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The 10 Best Films of 1989

by Jack Sommersby

From court martials to cops to piano players to secret agents to a hat on a bed.

1989 wasn't as great a year for films than the previous one, but it still offered up a lot of cinematic goodies. Even ones not quite good enough to make my top-10 still stand as noteworthy and recommendable. The Abyss was too episodic, too anti-climactic by far, but it still boasted several impressive action sequences. The Big Picture was a sometimes-mushy, sometimes-dead-on satire of deal-making in Hollywood, with Martin Short spectacular as a coke-snorting, daffy-as-a-loon agent ("I've read almost all of these scripts almost all the way through..."). Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure served as a wonderful midnight feature, while a far-lesser comedy like The 'burbs was clunky yet damn near salvaged by a great manic turn by the ever-eccentric Bruce Dern as gung-ho vet. Alan Alda offered up a gut-funny career-capper as a megalomaniacal tv producer in Woody Allen's wonderful Crimes and Misdemeanors. The serial-killer thriller Criminal Law was more style than substance, yet the style was enticing, and Gary Oldman and Kevin Bacon were both outstanding in atypically cast roles as hero and villain. Dad was a watered-down, too-genteel adaptation of William Wharton's fine novel; however, the first half was quite good, with Ted Danson contributing an excellent dramatic performance. Phillip Noyce's taut direction helped elevate a rickety script in the high-seas thriller Dead Calm, and the uneven buddy comedy The Dream Team still retained a good deal of good-natured bounce and certified Michael Keaton as a bona fide star. Marlon Brando was rip-roaringly fine as a cynical lawyer in the apartheid drama A Dry White Season, as was Matthew Modine as a brilliant underachiever in the medical school comedy/drama Gross Anatomy. And John Travolta and Arye Gross shined in the year's guiltiest pleasure, The Experts.

In Country was a haphazard adaptation of Bobbie Ann Mason's award-winning novel, but Bruce Willis was superb as a reclusive Vietnam vet and the film boasted several beautiful moments, including a final sequence at the Vietnam Memorial that packed an emotional wallop. Let it Ride came and went at theatres; however, this horse-racing comedy has since gained some legs on the home-video circuit. And darned if Leviathan, an underwater horror film highly derivative of the classic Alien, didn't end up as a surprisingly suspenseful success. Lock Up was an efficient action flick with outstanding performances by Sylvester Stallone and Donald Sutherland. Major League may not have been in the same ballpark as the brilliant Bull Durham, but its loose-goose charm and inspired gags made it go down nice. Monsieur Hire was a deft French take on Hitchcock's Rear Window. Patrick Swayze gave a deliciously charismatic star performance as a $500/night professional bouncer with an NYU degree in philosophy in the spirited B-movie Road House. Night Game, starring the always-welcome Roy Scheider, was a passable crime thriller. The action comedy Pink Cadillac was overlong and muddled, but it was breezy fun in places and showcased an irresistable goofy turn by Clint Eastwood as a bounty hunter with an affinity for disguises. Cameron Crowe's Say Anything was the best high-school film since Crowe's 1982-scripted Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Sea of Love was a terrific New York thriller until its unsatisfying finale. Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor re-teamed to good effect in See No Evil, Hear No Evil. Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell were simply marvelous as framed renegade cops in Tango & Cash. And the late John Candy managed to lend some dignity to the John Hughes-directed cream puff Uncle Buck.

(Note: This was the first time in four years that William Hurt hadn't been Oscar-nominated for Best Actor. The reason? He didn't appear in an '89 film.)

But, oh, there were a fair amount of stinkers, too. Back to the Future Part II was exceedingly unpleasant and downright repulsive. Batman was ambitious but a top-heavy artistic bust that floundered due to overly gloomy atmospherics, a stilted dramatic base, and director Tim Burton's inability to tell a damn story. Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July was an overblown wank-fest bereft of subtlety and chock-full of one-sidedness (any one page of the searing, focused Ron Kovic-authored biography packs twice the punch). Checking Out was a criminally unfunny black comedy that made a mockery of the talented Jeff Daniels and solidified Joe Eszterhas (who also wrote the awful The Music Box of the same year) as the luckiest mediocre screenwriter around. Dead Poet's Society was dramatically obvious and pandering-down-to. After five great performances in the previous two years, Dennis Quaid was certifiably awful as Jerry Lee Lewis in the shockingly bad Great Balls of Fire, which re-teamed Quaid with director Jim McBride after their wonderfully entertaining The Big Easy. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was forced and pointless and grating, and Lethal Weapon 2 suffered from jarring shifts in tone and a smug knowingness that repelled. The asinine Next of Kin was an unfortunate setback for star Swayze after the box-office success of Road House. Thanks to the starting ineptitude of director Mary Lambert, Pet Sematary ranked as the worst screen adaptation of a Stephen King novel. Three Fugitives proved that American remakes of French comedies mostly suck, even if you take the trouble to employ the services of the writer/director responsible for the original. And the worst film of the year, by far, was the excruciatingly repugnant Second Sight, a so-called comedy with a wasted John Larroquette and the gruesome Bronson Pinchot as (hands down) the worst comic duo ever to disgrace the silver screen.

But enough of the dreck -- let's get on with the 10-best:

10. Casualties of War

Director Brian De Palma's powerful big-screen adaptation of Daniel Lang's harrowing same-name non-fiction book is flawed but still manages to disturb and provoke plenty of thought. This true-life account of a five-man platoon in Vietnam kidnapping a teenage girl during a long-range reconnaissance, and then proceeding to rape and then murder her is undeniably strong stuff, yet the filmmaking (considering the delicate subject matter) is respectful, never exploitative. Michael J. Fox stars as the lone member who refuses to take part, and Sean Penn plays the ranking sergeant who in turn questions Fox's loyalty to the group. The film expounds upon the issues of individual responsibility (which resonates due in large part to Fox's superb, deeply felt performance) and the fight to maintain one's humanity while in the midst of inhumanity (which never quite gels due to Penn's uncouth overacting). The setting of Vietnam serves more as a moral backdrop than an action set-piece -- though the two battle sequences on display are well-choreographed -- yet it avoids the stagy preachiness of most Vietnam tales (notably the overpraised Platoon); and the film furthers De Palma's obsession with the tragedy of a helpless man's inability to save the woman who he grows to love (as was unforgettably rendered in his 1981 masterpiece, Blow Out). Yet, in addition to Penn, there's another flaw that diminishes the story's force: the omitting of Fox being under intense questioning by the defense during the court-martial hearing. In the book, it provided a more complex view of the military's ambiguous reaction to his forthcoming nature; in the film, however, it's a bit overstated (though the invention of Penn having saved Fox's life before the kidnapping adds some dimension). Had it stuck with the facts and not deviated with a couple of Hollywood conventions (like a soggy suspense sequence involving a grenade in a latrine), this could have been Best Picture material; but, shortcomings and all, it still qualifies as worthwhile viewing.

9. Breaking In

Burt Reynolds gives an outstanding staying-in-character performance as a sixty-one-year-old Portland safecracker who takes overeager young car mechanic Casey Siemaszko under his tutelage in this intoxicating low-key comedy from writer John Sayles and director Bill Forsythe. The film is less reliant on gags and more on amusingly acute observations of human behavior (like lecturing over the wrongness of stealing an apple in the middle of a grocery store robbery) and philosophies (engaging the services of a call girl is no less reputable than going out on a regular date because you're paying for "it" either way); and the characters come off less like pawns of the plot (with what little plot there is, mind you) and more like integrals of the story. Breaking In may not seem like a big deal, yet it's fairly amazing in its determination never to belabor the obvious nor to offer cut-rate solutions to complex problems; it's one of those slice-of-life films that is appropriately breezy and comfortable in its own skin, so it doesn't feel the need to go needlessly melodramatic or invoke a sense of shame to score points with the kind of audience that likes everything spelled out. In a big way, it's kind of like to filmmaking what Jeff Bridges is to acting: never calling undue attention to itself, and forgoing sensationalism in favor of accumulating finely textured nuances for the good of the overall whole. The entire cast, from starring to supporting roles, is pitch-perfect, with Reynolds the standout in the kind of rich performance he likely would have given six years earlier had he not turned down the role Jack Nicholson won an Oscar for in Terms of Endearment. (He also did outstanding work in '89 as a framed-for-murder ex-cop in Michael Crichton's otherwise-ludicrous Physical Evidence, and the voice of a German shepherd in Don Bluth's engaging animated feature All Dogs Go to Heaven.)

8. True Believer

James Woods is sensational as a cynical Greenwich Village lawyer who's offered a chance at redemption when he seeks to overturn the conviction of a Chinese inmate he's convinced is innocent of a murder from eight years prior. The screenplay by Wesley Strick is a honey: full of tantalizing twists and turns, witty dialogue, plausible characters. And the underrated director Joseph Ruben, who previously scored back-to-back successes with 1984's Dreamscape and 1987's The Stepfather, gives the proceedings tautness, tension, and the kind of storytelling fluidity missing from most films today. It's rare for a thriller to be swift yet not rushed, where pertinent information is disclosed but not hammered home, so the audience is on even ground with the hero: informed yet still inquisitive. Ruben manages to sustain narrative drive while alternating between flashbacks (filmed in B/W with a crisp vitality by cinematographer John Lindley) and the present goings-on with remarkable precision; and he makes uncanny use of the camera, using it actively and expressively yet with a discipline that prevents the actors from being overshadowed. I can't exactly aver that the plot is airtight from scrutiny -- even when Strick shows deftness with creating story revelations, the manner in which they're aligned is a bit too reliant on coincidence -- but as a work of fiction it easily passes under the suspension-of-disbelief test. Woods, in an ugly gray ponytail and an array of retro twill suits, is electric in the courtroom and emotionally accessible on the home front (his character's self-disgust over squandering his potential is rather poignant), and he's given first-rate support by Robert Downey, Jr. (as his idealistic assistant), Margaret Colin (as a private investigator), Kurtwood Smith (as a duplicitous D.A.), and Tom Bower (as a pivotal defense witness).

7. sex, lies, and videotape

After a nine-year hiatus from his hometown of Baton Rougue, law school-dropout James Spader returns in a beat-out white convertible, clad in black clothes, and bearing very little in the way of material possessions -- except that of a video camera, which he uses to interview women about sex, which manages to arouse his otherwise-impotent self to orgasm. He seeks temporary refuge in the home of old college buddy Peter Gallagher and wife Andie MacDowell, where he manages to repel the former and fascinate the latter. Also figuring into things is the wife's randy sister (newcomer Laura San Giocomo), who's carrying on a torrid affair with the husband and an antagonistic one with her sibling. This landmark independent film by debuting writer/director Steven Soderbergh is an uncommonly perceptive personal drama that revels in talk and how people relate to one another; Soderbergh is that rare filmmaker who knows how to shoot dialogue scenes interestingly -- he doesn't go the killjoy Cassavetes route by emptying the film of visual snap to slavishly cater to talking heads. And the performances, excepting MacDowell's (which is forced and mannered), are wonderful. Especially Spader, who's mesmerizing as a man all too aware of his past faults and none too forgiving of them; as atonement for them, he's isolated himself from society, sublimating his considerable intelligence to fuse with an emotionally distanced demeanor that's wasting his life away. Soderbergh paints himself into an artistic in the end, not knowing quite how to end things in as unorthodox a way as he started, so, alas, a bit of conventionality is employed to sum things up. Yet the film leaves quite the lingering impression. It's not every film you get excited from just by watching and listening to characters converse and interact, but such is the glorious case here. Winner of the Best Film and Actor prize at Cannes.

6. Dead-Bang

Again, the underrated Don Johnson proves with the right material that he can be a first-rate actor. At first glance, one might not expect an action film by the likes of Dead-Bang to provide much in the way of an opportunity for a capable thespian, but in between the bountiful array of expert action sequences (courtesy of veteran director John Frankenheimer) there are a few priceless character scenes that give Johnson ample screen time to strut his stuff. Whether it's an uninterrupted one-shot of his talking calmly to his estranged wife on the phone, which simmers to a slow burn and then a violent physical outburst; his cynical write-off of life being nothing but "death and taxes"; or (in the film's best scene) his going into a giggling fit during a session with a psychiatrist when commenting that he looks just like Woody Allen, and minutes later physically and vocally threatening the man when he recommends taking him off a case ("I will focus on you as the instrument of my destruction!"), Johnson is utterly commanding and always compelling. He plays an L.A. cop investigating the murder of a fellow officer on Christmas Eve; the evidence leads to a white supremacy group, which Johnson doggedly tracks to Arizona, Oklahoma, and then to a survivalist camp in Colorado. There's a bothersome secondary character in the form of a prissy FBI agent (unimaginatively played by John Forsythe), but a winning turn by W.K.R.P. in Cincinnati-alum Tim Reid as a Boulder sheriff helps compensate. Frankenheimer stages the shootouts and car chases creatively, and the film moves at such a fever clip that you've little downtime to question the sturdiness of the plot. It doesn't have the ingratiating charm of a Lethal Weapon or the brilliant control of a Die Hard, but Dead-Bang still qualifies as a pulse-pounding thrill ride worth a visit. (Plus, how can you resist a film where a hung-over cop vomits on a suspect whom he's just tackled after a long chase?)

5. Driving Miss Daisy

Bruce Beresford's Oscar-winning adaptation of Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play makes for a simply delightful filmgoing experience. Jessica Tandy plays a rich Southern Jewish widow who, because of a recent auto accident and her inclining age, is forced to get around town with black chauffeur Morgan Freeman. The relationship starts out rocky -- it stems from the widow's stubbornness to admit the need for dependence on others rather than the chauffer himself -- but over a twenty-five year span (from 1948 to 1973) it blossoms and deepens to the point where, when they share what is possibly their last conversation together, they needn't say a whole lot to communicate their undiluted love of friendship for one another. In the wrong hands, the material could have easily been reduced to an unctuously maudlin mess; luckily, director Beresford manages to streamline an uncommonly mature narrative rhythm that touches upon the areas of racism, anti-Semitism, class barriers, and the innate value of trust without resorting to shameless didactic means. The period detail is evocative without going Masterpiece Theatre on us, the camerawork is mature and carefully framed without being fussy, the dialogue is occasionally piquant ("Momma, cars do not behave -- they are behaved upon."), and the golden cinematography gives off an eyeful without being attention-getting. Tandy is miraculous in a multi-faceted role that requires numerous dramatic shifts (all of which she pulls off without a single hitch), and Dan Aykroyd is flat-out wonderful as her exasperated son caught between his bickering mother and his equally bickering wife. One quibble: Freeman disappoints by giving a performance of thudding obviousness; it's functional work, but it sadly lacks any element of surprise. (His dynamic work in the otherwise-pedestrian Lean on Me earlier in the year was much more impressive.)

4. The Fabulous Baker Boys

Steve Kloves wrote the screenplay for the lovely 1983 coming-of-age drama Racing With the Moon, which afforded Sean Penn, Elizabeth McGovern, and Nicolas Cage plum roles; here, he makes his directorial debut with this three-character study that gives Jeff and Beau Bridges and Michelle Pheiffer equally plum ones, only the result this time is more than lovely -- it's positively enchanting. The offscreen Bridges brothers play the onscreen Baker brothers, a piano-playing duo who've never held a day job in their lives. One is average of talent and a content family man (Beau), the other is an immensely gifted loner selling himself out for easy money (Jeff). Their nightly gigs at dowdy hotel lounges and bars are attracting fewer and fewer customers, so they take on Pheiffer's naturally talented singer (who's "been on call for the triple-A escort service for the last year and a half") to liven up their act. And it does. Soon, they're getting pristine gigs and really rolling in the green, but an infatuation eventually develops between the singer and the less-attached of the brothers. Tension and jealousy and resentment soon ensue. Kloves' stories aren't particularly earth-shattering, but he knows how to write about interesting people saying and doing interesting things. His dialogue is both sneaky and sly, but also refreshingly naturalistic without ever coming across as nondescript; he has the gift of knowing how to frame actors and pinpoint the dramatic focus in a scene without italicizing it; and he's low-key yet visually astute for a talking-heads director (due in no small part to his wise selection of first-rate cinematographers -- the one here being the virtuoso Michael Ballhaus). While Boys doesn't have the sparkling vision of Kloves' near-brilliant (and severely underrated) Flesh and Bone, it nevertheless shares that film's vivid evocation of dailiness: Kloves is stalwart at making habitualness among the middle working class fascinating. And all three stars, giving performances of both dramatic and comical proportions, are flawless.

3. Licence to Kill

Both Timothy Dalton and his debut James Bond entry The Living Daylights failed to impress me, so I was all the more surprised at the genuine excitement and filmmaking fervor that I found Licence to Kill positively teeming with. This time around, Bond has his "licence" revoked by the British Secret Service when he unofficially goes after a sadistic South American drug lord (a smashing performance by the great B-movie actor Robert Davi) responsible for the mutilation of his best friend (an appealing David Hedison, reprising his series role as Felix Leiter) and the death of the man's newlywed bride (a touching Priscilla Barnes). Dalton doesn't have the sly wit of a Sean Connery or the appealing savoir-faire of a Roger Moore, but he's more focused, hard-edged, and human than either, and this lends his Bond (who is more faithful in spirit to author Ian Fleming's original creation) an emotional immediacy that supplies dramatic underpinnings to the role. Yes, Dalton is decidedly lacking panache with a punch line, but his suaveness isn't oily nor is his innate sense of decency foolhardy, and there's a welcome sense of danger and darkness to him that keeps us riveted. John Glen returns as director, and his staging of action sequences hasn't been this impressive since the 1983 series-best Octopussy (the grand finale involving two eighteen-wheelers racing down a mountain road while a twin-engine prop plane circles from above is breathtaking). Kudos also to longtime Bond screenwriters Michael G. Wilson and Richard Maibaum for concocting an interesting-yet-comprehensible screenplay that refreshingly doesn't shoot off into Byzantine directions -- you can actually follow the plot without a Bond Plot for Dummies manual -- and for concocting the best villain our fearless superspy has ever faced. Talisa Soto is deadwood as one Bond girl (she can't read a line to save her life), with Carey Lowell (after trying too hard at first) captivating as the other. Lots of neat new gadgets (like a signature-series camera/gun), fabulous locales (the Florida Keys, Acapulco, Veracruz), and Wayne Newton as a seedy televangelist (who keeps a soundproof "temple" for his lovely female donors).

2. Glory

Considering that his only previous feature film was 1986's fine David Mamet-adaptation About Last Night... (which involved four twentysomethings looking for either love or no-strings-attached sex in Chicago), director Edward Zwick succeeded in wowing critics with the staggering skill and remarkable assuredness on vehement display in this Civil War epic that tells the long-neglected tale of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry: the first regimen of black soldiers fighting alongside white officers. The central character is Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick, in a beautifully modulated performance), who, alongside his second-in-command (a solid Cary Elwes), witnesses the unheralded bravery and self-sacrifice of a group of men who were initially written off as unsuitable yet diligently proved their detractors wrong. Plenty of first-rate production design and battle scenes to take in -- as well as James Horner's appropriately scaled emotion-swelling score and Freddie Francis' Oscar-winning cinematography -- but it's the human interactions that give the film its resonance and power. Morgan Freeman stoically underplays the regimen's senior black officer, Denzel Washington is fine (though too actor-ish) as the more cynical of the lot, and (in the film's best performance) Andre Braugher is aces as a privileged black friend of Shaw's who is unprepared for the rigors of military life. The characters progress dramatically through a series of well-played scenes in Kevin Wade's well-structured screenplay, and though a few conventionalities occasionally seep into the mix which remind us we're in Movieland (like the frosty loner later defrosting into a team-player individual; a couple of one-dimensional racist white officers employed to serve as temporary villains), there's an undeniable respect for the subject that keeps things from growing maudlin and condescending. And the film concludes with a rousing finale, where the 54th embarks on a march toward a suicidal battle against a Confederate fort in Charleston, S.C. on a fateful day in 1863, that's as stirringly affective as you're likely to witness.

1. Drugstore Cowboy

The best film of the year is this dazzingly original, bitingly funny, emotionally penetrating look at an outlaw gang of addicts (composed of couples Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch, and James LeGros and Heather Graham) as they travel throughout the Pacific Northwest in 1971 in search of drugs, drugs, and more drugs. They're not your average street junkies, though: they're coordinated and careful and resourceful young adults who rob drugstores to attain their preferred choice of prescription drugs (preferably Dilaudid, which they refer to as "Powder D" and is as potent as heroin). They're largely successful in their illegal endeavors, with a sneaking precision to their methods that'd make an Enron exec gush with envy; and they're also exceedingly cautious, burying the drugs they're not currently using or jettisoning their stash through holes in the floorboard of their car before they're pulled over. These miniscule details are helplessly intriguing -- you feel you're getting an education in something you're probably better off not knowing -- and if they seem to add up, that's largely due in part to the same-name novel co-writer/director Gus Van Sant has faithfully adapted: it was written by James Fogle, who's still serving a lengthy prison sentence for robbing drugstores. The consequences of drug addiction are dexterously layered throughout the film instead of being simplistically pounded home a la Requiem for a Dream, yet the film never mistakenly goes didactic on us, because it trusts enough in its lead character (which the galvanizing Dillon smartly underplays) to allow his glints of intelligence and overall sense of decency to clue us into the potential being wasted (he even openly admits to a counselor that he "likes drugs, I like the whole lifestyle"). Making something function as both a cautionary fable and a black comedy (exp: a superstitious couple viewing a hat left on a bed as "the kiss of death") can be a chore, but Van Sant shows an ironclad hold on the material. He nails down tones and textures and moods and atmosphere with the effortless zeal of a born master, and his camerabatics give the proceedings an off-kilter feel that nevertheless stays rooted in reality -- the very thing its anti-heroes try their damndest to obscure themselves from.


Best Picture: Drugstore Cowboy

Best Actor: James Spader (sex, lies, and videotape)

Best Actress: Michelle Pfeiffer (The Fabulous Baker Boys)

Best Supporting Actor: Robert Davi (Licence to Kill)

Best Supporting Actress: Kelly Lynch (Drugstore Cowboy)

Best Director: Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy)

Best Screenplay: Steve Kloves (The Fabulous Baker Boys)

Best Cinematography: Freddie Francis (Glory)

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originally posted: 11/03/03 13:13:28
last updated: 05/06/13 19:19:14
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