Monday, August 21, 2023

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Top Ten Films of 1984

A reminder - these were the 76 films screened for this 1984 retrospective.

Against All Odds
All of Me
Beverly Hills Cop
Body Double
The Bostonians
Broadway Danny Rose
The Brother from Another Planet
Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo
The Company of Wolves
Conan the Destroyer
The Cotton Club
Crimes of Passion
Falling in Love
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes
Harry & Son
The House by the Cemetery
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The Karate Kid
The Killing Fields
The Lonely Guy
Mass Appeal
Mike's Murder
Mrs. Soffel
Moscow on the Hudson
The Muppets Take Manhattan
The Natural
The NeverEnding Story
Night of the Comet
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Nineteen Eighty-Four
El Norte
Once Upon a Time in America
Paris, Texas
A Passage to India
Places in the Heart
The Pope of Greenwich Village
Purple Rain
A Question of Silence
Repo Man
The River
Romancing the Stone
Secret Honor
Sixteen Candles
Sleepaway Camp
A Soldier's Story
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Stop Making Sense
Stranger Than Paradise
Streets of Fire
A Sunday in the Country
Swing Shift
The Terminator
This is Spinal Tap
The Times of Harvey Milk
Top Secret!
Under the Volcano
Unfaithfully Yours
The Woman in Red

Now - with apologies to Honorable Mentions The Cotton Club (my #13), Harry & Son (my #11), and Mass Appeal (my #12) - my personal Top Ten Films of 1984, in alphabetical order.

dir: Miloš Forman
pr: Saul Zaentz
scr: Peter Shaffer
cin: Miroslav Ondrícek

An incredible film about man's relationship with God, and what happens when we confuse our ego with His will. What is striking about Amadeus is that Salieri's life does not get worse - he has money, security, fame, and the respect of his peers - yet this is not enough to consider himself blessed. No, God must meet him on his terms, terms that the Lord violates by putting in Salieri's presence evidence of his own mortality, his own lack of divinity - for what could be more human than to be awed by another, especially one who's everything you've been taught not to be: crude, boastful, horny, and dismissive of traditionAmadeus gets at all of that, while allowing us to drink in period detail, bask in beautiful music, and even chuckle at some choice line readings ("the only thing that troubled me...") while we thrill at court intrigue.

Body Double
dir/pr: Brian De Palma
scr: Robert J. Avrech and Brian De Palma, story by Brian de Palma
cin: Stephen H. Burum

Could this be the De Palmiest film Brian De Palma ever made? Obsessed with Hollywood struggles - our leading man is an actor just on the verge of his supposed big break - an erotic vampire film that feels like it's going direct to cable? - and the machinations of the plot start grinding during acting class; besides which, the odd reflection of same within the porn insudtry, which also has career highs, critics, starlets, and complaints about not getting the necessary action within the shot. Obsessed with peeping - the entire plot is jump-started by the nude woman dancing across the way, espied by our "hero" by telescope, unseen, uninhibited; also, of course, the act of watching people get it on, unseen, uninhibited, thanks to the miracle of readily-available pornographic videotapes. Obsessed with sex - aforementioned peeping, plus aforementioned porn. And wickedly funny: yes, it's nauseating to see a woman run through with an extra-large drill, but the prurient joke behind it is...pruriently amusing. To a degree, there's some commentary about our own obsessions with these things, about people's ability to memorize attributes physical or otherwise of complete strangers while completely missing the obvious among those they know, the way desperation for money and the good life commands us all. It's everything he does best, done better than he ever has.

Crimes of Passion
dir: Ken Russell
pr/scr: Barry Sandler
cin: Dick Bush

Opens with a group therapy session, very strange for a Ken Russell film, feels more lived-in and real, like a Frank and Eleanor Perry film. Cut to Kathleen Turner in garish makeup and platinum blonde wig, spread-legged, bathed in neon, gritting through her a grin about being "Miss Liberty." Ah, there we go. Though I've seen people, even those who praise Women in Love and The Devils, dismiss Russell as over-the-top, style-over-substance, tasteless, crude, even mean-spirited - and, honestly, his autobiography does him no favors - to me, he has always been a Romantic. Reject it if you will, but few can capture the turmoils and ecstasies of the human heart like he - and Crimes of Passion is another feather in the cap. Its nighttime scenes feel very 1970s still - faux grit, the score still using the same instruments and orchestrations that defined 1975's Lisztomania and Tommy - conveying a sense of the last decade's lasciviousness, grime, truth. Then compare it to the crisp t-shirts of the domestic scenes of daytime, everyone's hair, homes, and dialogue very now. At night, you can wear what you want, be who you want to be; with the whores, you can live every fantasy. By day, it's back to the humdrum khakis and creams of "real" life; with your family, friends, and colleagues, you can be what you're expected to be.

The Karate Kid
dir: John G. Avildsen
pr: Jerry Weintraub
scr: Robert Mark Kamen
cin: James Crabe

Every element of this movie works so superlatively, you barely realize the actual training Daniel undergoes with Mr. Miyagi does not even start until nearly a full hour into it. By the time it happens, we've already been drawn in by...well, everything. The performance by Ralph Macchio, first and foremost, effortlessly charming as your run-of-the-mill East Coast smartass who's really a very nice kid, maybe a chip on his shoulder, but sincere. The writing by Robert Mark Kamen, setting up antagonists and romance but ultimately wanting Daniel not to fight to impress the girl (he's got her pretty easily from the word GO), not to take revenge and kick ass (although!), but to primarily build an arc whereby Daniel accepts where he is and strengthens his mind, body and soul - how can he fight back if he doesn't know he's worth the fight? The direction by John G. Avildsen, who knows a thing or two about working-class Easterners centering an underdog sports drama. All this before we even get to Mr. Miyagi, with his chores, wiseacre attitude, secret despair, and quiet fortitude. The best around? You better believe it.

Mrs. Soffel
dir: Gillian Armstrong
pr: David A. Nicksay / Scott Rudin / Edgar J. Scherick
scr: Roy Nyswaner
cin: Russell Boyd

What a great movie! Diane Keaton is a prison warden's wife who's already stressing her family out because she frequently takes to bed with "spells" - her eldest daughter certainly doesn't respect her, her warden husband thinks he's too indulgent of her illness - all she has is her faith, which she wanly shares with the prisoners on death row, so that they may absolve themselves of sin before the Big Day. And then, le sigh, she finally meets a beautiful bad boy whose attentions have her...I guess not questioning her life per se, but finally sizing it up, finally realizing that this isn't all there is, she's not just a Wife to be taken for granted, a Mom to be dismissed, a Patient to be dealt with - she's a Woman, with desires and needs and oh, when he touched her palm and unh, when he looked her right in the eyes through the bars and mmm, that he risked it with a kiss... How much is manipulation and how much is sincere; how much of her is deceived, and how much of her just needed the excuse? What a study of a woman! What a sexy flick!

The NeverEnding Story
dir: Wolfgang Petersen
pr: Bernd Eichinger / Dieter Geissler / Bernd Schaefers
scr: Wolfgang Petersen & Herman Weigel, additional dialogue by Robert Easton
cin: Jost Vacano

I think I went long on this before, when I talked about it as being, for me, a very cathartic film about grief and processing that grief through art; in that way, it's a film about finding a story that not only seems to speak to your experience, but speaks directly to you, uncannily so, to the point where it seems that the characters cannot speak or take action without your involvement. All of us, I'm sure, have met that piece of art in our lives, whether it's a story, a novel, a TV show, a film (for me, 1972 has two such films), a song, something that helps us make sense of what we're feeling, that lets us know we are not alone, that puts power back in our helpless (though they look like big, good, strong) hands. Part of that journey, of course, is accepting that we are only so powerful, that only in our dreams can losses be reversed and the dead rescued - but so what? What's wrong with taking on that strength, that hope, and soldiering on, believing that there is a world where Artax can return, believing in the possibility of soaring through the air and feeling free? We need to escape in order to be present.

Night of the Comet
dir/scr: Thom Eberhardt
pr: Wayne Crawford / Andrew Lane
cin: Arthur Albert

Sorry, this is what resilience in the face of disaster looks like! It's not dour suffering, it's not inspiring triumph of the human spirit, it's teens going back and forth between the horror of knowing everyone and everything they cared about is vaporized out of their lives forever and a "let's try everything on!" dress-up montage because, hey, everyone's dead, who's gonna stop them? That's how you maintain sanity, that's how you retain a sense of normalcy, by going for a day on the town with your sister. A joy of a film, subversive in all the right ways: sex doesn't doom the heroine, it actually saves her life; the humorless female scientist isn't a soulless villain, she's actually the one trying to keep it together because she knows what more horrors are in store and believes in the sanctity of human life; the shadowy underground organization isn't some cabal of twisted geniuses, but a group of self-involved, terrified idiots who happen to have degrees; the "zombies" aren't (strictly) mindless cannibals but punks, punks with grey skin. Humor, action, and a bangin' soundtrack - truly, a movie that delivers!

Paris, Texas
dir: Wim Wenders
pr: Don Guest
scr: Sam Shepard, adaptation by L.M. Kit Carson
cin: Robby Müller

A moving portrait of a person who's made some appalling mistakes, wandering the very West that was once the symbol of hope and new beginnings for a generation of Americans, now the bleached sand of a self-declared Purgatory. He wanders: gaunt, dusty, dehydrated - does he even see the out-of-the-way oases, the train tracks, the mountains and valleys? Even brought back to civilization, the Los Angeles he stays in is not the glamor palace of Beverly Hills, nor even the suburban dream of Burbank, but a house just within reach of the airport, the means of escape just a walk away, the sound of other transients crossing the air a constant. And later, the hole-in-the-wall where he goes to to finally attempt to confront his past is a literal hole-in-the-wall, windowless, no day or night, only here and now, temptations and fantasy and disappointing reality and women simultaneously luminous and drained. And when you hear why this man approaches the world like this, punishing himself...damn, you kind of get it! Oh, what a tender, moving film this is: appalling, yes, and maybe he does make the right decision in the end, and maybe that's all the proof he should require that he is, indeed, worthy of redemption and forgiveness - even if he does not think so, does not even seek it.

A Passage to India
dir/scr: David Lean
pr: John Brabourne / Richard Goodwin
cin: Ernest Day

A challenging film, I think. As far as art attempting to discuss racial tension, colonialism, people who are outwardly well-meaning but will ultimately betray you when it's convenient but still think of themselves as noble, as well as genuinely well-meaning people who are capable of bridging the gap but don't want to fully commit to tough choices because they're tough, and about people who are willing to but can't because, well, they're only a woman - I guess I'm saying that intersectionality and the limits people put on how they approach it is the film's main concern, and, Indian brownface notwithstanding (puzzling, given the themes, yet simultaneously a prime example of exactly the kind of limited liberalism the film itself addresses), it nails it. There are so many people you know reflected here, I don't care if they're British diplomats or Indian doctors or someone of neither of those nationalities in neither of those professions: you know them. These are the basic conversations about race, gender, and the relationships between them that have been part of the culture since time immemorial. It's presented thoughtfully, photographed beautifully, executed entertainingly.

Purple Rain
dir: Albert Magnoli
pr: Robert Cavallo / Steven Fargnoli / Joseph Ruffalo
scr: Albert Magnoli & William Blinn
cin: Donald E. Thorin

It really is a testament to Albert Magnoli's talent and Prince's (relative) humility that this does not come off as either a vanity project or a quick cash-in to sell an album (as fun as the Breakin' films are, "quick cash-in" describes their vibe pretty accurately). Either description would not match a film like this one, where our difficult genius of a hero does not win the hearts, minds, and fandom of a generation by sticking to his guns, but by getting personal in collaboration with his peers (Wendy and Lisa providing the hook that the titular song is built on - genius!), where the romance and showbiz drama stops so that Prince cna entirely cede the thesping to veteran actor Clarence Williams III in a soul-shattering monologue, where even the villainous rival is not so because somehow he sucks at music and is manipulative, but precisely because he is good at giving the audience what it wants and also because he sucks as a person (Morris Day is so good, and frankly, so is "The Bird"). And if that doesn't sell you, surely the incredible music performances of a bangin' soundtrack album ("When Doves Cry!" "I Would Die 4 U!" "Let's Go Crazy!") are enough.

Tomorrow, my nominees for the 1984 Retro Hollmann Awards!

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