1986: The Year in Pictures
March 11, 2008
Although literary critics will tell you that thematizing (to make thematic; to organize into themes) is often a bad idea, I’ve nonetheless been trying to thematize the Best Picture and Director nominees of 1986. It’s an odd-assortment of movies, to say the least. Two far-historical pictures (A Room with a View, The Mission), one set in the recent past (Platoon), two contemporary films (Children of a Lesser God, and Hannah and her Siters), and the most famous Lynch film, that (“the word I’m thinking of is”) Dickensian exploration of small-city U.S.A and its’ seedy underbelly. Undoubtedly one of my biggest problems is the 2-3 month break between seeing 5 of the movies and the last one this past weekend, but even without temporal considerations, 1986 remains a thematic challenge. Will one emerge as we evaluate the movies individually?
Blue Velvet: I said most of what I wanted to say here in my post on Isabella Rosselini’s “Green Porno.” I’ll only add a few words about Dennis Hopper’s performance. Lynch and Hopper managed to create one of cinema’s greatest villains in this movie, on a par with Nicholson’s Joker or McDowell’s Alex DeLarge. But while those characters exist in worlds of pure imagination (to borrow Willy Wonka’s apt phrase), Hopper’s Frank is all the more terrifying because of its realistic tendencies. Though no-one would ever accuse Lynch of playing by the rules of verisimilitude or David Simon level realism, Frank very well could exist. He’s the perfect combination of the mundane and outlandish, vividly realized through Hopper’s divination of his own demons. Also one of cinema’s greatest explorations of the question, nay, theme of voyeurism. A-
Best Picture Nominees:
A Room with a View: I don’t know if I’d ever seen anything take itself so seriously as the beginning of this film, when all the characters discuss the need and meaning of the titular room. The comedy of manners is certainly all the funnier for it. It’s a shame that the movie can’t sustain the tone, succumbing to more pedestrian levity. Like Blue Velvet the movie can be seen as having a theme of exploration: the novelist played by Judi Dench disavows guide books and encourages real exploration, advice that many of the characters pick up. Daniel Day-Lewis’ Cecil is the antithesis of this principle, instead preferring to read books and experience the life of the mind with passive experiences of the real world. I wasn’t too impressed with this movie after the first 30 minutes when its tone reverted to a standard comedy of manners. B
Children of a Lesser God: The great run of William Hurt movies continues! Hurt plays a teacher drifter (an explorer!) who, after teaching speech therapy at all the top schools, has settled in what wikipedia tells me is New England (It was filmed in New Brunswick). I don’t believe that the movie is ever explicit on this point, and I prefer to think of it taking place in the Puget Sound. This movie suffers from the same problems as all 80’s William Hurt extravaganzas: sheer we-get-the-pointness (I apologize for my use of obscure academic jargon). Hurt’s 80’s movies are telegraphed from the get-go with nary a surprise. Still, Marlee Matlin is exceptional and deserving of her best actress award, and Hurt is William Hurt. And then there’s boomerang, what this website calls, “a more energetic gaudy pop tune” (we completely disagree on Children of a Lesser God and The Accidental Tourist, btw) and others have called the best movie musical scene ever. That would be “Singing in the Rain” in Singing in the Rain, but BA-BA-BA-Boomerang does inject some much needed energy into an often elegiac film. B-The Mission was one of the odder pairings of action/adventure and spiritual drama that I’ve ever seen. Robert De Niro plays a mercenary who after violating every spirit of honour repents by training to become a missionary–an incomplete training that leads to some eventual heroics. Jeremy Irons plays the emotional soul of the movie who guides De Niro’s spiritual quest. The Palm d’Or winner excels in its acting and its contextualization of the politics. This movie was something of a disappointment in that I expected it to be a bit more on the action side than it turned out to be, a side that would have elided some of the film’s problems with drama. Still, it’s hard not to like a film that features the stylings of Rober De Niro, Jeremy Irons, and Liam Neeson. B/B+
Hannah and Her Sisters: Probably the best of Woody Allen’s more existential comedies. Allen’s storyline is existential and hilarious all at the same time, proving once again that comedians are really just failed philosophers. All of the characters are wonderfully realized, with Michael Caine giving one of his best performances as the movie’s bridge character. Alongside the main story are a number of statements about art and its role in society. While Allen eventually comes to realize the power of popular art forms, his character is mirrored by the companion of one of Hannah’s aforementioned sisters, an overly serious artist named Frederick who also can’t enjoy life and rejects mass appeal and the commercial necessity of the artist. Though a minor character, Frederick adds much to the movie’s aesthetics. Really just a lovely film. A-
Best Picture Winner:
Platoon: Probably the most unironic, unambiguous Vietnam movie. Platoon shoves its politics down your throat and its dialogue is at times unbearable. Yet other scenes are unbearable because of their emotional intensity and questions of morality. At times it’s more than deserving of its AFI top-100 ranking. There’s no question that Oliver Stone got the most out of his leading men in this movie. Tom Berenger is incredibly in the role that would become all other Tom Berenger roles, while Charlie Sheen’s permanently empty expression is the perfect gaze for our conflicted narrator. It reminds us of the way directors would cast actors solely for their look in the Silent Period. And who can forget Willem Dafoe as Jesus reincarnated as a Vietnam platoon sergeant, or any of the treasure trove of young actors in the movie (Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker, John C. McGinley and Johnny Drama) for that matter? A movie that borders on greatness, but one whose flaws become more apparent as time goes buy.
Should have been Best Picture: Hannah and Her Sisters