Something happens to cinema as the end of a decade approaches. Filmmakers become more forward-looking in their techniques and their storytelling. You don’t believe me? Witness 1979 – Alien and Apocalypse Now and those are just the A’s, or 1999 (arguably the best year for movies ever, though some argue it may be topped by ’79). So where does that leave 1989? I would say it’s up there with the most notable years cinema’s ever had. Sure it suffered from sequel-itis, but many talented filmmakers announced themselves to the world in a big way that year too. As Communism weakened in the east, the filmmakers of the west were able to free themselves of political posturing on a world scale and focus on local issues and more personal stories. They were also free to entertain the masses and the year’s box office numbers reflect the number of crowd-pleasers that were released that year.
One movie that definitely does not fit that mainstream mold, though nevertheless focuses on a pressing issue is Frederick Wiseman’s Near Death. An unflinching six-hour long look at the goings on at a Boston hospital, we experience what doctors, nurses and other caregivers go through while fighting to save lives. In the film’s most heartbreaking moments, Wiseman shows the hospital employees consoling the families of people who’ve just passed away. As viewers we realize how important that part of the job is as well. Not an easy watch, and these days not easy to find, Near Death really makes one think about their own mortality and how close we all are, at any moment, to facing it.
In case you’re looking for something on the opposite end of the spectrum, Lethal Weapon II provides just the antidote to any potential depressed thoughts that may set in after contemplating one’s mortality. The filmmakers understand that if one of the main goals of cinema is to entertain, it’s good to stick to tried-and-true genre tropes. Despite it being a sequel, it is one of the best examples of the buddy cop movie template. The laughs, action set pieces, and fast pace ensure that one is never bored, and while by the end we know a third part is inevitable, we don’t mind continuing with the story.
Another film that just missed the final list of 15 is Edward Zwick’s hard hitting, racially-charged drama Glory. With Denzel Washington in a star-making role, the film tells the story of the first black all-volunteer company fighting in the US Civil War. The film takes a hard look not just at the prejudices of the Confederacy, but also those of the Union Army itself. A frequent staple of high school history classes, some have argued that Glory plays it too safe, but there are great moments here. Zwick captures some unforgettable sequences and lines of dialogue from an amazing cast, and in my view, does not iron out any of the rough edges for modern audiences.
The John Hughes/John Candy comedy hit Uncle Buck was yet another feather in the cap of these two titans of comedy. The film is now less remembered for the funny moments, and more for how touching the film is overall. Of course that’s expected with Hughes. The reason he has become such a touchstone for a the genre is because the dialogue is so crisp, intelligent and emotional. Never one to scoff at melodrama, Candy dives head-first into the role, and it may be the best performance of his career. I truly get emotional when I watch this one, and I may not be the only one who does.
Finally I have to mention John Woo’s The Killer. It is the definition of a Woo film – crazy synopsis, game cast, slow motion strewn about to pad the running time – it’s all there. This is the film that finally got Woo the attention of Hollywood and one can see why. Endlessly watchable, The Killer is the kind of crime thriller they don’t make anymore. Equally broad and incomprehensible, it reminds me of many of the action capers that followed in the 90’s – some of them directed by Woo himself, that follow in the footsteps of this momentous film.
So these are the films that did not make the Top 15. Which ones did? Well we’ll find out one by one. The first one on the list is already a bit of a cheat, but I am not above cheating. It’s David Lynch’s film-length Twin Peaks pilot. I feel it belongs on the list because it made quite the splash back in the day. Hope to see you then!