LIFE WITHOUT OSCAR: 1989 and 1990

Posted by · 6:14 pm · November 9th, 2010

Catch up with the idea behind this series here.

We’re almost out of the god-awful 1980’s and into the decade where I came of age. I will say that 1989 brings my very first actual going-to-the-cinema memory, which was seeing “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” I may have gone to the movies before then, but whatever I saw wasn’t that memorable.

As for the Oscars, “Driving Miss Daisy” won Best Picture in one of the more head-scratching results in recent memory. It’s been a trivia note ever since as the last time a film won the big prize without a Best Director nomination to back it up and it’s unlikely that the feat will be repeated any time soon.

1990 is another frustrating year for movie nerds as Kevin Costner emerged triumphant with “Dances With Wolves” over Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.” More notable is the outright snub of “T-U-R-T-L-E Power” in the Best Original Song race. Academy Award nominee Partners in Kryme, anyone?

Billy Crystal presided over both ceremonies, his first of eight critically beloved times at the helm.

So what did the Academy completely ignore?

1989 – “Sweetie” (Jane Campion)

In another weak year for candidates that fit this column, I’ve decided to go with a film that ultimately misses a mark, but is never less than interesting along the way. Jane Campion’s films have never really done it for me, with her Hollywood work too indulgent and her Australian work a bit too disjointed. Perhaps it’s something lost in translation, but I always feel a certain distance from her early films and “Sweetie” is no exception. That doesn’t make it any less fascinating to watch, though.

“Sweetie” focuses on two sisters and the mental, emotional and physical obstacles that keep them from a normal life and relationship. Occasionally this is done through comedy and occasionally through drama, and often with a heavy dose of quirk, which would seem disingenuous in today’s independent film culture, but must have been refreshing in 1989. Ditto the vibrant cinematography and poppy soundtrack, although the former deserves special mention.

Cinematographer Sally Bongers has created some truly startling and sparkling imagery in this, particularly in terms of composition. It’s not uncommon for first time filmmakers to try and overdose on visuals, but Campion and Bongers effortlessly weave the themes of the film into the grandiose camerawork. Familial relations and hierarchy can be gleamed from a single still frame in a way that would make Ozu proud.

The performances are a mixed bag, with Geneviève Lemon and Karen Colston both tasked with extremely difficult characters to pull off and not always hitting the mark, unless that’s also getting lost in the translation (cultural translation of course). Make no mistake, I’m not confusing unlikeable characters with unlikeable performances, but the line between annoying and unbelievable is a fine one here.

What I like best about the film is that it really dives in to the relationship between two sisters, warts and all. “Yeast” springs to mind as a recent comparison, but in general, male and female filmmakers are just too timid to explore just how nasty women can be to each other on a deeply psychological level. In that sense, and in other decisions that the characters make not involving each other, Campion is obviously not interested in easy sympathy from the audience.

1990 – “Kindergarten Cop” (Ivan Reitman)

Alright, hear me out. I should hate everything about this movie. It’s clearly made by a committee in a board room. It probably had a poster before a script. It was conceived and executed to make the most money possible. And yet, it works. The idea of pairing Arnold Schwarzenegger with pre-schoolers must have seemed like a no-brainer to any screenwriter or studio executive, and in this case, it really is a no-brainer. It works. Period.

Of course, there’s more to “Kindergarten Cop” and its baffling charm than just the high concept. For starters, there may not be a more schizophrenic film ever released by a major studio. Who is this thing for? The first and last fifteen minutes are aggressively violent, featuring a whole feature’s worth of death, blood, child endangerment, broken bones and foul language. And yet, the title comes scribbling across the screen in crayon. The same crayon-font title that fades away into a scene of murder at a botched drug deal. There’s one moment in particular that signals the transition in the first act. Schwarzenegger and his partner, Pamela Reed are going over the case in an airplane. Schwarzenegger has a funny little exchange with a kid sitting behind him and then we cut to a car driving down a windy, mountain road with Randy Edelman’s bubbly score narrating the proceedings. It’s as jarring a cut and tone transition as you’ll ever see. Did the filmmakers forget what were just watching?

Of course, I understand that people can cite these same things as reasons to hate the film, but somehow it makes it all the more exciting for me. The middle section features more than its share of cute kids being cute and Schwarzenegger’s patented fish-out-of-water schtick, but it also features genuine heart and warmth that makes it hard to begrudge. I dare anyone not to feel something when all the kids in their Abraham Lincoln beards hug Mr. Kimble after their Gettysburg address.

The romantic subplot is screenwriting 101 and, thankfully, not dwelled upon too much. It doesn’t help that Penelope Ann Miller isn’t given much to do but be either won over or in jeopardy, but I have to applaud the filmmakers for including at least one fully formed female character in Reed. Her detective is funny, kind, tough, independent and could easily carry her own film. Credit also goes to Richard Tyson, who is given a borderline stock villain character but honestly makes a case for really loving and wanting to care for his child.

I haven’t even touched upon how quotable the thing is. “Boys have a penis, girls have a vagina.” “It’s not a tumor!” “Who is your daddy and what does he do?” Bust out your best Schwarzenegger impression and give it a whirl. “I’m a cop, you idiot!” In all seriousness, there are better films from 1990 and I’m guilty of giving “Kindergarten Cop” credit for getting halfway there when I usually take credit away for only making it halfway there, but I can’t help it. I guess this is why studios always try to make high concept, star-driven vehicles. Because when they work, they just make you feel good in an indescribable way.

Those are my picks. What do you guys think?

[Photo: YMDB]
[Photo: Action Flick Chick]

→ 31 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Life Without Oscar

31 responses so far

  • 1 11-09-2010 at 6:26 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Um, wow. That was…unexpected. I figured you were going to write about The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover or something. Out of curiousity, what exactly did you think Kidergarten Cop should have been nominated for? Best Screenplay? Best Actor?

    But hey, no arguments about Sweetie. I actually thought that movie was fascinating.

  • 2 11-09-2010 at 6:33 pm

    Daniel said...

    Love, love, love the screengrab.

    89: The Killer
    90: An Angel at My Table/Trust

  • 3 11-09-2010 at 6:43 pm

    Derek said...

    Chad my good sir you must have a “TOOOMER” for not picking Andrzej Zulawski’s MY NIGHTS ARE MORE BEAUTIFUL THAN YOUR DAYS for 1989 and Abbas Kiarostami’s CLOSE-UP for 1990.

  • 4 11-09-2010 at 6:47 pm

    Andrew Rech said...

    Heathers for 89. Easily one of the most quotable movies of all time and fantastic work from Winona Ryder. It manages to be razor sharp satirical, with general heft of it’s own and doesn’t end up looking smug.

    90, Days of Being Wild. It’s not top-tier Wong Kar-Wai but it’s fascinating to see where so many of his trademark themes and stylization first really started making strides.

  • 5 11-09-2010 at 6:57 pm

    par3182 said...

    1989 – drugstore cowboy

    1990 – miller’s crossing

  • 6 11-09-2010 at 7:14 pm

    slayton said...

    Sweetie is my favourite Campion film, and Geneviève Lemon deserved an Oscar for her performance. I really doubt that film was anywhere NEAR any nominations whatsoever, though.

  • 7 11-09-2010 at 7:22 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    I don’t really approach the article with the mindset that the films SHOULD have been nominated for something. The idea is just to highlight great films that have no relation with the Oscars.

  • 8 11-09-2010 at 7:23 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Oh and I need to see The Cook the Thief Her Wife and His Lover real bad.

  • 9 11-09-2010 at 7:28 pm

    thespirithunter said...

    Hmm, Chad. Well, if you’re going to go with a guilty pleasure in 1990. How about Tremors? Quick Change? Miami Blues? Pump Up The Volume? Kill Me Again? King Of New York?

    And for 1989: Dead Calm? Heathers? Pumpkinhead? Lethal Weapon 2? Casualties Of War? War Of The Roses? Say Anything? Jesus Of Montreal?

  • 10 11-09-2010 at 7:31 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    It just seems like the kind of movie that would be right up your alley.

  • 11 11-09-2010 at 7:32 pm

    Amor said...

    Was that Life Without Oscar’s jump-the-shark moment?

  • 12 11-09-2010 at 7:37 pm

    al b. said...

    I am a total Arnold apologist, so I was extremely happy to see Kindergarten Cop! The early 90’s was definitely top form for him with Cop, T2, True Lies, Junior and even Last Action Hero isn’t terrible!

  • 13 11-09-2010 at 8:05 pm

    Bing147 said...

    I also love Kindergarten Cop, he also had the excellent Total Recall that year. Good stuff that year for the governator.

    My top lists those years:


    1. A City of Sadness
    2. Do the Right Thing
    3. Crimes and Misdemeanors
    4. When Harry Met Sally
    5. Roger and Me


    1. Trust
    2. Close Up
    3. Life is Sweet
    4. Goodfellas
    5. Days of Being Wild

  • 14 11-09-2010 at 8:37 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Kindergarten Cop (1990) – this is the same garbage this studio tried to pass off as family entertainment as last year’s Parenthood (1989) – neither PG-13 rated movie was appropriate then.

    And you’re serious – you haven’t seen The Grifters (1990)? You didn’t like Total Recall enough to include it instead?

    “The idea is just to highlight great films that have no relation with the Oscars.”
    If that’s the case “No Holds Barred” (1989) should have made the article!

  • 15 11-09-2010 at 8:43 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    The Grifters and Total Recall are both Oscar nominees.

    And I haven’t seen No Holds Barred, but if it’s as good as Kindergarten Cop, it should definitely have made the article.

  • 16 11-09-2010 at 9:26 pm

    Keil Shults said...

    As far as films that didn’t receive a single nomination, these are an easy couple of years:

    1989: Drugstore Cowboy*
    1990: Miller’s Crossing

    *My top film for 1989 was not nominated for Best Picture (Do the Right Thing).

  • 17 11-10-2010 at 4:06 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Miraculously, the Academy managed to nominate (if not reward) a lot of my favourites from each of these years. I feel like I’m forgetting something obvious, but I’ll go with:

    1989: Mapantsula
    1990: Last Exit to Brooklyn

  • 18 11-10-2010 at 8:09 am

    Keil Shults said...

    Surprised I’ve never heard of Mapantsula. Sounds like a movie about a vampire who models slacks.

  • 19 11-10-2010 at 8:42 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    It’s South African township slang for “hustler.” Fun fact.

  • 20 11-10-2010 at 9:54 am

    Jack Wyle said...

    Guilty pleasure from 1990:

    Rocky V

    There, I said it. Not nearly as bad as everyone makes it out to be.

  • 21 11-10-2010 at 10:54 am

    Jeremy said...

    “Say Anything” for 1989. Remains one of my all-time favorites.

  • 22 11-10-2010 at 11:27 am

    Keil Shults said...

    @Lodge: This would explain the stack of tattered Mapantsula mags in my uncle’s sock drawer.

  • 23 11-10-2010 at 11:29 am

    Rashad said...

    1989 – Harlem Nights

  • 24 11-10-2010 at 2:47 pm

    John said...

    1. Casualties of War
    2. Dead Calm
    3. Say Anything
    4. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
    5. The Dream Team (no, really, this is as good as KINDERGARTEN COP)

    1. Pump Up the Volume
    2. Jacob’s Ladder
    3. Tremors
    4. Presumed Innocent
    5. A Shock to the System
    6. Bad Influence
    7. Kindergarten Cop (the guy playing the villain was great in this!)

  • 25 11-10-2010 at 8:56 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Really, no “Miller’s Crossing?” Apparently they couldn’t even see fit to nominate Carter Burwell’s awesome score or the great cinematography, or John Turturro’s performance.

    And the 80s are NOT awful. You would know that if you had seen “Paris, Texas” and “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” and “Wings of Desire.”

  • 26 11-10-2010 at 11:41 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    Even if those three movies are incredible, and I’ve heard they are, it doesn’t add up to much of a difference in the overall quality of the decade.

  • 27 11-11-2010 at 9:13 am

    El Rocho said...

    I know they were nominated but the best films were:
    Miller’s Crossing

    P.S. Linda Hunt was the shit in Kindergarten Cop.!

  • 28 11-11-2010 at 10:24 am

    Speaking English said...

    El Rocho: “Miller’s Crossing” wasn’t nominated for anything. I know, hard to believe.

    And Chad, obviously those are just three examples. There are many more.

  • 29 11-11-2010 at 10:26 am

    Speaking English said...

    Oh, and “Mishima” wasn’t nominated for anything either, and it’s from 1985 so isn’t really qualifiable for this post.

  • 30 11-14-2010 at 9:09 pm

    Action Flick Chick said...

    Nice piece!

    Nice pics too. ;)

  • 31 11-16-2010 at 7:52 pm

    Zac said...

    For me it would be Miller’s Crossing for 1990 and Say Anything for 1989. Both movies were my first exposure to two directors that are my favorites, The Coen Brothers and Cameron Crowe.

    Of course, Say Anything was CC’s first movie as a director, but he shows that as good as he is with the written word, he’s equally good behind the camera. Terrific performances all around, particularly from John Mahoney.

    Miller’s Crossing wasn’t the Coen’s first movie, but I was fan of them after seeing this and made a point of seeking out their earlier work. Whenever discussion of the greatest mob movies come up, The Godfather I and II and Goodfellas are rightfully mentioned. I think that MC should be on the short list with those masterpieces. Like those movies, MC doesn’t rely on violence to engage the viewer, but rather compelling characters who happen to live in a violent world. Looking at the cast, this was the first time I had seen the great character actors such as Steve Buscemi and Albert Finney.