1990: That was when the best things in life were free

Well, here it is - the inevitable anniversary entry (probably the first of several for the year). I had intended on backing away from this series for the entirety of 2020, but the more I thought about that hybrid of a year that crossed the boxy warmth of the 80s with the soft edge of the 90s, the more I found reasons to celebrate - which is all we really do here.

My original reservations for paying homage to yet another bygone era were that the windchill of subjectivity had possibly become too abrasive and/or obnoxious for you fine folks. But for 1990 in particular, I couldn't ignore the mountain of monumental movies that were released. (I knew there were some big ones, but scientific research alerted me to all the fixin's).

Of course, per usual, whenever we step into the Wayback Machine, some of the memories are compromised by age (especially the way way back). I was 7 years old in '90, and beneath the superficial schedule of 'being at school' and 'not being at school,' I was otherwise absorbed in 7-year-old-in-1990 stuff: Super Mario 3, Saved by the Bell, and various actual outdoor activities like riding a bicycle or throwing a baseball. Most of my movie viewing came from catching up on HBO and video rentals of all of the previous year's releases, as I'd yet to become a steady theater attendee. (That would change dramatically before the year was out.)

Between the movie, the cartoon, the action figures, and a much more user-friendly sequel to the video game, it was the year of Ninja Turtles -- for about three months.

Popular culture wasted no time in pummeling me with commercials, toys, print ads, posters, trading cards, and even foods and apparel carrying the Dick Tracy brand, and without having any prior knowledge of the comic strip or the characters or the entire enterprise itself, I'd become a huge fan - due entirely to marketing and merchandise. Needles to say, the movie itself buckled under the hype for me & couldn't live up to my own excitement -- though it all balanced out in the end.

The obsession was so deep & vast that it probably deserves its own post - separate from this brief synopsis of an entire year. Which is perhaps why I did exactly that with Edward Scissorhands some time ago. Unlike Dick Tracy, there were no action figures, no t-shirts, no Happy Meals. The only hoopla I got caught up in was the movie itself, which incidentally changed my interests, my expectations, my demeanor as a child, and the way I process films; this wasn't a movie I could bring home & play with on the parlor floor, or wear it proudly to school, or get a piece of it at the drive-thru. This was something I had to carry with me in my mind - I could explore and fantasize only with my own memory & imagination, as well as driving me into a spiral of repeat viewings that would force me to watch it even more closely with each subsequent viewing (as well as familiarize me with establishing theater-going habits/rituals). Fair to say that what started & played out as a typical, almost generic year in the life of a boy, ended with a huge turning point regarding how I chose to ingest an artform for the rest of my days: a fitting introduction to the decade in which I would be most consumed with Cinema.

- Paul

1. Goodfellas
What can I say in such a small space? Roughly two decades into his career - consisting of not only good, original work, but all of it so distinctly Marty - and without changing much of the formula he had so perfected, he incidentally made one of the greatest films of all time. He'd never done much that was traditionally plot-driven, but this was a hard & fast character study that was so hard & fast that it could fool an audience into thinking of it as an Action picture. Even when there's space for the movie to breathe, tension and violence still hang heavy in the air, and never was such brutality so startlingly casual, visceral, or comical.
But this is all a general observation. What I took away from it initially (and still do) was: the precision and experimentation of a collaboration between Director and Editor, how to perfect the art of voiceover, and how pop music is to be used effectively (and correctly), all on a bed of confrontational humor. It was a glorious time.

2. I Love You to Death
Speaking of Dark Comedy...
This is a story (based on true events) that, had it fallen into the wrong hands, could've been disastrous. Depicting the raw pain of heartbreak, humiliation, and betrayal with remarkable realism is an uncompromising accomplishment unto itself. To mix that with witty banter, fart and sex jokes, and some incredibly violent slapstick is to make a genre-bending masterpiece of marriage, melancholy, murder, marinara, and Monopoly. 

3. Edward Scissorhands
We've just about cut all the branches off this hedge at this point, so to recap & reiterate: some of the movie's more poignant and symbolic shades didn't immediately resonate with me when I was 7 - which may actually be its biggest strength. As an adult, all the blatant themes of alienation and prejudice and the fear of love or being loved are all front & center, but, Melodrama that it is, the broad strokes of mood & abstractions through set design, performance, and Music with a capital "M" were the things that lit up my life as a young lad. That was and is its brilliance: the already-moving story is nearly secondary to how beautifully and emotionally crafted it is.

4. Dick Tracy
My initial approach to this was a little less cerebral than the one I took with Edward; the movie couldn't compete with my fascination and affection for the toys & trading cards. The merchandise promised a slew of colorful thugs with descriptive names, roughly all of whom ended up only having mere seconds of screen time in the actual film. It was over time that I began to see slightly past that to find a jazzy Action Comedy/Family Film, designed by and populated with the people who pretty much invented 1970s Cinema. What we got were outlandish, borderline-experimental performances that nearly upstaged the similarly-charged cinematography, score, songtrack, set decoration, and makeup fx.

5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Mostly unaware of the comic book, I went into this amidst the hysteria of the cartoon, video game, and toys, and I was immediately comfortable with the slightly darker tone.
I've sliced this pizza from every direction now, I know, but for the sake of this list, I will only further drive home my reverence for the characters and the actors (human and Turtle alike), and the precision and respect that was given to turn a cartoon Bad Guy into a Horror Movie Villain.

6. Gremlins 2: The New Batch
You can compare it to the first film, or you can treat it as its own thing. Either way, it's its own thing.
I often hear of movies being described as a "mess," and The New Batch is nothing if not that: a mess of talent, a mess of ideas, a mess of passion and ambition. To say "they don't make movies like this anymore" would suggest that anyone ever made movies like this -- Joe Dante included. But with the sucker punch of caustic references and cameos and playfulness knockin' you on your ass, there's still an admirable amount of restraint and power steering to keep it fun - but in no way civilized.

7. Jacob's Ladder
I was susceptible to Horror movie trailers at that age, but this one felt genuinely creepy and upsetting. Cut to however many years later that I see it, and I find myself against the rare occasion where the previews were artfully accurate. Genuine frights surrounding morbid nightmares and the existential dread of mortality are apparently a couple motifs I find to be satisfyingly confrontational - and when it's wrapped in a gloomy tension that leads nowhere but down, you're left with a lust for life and a paralyzing fear of everything else.

8. Narrow Margin
'Train Thrillers' are their own thing, and I love that thing. This is a Peter Hyams remake of the 1952 movie of the same name, except this one has Gene Hackman, Anne Archer, cameos by J.T. Walsh and Harris Yulin, and a screenplay by Hyams. This movie's not only an adequate example of the kinda movies I loved at this age, but it also partially helped in setting a bar in what I look for/expect across this (and probably all) genres of storytelling.

9. Another 48 Hrs.
When I saw it, I thought it was an original, standalone movie - I didn't know "Another" implicated it as a sequel... Didn't matter: this is a dark, scary, violent slapstick comedy with an open & shut storyline from Walter Hill that don't need no prequel. And while I'd eventually see the first one, this installment belongs to crazed biker Andrew Divoff, while Eddie and Nick are the mild comic relief. That's the movie I wanted, and that's the movie I got.
Let's face it: I had cinematic expectations, and 1990 was meeting them.

10. Home Alone
It's no secret: it took me a long time to settle into this silver tuna -- and even when I'm there, I'm only visiting. The movie does, on its own, celebrate Christmas in a fun and colorful way, mixing old fashioned and contemporary (1990s) sensibilities, and the premise, the setup, and the payoff all play out in a sometimes-charming, sometimes-infuriating ballet of lowbrow microwave macaroni & cheese that I'm actually in the mood for about once a year.

11. Back to the Future Part III
This seems to be people's least favorite entry of the franchise. My gripe is that I love it, but not as a final act; this woulda been a beyond-brilliant Third Chapter in a potential Quadrilogy - not because I "need more explanations" or I wanna see what other crazy times they travel to... I just wanted to hang out with the characters a little longer (which was sparse in this one).

12. Ernest Goes to Jail
Ernest features peaked right here with the most engrossing, near-subversive plotline in the filmography (which, to be realistic, is still pretty darn silly). We get to see a very dark side of Jim Varney, but also some of the funniest Ernest antics ever put on film. (I don't need to remind you yet again about the broken pen scene... but click on it anyway!)

13. Quick Change
More often than not, you get the sense that Bill Murray feels a bit embarrassed to be in any given movie. Quick Change is on the short list of films that showcase his relaxed approach and indefinable charm in a way that he visibly enjoys. Also, the premise deals with a downward spiral of catastrophic hijinks, and if anyone's seen Ghostbusters, that's like food & drink to Bill.

14. Misery
Really, really good King adaptations are few & far between - like, really few and really far - and I don't have the formula as to why it works when it does, or doesn't when it doesn't. If I had to guess, I'd say that really good movies are few & far between, so it's a gamble for the two to meet. They met here. One of the things that makes this better - great, even - is how restrained the movie is, allowing its actors (Kathy especially) to set the tone and create tension. For a "Horror Novel Adaptation," that takes some admirable discipline.

15. Ghost
As a pitch, it sounds like one long, tedious gimmick. As a movie, it's a layered, textural collage of tension, comedy, engaging exposition, and raw human emotion. It has every ingredient, and you can taste each one and each one compliments the next. Very notable acting performances, but the Academy Award winning screenplay by Bruce Joel Rubin (Jacob's Ladder) is one of the best.

16. Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III
A delightful blend of the dark humidity of Part One and the punchy action of Part Two, adding up to just a solid Slasher Flick - and if you look around, there weren't too many of those going around anymore. But this formula - the TCM formula - has always worked in a different but consistently effective way: they're all different from the stalk-and-kill beats of the genre, and what this one does as effectively as the first one is to introduce the horrors of a conspiracy, where there's not just one threat, but a whole dang mess of 'em.

17. Tales From the Darkside: The Movie
This is one of those movies that'd always appear on cable as the calendar got close to Halloween. As a kid, I was both intrigued and upset at how blissfully mean-spirited the movie could be at times, also while keeping an excellent sense of humor and fun. As a grownup, I still find the pace changes to be just as confrontational (and I wouldn't want it any other way).
Still the best 'Mummy' movie I've seen.

18. Miller's Crossing
The Coens are known to (sometimes) veer off into abstractions, metaphor, mind-benders, style over substance, etc. This movie tops my list of Joel & Ethan movies in which the mood overwhelms and nearly cancels out the vaguely inconsequential 'plot.' The costumes and set design, the muted cinematography, and Carter Burwell's score all have the beat turned up so loud that it drowns out the melody. It took me some time to accept it for what it is, but I've looked into my heart, and here we are.

19. Desperate Hours
The Home Invasion genre is particularly terrifying to a kid, and this version (remade from a 1955 Bogart movie) is as stylish and gruesome as it is believable. Micky Rourke's charm simultaneously alleviates and adds menace to the tension, but the intensity of the supporting cast - Anthony Hopkins, Mimi Rogers, Kelly Lynch, David Morse, and Elias Koteas - create a constantly dreadful urgency that, while the ending may seem by-the-numbers, the journey there is nervous and unforgiving.

20. Hard to Kill
Like Schwarzenegger, Eddie Murphy, or Tom Hanks, Steven Seagal had a 'golden age' -- and like the aforementioned stars, this winning streak lasted from the mid 80s to the mid 90s. In that time, Seagal starred in, produced, and sometimes directed some of the most satisfying Action films in an era when many of them were already quite satisfactory.
Hard to Kill takes the old-but-now-attributed-to-Kill Bill thread of "back from the dead to seek vengeance on those who put me there." If you're not a fan of him or the films, I can't help you, but it's hard to argue that he hasn't gone up against some (if not all) of the best character actors in the bad guy roles -- and Bill Sadler as corrupted politician Vernon Trent provides some laughs and thrills you won't soon forget.

21. Wild at Heart
This is tough for me. This time period felt like the aesthetic peak (no pun) for Lynch, though it had to contend with this somewhat silly and dull slice of pulp. I will continue to watch it semi-regularly for its expertly crafted visual components and twisted performances, but the reason a David Lynch movie isn't higher on this particular list is that this is his only film (other than... Dune) that feels as though all of the seemingly-disjointed dreams and ideas are forced into some standardized movie plot. I'm generally left frustrated and unsatisfied. Still though, I'm nitpicking because my Lynch standards are so high; it's still better than the hundreds of movies that came out that year.

22. Men at Work
There's a softer, more friendly phrase for "guilty pleasure movies," and I prefer it greatly: "comfort movies." Usually because they're too fatty or sugary to have any nutritional value, or the subject matter is mostly sunny with light & variable winds. Men at Work is a fast-paced punchline that requires no cerebral dedication and no excuses beyond "liking it" for the medicine that it is.
If that seems too vague, go back and read my equally superficial review.

23. Look Who's Talking Too
If you had any kinda response to the first one, your mood is pretty much gonna stay the same. In other words, if you thought Part One had enough laughs and chemistry to keep you full of smiles and romance despite its boneheaded concept, then there's no reason you couldn't enjoy a second round.
Also, Elias Koteas: 3 for 3

24. Predator 2
There's a LOT going on in this one - and not just plot-wise, but also in tone and pace. It's full of bizarre attempts at straight comedy, while still maintaining a bit of the gory tension of the first one. Also like Part One, there's a forgettable setup that's employed to get us closer to the Predator, except this one is so superfluous and convoluted that you forget about the monster half the time. But the entire third act is dedicated to "Predator in the city," and y'all know I love it when the creature - any creature - goes to town.

25. Night of the Living Dead
I like it more than Romero's -- but I don't really like Romero.
This was one of those video covers I remember well from the videostore shelves, and amongst that very long list of scary VHS boxes burned into my brain, this one ended up mostly (if not entirely) living up to its ghoulish aura. Credit to Romero, though, for a sturdy foundation upon which this suspenseful (but still grassroots) campfire tale is told. Probably shoulda been in black & white too.

26. Die Hard 2
I think I can say with a straight face that, had this been a standalone film, it still would be as popular as it is (which is to say "somewhat"). I went from really hating Dennis Franz's performance in this to championing it as one of the main reasons to watch. And of all the Die Hard sequels, this one feels like the closest relative to the first. But let's be honest: could Die Hard ever really be Die Hard without Alan Rickman? It's almost like not having Bruce.
Still, though, Bill Sadler: 2 for 2

27. I Come in Peace
Dolph Lundgren never really had enough screen presence to distract us from the shaky acting (Rocky IV, maybe), but fortunately for this movie, there's so much crazy shit going on that we didn't need some thespian hamming it up & diverting our attention away from aliens involved in a drug war, a Jan Hammer score, a script cowritten by David Koepp, an Al Leong cameo, Christmas cheer, and big fucking explosions. It's all bigger and faster and cooler than anyone would expect.

28. Tremors
I'm sure there are folks who remember this movie from its initial release - but not anyone I've ever talked to. This was a movie that was on one day, on TV, and you'd think "What is this wildly engrossing Comedy/Western/Monster Movie?" Engrossing, in part, because the film puts you in the mindframe of the characters, racking your brain, asking "How the hell are we gonna get outta this?" But just as much, Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward trading Southwestern honky-tonk banter is one of the most lovely things movies has given us.

29. The Witches
Mixing Nicolas Roeg with Roald Dahl ended up being like when you were shown what happened when you poured vinegar into the baking soda: childhood wonderment exemplified by a fizzy, exciting surprise. Dahl knew that "Horror" resonated best with children, and this movie pays full respect to that sentiment - never holding back on the constant threat of a fate worse than death at the hands of sadistic occultists, depicted graphically with expert visual fx. We all had to grow up a little faster with this one.

30. Blind Fury
Film snobs that they were, my parents turned me off of this one, stating it looked "too dumb." But if you'd seen the trailer that I saw, that just couldn't possibly be so. Cut to 2019 when it's finally available on Blu Ray, and the trailer makes good on its promises: Rutger Hauer is a blind samurai who can take down everyone in the room, all while delivering calmly-voiced one-liners. Are you sold? 'Cause I was.
Here's the analogy: sometimes, you just know what you're gonna order before you get to the restaurant. And you'll usually find that you made the right choice.

1 comment:

Luke said...

I'll bite

1. GoodFellas
2. Jacob's Ladder
3. Edward Scissorhands
4. Misery
5. Gremlins 2
6. Wild At Heart
7. Tremors
8. Total Recall
9. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
10. Home Alone
11. The Exorcist III
12. Miller's Crossing
13. IT
14. King of New York
15. Ghost
16. Maniac Cop 2
17. Leatherface: TCM III
18. Ernest Goes to Jail
19. Tales From the Darkside: The Movie
(a giant YES to favorite mummy 'movie'. More to come on that front at some point in time)
20. Quick Change

Just missed the cut: Die Hard 2 and Predator 2

I have yet to see I Love You to Death. Plan on seeing it soon.

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