Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" encouraged people to decide for themselves what the right thing was, since it provided no easy solution. Telling the story of one hot day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of New York, it tracks up and down one city block that acted as a microcosm for big American cities. Once this was an Italian neighborhood. Now it is black and Hispanic. Only one Italian business remains--Sal's Famous Pizzeria, which has been serving pizzas to the locals for years. Behind the counter is Sal, played by Danny Aiello in one of the year's best performances. The people of the street are exhausted by the heat, but Lee's camera is tireless, as it establishes relationships and realities, until we know these people as well as their neighbors do. We begin to understand the underlying tensions on the street, and by the time a race riot breaks out, we know everybody who is involved, and it's up to us to decide why they did what they did. Some audiences were bothered because one of the key acts of violence in the film (throwing a garbage can through the window of Sal's) was committed by the black character everybody liked the most--Mookie, played by Lee himself. Why did Mookie do it? Because Lee didn't want to let audiences off the hook by assigning that act to one of the angrier local residents. He forced us to confront the strength and depth of the feelings between the races. (Spike Lee delighted in pointing out on talk shows that the destruction of Sal's window bothered some viewers more than the death of a black teenager, which also occurs in the film.) "Do the Right Thing" the year's most controversial film. Some critics predicted hysterically that it would cause trouble. Others felt the message was confused. Some found it too militant, others found it the work of a middle-class director who was trying to play street-smart. All of those reactions were simply different ways of avoiding the central fact of this film, which is that it comes closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time.
Matt Dillon has had a powerful screen presence ever since his first movies, but his performance in "Drugstore Cowboy" is a revelation--the best work he's done. He plays the leader of a band of four drop-outs who drift through the Pacific Northwest in the early 1970s, stealing drugs from drugstores and living a communal existence in a series of dreary furnished apartments. Once this life may have seemed glamorous and revolutionary, but now, for Dillon, it is growing increasingly unmanageable. Things reach the point of no return when one of his friends dies of an overdose, and he is faced with the inescapable fact of the dead body. The movie was directed by Gus Van Sant Jr., and written by Van Sant and Daniel Yost, based on an unpublished novel by a convict in Washington state. Van Sant was able in the film to create an uncanny impression of life itself slipping by, implicating us in the days and nights of these increasingly desperate drifters. Kelly Lynch gave a fine, quirky supporting performance as Dillon's girl friend, and there was a ghoulishly effective cameo role for William Burroughs.
This movie could so easily have been one of those noble but dreary parables of the unfortunate--but instead it's a joyous, comic and therefore all the more moving celebration of the great spirit of Christy Brown. Born in a Dublin slum with cerebral palsy, Brown was so severely handicapped that he could only move his left foot. But with that left foot, he drew, painted, wrote poetry, and the remarkable autobiography which inspired this movie. Daniel Day Lewis stars in the film, in a performance as difficult as it is liberating. Right from the opening frames, he lets us know that Christy Brown is not a victim but a fighter, an indominable character who takes the bad hand he was dealt and still thinks he's crafty enough to win the pot. The movie surrounds him with the tumultuous life of his large family and the neighborhood they were part of, and makes us feel about as good as a movie can. Directed by Jim Sheridan and written by Sheridan and Shane Connaughton.
This film was co-written and directed by Oliver Stone, who won the Academy Award for "Platoon," and this is the second half of what he has to say about the war in Vietnam. Based on the angry autobiography of Ron Kovic, it tells the story of a patriotic American kid who volunteers for the Marines, serves in Vietnam, and is paralyzed from the chest down by an enemy bullet. His war is only beginning. The film's most harrowing scenes show his return to civilian life--to the indifference of military hospitals, to his difficult relations with his family, to his descent into alcoholism, and to his eventual enlistment in the anti-war movement. The film stars Tom Cruise in the best performance of his career. From the fresh-faced kid listening to a Marine recruiter, to the bearded radical demonstrating at the 1972 Republican convention, Cruise never steps wrong and is never less than powerfully convincing. His grief in a scene where he confronts the new reality of his life is the high point of a completely convincing performance. And Stone surrounds the performance with a high-voltage, convincing recreation of the tumultuous American 1960s and 1970s.
"Roger & Me"
This was the year's sensational sleeper, a $140,000 documentary that came out of nowhere to win the hearts and cheers of audiences at all of the key film festivals of the autumn, and then was picked up for national distribution by Warner Brothers, which is rolling it out across the country to record business. On the face of it, you wouldn't think a documentary about the fate of Flint, Michigan, would have much box office appeal. But Michael Moore, who directed and stars in the film, is an American humorist who knows how to go for the jugular, and his movie is a biting, merciless, satirical counterattack against the culture of wealth and greed. "Roger & Me" is ostensibly about the attempts of Moore to interview Roger Smith, chairman of General Motors, and ask him to visit Flint to observe the results of his policies--which include 11 plant closings and the firings of 30,000 workers. Smith never agrees to be interviewed, but along the way we meet unemployed workers, deputy sheriffs, chamber of commerce spokesmen, society types and lots of celebrities (Pat Boone, Anita Bryant, Robert Schuller) who come to Flint to cheers folks up. President Reagan even visits to have pizza with some unemployed auto workers, but leaves without picking up the check.
Overlooked at the box office, maybe because audiences didn't understand how much fun it was, "The Mighty Quinn" was one of 1989's most entertaining movies. It starred Denzel Washington, who has been impressive in serious roles ("Cry Freedom," "Glory") but here was free to reveal the charming and humorous side of his character. He played the police chief on a Caribbean island beset by intrigues and killings, but this wasn't a violent thriller; his investigation proceeded against a background of reggae music, romantic complications, and rich good humor. The film was directed by Carl Schenkel and written by Hampton Fancer.
One of the great romantic comedies of the year--about a man's love for baseball. Kevin Costner starred, as an Iowa farmer who heard a v one one day telling him, "If you build it, he will come." Then a vision shows him a baseball diamond in the middle of his corn field. So he builds a diamond, and "he" does come--Shoeless Joe Jackson, the legendary White Sox star, still unjustly clouded by scandal. Others come, too: Other great players, and some who didn't quite realize their dreams (James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster), and thousands of ordinary citizens who come to witness a miracle they cannot understand. A movie Frank Capra would have been proud of, written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson, and based on the book (ital) Shoeless Joe (unital) by W. P. Kinsella.)
Woody Allen's movie was no less than a tragicomedy on the question of God's existence. Martin Landau stars as an eye doctor who was taught as a child that he could never escape the eyes of God--but now, in comfortable middle age, he meditates the possibility of having his mistress murdered, to save himself the inconvenience of a scandal. While his gangster brother (Jerry Orbach) outlines the realities, Landau wavers. Meanwhile, in a parallel plot, Woody Allen plays a man making a documentary for PBS on a vulgar Hollywood mogul (Alan Alda), while both men woo the same pretty PBS employee (Mia Farrow). The movie was shocking in its implications, and yet seamless in its logic; Allen's best work in years.
Two of the year's finest performances, by Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy, in the gentle and heart-warming story of two Southerners, one a black chauffeur, the other a Jewish dowager, who become each other's best friends over a period of 25 years. Based on the play by Alfred Uhry and directed by Bruce Beresford, the movie shows the stages in the lives of these two unyielding individualists against a backdrop of the nation's gradual changes in the realities of race relations. The performances are all the more impressive because so much goes unsaid in the movie, especially by Freeman's character, who is able to maintain his dignity while at the same time using the accumulated life knowledge of an elderly black servant to break through Miss Daisy's walls of habit and custom.
Every year there's at least one movie that I wouldn't have conceivably seen if I hadn't been a movie critic--and yet for which I am most grateful. This year the movie is Cameron Crowe's "Say Anything," which should not be relegated to the category of "teenage film" but acknowledged for what it is, one of the year's best. There are three great performances in the movie: By Ione Skye, as a pretty and gifted high school student whose brains scare some of the boys away; John Cusack, as the earnest, sincere kid who is not afraid to tell her he lives her; and John Mahoney, as her father, who has raised her alone, and loved and nurtured her, while all the time concealing a guilty secret. The movie is about growing up, about empathizing with other people, about romantic love and family love, and about making difficult choices. It was one of the year's real treasures.
The year's 11th through 20th best films:
11. "Chocolat." This was Claire Denis's rich, moody memory of growing up as a small girl in French West Africa, where the horizons were limitless, the silence of the nights was complete and awesome, and the world of adults held deep mysteries. Many of the memories of the girl (Giulia Boschi) involve the figure of Protee (Isaach De Bankole), the African overseer on the plantation, who teaches her far more than he knows about human nature.
12. "A Dry White Season." The best of several recent films about South Africa, Euzhan Palcy's drama told the story of a white schoolteacher (Donald Sutherland) who grows involved, at first almost against his will, in the fate of his African gardener (Zakes Mokae), whose son is caught in a police sweep. The movie captures the strange reality of everyday South African life, and contains an entertaining cameo by Marlon Brando, as an anti-government lawyer.
13. "La Lectrice." Michel Deville's elegant Chinese box of a movie starred Miou- Miou as a young woman who takes out an ad in the paper, offering to read to people, and finds herself becoming involved in their lives--and in the "real" reasons they may have for wanting her to read. The films moves back and forth between levels of reality, suggesting the way in which reading itself takes us in and out of our own existence. Intellectual, and yet with a subtle sensual undertow.
14. "High Hopes." Mike Leigh's angry, eccentric film showed life in Thatcher's Britain as a contrast between the have-nots, who struggle as best they can, and the haves, who feel even more deprived. The film centers on the lives of a left-wing couple who live together and are more or less happy to have abandoned the ratrace for comfortable poverty. The man's sister is married to an unspeakably obnoxious upward-bound auto salesman, and his mother lives in a neighborhood that is being gentrified by yuppie savages.
15. "Scandal." Based on the true story of a British scandal which collapsed the Macmillan government, the movie starred John Hurt as the harmless Dr. Stephen Ward, as osteopath who introduced good-time girls to government leaders. Joanne Whaley-Kilmer and Bridget Fonda are right on target as Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davis, who partied with the rich and famous and later found themselves in court with them. Ward eventually committed suicide after being tried as a panderer; the movie argues that he simply loved pretty girls and powerful friends more than was good for him.
16. "The Little Mermaid." The best Walt Disney animated feature in years, this retelling of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale (with a happier ending) was a charming, happy film with lots of unforgettable characters--especially an evil octopus of an undersea queen. The film's animation was a return to the classic Disney standard of past decades, and the music was lilting and memorable, especially the "Under the Sea" number.
17. "Queen of Hearts." Did you even hear of this film? Possibly not. And yet it was one of the year's magical sleepers, a film about an Italian family that moves to London and brings along all of the hopes, fears and family feuds from the old country. Directed by Jon Amiel, who made "The Singing Detective" for the BBC, it saw the family through the eyes of a young son for whom myth had the same reality as fact. Funny, warm, wise, sort of a British version of "Moonstruck."
18. "Paperhouse." Directed by Bernard Rose, this was one of the year's best visual treats, the story of a sick young girl who draws a house with a boy in it--and then discovers herself visiting the house and meeting the boy in her dreams. What is real and what is not? The boy seems desperately dependant on h her decisions, and there's a suggestion that there may be a psychic link between their dreams, because they have the same doctor. The imaginative aspects of the film are anchored in bold, concrete images and sounds.
19. "The Fabulous Baker Boys." The first screen pairing of Jeff and Beau Bridges, as a couple of lounge musicians whose career is headed for the cellar when they decide, in desperation, to hire a singer. Their auditions are a joke until Michelle Pfeiffer walks in, sings a song, and changes their acts, their careers, and their lives. The movie was written and directed by Steve Kloves, who has a sure touch as he examines the ways the rivalry of these two brothers, and their personality flaws, have helped shape their fates--until Pfeiffer, in a bombshell performance, sets them free.
20. "Getting It Right." Randal Kleiser's British version of "The Graduate," starring Jesse Birdsall in a delicate, perfectly-modulated performance as a shy young hairdresser who lives at home and doesn't fare much, until he has an unexpected affair with an older woman (Lynn Redgrave) and then with a lord's laughter (Helena Bonham-Carter). Not since the films about "Swinging London" like "Darling" and "Blow-Up" has a character traveled so freely through the social complexities of British life, making satirical points everywhere he looks.
In paging through my mouldering pile of old clippings -- the year's reviews, yellowing already -- I was reminded of other good or great moments I had at the movies. In alphabetical order (because how else to order such disparate memories) I recall "Blaze," with Paul Newman as old Earl K. Long, introducing his new girl friend to "my yes-men;" the look in the eyes of Michael J. Fox in Brian de Palma's "Casualties of War" when he realized there was going to be no possible escape for the innocent girl his squad had captured; the sweetness of the supernatural, intergenerational love story in "Chances Are;" the bountiful sense of life Isabella Rossellini brought to "Cousins;" and the undeniable epic feel and visual clarity of Caleb Deschanel's "Crusoe." There was the Billy Zane character's killer instinct, barely in control, in "Dead Calm;" the goodhearted goofiness of "Earth Girls Are Easy;" the complex balance between sadness and life's ironies in Paul Mazursky's "Enemies: A Love Story;" the fact of British racism for the Denzel Washington character, returning to civilian life after years of serving "For Queen And Country;" the erotic, ethereal charge that Meg Tilly brought to "The Girl In A Swing;" and the heroism of the first black infantrymen in the Civil War, in "Glory." Many years after the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement also tore apart the south, and a small chapter of it was told in "Hearts of Dixie," the underrated movie with Ally Sheedy as a young woman choosing the future over the past; "Henry," a low-budget, brilliant horror film from 1987, on the shelf ever since because the MPAA wouldn;t give it an R rating, finally broke out of its obscurity and started getting the praise it deserved; Norman Jewison's "In Country" has a wonderful performance by Emily Lloyd, as a teenage who wants to know more about her dad, who was killed in Vietnam; Steven Spielberg provided another great swashbuckling entertainment in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," with Sean Connery as Harrison Ford's father; Robert De Niro, Ed Harris and Kathy Baker were still trapped, years later, in the wounds of Vietnam in "Jacknife;" Mickey Rourke, who is never afraid to take chances, had some fun with Walter Hill's film noir, "Johnny Handsome." Agnes Varda took a big risk in "Kung-fu master!," the story of a brief romance between a teenage boy and his friend's mother, and somehow made it work; John Travolta and Kirstie Alley were charming in the light- hearted "Look Who's Talking;" Holly Hunter created a very special Southern would-be beauty queen in "Miss Firecracker;" three directors collaborated to make "New York Stories," and Martin Scorsese hit a home run, Woody Allen get left at third, and Francis Coppola struck out; Steve Martin led a wonderful ensemble cast in Ron Howard's surprising hit "Parenthood;" Native Americans went on the road in "Powwow Highway" and traveled from myth to dream; and a little girl tried to rescue one of Santa's reindeers in "Prancer." The Chinese movie "Red Sorghum" was an astonishing epic about a strong-willed woman whose life spanned the key events surrounding World War II; Al Pacino made a comeback and Ellen Barkin made the screen smoulder in "Sea of Love;" an unsung movie named "sex, lies, and videotape" walked away with the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, and launched the career of its writer-director, Steven Soderbergh; Charles Lane made one of the year's most creative and entertaining films, the silent comedy "Sidewalk Stories;" and an Australian director named Jane Campion made a bittersweet comedy about her off-the-wall sister in "Sweetie." Sammy Davis Jr. and Gregory Hines led a cast of great dancers in "Taps;" a movie named "The Bear" took painstaking care to recreate a year in the life of a bear cub; Gene Hackman turned in another great performance in the well-crafted thriller "The Package;" some of the mystery behind a giant of jazz was explained in "Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser;" a precocious teenage French girl played with fire and won, more or less, in "36 Fillette;" an Italian-American family from the Bronx got embroiled in all of the implications of a marriage in "True Love;" Milos Forman's "Valmont" was a more physical, voluptuous retelling of the same story as last year's "Dangerous Liaisons;" Danny DeVito's "The War of the Roses" was an astonishing black comedy starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner as a couple who took "till death do us part" quite literally; and Meg Ryan won a footnote in acting history for her faked orgasm in a restaurant in "When Harry Met Sally..."