best film:  Blue Velvet from David Lynch

It would take an artist like David Lynch and film like Blue Velvet to knock of Tarkovsky’s swan song and Woody’s best film of the 1980s as the cinematic event of the year.

Lynch does not just use the name of the Bobby Vinton pop song- he drapes the film in the color… though Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” is provably more important to Lynch and the film.

Lynch is going to take the clean cut suburban American dream and rip it apart

Lynch is not just about eccentric narratives and voyeurism… his compositions are the greatest of 1986 along with Tarkovsky

most underrated:   The TSPDT consensus is about 400 slots off on Hannah and Her Sisters (they have it as #527), but also both Manhunter (Michael Mann) and Platoon (Oliver Stone) are omitted completely from the consensus TSPDT top 1000 list. In particular, I do not understand get how Platoon continues to be so overlooked. Stone could become a far superior montagist and stylist in the 1990s with JFK and Natural Born Killers, but Platoon is a brilliant narrative with some memorable sequences including the killing of Willem Dafoe’s Elias character and the “Tracks of My Tears” needle drop scene.

Mia Farrow in Hannah and Her Sisters. These characters and settings are very lived in and natural—for Farrow, the film’s titular character and centerpiece- her two sisters, her ex-husband and current husband are the other leads) we have her actual apartment, her actual mother and the children are actually hers I believe… and she, of course, is very similar to this successful actress character. Allen shows such formal brilliance- each section starts with a title or quotation from the scene to follow. It is simple white against black type just like Allen’s trademark opening credit titles.

From Michael Mann’s Manhunter- the opening is a marvelous shot—Mann starts with the blue sky, and tilts the camera down to Dennis Farina (as Jack Crawford) on the right facing the beach, and a sun-kissed William Petersen (lead, as Will Graham) facing the camera on the left. We have a great camera movement and character blocking right there in the first shot.

Manhunter confirms the promise of 1981’s Thief. It makes him one of the most exciting cinematic voices to emerge from the 1980s.

Oliver Stone turns in one heck of a 1986 with both Salvador and Platoon (the latter of which pictured here in a gorgeous silhouette)

Willem Dafoe in a astonishing bit of slow-motion photography from Stone


most overrated:   There is not much to choose from here- the consensus, by and large, does a great job in 1986, but Ferris Bueller’s Day Off lands at #8 of the year and that seems at least a tad overrated given the ten superior films listed on my top 10 below. Still, nothing crazy here for this category in 1986.


gems I want to spotlight:  See Hoosiers get some of the slow-motion with a great score treatment Chariots of Fire got in 1981 but here with basketball instead of track. Also, a film every cinema has to see is Tarkovsky’s last film The Sacrifice. If you’re an admirer of beautiful compositions and muscular tracking shots (shot by long time Bergman director of photography Sven Nykvist) you’ll swoon over this film. Lastly, check out At Close Range from James Foley. It is a gripping crime drama, Foley is no slouch behind the camera, and Christopher Walken and Sean Penn are both just awesome duking it out.


this justifiably famous final shot and long take shot from Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice … and look at Tarkovsky’s high angle yet again, letting the ground almost serve as background mise-en-scene as well.

meticulous character blocking

… yet another from Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice – immaculate.

the sublime work of Christopher Walken and Sean Penn is not all the reason to see out At Close Range — James Foley is evidently far more than competent as director. Look at this gorgeous frame.

…and this here is worthy of The GodfatherThis shot is taking the namesake here in Foley’s film.


trends and notables:

  • 1986 is another rock solid year. There is the big masterpiece (Blue Velvet) and a top ten that is pretty impossible to find a weakness in.
  • Top Gun is the biggest hit of 1986- Tom Cruise is now a massive star, and Tony Scott (actually a marvelous stylist) has the “MTV aesthetic” used often to describe it.
  • There is just a new crop of this eras leading filmmakers: Mann, Lynch, Cronenberg,  Jarmusch and Cameron all have their second (at least) top 10 film – solidifying their greatness.

taking on the sequel of Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece had to seem like a losing proposition coming into 1986–but James Cameron made it his own, and certainly Aliens is a very worthy sequel.

Down by Law– an accomplishment for its uniquely Jarmusian qualities: first and foremost a three part structure film: New Orleans, then prison, then the escape/swamp. Shot in crisp b/w (Robby Muller is the director of photography from Paris, Texas– the remarkable Kings of the Road, after this he’d do Dead Man, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark), deadpan ironies, a fish out of water language barrier (Roberto Benigni character) with a meditative and dreamlike editing vibe/atmosphere

  • With Blue Velvet and Something Wild we have auteurs attacking some of the 1950s American dream and suburban Reagan 1980s nostalgia.
  • As I mentioned above in the gem section 1986 would bring us both the last film from Tarkovsky and his death (at the young age of 54).
  • 1986 is another fantastic year for first time archiveable filmmakers. John Woo makes A Better Tomorrow, Spike Lee lands with She’s Gotta Have it, sought after screenwriter Oliver Stone directs (and writes) both Platoon (Best Picture Oscar winner) and Salvador. Aki Kaurismaki from Finland would arrive on the scene with Shadows in Paradise… wait… there’s morefuture king of the melodrama genre Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar has his first archiveable film with Matador and French iconoclast Leos Carax assembles Mauvais Sang. That is six superb auteurs making their first archiveable films in 1986.

Hong Kong action cinema at its finest with John Woo and Chow Yun-fat’s A Better Tomorrow

the voice of a burgeoning auteur: Spike Lee in She’s Gotta Have It

ironic deadpan is Finnish auteur’s mode (it is no great surprise Jarmusch is a buddy) in Shadows in Paradise—Kaurismäki is curt and matter of fact but certainly in on the joke (I’m not sure all of the uninitiated to Kaurismäki will be). The shot at 45 min mark here is a jaw-dropper- framed by the doorway- a Fassbinder-like shot.

Leox Carax emerges from France as one of the freshest voices of his generation here with Mauvais Sang.

a phenomenal composition with bold color splashes

  • 1986 would be the debut archiveable year for the young River Phoenix who would make a very loud name for himself with both Stand By Me and The Mosquito Coast. John Goodman gets his first in the archives with The Big Easy.

River Phoenix here (third in from the left facing the camera) in Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me

this could easily be on a wall in a museum here- Reiner is on one of those runs from 1984 to 1992

best performance male:  He is not the main character or given the most screen time in the film, but Dennis Hopper owns 1986 with his performance in Blue Velvet.  He is absolutely shocking and impossible to turn away from. He is the easy choice here and though neither other performance would warrant a mention here alone he is also great in Hoosiers and has a third archiveable film from 1986- River’s Edge. Ray Liotta plays a similar version of Hopper’s Frank Booth (a suburban nightmare) in Demme’s Something Wild.  Liotta is so dangerous. He shows up halfway through the film and just takes over from that point on. It must be the year of the supporting actor here because Michael Caine won the Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters and he’ is wonderful.  My fourth mention for 1986 is yet another supporting role- Tom Berenger in Platoon. Berenger plays the devil sitting on Charlie Sheen’s right shoulder in opposition to Dafoe’s angel on his left. I hate dipping outside of the top 10 for a mention here but every few years a performance warrants an exception and Gary Oldman’s singular work in Sid and Nancy fits the criteria  for the breaking of that rule.  Jeff Goldblum gives the best performance of his career as Seth Brundle in David Cronenberg’s The Fly to round out this category in 1986.


Dennis Hopper would be offered the role of a lifetime from Lynch here for Blue Velvet.


best performance female:   There are five extraordinarily strong choices here in 1986. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in James Cameron’s Aliens stands tall above the rest. Hers is an action role for the ages and Weaver is given much more to do here than in the 1979 Ridley Scott masterpiece that is closer to a horror film than an action movie (both obviously sci-fi). Behind Weaver, Isabella Rossellini’s brave, fragile performance in Blue Velvet finishes in second place. Melanie Griffith (future co-star of Weaver’s in Working Girl in 1988) is mesmerizing in the first 25 minutes of Something Wild and though she yields much of the floor to Liotta halfway through, she continues to flesh out her character and give her depth. My last three slots are for Barbara Hershey (also great in 1986’s Hoosiers), Dianne Wiest, and Mia Farrow in Hannah and Her Sisters. Wiest won the Oscar, but it could have gone to Hershey. Both share exceptional scenes with Farrow and Hershey’s work with Michael Caine are amongst the film’s most tender, while Wiest’s with Woody are amongst the films funniest. Farrow’s work is a little less worthy than Wiest and Hershey but she is absolutely rifling off great films with Woody during this era and that deserves to be praised– it seems unfair to omit her.


Nobody would confuse Isabella Rossellini’s talent with her mothers (the great Ingrid Bergman)– but she will always have Blue Velvet– and she is front and center (and fabulous) in one of the landmark films of the 1980s


top 10

  1. Blue Velvet
  2. The Sacrifice
  3. Hannah and Her Sisters
  4. Aliens
  5. Down by Law
  6. Manhunter
  7. The Fly
  8. Platoon
  9. Something Wild
  10. Mauvais Sang


Jeff Daniels in Something Wild plays the Kyle MacLachlan character from Blue Velvet and Ray Liotta is Dennis Hopper and Melanie Griffith is sort of both Rossellini and Dern. She sort of starts as Rossellini and then turns into Dern with the hair dying transformation.  For the first 20 minutes it is Melanie Griffith’s film. She’s so incredibly captivating. She’s gorgeous, has the hair—you are completely under her spell.  Liotta shows up at 50 minutes and takes over the film. He’s magnetic and piercing.

The ending is the only time Demme really goes for it with his (later) trademark close-ups like in Philadelphia and The Silence of the Lambs– the killing of Liotta and showing his face and then Daniels’ reaction.

believe it or not this is from Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy – very strong

an admirable Kurosawa-like composition in Scorsese’s The Color of Money- a brilliant shot of the three faces stepping into the frame. Scorsese would do this again – most famously in Casino


Archives, Directors, and Grades

A Better Tomorrow- Woo HR
Aliens – Cameron MS
At Close Range- Foley HR
Big Trouble in Little China- Carpenter R
Blue Velvet- Lynch MP
Castle in the Sky- Miyazaki R
Children of a Lesser God- Haines R
Down By Law – Jarmusch MS
Dust in the Wind – Hsiao-Hsien Hou R/HR
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off- Hughes R
Hannah and Her Sisters – Allen MP
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – McNaughton R
Hoosiers- Anspaugh R
Jean de Florette- Berri HR
Manhunter- M. Mann MS
Matador- Almodovar R
Mauvais Sang- Carax HR
Mona Lisa- Jordan R
Mosquito Coast- Weir R
Peking Opera Blues – Tsui
Platoon- Stone MS
River’s Edge- Hunter R
Round Midnight – Tavernier R
Salvador- Stone HR
Shadows in Paradise – Kaursmaki R/HR
She’s Gotta Have It- S. Lee R
Sid and Nancy- Cox HR
Something Wild – Demme HR/MS
Stand By Me- R. Reiner R/HR
That’s Life- Edwards
The Big Easy- McBride R
The Color of Money – Scorsese R/HR
The Fly- Cronenberg MS
The Green Ray- Rohmer
The Horse Thief- Zhuangzhuang Tian R
The Mission – Joffé R/HR
The Morning After- Lumet R
The Sacrifice- Tarkovsky MP
The Terrorizers- Yang R
Top Gun – T. Scott R



*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives