“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” James Joyce’s The Dead is a beautifully rendered evocation of time forgotten and love unrequited in early 20th century Dublin. What’s even more astounding about this seemingly “unfilmable” story is that it did just that, become an actual movie in 1987. But it wasn’t made into a haphazard adaptation, diluting its content as it went through the stages of pre-production, shooting schedules, etc. No, it became a boni-fied masterpiece all its own! John Huston’s final directing effort trims and rearranges certain aspects of Joyce’s original novella, but the substance is still there, lull and temperate until The Lass of Aughrim croons its way through a parlor door so as to hit Gretta Conroy like a distant ray of light upon her shoulders. The fact that John Huston would die not too long after filming wrapped also adds to the movie’s poignant sense of lament, a coping of the past and death similar to the cinematic bookends Huston provided Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe twenty years before. And so The Dead stands at the top of my list in a surprisingly good year for film. The rest of the decade… maybe not so much.
1. The Dead (John Huston)
2. Where Is the Friend’s Home? (Abbas Kiarostami)
3. Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders)
4. Au revoir les enfants (Louis Malle)
5. Boyfriends and Girlfriends (Éric Rohmer)
6. Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson)
7. Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow)
8. Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick)
9. Hope and Glory (John Boorman) and Empire of the Sun (Steven Spielberg)
10. Prick Up Your Ears (Stephen Frears)
Where Is the Friend’s Home? and Au revoir les enfants are both magnificent in the way they allow children to play adult roles without having the films compromise their characters’ youthful wonder. Add the war themed Hope and Glory and Empire of the Sun, and one could even argue that 1987 was the year for kid actors. Wings of Desire and Boyfriends and Girlfriends make for the art-house anchors, while Britain delivers two scathing comedies in Withnail and I and Prick Up Your Ears, the latter subtle in its disturbing humor. Then there’s Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, which, while not being one of Kubrick’s best, still is Kubrick.
A couple of close contenders fishing for the bottom slots include Gillian Armstrong’s sentimental but still acerbic enough family drama High Tide, Souleymane Cissé’s Malian output that’s always a bit of a puzzle to me, Yeelen, and Todd Haynes bursting onto the scene with his barbie doll biopic – if that’s how to describe it – Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Oh, and Bill Forsyth had Housekeeping. What a wonderful film that is!
Two impeccably photographed period pieces, The Last Emperor and Red Sorghum, took on Chinese culture. Then there’s Ishtar and its not wanting to focus on much of that – culture, that is – for Morocco, at least not compared to its other more commercially oriented goals. But Elaine May’s infamous flop is still a novelty in the same way that Heaven’s Gate is a novelty, that and it’s… hell, it’s funny at times. A couple of other “should be better known” titles on the top ten prospects include House of Games, Broadcast News, Robocop, Barfly, and Radio Days. Not so under the radar and magnificent, Evil Dead II, also has to make do with just a mention here, tragically. But I think it’ll survive.
Below those you’ll find Alex Cox’s Walker, Pedro Almodóvar’s Law of Desire, Lindsay Anderson’s Whales of August, and Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. All flawed but in a very likable fashion. Finish it off with Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear and Kazuo Hara’s The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On – movies I have yet to watch – and that’s just a sliver of the films produced for 1987 (seriously, it was a busy year: The Princess Bride, Predator, Mooonstruck, Babette’s Feast, Maurice, Wall Street, Fatal Attraction, Space Balls, Some Kind of Wonderful, Overboard, etc…).
I’ll be taking a hiatus for the next couple of weeks but will be back at it soon with 1935. A great year for a studio synonymous with horror.