I need your help to get back to the year 1985
No, really. I'm not just being lazy or obvious with the title -- I was 2 years old, so my memories are sorta constricted by the shelter of childhood. Not sheltered from art or culture, but from the weight of the world, from the word on the street, from the mood in the room. I'm talking about flavor, here. At that age, you make your own ambience - although, incidentally, my vibes came from video rentals, HBO, MTV, Imperial Stormtroopers, the coming of Gozer, "We Are the World," and reruns of M*A*S*H. So, come to think of it, I suppose I was pretty up-to-speed in '85. Actually, that was probably the last time I was legitimately hip; no cult status or indie niches or nostalgia traps - just groovin' on whatever came next.
But I guess that's how that works, yeah? Everyone's got their moment - those early days when you'll just eat whatever's put in front of you, and it tastes damn fine. And I could take the "objective approach" again, but I won't because I'm exhausted with it - I'll just say flat-out that 1985 was a mondo radical year to spend your terrible twos; I could excusably saturate myself in Inspector Gadget and "Careless Whisper" without the care or concerns of terrorist hijackings or Voodoo Economics.
My God, how I've not grown.
35 years. That's a bigger distance than Marty travelled back in time (originally), and it's the furthest we've reached with one of these anniversary essays - the reason for the latter being that I've already done 1990 and 1995, and I'd have no interest in reading a Y2K retrospective, let alone writing one. So instead I've reversed the polarity & decided to catch the wave on this totally tubular year. It's the numerical midpoint of the decade, but does that necessarily make it the cultural pinnacle? In other words, was this the most "80s" year because it was in the middle? How does one measure such a thing? More than that, how do you even define it? Is "Like a Virgin" more indicative of this fixed period of time than "Papa Don't Preach?" I ask mostly because I like thinking about that kinda stuff - so much so that my brain is almost exclusively occupied with such things. So, while I try to maintain a reasonable sense of humility, I shamelessly admit that this kind of analysis falls into my circle of expertise (if I have such a circle), and I can say with certainty that there is no definitive zenith for these short little "eras" we've carved out for ourselves.
But when you look at the movies... well, there is a lot going on here: from Marty McFly to Mama Fratelli, from John Hughes to Jason Voorhees, I think it's safe to say that a lotta 1985 ended up on t-shirts. But that's the brutal beauty of that time period: not a single year of that decade is exempt from the piles of popcorn we celebrate (or condemn) to this day. And I, for one, was and still am a glutton for that butter & salt, because while some of the following subject matter may seem confrontationally dated, the entertainment value still holds up in an almost superior way. Better put, the various big-budget hallmarks of these big-budget movies are still the model today. Better put still: this readout tells you where you're going, where you are, and where you were.
1. Back to the Future
Just like Star Wars or Raiders, it didn't necessarily need a franchise - this first and best movie does just fine on its own. Everyone seems to know it and love it and quote it and talk about it, so I'm not really sure what I can add - except just that. On the surface, it's an Action/Adventure SciFi Comedy with a clever-but-simple premise, and beneath that thin veneer is a sea of seedy and cerebral subplots and references. And so there's the description, but there's a chemistry in the cast and the music and the dialogue and the structure that can't (or shouldn't) be analyzed or summarized into a blurb or soundbite.
But I suppose if you could point to one characteristic that makes it so engrossing, consider the notion that this one cohesive story manages to branch out into five consecutive crescendos in the span of 30 minutes (not to mention two logical, feature-length continuations). This is storytelling at its heaviest.
2. After Hours
Marty doing Comedy - except the punchline is that all Scorsese flicks are fuckin' funny. I mean, not like a clown, but still.
I think what it is (and I don't think I'm alone) is that this kinda premise and this kinda character are most appealing to me - historically or in fiction: the conscientious objector who must become a warrior against a hostile world. From Joan of Arc to Hamlet to Falling Down, it's timeless, universal, and its relatable absurdity is the best kind of comedy.
3. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge
I've been singing this song for years, and haters gonna hate. Without an ounce of irony, camp, or nostalgia, it's genuinely one of the most colorfully creepy Horror films of the decade (and this is a big decade, folks) - within the same brackets as The Shining and Hellraiser. And because I've exhaustively and enthusiastically spoken and written these praises so many times now (once in the most definitive way), regardless of your own views on the film, if you're reading this, you're part of this club. So even if your opinions still contradict my own, I remain comforted knowing I've given at least some of you pause to reconsider.
You are all my children etc.
4. Pee-wee's Big Adventure
A movie like this is hard to define. (Tim Burton made a handful of such movies.) Even to say "a movie like this" really has no meaning. It's gothic, it's biblical, it's a Greek epic poem about love & loss, it's a lighthearted escapade and a waking nightmare. And it's for kids - and I don't say that to be sensationalistic, but to assert that it's quite possibly the greatest kids' movie of my generation. If I take nothing else from it, it's that in the face of danger, injustice, scary clowns, and phantom truck drivers, one can overcome any obstacle without growing or maturing in any way whatsoever.
I would go so far as to say that most movies in the Horror genre hang their hat on their general mood and a handful of scary set pieces. Demons, on the other hand, is wall-to-wall gore and terror with nary a break in the action, all set to Euro-disco and Top 40 Rock. As a true makeup FX spectacular of green pus and torn appendages, it doesn't afford one that old adage of "close-your-eyes-at-the-scary-parts" -- this movie is the scary part.
6. Santa Claus: The Movie
I feel like I mention this movie here at least once a year, but I've seen a lotta Christmas movies and a lotta Santa Claus movies, and this is still the one that has everything on my list. Yes, the entire story and tone changes halfway through, but the first half is so damn engrossing that I'll follow these characters through whatever silly plot devices they throw at me.
Also, because the main function of the shift in pace is to establish "present day" (1985), it rivals Back to the Future as the most "1985" movie on this list.
7. The Breakfast Club
Where were we? The most "1985" movie? Within the parameters of "film culture," maybe so.
Most people had a character they identified with, or at least knew someone who was like them. I was young enough that the five stereotypes were a bit foreign to me, so it more or less informed me how (and how not) to behave once I was fully foisted into forced quarters with my peers.
John Hughes movies were always intimate, but typically very busy. That, plus taking all the other marquee extravaganzas of this decade into account, it's just so refreshing (even more so today) to digest such an accessible, dialogue-driven character study.
8. Real Genius
This movie succeeds on so many different planes that I don't have enough space to talk about all of it here. But I think the most important thing to note is that they managed to do a sorta Ferris Bueller before there was a Ferris Bueller. There are so many great scenes and characters, but if we're just gonna focus on one thing today, I wanna point out what tricky business it is to create and depict an arrogant, handsome, sarcastic know-it-all that an audience can relate to, and even root for. And I know some folks don't agree (to hell with them), but Val Kilmer's Chris Knight is certainly my spirit animal.
9. Just One of the Guys
Was this the era of the "Teen Movie?" Hardly - but this is probably when increased self-awareness helped coin the phrase.
Given this movie's time and premise, it's a lot less poppy and abrasive as it could've (though sometimes should've) been. There isn't any kinda 'transformation' montage cut to an uppity New Wave tune (sadly?), but the sitcom-ish structure is firmly grounded in character development and some light social commentary that keeps it moving just as fast as the gimmickry of most gender-swapping fables -- and Teen Movies.
10. Lost in America
Albert Brooks (like any auteur, and certainly like any Comedy auteur) can pass as his own genre. And one could debate (I would) that this is his Gold Rush or Annie Hall; it could certainly serve as the best example to introduce his pace and tone to a layman. The movie is a treasure chest of scenes and lines, but Albert's at his best when he's frantic and frustrated. So without getting into the entire story arc, I'll disclose that I always look forward to the first and fiercest confrontation between Albert and Julie Hagerty after her disastrous moment of weakness.
11. The Goonies
The movie is a delight: it's a joy to watch, it's funny and exciting, and every cast member nails it. But I've never been part of the cult. I enjoy watching it for the Cyndi Lauper song, the old Baby Ruth wrapper, the pirate treasure, and the immense pleasure of listening to Joe Pantoliano and Robert Davi exchange dialogue. But most of all, it inspired me (perhaps somewhat still) to seek out and fulfill my own adventures - real or made-up.
12. Teen Wolf
Horror Comedy is like the Colonel's secret recipe: try as they may to replicate it time & again, it's usually way off. Not that there's any model to refer to, but my list is short & savory -- and this is on it. This flick's got so much charm and subtle (note the italics) humor that it may be quite possible that its broader attributes are what put people off. In other words: Teen Wolf is highbrow material, and I could explain it to you but you probably wouldn't understand.
13. Friday the 13th: A New Beginning
Another movie on here that deserves its own dissertation (and so I have), it's relevant to this list not just because I adore it so, but also in its own objective way: Friday the 13th is "important" to the 1980s (I guess), but this mid-decade entry felt like the major shift from "timeless campfire tale" to "modern slasher touchstone." Nevermind that it doesn't truly fall in line with the continuity of the series (none of them do), but the story is so zen that its own continuity has no structure or point. It's just that good.
14. Cat's Eye
In recent years, critics and bloggers have pointed out that Anthology Horror was, and is, a unique novelty that was tough to come by in the mainstream. Truth is, that's a buncha bullshit: the real challenge is finding the best ones in this actually-sprawling sub-genre. This one certainly comes highly recommended by me: per usual, there's a famous standout segment and some B-sides that you'll eventually (or immediately) come to love equally. But the punkest thing about this assortment is that, despite the film's title, there's no thematic connection at all between the tales. I like that.
People continually knock the idea of 'board game adaptations' any time the industry threatens the possibility of one on the horizon -- as though everyone forgot how goddamn good this one was. But that's the simple brilliance of this whole concept; title and character names aside, a good whodunnit (and where and how) is easy to mess up, but when it's done right (casting, setting, legitimate surprises), man does it pay off.
16. Invasion U.S.A.
The second (but not the last) Christmas movie on the list - but that's kinda irrelevant. What is relevant is that rarely before or since have I seen such daring stunts or brutal Action-violence on celluloid.
Now, if you're not completely familiar with the very specific brand of Action that is 'Chuck Norris Cinema,' this is the movie you're most likely picturing in your mind - but more.
I'm sure I've said this before, but any time Harrison Ford isn't one of his franchise heroes is truly satisfying. Not that he isn't always good, but the blaster and the whip never left a lotta room for surprise (Force Awakens included). But the reason he made those other roles so much his own is that, in addition to 'rugged and courageous,' he knows how to do 'flawed and vulnerable' - which are all on full display here.
18. Return of the Living Dead
Speaking of Horror Comedy... I didn't see this until much later in life, and it was (and still is) the perfect antidote to all of the self-serious and sardonic zombie pics that I'd been seeing. Much less a "Comedy" with typical punchlines, but a considerably much less serious take on a subject that was (and still is) completely dumb. Of course, one of the ironies is that a lot of that "less serious" tone comes from how defiantly mean-spirited it is. Bad taste is rarely this tangy.
19. Spies Like Us
This is pretty close to the bottom of the list because, at the end of the day, 'it has its moments.' The thing was that, throughout the 80s, the expectations of "SNL Alumni Comedy" was so high that anything less than great was a bit of a disappointment. But 35 years later, the playing field is a bit more level, and I can consume it as the amiable, lite romp that it is.
The third and final Christmas movie on the list - which is relevant, because the plot sure as shit isn't. Trancers is a Full Moon Feature, which is a very specific kind of film-- er, video (who're we kidding). But if you know them and know this movie, you know that this was an achievement of a higher caliber; it may be a stale and convoluted Science Fiction campsite, but it's glazed in clever action, likable characters, and genuinely funny dialogue and delivery. And it's a Christmas movie!