Alice. Directed by Woody Allen. I don’t think it would be a stretch to call this romantic comedy-fantasy Allen’s most underrated film. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby wrote a glowing review in 1990 and the film was recognized by the Oscars with a Best Original Screenplay nomination, but otherwise Alice seems to have been unjustly passed by for the last two decades. Mia Farrow, who never gave a bad performance in any Allen film, is at her most radiant as a Manhattan housewife whose trips to a Chinatown doctor (played by Keye Luke) result in her life being turned upside down. Like a modern-day version of the Lewis Carroll character of the same name, Farrow’s Alice is led down many paths in order to eventually find herself. Subsequent dealings with the men in her life – husband William Hurt, object of affection Joe Mantegna, former flame Alec Baldwin, overeager pal Bob Balaban – are both hilarious and poignant, especially when Farrow and Baldwin’s meeting after many years is set to the tune of “I Remember You” (a Jackie Gleason mood music recording). The cast also features a number of wonderful actresses, including Bernadette Peters, Cybill Shepherd, Blythe Danner, Judy Davis, Gwen Verdon and Julie Kavner. I implore you to discover the magical hidden treasure Alice.
Awakenings. Directed by Penny Marshall. Perhaps my favorite film directed by a woman, this drama is more than simply another disease-of-the-week spectacle. Rather, it is a touching, extremely emotional portrait of the importance of communication. Based on the Oliver Sacks book of the same name, the Sacks role is played by Robin Williams, who gives a performance of outstanding profundity. His quest to help catatonic patients suffering from encephalitis, the most prominent of whom is played by Robert De Niro, forms the backbone of the story. The successes and failures of Williams’ experiments with the drug L-Dopa inevitably cause both joy and sorrow, making me shed copious amounts of tears either way. One of my favorite scenes, in which Williams is coerced into dancing with patient Judith Malina during a recreational trip is really sweet, even if it’s a small scene within the two-hour movie. Other fine moments are thanks to actors Julie Kavner (in a much larger role than in Alice), Ruth Nelson (as De Niro’s mother), John Heard, Penelope Ann Miller, Alice Drummond, Barton Heyman, George Martin, Anne Meara, Richard Libertini, Laura Esterman, Dexter Gordon (the renowned saxophonist), Max von Sydow and Peter Stormare.
Dick Tracy. Directed by Warren Beatty. First of all, Dick Tracy is not a movie for people without a sense of humor. Second, it’s not the kind of movie where you should be preoccupied with issues of plot and scriptwriting. This is a movie where all you need to do is sit back and enjoy the ride. I must praise Warren Beatty, whom I do not usually enjoy on film, as a great leading man and director helming this adaptation of the classic comic strip. The film won three very deserving Oscars for art direction/set decoration, makeup and the Stephen Sondheim song “Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man).” The aforementioned sets range from candy-colored to neon to nightmarish, creating a gorgeous vision of the comic book world. I also love the Oscar-nominated costumes by Milena Canonero and Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography. There is a seemingly endless list of famous names in the cast, including Madonna, Al Pacino, Glenne Headly, Mandy Patinkin, Dustin Hoffman, Dick Van Dyke, Seymour Cassel, Charles Durning, Paul Sorvino, Estelle Parsons, James Caan and Kathy Bates. But it’s Beatty who holds the film together, making each twist and turn a delightful confection.
Edward Scissorhands. Directed by Tim Burton. Unquestionably Burton’s masterpiece, this lyrical film is an ode to both the beauty and the darkness inherent in the world. Here Johnny Depp gave his first and best performance for Burton, donning Oscar-nominated makeup to hide his “21 Jump Street” looks and reveal Edward’s vulnerable soul. Winona Ryder is a perfect match for Depp in every possible way, giving a sterling performance as the girl in love with Depp (and vice versa). Other notable performances are given by Dianne Wiest, Kathy Baker (as a sex-starved neighbor), Vincent Price (as “The Inventor”) and Alan Arkin. Like Dick Tracy, Edward Scissorhands benefits from gloriously colorful art direction/set decoration, whether depicting hyperreal suburbia or the Gothic castle home of Edward’s inventor. Another similarity between the two movies is that both films were scored by Danny Elfman, my personal musical preference being Edward Scissorhands. If you ask me, this film is the single best of the 1990s. As one IMDb reviewer wrote: “If Tim Burton never did anything else, this film would be enough to call his life worthwhile.”
White Palace. Directed by Luis Mandoki. I suppose this choice must look slightly out of place amongst the other movies I just wrote about; White Palace is the only one of the five that’s rated R – and for good reason too. It’s the story of “a younger man and a bolder woman,” to quote the poster’s tagline. (Hint: sex is involved.) James Spader, a young ad man, meets up with trashy forty-something fast food worker Susan Sarandon one lonely night and somehow they end up drunk at her house. After spending the night, Spader finds himself drawn to Sarandon and the two embark on a relationship, learning along the way how to deal with judgmental family members, friends and coworkers. Spader and Sarandon, certainly two of the preeminent stars of 80s-90s American cinema, make a fascinating couple. Details like Spader being a widower and Sarandon feeling out of her depth at Spader’s traditional Jewish family functions, add nuance to what could have been merely another forgettable older-woman-younger-man love story.