As we prepare for the yearly procession of 25th anniversary celebrants in 2014, I’m reminded of the dark cloud that loomed over the cinematic landscape in 1989. The historic Writers Guild of America strike that lasted five months the year before meant that a lot of work-in-progress screenplays not quite up-to-snuff were produced as-is simply so the studios could sustain their existence with a steady output of product throughout the following fiscal year.
Nineteen eighty-nine was that year, a peculiar time when movie-goers really noticed the repercussions.
Sure-fire sequels to now-classic hit comedies Ghostbusters and Fletch failed miserably to recapture the same lightning in a bottle.
Instead, the first uneven Batman movie with Keaton and Nicholson was all the rage. Indiana Jones rode tall once again. Riggs and Murtaugh reunited with a bang. Clark W. Griswold saved Christmas.
The boogeyman triumvirate of Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers & Freddy Krueger lazily stalked their prey.
James Bond and Star Trek flopped hard at the box office.
While considering the Class of 1989 and allowing leeway for the ripple effects of the writers’ strike, it’s also worth noting that these movies were produced on the cusp of a cinematic revolution.
Nearly every case—from the finest works of serious film to the funkiest chunks of celluloid cheese—represents the zenith of old-school optical-based special effects artistry and technology.
From here on out, movies would become noticeably more…digital.
Speaking of which, 1989 was also the year of James Cameron’s then-unthinkably-pricey $70 million undersea adventure The Abyss, which offered astonished audiences the first good glimpse of CGI morphing effects.
Movie magic would never be the same again.
Best of the Class:
Batman. It may be hard for fans of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy to fathom, but the arrival of Tim Burton’s Batman was quite an event.
Despite its filmmaking-by-committee aesthetic, the picture holds up remarkably well twenty five years later, mainly due to Jack Nicholson’s demented turn as The Joker and Michael Keaton’s effortless savoir faire as our bi-polar hero (something none of the subsequent Bruce Waynes have quite managed to nail). A string of less-successful sequels that got darker and then campier has tarnished its reputation, and Nolan’s reboot trilogy blows it away as film, but 1989’s Batman endures as a grand, glorious and goofy comic book flight of twisted fancy.
Once upon a time, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade concluded an absolutely perfect trilogy with an absolutely brilliant finale…and then they had to go ruin it with crystal skulls and a nuked refrigerator.
Lethal Weapon 2 remains the series pinnacle for reasons immediately evident from its opening beats. With a few introductory bars of the “Looney Tunes” theme played during the Warner Bros. logo, director Richard Donner and company clearly and succinctly announce their intentions right from the get-go: this sequel is going to be a bit nuttier than the original, with double the action and twice the humor.
Featuring the best and most snarly villains of the franchise, the film is full of breathless chases and brutal hand-to-hand combat, orchestrated with typical clockwork precision by movie maestro Donner, and spiced up with the nimble triangular repartée between Mel Gibson, Danny Glover and series newcomer Joe Pesci.
The first one in 1987 was merely a sleeper hit and remains a gritty modern-noir classic in its own right, but here’s where the magic really catches fire.
Licence to Kill. Hear me out. It took over twenty years and Daniel Craig’s grounded 007 films to make folks realize what a good thing we had at the time with Timothy Dalton as a serious, no-nonsense James Bond. Considered a box office disappointment in its day, this long-neglected Bond film is finally getting some overdue love. The screenplay dares to dispense with many typical ’80s 007 tropes, giving us something we hadn’t seen in eons: a dangerously unpredictable Bond.
Dalton only got to make two Bond movies, and since his debut The Living Daylights was written with Pierce Brosnan in mind, it’s safe to say Licence to Kill is the definitive Dalton 007 movie, the one most catered to his strengths. Released with a lousy marketing campaign that made Bond 16 look like a generic “Miami Vice”-type actioner, the movie got trampled under the stampede of Indiana Jones, Batman and Lethal Weapon 2. Dalton’s pair of Bonds puts a neat bow tie on an era of old-school stunt-based done-for-real set pieces, before the introduction of Pierce Brosnan and the age of digital enhancement.
Check out the awesome tanker truck climax, deploying real pyrotechnics, actual planes, a fleet of diesel rigs and a fearless crew of stuntmen—and which completely blows away any digital trickery performed nowadays.
Road House. Yes, bitches, Road House.
What we have here is pure cinematic junk food, nothing more than a modest modern-day Western made in the age of Rambo, about a pretty-boy bouncer who majored in philosophy who cleans up a small town and wreaks bloody vengeance against the big bad bullies who taunt him too much.
The broad archetypes and minimalistic themes of the, ahem, “screenplay” are universally appealing and easily digestible…but there’s a certain je ne sais quoi in the execution that makes Road House an everlasting gobstopper of pulp ’80s machismo. We all know this is a staple on cable television, but once I heard that its rural appeal keeps it in constant rotation on the country and western cable networks too, I knew its fate was sealed—a cross-over cult hit enshrined for all eternity on the airwaves as a representative snapshot the 1980s.
Twenty five years later, it’s hard to keep a straight face and say the director and crew knew they were making a camp classic, wink-wink, nudge-nudge.
A movie needn’t be Shakespeare to endure, and it’s much more fun to acknowledge a certain solemnity amongst the filmmakers and assume they were going for high-stakes human drama with a straight face. Producer Joel Silver is no schlub, and his movies are typically sleek, polished vehicles that purr like jaguars. So, yeah, it’s got great production value and mass cross-cultural appeal…but most critically, it’s got Patrick Swayze in his prime, immortalized in his flowing mane, in a role he was born to play.
The Killer offered adventurous audiences the first proper dose of Hong Kong movie master John Woo, paired here with his muse Chow Yun-Fat for the mother of all revenge flicks.
It’s still Woo’s best movie, and its influence on the likes of fledgling filmmakers preparing to take the world by storm (Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Michael Bay, The Wachowskis, Len Wiseman and so forth) remains as loud and clear as ever. Threats of a Hollywood remake have percolated on and off for years, but the project seems to be stuck in development limbo…which is odd considering the number of blatant Killer rip-offs and Americanized remakes of those blatant Killer rip-offs produced in its wake.
Compare To: Black Rain; Blue Steel; Dead Calm; Johnny Handsome; Kickboxer; The Mighty Quinn; Next of Kin; The Package; The Punisher; Tango & Cash.
Fewer Will Remember: Best of the Best; Blind Fury; Dead Bang; Farewell to the King; Lock Up; Renegades.
Best of the Class:
Christmas Vacation. Clark W. Griswold becomes the stifled straight man to other peoples’ lunacy, which is not quite as funny as watching him fumble through the American mid-west, embarrass himself in Europe or throw a spastic, profanity-laden tantrum of monumental R-rated proportions.
Still, there are plenty of silly moments and classic quotes to make up for the script’s tamer PG-13 sensibility, and the filmmakers really embraced the now-recurring gag of casting different actors to portray each successive set of the Griswold kids. Here, Rusty #3 ranks in third place overall, just ahead of my least-favorite, Rusty #2. Audrey #3 as played by Juliette Lewis here is my number two preferred Audrey, though she’s far behind my favorite Audrey #1 from the original.
The War of the Roses. Directed by Danny DeVito with macabre wit and Hitchcockian precision, this pitch-black comedy/noir remains one of the most fiendishly twisted peeks inside the disintegration of the American family Hollywood has ever dared to produce.
Successfully recaptures—and preserves for all time—the dazzling chemistry between Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, so abundant in Romancing the Stone, yet so painfully muted in that film’s forgotten sequel.
When Harry Met Sally… Over-achieving hair ’dos will firmly date this enduring rom/com as a time capsule of the late ’80s, but the movie represents writer Nora Ephron at her witty best.
The film features Billy Crystal’s most engaging onscreen performance not rendered digitally by Pixar, Meg Ryan at her most beguiling, and memorable supporting turns by the late, great Bruno Kirby and a deliciously sassy Carrie Fisher. With so much charm it’s little wonder that, a quarter century later, we’ll still “have what she’s having.”
Compare To: The Big Picture; Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure; Breaking In; The ’Burbs; The Dream Team; Fletch Lives; Ghostbusters II; Harlem Nights; Look Who’s Talking; Major League; Meet the Feebles; Parenthood; She-Devil; Three Fugitives; Turner & Hooch; Uncle Buck; Weekend at Bernie’s.
Fewer Will Remember: Chances Are; Cookie; Dream a Little Dream; Erik the Viking; Her Alibi; How I Got Into College; How to Get Ahead in Advertising; K-9; Let it Ride; Loverboy; Parents; Penn & Teller Get Killed; Pink Cadillac; Police Academy 6: City Under Siege; Rude Awakening; Shag; Skin Deep; Troop Beverly Hills; UHF; We’re No Angels; Who’s Harry Crumb?; Worth Winning.
Best of the Class:
In Born on the Fourth of July, Tom Cruise proved his range extended beyond a gung-ho character like Maverick in Top Gun and he could honorably portray the flip side as a wounded and disillusioned Vietnam Veteran.
Oliver Stone’s uncompromising direction and Cruise’s searing and unglamorous performance as vet-turned-anti-war-activist Ron Kovic may have hit too hard for many viewers’ comfort—Stone was indeed awarded his second Best Director Oscar, and Cruise scored his first Best Actor nomination, but the coveted statue for Best Picture went to the nice, dainty (read: “safe”)
Driving Miss Daisy. Other indelible 1989 dramas such as Spike Lee’s incendiary racial potboiler Do the Right Thing, Edward Zwick’s exquisite Civil War epic Glory and Cameron Crowe’s poignant romance Say Anything… all hold up as well today as when they were brand new, if not more so. Lee’s film particularly is as relevant and influential as ever and, despite the time-capsule image of John Cusack’s hoisted boom-box, the courtship of Lloyd Dobler and Diane Court remains an ageless tale of tough young love, daddy issues and Joe’s lies be damned.
Sour Oscar grapes aside, all of these films are far more representative of the state of cinema in 1989 than “Driving Miss Daisy.” To be fair, the civil-rights-themed Oscar-winner is a subtly stirring and eloquent tale in its own right, but it lacks the distinct signature of a master filmmaker, something the other films on this short list demonstrate so vividly.
Compare To: Always; Blaze; Casualties of War; Cousins; Crimes and Misdemeanors; Dead Poets Society; Driving Miss Daisy; Drugstore Cowboy; The Fabulous Baker Boys; Family Business; Henry V; The Karate Kid Part III; Lean on Me; My Left Foot; New York Stories; Scandal; Sea of Love; Sex, Lies, and Videotape; Steel Magnolias; Wild Orchid.
Fewer Will Remember: A Dry White Season, An Innocent Man; Dad; Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives!; Enemies: A Love Story; Fat Man and Little Boy; Great Balls of Fire; Immediate Family; In Country; Jacknife; The January Man; Last Exit to Brooklyn; Music Box; Old Gringo; Physical Evidence; Rooftops; See You in the Morning; True Believer; Valmont.
Best of the Class:
The Abyss got off to a rocky start with woeful tales of a brutal, runaway production and decidedly tepid box office sales during the Summer of Batman, but the movie eventually found an enthusiastic and loyal following on cable TV, laserdisc and DVD.
It endures as one of James Cameron’s better efforts. Upon twenty-five years’ worth of reflection, I much prefer the shorter theatrical cut, which maintains the gripping claustrophobia and broiling tension of the human story more successfully by remaining trapped beneath the surface with the characters, rarely leaving their stranded rig.
Movie-goers got a teasing glimpse of the possibilities of morphing technology the previous year in Willow, but the emergence of the water tentacle in The Abyss endures as a pivotal milestone of the CGI age. It paved the way to the liquid-metal T-1000 in Terminator 2 and a lifelike T-Rex in Jurassic Park and, well, the rest is history.
The arrival of Disney’s animated fantasy musical The Little Mermaid unexpectedly heralded a modern-day renaissance in animation. Infectiously adorable, it will live in eternity for its joyous music and song score, for its indelible villainess Ursula, and for its timeless blend of sarcastic characters and piquant humor.
It remains one of Disney’s shiniest crown jewels, and a movie that always makes me feel like a kid again. It’s also the last completely hand-drawn picture Disney made before the debut of the first computer-generated sequences in their forthcoming features The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. End of an era, indeed.
Field of Dreams remains a sentimental favorite for legions of fans because it falls into so many beloved categories beyond a mere “baseball” movie or a “fathers & sons” fable. It could have appeared above alongside the other comedies and dramas and fit nearly as comfortably as it does here in the “fantasy” category. Who out there wouldn’t want to believe that if you build it, he will come…that if you dream it, it shall come to pass…that if you wish for it hard enough, you can dissolve past regrets with an impromptu game of catch with the ghost of your estranged father?
The touching performances by Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones and especially Burt Lancaster are for the ages, and even the great director Frank Capra himself couldn’t have produced such wonderfully golden corn.
Compare To: Back to the Future II; Bride of Re-Animator; The Fly II; Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan; Halloween 5; Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; Leviathan; A Nightmare on Elm Street 5; Pet Sematary; Shocker; Star Trek V: The Final Frontier; The Phantom of the Opera.
Fewer Will Remember: C.H.U.D. II; Communion; DeepStar Six; Millennium; Prancer; Stepfather II; The Return of Swamp Thing; The Toxic Avenger Parts II & III; Warlock.
See you next time for a retrospective look at 1990…when my newfound gig as a publicity and promotions intern for several studios necessitated that I saw virtually EVERY major movie released.
Happy holidays, and have a great year!