Symkus column: Looking back a few decades, to one of my favorite years in film
Many film critics have a tendency to procrastinate when it comes to assembling annual top-10 lists, often waiting till the December blowout of big movies begins. I broke that habit years ago, jumping on the task with a mid-year start. But here we are, with that point approaching, few films opening, and the specter of not having enough of them to fill out a top 10 list of merit.
The list has always been fun for me, as there are usually plenty of quality movies to choose from. I was recently perusing my past lists, looking for one year that had so many good films, in multiple genres, it was difficult to winnow them down to 10. That year - drum roll, please - was 1986, when 27 made it to my long list, 18 ended up on the short list, then some arduous decision making got me down to 10. Here they are, alphabetically. All are available on Prime Video channels, except “Sid and Nancy,” which is available from Amazon.
“Aliens” - A sequel that knocked the excellent previous film off its pedestal, and a return to the foreboding Planet LV-426, where intelligent, mind-blowingly scary creatures had their way with humans. Sigourney Weaver cemented her Ripley character as an icon, ferocious violence took place in cramped quarters, Bill Paxton said, “We’re on an express elevator to Hell ... goin’ down.”
“Big Trouble in Little China” - Director John Carpenter had worked in horror, adventure, and biography (Remember his “Elvis?”), but this time took a turn toward nutzoid ethnic comedy, with a big dollop of the supernatural. Fast-talking, knife-wielding, egomaniacal truck driver Kurt Russell found himself in the company of beautiful green-eyed women, magical flying warrior foes, and a 2,000-year-old demon trying to regain his youth.
“Blue Velvet” - Life in small-town Lumberton, North Carolina, proved to be more ominous than idyllic. As soon as recent college graduate Kyle McClachlan returned there, he found a human ear on the ground. Then he met luminous Laura Dern, mysterious Isabella Rossellini, swishy Dean Stockwell, and insane, nitrous-oxide-addled Dennis Hopper. David Lynch’s film is funny, scary, erotic, violent and perplexing.
“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” - When Matthew Broderick’s title character decided he needed a one-day break from high school, an elaborately orchestrated plot ensued, and included bringing along his girlfriend and his best pal (who “borrowed” his dad’s car), and doing his best to evade his comically villainous principal. The verbal humor is practically non-stop, the physical gags are energetic, and Broderick regularly talks right to the viewers.
“The Fly” - Isn’t there some unwritten rule that remakes are never as good as the original movies? Well, that argument evaporated with this one in which brilliant inventor Jeff Goldblum developed a matter transporter because moving vehicles gave him motion sickness. He also fell in love with science journalist Geena Davis, but accidentally got into close quarters with a common housefly at the “molecular-genetic level.” It’s a darkly humorous, full-fledged horror film.
“Hannah and Her Sisters” - Woody Allen was maturing as an auteur. He nabbed writing and directing Oscars for “Annie Hall” almost a decade earlier, and was awarded another for writing this rich, wise, funny, and sad tale of love lost and found and longed for. Allen’s character was divorced from Mia Farrow’s, she then married Michael Caine, but his eyes wandered to her younger sister Barbara Hershey, all of this accompanied by existential questions about life.
“A Room with a View” - The teaming of director James Ivory, producer Ismael Merchant, screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and (early 20th century) novelist E.M. Forster made for a classy, political, humanistic, and surprisingly funny movie. At the center of the story was Helena Bonham Carter, trying to figure out which man she was in love with. But there were also terrific performances from Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliot, along with the stunning Italian countryside.
“Salvador” - It’s an exhausting film to watch, and that’s a compliment. Directed by Oliver Stone, and cowritten by Stone and photojournalist Richard Boyle, it’s the true story of Boyle (played slimily by James Woods) during his time covering the violence and human suffering in early-1980s El Salvador. It’s gritty and grueling, and it asks a lot of tough questions, some of which aren’t answered. It’s also an amazing and powerful emotional experience.
“Sid and Nancy” - Tough and vulgar and brimming with negative energy, this is a tough look at the relationship between British punk rocker Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and his super-groupie American girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), two pathetic souls who found and loved each other with uninhibited passion, but fell into a vortex of drug abuse. Fantastic performances, and dynamic, no-punches-pulled filmmaking.
“Trouble in Mind” - There’s no standard plot, and no specific beginning, middle, or end, but writer-director Alan Rudolph permeates his film with constant camera movement, soft facial closeups, confounding (but fun) use of time and place, and unique characters: former cop Kris Kristofferson, dangerous drifter Keith Carradine, his clueless, innocent wife Lori Singer, mysterious café owner Genevieve Bujold, and enigmatic art collector Divine. A true original.
The other eight 1986 films on my short list were: “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” “Highlander,” “Legend,” “My Beautiful Laundrette,” “Nothing in Common,” “Something Wild,” “Stand by Me,” and “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.”
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.