The Best and Worst Movies of 1990

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The Great God box office – the most influential critic in America – has spoken, declaring 1990 the year of Ghost, Pretty Woman and Home Alone. Don't despair. There were also some good movies. A few you needed a search party to find, others disappeared too fast, and two or three actually made money. It wasn't all mindless drool, as the following ten-best list attests.

1. GoodFellas: The best picture of the year shows Martin Scorsese in peak form as he turns Nicholas Pileggi's nonfiction book about life in a Mafia clan into two and a half hours of stylish, passionate, provocative, funny, scary, thrilling and finally sobering filmmaking.

2. To Sleep With Anger: Writer-director Charles Burnett's mesmerizing look at a middle-class black family in L.A. whose lives are shaken by a demonic visitor from the rural South (a superb Danny Glover) hasn't found the wide audience it deserves. Burnett is a major talent.

3. Longtime Companion: Director Norman René and the gifted writer Craig Lucas take on the AIDS crisis with compassion and cathartic wit. A vital film (seen many of those lately?), capped by an award-caliber performance from Bruce Davison.

4. Reversal of Fortune: The Claus von Büllow scandal becomes an audacious comedy of manners sharply directed by Barbet Schroeder and acted to perfection by a never-better Jeremy Irons.

5. The Grifters: A dazzling film noir in which director Stephen Frears catches every blackhearted twist in the Jim Thompson novel and Anjelica Huston delivers the performance of the year as a mom who'd give Freud nightmares.

6. Edward Scissorhands: A haunting fable from director Tim Burton marked by originality, vision and magic – rare qualities in cookie-cutter Hollywood.

7. Awakenings: What could have been a disease-of-the-week TV docudrama is redeemed by director Penny Marshall's leavening wit and the extraordinary acting of Robert De Niro as a patient and Robin Williams as his doctor.

8. Metropolitan: Manhattan debs and their escorts are the focus of this strikingly literate, witty and romantic curio from Whit Stillman, the third film on this list – after To Sleep With Anger and Longtime Companion – to debut at Robert Redford's Sundance Festival.

9. Dances With Wolves: The high of brow have dismissed this western from director-star Kevin Costner as "naive" or merely "competent," preferring the literary pretensions of Henry & June or The Sheltering Sky. Costner's no John Ford, but his three-hour epic possesses uncommon beauty, grace and feeling.

10. Wild at Heart: David Lynch got too trendy for some after Twin Peaks, so they sniped at his latest foray into the mysteries of violence and eroticism. It isn't Blue Velvet, but Wild gives ample evidence that Lynch is still a peerless wizard with startling poetic images of love and loss.

And now for the bad news. The year was chockablock with clinkers, films that reached for the brass ring and fell flat on their fat ones. Starting with those inflicting the most seat-squirming torture, here are the ten worst of the bunch.

1. The Bonfire of the Vanities: Tom Wolfe's novel is the right stuff for a great movie, but the wrong director, the wrong screenwriter and the wrong cast (see review on page 43) reduce it to ashes.

2. Jacob's Ladder: Hokey New Age screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost) and ultraslick director Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction) try to pass off an exploitative horror flick about a mailman (Tim Robbins) haunted by combat memories in Vietnam as a treatise on human suffering.

3. The Rookie: Clint Eastwood's cynically misogynous cop caper features the director-star being strapped in a chair and raped by kinky killer Sonia Braga; later he gets revenge by shooting her between the eyes while the audience is cued to cheer. A new low.

4. Bird on a Wire: Of all the infuriatingly stupid 1990 comedies, this hellish concoction with Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn was the only one that tempted me to throw a brick at the screen.

5. The Two Jakes: A miserably convoluted follow-up to Roman Polanski's classic Chinatown that marks another setback in the directing career of its inimitable star, Jack Nicholson.

6. Texasville: This grindingly slow Last Picture Show sequel proves that Peter Bogdanovich can't go home again.

7. Revenge: Everything Kevin Costner touches doesn't turn into a hit. Those who suffered through this demented drivel are likely to hold a grudge.

8. The Adventures of Ford Fairlane: The first starring role for comic Andrew Dice Clay. Nuff said.

9. Look Who's Talking Too: So vulgar and mean-spirited it almost makes the Diceman's effort look humane.

10. Graffiti Bridge: Prince's vanity flick is as awful as its soundtrack is exciting. And that's awful.

From The Archives Issue 596: January 24, 1991