Film Critics Agree: 1987 Was a Good, Bad Year

<i> McGilligan, a senior editor of Playgirl magazine, lives in Milwaukee. Mark Rowland, West Coast editor for Musician magazine, lives in L.A. They have conducted this survey for Calendar for the last seven years</i>

How strange was 1987? Forget Gary Hart, Tammy Bakker, Oliver North, Gorbymania. Just consider this: It was the year America’s movie critics reached a consensus. They liked what they saw!

Well, sort of.

“1987 represented a complete recovery (from 1986),” wrote Jeff Simon of the Buffalo (N.Y.) News. “Even the throwaway commercial junk was somehow more imaginative and clever.”

“1987 wasn’t such a bad year for movies,” agreed Marsha McCreadie of the (Phoenix) Arizona Republic.


Ed Blank of the Pittsburgh Press equivocated, “As years go, 1987 was no better or worse than any other.”

For the annual Calendar survey, 100 newspaper and magazine film critics were polled and their votes tallied for best and worst films of the year. This sampling reflects an overall geographical representation and only includes critics who compiled year-end assessments.

Despite the sheer quantity of films released in 1987--estimated at more than 500--a core group of 10-15 films recurred on list after list, from coast to coast and in-between.

The consensus list was dominated by foreign films, U.S. films attributed to foreign-born directors, U.S. directors living abroad (Stanley Kubrick is a category unto himself) and independent film makers. Not one of the All-10-Best titles was actually filmed in Hollywood.

In fact, not a solitary “best” vote was cast for the overall audience favorite of the year, “Beverly Hills Cop II” ($153.7 million). Indeed, not a single film in the box-office Top 10 made the critical All-10.

Of course, critics may correct this oversight in reflections to come. For example, Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice, marking his 30th year at best-listing, had a disturbing insight: His first list, published in 1958, omitted Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller “Vertigo,” released that year. With three decades to think it over, Sarris admitted he would now place “Vertigo” on his all-time Top 10.

“I may very well have missed something in 1987 that will loom larger in the year 2017,” Sarris concluded. “Perhaps it may loom as large as ‘Vertigo.’ ”

Will the critics consider “B.H. Cop II” more fondly in their doting years?

As usual, the year-end wrap-ups revealed some trends and raging splits in the critical fraternity:

Foreign films (with an especially praised contingent from Great Britain) continued to seduce the critics, even if they had to leave their own particular towns to see them.

“Many of the best films never made it to Middle America,” complained George Hatza of the Reading (Pa.) Eagle. Hatza’s Top 10 include eight foreign entries, and only two actually played movie houses in Berks County, “a bad comment on how local chains limit our film consumption.”

Joan Bunke of the Des Moines (Iowa) Register admitted she filled out her list with trips to New York and Chicago. “Your friendly neighborhood reviewer hasn’t seen (John Huston’s adaptation of the James Joyce short story) ‘The Dead,’ ” she added, sounding a rueful note, but “the preview trailer I saw in Chicago gives ‘best’ emanations.”

Though Jim Emerson of the Orange County (Calif.) Register dared to list some esoteric titles among his 20 “best,” he cautioned, “If some of those titles don’t look familiar to you, it’s only because you live here.”

Kerry Drake had to admit that certain highfalutin films, like the one-man talkathon “Swimming to Cambodia,” simply would just never show up in Cheyenne, Wyo., except in video format. Consequently his list, published in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, was one of the few to short-shrift foreign films and to boast only made-in-the-U.S.A. movies.

The vagaries of distribution also meant that many critics didn’t get to see “Platoon,” the Oscar Best Picture of 1986, until 1987. Look for “Moonstruck” and “Good Morning, Vietnam,” which only a handful of critics managed to sneak onto their lists after early previews, to receive similar belated best attention next year.

Despite the dilemma of the provincial reviewer, there is little to suggest that big-city reviewers have developed tastes more sophisticated--or even different--than their regional counterparts.

The two top vote-getters of 1987, “Hope and Glory” and “Broadcast News,” received best citations from critics’ organizations in Los Angeles and New York City, respectively. But both films also received whopping support from “flyover country,” while many an arty import, such as the offbeat Japanese “noodle Western” “Tampopo,” graced lists from Memphis to San Jose.

Offer a film critic a sacred cow and you may discover that he or she prefers a horse. Who can figure? This year on principle film critics scorned a batch of movies starring babies, with the exception of a kidnaped infant by the name of Arizona. And they professed ardor for so many war movies that their lists sometimes read like “Rambo’s best.”

The only real brouhaha of the year was over the smash “Fatal Attraction,” which managed to turn up on 14 best votes against a sprinkling of scathing worst comments: “It was the year’s most talked-about movie,” decided Eleanor Ringel of the Atlanta (Ga.) Constitution, “and no one . . . was quite sure why.”

In lieu of many hot controversies, critics were forced to manufacture one out of their own juices.

Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune singled out, as one of the bright spots of year, the fact that “Robby Benson didn’t make a film.” People magazine offered an “honorable mention” laurel to Richard Gere “who for the first time in years didn’t make a terrible movie, which is to say he didn’t make any movie at all.”

Certain scribes let off steam by gratuitously insulting certain other scribes--quite the developing trend--which, at the least, Robby Benson and Richard Gere ought to be happy about.

“Critic Rex Reed . . . said he would quit if they made ‘Police Academy 5,’ ” noted Desmond Ryan of the Philadelphia Inquirer "(The film makers are) obliging and we all hope Rex is a man of his word.”

One of the joys of the annual best list ritual are the arcane, indulgent, sometimes puzzling choices, of which there is never any shortage.

Some “odd fellows” for the year (the only people to pick these films):

“Making Mr. Right” (Susan Stark, Detroit News).

“Surrender” (Lou Sedrone, Baltimore Evening Sun).

“Evil Dead 2" (Michael Healy, L.A. Daily News).

“Benji the Hunted” (Michael H. Price, Fort Worth Star-Telegram).

“Best Seller” (Tony Frazier, the Daily Oklahoman).

The New York Times’ Vincent Canby probably raised a few eyebrows by rapturously praising Les Blank’s “Gap-Toothed Women” as a film “in which women discuss the slight space they have between their two upper front teeth, and how that space has affected their perceptions of life.”

“A must for any student of human nature,” Canby raved.

Duane Byrge of the Hollywood Reporter weighed in with “Surf Nazis Must Die” on his “best” list. “It wasn’t about much of anything,” Byrge granted. “It was refreshing to find a ‘small film’ that wasn’t sensitive or thoughtful or way too long. Better yet, you don’t have to worry about sitting next to people who sip cappuccino at this movie.”

This list is compiled from 100 newspaper and magazine critics’ Top 10 Lists. The numbers refer to the number of critics’ lists on which the film appears.

Consensus Top 10

No. of Lists 1. “Broadcast News” 61 2. “Hope and Glory” 53 3. “My Life as a Dog” 45 4. “Full Metal Jacket” 44 5. Tie, “Jean de Florette” 38 and “Radio Days” 38 7. “Roxanne” 34 8. Tie, “River’s Edge” 30 and “Tin Men” 30 10. “The Last Emperor” 29

At least 20 lists: “Raising Arizona” 28, “Empire of the Sun” 26, “The Untouchables” 25, “The Dead” 22, “Platoon” 22, “Manon of the Spring” 22, “Tampopo” 20. Consensus Worst

1. “The Sicilian”

2. Tie, “Leonard Part 6" and “Over the Top”

4. “Jaws IV: The Revenge”

5. “Who’s That Girl”

6. “Ishtar”

7. Tie, “Beyond Therapy” and “Mannequin”

9. Tie, “Straight to Hell” and “Million Dollar Mystery”

10. “Fatal Beauty”

Dishonorable mention: “A Prayer for the Dying,” “Superman IV” and “Spaceballs.”