Maybe the most misleading way imaginable to evaluate a given year, any given year, is to look at its high points. The view from the top is always rosier, more positive, than the basement inventory. A better method would be to combine both points of view -- to survey the year, if you will, dialectically. Looked at this way, 1987 could be called the year of "The Dead" and "Burglar." Of "Hope and Glory" and "Angel Heart." Of "Roxanne" and "Like Father, Like Son."
Yet even this approach doesn't quite capture the tenor of the year. Certainly there were great or near-great films: John Huston's final testament "The Dead," John Boorman's "Hope and Glory" and Fred Schepisi's "Roxanne" were movies to make you remember why you fell in love with movies in the first place. They would easily rank among the best films for any year. But in between the pinnacles and the garbage were a lot of complex, fascinating, sometimes alienating also-rans and near-misses. You could call 1987 the year of the interesting failure.
"The Untouchables" and "River's Edge" are two that failed (though not at the box office) in completely different ways. "River's Edge" is infuriating but unforgettable. I think it's a terrible movie, but director Tim Hunter creates a bleak, nihilistic mood that sticks with you despite the hysterical, moral hectoring over the sad plight of today's kids.
"The Untouchables" is one of those movies whose faults are so much a matter of balance and tone that you can actually play it back in your head, correcting the offending details yourself -- in a sense redirecting it -- with a fair amount of satisfaction. But Brian De Palma has such a virtuoso technique and throws such brilliant images up on the screen that you're thrilled by his command of the medium even when you see it going wrong. And the picture would have to stand out simply for the burly elegance that Sean Connery brought to it.
Bernardo Bertolucci is another filmmaker with an obvious, natural genius for movie imagery, and his much-acclaimed Chinese epic "The Last Emperor" was something of a comeback for him -- but not one to get excited about. Though certainly it's an improvement over "The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man," which he completed six years ago, it's an uninvolving pageant. The film is ravishingly beautiful, but in a way that passifies rather than excites the eye.
By contrast, "Barfly" intentionally attacks the eye with the effluvia of skid row life. It's based on an autobiographical story by Charles Bukowski, and director Barbet Shroeder plops the whole bum aesthetic on screen without reservation, as if it were gospel. The result is sheer baloney, but the leads, Faye Dunaway, Alice Krige and Mickey Rourke -- who, as Harry Chinaski, gives the year's most unsparingly eccentric performance -- are so compelling that you forgive the movie most of its sins.
British filmmaker Stephen Frears directed two films this year that fall into the failed but interesting category, "Prick Up your Ears," which tells the grim life story of playwright Joe Orton, and "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid," a fragmented, all-over-the road movie about a group of young bohos in a London ghetto. The latter is an odd sort of "failure" -- one that attempts more and gets more on the screen than a lot of other, so-called "successful" films. It's a failure that should be seen.
I wouldn't call "Withnail and I," Bruce Robinson's first movie, a failure at all (even if the second half doesn't deliver on the promise of the first). The director has an original sensibility -- a kind of delight in emotional squalor -- and he got wonderful work out of his actors, especially Richard E. Grant as the insufferable Withnail.
In 1987 there were movies, such as Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom's whimsical "My Life as a Dog" and "84 Charing Cross Road," that attracted an extremely strong local following (and that I felt less than enthusiastic about). There was also a program of short films at the Biograph by The Brothers Quay, a pair of American animators now living in England, including the extraordinary, ineffably disturbing "Street of Crocodiles," which may have been the most remarkable thing I saw on a movie screen all year. And then there were the deaths of several genuine movie greats: Fred Astaire, John Huston, Rita Hayworth. Only Huston was still working in his later years, but still the loss for movie-lovers was great.
As is the case in most years, there were a great number of performances that were far better than the movies they were in. In "Baby Boom," Diane Keaton executed the most galvanizing turn by an actress this year -- not that anybody really noticed. What Keaton demonstrates in the film, which is otherwise almost unwatchably yuppified, is the extent to which an actress can create, by sheer force of personality, something out of nothing. Barbra Streisand does something similar in "Nuts," though with less success, but both give full-fledged star performances that you don't dare turn away from for an instant.
Jennifer Grey had more to work with in "Dirty Dancing," one of the surprise hits of the year and the best movie musical since "Pennies From Heaven," but still, on occasion, both she and costar Patrick Swayze gave their lines greater conviction than they deserved. And "The Big Easy," probably the most ingratiating bad movie of the year, contained two irresistable performances by its leads, Ellen Barkin and Dennis Quaid, and one amazingly sly vamp in a smaller part by the late Charles Ludlam.
There were other actors who distinguished themselves in less-than-distinguished films. I don't think it's at all outrageous to claim that no other actor this year created a more frighteningly vivid characterization than Morgan Freeman's volatile pimp, Fast Black, in "Street Smart." It wasn't in a leading role, but who cares? (And Kathy Baker was also terrific as a knocked-about hooker.) "Less Than Zero" was about as bogus a venture as you're likely to find, and yet Robert Downey's unrestrained, take-it-to-the-edge performance made you actually invest some emotion in this guy's fate. (He was also engagingly puckish in James Toback's "The Pick-up Artist," which, though uneven, wasn't a bad film at all.)
It was a good year for actors and actresses in general. With the release of both "Raising Arizona" and "Broadcast News," Holly Hunter had a big year, and in both films she was spunky fun. But she wasn't great in either. Her performance in "Broadcast News," as entertaining as it is, limited the film's emotional range. (Imagine what an actress like Debra Winger, who appeared briefly in only one movie this year -- as a man, in "Made in Heaven" -- might have brought to it.)
The young British actress Emily Lloyd made the debut of the year with her performance in "Wish You Were Here," which also marked the directorial debut of David Leland, and Julie Waters was a perpetual ribald delight in "Personal Services," which Leland wrote. Other actresses made strong impressions: Christine Lahti in "Housekeeping," Margret Whitton Baker in "The Secret of My Success," Carol Kane in "The Princess Bride," Cher in "Moonstruck," Anjelica Huston in "The Dead" and "Gardens of Stone," Karen Allen in "The Glass Menagerie" and Vanessa Redgrave in "Prick Up Your Ears."
Of the men, Steve Martin's performance in "Roxanne" was a distillation of screen comedy elegance, while in "Witches of Eastwick" Jack Nicholson was nearly everything except elegant. Terry O'Guinn was chillingly bland as the lead in Joseph Ruben's tight, near-perfect little thriller "The Stepfather." And, though there was more to his performance in "Broadcast News" than this, Albert Brooks -- sweating -- may have been the funniest sight of the year. Others actors who stood out were Donal McCann in "The Dead," Nicholas Cage in "Raising Arizona" and "Moonstruck," John Candy (and Steve Martin again) in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," Nick Nolte in "Weeds," Joseph Mantegna in "House of Games," James Earl Jones in "Gardens of Stone," Dennis Hopper in "River's Edge," Denzel Washington in "Cry Freedom" and Shashi Kapoor in "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid."
"The Last Emperor" falls under the heading of big important pictures that demand -- and attract -- a lot of attention without really deserving it. (They're the ones that tend to get Oscar nominations, too.) Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun," also filmed in China, fits here as well, as does "Cry Freedom," "Matewan" and "Full Metal Jacket." Most people, critics included, seem to think that Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" belongs here, too, but it doesn't. Certainly Stone is sincere about his message of moral bankruptcy, but the movie is actually a melodrama -- in the tradition of "The Bad and The Beautiful," with Michael Douglas doing Dad -- about how nastily seductive these stock artists are. It comes off as serious, but it's not really. It's grandiose pulp -- Stone's real specialty.
"Cry Freedom," Richard Attenborough's movie about the relationship between South African activist Steven Biko and British journalist Donald Woods, and "Matewan," John Sayles' account of union violence in West Virginia, emphasized once again that choice of subject and being on the right side of an important issue aren't enough.
Stanley Kubrick's Vietnam film, "Full Metal Jacket," could hardly be said to have had good intentions. But it was a big movie by a major filmmaker on a serious subject. And it was treated as such. Also, it made money, which added success to its prestige. But it was almost impossible to like -- which is probably what Kubrick wanted -- or even to admire -- which he couldn't have had in mind. Alex Cox's intentions in making "Walker," which starred Ed Harris as William Walker, the 19th-century American adventurer who installed himself as president in Nicaragua, were impenetrable. It was an appalling exercise in radical pranksterism and, like his other film this year, "Straight to Hell," a lazy, self-indulgent goof.
Kubrick's was only one of several movies -- "Gardens of Stone," "Hamburger Hill," "Hanoi Hilton" and, in some cities, "Good Morning, Vietnam," even the rerelease of "Apocalypse Now" -- that dredged up our collective memories of Vietnam. And of all of them, only John Irvin's "Hamburger Hill," which dealt head-on, in harrowing detail, with the war as a hell for soldiers, contributed anything substantive to the debate. Also, in simple movie-making terms, Kubrick's skills paled when compared to Irvin's.
In "Swimming to Cambodia," the soliloquist Spalding Gray brought something new to the screen -- inspired dithering. Ostensibly the movie, directed by Jonathan Demme, is the chronicle of a political awakening -- Gray's -- which came during his stint as as actor in Cambodia during the filming of "The Killing Fields." Actually, it is a case study of actorly narcissism and self-absorption that couldn't have been more revealing if it had been conducted in a lab. This, of course, is Gray's point -- what happens when a guy who's comfortably neurotic, used to low-grade American-style trauma, encounters real political evil.
In general, the attempts by the big studios to hunker down and get serious weren't particularly laudable. Serious small filmmaker Woody Allen contributed two movies this year, and both "Radio Days" and "September" were misguided projects that disappointed in familiar ways.
This year's large-scale American movies seemed to deal better with serious ideas as they often have, in pop terms. Directed by Paul Verhoven, "Robocop" indulged in comic-book excess, but it was smart and ironic -- it had a real attitude toward its bloodletting and a real vision of the world, whereas "Lethal Weapon," "Predator" and "Extreme Prejudice" were just mindlessly violent.
And I think a case could be made that the most serious Hollywood movie of the year -- if it's possible to be simultaneously serious and convictionless -- was "Fatal Attraction." It is more interested in manipulating the issues it raises than in exploring them, and in that sense it can't be said to be serious. Yet in the way it plays the frustrations of Glenn Close's hysterical career woman off the sensual centeredness of Anne Archer's satisfied family woman, the movie strikes a nerve. (The play-around-and-pay message does, too.) In doing so -- and by exploiting any number of dating-life anxieties -- it was the only movie this year that spilled over into the culture and became a story on its own. It was just about the only movie that got people talking.
The other big stories this year came from the business side. And one of them -- the feeding frenzy of larger chains gobbling up smaller, independently-owned theaters -- had local impact when the Toronto-based Cineplex Odeon chain bought out the the Petas brothers' Circle Theaters here. The changes on Wall Street may also influence what we see on the screens, particularly with regard to independent features, which have flourished in recent years but, as a result of tighter money, may have a tougher time finding backers.
If you go by the only real, concrete, objective measure of the kind of year it was at the movies -- the box office -- then 1987 was amazing. The best year ever, in fact. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, in domestic ticket sales alone the industry rang up $4.2 billion. That's an increase of 13.5 percent over last year and a jump of 6.4 percent over 1984, the previous record holder.
It was a year that saw, statistically at least, an increase in moviegoers over the age of 40 and, perhaps more surprisingly, a decrease in teenage ticket buyers. Just numbers, maybe, but in Hollywood, where numbers are everything, they could be seen as a harbinger.
Jack Valenti, president of the MPAA, looks at these figures and sees a couple of things. "Number one," he says, "this year we had a swarm of really great, audience-attractive movies, more than we ordinarily have. These were the kind of movies that tell stories that people want to hear and watch. As a result, people don't want to wait for them to go into home video -- they want to see them now."
Number two, Valenti says, is that going to the movies has once again become "an epic viewing experience that people can't duplicate in the living room of their own home." Over the past couple of years, the movies have become "a social experience, a gathering. It's the centerpiece of an evening."
This year all the panic over the video cassette industry seems to have vanished. Though he says he can't prove it, Valenti is even willing to admit that the home video habit "seems to have generated an interest in watching movies" that has translated into people getting out more regularly to see them in theaters.
But no one is willing to make a connection between box-office success and quality. The year's top-grossing film, "Beverly Hills Cop II," was one of the year's most insulting -- a woman-hating, white-baiting, unfunny blast of tail-pipe exhaust that no more deserved its colossal success than "Ishtar," a much more likeable, almost endearingly flummoxed picture, did its resounding failure.
What Valenti has seen a lot of this year, he says, are movies that create a kind of "neighborly momentum" -- movies that you go home and tell your friends and neighbors about. "I'm not saying 'quality,' 'great,' 'fine,' 'critically acclaimed.' I'm just saying audiences make these choices, and what they're saying is, 'We like to see these pictures.' "
Did audiences really want to see "Blind Date," "Stakeout," "Throw Momma From The Train" or Eddie Murphy in anything? Yep. Is there anything we can do about it? Probably not.