ByBrian Finamore, writer at
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Brian Finamore

I was born on February 15, 1989, so like this retrospective, I too am 25 years old. This year there has been a ton of events honoring the great films of 1989. I wanted to pay tribute as well to one of the greatest years in cinematic history.

1989 was an important year cinematic wise from an artistic standpoint and commercially. The year saw great artistic and personal triumphs like Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July, Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, Michael Moore's Roger and Me, Steven Soderbergh's Palm d'Or winning debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot, Ed Zwick's Glory, Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy, Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, Cameron Crowe's Say Anything, Peter Weir's Dead Poet's Society, Ron Howard's Parenthood, Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally, Steve Kloves The Fabulous Baker Boys, Brian De Palma's Casualties of War and Phil Alden Robinson's Field of Dreams.

The famous fake orgasm scene
The famous fake orgasm scene

1989 was also the first year where all ten top grossing films worldwide made more than $100,000,000. It saw the re-birth of comic book movies with Tim Burton's Batman. The top ten grossing films of 1989 were; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Batman, Back to the Future Part II, Look Who's Talking, Lethal Weapon 2, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Ghostbusters II, The Little Mermaid, and Born on the Fourth of July.

Also, I'd be short changing my childhood if I didn't mention two John Hughes classics Uncle Buck, and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, which has become staple viewing every holiday season.

Christmas Vacation
Christmas Vacation

The 62nd Annual Academy Awards were held on March 26, 1990, honoring the films of 1989. The winners were:

Best Picture: Driving Miss Daisy - Majestic Films International, Zanuck Company., Warner Bros. Pictures

Best Director: Oliver Stone - Born on the Fourth of July

Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis - My Left Foot

Best Actress: Jessica Tandy - Driving Miss Daisy

Best Supporting Actor: Denzel Washington - Glory

Best Supporting Actress: Brenda Fricker - My Left Foot

Best Foreign Language Film: Nuovo cinema Paradiso (Cinema Paradiso), directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, Italy

Unfortunately, the Academy awarded Best Picture to the safe, merely alright, Driving Miss Daisy. The problem with the Academy sometimes is that they're very poor at awarding films that have lasting impacts, instead of what's popular at the moment. 1989 was a great year for film, yet I can name at least 25 films that were better than Driving Miss Daisy that came out in 1989. When you consider films like Do the Right Thing, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Glory etc., weren't even nominated for Best Picture, it's hard to take their selections seriously. I like that Oliver Stone won his second Academy Award for Best Director (his first was Platoon in 1986), and I also felt that among the nominated films for Best Picture, Born on the Fourth of July should have won.

Driving Miss Daisy became the third film to win Best Picture without a Best Director nomination (in 2012 Ben Affleck's Argo would become the fourth). At age 80, Jessica Tandy became the oldest winner of competitive acting Oscar at the time. Kenneth Branagh was the fifth person nominated for Best Lead Actor and Best Director for the same film.

If I could redo the Oscars, looking back 25 years later I would change the following.

Best Picture: Do the Right Thing

Best Director: Spike Lee - Do the Right Thing

Best Actor: Tom Cruise - Born on the Fourth of July

Best Actress: Michelle Pfeiffer - The Fabulous Baker Boys

Best Supporting Actor: same

Best Supporting Actress: Laura San Giacomo - Sex, Lies, and Videotape

Here's a look at some of my personal favorites from 1989.

Do the Right Thing - Spike Lee

The crowning achievement of 1989, and one of the best American films ever made. Sadly, back in '89, scared white critics, while praising the film, thought it would incite African American audiences to violence. A completely shallow and stupid conjecture that of course never happened. What's marvelous about the film is the way in which Spike Lee pulls no punches. Literally the opening credits are Rosie Perez almost violently dancing, and later with boxing gloves to Public Enemy's brilliant "Fight the Power". This is Spike Lee immediately announcing that not only will this be unlike any film you've ever seen, but that it's also going right for the jugular. There's also some great moments of comedy in the film, both light hearted and satirical, as well as a sense of time and place.

Born on the Fourth of July - Oliver Stone

This film marked a turn for Oliver Stone towards more experimental filmmaking that would later flourish throughout the 90's in films like The Doors, JFK, Natural Born Killers, and Any Given Sunday. The most remarkable aspect of the film is probably Tom Cruise's magnificent performance. I can only imagine seeing this film in '89 but I imagine it must have been a revelation for movie goers to see Cruise give such a challenging and great performance. No offense to Daniel Day Lewis's brilliant work in My Left Foot, but I think Tom Cruise should have won Best Actor. It's a complete transformation, and a multi-layered performance, which if he doesn't pull off the film doesn't work. Stone is great at getting the best possible work out of all his actors, which is why many actors cite their best work was when working with Stone. John Williams conducts a magnificent score as well, one of the best in his long, celebrated career.

Crimes and Misdemeanors - Woody Allen

Perhaps Woody Allen's best and most radical film artistically, Crimes and Misdemeanors is a perfect example of how to balance comedy and tragedy in the same film, with a dose of potent irony. The performances by Martin Landau and Alan Alda are drop dead brilliant. I feel Alda doesn't get enough credit for this film, it's really tough to play kind of a scumbag, and Alda does it wonderfully. The outline of Judah's moral dilemma - whether a person can continue with his everyday life with knowledge of having committed a murder - evokes the pivotal idea of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (and provides a resolution opposite to one in the novel). The theme would be revisited by Allen in his films Match Point and Cassandra's Dream.

Roger and Me - Michael Moore

The film that introduced us to the big and angry Liberal from Flint, Michigan, and perhaps changed documentary filmmaking forever, Roger and Me is still a very powerful film to this day because the subjects Moore examines continue on and on. Whatever you think of Moore personally, and I understand he can be a bit of a blow hard sometimes, but you have to admire the determination and skill it took to make this picture. It was financed partly by Moore's mortgaging of his home and partly by the settlement money from a lawsuit he filed against Mother Jones for wrongful termination, was meant to be a personal statement over his anger not just at GM, but also the economic policies and social attitudes of the United States government during the Reagan era, which allows a corporation to remove the largest source of income from an entire town. The film proved to be the most successful documentary in American history at the time in its theatrical run (since surpassed at the box office by Moore's later documentaries Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11) and enjoyed wide critical acclaim. Despite its success, the film was not nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award in 1990.

Batman - Tim Burton

I can't help but to include this film because I grew up with it. I know it's far from a perfect film, however, it did change comic book movies forever, by taking it's subject matter seriously (although not as much when compared to the Nolan films). Batman is gorgeously shot and photographed, the buildings of Gotham City look like they go miles and miles up into the sky. Michael Keaton gives an understated and underrated performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman. A lot of fans hated the casting initially, but they were proven wrong. Any time Batman is on television I still stop what I'm doing and watch it, because it's such an interesting mix of styles, that no matter how good or bad you might think the film is, it's always watchable.

Casualties of War - Brian De Palma

A film that got lost in the shuffle of powerful anti-war films about Vietnam, and indeed Born on the Fourth of July, Brian De Palma's Casualties of War has gone on to be considered among the top anti-war films of all time, and one of the best films of De Palma's career. Based on the actual events of the incident on Hill 192 in 1966 during the Vietnam War. It stars Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn. An article written by Daniel Lang (writer) for The New Yorker in 1969, and a subsequent book were the movie's primary sources. The bridge location was filmed in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, which was the same location where the famous Bridge on the River Kwai is located.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape - Steven Soderbergh

One of the most celebrated films of 1989. At the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, the film won the Palme d'Or and the FIPRESCI Prize, with Spader getting the Best Actor Award. It also won an Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. Soderbergh was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay. Sex, Lies, and Videotape is important in film history for raising the profile of independent film. In his book Down and Dirty Pictures, Peter Biskind explains that the unprecedented international success of this low-budget film was instrumental in the beginning of the 1990s independent film boom. The film is also important for launching the career of Steven Soderbergh, who became a recognized director of both mainstream and art-house films, and for launching or boosting the careers of many actors.

Special Selection: Life Lessons - Martin Scorsese - One of Three Short Films in New York Stories

Martin Scorsese directing Nick Nolte
Martin Scorsese directing Nick Nolte

New York Stories was an anthology film released on March 10, 1989; it consists of three shorts with the central theme being New York City.

The first is Life Lessons, directed by Martin Scorsese, written by Richard Price and starring Nick Nolte. The second is Life Without Zoë, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and written by Coppola with his daughter, Sofia Coppola. The last is Oedipus Wrecks, directed, written by and starring Woody Allen. This film also stars (a then-unknown) Kirsten Dunst as Mia Farrow's character's daughter and also Dunst's film debut.

Three great directors direct three short films, however, only one great film, and that's Martin Scorsese's Life Lessons; which is the first segment of New York Stories. Nick Nolte plays Lionel Dobie, an acclaimed abstract artist who finds himself unable to paint during the days before the scheduled beginning of a major gallery exhibition of his new work. Rosanna Arquette is Paulette, his apprentice/assistant and former lover. Lionel is still infatuated with her, but Paulette wants only his tutelage, which makes things difficult since they live in the same studio-loft.

What can I say about Scorsese's segment, it's a masterpiece. Scorsese injects his segment with all the stylistic flourishes; whip pans, a classic rock soundtrack, and an impeccable sense of rhythm. It's Scorsese going all out, which is how you should treat a segment of an anthology film, something Francis Ford Coppola (who directs perhaps the worst film of his career with Life Without Zoe) and Woody Allen (Oedipus Wrecks is fine, but rather typical Allen) didn't get. The performances by Nick Nolte and Rosanna Arquette are flawless. I highly recommend Scorsese's section for anyone who's a film buff.

Siskel and Ebert's Best of 1989

Roger's Top Ten

10. Say Anything

9. Driving Miss Daisy

8. Crimes and Misdemeanors

7. Field of Dreams

6. The Mighty Quinn

5. Roger and Me

4. Born on the 4th of July

3. My Left Foot

2. Drugstore Cowboy

1. Do the Right Thing

Gene's Top Ten

10. The War of the Roses

9. Say Anything

8. The Fabulous Baker Boys

7. Crimes and Misdemeanors

6. The Little Mermaid

5. Born and the 4th of July

4. Enemies, a Love Story

3. Drugstore Cowboy

2. Roger and Me

1. Do the Right Thing

What were your favorite films from 1989?


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