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1990's best (and worst) movies

1990’s best (and worst) movies — ”Ghost” and ”Reversal of Fortun,” topped our list while ”Wild Orchid” and ”Joe Versus the Volcano” faltered

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THE BEST

1. Reversal of Fortune
Without a doubt, the crowning achievement of this movie is Jeremy Irons’ masterfully droll performance as Claus von Bülow, the ghoulish aristocrat who may or may not have attempted to murder his rich, depressed, socialite wife (Glenn Close). Irons does something far more perverse than getting you to ”care” about Claus — he gets you to like him. Yet what finally makes Barbet Schroeder’s reenactment of the Von Bülow affair a truly great movie is the spine-tingling ambiguity with which it views Claus’ conduct. Ushering us behind the mausoleum-like walls of the Von Bülows’ Newport estate, the film offers many contrasting versions of the events, holding contradictory bits of evidence up to the light with a Rashomon-like dexterity. By the end, it almost doesn’t matter whether Von Bülow actually tried to kill his wife or simply stood by and watched her sink into suicidal despair. The real question is whether there’s any difference.

2. Men Don’t Leave
Though it never got the audience it deserved, this wonderfully funny and touching domestic weeper is an exhilarating contradiction: a happy movie about depression. It’s the story of a newly widowed mother (Jessica Lange) and her two sons and how they struggle to remain a unit without Dad, their cornerstone. That may sound like the plot of a dozen made-for-TV movies, but Men Don’t Leave has something that is fast disappearing from American films: a genuine emotional texture. Director Paul Brickman — this is his first film since 1983’s Risky Business — empathizes with everyone on screen, keeping the point of view shifting and elusive. Though rooted in the pain of sudden loss, Men Don’t Leave is really about the pleasure and the sadness of growing up. It’s the rare case of a sentimental movie that earns every one of its tears — and believe me, you shed them.

3. A Shock to the System
A black comedy played very, very close to the bone. When Michael Caine, as a New York advertising executive up for promotion, is passed over to make room for a tight-lipped specimen of yuppus scumus (Peter Riegert), his revenge is so extreme — he becomes a happily self-justified killer — and, at the same time, so believable that identifying with him becomes a delirious and dizzying experience. The fun of the movie is that we’re watching a ruthless killer portrayed by one of the most wittily humane actors alive. Caine’s performance is a wonder; it’s as if he were playing Jekyll and Hyde at the same time. You keep rooting for him even as you’re appalled by his behavior, and the movie pulls you into deeper and deeper levels of amoral glee.

4. The Godfather Part III
Francis Ford Coppola has brought it off. This third chapter in the Godfather series doesn’t quite attain the transcendent greatness of the first two films, yet it’s passionate, controlled, and richly satisfying. The year is 1979, and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), now with a bit of Brando-like gravel in his voice, has sold his casinos and is attempting to make the Corleone family legitimate. He initiates a multimillion-dollar corporate takeover in cooperation with the Vatican, but the project is doomed: As the movie’s dazzlingly complicated plot reveals, Michael can try to pretend he’s simply a businessman, but even he isn’t powerful enough to break the Mafia’s eternal cycle of violence. Slower and talkier than the first two films, The Godfather Part III is a heady thicket of high finance, political intrigue, and blood ties. Michael is desperate to atone for his sins, yet the very family bonds he sold his soul to preserve have become incestuous — have devoured him. The movie features a brilliantly staged opera-house climax and superb performances from Andy Garcia, Talia Shire, and Eli Wallach. The performer sure to cause controversy, though, is Sofia Coppola (the director’s 19-year-old daughter) as Michael’s daughter, who becomes involved in a passionate affair with her hotheaded first cousin (Garcia). Critics are already gunning for her, yet this non-actress has a ripe adolescent sexiness, and her spoiled-rich-girl normality is obviously what Coppola wanted. He’s saying that in the media age, this is what the daughter of a titan looks like. Godfather III has its flaws, but it’s as masterful a summing-up of the Corleone saga as we could have hoped for.

5. Ghost
It got so big that people stopped thinking of it as a good movie. (That happened to Batman, too). In fact, it’s a terrific movie, a dazzling pop thriller made with a spirit of roller-coaster showmanship that leaves you elated. The romance sold the picture, but I’m not convinced Ghost cracked the $200 million mark simply because of the yearning gazes that a spectral Patrick Swayze threw at Demi Moore (or the way Moore looked — namely, teary-eyed — every time she thought of Swayze). There was also Swayze leaping through walls, Tony Goldwyn as the wonderfully nervous stab-you-in-the-back friend, Vincent Schiavelli’s sad, terrifying subway ghost, and, of course, the comic maelstrom that is Whoopi Goldberg.

6. Tune In Tomorrow…
A movie with a genuine comic vision of the world. Set in the early ’50s, it’s an impish act of cinematic gamesmanship about the romance between 21-year-old Martin (Keanu Reeves) and 36-year-old Julia (Barbara Hershey); the gloriously tacky radio soap opera that is inspired by their affair; and the mad vulgarian genius (Peter Falk, in a triumphant turn) who is writing the soap opera. The elements all fuse into a sublimely funny meditation on the way pop culture shapes our notions of love.

7. Q&A
The best movie Sidney Lumet has directed since Dog Day Afternoon (1975) — and it was so relentlessly gritty it never found a big audience. In many ways, this New York-set police-corruption drama is far superior to Lumet’s Serpico, which now looks somewhat glib and cartoonish. Here, he plunges headfirst into the hornets’ nest of New York racial attitudes. The movie is about the undoing of a depraved, pathologically racist Irish cop (Nick Nolte) who has turned cronyism into a kind of religion. Flawed in spots, Q&A is nevertheless an epic portrait of an urban-bureaucratic nightmare, with a performance by Nolte that is comparable in scope, attitude, and sheer dramatic power to Gene Hackman’s classic work in The French Connection (1971).

8. Edward Scissorhands
It has been out only a few weeks, yet already I’m convinced that the character of Edward (Johnny Depp) — a strange and sorrowful punk teenager whose arms end in lethal weapons — is one of the great surreal creations in modern movies. With this enchanting, disturbing, heartbreaking fairy tale, director Tim Burton (Batman) has entered the realm of artists like David Lynch and — someone will shoot me for saying this, but I’m going to anyway — Jean Cocteau. Burton still needs to learn how to tell a story, but when this movie is good, it’s great.

9. Goodfellas
Okay, I confess: I was wrong about this one. Well, not completely wrong. Though it deserved far better than the B that I gave it, I still think many critics overrated Martin Scorsese’s zippy but too-shallow-for-comfort mob comedy about a starry-eyed Irish-Sicilian kid (Ray Liotta) who insinuates himself into the Mafia. If we’re supposed to be watching the story of an amoral mobster, why is it he never has to kill anybody? All he does is go along on heists and pocket the booty. (If it were that easy, I might consider joining.) Still, GoodFellas is a demonically entertaining piece of comic storytelling, filled with the sort of giddy, explosive moments you’ll want to watch over and over again when it comes out on video. Most of the movie’s highlights belong to Joe Pesci, who commands the screen as a cackling Mafia munchkin.

10. House Party
Another revised opinion. I liked the Hudlin brothers’ black version of a cutting-edge Hollywood teen pic the first time out. But the film moves so quickly that it was only on a second viewing that I caught all the jokes and saw what an immensely sly and skillful comedy it is. House Party lacks a conventional story line in the way that American Graffiti did. It’s a seamless, flowing portrait of an adolescent subculture — and, for my money, the most uproarious movie of the year. It might have been more of a cause for celebration had white audiences not stayed away in droves. (If this movie didn’t cross over, what can?) Still, what makes the Hudlins such welcome newcomers is that they’re less concerned with being ”black filmmakers” than with being filmmakers, period.

THE WORST

1. Everybody Wins
Nobody wins in this shambling, astonishingly incoherent detective movie $ scripted by Arthur Miller. Debra Winger stars opposite Nick Nolte as some sort of schizoid femme fatale with a terrible secret. It’s yet another Miller homage to the mental disturbances of Marilyn Monroe — though Winger, spewing psychotic gibberish, certainly looks marvelous.

2. The Lemon Sisters
This year’s winner in the ”Just because we’re feminists doesn’t mean we can’t act like ditzy, lovesick morons” sweepstakes. (Runner-up: Mermaids.) Playing Atlantic City nerds who stick with each other through thick and thin, Diane Keaton, Carol Kane, and Kathryn Grody don’t just embarrass themselves — they give female bonding a bad name.

3. The Exorcist III
A nightmare catechism lesson from William Peter Blatty, ponderously self- serious author of the original Exorcist. Since no Exorcist sequel would be complete without a name actor making a fool of himself, this one has George C. Scott popping his eyes and grimacing into the camera as though someone had put a gun to his head and said, ”Overact, or else!”

4. Where the Heart Is
By now, it’s an established law of nature that when director John Boorman (Zardoz, Exorcist II: The Heretic) goes off the deep end, he really, really goes off the deep end. This chaotic allegorical farce about a family of Manhattan rich kids learning that there’s more to life than comfort and success plays like a cross between a sitcom and a brain seizure.

5. Wild Orchid
A sort-of-sequel to 9 1/2 Weeks, this soft-core extravaganza wants to be a kind of Last Samba in Rio. But with Mickey Rourke giving yet another smirky, impassive performance as a monosyllabic stud, it’s really just a racy perfume commercial posing as a movie.

6. Bird on a Wire
Hollywood has been working up to it for years, and director John Badham finally brought it off: He made a completely generic big-budget movie — it should have been called Romantic Action Comedy. Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn hurl stale insults at each other in between car crashes.

7. Texasville
Two very long hours of flat, Southern Gothic whimsy. Peter Bogdanovich tried to revive his career with this sequel to The Last Picture Show (1971), but the movie has an air of glum desperation. It’s like one of those 20-years-after reunion episodes of baby-boomer TV shows — all you can do is stare at the screen and count the wrinkles.

8. Revenge
Kevin Costner has since honed his talent for self-mythification, (his Indian epic Dances With Wolves is a likely contender for Oscar glory), but in director Tony Scott’s ridiculously lurid Western revenge saga, he looks silly in a way that only a major star overdosing on ego can.

9. Joe Versus the Volcano
A sad-sack nebbish (Tom Hanks) leaves his drab little life behind to take a fantasy voyage to a desert isle. Surprise! His big adventure turns out to have all the show-stopping whammy of a Love Boat rerun. Screenwriter John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck) made his directorial debut with this neo-Walter Mitty fable, which features unbearably precious dialogue and Meg Ryan batting her eyes at the camera.

10. Without You I’m Nothing
In which Sandra Bernhard sings, harangues her audience, sings, harangues herself, sings, wishes she were black, sings, dances naked like a stripper, and sings. Did I also mention that she sings? This performance-art catalog of Bernhard’s obsessions is trying desperately to be ”subversive,” but it’s really an obnoxious spectacle of American show-biz narcissism gone psychotic.


Most Inspiring Comeback

Her career foundering after a string of dismal action comedies, Whoopi Goldberg played the sassy psychic of Ghost like a dreadlocked Groucho and audiences flipped for her.


Worst Haircut

Harrison Ford’s in Presumed Innocent. He looked like a medieval monk who’d just stepped out of the shower.


Best Ad Campaing

Who is Darkman? The thing is, you really wanted to know.


Most Overrated Films

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover; Dick Tracy; Metropolitan