30(ish) Years Later: Best Movies of 1989

Yes, I am perfectly aware that this is being published in January of 2020. A combination of unexpectedly moving back to the Seattle area last June from Canada, starting a day job in August, and having family come visit us in December simply had the effect of knocking the publishing of my amateur film blog off its usual schedule. Let’s be clear: none of these events are in any way things I’m complaining about, but I was also not going to kill myself trying to sneak this in by December 31, 2019.

However, I am stubbornly a completist and the idea of this blog not having a “Best Movies of 1989” when I had already done a “Best Movies of 1988” was something that was going to haunt me for the rest of my life.So here we are, better late than never. Have at it:

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25. BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE dir. Stephen Herek

The birthplace of the “slacker comedy” which would dominate the early 90s, Bill & Ted is a pretty dumb movie whose success entirely depends on how much you are willing to hang out with the air-headed Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) as they hurtle through time to collect enough historical figures to help them pass their history exam. Fortunately Winter and Reeves are in their own silly way so effortlessly charming and hilarious that at their best you are gut-bustingly laughing at their antics, and even at their silliest you still end up shaking your head bemusedly. More importantly it is entirely missing of the cynical spite that would dominate the later slacker comedies, making it easily one of the more rewatchable movies on this list.

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While 2019’s fantastic Apollo 11 has made this space documentary somewhat redundant, its significance as the original template upon which our modern understanding of space travel cannot be overstated (consider that before this, our collective imagination of space was confined to grainy black-and-white TV footage). By combining footage from all the Apollo missions, Reinert crafts a single-voyage journey which seems both ethereal, timeless, and meditative as we are left mostly in awe of how small we are. Of course this feeling is aided by Brian Eno’s score which in its own way is iconic, becoming shorthand for future space-themed movie scores.

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23. DEAD CALM dir. Phillip Noyce

For the most part this movie is remembered mostly for being an odd-choice for a parodic segment on a “Treehouse of Horror” episode of The Simpsons which is a shame because it is a truly fun horror-thriller that should have more a cult status than it does. With an efficiently simple premise (a couple on a yacht discovers a marooned man in the middle of the ocean) it falls on the trio of actors to keep things compelling and they certainly deliver. There is a certain thrill in seeing Nicole Kidman before she became the A-list star we know today give a performance that reminds you why she thoroughly deserves to be on that list in the first place. She is complimented by two great character actors in a pre-Jurassic Park Sam Neill and pre-Titanic Billy Zane, each bringing so much to the taut screenplay and creating a near-perfect thriller.

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22. THE ABYSS dir. James Cameron

In many ways the thematic outlier in Cameron’s career when it first came out (sandwiched between the success of Aliens and T2: Judgment Day), it is somewhat ironic to consider that this strange movie about some unexplained creatures in the depths of the ocean may in fact represent James Cameron’s eccentric interests the best. The groundbreaking special effects may have been the movie’s calling card (and still surprisingly hold up today) but The Abyss’ greatest strength is in conjuring up a thrilling and claustrophobic story out of premise that would seem completely cerebral at first glance.

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21. NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION dir. Jeremiah S. Chechik

The “National Lampoon” brand is known for mining irreverence for its laughs, and Christmas Vacation certainly has that in droves. But what sets this holiday installment from the rest of the classic National Lampoon movies is that it is first of all incredibly earnest in showing love to the very Christmas season it mocks so readily. But it is also the most grounded of the Lampoon movies, as each of the scenarios that the Griswold clan goes through – whether it is the frustration of getting Christmas lights to work or the minefield that is Christmas dinner with extended family – seems only one or two steps removed from reality. The end result is a movie that is equal parts absurdist humor and seasonal warmth.

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20. ROGER & ME dir. Michael Moore

Michael Moore’s debut documentary, about the closing of several GM plants in Flint, Michigan, bears many of the marks that would be Moore’s trademark: a pointed, well-argued, and damning Jeremiad against a powerful corporate force that unabashedly sides with the marginalized where irreverent humor is used both to shame the powerful and sweeten the movie’s inherently bitter message. What sets Moore’s debut apart from the rest of his increasingly tiresome oeuvre is that Roger and Me is laser-focused to Flint’s plight. By sticking to telling just this one story about a CEO’s callous choice impacting one community, ironically Moore is able to speak so much more powerfully about the universality of capitalist injustice. One hopes that he returns to that focus soon.

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19. BACK TO THE FUTURE: PART II dir Robert Zemeckis

Perhaps what is most remarkable and fascinating about Robert Zemeckis’ flawed Back to the Future sequel is how much it is willing to break the mould of the enormously successful original. While the original was a story that satisfied wish-fulfillment of being able to change the circumstances of one’s present (by going back to a nostalgic past), Part II becomes more sobering because it asks the question of what one’s legacy might be (by bringing Marty and gang to a dystopic present and future of his own making). Meanwhile the fact that the movie’s villainous mayor bears a physical and philosophical resemblance to another current world leader certainly gives this movie a newfound relevance thirty years later.

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18. THE ‘BURBS dir. Joe Dante

This is a classic case of not judging a movie by its cover. Everything about the marketing of this movie hints that this is going to be a broad and probably uninspired comedy about the perils of suburban life. But hidden beneath the commercial trappings of the story’s premise is a movie that is both much weirder than its premise but is also a fairly sharp skewering of the concept of suburbia and its primordial sin. Tom Hanks’ Ray Petersen is the centerpiece of a fantastic ensemble of nosy neighbors (including Bruce Dern, Rick Ducommun, and Carrie Fisher) who become increasingly suspicious when the weird (read: non-WASP) family moves into their cul-de-sac.

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17. THE KILLER dir. John Woo

Admittedly John Woo is a director who you either are fully on board with or find eye-rolling. His hyper-stylized and balletic action sequences border on the ridiculous, while the emotional beats in most of his films can be easily described as having the subtlety of having a Wagnerian opera. And yet, there is one thing that elevates The Killer, with its paint-by-number plot about a betrayed assassin and the cop tasked with bringing him down, and that is Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee who together bring a chemistry and energy to the proceedings that make their outlandish and over-the-top story seem almost believable. And if you are like me, and have little problem with John Woo’s lack of subtlety, that is all you need.

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16. THE LITTLE MERMAID dir. Ron Clements and John Musker

A movie that may arguably be more important than it is great, The Little Mermaid’s place as the catalyst for rescuing a dying Disney company and setting it on its path to biggest media conglomerate in the world cannot be overstated. But when compared to its fellow Disney Renaissance movies (Disney movies made from 1989 until Tarzan in 1999) it is a “proof-of-concept” movie where the filmmakers were testing the waters to see if modern audiences would accept an animated musical about a fairy tale. And while The Little Mermaid is consistently good, it was undoubtedly bettered by many of the Disney movies made in its wake.

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15. SAY ANYTHING… dir. Cameron Crowe

Of the things I didn’t anticipate to say thirty years later is “What in the world happened to Cameron Crowe?” Say Anything…, his debut movie, is such a perfect balance of sincerity, optimism, and teenage naivety that it feels timeless (even if it is a quintessential Gen X rom-com). This makes it all the more befuddling that Crowe, who showed such deftness of tone not just in this movie but in his run of movies in the next decade (Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) would so completely lose it in the next two decades. At least we’ll always have that boombox scene.

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14. INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE dir. Steven Spielberg 

It is somewhat typical that as a groundbreaking escapist movie becomes a franchise, it steadily becomes more jaded and cynical by leaning on its well-established formula to manufacture its thrills. That is precisely what makes The Last Crusade such a giddy triumph. Even more so than the original movie, this third entry embraces the inherent silliness that is Indiana Jones and wholly commits to delivering its unserious pulpy adventure. In addition the only curveball this installment adds to the formula ends up invigorating the whole movie: the casting of Sean Connery as the father to Harrison Ford’s Indy adds a level of banter to the proceedings made all the more surreal by the fact that modern day Ford has certainly taken up Connery’s mantle as Hollywood’s current cantankerous elder statesman.

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13. CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS dir. Woody Allen

Let’s be clear, this is a highly subjective list based on the whims and idiosyncratic criteria of one person. I discovered and fell in love with Woody Allen movies in that brief window in the 2000s where his past seemed like ancient history and our larger cultural approach to sexual abuse was retrograde at best. I haven’t seen any Woody Allen movies since Dylan Farrow’s 2017 op-ed and have by-and-large not missed them. Yet it should tell you unquestionably great Crimes and Misdemeanors is that in spite of my feelings towards Allen in general, the movie still ranks this high on my list. Most of that has to do with Martin Landau’s performance as an adulterous and ultimately murderous ophthalmologist, but the movie also uncannily and eerily litigates Allen’s ultimate legacy, asking if it is true that any scandal can pass with time or if one is forever burdened by their crimes.

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12. A CITY OF SADNESS dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien

A City of Sadness follows a young deaf-mute Taiwanese named Lin Wen-Ching (Tony Leung) and his family as they maneuver their way through the instable period between Taiwan’s liberation by the Japanese in 1945 and the island’s eventual takeover by the mainland Chinese Communists in 1949. The movie is certainly not subtle in its main point, with Wen-Ching’s silence standing in for the general population’s larger attitude of wanting peace and to be left alone as the island’s fate is controlled by forces beyond their control. Hou Hsiao-Hsien is a director whose work is often opaque to casual viewers; rest assured A City of Sadness rewards those who choose to take the time to meet it on its own terms.

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11. MY LEFT FOOT dir. Jim Sheridan

Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Christy Brown, a man born with severe cerebral palsy who then goes on to become a prodigious painter and writer, is perhaps the poster child of an unfortunate trend in the 80s where an able-bodied actor playing a person with a disability almost always guaranteed an Oscar winning or Oscar contending performance (cf. Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man). And yet, undeniably Day-Lewis’ performance is phenomenal not only for his physicality but for the overwhelmingly complete picture he gives us off Brown’s life. A lesser movie would lean into sentimentality and inspiration to drive its narrative; Jim Sheridan and Day-Lewis are confident instead that Christy Brown’s life can be shown, prickly warts and all, because Brown’s life is inspiration in and of itself.

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10. KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE dir. Hayao Miyazaki

It is remarkable to think that though this movie and The Little Mermaid came out in the same year when their visions of girlhood could not be any more different. Where Disney slots Ariel with a traditional romance plot, Hayao Miyazaki asks us to sit with the ambitious, earnest, confused, and kind Kiki as she tries to navigate her transition from being a child in the country to a full-fledged witch in the heart of a bustling city. As is typical, Miyazaki’s empathetic eye follows Kiki as she slowly replaces her idealistic dreams of what life in the big city will be like in favor of a quiet joy in being able to work and do a job well (what every child longs to hear). It is Studio Ghibli at its most gentle and comforting.

(FULL REVIEW)

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9. BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY dir. Oliver Stone

It is hard to remember now when Tom Cruise is almost exclusively an action-franchise A-list star, but there used to be a time when what made him such an intriguing actor was how he effortlessly switched between popcorn movies and prestige drama fare. His never winning an Oscar for his more dramatic roles represents one of the bigger “what-ifs” or modern Hollywood, as it seems clear that after a decade of trying to snag the Oscar he gives up and sticks exclusively to blockbuster fare. This is a shame because thirty years later, one can definitely argue that he deserved if for his phenomenal performance as anti-war activist Ron Kovic (especially given that the actual winner Daniel Day-Lewis could certainly afford to lose on of his own) and one can’t help but wonder how many late-career Tom Cruise dramatic performances we’ve been robbed off because the Academy never could find the space to give him a statuette.

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8. MONSIEUR HIRE dir. Patrice Leconte

The strange, highly unlikable, and reclusive tailor Hire finds his highly routinized life interrupted when seemingly the object of his voyeuristic desires, his neighbor Alice who he spies on every day, suddenly a strange friendship with him and almost simultaneously he becomes the main suspect in the murder of another woman in his apartment complex. Director Patrice Leconte skillfully keeps us at a remove so we can never be too sure who to be fearful of, Hire or Alice, as their budding relationship and the investigation slowly weave a suffocating know. While we know that both Hire and Alice are lying in how they present themselves to one another, we are never sure exactly what it is they are hiding, setting up what is ultimately a thrilling finale.

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7. DEAD POETS SOCIETY dir. Peter Weir

Today Dead Poets Society is an easily mockable movie, not least because its pie-in-the-sky approach to the virtues of the liberal arts rings a little hollow in the viciousness of our current gig economy. But in many ways it is easily mockable because it is effective as an inspirational melodrama. Robin Williams is entirely believable as Mr. Keating, the over-eager and unconventional teacher who inspires a class out of the doldrums of their seemingly preset lives. The students also accurately portray the naive optimism of people discovering their passions for the first time. And while Williams and his class were like catnip to me when I first encountered the movie, Dead Poets Society has remained powerful because it also gives a cold dose of reality, reminding us that romanticism – and the people who cling tightest to them – is easily and enthusiastically discarded when pragmatism and efficiency are virtues.

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6. SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE dir. Steven Soderbergh

There is a significant argument to be made that sex, lies, and videotape – the breakout hit of the still-small Sundance Film Festival that went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, act as the spark to the modern American independent film movement, as well as launch Miramax two-decade reign as the premier indie studio – is one of the most important movies to shape our current film landscape. But it is also significant in that it launched the career of Steven Soderbergh, one of the most intriguing directors still working today. In disarming fashion, sex, lies, and videotape lures you in on a promise of potential salaciousness, only to reveal itself as a witty and piercing examination of the neuroses that surround our publicly puritanical sexuality.

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The fact that When Harry Met Sally became the go-to template for so many more inferior romantic comedies (and the business model for Hallmark and Lifetime) is a testament to how close-to perfect the movie is. Screenwriter Nora Ephron stuffs the movie with instantly quotable and witty dialogue, simultaneously making Harry and Sally sound contemporary in a way we wish we could be in real life. And in Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan the movie finds its lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry, two leads who are very different in personality and yet intellectually equals reminiscent of the best screwball comedy couples of Hollywood’s Golden age. The presence of so many mediocre copycats in this movie’s wake is simply a reminder of how difficult, and how rewarding, it is to get the genre right.

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4. BATMAN dir. TIM BURTON

Perhaps of all the movies on this list, Batman best illustrates how a movie’s reputation shifts over time. Heralded as revolutionary when it came out as a bone-fide box-office hit, Batman’s reputation first suffered when it got tied to the later campier Joel Schumaker-directed sequels and then prematurely buried in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. But now in the wake of another decade filled with misguided superhero movies that went “dark” we can finally re-appreciate Batman for what it is. With arguably the best depiction of Bruce Wayne ever (as a barely contained maniac in Michael Keaton, a Jack Nicholson performance as the Joker that perfectly bridges the characters campy past and the darker depictions of the future, and Tim Burton’s uniquely weird sensibilities, we have all the ingredients for what might be the most fun Batman movie we’ve ever had.

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3. HENRY V dir. Kenneth Branagh

A direct adaptation of a Shakespearean historical epic is the definition of something that is categorically uncool. And yet the beauty of Shakespeare is that as long as you pass the shockingly low bar of getting good actors to play the parts, Shakespeare’s writing will always be compelling and feel vibrantly contemporary. And that is precisely what Branagh provides here in his directorial debut, delivering a performance worthy of the part while donning his director’s cap to provide the epic scope and grounded brutality of war that could not be achieved on the stage. There are absolutely no surprises to anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s grand epic, but that hardly matters when the source material is this good.

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2. DEKALOG dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski

First of all, before you cry out “category fraud” let me just state that if the folks at Sight and Sound magazine consider the Twin Peaks TV-revival a “movie” then this Polish TV masterpiece certainly counts as a movie as well. Taking inspiration from a church tableau depicting the Ten Commandments, Kieslowski ten movies uses the commandments as a framework to point an existential finger at God and at us by depicting the particular hardships of a Communist Poland. Of all of Kieslowski’s impressive oeuvre, Dekalog probably best depicts what he does best namely his ability to take a cerebral topic and make it so intensely personal that you cannot help but find yourself emotionally drawn into the movie’s wake.

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1. DO THE RIGHT THING dir. Spike Lee

Distressingly, and yet poignantly, the power of Spike Lee’s masterpiece is that its depiction of race in America and the tensions within feels just about as relevant today as it was thirty years ago. Do The Right Thing is in many ways a mass of contradictions. It is a joyful depiction of diversity, until it becomes an angry movie about racist injustice; it is a very funny movie until it becomes tragic; it is a movie of flawed heroes and sympathetic villains; it simultaneously reminds us of why the American experiment is something to be celebrated while never letting us forget America’s primordial sins. In other words, it is not only the clear choice for the best movie of 1989 but one of the most important movies ever made.

One thought on “30(ish) Years Later: Best Movies of 1989

  1. Pingback: 10 Years Later: Best Movies of 2010 – Homebody Movies

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