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The Year the American Movie Came Back : ‘Accidental Tourist’ tops The Times’ critic’s 10 Best of 1988

There are years when a look back over the year’s most significant films for that arbitrary ten comes with what one writer once called that nasty ratcheting sound made by scraping the bottom of the barrel. Then there are years when each move to pare down to only 10 brings hours of remorse and deliberation.

And oddly enough, this was one of those killer years. As it warmed up, 1988 may not have seemed fated to be an extra superbly choicest year, if you could grade movies the way they grade tea. But it gained momentum after a slow first half until finally the year could be chalked up as fat, full and innovative.

You cannot fault innovation, not in the same calendar year that marked “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Little Dorrit,” but full is certainly a big part of that equation. Between new screens cropping up like mushrooms after a rain and the insatiable maw of video, which insists that movies at least curtsy on a big screen before being gulped down into the small one, we are seeing roughly 60 more films now than we did in 1982.

When you are staring, dumbfounded, at the marshamallowed dimensions of a film like “Zelly and Me” it can seem a particularly high psychic price to pay, simply to fill more theater screens. Particularly when some of the theaters are roughly the size of an airline washroom, and flood with light whenever late-comers shuffle into to one of their 45 seats.

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Then a film like “The Chocolate War” gets its crack at one of those screens, giving audiences a chance to discover the strengths of its astonishingly assured young debuting director, Keith Gordon, and it all seems worth it again.

1988 may be remembered as the point at which the quintessentially American movie came back into its own, giving us the outright delights of “Punchline,” “Bull Durham,” “Big,” “8 Men Out,” “Roger Rabbit,” “Dominick and Eugene,” “Tucker” or " Working Girl.”

It was also the year for films adapted from exceptionally knotty books, and succeed or fail, the determination involved in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” “The Accidental Tourist,” “Little Dorrit,” “The Milagro Beanfield War,” “Pelle the Conqueror” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” had to be admired.

Art, music and even food had their day on the screen with “The Moderns,” “Vincent,” “Bird” “Long Live the Lady” and “Babette’s Feast.” By and large, films with urgent social or political issues still came with passports or not at all: “A World Apart,” “Hotel Terminus: the Life and Times of Klaus Barbie,” “A Cry in the Dark,” “Salaam Bombay!” In some cases it was a foreign-born director who took on American social issues, the case of “Betrayed” and “Mississippi Burning.”

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The 10 films that impressed me most this year are below, ranked in order, with special notice that “Punchline” very nearly threw the whole matter into a tie. So, the runner up-list is a hair’s breath one this year.

1. “It’s not just how much you love someone,” William Hurt as a grieving father muses in “The Accidental Tourist,” “it’s who you are when you’re with them.” Director-co-writer Lawrence Kasdan has made watching this man come alive, perhaps for the first time, into a small-scale epiphany. What’s startling is how this story, which takes place during Hurt’s second year of mourning, can be as funny as it is. However, like Anne Tyler’s singular book, the humor comes from character and the family Hurt springs from is memorable enough to have escaped from Dickens. Among the excellent ensemble, all of whom seem to have a decidedly droll bent and a knack for underplaying, you can find the irresistible Geena Davis. She plays a dog obedience trainer to whom Hurt’s Welsh corgi, Edward, takes an enormous shine. It’s entirely understandable.

2. “Little Dorrit’s” virtues are not simply its off-handed display of the cream of British actors: Derek Jacobi, Alec Guinness, Miriam Margolyes, Roshan Seth, Joan Greenwood, Eleanor Bron, Cyril Cusack, but the toughness and accomplishment with which director Christine Edzard’s adaptation makes Dickens as pertinent as this week’s stock-fixing headlines.

The qualities which made George Bernard Shaw call the novel “more seditious than “Das Kapital” are here in abundance and Edzard asks that we see the story in two films, six hours in all; however her method is not epic but intimate. By the time we have come to Dorrit’s triumphant conclusion, the faces, and voices of London at that time, the working poor as well as the drawling rich, have been stamped upon us forever.

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3. “A Cry in the Dark” is an angry film, an outraged one really, as director Fred Schepisi lays out the almost unbelieveable path of Australian jurisprudence and/or media hijinks by which a bereft mother became, in the eyes of the public, the ritual killer of her own infant daughter.

Its power comes from Schepisi’s blend of passion and detachment and from the best performance Meryl Streep has given so far. (Do we seem to write this each year? If so, it’s true--this is a talent you can watch deepen and become further refined with each role.) Streep has a perfectly matched thoroughbred opposite her in Sam Neill; he makes this Seventh Day Adventist pastor’s fall from smugness and self-assurance a wracking business.

4. “Salaam, Bombay!” throws us into the life of Bombay’s street kids with an ebullience and an energy that’s matched exactly by the film’s tough-mindedness. Director Mira Nair asks for no pity for her urchins and she doesn’t romanticize them either, but there is no way you cannot be haunted by them. “Salaam Bombay!” is not Nair’s first film about exploitation as a way of life in India’s cities, but it is her first non-documentary and she brings to her work a wonderful eye and a truly cinematic flair for story telling. As you leave 10-year old Krishna, you may be reminded of “The 400 Blows,” sacrilegious as that may sound. But “Salaam Bombay!” didn’t win Nair the Camera D’Or at Cannes in 1988, for best new director, for nothing.

5. In a year of largely literal films, the poetry of Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” soars, on the wings of his two Berliner angels, with Peter Handke’s screenplay and with the camera of Henri Alekan, who might be considered something of an expert on black and white fairy tales, since it was he who also photographed “Beauty and the Beast.” Peter Falk gives the film a wry, gutsy center, but its essence is its passionate declaration of the need for trust, love and commitment; a cheerfully anachronistic, contagiously optimistic tack. 6. In a way, Austrian director Percy Adlon was working on the same wavelength in “Bagdad Cafe” that Wenders was in “Wings of Desire,” although Adlon was playing a little more with the elements of personal discovery. Those qualities make “Bagdad Cafe” a slow-burning fuse, whose charm grows on you like its great and haunting song, “I’m Calling You.”

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Its story of two heartily unalike women, the American CCH Pounder, the Bavarian Marianne Sagebrecht, who meet and join forces against a largely disinterested world in the California desert, depends largely on the charm of ex-cabaret artist Sagebrecht and long-time theater actress Pounder. Both of them are exceptional, but Sagebrecht carries a special something extra, as anyone who saw her in “Sugarbaby” will remember.

7. Ostensibly about a “failed” car manufacturer, “Tucker,” is Francis Ford Coppola’s tribute to America’s loners, its dreamers, whether they make ballpoint pens, or vast unflyable airplanes like the film’s enigma, Howard Hughes. (Or, by the smallest stretch, if they make roundly disliked movies.) Loose-limbed and innovative, fueled by a full-throttle performance by Jeff Bridges as Tucker, it’s a film that could have used more of the darker tones of Tucker’s life--heaven knows there were enough of them. But scenes like the launching of “The car of tomorrow, today” or the mysterioso meeting between Tucker and Dean Stockwell’s Howard Hughes do a lot toward shutting down minor complaints.

8. The beauty and control David Cronenberg uses to tell his melancholy, macabre tale of symbiotic twin doctors in “Dead Ringers” shows the director at a new high of maturity, and Jeremy Irons’ dual portrayal as one bordering on the eerie. Dealing, again, with the body, its mysteries and its final frightening independence from what we would have it do, “Dead Ringers”’ twins are loosely based on a real Manhattan pair, but they are more plainly metaphors for any relationship that begins in love and ends in pathology. To think of a film this assured, this unified and this dizzyingly potent, you have to go back to “Blue Velvet.”

9. “Red Sorghum” makes you suspect that its director, 37-year old Zhang Yimou, was cinema-doomed from the cradle: His saga, which ends during the Japanese invasion of China, is part folk-tale, part love story and completely thrilling to behold. To credit this as Zhang’s directorial debut is not to tell the whole story: before this he has also been a masterly cinematographer (“Yellow Earth,” “The Big Parade) and an actor whose performance in “The Old Well” won him first prize at Tokyo’s Film Festival. It’s especially interesting to see a film from modern China with the scale and sensibilities about nature of the Kurosawa of “Dersu Uzala.”

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10. After you see “A World Apart” you realize that the great film about South Africa is still waiting to be made. However, this personal one, the homage by a daughter to her martyred mother--the first white woman jailed under South Africa’s 90-day detention law--as empathetically directed by Chris Menges, is a firm step in that direction. Three memorably fine performances came out of this: Barbara Hershey and young Jodhi May as mother and daughter; Linda Mvusi as their housekeeper. If somehow the facts of existence in South Africa had escaped you, " A World Apart” might be the perfect place to start.

Those hotly close runners-up are “Punchline,” “The Moderns,” “Babette’s Feast,” “8 Men Out,” “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “Last Temptation of Christ,” “Hotel Terminus: the Life and times of Klaus Barbie,” “Track 29,” “Vincent” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”

SHEILA BENSON’S TOP TEN

1. “The Accidental Tourist”

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2. “Little Dorrit”

3. “A Cry in the Dark”

4. “Salaam Bombay!”

5. “Wings of Desire”

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6. “Bagdad Cafe”

7. “Tucker”

8. “Dead Ringers”

9. “Red Sorghum”

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10. “A World Apart”


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