1991's best (and worst) movies
1. The Silence of the Lambs
After years of schlock horror movies, the word nightmare has been devalued — we hear it and think, thrills and chills. A true nightmare movie, though, does more than just scare us or give us the cold creeps. It can also be a dark fairy tale for adults, a vehicle for recapturing our childlike wonder in the face of the primal unknown. So it is with Jonathan Demme’s great thriller, the most magical act of storytelling I saw all year. Adapting Thomas Harris’ best-seller about a rookie FBI investigator on the trail of a serial killer, Demme spins a shimmering web of dread and suspense. Jodie Foster plays Agent Starling as a brave, exploratory, life-size heroine: It’s her desperate need to know — to uncover the true face of evil — that propels the movie forward. And Anthony Hopkins’ Dr. Lecter is that face in all its disturbing, seductive glory. As the glittery-eyed genius psychopath whose malevolence is a direct extension of his intelligence, Hopkins — witty, charming, monstrous — gives the most memorable performance of the year, creating a timeless portrait of the demonic made human.
2. Cape Fear
Another superb thriller, this time from Martin Scorsese, who transforms the 1962 Cape Fear into a hypnotically engrossing exercise in high anxiety. Scorsese blends cinematic wizardry and guilt-driven moral melodrama the way Hitchcock did: He makes them one and the same.
3. Paris is Burning
Why is a documentary about black and Latino gays who compete in drag balls one of the best movies of the year? Because Jennie Livingston’s revelatory film uncovers a world that’s like a media-saturated fun-house-mirror reflection of our own. And also because these young men, who turn their entire lives into a floating costume party, are memorable company — some of the wittiest, dreamiest, most resonant characters the movies have given us all year.
4. Dead Again
After his triumphant 1989 version of Shakespeare’s Henry V, the young British actor-director Kenneth Branagh did something truly daring: He had the audacity not to take himself seriously — to make a knowingly preposterous thriller, one that mocks its own hokiness even as it keeps you riveted. Is that scene at the end with the scissors Too Much? Of course. That’s the joke. The work of a true showman, Dead Again is a reminder that movies are really intricate games of make-believe.
5. My Own Private Idaho
Though not as seamless as his 1989 Drugstore Cowboy, Gus Van Sant’s road movie about two young hustlers (River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves) drifting through the Pacific Northwest is delicate, forlorn, haunting; it casts its own spell. The movie isn’t really about being a gay prostitute. It’s about being lonely and rootless, spiritual states that River Phoenix — in an extraordinary performance — embodies with startling purity.
6. City of Hope
The lost movie of the year. John Sayles’ teeming urban epic is his best work since 1983’s Baby, It’s You, yet perhaps because of its searing bleakness (not to mention its impersonal title and ad campaign), almost no one saw it. Sayles interlocks the lives of 36 characters in a decaying New Jersey metropolis. The film is crackerjack entertainment — simply as a narrative machine, it’s amazing — yet what powers it is Sayles’ anger, intelligence, and clear-eyed despair over an era in which institutionalized corruption has trickled into every crevice of urban life.
7. Truth or Dare
Media cynics were so busy cataloguing the way Madonna controlled her image in this backstage documentary that they were only too happy to overlook everything she revealed. Her compulsive, spotlight-grabbing selfishness is there for all to behold, and that’s the point: Madonna is so up-front about her need for attention — whether from her fans or her ”family” of mostly gay dancers — that the more you experience her giddy, childlike narcissism, the more likable she becomes. What makes Truth or Dare exhilarating is that, beneath her well-documented poses, Madonna is one of the few pop stars left who conveys a vibrant sense of joy.
8. City Slickers
Some of the best jokes of the year, and not just because they were well timed. This comedy about three urban dweebs working out their mid-life crises on the range has its gooey moments, but it also captures the farcical plight of baby boomers who can’t seem to live up to their dreams of movie-bred heroism. Billy Crystal finally finds the perfect role for his wisecracking melancholy.
A deliciously deadpan independent comedy that only pretends to be about the lives of semi-employed loafers hanging around the sunbaked college town of Austin, Tex. Sure, it’s about these slackers — but it’s also a slyly metaphysical portrait of the post-counterculture era, an era in which people, more and more, are living inside their own heads.
10. The Dcotor
In a year in which every third movie seemed to be about a selfish yuppie confronting the error of his ways, this was the one guilt-redemption saga with true emotional resonance. Its story of an arrogant surgeon whose life is changed by his battle with throat cancer remains a bracingly specific character study, anchored by William Hurt’s best performance in years.
1. Hudson Hawk
Yes, it truly was the worst movie of the year. Megabuck producer Joel Silver and star Bruce Willis seemed to think that if they took a purposefully nonsensical action-adventure story line, threw enough stuff (musical numbers, explosions, Sandra Bernhard) into the pot, and palmed the whole thing off as ”tongue in cheek,” they’d have a slam-bang winner. Instead they came up with a goulash no one could eat. The fact that Willis appears to be having a high old time doesn’t help: He seems to be laughing at the audience for being suckers. Hudson Hawk is the first postmodern turkey — a fiasco sealed with a smirk.
2. At Play in the Fields of the Lord
Perhaps the worst movie ever made about missionaries (it’s certainly the longest). Kathy Bates and John Lithgow go head-to-head in the category of Most Hysterical Performance as an Insensitive White Person. An ooga-booga jungle fantasy in liberal drag, the movie isn’t just morally pompous — it’s ponderously dull.
3. The Butcher’s Wife
Demi Moore must have had her choice of good roles after Ghost. Instead, she chose to play Marina, a golden-tressed clairvoyant who arrives in New York City and becomes a cosmic yenta. A sitcom sprinkled with New Age fairy dust, the movie sets a new standard for sheer dippiness.
4. Not Without My Daughter
Happy housewife Sally Field is married to an Americanized Iranian physician. Beware, Sally: Deep down, he’ll always be one of them! Though based on a true story, this melodrama about a woman whose husband undergoes a fanatic reconversion to Islam is so psychologically thin that it turns into a rabid xenophobic nightmare: Midnight Express meets Kramer vs. Kramer.
5. A Kiss Before Dying
Matt Dillon and Sean Young star in what feels like an intentional homage to the draggy, mechanical potboilers Alfred Hitchcock made during the ’60s. Since we know from the beginning that Dillon is planning to murder Young, there’s no suspense. There’s plenty of time, though, to notice Young’s abysmal acting: In scene after scene, she has the goony imperviousness of a puppet.
If the characters in this twittery romantic farce hadn’t been called ”George Sand” and ”Frédéric Chopin,” the movie might have seemed less like a highbrow romp and more like the shrill, slapstick cartoon it is. Even critics’ darling Judy Davis gets snowed under. As Sand, the renegade novelist, she’s so girlishly swoony over Chopin’s music that she might as well be fawning over the latest Michael Bolton single.
Let’s play dress-up! Patrick Dempsey, Christian Slater, and Richard Grieco all put on funky ’30s hats and suits, slick back their hair, and — voilà! — they’re completely believable as young versions of Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, and Bugsy Siegel, right? Wrong. In this slickly incoherent disaster — a gangsterized Young Guns put through the MTV Cuisinart — they come off as a preening pack of ’90s-Hollywood brats.
8. Guilty by Suspicion
Why is it that whenever someone makes a movie about the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the ’50s, it turns out like some lifeless melodrama from the ’50s? Robert De Niro — in his zombie-ish, ordinary-guy mode — plays a famous Hollywood director who ends up blacklisted. Guilty by Suspicion has all the drama and excitement of a comic-book propaganda primer, in part because the film treats McCarthyism as though it were breaking news.
9. V.I. Warshawski
In this inert adaptation of Sara Paretsky’s detective-novel series, Kathleen Turner plays a female Philip Marlowe with great legs, a smoky voice, and a colorfully shabby apartment. What does she do? Mostly, she tells people her name, over and over again, as though the very notion of a lady private eye with a Polish moniker constituted some revolutionary entertainment concept.
10. Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey
The first time out, they seemed funny and adorable and sort of hip. But in this most unexcellent sequel, Bill and Ted (Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves), those brain-dead Valley Boy metal heads, wore out their welcome and then some. If nothing else, Bogus Journey proves that there’s got to be more to life — or a movie — than playing air guitar.
Love Me 2 1/2 Times
In a summer of blockbuster wannabes, Leslie Nielsen’s goofball deadpan in The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear was a breath of fresh silliness.
Sequel We’d Least Like to See
In which Henry (Harrison Ford) gets hit by a Mack truck, loses his memory again, and heads for the Himalayas to work with Mother Teresa (Vanessa Redgrave).
The ‘Yes, Succes Has Spoiled Him’ Award
For writer-producer-director John Hughes’ ’91 output: Only the Lonely, Career Opportunities, Dutch, Curly Sue
Most Overrated Films
New Jack City