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Mike’s Top Ten of 1990

I call 1990 a “spottily strong” year. It’s got high points, but they’re here and there. And some of the highs aren’t as high as other years, but it’s definitely got a lot to like in there. You just have to sift through some standard stuff before you find it, is all. Most of the time you can tell a strong year based on how strong the Oscars are. And this is one of the notoriously boring Oscar years (overall).

My one caution for this year is to pay attention among the “yeah, sure” stuff. There are a couple of nice gems in there if you care to look at them.

Otherwise, we do get one of the all-time classics this year, so 1990 is always gonna have that going for it. (I’m talking about Kindergarten Cop, of course.)

Mike’s Top Ten of 1990

Avalon

Dick Tracy

Die Hard II

Edward Scissorhands

The Godfather Part III

Goodfellas

Home Alone

The Hunt for Red October

Miller’s Crossing

Quick Change

11-20: Awakenings, Dances with Wolves, Ghost, The Grifters, Misery, Pretty Woman, The Rescuers Down Under, Reversal of Fortune, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Total Recall

Tier two: Alice, An Angel at My Table, Another 48 Hrs., Arachnophobia, Back to the Future III, Days of Thunder, The Field, The Freshman, Havana, Kindergarten Cop, King of New York, La Femme Nikita, Look Who’s Talking Too, Postcards from the Edge, Rocky V, State of Grace, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Tremors, Wild at Heart, Young Guns II

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1. Goodfellas

“As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster.”

You’ve seen it a hundred times, I’ve seen it a hundred times. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a person who doesn’t have this as their #1 movie for 1990. Or at the very least, in the top three. It’s Goodfellas. We all know what it is. We can all quote this back and forth. I’m at the point where I quote obscure lines from this movie. (And no, not the kind of obscure you’re thinking of.) It’s just that kind of movie.

It’s so good, so watchable and so captivating that we forget this is a two-and-a-half hour movie. There’s no other choice for #1 of 1990. It’s not even a discussion.

2. Home Alone

“This is my house, I have to defend it.”

To paraphrase the above quote: this is my list. I have to be honest. I’ve seen this movie also about a hundred times, and I just love it. I’m not gonna pretend like there’s another movie this year that I love as much as this. It is a perfect movie in its own way. Sure, should it not work as well as it does? Okay. But it works. I don’t care about the logic of it all, do I still cackle with laughter every time Daniel Stern gets the spider put on his face? Absolutely. Do I still quote this movie all the time? Absolutely. Do I have this poster framed on my wall?

You’re damn right I do. This movie is incredible, and were it not for Goodfellas, this would have been #1 for this year.

3. Edward Scissorhands

“Hold me.”
“I can’t.”

Remember when Tim Burton was an auteur? Those were the days.

This is his most personal film in a lot of ways, and it remains one of his best. I grew up with this movie from a young age, so I never really questioned the logic of it all. Scientist creates an artificial human being but dies before he can give him hands. So he’s instead stuck with scissors for hands. And the film is about him coming into suburbia and being around humans. It’s a simple premise, and beautiful.

This movie began the long partnership of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, and it remains one of Depp’s best and most touching performances. It’s hard to be a film fan and not come across this one.

4. Die Hard II

“How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”

The first three Die Hards are, to me, perfect movies. Sure, this one isn’t as perfect as the first one, but man, does it do the job.

This one has John McClane in D.C. waiting for his wife to fly in from LA for Christmas. While at the airport, some terrorists take control of the air traffic control tower, and he’s gotta stop them. It’s awesome. It’s the weakest of the three Die Hard movies (and I stress three Die Hard movies, because Live Free or Die Hard is fine, but it’s not a Die Hard movie, and A Good Day to Die Hard should be forgotten at all costs, kinda the way we all casually ignore Rocky V), but it’s still a damn good time.

5. The Hunt for Red October

“I would like to have seen Montana.”

I LOVE THIS MOVIE. Great premise, great cast, great score, great everything. Directed also by John McTiernan, who did this after Die Hard and Predator. So clearly he was on a roll.

The premise: Russian sub commander tells his crew they’re performing exercises and moves into American waters, which starts ringing alarm bells all over the world. No one knows what the hell he’s doing, and if they don’t figure it out or stop him, it might be World War III. Sean Connery is the captain, not even bothering to do a Russian accent (though they do have a nice little device to make that not matter to the plot), and Alec Baldwin is Jack Ryan (the first of the Jack Ryans in the first of the Jack Ryan films). It’s just a great, great movie, full of quotable lines and great moments.

6. Dick Tracy

“Thanks for calling. I was beginning to wonder what a girl had to do to get arrested.”
“Wearing that dress is a step in the right direction.”

This was, for a time, the best comic book movie ever made. Well, I guess comic strip movie. Batman came out the year before this, but I always felt like this was the superior film. This world felt like a comic book, whereas Batman felt like a Tim Burton-augmented reality. Here, there’s no pretense of reality. It’s all heightened, all the characters look like they would in a comic to the point of being grotesque at times, and they all have names like Shoulders and Lips and Pruneface.

This is a noir story put through the lens of a comic book. Everything feels like comic panels, and it’s perfectly done. Warren Beatty directs and stars, and one thing you can always say about him is his commitment to quality. He made this movie exactly what it should have been, and it’s to his credit that it even works. This could have been another throwaway cult movie. But this is legitimately good. I don’t know how, and I don’t care.

The cast is also insane. This is the kind of movie that deserves a documentary about it, because I’m sure there’s stories up and down about how it got made, how they got the cast, who almost was in it, who almost directed it, the whole thing.

7. Avalon

“I never even heard of the suburbs until this thing happened.”

A lot of times, when a director has a major success, they often follow it up with a passion project. Something that’s personal to them that they could only get made with the clout o a major hit. Barry Levinson had just won Best Picture and Best Director for Rain Man and decided to follow it up with a story of, essentially, his childhood. It’s about middle-class Jewish life in the suburbs.

I don’t know how to explain the plot of this film as if to say… it’s good. It’s a child remembering instances from his life, and it’s a movie that absolutely everyone will love. I can’t fathom that anyone wouldn’t. It’s like The Sandlot, but for all of childhood and family instead of baseball. It’s absolutely incredible, and it’s a movie I wouldn’t have necessarily known about had I not gone out of my way to look for it.

Trust me when I say this is a must-see movie. It’s a masterpiece.

8. Miller’s Crossing

“Look in your heart! Look in your heart!”
“What heart?”

9. The Godfather Part III

“Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.”

Here’s the thing about this movie: no, it’s not Godfather or Godfather II. Those movies are legitimately two of the best films ever made. There’s almost no way anything could be at that level. So if you take away the weight of unreasonable expectation, this is a really good movie.

Coppola originally didn’t want to call it Godfather III, he wanted to call it The Death of Michael Corleone. Since it’s an ending to his story. But of course that was never going to happen. Still, it’s a really strong story that shows what happens to him after he made the choices he made in the first two films. It’s a very nice ending to the character and a nice way to wrap up a trilogy.

10. Quick Change

The only movie Bill Murray ever directed. Technically he co-directed it. This is perhaps the hidden comedy masterpiece of the 90s. Do not sleep on this movie. Do not skip over this movie. Go see this now if you haven’t seen it.

It takes place, practically in real time, over the course of a day in New York as a man (Murray) dressed like a clown, shows up to rob a bank. And, I’ll leave it at that, because it’s amazing.

Let’s just say it’s a movie about things going comically wrong. I’m serious. This movie is so good. It’s also got Jason Robards, Phil Hartman, Tony Shalhoub, Stanley Tucci. It’s absolutely hilarious. I dare you to watch this and not laugh your ass off.

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11-20:

Awakenings — Penny Marshall had an amazing three movie run. First Big, then this, then A League of Their Own. I also like Renaissance Man after that, but I’d never pretend like it’s on the level of the other three. This is based on Oliver Sacks’ book, where he discovered he could treat catatonic patients with a new drug that could bring them out of their states. Robin Williams plays the film version of Sacks (he’s got a beard, so you know it’s a serious movie), and Robert De Niro plays one of the patients, a man who went catatonic as a boy in the 20s and is now suddenly awake again an adult. It’s a really beautiful, sweet film, and both Williams and De Niro give tremendous performances in it. Also this is the second movie ever directed by a woman to be nominated for Best Picture.

Dances with Wolves — It’s an epic western, but much more in the “90s epic western” style than an actual western. It looks gorgeous, even though it’s more just a movie about a dude who doesn’t fit in finding a place to fit in. Costner is a soldier who gets shot in battle and, getting infantryman medical attention, is told he’s gonna lose his leg. Rather than live a cripple, he decides to commit suicide by battle and rides out between the lines on horseback. Though the enemy, stunned to see this, gets distracted enough for his men to lead a charge and win the battle. That gets him better care, and his leg is saved. Only, because he tried to kill himself, they need to hide him. So they stick him on the furthest outpost west they can think of. There, he’s basically just living with wolves and Native Americans. And so he befriends both. And that’s the movie. It’s thought of somewhat fondly because it’s a Best Picture winner. Some people have a disdain for it simply because it won over Goodfellas, but on its own its quite a good movie and is clearly one of the top 20 movies of this year.

Ghost — This was the highest grossing movie of 1990. This movie was huge. I saw this so much growing up. I wonder if kids today even know what this is. Basic premise: Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore are madly in love and gonna spend the rest of their lives together. One night, they get mugged, and he is killed. He then wakes up as a ghost and is basically sent back with unfinished business. He meets Whoopi Goldberg, a fake psychic who actually can communicate with him, and together, they go to warn Demi Moore some shit’s about to go down. It’s a really entertaining movie. Funny though that it struck such a cultural chord. This movie was so big that “Unchained Melody” hit number one again, 35 years after it came out.

The Grifters — A neo noir masterpiece. If Chinatown is the king of neo-noirs, this is… another face card. I didn’t think this one through that well. But it’s in the top five (I have done no research on this). Point is, it’s great and most people know it’s great, but some people don’t and those are the people I’m talking to here. This is still kind of a hidden gem and needs to be seen. It stars Angelica Huston as a con artist, John Cusack as her son, and Annette Bening as his girlfriend. All are grifters and all are out for themselves. So when they all decide to pull a job together, it’s all about who’s playing who and who’s gonna come out ahead in the end. It’s great.

Misery — It’s Steven King, directed by Rob Reiner as part of that amazing run of films he had between Spinal Tap and A Few Good Men. James Caan stars as a famous author who gets in a car crash and is nursed back to health by Kathy Bates, his biggest fan. Only, pretty soon, it becomes clear that she’s not interested in letting him leave. Really great movie. Kathy Bates rightfully won an Oscar for her performance here.

Pretty Woman — The movie that made Julia Roberts a mega star. One of the classic all-time rom coms. She plays the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold who gets picked up by millionaire Richard Gere because he needs someone to escort him to social events. (Naturally, you hire a hooker for that.) And things happen and romance ensues. It’s really good. I know people (guys mainly) go through that phases where they’re like, “Fuck rom coms,” but this movie is objectively great and fun. Also, one of those movies (and I’m so glad The Princess Bride also gave us this lesson) that proves that Hector Elizondo is one of the really great people in movies who always makes you happy when you see him.

The Rescuers Down Under — Is the first Disney sequel ever. Did we need this to be the one? No. But it’s totally harmless. And it technically is part of the Disney Renaissance, even though as compared to the rest of the Renaissance, it’s kind of like The Sure Thing in Rob Reiner’s incredible run of movies. Technically it’s in there, but we sort of just gloss over it. (Like The Incredible Hulk is to the Marvel Universe.) It’s a perfectly amusing sequel that also fits the joke version of a Hollywood sequel (“what happens now?” “We go west!”), and is totally fine. Nothing particularly special, but also if you like The Rescuers, this one is a perfectly solid movie.

Reversal of Fortune — This movie won Jeremy Irons his Oscar. But more importantly, it’s a trial movie, and that’s its appeal to me. Irons stars as a rich count who is accused of putting his wife in a coma (she went into diabetic shock after a party). All the evidence seems to go against him — he and his wife were on bad terms, and he’s an arrogant son of a bitch — but he goes to Alan Dershowitz, who defends him while also struggling with whether or not he actually is guilty. It’s a really well done movie. Glenn Close narrates it while playing the wife in a coma, which is an interesting touch. Irons is really good, and as a trial movie… you know what I always say, trial movies are always interesting.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead — I fell so in love with this play/movie when I first saw it in high school. It’s basically my dream scenario — someone takes a really famous thing and then tells it from the perspective of minor characters. That’s what this movie is. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are comic relief in Hamlet, and then out of nowhere we just kind of find out they’re dead as an aside when the movie ends. Here, they are made the main characters, and we see them just sort of hanging about, contemplating all sorts of stuff (like fate, given the nature of their end), and only occasionally intersecting with the events of Hamlet. It’s so good. The play is amazing. Written by Tom Stoppard. And the movie stars Gary Oldman and Tim Roth. I mean… no one’s ever gonna say this is a masterpiece, but I love it so much.

Total Recall — Another Paul Verhoeven sci fi classic, following RoboCop. This is one of those movies… you almost wonder how it got made, and how it got made like this. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a regular dude who keeps having dreams of Mars. When he gets a chance to go to Mars via a virtual reality/implanted memory, he suddenly realizes his entire life isn’t what he thought it was, and basically it becomes a man on the run, trying to figure out what’s going on kind of movie. It’s awesome. Totally nuts, but awesome. How many movies (aside from The Rescuers Down Under and Home Alone, of course) are gonna feature three-breasted women?

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Tier two:

  • Alice
  • An Angel at My Table
  • Another 48 Hrs.
  • Arachnophobia
  • Back to the Future III
  • Days of Thunder
  • The Field
  • The Freshman
  • Havana
  • Kindergarten Cop
  • King of New York
  • La Femme Nikita
  • Look Who’s Talking Too
  • Postcards from the Edge
  • Rocky V
  • State of Grace
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • Tremors
  • Wild at Heart
  • Young Guns II

Alice is Woody Allen. This is one of the ones I like. It’s weird and goes to places I wasn’t expecting. Stars Mia Farrow, who is in a bored housewife, married to William Hurt. She meets Joe Mantegna, and is attracted to him. Through the help of a Chinese doctor, she embarks on an interesting romantic journey. I was surprised how much I enjoyed this. Because it’s playful and has some fantasy elements in it, which tends to be something I like in Woody Allen movies. If we’re ranking the Allen movies, I’d say this is in the single thumbs up category. There’s two thumbs, one thumb, leaning positive, indifferent, don’t like, and hate. This is single thumbs up, and is probably in my 11-20 for him, all-time.

An Angel at My Table is a two-and-a-half hour Jane Campion biopic about a New Zealand author. If you thought that would be my cup of tea… you’d be wrong most of the time. But I was really engaged by this. It’s told in three sections, with three different actresses playing the author, and it’s really well done. This is Campion’s first film, and remains one of her bets.

Arachnophobia is a pure 90s movie. This just feels like the 90s. Scientists accidentally bring back a killer spider from South America, and it sets up shop in Jeff Daniels’ barn, breeding a bunch more spiders that threaten to take over the town. Set up like your basic monster movie… people slowly keep dying until they figure out the cause and then take action. But it’s fun. It’s very Amblin.

Another 48 Hrs. is the sequel. Eddie Murphy, Nick Nolte, buddy cop. Though instead of the same set-up as last time, Murphy is now out of prison and has a hit out on him by the guy Nolte is trying to track down. But who cares what the plot is. It’s more of the interplay between the two of them. It’s fun, if not nearly as good as the first one. Young Guns II is also the sequel. More of the same. Part of that 80s western resurgence where they took a longstanding genre and were basically just playing in its sandbox. People mostly watched to see the stars do western things more than watching it for the genre. But it is what it is. This one’s famous for Bon Jovi writing “Blaze of Glory” for it. General plot follows the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid storyline. It’s fun.

Let’s continue with the sequels with Look Who’s Talking Too, a hastily-thrown together sequel to capitalize on the success of the first one. The gimmick here is that the baby gets a sister, so now there are two talking babies. Bruce Willis still voices the boy, and Roseanne voices the girl. It’s dumb family movie stuff, but I was like four when I saw these movies. I like them. And we’ll finish off the sequel-mania with Back to the Future III. The third one. Takes place in the old west. The three films lose quality as you go along, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun as hell. Plus, it’s a western, so I was on board yesterday. Plus, it’s got the great moment at the end with the little kid pointing at his dick:

Days of Thunder is a NASCAR movie. Tony Scott directs, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall and Nicole Kidman star. And throw in Randy Quaid, Michael Rooker, John C. Reilly and Cary Elwes to boot. All Tony Scott’s movies are watchable, and this one is fun. Better if you’re into cars, but I’m not, and I had a good time. Though if you’ve seen one racing movie, you’ve basically seen them all, since they all follow the same basic plot structure.

The Field is a Jim Sheridan movie. Part of his great first-five, before he fell off and started taking director-for-hire jobs. This is the forgotten one of the five (the other four being My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father, The Boxer and In America). It stars Richard Harris (nominated for his performance here) as a man whose family has worked a particular field for generations. And finally, when the widow who owns the field is gonna sell it, he feels as though it’s his birthright. So he basically strong-arms the entire town into not bidding against him during the auction. Only enter an American, who decides he wants to buy (insert title here), which leads to Harris trying to “convince” him not to do so. (It’s very much in the vein of the old saying, “How much land does a man need?”) It’s a really good movie that just missed the top 20.

The Freshman is a fascinating movie in that I wonder if it gets made if not for the cast it has. The entire plot hinges on Marlon Brando being the star, basically lampooning his Godfather performance. It stars Matthew Broderick as a kid who gets a job with Brando, who looks just like Marlon Brando in The Godfather, and seems to be the guy it was based on. And of course comedy ensues. It’s good, dated fun.

Havana is a Sydney Pollack film starring Robert Redford. Their seventh collaboration (and their last). He’s a gambler in Cuba on the eve of their revolution who falls for a revolutionary girl. It’s very much in the vein of a Casablanca. I like it a lot. You can seldom go wrong with a Sydney Pollack movie (or a Redford movie, for that matter).

Kindergarten Cop is a classic. Schwarzenegger goes undercover as a teacher to locate a criminal’s wife so he can put him away. Hilarity ensues. The important thing to remember with this movie — it’s not a tumor. And that it’s one of those movies people like me grew up with and have a special affinity for.

King of New York is an awesome crime movie. Christopher Walken plays a guy just out of prison who decides he’s gonna take over all the crime in New York. That’s really all you need. It’s awesome. Also stars Laurence Fishburne, Wesley Snipes, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro and Giancarlo Esposito. Really terrific film. One of those movies that reminds you how good Christopher Walken is.

La Femme Nikita is Luc Besson’s first classic. They turned this into a TV show and gave it an American remake. It’s about a woman who is sentenced to life in prison, but is given an opportunity to be trained as a spy instead. That’s the film. And it’s awesome.

Postcards from the Edge is a Mike Nichols film written by Carrie Fisher, based on her experiences with drug addiction and her relationship with her mother. Meryl Streep essentially plays her here, with Shirley MacLaine taking up the Debbie Reynolds part. The plot is basically, after a drug overdose, a famous movie actress has to move in with her spotlight-hogging actress/singer mother in order to remain employable. It’s a really good movie. Also stars Richard Dreyfuss, Gene Hackman, Dennis Quaid, Rob Reiner and Annette Bening. One of those movies that works on its own but is way better when you know the Carrie/Debby dynamic.

State of Grace is one of those crime films everyone seems to come across pretty early, because it hits all the right actors and cross-lists with all of those early “movie buff” films. It’s about a cop who goes undercover in his brother’s gang. Stars Sean Penn, Gary Oldman, Ed Harris, Robin Wright, John Turturro, John C. Reilly and Burgess Meredith. Need I say more? (It’s very good.)

Rocky V. The one everyone doesn’t remember and thinks is awful. It’s not that bad. I saw it way late and was surprised at how okay it was. Sure, Rocky doesn’t box, and at most, street fights, but it’s not the most horrendous movie you’ve ever seen. Kinda fitting this came out the same year as Godfather III, because it’s the Godfather III of this franchise, the one that’s not as good as the others that people assume is a piece of shit because of that. Really, to me, the biggest mistake this movie makes is the blatantly obvious Don King stand-in, who says the words “Only in America” in quite literally almost every line.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Heroes in a half-shell. Turtle power! (You have to.) This is one of those movies of my childhood that I just like. It’s not great. But I like that the turtles are guys in suits rather than creepy-looking monstrosities that they made with CGI. It has a 90s charm to it, and that’ll probably only appeal to people my age.

Tremors. Kevin Bacon saves the world from giant underground worms. What more do you need? It’s a classic.

Wild at Heart is David Lynch. I cannot, for the life of me, explain this movie, but it’s wonderful. This is one of those movies that I can’t push upon people other than to say, “If you like weird David Lynch, you’ll love this.” It’s also David Lynch and Nicolas Cage, and Cage always does his best work when he finds strong filmmakers willing to indulge his weird side (see also: Bad Lieutenant and Bringing Out the Dead). Here’s the basic premise: Cage and Laura Dern are young lovers, and Dern’s mother (Diane Ladd… her actual mother) doesn’t like him, so she hires people to kill him. It’s David Lynch, so trust me, it makes its own internal sense. It’s so nuts and so amazing. The story is that Lynch came up with the plot throughout production based on what came to him in his dreams. So Ladd (who is insane in this movie, in the best way) just disappears midway through the movie for no reason just because Lynch didn’t have any more dreams about her character. That’s the kinda movie this one is. By the time you get to the ending, you’re just like, “Yup. Sure. Absolutely.” Because it’s David Lynch. This is weird, underrated David Lynch. Sure, Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet are the famous ones, but this is the weird little gem that more people need to see.

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