Staff Selects: The Best of 1989

Kiki’s Delivery Service

Kiki’s Delivery Service is the nicest film of all time. The plot follows a young, kind-hearted witch as she moves to a new town and navigates independent life, growing as a person thanks to her newfound profession delivering food. There is no villain, and the instances of conflict or hardship are minuscule: a group of incensed birds hold a grudge against Kiki for landing near their eggs, her persistence in delivering even during inclement weather makes her briefly sick, a dorky local boy named Tombo wants to be her friend, etc. The focus is squarely on Kiki as she learns how becoming into adulthood involves a good deal of compromising. There are no easy solutions, and often making one decision leads to unintended consequences.

Kiki’s Delivery Service rivals Spirited Away as Miyazaki’s best. Both deal with a young girl maturing and learning the value of work, but Kiki’s Delivery Service does it without the aid of a magical facade. Yes, she’s a witch who can fly and converse with her adorable cat Jiji, but no one treats her powers with an appropriate sense of astonishment; whenever she tells someone about her nature, it’s essentially met with “oh wow…anyway, about this delivery…” It’s a beautifully told story about growing up, managing obligations, overcoming insecurities, and finding personal fulfillment in helping others. Early on, a fellow witch asks what her powers are, and she says she doesn’t know; by the end she finds her true power: bringing joy to others. [Kern Wheeling]

When Harry Met Sally…

If there’s one type of film I am always willing to watch, it’s romantic comedies. Whether I had a good day, a bad day, or I just don’t want to spend a long time searching for something to watch, a rom-com is the perfect ending to any day. Unfortunately, even loving the genre, many of them can be insufferable. However, when they’re great, there are few things better and When Harry Met Sally… is the gold standard for what a romantic comedy can be. Though I’ve seen it countless times, the jokes remain hilarious and the characters compelling, and I always finish it ready to fall in love and eat a pastrami at the greatest restaurant on earth, possibly at the same time. Few other films can pack that sort of inspirational punch. I miss Katz’s. [Henry Baime]

The Seventh Continent

If Michael Haneke knows how to do anything, it’s how to get under your skin. His theatrical film debut is a masterful example of how he uses his craft to lull you into a false sense of security before he turns the screws and devastates you. A sense of quiet unease is instilled throughout this picture, the audience held captive by the monotonous routine of a middle-class family going about their business. Their innocuous actions belie a sinister undercurrent taking form – their disconcerting calm juxtaposed by small but perceptible fractures in the facade of their seemingly perfect lives.

It’s clear that Haneke had a lot on his mind when making this movie. I feel a great deal of restrained anger about the destruction of family values, the encroaching influence and incursion of media, the banality of life without a sense of purpose, and the isolation created by cold, but polite distance. Like a lot of his work, it leaves you with much to mull over post credits, and to say that The Seventh Continent has stuck in my mind more than anything else the Austrian auteur has done is no faint praise. [Chris Barnes]

Do the Right Thing

30 years later, Do the Right Thing is still Spike Lee‘s most potent joint to date. Finger on the pulse, the film’s central themes of racial identity, stereotypical ambivalence, police brutality, gentrification, public vs. private space, and even global warming are all still incredibly topical. It balances two sides of its central racial activism, through its closing pairing of MLK Jr. and Malcolm X quotes, “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral”; “I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence.” that encapsulate the continued disquisition of race. On this specific record breaking heatwave, Lee showcases just how flawed the system is, and how difficult and nearly impossible it is to always do the right thing. Contrary to what the title says, the starkest revelation is that “the right thing” is morally ambiguous and subjective at best. Lee’s third film perfectly embodies the complexities of race relation dynamics. 

Having put the utmost dedication into the recreated brownstone filled Brooklyn Bed-Stuy neighborhood, seamless tracking shots effortlessly reinforce this sense of interconnected community. It’s a raw depiction of a real thriving community filled with varying eccentric, often sympathetic personalities all doing what *they* think is right, resulting in an authentic and relevant portrayal of racism and injustice from all sides. This masterpiece showcases varying ethnic perspectives, through interracial parity, fairness, and above all, the truth. In classic Lee fashion, he doesn’t hold his punches, abrasively telling you how the world is to your face. One thing I never cease to admire in Lee’s vision is how flawlessly he weaves this almost Shakespearean Greek tragedy without ever pointing a finger at any one single “good or bad guy.” Do the Right Thing is undoubtedly the rightful best picture of 1989, and the fact that it wasn’t even nominated speaks volumes. Had it been released today, it’d be just as relevant, as it would in utterly sweeping awards season. “And that’s the double truth, Ruth!” [Lee]

Dead Poets Society

This is a flowery coming of age film, and I find those either endlessly endearing or endlessly annoying. With Dead Poets Society, it’s certainly the former. Director Peter Weir is more likely known for The Truman Show, and there are odd similarities between the two. Both feature a straightforward, dramatic performance from a typically comedic actor (Robin Williams here, Jim Carrey in The Truman Show) and both are made in a very story-over-style sort of way. Weir certainly knows his way around directing actors, because Williams and the ensemble of young actors give top of the line performances here.

Even considering how great Williams is in the film, a young Ethan Hawke is the breakout star. He plays a boy named Todd, who comes into the role of a protagonist as his character grows from a reluctant participant in the Dead Poets Society to the figurehead of it. It’s a predecessor to a lot of inferior coming-of-age films to follow, creating a few of the typical conventions that I can’t stand the uncreative use of today. It’s sad that Weir isn’t as renowned of a filmmaker as he should be. While I’ve yet to visit his most recent project, The Way Back, his work in the 20th century earns frequent revisits from me. [Jen]

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

There are really no words that can fully describe Peter Greenaway’s bold and provocative avant-garde The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, although some would mistakenly dismiss it as just strange or taboo. What Greenaway has deftly made here is a grounded study of human nature that examines our hunger for power and cruelty, all wrapped in a visually vibrant drama with dark humor sprinkled at every moment. While the disturbing imagery throughout the film will shock us to our core, what remains fascinating about the film — besides the great acting showcases from Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon, of course — is the way it observes Mirren’s Georgina Spica as she transforms from an obedient wife to someone who’s filled with an appetite for lust and vengeance because of the cruel world that she lives in. It’s through this observation that Greenaway hammers home the film’s main question: is it possible to stay moral in a place that does not allow for morality? Although in the end not everything works harmoniously, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover works best as an intelligent film that dares to reveal the truest color of human beings. And for that reason, to miss this film is to miss one of the rarest cinematic experiences ever made. [Reyzando Nawara]

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

When I was a kid, on New Year’s Eve, my family would get together and watch two things: classic Three Stooges shorts and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, as it was my mom’s favorite movie. I didn’t understand why mispronouncing Socrates was funny, I didn’t understand why the iron maiden was excellent, and I didn’t understand why Napoleon Bonaparte was eating a giant ice cream sundae. The first Bill & Ted film is one of the few truly stupid films that maintains its charm as its audience grows up, because it doesn’t get off on its characters’ stupidity like so many of its contemporaries and descendants. The film commits to a world where Wyld Stallyns’ music brings about unified peace, and these two lovable idiots are bumbling through time and space not because of their ineptitude, but because they have good hearts.

The funniest intro to world history class ever made, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure not only has no reason to work, but has no reason to succeed in the 21st century as anything other than a relic of the past. Juvenile and requiring at least a basic understanding of Greek philosophy to truly understand, low-budget and filled with ambitious sets, simple and featuring multiple paradoxes to wrap up its plot, the film is a sci-fi comedy wonderland that is worth revisiting and loving, because it may not be the best film of 1989, but it’s the one film I’ll always love the most. And come on, Napoleon goes to a waterpark called Waterloo. That’s funny. [Davey Peppers]

Staff Selects

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