1986 Ten Best Movies

It was not, as one of the titles on my list suggests, the best of times. I thought then, and still think, that the 1980s were the worst decade in movie history. Yes, the decade had its share of great films — there’ll always be great films — but I saw most of what opened, and on a week-by-week basis, the dreck was overwhelming. It wasn’t just the percentage of badness, but the nature of it: look at 1986’s “most popular titles” list on the IMDb and you’ll see a parade of tinny, toneless pictures: Top Gun (the year’s top grosser), Three Amigos, Cobra, The Money Pit, Short Circuit, The Golden Child, Police Academy 3, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Poltergeist II, Iron Eagle, Gung Ho, Legal Eagles, Club Paradise. You say every year serves up its dogs? Fine, but these are on the “most popular” list, and there are some respectable filmmakers and stars mixed in there — imagine what the flops look like. (Okay, two words: Shanghai Surprise.)

velvet2All of which makes the #1 film of 1986 seem even more unlikely, necessary, and bracing. When I watched Blue Velvet again a couple of years ago I was afraid it would look dated, or that its most startling moments might have been so thoroughly chewed over by the pop-culture machine that they would lose their ability to unnerve. Not so. One of the things that makes Blue Velvet work is that while David Lynch looks critically at his small-town world, and always sees the insects grubbing beneath the surface of the well-manicured lawn, he also feels drawn to the pleasures of the white picket fence and Norman Rockwell’s Main Street. His unresolved ambivalence keeps the movie alive. It remains as spellbinding today as on its day of release.

So for the moment forget the badness, and behold the best movies of 1986:

1. Blue Velvet (David Lynch)

2. The Sacrifice (Andrei Tarkovsky)

3. The Singing Detective (Jon Amiel)

4. Le Rayon vert, aka Summer (Eric Rohmer)

5. Peking Opera Blues (Tsui Hark)

6. Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen)

7. Aliens (James Cameron) and The Fly (David Cronenberg)

8. Platoon (Oliver Stone)

9. Something Wild (Jonathan Demme)

10. The Best of Times (Roger Spotiswoode)

A couple of those projects owe plenty to their screenwriters: the astonishing miniseries The Singing Detective is a Dennis Potter creation, vastly superior to its later big-screen version, and The Best of Times, a lovely football comedy with Kurt Russell and Robin Williams (it’s completely fallen off the map now), is an early Ron Shelton script. Some pictures need only a single impact: I have never revisited Peking Opera Blues, but seeing it at the Seattle International Film Festival once upon a time was enough to sear it into my grateful head. The significance of Platoon can’t be denied, although I’m not sure how it holds up today, and maybe Something Wild should be displaced by something like Manhunter or My Beautiful Laundrette, but I loved it then and can’t let it go just yet. The Color of Money was exciting in a lot of ways, and Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind even more interesting at the time, but somehow don’t quite make the inner circle here. Michael Dinner’s Off Beat is a charming movie that more people should know about, but that slot already got taken by The Best of Times. And Chuck Workman’s Precious Images, a compilation of movie moments (prepared for a Director’s Guild anniversary) is my favorite little montage ever.

Late addition to Top Ten: Sherman’s March.

Next week: 1933.

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