FAVORITE FILMS….FOR EACH YEAR OF MY LIFE…BY DECADE…CUE THE NINETIES

Are we having fun yet?…Actually, this decade was better than I thought…at least at the top.

At least if you don’t bring none of them boring old morals into it.

Still dreading the post-millennium.

1990 The Grifters (Stephen Frears) (and what a way to open a Decade of Decline!…over Bad Influence, Metropolitan and Pump Up the Volume)

1991 The Doors (Oliver Stone) (over Robin Hood (Patrick Bergin version), JFK (Oliver Stone’s one good year!) and Point Break (still Kathryn Bigelow’s best)

1992 The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (Curtis Hanson) (over One False Move and The Player)

 

1993 Gettysburg (Ron Maxwell) (over Schindler’s List, The Fugitive, Groundhog Day, Matinee and The Wrong Man)

1994 Fresh (Boaz Yakin) (over Barcelona and Ed Wood (Tim Burton’s best…by miles))

1995 To Die For (Gus Van Sant) (over Mighty Aphrodite, Sense and Sensibility and Toy Story)

1996 Grace of My Heart (Allison Anders) (over Freeway, Jerry McGuire and That Thing You Do)

1997 Wag the Dog (Barry Levinson) (over Grosse Pointe Blank, Jackie Brown and The Peacemaker)

1998 A Perfect Murder (Andrew Davis) (over Shakespeare in Love, Croupier and The Mask of Zorro)

1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella) (over Ride With the Devil and, by the thinnest of margins, Dick…if only because “the nineties” was not a decade that deserved to die laughing)

Next, the new millennium…feel my heart go pitter-patter.

JUST YOUR GARDEN VARIETY SOCIOPATH….YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? REBECCA DE MORNAY IN THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE (Found In the Connection: Rattling Loose End #87)

The most common criticism, then and now, of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, the concluding film of Curtis Hanson’s great “modern malaise” trilogy (picking up where The Bedroom Window and Bad Influence left off), is its “implausibility.” That criticism isn’t unfounded–yes, it’s highly implausible, especially the set-up–just misguided.

What’s more implausible than modernity? And what’s more real than the stuff you couldn’t possibly make up?

In a world where identities are exchanged on an increasingly ad hoc basis, often with dizzying speed (some colleges now ban “he/him” and “she/her” from their orientation material as too constricting–might hurt someone’s feelings), why would a woman who blames another woman for the deaths of her husband and unborn baby not try to take that woman’s husband and child away from her?

I write a lot about artists maintaining their relevance to the future by sensing the air. I also mention, from time to time, that pop artists–singers and pulp genre story-tellers in particular–tend to be better at this than the highbrows who aim to last the ages.

So call Hanson high-pulp if you want, but let’s not forget he had a real genius for this stuff. This movie doesn’t work as well as it does a quarter-century later because the old stranger-in-the-house script is done with more panache than usual (it is, but that’s just box office mojo–this was his breakout hit and no doubt the reason his next two films, The River Wild and L.A. Confidential, both small steps backward, featured massive budgets, big name casts, and not much else beyond competence and his unerring eye for composition). It works so well because Hanson’s feel for the disquiet lying under the placid surface of modern suburbia puts tension in every scene until the standard letdown of a box-office mandated denouement. Put another way, it works so well because, up until that moment, he and his excellent cast have spent more time evoking Patricia Highsmith than Alfred Hitchcock.

Nothing’s ladled on then. It’s all as banal and meticulous as you would expect in a horror thriller set in the safest, freest place humanity has ever provided for itself–not just America, but Seattle! The early “happy family” scenes drip with real malevolence, which only intensifies when Rebecca De Mornay’s character shows up as a woman wearing a mask that won’t peel off.

It’s only the happy ending that keeps this from being a masterpiece.

The key to the rest is that De Mornay–nobody’s idea of a great actress then, though, having been on a mini-marathon of her films lately, I’m beginning to wonder why–pulls off the miracle of making her psychopath both interesting and plausible. (This latter despite the script letting her down on occasion. Not even Hanson could resist that inevitable scene, here played in a greenhouse bathroom of all places, where the psycho goes off alone and smashes things just to remind us of who they really are. That scene’s more jarring than usual here, because, for once, it isn’t even necessary for the slow people.) She’s cat quick, cat smooth, and cat vicious. When she twists a little boy’s arm or torments a mentally challenged handyman or murders a woman who’s caught on to her game of nanny’s-come-to-take-over, you can see how she might get away with it…if this weren’t a Hollywood movie.

And it’s that element that remains unsettling, no matter how many plot twists you see coming.

Everybody else is just doing what they’re supposed to do. Kind of like “real” life. It’s De Mornay, no doubt helped by Hanson’s considerable gift for mood, who gets under the skin of the plot. You know she isn’t going to make it out of the final scene because it ‘s a movie and movies are, by and large, there to comfort us. That was as true in 1992 as a hundred years ago or now. But against all that is the sense that we can all thank God this is only a movie and not, say, a Patricia Highsmith novel or life in this world where we’re really only as free as we are safe, and how free is that when your worst nightmare is only a trip to the gynecologist away?

Compare this movie to any week’s headlines and you might be reminded just how easily the skins of our safe, free worlds can not only be penetrated, but ripped away.

Because in those worlds that aren’t protected by Hollywood money (and despite the sense of sin I noted being all over Hanson’s Bad Influence in an earlier post being muted here, never allowed to breathe in a single image or stray bit of dialogue that might give the devil’s presence away) De Mornay’s Peyton Flanders–an invention of her “Mrs. Mott”–would rule a lot more than the cradle.

She might even make you like it.

Especially if, instead of running about swinging a shovel at everybody’s head, she decided to just sit quietly and keep reminding you how much of it was your own idea.

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THROWBACK (Curtis Hanson, R.I.P.)

I somehow missed ever seeing Wonder Boys or 8 Mile, both of which look as though they are right up my alley. And, despite some fine acting, I didn’t care for his inevitable Oscar winner, L.A. Confidential. There was no way to root out James Ellroy’s fundamental fasciscti stench (I’m not speculating, Ellroy owns it and thinks anyone who doesn’t agree with him is an idiot), without taking the juice out of the thing.

But Hanson made his reputation with a trio of superb modern thrillers–The Bedroom Window, Bad Influence and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle–all made between 1987 and 1992, and all neo-Hitchcockian in the best sense. They had plenty of modern edge and even nastiness, but somehow avoided the nihilism that has bedeviled the genre since just about the time of the Master’s own demise. The Bedroom Window has been on my shelf for years and never wears out. I’ve been meaning to revisit the other two for a while and this will give me a spur to get on with it.

Perhaps even more than that, however, I value his thoughtful, civilized commentary in the documentary feature that accompanied the 50th Anniversary DVD edition of The Searchers. As Hanson himself noted, it was a measure of how far John Ford’s influence reached that it touched so deeply on a filmmaker who made films which, superficially, could not have been more different. I’ll be watching that tonight in his honor. One can only wonder if his streak of obvious decency kept his filmography smaller than it might have been, here in this paradise we’ve made.

Hope he’s found better tonight.

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