It doesn’t stick in the mind as a notable year, and I have a difficult time coming up with a defining #1 movie. The giddiest and and newest moviegoing experience I had during the calendar year 1987 was Sherman’s March, but IMDb reminds me that this was technically a 1986 release, so I will dutifully stick it somewhere in that already-published list. 1987 had its share of Eighties bloat; the box office was topped by Three Men and a Baby, Beverly Hills Cop II, and Fatal Attraction. The year’s odder phenomena included Patrick Dempsey and Sally Kirkland and Million Dollar Mystery.
And yet the list of decent movies goes on and on. The three films at the top of my inventory share different qualities: The Dead is purified and honed to essentials, Wings of Desire is large and shaggy, Hope and Glory is old-fashioned but clear-eyed. Tip it toward John Huston’s final film, and its chronicle of ritual closed by a climactic stab of passion. The ten best movies of 1987:
1. The Dead (John Huston)
2. Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders)
3. Hope and Glory (John Boorman)
4. Boyfriends and Girlfriends (Eric Rohmer)
5. Mauvais Sang (Leos Carax)
6. Empire of the Sun (Steven Spielberg)
7. Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick)
8. Where is the Friend’s Home? (Abbas Kiarostami)
9. High Tide (Gillian Armstrong)
10. Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow)
But there’s a whole bunch of movies that could claim a spot in the lower rungs there: The Last Emperor, which won the Oscar and is a spellbinding experience in its long form, with all of Bertolucci’s idiosyncrasies thriving in the big-canvas setting; Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Todd Haynes’ Barbie-doll-acted biopic, which is legally unavailable; Radio Days, Woody Allen’s warm period picture; RoboCop (Verhoeven); The Belly of an Architect, a Greenaway movie given some human presence by Brian Dennehy; Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (Frears), representing a moment in British film. Movies that maintained a Mankiewicz-level appreciation of words were Moonstruck (Jewison), Broadcast News (James L. Brooks), and Tin Men (Levinson), all marvelous entertainments. Cry of the Owl is a superb offering from Claude Chabrol, and Pelle the Conqueror a typically excellent title from Bille August.
And it keeps going. Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping and Fred Schepisi’s Roxanne, very different pictures but both fine studies of place. The hyper comedy of Raising Arizona (the Coens) -it was a great year for Holly Hunter – and Evil Dead II (Raimi). The passions of White of the Eye (Donald Cammell) and Paul Cox’s offbeat approach to Van Gogh, Vincent. British literary films of very different tones, Prick Up Your Ears (Frears) and 84 Charing Cross Road (David Jones). De Palma’s Untouchables, Roger Donaldson’s No Way Out, and John Hughes’ Planes, Trains, and Automobiles delivered the goods for a mainstream audience; Elaine May’s Ishtar did not, but it’s a funny movie anyway.
In the realm of respectable foreign titles, Babette’s Feast (Gabriel Axel) and Au revoir les enfants (Malle) were not only respectable, but very good. House of Games made a tidy directing debut for David Mamet, and Born in East L.A. an unexpectedly humane and warm-hearted one for Cheech Marin. Barbet Schroeder’s Bukowski-infused Barfly was one of those last moments where you thought Mickey Rourke was still going to be a great actor for his times, and John Sayles’ Matewan introduced Chris Cooper to his hard-working career.
Fun couples: John Malkovich and Ann Magnuson in Susan Seidelman’s Making Mr. Right; Steve Guttenberg and Isabelle Huppert in Curtis Hanson’s Bedroom Window (still my vote for weirdest movie pairing); and Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in Lyndall Hobbs’ Back to the Beach (a very amusing film, actually).
There are more, but one must stop somewhere. 1987, you stand as a rebuke to the “Eighties Suck” attitude sometimes forwarded on this website. All apologies.