best film:  The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover from Peter Greenaway

  • A giant “M” Masterpiece and prime candidate for the singular poster child of late 20th century film art expressionism and the greatest mise-en-scene in film history.

Simply one of the most beautiful movies ever made

  • There is a different color for each room – exteriors in blue, dining in red, bathroom in white, kitchen in green—some characters outfits change colors as does the cigarettes for Helen Mirren.

The Hals painting, tapestry here is gorgeous and copied by Greenaway- he does this with artwork in virtually every film of his

  • The costumes are stunning- Jean-Paul Gautier—avant garde.
  • The Michael Nyman score is haunting and probably his best (he always works with Greenaway and did The Piano as well)
  • It’s political- a meditation on the Thatcher and Reagan administration, greed.
  • It’s a colossal triumph for Gambon. His diction in the film is a marvel—he and his Albert are connected to Hopper/Lynch’s Frank Booth in Blue Velvet for sure.
  • Ebert calls the film “uncompromising in every single shot”
  • Like all of Greenaway’s work we have an abundance of nudity and sexual curiosity bordering on perversion.
  • It’s a wonder of color, tinting, and staging
  • Greenaway uses a series of tracking shots through the building—they’re sublime.
  • Mirren (wife) and lover have a silent love affair to begin the film and for the longest time Gambon is the only one talking.
  • In the outdoor scene there are two trucks, symmetrically set up, with open backs and detailed staging.
  • There is different music in every room—we have the child singing opera, Nyman’s score stronger in the red dining area and lighter in the white bathroom.
  • Dogs running around like crazy outside also part of the philosophy.
  • Definitely harkens to the tinting by Hitchcock in Vertigo and some of the work by Bava in Blood and Black Lace and later Argento in Suspiria.
  • Gambon has never been better
  • Mirren’s achievement is a tad lower but only slightly, her talking to her lover’s corpse is a great scene- wow
  • One of the ritual deaths (another Greenaway trait) has a man (the lover) literally killed with pages of a book.
  • It’s intellectual and operatic, stylistically and formally perfect (days of the week on the menu with great detail)

Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is not the wrong answer for best film of 1989 either. It is not his debut but to see Spike deliver a masterpiece of this magnitude at age 32 took the world of cinema by storm.

a frame from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing that would make Bergman proud

one of the textbook uses of canted angles – from Lee’s masterwork

Spike starts early hitting you like a ton of bricks with an opening credit sequence that includes his dazzling use of color, the booming Public Enemies’ “Fight the Power” over the soundtrack and Rosie Perez’s almost violent dancing. The score by Bill Lee and the photography by Ernest R. Dickerson are both luminous. The cast, from Perez to Lee himself to Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, John Turturro, Giancarlo Esposito, Samuel L. Jackson and others are all perfect. It’s a color explosion and has a strong narrative one-day ride set up. It has Spike’s trademark reverse double dolly shot (he would use this in almost every film since) and of course the fourth wall breaking, racist insult montage sequence is stylistic transcendence.


most underrated:   Greenaway seems to own this category in the 1980s. I hate to be repetitive but there is really no excuse for the TSPDT consensus to be so far off here- they have Greenaway’s masterpiece at #874 currently- ludicrous. Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train may not be as strong as Stranger Than Paradise or Down By Law but it belongs in the top 1000 and it is not currently on the TSPDT list.

  • Another in a series of artistic triumphs for Jarmusch to close out the 1980s from Strangers in Paradise to Down by Law to this in 1989. Like the other two, it’s a film structured in three sections.
  • A Jarmuschian vibe is created by a measured rhythm in the scene (pauses and carries everything a beat long)—– while the skeleton of the film is formally so sound and distinct.
  • Visual poetry—dilapidated and decrepit—here- in his first color film, Jarmusch uses some neon lights to add to the mix- he also settles on one city instead of multiple- he picks Memphis here and thoroughly inhabits it— Memphis is a lead character in the film.
  • Jarmusch and cinematographer Robby Muller turn the streets green
  • The formal narrative structure strategies deployed here are pre-Tarantino. There have been other films that have been this or more creative—Rashoman, Intolerance, Destiny from Lang, Blind Chance by Kieslowksi. Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Run Lola Run, Memento are all after Mystery Train.
  • Meditation on man’s inability to communitcate—language barriers
  • Jazz score by John Lurie
  • Credits elliptically edited—really well done- same with end credits
  • A boarded-up movie house, bars, graffiti of course in the mise-en-scene– another decaying hotel—but it’s art—pool halls, walking down the street
  • For his first color film Jarmusch picks green as his dominant production design color choice– Masatoshi Nagase’s jacket, the hotel interiors, booths in the bar, the radio in the hotel is a mint color, the streets are green from the street lighting- Buscemi sits in a green chair.

Form- repetition and variation- like the shot from behind Bill Murray in Broken Flowers we get the same streets here and different people walking down them—in the third section we get them in the car (drinking) and this actually bugs me a little, wish it was them walking to keep things tighter

repetition amidst a rigorous formal structure—  section two here- same time same street, same shot. Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train does not get enough credit amongst cinephiles for being a non-linear precursor to Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

  • Jarmusch enjoys the shots of Masatoshi Nagase and Yuki Kudo on the ground like Ozu—we have trains here like Ozu
  • It’s a hipster film for sure- fish out of water comedy (Japanese and Italian Tourists and an Englishman who looks like Elvis in Memphis).
  • The window shot at night with Nagase—pink lighting behind him and green out front
  • the greatest shot of the film- neon lights on both sides, the window, profile, discussion of youth and the feeling of being cool without sounding ridiculous- a feat
  • Green luggage of Elizabeth Bracco
  • The gunshot, the hotel, the radio connects them (Tom Waits is the unseen DJ)- “Blue Moon” by Elvis


most overrated:   There is really nothing here in this category for 1989. I have not been able to find a good enough copy of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness or find Emir Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies.  The other five films from 1989 on the TSPDT list (Do the Right Thing, Crimes and Misdemeanors, When Harry Met Sally, The Killer, and Greenaway’s work- are all rated corrected or underrated).


gems I want to spotlight:  Sea of Love is a very entertaining film that lands outside of the top 10 of the year that cinephiles should seek out if they haven’t seen. Jane Campion’s debut Sweetie is another gem from 1989.

  • Sweetie is the debut film for 35-year-old New Zealander Jane Campion (The Piano).
  • It is a sort of family relationship comedy/drama mixed with quirky romance about Karen Colston’s Kay (her voice-over is our guide). Her sister “Sweetie” (Geneviève Lemon) comes bounding into the film about 20-minutes in interrupting the life, and fragile relationship, of Kay and her boyfriend Louis (Tom Lycos). There’s a bit of Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) going on here for sure with Lemon playing the Michel Simon character (also getting the title).

From the opening shot you can see Campion is quite special- a high angle shot showing legs in the foreground and a floral-patterned carpet in the background

  • Campion shows an uncommon use of angles throughout— different than Welles (low, askew) or Tarkovsky/Tarr (high using the ground as mise-en-scene)—in another shot showing off a comically tiny engagement ring Campion again opts for the high angle—and again designs the background. Later an overhead shot of Kay’s porcelain (previously chewed up by Sweetie) horses are next to her bed.
  • Thoughtful design of the candy striped red and white parking garage
  • At the 24-minute mark Campion blocks off the left 40% of the screen with the headboard of the bed- showing again just the legs extended out from the two lovers.
  • Bold wallpaper use
  • The wonky angles match the idiosyncratic characters and narrative—a fine binding of narrative and style. Campion could have brought that to an even greater formal level if the eccentric angles were heightened when Sweetie arrives on the scene.
  • There is an impressive bit of staging from Campion during a haircut scene—she actually has the characters arranged diagonally starting in the left foreground and going to the right background—at the 64-minute mark
  • The legs of the couple, cementing the formal bookends, at the end from the high angle.

Another stunner is at the 69-minute mark—they stop the car, the boyfriend is in the middle left, the mother played by Dorothy Barry is in the foreground center. Kay is flanking her to the right and the car is in the background. It is a great Kurosawa-like composition




trends and notables:

  • Between 1985 and 1989 there may have been no greater auteur in world cinema than Peter Greenaway. Certainly, Kieslowski made Dekalog during this time, you have Cronenberg (The Fly, Dead Ringers), Gilliam (Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), and Woody Allen (Purple Rose, Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days, Crimes and Misdemeanors). Of course, I have the benefit of selecting the specific date range for Greenaway’s argument here– but still- to be the best over any five-year stretch in the artform’s short history should not be ignored. I have not yet been able to locate Drowning By Numbers (1988) but Greenaway directed A Zed &Two Noughts (1985), The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) and The Belly of an Architect (1987) during this period.

Spike Lee turns from an up and coming talent (She’s Gotta Have it, School Daze) to one of the most important voices in cinema in one ambitious effort

  • This is three films in a row landing easily in the top 10 of the year for Jarmusch
  • Tim Burton’s Batman the biggest hit of 1989. Choosing Burton (and Michael Keaton) for this project was inspired and bold at the time (coming off Beetlejuice)—but this proved to be an artistic success for all parties involved including Jack Nicholson and Danny Elfman who does the score.

from Batman- it is an imaginative triumph from Tim Burton. The production design Oscar win from Anton Furst (sadly committed suicide in 1991) who worked previously on 1987’s Full Metal Jacket– Burton is the artist here (along with Furst)- he worked in Gothic Expressionism (at least a little) in Beetlejuice before and this would help cement his mise-en-scene look going forward from Edward Scissorhands (the following year) to Sleepy Hollow to Sweeney Todd nearly twenty years later.

1989 marks Woody Allen’s sixth top 10 of the decade – remarkable.

  • It won’t be remembered as such because one of them was on Polish television but 1989 is a big year for television as cinema. We have both Lonesome Dove in the archives but also the work of Kieslowski with Dekalog. No other year before or since 1989 (to my knowledge) have two television entrees been worthy of the archives.

With Tarkovsky gone (died in 1986), Bresson’s last archiveable film behind us (1983) and with Bergman’s last major work in the rearview as well (1982-also, partially, through television)—the stage was clear for Kieslowski to take the mantle of religious cinematic artist. Dekalog (and the A Short Film About…connected projects) is Kieslowski’s first masterpiece. It is an updating of the Ten Commandments — ten individual contemporary tales. Some of the commandments correlate to the episodes very literally while others ruminate the on aspects of the commandments or use them as a jumping off point and deviate. It is an almost unfathomably ambitious undertaking- perhaps The Lord of the Rings, Apocalypse Now, Intolerance, Fitzcarraldo are comparably ambitious project – Kieslowski shooting over a period of about 18 months The project has weight to it- not just the running time- but the heaviness of the subject matter. However, it shouldn’t dissuade viewers- this is far from being a slog or a chore to watch. Each film works on its own, I’m not entirely sure they need to be seen in order. The parables are easy to follow and though patient, pretty engaging. Each episode is worthy of contemplation and debate afterwards whether the viewer is a lover of cinema to those just in want/need of being shook intellectually or spiritually. 572 minutes and made for Polish television. It did play at Venice, and A Short Film About Killing debuted at Cannes in 1988, and many places released theatrically it in its entirely or at least the two episodes (5 and 6) extended a little to play on their own in a more palatable normal theatrical running time

  • It a big year for Disney as they were reinvigorate their animation department with the box office smash Little Mermaid. This film would open the door for artistically rich period of animation musicals that include Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King.
  • Steven Soderbergh also made a splash, albeit on the indie cinema scene, with Sex, Lies, and Videotape. This film is often cited as the beginning of the true American indie film movement of the 1990s (it’s hard to pick any one film with Spike Lee and Jarmusch doing great work already) but certainly it would be a natural transition to Richard Linklater and Quentin Tarantino and others in the 90s.

Soderbergh (at age 26) brilliantly cuts the frame in half using lighting in Sex, Lies, and Videotape

  • Jane Campion had her first archivble film with Sweetie as mentioned above and Cameron Crowe comes onto the scene with his first archivable film as a director: Say Anything. Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy announces a new auteur as well.
  • It is a very big year for actors breaking through for the first time into the archives. We have Tony Leung in City of Sadness and Nicole Kidman in Dead Dalm. Ethan Hawke is in Dead Poets Society and a young Joaquin Phoenix is in Parenthood. Steve Buscemi would be a major fixture in indie cinema for the next few years and he got his start here in Mystery Train (and Lonesome Dove).  Emma Thompson got her archiveable start in Henry V and lastly, both Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly got going in De Palma’s Casualties of War.
  • Peter Weir does not belong in lofty company with like Lynch or Cronenberg from this era but Dead Poets Society (a splendid Robin Williams in the lead) is Weir’s fifth archiveable film of the 1980s.


best performance male:

This is a tough year to discuss this category. Denzel Washington and Daniel Day-Lewis, two of the greatest actors, won Oscars for solid performances in good– but not great—films (Glory and My Left Foot). That is not what this category is for. To use a sports analogy, this is like a singular athlete playing in a team sport having a great performance, but the team fails to really make the playoffs. You cannot win MVP in that case. The MVP for 1989 is Michael Gambon. He is a tour de force as the monstrous Albert in Greenaway’s masterpiece. Albert is absolutely barbarous, and Gambon makes him leap off the screen—even without a closeup really. Martin Landau for his fantastic work in Crimes and Misdemeanors and is a close runner up to Gambon. Behind those two, it is time to make room for some of the ensemble involved in Do the Right Thing. Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Giancarlo Esposito and John Turturro all deserve a seat at the table. It is time to acknowledge the run that Kevin Costner is on during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Field of Dreams is not Costner’s best film, but we’re in the heart of this run and it is his best work as an actor. Chow Yun-fat made a slew of films with John Woo including 1989’s The Killer– he is the face of Hong Kong action and has to get at least one mention for his body of work during this prodigious stretch.


Like Coppola’s The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, or Bergman’s Cries & WhispersDo the Right Thing requires four actor mentions in this category (combined male and female)- including Giancarlo Esposito here as Buggin Out.

a trademark shot from John Woo’s oeuvre- this is from The Killer

Costner is a perfect Gary Cooper or James Stewart update here in a Capra-like effort- The Field of Dreams


best performance female:  Helen Mirren is the subtle, steady hand in Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover to counterbalance Gambon’s volcanic work. Mirren has never been better. It is also impossible to take your eyes off  Rosie Perez in Do the Right Thing. Lastly, Anjelica Huston’s thankless desperate turn in Woody’s Crimes and Misdemeanors  has to receive mention.



top 10

  1. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
  2. Do the Right Thing
  3. Dekalog
  4. Crimes and Misdemeanors
  5. Mystery Train
  6. Batman
  7. Sweetie
  8. Drugstore Cowboy
  9. When Harry Met Sally
  10. The Killer


When Harry Met Sally– the peak of the phenomenal run by Rob Reiner

Rob Reiner using a nonverbal visual to convey Harry’s feeling

from John Woo’s The Killer– a shot that recalls Siegel’s shot from Dirty Harry and anticipates Michael Mann’s Heat

Gus Van Sant’s first archiveable film- Drugstore Cowboy

from  Born on the Fourth of July– Oliver Stone is putting out impressive work seemingly every year at this point in 1989

De Palma rounds out his prolific and formidable decade with Casualties of War

young (29) Kenneth Branagh made these highly ambitious Shakespeare adaptations including Henry V here in 1989



Archives, Directors, and Grades

A Dry White Season- Palcy R
Back to the Future II – Zemeckis R
Batman – Burton HR
Black Rain – Imamura R
Born on the Fourth of July- Stone R/HR
Casualties of War- De Palma R
City of Sadness- Hsiao-Hsien Hou
Crimes and Misdemeanors- Allen MS/MP
Dead Calm – Noyce R
Dead Poets Society- Weir R
Dekalog – Kieslowski MP
Do the Right Thing- S. Lee MP
Driving Miss Daisy – Beresford R
Drugstore Cowboy – Van Sant HR
Field of Dreams- Alden Robinson HR
Glory – Zwick R
Henry V- Branagh R
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – Spielberg R
Jacknife- David Jones R
Jesus of Montreal – Arcand R
Kiki’s Deliver Service- Miyazaki R
Leningrad Cowboys Go America – Kaurismäki R
Lonesome Dove- Wincer R
Monsieur Hire- Leconte HR
My Left Foot- Sheridan R
Mystery Train – Jarmusch MS
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – Chechik R
Parenthood- Howard R
Santra Sangre – Jodorowsky R
Say Anything- Crowe R
Sea of Love- Becker R
Sex, Lies, and Videotape- Soderbergh R
Sweetie – Campion HR
The Abyss- Cameron R
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover – Greenaway MP
The Killer- Woo HR
The Little Mermaid – Clements,  Musker R
The Package- A. Davis R
The War of the Roses – DeVito R
When Harry Met Sally- Reiner HR



*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