each other affectionately, with Johnson, as the cynical Marlboro, displaying crack comic timing and a charismatic sex appeal that make his scenes with love interest Chelsea Field particularly memorable. Awesome soundtrack, too. Longtime wife to a longtime Hollywood producer, Lili Fini Zanuck makes an impressive directorial debut with Rush, an adaptation of Kim Wozencraft's stinging true-crime book that detailed the author's harrowing one-year stint as a rookie undercover South Texas narcotics officer, where she found herself knee-deep in drug addiction and departmental corruption. The 1975 drug-culture milieu is very well evoked (especially by Colleen Atwood's phenomenal, dead-on costume design), and Zanuck's handling of the scenes is creative and assured (the opening tracking shot that begins inside of a safe and travels throughout a gambling den/dance club and then outside to a Mercedes is alone worth the price of a rental). Jennifer Jason Leigh is earnest but a bit reticent as the heroine (the character's not the risk-taking hellcat that Wozencraft was), but Jason Patric, as her strung-out partner, and Max Perlich, as a dealer-turned-informer, are outstanding. An unsettling meditation on the thin line between cop and criminal. Frankie and Johnny proves Garry Marshall a genuine director after such cinematic cream puffs as Beaches and Pretty Woman. Michelle Pheiffer is extraordinary as a perpetually lonely New York waitress who's given up on dating, and Al Pacino appealing as a cook determined to be her suitor. Screenwriter Terrence McNally, who adapted his own well-reviewed play, gives us piquant dialogue ("I'm a BLT down sort of person, and I think you're looking for someone a little more pheasant under glass.") and supporting characters who are as richly three-dimensional as the lead ones (with Hector Elizondo's soccer-loving cafe owner and Kate Nelligan's hot-to-trot waitress the standouts). The scene where Pheiffer's Frankie opens up about the root cause of her hurt lends credence to Orson Welles' contention that film is the most emotional art medium. Infinitely superior to the unbearable, phony Sleepless in Seattle.

George Sluizer's unnerving Dutch psychological thriller The Vanishing (aka Spoorloos) is a testament to the powers of insinuation and understated macabre intensity in generating unwavering, nerve-jangling suspense. When a vacationing couple stops at a crowded rest stop, the girlfriend mysteriously disappears, and years later the boyfriend is given an opportunity by her abductor to find out her fate. What he discovers will haunt you long after the closing credits. (Stay clear of its hoary 1993 American remake.) Lasse Hallström's Once Around offers up Richard Dreyfuss as a flamboyant real-estate salesman who makes dreadful jokes ("Is that a rocket in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?"), and Holly Hunter as his insecure, parent-dependent new bride whose tight-knit family, headed by father Danny Aiello and mother Gena Rowlands, find their son-in-law well-meaning but preternaturally grating to everyone's nerves. The film is about the necessity of enjoying life, trusting instincts, and taking chances; and if this seems trite, the full-bodied characterizations and acutely observed interactions among them (which involve both hilarious and heartbreaking moments) should easily override any such concern. Dreyfuss and Hunter, who had zero chemistry together in the dreadful Always the year before, are a match made in heaven here. And I don't ever recall Aiello (a veteran of countless wise guy roles) being this relaxed and accessible before. Feel free to allow yourself a good cry afterward. And forget about Kevin Costner's entertaining but banal Dances With Wolves, for Bruce Beresford's Black Robe is the real deal. Set in 1634, it tells a spellbinding tale of two Jesuit missionaries based out of Quebec who travel with a family of Algonquian Indians on a fifteen-hundred-mile upriver trek to their main tribe in an attempt to convert them to Christianity. The Indians are arrogantly perceived as savages whose souls are in desperate need of saving, and the Jesuits' mission is constantly undermined by them, who are perfectly content with their own beliefs, thank you very much (something Ann Coulter would no doubt wince over), and the Iroquois, a rival tribe. Peter James' lensing is drop-dead gorgeous without going National Geographic on us, and Beresford's refusal to pretty up the brutal violence and go easy on the explicit sex helps lend unbridled authenticity to what is, quite plainly, the best film of its kind ever made. Dramatically complex and incredibly detailed, it provides plenty of food for thought without being didactic, and manages to elegiacally reflect upon the admirable aspects of Native Americans without cornily romanticizing them. A worthy companion piece to Nicolas Echevarria's similarly-themed Cabeza de Vaca and a genuine work of art.

The year's best film, however, was Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King. After his last two overscaled, emotionally vacant efforts (1985's Brazil and 1989's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) I didn't think Gilliam capable of making an honest-to-goodness motion picture that cared as much for characters than production design and special effects. Happily, The Fisher King has the last laugh. Working from a marvelous screenplay by Richard LaGravenese, Gilliam initially seems to be wading in familiar Munchausen/Time Bandits territory with the story of decrepit former New York shock jock Jeff Bridges aiding in schizophrenic ex-teacher/homeless-ridden Robin Williams' pursuit of the Holy Grail, which Williams believes is sitting in the library inside of a Fifth Avenue mansion. But the story, while fantastical, actually roots itself in human emotion, and we discover to our immense pleasure that we're witnessing the most glorious tale of human redemption ever committed to film. And the two love stories -- the noncommittal Bridges eventually accepting of girlfriend Mercedes Ruehl's love and giving of his own, and Williams' gradual defrosting of nerdy office worker Amanda Plummer -- resonate with an organic purity that miraculously succeeds at coalescing with the film's many outlandish aspects. Williams' performance is sometimes uncouth but mostly touching (especially in the scene where he confesses his love for Plummer), while Mercedes Ruhel is flat-out spectacular as the tough-talking video store owner who refers to the Holy Grail as "Jesus' juice glass"; and for once, Plummer, usually a very acquired taste, is adequate. But it's Jeff Bridges who holds the film together. Playing a jerk who turns into a non-jerk and then into a jerk again and back to a non-jerk can just emasculate the hell out of an actor, because the temptation is high to reach for effects without filling in the character with enough dramatic underpinnings to justify and make convincing the emotional and behavioral transitions. Yet Bridges, as he's done with all of his characters over his thirty-four-year career, starts with the man, not the concept of him; he builds from the inside out and loses himself in the characterization while garnishing it with equal doses of vividness, appeal, and charisma. He's an unselfish, unselfconscious actor who's smashingly effective here as a man who (try as he might) can't shake off the nagging conscience eating away at him, even when his moody nature encourages him to regress -- he's that unique hero who's more enraged over his strength than his weakness. In essence, The Fisher King emerges as one of the most morally responsible films ever made. And also one of the most entertaining.


link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=1193
originally posted: 09/23/04 22:34:44
last updated: 11/20/14 09:31:24
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