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The Cinematic Class of 1990: Twenty-Five Years Later

The start of another new year marks another series of movies celebrating their silver anniversary.

There are some doozies in this bunch from 1990 and, as always, the compiling of the list offered a dizzying trip down memory lane.

This was the year when audiences were introduced to Jack Ryan in the first Tom Clancy movie adaptation; when we caught our first glimpse of live-action post-pubescent ninja amphibians; and when Whoopi Goldberg saw dead people (and earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) in Ghost. It was also the year the MPAA introduced the NC-17 rating (for the erotic Henry Miller biopic Henry & June) in an admirable but ultimately futile marketing attempt to distinguish artistic adult fare from pornography.

It was also the odd and uncharacteristic year of the Reagan/Bush era without a Freddy Kruger or Jason Voorhees flick, and it marked the dawn of computer-generated animation (briefly seen in Disney’s non-musical The Rescuers Down Under).

Without further ado, let’s review the year that was 1990.


ACTION/ADVENTURE/THRILLER
 

Best of the Class: The Hunt for Red October 

The first and best Tom Clancy adaptation cemented Predator and Die Hard director John McTiernan as the finest action/suspense filmmaker in Hollywood. Despite a few shoddy matte effects, the submarine thriller is still a technical marvel even by today’s standards, and boasts a dazzling production design, immersive sound effects and some of the most elegant widescreen cinematography ever put to film.

Plus, it’s got Sean Connery headlining a stellar cast, including Alec Baldwin in a career-best starring role as moviedom’s first Jack Ryan.

Compare To: Another 48 Hrs.; Darkman; Die Hard 2; Flatliners; Hard to Kill; King of New York; La Femme Nikita; Marked for Death; Miami Blues; Navy Seals; Predator 2; RoboCop 2; The Rookie; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; Young Guns II.

Fewer Will Remember: Captain America; Death Warrant; Delta Force 2; Fire Birds; The Fourth War; The Last of the Finest; Lionheart; Quigley Down Under; Shipwrecked.

SCI-FI/FANTASY
 

Best of the Class: Total Recall 

An ill-conceived remake in 2012 only intensified fan love for this clunky but wildly entertaining sci-fi epic, featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger at the height of his appeal. Briskly directed by Paul Verhoeven (this was his big, expensive follow-up to RoboCop) and featuring his same signature blend of macabre humor, biting social satire and brutal graphic violence.

Granted, some of the practical visual effects don’t hold up very well today (heck, some bluescreen shots and much of the puppetry looked embarrassingly dated upon the film’s debut), but even with its warts, the movie can stand toe-to-toe with any latter-day sci-fi fantasy.

Edward Scissorhands

Next to Beetlejuice, Tim Burton fans typically name this tender fable about a deformed outcast as one of their favorites. A quarter-century later, it remains the quintessential Burton film, the work that aligns most squarely with the filmmaker’s tortured but optimistic sensibilities.

Danny Elfman’s evocative choral score contains some of the composer’s most beautiful and indelible themes, and though it’s not a holiday-themed movie per se, the snowy sequences and its Christmastime theatrical release instantly branded this movie as an honorary Yuletide classic.

Compare To: Back to the Future, Part III; Dreams; Ghost; Hardware; Moon 44; Tremors; The Witches.

Fewer Will Remember: Circuitry Man; Class of 1999; Dark Angel; The Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter; Watchers II.

COMEDY
 

Best of the Class: Gremlins 2: The New Batch 

Adhering to its blockbuster predecessor’s horror/comedy formula (emphasis on comedy), this tardy follow-up raises the ante with an attitude of giddy mayhem and self-mockery that befits the gonzo Looney Tunes sensibility of director Joe Dante. It’s the first sequel I can think of that flippantly subverts the original while still respecting its mythos, and is the closest thing to a live-action cartoon ever committed to celluloid.

Boasting better puppetry and sharper satire, this one should have been a grand-slam; instead, the movie stalled at the box office—suggesting the six-year gap between installments was simply too long a wait for audiences to remember why they cared. Eventually, Gremlins 2 earned an adoring and loyal fan base on home video.

We may never get a Gremlins 3, and I doubt anybody really wants to see a rumored CGI reboot (like, ever), but The New Batch will surely live in infamy as the birth of the big studio meta-sequel.

Home Alone

Love it or loathe it, the John Hughes-penned holiday romp holds up rather well as a poignant Christmas tale of families separated and ultimately reunited.

Compare To: 3 Men and a Little Lady; The Adventures of Ford Fairlane; Air America; Bird on a Wire; Cadillac Man; Cry-Baby; Ernest Goes to Jail; The Freshman; I Love You to Death; Joe Versus the Volcano; Kindergarten Cop; Look Who’s Talking Too; Mermaids; My Blue Heaven; Pretty Woman; Problem Child; Quick Change; Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. 

Fewer Will Remember: Almost an Angel; Betsy’s Wedding; Book of Love; Crazy People; Daddy’s Dyin’… Who’s Got the Will?; Downtown; Far Out Man; Flashback; Funny About Love; Ghost Dad; Heart Condition; Loose Cannons; Love at Large; Madhouse; Men At Work; Nuns on the Run; Opportunity Knocks; Repossessed; Short Time; Sibling Rivalry; Ski Patrol; Spaced Invaders; The Spirit of ’76; Taking Care of Business; Too Much Sun; Tune in Tomorrow…; Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael.

DRAMA
 

Best of the Class: Goodfellas 

Twenty-five years later, Martin Scorsese’s electrifying and morbidly funny tale of mid-level Mafia hoods is still the gold standard of modern-day gangster flicks.

Every aspect of the movie represents the filmmakers and actors at the height of their skills, and the most telling testament to its enduring impact is a long string of similar films that have mimicked its tone and style—from Scorsese’s own Casino to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights to David O. Russell’s American Hustle.

Dances with Wolves 

Kevin Costner earned serious props—and Oscar gold—for producing and directing this stirring period drama of a Union officer during the Civil War who journeys west to the frontier and is assimilated into a Sioux tribe.

Though Costner’s acting here isn’t quite Oscar caliber, he’s supported by a remarkable cast of Native Americans, and the movie excels in every other aspect—from its inspirational screenplay, glorious cinematography and exquisite period detail to its crisp editing, lush sound design and sweeping orchestral score.

Compare To: Alice; An Angel at My Table; Avalon; Awakenings; The Bonfire of the Vanities; The Comfort of Strangers; Coupe de Ville; Days of Thunder; The Field; The Godfather, Part III; Graffiti Bridge; Green Card; The Grifters; the Mel Gibson retelling of Hamlet; Havana; Henry & June; Life Is Sweet; The Long Walk Home; Lord of the Flies; Memphis Belle; Men Don’t Leave; Miller’s Crossing; Mo’ Better Blues; Mr. & Mrs. Bridge; Postcards from the Edge; Pump Up the Volume; Q & A; Revenge; Reversal of Fortune; Rocky V; The Russia House; The Sheltering Sky; State of Grace; Stella; Texasville; Truly Madly Deeply; The Two Jakes; Vincent & Theo; Where the Heart Is; White Hunter Black Heart; White Palace; Wild at Heart.

Fewer Will Remember: A Show of Force; Cadence; Chicago Joe and the Showgirl; Come See the Paradise; Everybody Wins; The King’s Whore; Lambada; Mister Johnson; Mountains of the Moon; Mr. Destiny; Side Out; Stanley & Iris.

HORROR
 

Best of the Class: Jacob’s Ladder 

Part paranoid Vietnam conspiracy theory, part spellbinding fever dream, this is a terrifying and gut-wrenching mind-bender of one man’s inner demons as he [spoiler alert for those who still haven’t seen this movie in the quarter-century since its release] slips into death while hallucinating about a future he will never live to see.

Director Adrian Lynne filmed the demon sequences using practical effects, and the final frightful results hold up better today than most CGI trickery on display in the latest blockbuster du jour.
 
Compare To: Arachnophobia; Basket Case 2; Child’s Play 2; Def by Temptation; The Exorcist III; Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III; Night of the Living Dead (remake); Nightbreed; Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound.

Fewer Will Remember: Frankenhooker; Graveyard Shift; The Guardian; Tales from the Darkside: The Movie; Troll 2.

Mystery/Suspense
 

Best of the Class: Misery 

Still one of the best Stephen King adaptations out there, and featuring a career-defining (and Oscar-winning) turn by Kathy Bates the devoted (read: deranged) number one fan of a romance novelist she’s holding captive.

Compare To: Bad Influence; Desperate Hours; Internal Affairs; Narrow Margin; Pacific Heights; Presumed Innocent. 

Fewer Will Remember: A Shock to the System; After Dark, My Sweet; Bullet in the Head; Disturbed; The First Power; Hidden Agenda; The Hot Spot; Impulse.

See you next year!

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