LIFE WITHOUT OSCAR: 1987 and 1988

Posted by · 3:21 pm · November 3rd, 2010

Catch up with the idea behind this series here.

So sorry for the hiatus with this column but I took a break last week to focus on the top 10 horror films list and am a day late this week because I was stuck shooting all day yesterday. I’m sure you’ve all been missing it intensely.

But where were we? Ah, the late-80’s. A time when Hollywood fluff like “Moonstruck” and “Fatal Attraction” were up for Best Picture, but lost to, what else, a historical epic from an acclaimed director. Bernardo Bertolucci’s, “The Last Emperor,” swept the 1987 ceremony, winning nine Oscars from nine nominations, the largest haul since “West Side Story.”

1988 belonged to “Rain Man,” but is perhaps more notable for Kevin Kline’s slapstick work in “A Fish Called Wanda” earning him a rare statue for a comedy. Every argument with an Oscar nerd since regarding comedic performances sees them bring it up as a precedent. Didn’t help Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy or Sacha Baron Cohen though.

The ceremony itself is infamous for an opening number that involved Snow White and Rob Lowe singing some awful duet. Why this particular number, in a vast sea of awful numbers throughout the course of Oscar history, has been singled out is beyond me. And probably beyond Rob Lowe as well.

But now it’s my turn to do some singling out.

1987 – “Tin Men” (Barry Levinson)

One year before walking away with the top prizes at the Oscars, Barry Levinson delivered his best, and most underrated, work. I’ve had the misfortune of seeing 14 of the 20 theatrical releases put forth by Levinson and feel pretty confident in saying that he’s a mediocre talent at best. Spectacularly awful films like “Sphere,” “Disclosure” and “Toys” far outweigh the modest successes of “Rain Man” and “Wag the Dog.” For my money, he only ever hit it out of the park once, with “Tin Men,” and it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why.

Particularly when you look at the film in the context of Levinson’s “Baltimore trilogy,” of which it falls in the middle, between “Diner” and “Avalon,” two more films I don’t care much for. All three feature a sentimental tone and their characters are prone to stereotypes, so what’s the difference? I would argue it’s focus. “Diner” follows no less than six major characters, representing the different types of youth in 1950’s Baltimore, while “Avalon” follows the lives of an entire family over several years. “Tin Men” focuses intensely on two men, both with the same occupation and character flaws, to the point where it shatters the initial stereotypes and finds some beautiful layers.

Danny DeVito and Richard Dreyfuss have never been better, straddling the line between the film’s over-the-top comedy and gentle drama. Barbara Hershey adds immeasurable depth to a supporting role that could have easily just been a plot point between the two men rather than a character. Levinson gets the most out of these actors and the sometimes despicable situations they create for themselves by lingering on the pivotal decisions and showing the consequences, beautifully encapsulated by the following example.

DeVito discovers his wife has cheated on him and immediately comes home to throw all of her possessions out the second story window of their duplex, yelling, “I’m free!” Classic comedy stuff. The euphoria quickly reveals itself to be masked sadness by Levinson holding the shot just long enough after there’s nothing left to throw to see DeVito’s smile subtly fade away.

When Hershey shows up from her tryst, smiling broadly from her own taste of freedom and attention that the audience would fully believe she deserved, Levinson holds tight on her face as she sees her clothes on the lawn and realizes her secret is out. Few comedies have the guts to show the emotional impact that rash decisions can have for fear of ruining the momentum of the laughs. “Tin Men” embraces the connection between comedy and tragedy to enhance the impact of both.

It’s so good, it even manages to overcome the anachronistic inclusion of Fine Young Cannibals songs and performances. I mean, that’s incredible.

1988 – “The Vanishing” (George Sluizer)

I already touched on this film in last week’s horror column, but it’s good enough to revisit again here. The greatest horror films tap into universal fears or creating new fears out of the universal, whether it be swimming in “Jaws,” taking a shower in “Psycho,” or the quiet kid in class in “Carrie.” On an even broader spectrum though, all of those examples have in common that they thrive on the fear of the unknown. No matter what you do, you never know when something horrible could happen to you.

What makes “The Vanishing” so incredible and intense is that it never tries to exploit the notion that something horrible could happen to its protagonist. Something potentially horrible happens to his girlfriend in the early stages of the film and we follow him through his efforts to find out just what it was, or wasn’t. The psychological ordeal of not knowing is already the most horrible thing that could happen to him, so when the kidnapper shows up with a choice to either turn him in or learn the truth, it’s not quite as easy a decision as you may think.

Gene Bervoets is tasked with some very difficult work, carrying the film. The catalog of emotions that he goes through slowly realizing his girlfriend has disappeared is beautifully played and his obsession is entirely believable throughout the rest of the film. Questionable decisions are made, but the audience is so firmly on his side that they become justifiable to us as well. He is matched by Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, whose icy turn as the villain is as memorable as Anthony Hopkins in “Silence of the Lambs,” with infinitely less overcooked bravado.

It would be criminal to speak too much about the plot or why it works so great. But horror fans should know that it’s a talky film, with very little in the way of thrills or kills. Non-horror fans should know that you’ll still be sleeping with your lights on for days. Because if there’s one thing to take away from “The Vanishing,” its that there is cruel, calculating evil in the world and it knows your weakness.

Those are my picks. What do you guys think?

[Photo: Film Fanatic]
[Photo: Criterion Collection]

→ 24 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Life Without Oscar

24 responses so far

  • 1 11-03-2010 at 3:31 pm

    Edward L. said...

    Good choices. In fact, The Vanishing is my choice for 1988 too!

    I’ve only seen Tin Men once, but I did like it. And, of course, any film which features the Fine Young Cannibals’ ‘Good Thing’ has to have something going for it, right?

    For 1987, I choose the magnificent Crazy Love, in my opinion one of the greatest films of the ’80s. Its wit and compassion in telling the story of a tortured soul are peerless. Bravo Dominique Deruddere for a fantastic first feature film.

    Incidentally, it also features Gene Bervoets, in the role of the main character’s best friend at school.

    But to pick up on one point from your article: if only there was “Hollywood fluff” as good as Moonstruck and Fatal Attratcion nominated for Best Picture every year! :-)

  • 2 11-03-2010 at 3:40 pm

    Speaking English said...

    For 1987, “Wings of Desire” all the way.

  • 3 11-03-2010 at 3:53 pm

    Maxim said...

    Levinson a mediocre talent? He is uneven, and perhaps even maddening in that regard and his sometimes off the wall choices but he is anything but mediocre anything.

    Even “Bandits” has moments of brilliance throughout.

    And I gotta say, you don’t see 14 out 20 movies of any one director theatrically if there’s not something that keeps you coming back.

  • 4 11-03-2010 at 4:02 pm

    Vince in WeHo said...

    I agree with Edward L. about the “Hollywood fluff” comment. If you compare “Moonstruck” to any Hollywood romantic comedy that has come out since, it still stands as one of the strongest. And we haven’t seen an adult dramatic thriller as intelligent as “Fatal Attraction” (outside of “The Silence of the Lambs”) since it came out. If only we had “fluff” like that to enjoy today.

  • 5 11-03-2010 at 4:06 pm

    Carson Dyle said...

    Full Metal Jacket might be the best film from 87 that I’ve seen, but my favourite is The Living Daylights. But I’m never going to argue that’s the best film of any year…

    Talk Radio in ’88. One of Stone’s best.

  • 6 11-03-2010 at 4:31 pm

    Zachary said...

    The Rob Lowe/Snow White duet is remembered for not only being awful, but for coming shortly after his sex scandal involving a tape of him and a minor in a hotel room.

    My pick for 1987 would be Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I consider it to be the best work John Candy did, right up there with The Jerk for Steve Martin and John Hughe’s last great film and second to Ferris Bueller in his filmography.

    A combination buddy and road picture, the film delivers a hilarious and touching comedy as seen when Neal delivers his symphonic tirade at the car rental agent with fuck used over and over and also with the scene in the hotel room where Neal goes off on Del. John Candy was never better than in this scene.

    A sharp and witty script, terrific direction and surefire chemistry between it’s stars add up to not only the best film of 1987, but one of the greatest comedies of all time.

  • 7 11-03-2010 at 4:42 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    100% with you Zachary. Only went with Tin Men for the column since I imagine fewer have seen it. I could easily write about how great Planes Trains and Automobiles is and it would be timely given that the atrocious looking copycat Due Date is about to drop.

  • 8 11-03-2010 at 5:13 pm

    Rashad said...

    Predator was the best of 1987. It doesn’t even need the caveat of being an “action” movie. It truly is a great film.

  • 9 11-03-2010 at 5:30 pm

    Andrew Rech said...

    Wings of Desire for 87 for sure. Also Law of Desire.

    Without a doubt Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies for 88. I can scarcely think of anything that shook me so much.

  • 10 11-03-2010 at 5:44 pm

    Jeremy said...

    I like the “Vanishing” choice. For ’87, I’d probably go with “House of Games”, which I might still consider to be my favorite Mamet movie. I’d like to throw “The Princess Bride” in there as well, but apparently it landed an Original Song nomination.

  • 11 11-03-2010 at 6:19 pm

    par3182 said...

    1987 – raising arizona

    1988 – distant voices, still lives

  • 12 11-03-2010 at 7:14 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Robocop ’87
    Dead Ringers ’88

    I know you haven’t seen either.

  • 13 11-03-2010 at 8:27 pm

    Bede said...

    1988 “Evil Angels” Schepisi and Meryl find the humour in a gut-wrenching drama

  • 14 11-03-2010 at 8:33 pm

    Hackett said...

    1987 – Broadcast News is the best movie of ’87. But, since everybody knows that already, I’m going to gi with INNERSPACE, which features an incredibly deft and winning performance from Martin Short. Who knew he could carry a picture as an adventure hero.

    1988 – Die Hard – resurrected and redefined a genre. Never to be topped, and arguably set the standard for villains forever. Rickman got screwed. The screenwriters also got screwed – the script is an exercise in taught storytelling.

  • 15 11-03-2010 at 10:57 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Ah, yes, Wings of Desire would have been a wonderful choice for Best Picture of 1987…except, like many films mentioned in this series, it wasn’t eligible until 1988.

    I’m relieved I’m not the only person to have brought up Dead Ringers. Should have recieved a Best Actor nomination at MINIMUM.

  • 16 11-04-2010 at 5:36 am

    Stefan said...

    I will never understand that “Angel Heart” is so disregarded. For me the best by far which 1987 had to offer. And Mickey Rourke would have deserved a nomination at least. The finest work of Alan Parker!

  • 17 11-04-2010 at 8:28 am

    Sawyer said...

    1988, for me, will always be dominated by Dangerous Liaisons. Jodie’s a great actress, but she stole Glenn Close’s Oscar.

  • 18 11-04-2010 at 12:15 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    I’m new to this series, so I’m wondering if we’re supposed to be suggesting what we felt should have been up for Best Picture, or simply a film that deserved a nomination in at least one or more categories, but was completely overlooked. With that being said, here goes…


    Raising Arizona – Best Orig. Screenplay (at the very least)

    House of Games and Housekeeping were also really good and grossly overlooked.

  • 19 11-04-2010 at 12:16 pm

    Keil Shults said...



    – should have been nominated for Best Documentary, Best Picture, or both

  • 20 11-04-2010 at 12:26 pm

    James D. said...

    Raising Arizona was pretty fantastic.

  • 21 11-04-2010 at 12:55 pm

    JJ1 said...

    1987: Prick Up Your Ears (Oldman, Molina, Redgrave).
    1988: Running on Empty (Lahti, Phoenix, excellent).

    And for pure, stupid entertainment, I love 1987’s “Outrageous Fortune” (Midler, Long)

  • 22 11-04-2010 at 1:06 pm

    Cameron said...

    1987 – Au Revoir, Les Enfants
    the first Louis Malle film I ever saw still has the same gut impact every time I see it. Everything about the film is so understated but Malle can elicit such emotional power with his imagery., not to mention capturing the atmosphere of a boarding school to the wire (I briefly attended one myself). If only all child actors were as graceful and self-assured as the two leads.

    1988 – Who Framed Roger Rabbit
    I must have been about 6 when I saw this for the first time, and I didn’t care too much for it (Christopher Lloyd scared me). However, when I saw it again maybe 10 years later I was awestruck at the masterful integration of the cartoons into the real world (not to mention it’s funny as hell). Zemeckis may have won for Forrest Gump, but the trophy should have been his for this.

  • 23 11-04-2010 at 1:52 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Keil Shults- the idea behind the series is to highlight movies that received no nominations in any category. People take whatever route they want in the comments it seems, but I stick to those guidelines for my selections.

  • 24 11-05-2010 at 10:32 am

    Keil Shults said...

    Thanks, that’s what I thought. I’m pretty sure that Raising AZ, House of Games, Housekeeping and The Thin Blue Line didn’t earn a single Oscar nomination between them.

    That’s also why I didn’t mention Running on Empty, which is a movie I love dearly, and certainly one of the best of Lumet’s post-70s career. It’s ridiculous that they nominated River Phoenix in the Supporting Actor category for that film.