Denkmal/1985: The Year in Pictures

May 27, 2008

1985 was one of those years where everything is endowed with a sense of monumentality. Gone were the light comedies of yesteryear (or yester-yesteryear; see, or don’t see, the Oscars-lite of 1987: Where Everybody Comes of Age!), replaced by a series of Epics and career making performances. It was also the year where Sydney Pollack took home the Best Director statue and Best Picture statue for what really is one of the most wonderful love stories of the second half of the twentieth century, Out of Africa. Sydney Pollack was not one of the directorial luminaries of his generation; he was, at best, the 7th most prominent director of the Hollywood Renaissance. But he was an excellent, unassuming filmmaker who excelled at unironic love stories. He was also a terrific character actor. In the last stage of his career, Pollack got to play that guy, the one lurking in the background who really knows what’s going on, the one you’d have asked for help at the start of the movie if he weren’t so ominous looking. The best of these roles was probably Victor Ziegler in the underrated Eyes Wide Shut. With Pollack’s Ziegler, you’re never too sure what to believe, yet his character has a stability that the others don’t seem to possess. In this often illusory film, Pollack is the perfect emotionless center. Cold, rational, otherwise disposed. In a word: perfect.

But one year, Pollack really was the best filmmaker, the master of the cinematic universe. With that, we turn to 1985.

Wild Card: Ran. A very good film with terrific battle scenes, that happens to be one of the most interesting adaptations of all times. Ran turned one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays into a Samurai epic, perfectly placing the play in its new cultural context. In fact, Ran might be the second-best Shakespeare adaptation of all-time, behind only the brilliant 10 Things I Hate About You. Ran, however, suffers from a decided lack of freshness. It never escapes the sense of being familiar Kurosawa territory, it never breaks out into any new ground. For an action-epic, it’s also a bit on the slow side. A very well-made movie, but not one of the director’s classics. B+

Nominees: Witness. Witness was one of the unquestioned highlights of the mid 1980s, if only for the sheer number of genres it was able to combine into one still coherent movie: star-crossed lover movies, fish out of water movies, buddy cop movies, buddy cop gone awry movies, sudden action movies, barn-raising instructional videos, and Harrison Ford sure is handsome movies. A highly entertaining movie, Witness deserves to have been mimicked so many times; whether those deserve to be watched is another question entirely. A-

Prizzi’s Honor: I don’t think I started to understand this movie until half-way in. Prizzi’s Honor is either a really bad mob movie, or a very good mob parody; it’s often hard to tell. This ambiguity is the result of one of two choices: 1) brilliant subtlety! 2) incoherence. Unfortunately, I’m inclined to choose the latter. I don’t think the director, John Huston, really knew if he wanted to make a mob parody or just an odd mafia movie. The result is a movie trapped in-between: too inside the genre to be a parody and too outside to be any good. B

Kiss of the Spiderwoman: An interesting story with some brilliant acting by Accidental Tourist William Hurt and equally good supporting work by Raul Julia. The narrative device is potentially liberating, yet not fully exploited by the filmmakers. Why have Hurt talk about the same movie the whole time? Why not fragments of multiple movies to better reflect the emotions of Spiderwoman? This would certainly have the advantage of improving the movie’s pace. Kiss of the Spiderwoman is slow and somewhat lacking in conflict. It should have been shortened. B

The Color Purple: Steven Spielberg has made a number of great movies over the years, and this one deserves to be mentioned at the top of the list. The acting is perfect, the score beautiful, the editing crisp, and the cinematography luscious. Danny Glover deserves to be singled out for his performance; while the protagonist changes over time, Glover’s character is almost manic depressive, with his mode swinging violently between and during scenes. It’s really surprising that he never became more of a leading man. He certainly had the talent. Ultimately, The Color Purple was just released in the wrong year. A/A-

Winner: Out of Africa feels like it’s from another time and space. That’s the thing with epics; when they work, the world on screen is so magical that no-one ever wants to leave them. When they don’t, you get any number of middling overly long movies (an especially prominent malady in the 1980s). Out of Africa gives you the sense of belonging to its world, of living in its imperial Africa, of being of that time and space. It’s a magical experience. A/A-

Should have won: Out of Africa by a nose.

One Response to “Denkmal/1985: The Year in Pictures”

  1. cicero Says:

    We should make our readers aware that Witness was Viggo Mortensen’s breakout movie.

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