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The Ten Best Films of 1990

by Jack Sommersby

We take a look back at the start of a decade that unfortunately saw quite a decline in quality filmmaking in relation to the wonderous years of the '70s and '80s.

And the 10 best are...

1. White Hunter, Black Heart
2. After Dark, My Sweet
3. Q & A
4. Impulse
5. Joe Versus the Volcano
6. House Party
7. Internal Affairs
8. Narrow Margin
9. Cry-Baby
10. Short Time

Actor: Jason Patric (After Dark, My Sweet)
Actress: Theresa Russell (Impulse)
Supporting Actor: Jeff Fahey (Impulse)
Supporting Actress: Samantha Mathis (Pump Up the Volume)
Director: James Foley (After Dark, My Sweet)
Screenplay: Peter Viertel, James Bridges, Burt Kennedy (White Hunter, Black Heart)
Cinematography: Dean Semler (Impulse)
Editing: Howard E. Smith (After Dark, My Sweet)
Music: Mike Figgis (Internal Affairs)
Nudity: Theresa Russell (Impulse)

1990 wasn't the kind of film year that I drove myself crazy over having to decide which films truly deserved a slot in my top-10 list. There were seventeen in the running, and not even all of the ones that made the cut could be called staggeringly great -- only four truly great films graced the silver screen this particular year. But the ones that weren't great that made the cut were damn near that, and they were films as underrated as many much-lauded films of that year were overrated. And even some of the ones outside the top-seventeen boasted many wonderful moments and offered up oodles of filmgoing pleasure.

Curtis Hanson's Bad Influence was an entertaining take on Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train that boasted outstanding performances by James Spader and Rob Lowe. Incredibly stylish direction enabled Kathryn Bigelow's police thriller Blue Steel and John Lafia's Child's Play 2 to rise above mediocre screenplays. Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover was a scrumptious British political allegory, and the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing (unlike Scorsese's flashy but empty Goodfellas) was a gangster tale almost worthy of its accolades and remains the best and only truly organic film of the Coens' career. John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was as nerve-jangling a character study as Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder was a nerve-frying supernatural tale. For appealing, heartwarming fare, the James Belushi star vehicle Mr. Destiny and Sylvester Stallone's Rocky V were pleasingly manipulative in the best traditional sense.

And there were plenty of actors giving spectacularly assured performances in engaging, undemanding films that buoyed filmgoers' spirits. Among them: Dennis Hopper in Flashback; Roy Scheider and Jurgen Prochnow in The Fourth War; Robert Redford in Havana; Bob Hoskins and Denzel Washington in Heart Condition; Bruce Davison in Longtime Companion; Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis in Pump Up the Volume; James Gammon, Sally Kirkland and Miguel Ferrer in Revenge; Jeremy Irons in Reversal of Fortune; Jane Fonda and Robert De Niro in Stanley & Iris; Gary Oldman and Ed Harris in State of Grace; Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward in Tremors; and Jack Nicholson in The Two Jakes. Other recommendable films ranged from Stephen Frears' disturbing The Grifters, William Peter Blatty's compact and frightening Exorcist III, and Ivan Reitman's ingratiating Kindergarten Cop. (Of course, there were a fair share of all-out stinkers, too: Sam Raimi's Darkman; Bob Clark's Loose Cannons; Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy; Donald Petrie's Opportunity Knocks; and David Lynch's Wild at Heart.) But it's the ten best films that deserve the real attention.

Cry-Baby, a '50s teen musical with a smashing Johnny Depp and dynamic Amy Locane, still ranks as John Waters' best film. Short Time may look like just another run-of-the-mill buddy cop flick, but in addition to some truly incredible car chases and some really big laughs, it showcases a phenomenal performance by Dabney Coleman as an about-to-retire Seattle detective who mistakenly thinks he's only got a couple of weeks to live and tries to get himself killed in the line of duty so his family can benefit from a hefty departmental insurance policy. There isn't an emotion Coleman isn't required to convey here, and he pulls each one off beautifully; it's a multi-faceted comedic and dramatic performance that's both hilarious and heartwarming. Peter Hyams' exciting and suspenseful remake of 1952's Narrow Margin was the year's best action film. Gene Hackman is aces as an assistant DA doggedly determined to protect eyewitness Anne Archer from a group of assassins; from the rocky mountains of Canada to the confines of a train, Hymas' typically superb knack for staging action comes shining through. Mike Figgis' Internal Affairs is a seductively swank police thriller, with oodles of atmosphere and a galvanizing villainous turn by Richard Gere.

Reginald Hudlin's House Party (with Kid & Play and the late, great Robin Harris as a take-no-guff dad) and John Patrick Shanley's Joe Versus the Volcano (with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan) were the year's most original comedies. Sondra Locke's Impulse finally gave the underpraised Theresa Russell a role worthy for her bountiful talents -- that of a psychologically unstable undercover vice officer who succumbs to criminal temptation one fateful night. (Co-star Jeff Fahey, as her love interest, also contributed a star-making performance.) Psychologically complex, gorgeously drenched in film noir lighting, and directed with a crisp vitality by Locke. Sidney Lumet's career-best Q & A acutely and perceptively examined corruption and racial relations within the NYPD. And James Foley's mesmerizing After Dark, My Sweet gave Jason Patric his finest two hours as a punch-drunk ex-boxer who gets manipulated into an ill-fated kidnapping scheme by lustrous widow Rachel Ward and seedy swindler Bruce Dern. In a role of daunting demands, Patric masterfully creates a complex, fascinating portrait of a damaged soul who's not to be underestimated; it's the kind of titanic, groundbreaking performance that should be studied in acting classes the world over.

Best of the lot is White Hunter, Black Heart, Clint Eastwood's bold, brilliant adaptation of Peter Viertel's roman a clef novel, which served as a thinly-veiled account of the author's experience with legendary director John Huston during the tumultuous pre-production phase of the 1952 classic The African Queen. Eastwood plays the bullying director who was willing to wreck a major studio production in his undying quest to shoot an elephant while on location in Africa; the film is about obsession, the inability to succinctly define it, and the ugly side of machismo that helps fuel it in a boisterously self-indulgent bastard like Wilson/Huston. At first, Eastwood's performance takes some getting used to (Huston's eccentric vocal patterns and mannerisms seem jarring coming from the man who played Dirty Harry), but it grows handsomely as the film progresses; a scene where Eastwood calmly decimates an anti-Semitic, high-society priss with a scathing monologue, and his pained, heartbreaking utterance of the film's last line "Action." are superbly played. Add to this Eastwood's well-calibrated direction, Joel Cox's pleasurably measured pacing, John Graysmark's textured production design, and you have that rare motion picture that's uncommonly intelligent and treats its audience like adults. A mammothly entertaining, first-rate filmmaking achievement that ranks as Eastwood's masterpiece and one of the ten-best films of all time.

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originally posted: 09/22/04 00:27:37
last updated: 07/18/14 08:06:02
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