Friday, March 07, 2014

1985: The Magic Year

     Every so often, a year comes along that produces an unprecedented bounty of cinematic milestones. Everyone is always quick to point out that 1939 was the patented Golden Year for film. It's true that '39 offered a great deal of certified classics: The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, among many others. For my money, the last best collective year for film happened a mere forty-six years later. Maybe I'm just sentimental (I was still coming of age), but 1985 to me was truly a magical time at the movies. Below are just ten selections from that particular year that helped build our modern film lexicon. In no particular order.

Real Genius
Neal Israel, who co-wrote and directed Bachelor Party (1984) and later produced Finding Neverland (2004); Pat Proft, who wrote for Red Foxx, Dick Van Dyke and the Smothers Brothers as well as The Naked Gun film series; and the late PJ (Peter) Torokvei, a trans woman and activist who began writing for SCTV and went on to co-write Back to School (1986) and Moving Violations (1986) both with Harold Ramis; all teamed up to write the ultimate '80s smart kids movie. But Real Genius is so much more. It's also one of the best college films as well as being infinitely quotable: "It was hot, and I was hungry."

The making of Terry Gilliam's true masterpiece is almost as infamous as the film itself. A sci-fi comedy Orwellian nightmare/fantasy by way of Monty Python only half describes this beloved modern classic that still refuses to fit neatly into any box. And is it fair to say that Brazil is a "modern classic" when in fact, like all the films we are examining today, it was made almost thirty years ago? It really does feel timeless. An especially marvelous feat considering it's still set in our not-so-distant dystopian future. Pryce, Palin, Holm, Hoskins and especially De Niro all turn in fine performances. Gilliam fought a literal war to preserve his vision. His battles paid off.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure
Tim Burton has lost many die-hard devotees in recent years, but back in '85, he was still the preeminent up-and-comer to watch. His one-two-punch of Pee-wee followed by Beetlejuice a few years later firmly established him as a populist art-house filmmaker to be reckoned with. Always with a slant toward the macabre, what starts off as a live action cartoon show parody quickly descends into a road movie from hell, and ends up on the Warner Bros. back lot in an all-out send-up of the movie-making business. It's still incredibly good stuff. In fact, I'd go as far to say if this film premiered in general release today, it might not only have a shot at Best Picture of the year, it may have had the heart of gold to win.

Kevin Costner and director Kevin Reynolds have had a checkered history. They made Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and stopped talking mid-way through the enjoyably underrated Waterworld (1995) only to kiss and make up before collaborating on Hatfields & McCoys (2012). This was their first film together and inarguably the best. In a way, it's the best coming of age movie you've never heard of, since Breaking Away (1979), even though it only takes place over a relatively short period of time. It's another road movie, but this one has its roots firmly planted in reality (as opposed to Pee-wee) but not without making a few unscheduled stops along the way. A comedy that deals with not only growing up and growing apart, but also handles such themes as Vietnam with a sure hand. Spielberg saw Reynolds' student film on which this was based and gave him the funds to expand it into a feature. It brought Costner a load of exposure and propelled him on his way to household namedom. Worth seeing if just for the wacky plane guy and Judd Nelson playing a nerd.

The most breathlessly paced and witty film of the decade. Also quite possibly the best ensemble comedy of all time. A stylistic heir to director Robert Moore, who gave us Murder by Death in 1976 (one of the finest old dark house murder-mystery parodies), British born Jonathan Lynn (Nuns on the Run; My Cousin Vinny) turns in a true masterpiece. This is one film I can literally watch over and over and never grow tired of. And believe me, I have watched it over and over, in the same day no less. Tim Curry somehow manages to top his career best, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (made exactly ten years prior) and leads the wackiest bunch of potential murder suspects this side of Agatha Christie's Orient Express. Of all my favorite characters, that still vary week to week, Madeline Kahn's Mrs. White nearly steals the show every time; her "flames, on the sides of my face" monologue is truly brilliant. The late Eileen Brennan actually appeared in both Clue and Murder by Death, bridging the gap between two generations of black comedy classics.

Back to the Future
Everybody loves this film. What more can be said or written about it? Well, for starters, it's probably one of the weakest time travel movies ever made. To a degree, all time travel films that involve going to ones own immediate past are usually riddled with flaws and paradoxes. Even the nearly perfect time travel fantasy Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989). Bill & Ted nailed the time loop paradox/circular causation theory in a very funny way (the "strange things are afoot at the Circle K" scenes); even if it doesn't make any sense that their future world almost doesn't exist because Ted's Dad almost sends him to military academy (if time exists in a linear fashion, how was their harmonious future world ever formed in order to send George Carlin back in a phone booth to help them in the first place if they hadn't already passed their test?). If your head is starting to hurt, it's okay. This is why I'm not allowed to talk about time travel theories with very many people. Back to the Future wants to have it both ways. It wants to be linear time travel (circular causation) and quantum theory (multiple time lines: change the past and the future becomes totally different) at the same time. You see, the majority of the film is linear, until bodies start disappearing in Marty's Polaroid picture up to the ending which is totally quantum. If you can overlook the critical flaws, it's a real hoot.

The Goonies
I've actually grown a little tired of this film. There, I said it. Most of the characters seem annoying to me now. So why is it on my list of the greatest films of 1985? Well, because it is one of the best films of the decade, despite whatever may seem cloying in hindsight. It's a film about friendship, and pursuing your dreams. God, I can't believe I just wrote that. It's transparent enough as it is. But maybe that's why it still has a hold over most people. It does wear its heart on its sleeve. And it's still incredibly funny, only in different places to me now. Like the scene in which Mouth is helping his Dad repair the leaky kitchen sink. And who wouldn't want to live in Astoria, Oregon? Surely one of the most atmospheric suburbs in all of popular filmdom. Spielberg provided the story (along with Chris Columbus) and Richard Donner of course directed. Thank God he made up for The Toy (1982); even if I still love Pryor and Gleason in that film.

Fright Night
Tom Holland, who wrote the criminally underrated Psycho II (1982), wrote and directed this modern horror opus, his seminal work. Roddy McDowell steals the show as Peter Vincent (a combination of Peter Cushing and Vincent Price), a jaded late night creature feature television show host (remember them?) who learns all too late in the game that vampires really do exist. Chris Sarandon plays the creature in what surely must be a career high for the future voice of Jack the "Pumpkin King" in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). Sarandon, who also played Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride (1987), was once nominated for an Academy Award for playing Al Pacino's flustered wife (yes, you read that correctly) in Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon (1975). His suave and seductive vampire Jerry Dandridge is a tour de force of smarmy villainy. It's one of those rare occasions when you actually can't help but root for the bad guy. Skip the remake and revisit the original instead.

The Breakfast Club
John Hughes passed away unexpectedly in the Summer of 2009. He was only 59. His fans the world over felt like an older brother had died. For many of us, Hughes wrote the scripts for our imaginary childhoods. We may not have been raised in his fictional Shermer, Illinois, but the growing pains he so diligently adapted for us on film were most palpable. He peaked as a director in 1985 with his most affecting work. Hughes' original concept incorporated several fantasy sequences, but he chose to eliminate most in the final edit (the dancing scene with Emilio Estevez shattering the glass is about all that remains). The production underwent many personnel swaps (Ringwald was originally cast in Sheedy's role; John Cusack was cast in Judd Nelson's part but was let go because he was deemed not menacing enough; Nicolas Cage was also considered) but the most interesting casting choice would have to be Rick Moranis as Carl the janitor, who left due to creative differences. Sixteen Candles may have been more irreverent and Ferris Bueller might have had more fun, but it's The Breakfast Club that immediately comes to mind whenever I'm in a sentimental mood and feel like reliving my made-up adolescence. Rest in peace, Mr. Hughes. 

I still recall seeing this one in the theater, several times. The Westview Cinema on U.S. Route 40. I can picture the poster outside the cinema. I thought to myself at the time: oh, God; not another Western. The truth is, Silverado came out in that great void following Cimino's career-ending Heaven's Gate (1980) and Eastwood's great revival of the genre Unforgiven (1992). Incidentally, Heaven's Gate is nowhere near as bad as some people claimed. Long, yes -- bad, no. Sadly, in between, not much serious consideration was given to Lawrence Kasdan's entertaining sagebrush tale. What I have always admired most about the polished production (and I've revisited it often since those early days at the Westview) is how much fun the entire cast seems to be having, even the antagonists. Scott Glenn and Kevin Costner really do seem like brothers. The fractured past between Kevin Kline and Brian Dennehy's characters is quite believable. Danny Glover's character seems to be a bit of an afterthought, but there's real magic in his brief scenes along with those of actor Joe Seneca. John Cleese even makes the most of his Sheriff cameo, a true fish out of water. Only Jeff Goldblum feels superfluous; there were enough bad guys in the mix already. My friend Eddie will say the orchestral score is too much, but I think it's just fine. Unlike his dour Wyatt Earp (1994), this was Kasdan's love letter to the films about the Old West. 

honorable mentions:

Lost In America
The Purple Rose of Cairo
My Life as a Dog
Better Off Dead
Kiss of the Spider Woman
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
Return of the Living Dead
Prizzi's Honor
Twice in a Lifetime
Rocky IV
Transylvania 6-5000
28 Up
After Hours
Out of Africa
Into the Night
When Father Was Away on Business
Sweet Dreams
My Beautiful Laundrette
The Color Purple
Heaven Help Us
The Sure Thing
Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins
Once Bitten
Smooth Talk
The Trip to Bountiful
Dance with a Stranger
National Lampoon's European Vacation
Enemy Mine
The Official Story
Runaway Train
Year of the Dragon
Young Sherlock Holmes
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
My Science Project
Trouble in Mind
Weird Science
Brewster's Millions
Spies Like Us

among others.

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