What was it? The Year of the Actor?
Perhaps so. When no one else does anything especially prepossessing in movies, it's the actors who shine like beacons in the fog. It's a law of American movies and television that when everything else turns to oat bran, actors can function fully as artists and get away with it.
It was a year profligate with powerful performances -- several by people who had hitherto been merely promising (and for a good long while too).
Yes, Robert Zemeckis' "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" combined live action and animation with unprecedented virtuosity. And yes, Ron Shelton's "Bull Durham" was the annunciation of the most exciting writer-director to hit American movies since Oliver Stone.
But all the truly great -- even sublime -- movies of 1988 were holdovers first released elsewhere in 1987. No other movie of 1988 came remotely close to the sublimities of Gabriel Axel's "Babette's Feast" or John Huston's "The Dead." John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate" -- which Frank Sinatra had put on dry ice in his vault for 15 years -- was the year's most dramatic holdover (from 1962, no less). It's diabolical freshness upon re-release was the dramatic movie story of 1988.
The year's best in alphabetical order:
1 -- Eric Rohmer's "Boyfriends and Girlfriends." We Americans are no good at perfection. For that we have to look to the French. There wasn't much to Eric Rohmer's finale to his "Comedies of Proverbs" series, but what there was couldn't have been changed without disaster.
2 -- Ron Shelton's "Bull Durham." So fresh and folksy and funny and unapologetically literate was Shelton's mythologizing of his years as a minor-league baseball player that he was the first writer-director of the '80s to actually remind people of the great Preston Sturges.
3 -- Glenn Gordon Caron's "Clean and Sober." A lean, naturalistic account of getting straight that marked Michael Keaton's coming of age as an actor.
4 -- David Cronenberg's "Dead Ringers." Cronenberg has become the great mutant poet of the movies, a lyric master of tragic horror. And Jeremy Irons' performance as twins was a tour de force.
5 -- John McTiernan's "Die Hard." It will be nothing on video. You had to see it in a technological showplace -- a theater with state-of-the-art sound and projection. If you did, it was the kind of ruthlessly efficient American action movie that drives people wild all over the globe.
6 -- Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker's "The Naked Gun." Every time they make a movie of one of their own scripts, they prove that they are in the great tradition of American movie comedy -- trashy, slapdash, anarchic and far more concerned with belly laughs than art. And they produce them by the bushel.
7 -- Barry Levinson's "Rain Man." It was a long time coming, but profoundly moving when it finally got here. Dustin Hoffman was superb as an autistic savant and Tom Cruise gave his best performance on film thus far as his brother.
8 -- Robert Zemeckis' "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." So much of it disappointed. But when Bob Hoskins, in its final half-hour, entered the entirely imaginary universe of "Toontown," the movie moved into another and vastly more grand dimension.
9 -- Mike Nichols' "Working Girl." The year's best sophisticated comedy, both truly comic and perhaps even truly sophisticated.
10 -- Chris Menges' "A World Apart." At long last, the great and tragic subject of apartheid in South Africa got the heart-wrenching and stirring movie it deserved.
The best movies of 1988 that really date from 1987 -- or earlier: Gabriel Axel's "Babette's Feast," John Huston's "The Dead," Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor," John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate," Louis Malle's "Au Revoir Les Enfants" and Phil Kaufman's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."
The best movies of 1988 that won't open in Buffalo until 1989: Probably Alan Parker's "Mississippi Burning," Stephen Frear's "Dangerous Liaisons," Lawrence Kasdan's "The Accidental Tourist" and Oliver Stone's "Talk Radio."
Honorable mention (in no particular order): David Mamet's "Things Change," Errol Morris' "The Thin Blue Line," Francis Coppola's "Tucker," Penny Marshall's "Big," Peter Markle's "Bat 21" (the first Vietnam film to exist in a political DMZ and one which was disgracefully treated by its distributor, Tri-Star), Barry Levinson's "Good Morning, Vietnam," the first 45 minutes of Roman Polanski's "Frantic," John Waters' "Hairspray," Gary Sinise's "Miles From Home," Costa-Gavras' "Betrayed," James Dearden's "Pascali's Island," Jonathan Demme's "Married to the Mob," Robert Redford's "The Milagro Beanfield War," Pedro Almodovar's "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," Stephen Frears' "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid" and John Cleese's "A Fish Called Wanda."
The Howard Hawks medallion for the most underrated movies of the year: Paul Mazursky's delightful and surprisingly graceful "Moon Over Parador," Michael Radford's sinister "White Mischief," the mad opera video concoction "Aria," Tony Bill's version of John Patrick Shanley's script for "Five Corners," Christopher Cain's critically mauled "Young Guns" and Luis Mandoki's "Gaby -- A True Story."
Witty ideas of the year -- That aliens could be pushed around like ordinary ethnics in Graham Baker's "Alien Nation"; that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito could be "Twins"; that all yuppies, cops and conspicuous consumers are really astral zombies in John Carpenter's "They Live"; that Bill Murray could stand in for old Ebenezer in "Scrooged"; that "The Moderns" in Paris were really fakes and poseurs in Alan Rudolph's movie "The Moderns"; that a fictional Elvis and a very real Tuesday Weld could get together (again) in Chris Columbus' "Heartbreak Hotel."
Smart-aleck remake of the year: Morton and Jankel's version of Rudy Mate's 1949 film noir beauty, "D. O. A."
Most unnecessary remake of modern times: Frank Oz's "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," which is his version of 1964's entirely wretched "Bedtime Story."
Clint Eastwood? The whispering fascist himself?: Yes, he took Dirty Harry around the course again in the listless "Dead Pool," but old Clint also directed "Bird," the vehemently accurate movie biography of jazz genius Charlie Parker that will long stand as the most bizarre and perhaps noble Hollywood artifact of the year.
Much ado about awfully little: For all the noisy alarums and brickbats on one side and the hysterical defenses on the other, Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" was a tragic failure. Dennis Hopper's first big-budget film in ages, "Colors," was merely a hip cop movie. And for all the advance expectation, Robert Towne's "Tequila Sunrise" proved to be little more than a witty, beautiful, atmospheric mess.
Superb performances in a year that was full of them: Kim Basinger in "My Stepmother Was an Alien," Meryl Streep in "A Cry in the Dark" and "Ironweed," Jack Nicholson in "Ironweed," Dennis Quaid and Jessica Lange in "Everyone's All-American," Diane Keaton in "The Good Mother," Tom Hulce in "Dominick and Eugene," Jodie Foster in "The Accused," Christine Lahti in "Running on Empty," Tom Hanks in "Big" and "Punchline," Robin Williams in "Good Morning, Vietnam," Alan King in "Memories of Me," Amy Irving and Peter Riegert in "Crossing Delancey," Sigourney Weaver in "Gorillas in the Mist," Eddie Murphy in "Coming to America," a returned Sidney Poitier in "Shoot to Kill," Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway in "Barfly," Sally Kirkland in "Anna" and Avtandil Makharadze in Tengiz Abuladze's long-suppressed Russian film "Repentance," the first performance I've ever seen that might genuinely be called surreal.
Pounding the pedals, chewing the scenery: Shirley MacLaine no doubt thinks that her performance as "Madame Sousadzka," the ultimate in terrifying piano teachers, is character acting. It is, but only in the sense that a step-over toe hold could be called dancing.
Molly Ringwald, the story thus far: She had a baby and then got married in "For Keeps." In "Fresh Horses" she cheated on her husband.
Say what? -- The two weirdest commercial movies of the year were without doubt Tim Burton's hugely successful "Beetlejuice" and Nicolas Roeg's largely unsuccessful "Track 29."
Worst movie of the year: Always a tough pick any year. The competition this year was ferocious: "Vibes" and "Cocktail" (otherwise known as the tarnished glitz twins); "Clara's Heart," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "Switching Channels" (otherwise known as the egregiously wasted talent trilogy); and Nicholas Meyer's "The Deceivers," Luc Besson's "The Big Blue," Simon Wincer's "The Lighthorsemen" and Roger Holzberg's "Midnight Crossing" (otherwise known as the "you've-got-to-be-kidding" quartet).
But for profound and cosmic awfulness, nothing quite beats "Rambo III," all 60-some million dollars worth. Its resounding flop after a month in theaters could be heard all the way to Afghanistan, its narrative home.