Friday, June 8th, 1984 was quite a day. Homosexuality was decriminalized in New South Wales, Australia; an F5 tornado struck the town of Barnevald, Wisconsin, USA, destroying 90% of it; President Ronald Reagan attended a summit in London; the Celtics beat the Lakers 121-103 to take a 3-2 lead in the NBA finals; TV gameshow “Press Your Luck” paid out the biggest ever jackpot (to that point) of $110,000 to one Michael Larson who had figured out how to beat the system; and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” was poised to knock Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” off the Billboard Charts number one spot. Oh, and modern classics “Ghostbusters” and “Gremlins” were both released.
Coming just the week after “Once Upon a Time in America” hit screens, while “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” was still in cinemas and followed a fortnight later by both “The Karate Kid” and “Top Secret!” people of a certain age and penchant for nostalgia are tempted to look back on that year and sigh, “what a vintage summer that was!” and “they don’t make summers like that anymore” etc etc. And so, intrepid reporters that we are, we decided to investigate: was the summer of “Ghostbusters” and “Gremlins” truly some sort of epochal moment, a confluence of greatness, a crossing of the streams, if you will, of film history?
Well…not so much. For every unforgettable classic, there was a stinker and for every stinker there were two middling efforts largely lost to the mists of time. But there’s no doubt that summer 1984 did straddle the highs and lows of cinematic achievement in quite a spectacular manner, which made us curious to go back and look at it all all over again. So here, ranked from worst to best, in terms of which belong in the dustbin of history and which will shine on through posterity, is every major release from that summer season (defined as always as the first Friday in May through Labor Day, which in 1984 fell on September 3rd). So dust off your Slinkys, prepare for a little body popping and take our hand as we dive headfirst into the spinning 80s graphic that denotes a time tunnel, to emerge 30 years in the past, blinking into the sunshine of summer 1984.
35. “Bolero” (August 31st)
An attempt to revive the career of Bo Derek, who’d leapt to fame in 1979 as Dudley Moore’s co-star in “10,” as directed by her husband John Derek, “Bolero” is a dismal softcore romance, a sort of film version of a housewife paperback bonk-buster about a virginal boarding school graduate who sets out on a worldwide tour in order to find the perfect lover for her first time. Both conservative and sleazy, it was mostly notable for being released without an MPAA rating, for causing a fall-out between producers Cannon and distributors MGM, and for being absolutely fucking terrible.
34 “Cannonball Run II” (June 29th)
1981’s all-star road-race pic “Cannonball Run,” a Burt Reynolds-toplining blend of “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World” and “Wacky Races,” wasn’t exactly much cop, but it proved to be an absolute bona-fide smash, the sixth biggest of its year. As such, a sequel was inevitable, but somehow director Hal Needham turned out something that made the original look like “Nashville.” It’s essentially a retread of the first movie, with a few more star cameos (Shirley MacLaine, Telly Savalars, Ricardo Montalban, Don Knotts, Jaws from James Bond, the monkey from “Every Which Way Is Loose”), but otherwise coming off as deeply half-assed. The film proved to be the last on-screen appearances for Dean Martin (returning from the original) and Frank Sinatra (reunited with his old pal for a cameo), and it’s hard to think of a more ignoble way to end a film career.
33. “Best Defense” (July 20th)
In theory, a movie starring Dudley Moore, star of megahit “Arthur,” and Eddie Murphy, who’d go on to lead 1984’s biggest hit “Beverly Hills Cop,” should have been massive. But instead, “Best Defense,” is a dire military satire penned by George Lucas pal and “American Graffiti” co-writer Willard Huyck that sees Moore as a tank designer and Murphy as the commander of said machine during an eerily prescient war in Iraq a few years later. In fact, Murphy wasn’t initially in the film: test-screenings of the Moore-only version were so disastrous that Paramount threw their new darling a truckload of cash to shoot for a few days to liven things up. It didn’t work, and Murphy later dissed the film while hosting ‘SNL‘, calling it “the worst movie in the history of everything.” That’s probably unfair, but not by much.
32. “C.H.U.D.” (June 10th)
Does the title stand for “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller” or “Contamination Hazard Urban Disposal” is just one of the many questions you won’t care enough to ask of this deeply dull horror. Starring John Heard and Daniel Stern, “C.H.U.D” tells the story of a government conspiracy to bury nuke-u-lar waste beneath Manhattan, which then mutates some of the city’s underground homeless population into ravenous cannibals resembling spongy knock-offs of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Which could in itself be fun, but the budget is so low here that the vast majority of the film is actually just people talking, ever-so-slowly piecing together the mystery of these terminally unfrightening monsters. In fact the film’s main claim to fame now is that it was chosen by those wacky japesters at the Criterion Collection as the subject of a joke release announcement on April Fools Day, something its inexplicable “cult” following made oddly plausible. And yet not.
31. “Breakin’” (May 4th)
The other, and lesser, of 1984’s two breakdancing “classics,” (after “Beat Street”) the ropy acting and hamfisted storytelling of “Breakin’” make any moment when the protagonists aren’t dancing pretty unbearable. But the dancing is good, largely due to the presence of non-professional dancers like Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers and personalities such as Ice-T (in his debut), both of whom were imported to this narrative film directly from the German breakdancing documentary that inspired it, “Breakin’ and Enterin’” (in the 80s, nothing was cooler than droppin’ that last ‘g’). So go for the dance-offs but be warned, the threadbare plot in which a nice white girl teams up with the street dancers and, yawn, wins their respect with her awesome moves is, in Ice-T’s own words, “wack.”
30. “Sheena” (August 17th)
A contest between which of “Sheena” and “Bolero” is more in thrall to the physical charms of its leading lady would be too close to call, but the also just-fucking-awful “Sheena” gets held off the very bottom spots because of some pretty Kenyan landscape photography and the occasional unintentional hilarity of its lady-Tarzan vibe. But not too far, because the bland blonde Tanya Roberts becoming Queen of a tribe of Magical Negroes is exactly as idiotic and racist as it sounds, as comic book creation Sheena, aided by her allies the animals and hunky smitten TV reporter Vic (Ted Wass) stops an evil Prince from strip-mining her tribe’s land. When it’s not stupid, it’s boring, and when it’s neither it’s about as convincing as Sheena’s favorite mode of transport: a zebra that is very obviously a horse that’s been painted to look like a zebra.
29. “Rhinestone” (June 22nd)
Law of the jungle: when Sylvester Stallone tries to diversify away from the action genre, run for the hills. “Rhinestone” was one of his earliest attempts to shake off his Rocky image, a musical rom-com from “Porky’s” director Bob Clark where frustrated musician Dolly Parton makes a bet with her manager (Ron Leibman) that she can turn anyone into a country singer. The target? Atonal, dickish cab driver Nick (Stallone). The star reportedly turned down both “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Romancing The Stone” to make this one, rewriting the script himself to the extent that original scribe Phil Alden Robinson wanted his name taken off. Stallone’s only reward? Poisonous reviews, worse box office, and a Razzie for Worst Actor.
28 “Oxford Blues” (August 24th)
A remake of the 1938 drama “A Yank At Oxford,” this was an early attempt at a solo vehicle for Rob Lowe, who’d broken out the year before in “The Outsiders.” The future “West Wing” star plays a young American kid who decides that the only way to win over the woman of his dreams (Amanda Pays) is to go to Oxford University and join the rowing team. It’s pretty lowest-common-denominator culture clash stuff, deeply formulaic and with a view of British life that hasn’t progressed much further than the 1938 original, but it’s reasonably well shot in places, at least.
27. “Conan The Destroyer” (June 29th)
We’ve never been particularly huge fans of the swords-and-sorcery of John Milius’ original “Conan The Barbarian,” but it’s poetry in comparison to the sequel: follow-up “Conan The Destroyer” is closer to “Hawk The Slayer” than it is to Milius’ film. Arnold Schwarzenegger returns, just before he became a megastar in “The Terminator” (which opened that October), to once again play Robert E. Howard’s brawny hero, this time teamed with Grace Jones’ thief on a quest to… do… something: the plot is basically nonsensical this time out, especially without a villain of the caliber of James Earl Jones in the first film. Hollywood veteran Richard Fleischer (“Fantastic Voyage,” “Soylent Green”) picks up the directorial reins, but this is much more of a slog second time around.
26. “Grandview U.S.A.” (August 3rd)
Imagine “The Last Picture Show” or “American Graffiti” if they’d been made by the director behind “Grease,” and you land on something like “Grandview U.S.A.,” in part because it was actually from Randall Kleiser, the director of “Grease.” Set in the small town of the title, focusing on a love triangle between aspiring oceanologist C. Thomas Howell, demolition driver Patrick Swayze and mechanic Jamie Lee Curtis, there’s an admirable bittersweet quality to the film in places, but it mostly feels terribly rote, Kleiser only perking up for a “Grease”-esque musical fantasy sequence. Curtis called the film the second worst she’d ever been in, which isn’t fair, considering some of the outright stinkers in her catalogue, but it’s almost instantly forgettable stuff nevertheless.
25. “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock” (June 1st)
Coming off franchise high-point ‘The Wrath Of Khan‘ a couple of years earlier, ‘The Search For Spock‘ picks up from the previous film’s cliffhanger, with the death of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock (the actor used the downtime to direct this installment), seeing the crew of the Enterprise head off to retrieve their crewmate’s body after discovering that his living spirit had been transferred to McCoy (DeForest Kelley), while evading murderous Klingons in search of the Genesis device from the previous film. Popular theory has it that odd-numbered Trek movies were bad and even-numbered ones good, but ‘Search For Spock’ isn’t so bad: it’s a bit silly, and feels more like a TV episode than a movie, but it’s watchable enough, if not equal to its predecessor. Let’s see if the reboot can do the third installment better with Roberto Orci’s upcoming “Star Trek III: The Search For The Truth About 9/11.”
24. “Bachelor Party” (June 29th)
Somewhat prefiguring more recent R-rated comedy fare like “Wedding Crashers” and “The Hangover,” “Bachelor Party” landed hot on the heels of March’s “Splash,” cementing Tom Hanks as a fully-fledged movie star. It’s a far cry from the clean-cut fare he’d later be best known for, though. It’s a crude, fairly juvenile comedy following the pre-nuptial parties of Rick (Hanks) and Debbie (Tawny Kitaen), as he tries to fend off her ex-boyfriend (Robert Prescott), who’s been asked by her uptight parents to win her back. Hugely politically incorrect in a pretty sour way, the film is carried along by Hanks’ spirited performance, but doesn’t have much to recommend it beyond that. Still, taking in nearly $40 million at the time, it was a sizable hit.
23. The Philadelphia Experiment” (August 3rd)
If every future B-movie actor gets his shot at the big time, 1984 was probably Michael Paré’s. Starring in “Streets of Fire” as well as time-travel yarn “The Philadelphia Experiment,” it could’ve been a breakout year. Except neither film is terrific and Paré, while handsome, is not so much with the acting. This film, based on one of the daftest urban myths to ever have its own Wikipedia entry (the story goes that the U.S. Military “disappeared” an entire ship in 1943, which makes perfect sense if you suspect all known physics of being wrong), spins an intermittently amusing time travel yarn out of this premise, in which two WWII sailors aboard the invisible ship fall through, yes, a tear in the fabric of space-time and end up in 1984, not knowing how to open cans of Coke or drive automatic. The film also stars ubiquitous ’80s face Nancy Allen, who is probably the most convincing element of an otherwise ho-hum creaky, video-effect-y stew.
22. “Beat Street” (June 8th)
A broader snapshot of blossoming hip hop culture than the previous month’s “Breakin’” (see above), “Beat Street” doesn’t just feature breakdancers but also aspiring DJs and graffiti artists. And aside from in the loosest terms, it also jettisons any real claim to narrative, which is probably for the best, as the central brothers a budding MC and a b-boy dancer with the Beat Street Breakers (played by the New York City Breakers) struggle their way to the top of their respective piles. More interesting now as a sociological document than an actual film, the threadbare plot nonetheless has the feel of authenticity in its various urban environments and is marked by some terrific dance-offs between real-life rival crews the NYC Breakers and the Rock Steady Crew.
21. “Firestarter” (May 11th)
Having been such a standout in “E.T.” two years earlier, when she was only seven-years-old, Drew Barrymore became hot property, and followed up Steven Spielberg’s classic with this Stephen King adaptation. Along with much of what Barrymore did for the next decade, it wasn’t the wisest choice: the film (directed by future “Commando” helmer Mark Lester) is pretty ropey stuff, with Barrymore as a pyrokinetic little girl who, with her father (charisma vacuum David Keith), is hunted by the government who gave her their powers. The film has a solid cast (Martin Sheen, George C. Scott, Louise Fletcher, Toby Jones’ father Freddie), but, even if it’s not the worst King adaptation (that would be a feat…), it’s dull, formulaic stuff livened up only by Barrymore, and by some admittedly impressive effects.
20. “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” (August 15th)
As is often the way with fairly notorious box-office flops, ‘Buckaroo Banzai’ has seen a substantial cult spring up around it in more recent years. But where it differs from, say the likes of “C.H.U.D.” (see above) is that it really earns its cult following — it’s a mess, but a huge and intermittently fabulous one. Starring Peter Weller as the titular Banzai, a rock star/daredevil/particle physicist and John Lithgow as his unhinged (human) nemesis, there is not enough space here, or indeed on the internet, to make sense of the plot which involves warring alien races — the good guys of whom have Jamaican accents— identical twins, governmental conspiracies and of course inter-dimensional high-speed travel. But it’s the mischief that peeks through the silliness, and the flashes of self-aware satire that keep things buzzing along, albeit incomprehensibly, as well as what should have been a star-making turn from a charismatic Weller.
19. “Dreamscape” (August 15th)
Considering just a few months later “Nightmare on Elm Street” would debut and spawn a whole franchise dedicated to the concept, clearly in 1984 the idea that someone might be able to invade your dreams and thereby kill you, was a pretty prevalent fear. “Dreamscape” is a more thrillerish than horrorish take on the same premise, but its engaging cast elevates it: Dennis Quaid plays the gifted wastrel telepath brought back into the fold for an experimental dream program by mentor Max von Sydow and shady Intelligence chief Christopher Plummer, where he falls for Kate Capshaw’s doctor and foils a plot to assassinate the President, who has been troubled by dreams of nuclear holocaust. Also featuring “Cheers” star George Wendt as Stephen King-ish writer Charlie Prince (geddit?), the effects, particularly a rather cuddly snake monster, are pretty rough, but the principals, especially Quaid’s wolfish charm, mostly carry the day.
17. Tightrope” (August 17th)
A surprisingly competent, if grimy, serial sex killer procedural, back in ‘84 “Tightrope” was as a fairly big subversion of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry persona (Eastwood also took over directing duties when credited director, Richard Tuggle, was working too slowly). Here he plays the divorced cop father of two girls, who gets embroiled in the machinations of a serial killer who targets prostitutes, providing Eastwood with a chance to contend for Onscreen Cop Least Able to Keep it in his Pants, as he gets variously seduced by brothel keepers and friends of the dead hooker, who then themselves end up dead. Also starring Genevieve Bujold as a rape counsellor whom Eastwood romances in between being framed/toyed with by the killer, the film’s sexual politics are pretty nasty, but this was the eighties and actually, nothing oogie happens here that doesn’t happen six times over in the average “Law & Order: SVU” episode.
16. “Under The Volcano” (June 15th)
Even thirty years ago, it was rare for a serious prestige drama to land from a major studio in the summer months, but Universal rolled the dice by taking John Huston’s penultimate film “Under The Volcano” from the Cannes Film Festival to U.S. theaters the following months, where it did, sadly, predictably poorly. An adaptation of Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 novel about a British consul in Mexico, it’s an ambitious and only semi-successful attempt to take on a nearly unfilmable novel, and Huston had a more potent late-period work to come with “The Dead,” but it’s worth watching if only for Albert Finney’s titanic central performance (deservedly Oscar-nominated), one of the great actor’s very finest.
15. “Red Dawn” (August 10th)
If you listen closely, you can actually hear the words “I’m Ronald Reagan, and I approve this message” during the credits of “Red Dawn.” The most powerful B-movie actor in history was strolling amiably towards re-election in the summer of 1984, demonizing the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union and defending good old-fashioned American freedoms. And nothing echoed that jingoistic era better than a film in which a ragtag but highly photogenic bunch of high-schoolers from small-town Colorado fight back against a relentlessly implausible Russian invasion (who occupy the middle of the U.S. but not the coasts. How?). It even comes with a heavy-handed, NRA-friendly subplot about gun seizures. Directed by John Milius, Hollywood’s pet conservative (he wrote the first two “Dirty Harry” films), “Red Dawn” introduced the world to many of the key figures who made the 80s a golden age of teen movies. Charlie Sheen and Patrick Swayze are the leads (and play brothers), Swayze’s “Dirty Dancing” partner Jennifer Grey (who also plays Ferris’ sister in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”) and Lea Thompson (Marty McFly’s teenaged mother) also star. But rebelling against fur-hatted Russkies isn’t really the same as rebelling against high school principals, and “Red Dawn” isn’t really a teen movie itself. Nor is it really the war film it might sound like: it’s a simple action movie, one that at one time was thought to hold a record for acts of violence committed on screen per minute (2.23, if you’re curious). The mayhem made it the first film released with the newly minted PG-13 rating. Collaborators are cheerfully executed by the kids (though the Russians are just as dastardly), spectacular acts of sabotage are pulled off, and the whole thing feels weirdly like watching Michael Bay and Dick Cheney collaborate on a remake of “The Battle of Algiers.” Still, it’s fun at times, especially for its time-capsule value, and several times better than the “this time it’s the Chinese North Koreans” remake from two years ago.
14. Purple Rain” (July 27th)
By the time 1984 rolled around, Prince was already a pretty big star and had released Dirty Mind (1980), Controversy (1981), and 1999 (1982), but the idea around his 1984 album Purple Rain and the accompanying movie was a masterstroke. A concept in hand, Prince and his manager eventually hired Albert Magnoli to write and direct the movie (the only thing you probably know him for since then is “Tango & Cash”) about “The Kid” (as Prince is referred to in the film) battling his personal demons and family issues while trying to make it as a pop star in Minneapolis. Full of ego issues, The Kid has a ton of inner and outer emotional conflict. He’s a jerk to his band The Revolution and won’t play their songs, he has to contend with an alcoholic dad beating his mother, the songwriter/band leader has to fight for his make-or-break slot at a local club (the rival band is The Time featuring Morris Day) and the arrival of hot new girl in town who The Kid falls for (singer Apollonia) is just one more emotionally fraught complication. But to be frank, “Purple Rain” isn’t very good (though Morris Day and his sidekick are so hilariously bad they are great). The R-rated movie was nominated for two Razzie awards, but it was a huge hit. This is largely because all the performances from the Purple Rain album are rather electric, even if they’re all captured after the fact – the album is that good (and to be fair three of the main songs on the album were recorded live) even making it onto our Greatest Theme Songs of the 80s feature. Prince won an Oscar for the now defunct category Best Original Song Score for the title track and the Purple Rain soundtrack spent 24 weeks at Number 1 on the Billboard charts. The roll-out was also perfect; the album arriving in late June of ’84, quickly becoming a big hit and leading way to the movie that would open a month later in July. “Purple Rain” grossed $68 million that year and went on to be the 6th highest grossing movie of 1984.
13. “The Muppets Take Manhattan” (July 13th)
Most summers these days (though, actually, not this one so much, as it happens) are positively stuffed with animated films and other kids-skewing pictures, but with Disney still in the doldrums and few other challengers on the scene, the li’l ones had fewer options back in 1984 (particularly with the boundaries of the PG rating being pushed ever further, with the PG-13 being introduced as a direct result of films like “Gremlins” and “The Temple Of Doom.”) Their best chance was with “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” the third of the original three classic Muppets pictures (an eight year gap followed before “The Muppets Christmas Carol”), and the solo directorial debut of longtime Muppet performer Frank Oz, who’d previously co-directed “The Dark Crystal” with Jim Henson. The film returns to the let’s-put-on-a-show vibe of the first after the more genre-friendly “The Great Muppet Caper,” with the felt-covered gang graduating from college and attempting to stage a Broadway play. The film’s arguably the weakest of that original three, slightly lacking in great songs (Jeff Moss replacing Paul Williams and Joe Raposo from the earlier pictures), and cameos (Dustin Hoffman bailed on the picture at the last minute, causing the likes of Laurence Olivier and Michael Jackson to follow, and leaving a rather B-list group in their place), but it’s still charming and a little bit insane, like all the best Muppets pictures.
12. “Streets Of Fire” (June 1st)
Director Walter Hill was coming off a giant megahit with Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte comedy “48 Hrs,” enough so that he could probably make whatever he liked. What he made was heightened comic-book musical actioner “Streets Of Fire,” which proved enough of a flop that the director’s career arguably never recovered fully. Over the years, though, it’s growing a cult following, though, and, in our eyes, it’s about time. It might be somewhat style over substance, but it’s an engaging and distinctive piece of work. Set in a nameless time and place, a vaguely steampunkish, rock’n’roll-obsessed industrial city, it follows Tom Cody (Michael Pare), a soldier-for-fortune who rolls back into town when his ex-girlfriend, singer Ellen (Diane Lane), is kidnapped by The Bombers, a biker gang led by Raven (Willem Dafoe). The film essentially confirms that Hill was one of the first “comic book” directors — in retrospect the film seems to be influential (for better or worse) on all kinds of contemporary tentpole and action filmmakers. And so it should be: Hill stages the action as impressively as ever, and creates a genuinely distinctive and energetic world (thanks in part to a great soundtrack). While you wonder what would have happened if, say, Kurt Russell had been in the lead role, Michael Pare‘s blandness is turned into something closer to mystery in Hill’s hands, while Dafoe’s a great villain, Amy Madigan (as sidekick McCoy) is terrific fun, and Lane (then only 19) is worth fighting through a string of bikers for, even if she and Pare share little chemistry. It’s not the most substantial film Hill ever made, but it might be the most fun.
11. “The Natural” (May 11th)
You wouldn’t have thought baseball, with its static, stop-start nature, would prove the most cinematic sport, and yet it’s probably inspired more great movies than any of America’s other national pastimes. “The Natural,” despite its aims, isn’t one of them, but it’s still absorbing and well-made, if a little bloated and silly. Directed by Barry Levinson (who broke through two years earlier with “Diner”), and based on the classic 1950s novel by Bernard Malamud, the film follows Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford), a baseball prodigy whose career hitting a major speedbump after being shot by an obsessed woman (Barbara Hershey). Fifteen years later, he’s signed as a 35-year-old rookie to the major leagues, but not everyone believes in him as much as he can. The plot is, frankly, a little ridiculous and highly melodramatic, the age of the source novel showing somewhat. And the way that Levinson and DP Caleb Deschanel shoot their star slightly inspires the thought, “If you like Robert Redford so much, why don’t you marry him?” But the cast, also including Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Wilford Brimley and Darren McGavin, are top-notch, the period details are superb, and the whole thing is very watchable, if rather overlong at over 130 minutes. It might be a somewhat obvious fable, but it’s capable of stirring most people, not least big fans of the sport.
10. “The Bounty” (May 4th)
With its high-seas derring-do and themes of honor and intrigue, not to mention two plum generation-spanning central roles for an elder statesman-type and a young buck, it’s perhaps no surprise that the story of the real-life 1789 mutiny aboard the HMS Bounty has been retold so many times in film form. This Roger Donaldson version, the fifth, is widely considered the most historically accurate, with several scenes inserted that are apparently direct recreations of pages from the real Captain Bligh’s diary. But of course fidelity to history doesn’t always yield the best cinema, so it’s heartening to note that while probably the 1935 Charles Laughton and Clark Gable-starrer is still the best of the lot, this 1984 version comes pretty close. Anthony Hopkins makes a terrific Bligh, understated compared to Laughton’s fabulously hammy turn (so not that understated at all really) and if Mel Gibson doesn’t have quite the charisma or heft of Gable in the Fletcher Christian role, we can take heart that he’s actually better cast than Marlon Brando was in the famously troubled 1962 version. At least Gibson doesn’t wander off for half to film to have an affair with a Tahitian princess. Aided by a revisionist view of Bligh as less a sadistic villain than a stiff, disciplinarian traditionalist who only becomes a tyrant in response to Christian’s betrayal, you can see the complex currents of masculinity and tradition vs progress that might have attracted “Lawrence of Arabia” director David Lean to an earlier version of the script. In fact, Lean left the project when original writer Robert Bolt had a stroke, leaving scripting duties to be taken over (uncredited) by beloved British broadcaster Melvyn Bragg. But after all that, the film flopped on release, making back just $8.6m of its $25m budget, proving a bit of a money pit for producer Dino De Laurentiis, though probably his best received film critically that summer, considering “Firestarter” and “Conan the Destroyer” also hailed from his stable.
9. The Last Starfighter” (July 13th)
The modest contemporary success of this consummately 80s movie (the high point of the directorial career of Nick Castle, who was also the man behind the mask as Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s original “Halloween”) is easy to explain. Based on the same “ordinary kid discovering quasi-messianic powers and rescuing whole civilizations” schtick that has been a staple of kids’ stories from “Star Wars” (which it does rip off rather shamelessly) to “Harry Potter” it’s got added 80s cred for its “Tron”-like arcade game storyline. And along with “Tron,” it features one of the earliest widespread uses of pioneering computer generated visuals (27 whole minutes!) –images which still look pretty great now, in a nostalgic sort of way. Their lack of photo-reality, neon laser beams and vector graphics have an aesthetic all their own. And it’s engagingly played all round with “Halloween 2” star Lance Guest, who plays a dual role as the hero and the “beta version” robot left behind to fill in for him while he goes off fighting bad aliens, proving that he probably deserved a better subsequent career than “Jaws 4” and a bunch of TV guest spots. Even the practical alien effects, while unashamedly of the “I am a human man in a rubber mask” variety, are pretty good, allowing for some expressiveness on the part of the actor trapped inside. The story follows Alex, a trailer park boy with a talent for a particular arcade game who is contacted by the alien race who use the game as a testing ground for pilots talented enough to help them in their battle against a deadly foe. After some requisite angst and hesitation, Alex embraces his destiny, saves the day and gets to leave the trailer park with his dream girl in more impressive style than he could ever have imagined. It’s a little overlong, and derivative, to be sure, but it’s done with such good humor and in such breezy style that you can’t really stay mad at it for long, and while its visuals are hardly cutting edge anymore, they do have an early-CG gloss that is charming in its own right.
8.“Revenge Of The Nerds” (July 20th)
While R-rated comedies these days are usually either a big hit or miss, 20th Century Fox’s “Revenge Of The Nerds” had no such identity problem in 1984. The raunchy college comedy was the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of the year. While ‘Nerds’ is racist, sexist, misogynist, homophobic, etc. – all the politically incorrect elements that defined comedy in the 1980s – it is really about outsiders and misfits trying to fit in and earn respect and its David vs. Goliath story is classic. And while the Jeff Kanew-directed film does laughs at its feeble, often-pathetic protagonists and characters a lot, it also brilliantly steers the audience empathy in their favor just as it does the same for the hateful jocks and peers on campus that originally treat them as lepers. Beyond all that, “Revenge Of The Nerds” is rather hysterical; it’s juvenile T&A antics might be crude, but its humor is often borne of the clever and even subversive depiction of outsider losers as the heroes rather than the beautiful teens that dominated so many ‘80s comedies. Nerd culture might be the norm now, but “Revenge Of The Nerds” arguably was an early turning point in pop culture; seeing the value and worth in those who look less-than-perfect on the outside. It all caps off in one of the most heart-rousing musical numbers and finales in a teen comedy ever (the Lambda Rap that gives way to the moving use of Queen’s “We Are The Champions”). “Revenge Of The Nerds” spawned three more films, the latter two being television films, but none of them possessed remotely any of the same spark. A Fox Atomic remake, with Adam Brody and Katie Cassidy among the cast, was even slated for 2007, but the production was canceled after two weeks of filming. Which, well, good.
7. Sixteen Candles” (May 4th)
Somewhat overlooked in the John Hughes canon of ’80s teen movies, his directorial debut “Sixteen Candles” actually makes a case for being a pretty good manifesto for everything the writer/director/architect of angst stood for. More diffuse in its structure than, say, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” or “Pretty in Pink” (which he wrote but did not direct), in “Sixteen Candles” Hughes seems less interested in the trials of his leading lady/muse Molly Ringwald, than in painting an accurate, if lighthearted and affectionate, portrait of high school teenagerdom. What marks it out though, as a cut above the regular teen comedy is the balance that is struck between laughing at and laughing with–Hughes neither lets his characters away with taking themselves too seriously, nor does he condescend. So, yes, Sam (Ringwald) has a whole host of First World Problems, like the studly boy she fancies not knowing she’s alive, or the geeky kid with a crush on her (80s geek archetype Anthony Michael Hall) conning her out of a pair of her panties, or her busybody family not remembering her 16th birthday because her sister’s getting married the following day. But she never becomes so self-absorbed as to be unlikeable (Ringwald is probably at her most winning here), and even those characters, like The Geek, or the Asian Foreign Exchange Student tragically named Long Duk Dong are rescued from all-out stereotyping by being given quirks and depths all their own. Not as out-and-out funny as ‘Bueller,” and without the catchy premise of “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles” will probably never really challenge for the crown of best, or even most beloved Hughes-related film. But as an example of his uniquely unpatronizing approach to the trials and tribulations of being a white, middle class American teenager, it’s warm, well-meaning and worthwhile.
6. “Top Secret!” (June 22nd)
If one wants to argue that the Zucker Brothers comedies of the ‘80s and ‘90s are now dated and not particularly funny any longer, we won’t fight you too hard on that point (though “Airplane” is still pretty great). However, there’s one that really hasn’t aged a day and is the high point of their entire career: the slightly less-remembered WWII comedy “Top Secret!” A parody of spy movies from the Cold War era, the comedy centers Nick Rivers, an international American pop star/teen idol (Val Kilmer in his first feature film), who plays a concert in East Germany and then inadvertently becomes mixed-up with a a beautiful girl (Lucy Gutteridge), Hillary Flammond, who is a member of an underground French Resistance to take down Hitler and the Nazis. Co-starring Omar Sharif, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough and Jeremy Kemp, once Rivers becomes embroiled in the resistance – and therefore is wanted by the Gestapo – the plan is to free Flammond’s father, a brilliant scientist imprisoned by the Germans and forced to build a deadly naval mine. While “Top Secret!” has its share of WWII spoofs, jokes and humor, it also acts as an incredibly funny musical and pop satire. Kilmer’s Nick Rivers songs are a hilarious pastichey rip-off of Elvis, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers and whitebread teen pop idols of the ‘50s like Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon and perhaps most overtly Ricky Nelson. Sung by Kilmer, each song is top-notch comedy wrapped inside a three-minute pop song and the sequences they’re featured in – sending up teen pop idolatry and all its absurdity – are also richly funny stuff. The Zucker Brothers’ comedies are wacky, silly and slapstick-y, a type of humor that’s certainly not in vogue now, but it’s a classic we adore and can never get tired of. “How Silly Can You Get?” indeed.
5. “The Karate Kid” (June 22nd)
Few could doubt that in a summer full of special effects and Spielberg movies, “The Karate Kid” was something of an underdog. But as director John G. Avildsen had demonstrated eight years earlier with “Rocky,” you should never underestimate an underdog, and despite an unknown cast and a low $8 million budget (a third of rivals like “Temple Of Doom” and “Ghostbusters”) the film proved a sleeper hit with the emphasis on “hit,” taking in $90 million and becoming the fifth-biggest grosser of the year. It’s also a pretty good movie. The story (penned by Robert Mark Kamen, who’d go on to write the “Taken” films) centers on Daniel (Ralph Macchio), a high-schooler who moves from New Jersey to the San Fernando Valley, only to be targeted by karate-expert bully Johnny (William Zabka), the ex-girlfriend of crush Ali (Elisabeth Shue). Fortunately, his building’s janitor, Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita, previously known only for a recurring role on “Happy Days”), is a martial arts expert, and reluctantly agrees to mentor the kid for a final showdown at a tournament. It’s formulaic stuff, to be sure, with Avildsen certainly cribbing from the “Rocky” playbook, but it’s well executed, with sensitive, well-drawn character beats that can be forgotten amidst the crane-poses and fence-painting that have passed into pop culture more readily. Morita, in particular, is excellent (and was nominated for an Oscar for the performance). Three subsequent sequels, and 2010’s Jaden Smith/Jackie Chan remake, diluted the original somewhat, but as far as this kind of thing goes, it’s a rock-solid example of how to do it right.
4. “Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom” (May 23rd)
Let’s be honest: until the arrival of “Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull” nearly a quarter-of-a-century later, “Temple Of Doom” represented something of a low point for the franchise spawned by its predecessor, the sublime “Raiders Of The Lost Ark.” Director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas were famously undergoing divorces at the time, leading to a darker mindset and a gorier tone that helped to inspire the creation of the PG-13 rating. Scriptwise, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (later to make “Howard The Duck” for Lucas) were no Lawrence Kasdan or Tom Stoppard, love interest Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw, who’d go on to marry Spielberg) is shrill and one-note, and the film tips uncomfortably into racism at points in a way that its predecessor or follow-up managed to avoid. But low-point is still a relative term for the first Indy trilogy (and here’s our comprehensive attempt to rehabilitate it altogether), because while the whole is less successful, the parts still have an amazing capacity to thrill. The opening sequence, inspired by Busby Berkeley, is one of the best set-pieces Spielberg has ever made, and later sequences, including the spectacular mine-cart chase and the rope-bridge finale, aren’t far behind. And, while not wildly appropriate for a broad family movie, the film’s darker aspects show a Spielbergian take on horror that he’s rarely tapped into since. At this point, at least, a disappointing Indiana Jones flick was still better than most of the blockbusters out there (and more profitable, too: it was the biggest grossing film worldwide of the year, and the third-biggest in the U.S.).
3. “Gremlins” (June 8th)
Joe Dante’s “Gremlins,” shepherded into existence by one Steven Spielberg, is a minor masterwork and an almost unique movie. Once it had been dropped in the swimming pool of financial success, it gave birth, gremlin-like, to a host of inferior imitators (“Critters”, “Troll”, the reality-warping awfulness of “Hobgoblins”), but none of them came close to matching Dante’s control of tone and knowledge of genre (it has cinema’s best “weird little shop that isn’t there the next time you look for it”). “Gremlins” is one of the great horror comedies, blending wicked humour, elaborate gore, sick satire and some outstanding puppetry from Chris Walas, who also did special effects for “The Fly” and devised the melting faces of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The resulting film, complete with a gremlin exploding in a microwave and a graphic speech about how Santa isn’t real delivered by Phoebe “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” Cates, was then aimed at (and enjoyed by) large numbers of children, causing a moral panic which led to the creation of the PG-13 rating and ensuring that few other films would walk the line of bad taste in quite the same way. Released the same week as “Ghostbusters” – a similar film in various ways, though less gruesome – “Gremlins” held its own and finished up as the 4th most profitable film of the year (and the 3rd of the summer). Not quite the stone-cold classic “Ghostbusters” has become – it lacks any very memorable human performances – it’s still a gem of weird filmmaking, and one that Dante has never equalled: it was also one of the last times Steven Spielberg has been independently confirmed as enjoying himself (including briefly onscreen, in a wheelchair) rather than trying to teach us all about Important Sad Bits In History.
2. “Ghostbusters” (June 8th)
A certain 7 year-old of this writer’s acquaintance recently wrote to Lego inquiring, with great impatience and a fair amount of geekery, about the release of their new “Ghostbusters” range (now available!). Kid is seven years old, which means he was minus twenty-three when the film first came out. We can’t think of any anecdote that better illuminates the ongoing, evergreen appeal of Ivan Reitman’s stone-cold classic sci-fi/horror/comedy mash up than that a kid today, bristling with iPads and social media gaming and whatever else they get up to on our lawns, can still get that obsessed by Drs Venkman, Stantz & Spengler and their mission to rid the world of pesky supernatural menaces, one quip at a time. It being the 30-year anniversary of “Ghostbusters,” there’ve been a hundred in-depth nostalgia pieces written about the film (we did ours a couple of years ago), including this hefty “making of” Vanity Fair article but even still nothing can dim the genuinely anarchic, lightning-in-a-bottle feel of the Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis-scripted movie. Following, as if you didn’t know, the adventures of three rumpled “paranormal investigators” just as New York is under threat of invasion from a Godlike being from another dimension, the film is just the right balance of scary, sexy (Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray have real chemistry), witty and outright silly. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that it’s “Ghostbusters,” along with perhaps the Indiana Jones movies and the “Star Wars” sequels that defined the 80s as the greatest era for big-screen family blockbuster fun and it’s a formula that has only sporadically been replicated since. Infinitely quotable, endlessly rewatchable and featuring probably the defining Bill Murray performance, we love many films, but “Ghostbusters” gets our adoration. But don’t take our word for its timelessness, just ask the nearest 7-year-old.
1. “Once Upon A Time In America” (June 1st)
Ooh, controversial… Obviously generations of geeks will bristle at picking anything other than “Ghostbusters” as the finest film of the summer of 1984, and there’s no doubt that it’s a great, great movie. But being the dickhead film snobs that we are, if we had a gun to our heads and had to pick one film, we’d always go with Sergio Leone’s gangster epic “Once Upon A Time In America,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May before hitting U.S. theaters at the start of June (mind you, that’s partly because we can all quote “Ghostbusters” by heart anyway). Now, it’s complicated by the fact that there were actually two different versions: Leone premiered a three hour, forty-nine minute cut at Cannes, (already a full forty minutes shorter than his ideal version), but the Warner Bros release a few weeks later had been cut down to two hours and nineteen minutes, and re-structured to play in chronological order. Even in that take, though, the brilliance of Leone, and his story of the long and tempestuous friendship between Jewish gangsters Noodles (Robert De Niro) and Max (James Woods), and Noodles’ love for actress Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern), shines through. The short cut is undoubtedly a travesty of what was intended, but the electric, somewhat theatrical performances, Leone’s immaculate attention to period detail, and the gorgeous writing can’t be cut out. And when you do catch the Cannes cut, there’s no doubt that a master is at work, with the time-jumping rhythm arguably elevating it above even Leone’s immaculate ‘Dollars’ trilogy or “Once Upon A Time In The West.” Everyone might be talking about “Ghostbusters” this week, but that an extended 251-minute cut of this film is heading to Blu-ray in September is the most thrilling 30th anniversary news we’ve heard so far.
We hope you enjoyed this brief stroll (ok, long arduous hike) through the patchy terrain of summer 1984. Let us know your thoughts below. –Jessica Kiang, Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez, Ben Brock.