Category Archives: Movies We Still Care About

Movies We Still Care About – 1980

(For an explanation of this, read the Introduction.  Other posts in this series can be found here.)

Movies We Still Care About

  • The Empire Strikes Back
  • Airplane!
  • The Shining
  • Caddyshack

Other Notable Movies

  • The Blues Brothers
  • Friday the 13th

Best Picture Nominees:

  • Ordinary People (Winner)
  • Coal Miner’s Daughter
  • The Elephant Man
  • Raging Bull
  • Tess

Top Grossing Films (US)

  1. The Empire Strikes Back
  2. 9 to 5
  3. Stir Crazy
  4. Airplane!
  5. Any Which Way You Can
  6. Private Benjamin
  7. Coal Miner’s Daughter
  8. Smokey and the Bandit II
  9. The Blue Lagoon
  10. The Blues Brothers

Rotten Tomatoes Top Movies

(This is a new section to this series, as Rotten Tomatoes only has these lists starting with 1980.  I will include every film with a rating of 90% or higher, up to the top 10 for the year.)

  1. Raging Bull (98%)
  2. The Empire Strikes Back (96%)
  3. Airplane! (98%)
  4. The Shining (92%)
  5. The Big Red One (91%)

(I don’t know why Empire is listed above Airplane despite having a lower rating.  I’m just copying Rotten Tomatoes’ list.)

Movies We Still Care About

The Empire Strikes Back

Everything I said about Star Wars in the 1977 entry applies to this.  Empire expanded on and introduced new pieces to the mythology created by the first film.  Yoda, Hoth, tauntauns, Lando, Boba Fett, Cloud City, the feisty argumentative love between Han and Leia.  And of course, the greatest twist ending in the history of cinema.  The twist by which all other twists/spoilers are measured:

To get a good idea of how shocking that truly is to someone who didn’t know it, watch this compilation of children reacting to seeing that scene for the first time:

I also like when James Earl Jones talked about that scene on The Big Bang Theory.

Here’s a fun fact about Empire that you’ve probably never thought about.  Most movies have what’s called an external plot goal.  It’s the specific difficult task that the heroes are trying to accomplish.  Their efforts to do so are what drives the action forward and moves them from scene to scene.

In Empire, this goal, the thing that drives all the action, is that Han is trying to get the Millenium Falcon repaired.  Seriously, rewatch the movie.  It’s all about him trying to fix his broken down ship.  And all the amazing stuff that happens is because of those efforts.

Airplane!

Generally considered one of the funniest movies of all time, and certainly the best of the pure spoofs.  It’s just a joke a minute laugh riot.  I can’t pick a best joke to include here.  So instead I’ll post one of my all-time favorite moments on Jeopardy, in which Kareem Abdul Jabbar gets a question referencing one of his lines in Airplane, answers “Who is Kareem Abdul Jabbar,” and is wrong.

The Shining

There are so many cultural touchstones from this movie.  The blood in the elevator.  The creepy twins.  “REDRUM.”  “Here’s Johnny.”  The story is largely incoherent, with random elements that don’t make the slightest bit of sense to anyone who hasn’t read the book.  But Kubrick is such a master of creepy atmosphere that you end up on the edge of your seat regardless.

Just for fun, check out this recut trailer portraying it as a wacky family comedy.  And note that this is only funny because we already have such an ingrained understanding of what the movie should be.

Caddyshack

The first of what I call the 1980s “laid-back comedies,” where there isn’t much of a plot, and the film is just an excuse for funny people to stand around saying and doing funny things.  Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield act like Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield.  Bill Murray is the crazy groundskeeper.  And Ted Knight chews the scenery as the cartoonishly evil judge.  This is the sort of movie that you just want to hang out with.

Other Notable Films

The Blues Brothers

Everyone knows this movie, but I think few people care about still watching it.  Like many spectacle movies, it doesn’t really hold up.  There are better song-and-dance numbers.  There are better car chases.  There’s better laid-back comedy.  So there isn’t much reason to watch this.

Friday the 13th

Certainly people still care about the Friday the 13th franchise.  But the first film is missing the iconic elements.  Jason is a child who drowns, and his mother is the slasher killing off the promiscuous teenagers.  (Because they were doing drugs and having sex when they should have been watching over him.  This has become a standard horror movie trope, but it actually had a reason here.)  There’s no hockey mask, machete, or Jason as a monster in the first film.  When you think of Friday the 13th, you aren’t thinking of this.

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Do you disagree with any of these choices, or think that I missed something?  Leave a comment below.

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Movies We Still Care About – 1979

(For an explanation of this, read the Introduction.  Other posts in this series can be found here.)

Movies We Still Care About

  • Alien
  • Life of Brian

Best Picture Nominees:

  • Kramer vs. Kramer (Winner)
  • All That Jazz
  • Apocalypse Now
  • Breaking Away
  • Norma Rae

Top Grossing Films (US)

  1. Kramer vs. Kramer
  2. The Amityville Horror
  3. Rocky II
  4. Apocalypse Now
  5. Star Trek: The Motion Picture
  6. Alien
  7. The Muppet Movie
  8. 10
  9. The Jerk
  10. Moonraker

Other Notable Movies

  • Apocalypse Now
  • Kramer vs. Kramer
  • The Muppet Movie
  • Mad Max
  • Meatballs
  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture

 

There are lots of films people still remember from this year.  I had some difficulty deciding which ones count as movies we still care about.  I’m sure there will be lots of disagreement in the comments.

Movies We Still Care About

Alien

Alien is widely considered to be among the best horror films of all time.  I can’t think of a better sci-fi/horror.  It’s a masterpiece of slow-build suspense and terror.

The only flaw in this movie is that it loses a lot of its impact once you’ve seen the alien.  So it doesn’t hold up quite as well on repeated viewings, or if you’ve already seen any of the sequels, or if you’ve seen any of the myriad references to the xenomorphs that have become mythology over the last 35 years.

But even if you won’t be able to replicate the experience of watching for the first time, this still holds up in every other way, and is worth revisiting.

Life of Brian

Life of Brian isn’t as funny as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but then again, what is?  But while Holy Grail was just silly fun, Life of Brian did an excellent job mixing humor with social commentary.  For example, the brilliant “You’re all individuals” scene.

This was the Pythons’ only foray into telling a complete story, rather than a series of unrelated or quasi-related sketches.  Or course it was riffing off the Gospels, but it works.  And the audience knowing the story they were spoofing made us appreciated the choices they made when they deviated from that.

Other Notable Films

Apocalypse Now

This is considered an all-time classic.  It’s discussed in film school.  It’s full of famous quotes such as “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” and “The horror, the horror.”  Plus everyone knows the attack helicopters playing Ride of the Valkyries.  It’s one of those movies that everyone is supposed to respect.

But I don’t include it in the list because I’m not convinced that anyone outside of film snobs actually likes it.  It’s rather dull and plodding, with a barely coherent plot and characters that are intentionally designed to keep you from caring about them.  It’s one of those movies that people only pretend to love because they think it makes them sound sophistimacated.

Kramer vs. Kramer

Another one of those movies that is considered great and discussed in film school, but that few people actually like.  Plus it doesn’t have all the cultural touchstones that Apocalypse Now has.

The Muppet Movie

I grew up watching the late 70s/early 80s Muppet movies over and over in reruns.  (The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan.)  These movies and the Muppet Babies cartoon are where I formed my impression of the Muppets, and I thought they were great.  The films did an excellent job of appealing to both kids and grown-ups.  (I haven’t revisited Muppet Babies as an adult, so I’m not sure how that holds up.)

It was somewhat of a surprise to me a few years ago when I checked out the 70s Muppet Show, and found that it was quite lame.  Just a lot of joke-free versions of the Muppets singing songs, and some variety show fare that had already been played out long before the 70s.  I can’t offer an explanation as to why the movies were so much better than the show, but they were.

However while I have a personal fondness for The Muppet Movie, I don’t think it still has much widespread appeal, so I can’t quite count it as a movie we still care about.

Mad Max

References to Mad Max have risen to the level of mythology.  Mad Max has become a synonym for post-apocalyptic civilization, barren wastelands, and a certain style of dress.

But the thing is, when you close your eyes and picture something out of Mad Max, you’re almost certainly picturing its sequels The Road Warrior or Beyond Thunderdome instead. The original Mad Max was a small budget revenge story that wasn’t set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and doesn’t feature any of the iconography that people imagine when they hear the name.  So while The Road Warrior is something people still care about, the original Mad Max is not.  (Even if they erroneously think they do.)

Meatballs

This created the summer camp movie, which became its own genre in the 80s, and has been spoofed and referenced countless times.  But on the other hand, when’s the last time you actually watched Meatballs?  When’s the last time anyone you know watched it?

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

We still care about Star Trek.  We still care about several Star Trek movies.  But even hard-core Trekkers don’t care about the first movie, or consider it to be remotely worth watching.

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Do you disagree with any of these choices, or think that I missed something?  Leave a comment below.

Movies We Still Care About – 1978

(For an explanation of this, read the Introduction.  Other posts in this series can be found here.)

Movies We Still Care About

  • Superman
  • Grease
  • National Lampoon’s Animal House
  • Halloween

Best Picture Nominees:

  • The Deer Hunter (Winner)
  • Coming Home
  • Heaven Can Wait
  • Midnight Express
  • An Unmarried Woman

Top Grossing Films (US)

  1. Grease
  2. Superman
  3. National Lampoon’s Animal House
  4. Every Which Way but Loose
  5. Heaven Can Wait
  6. Hooper
  7. Jaws 2
  8. Halloween
  9. Dawn of the Dead
  10. The Deer Hunter

This is a year in which the box office numbers were a much better predictor of long-term quality than the Oscars.  The top 3 (and 8th) box office movies have stood the test of time, while most people are at best dimly aware of the existence of the Academy Award Nominees.  The Russian Roulette scene in Deer Hunter is memorable, but beyond that, I think only a tiny minority of people could picture a single scene from any of the nominated movies.

Movies We Still Care About

Superman

On an objective level, Superman is not a very good movie.  It’s a lot better in our memories than if you actually watch it.  It has poor pacing, and an incoherent plot.  (The best summary I can come up with is “Superman does some stuff, and Lex Luthor has a ridiculous scheme involving missiles.”)  Plus it has the single worst ending from a writing perspective that I’ve ever seen in a major motion picture.

It also is the eponymous example of what I call “The Superman Problem.”  That’s when a hero is so incredibly powerful that the only way he can possibly be challenged is for him to be so incredibly stupid that he forgets his own abilities.  Since on a fundamental level, a movie is about the hero overcoming difficult challenges, it’s very difficult to make a movie work when the hero can’t be challenged.  Which is why this “How it Should Have Ended” cartoon for Superman makes a lot more sense than the actual movie.

So why is it on this list?  Two reasons: The first is that nobody was trying to make the movie work well as a story.  Superman is what I call a Spectacle Movie.  This is a movie that gives such a compelling spectacle that the viewers don’t really care about the story or characters.  The spectacle can come in the form of jokes, song-and-dance numbers, fight scenes, action scenes, or in the case of Superman, special effects.  Note that the tagline for Superman had nothing to do with any sort of story.  It was simply “You will believe a man can fly.”

The other reason it’s on this list is that Superman created the comic book tentpole movie.  That’s a genre that really came into its own in the 2000s, but it can be traced back to this.  Before 1978, comics were considered to be kids stuff, relegated to Saturday morning cartoons.  Superman demonstrated that, done right, comic book movies could be big business that would play to a general audience.

Grease

Does this appeal to everyone?  No.  But if you like musicals, you’ve seen Grease.  When I mention the songs “Summer Lovin,” “Look at Me I’m Sandra Dee,” “You’re the One That I Want,” and “We Go Together,” you probably heard those songs in your head, and possibly started humming them.  In general, this is just an all-around fun movie to watch.

Halloween

Halloween is generally seen as creating the modern slasher genre.  The idea of a soulless killer slaughtering promiscuous teenagers dates back to this movie.  If you’re a fan of the horror genre, you almost certainly have a fondness in your heart for this.  And even if you don’t care for horror, you probably still know who Michael Myers is.  He may not be quite at the level of mythology as Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger, or Norman Bates, but I can’t think of any other horror movies characters that are better known.

National Lampoon’s Animal House

This is the trailblazer of both the gross-out comedy and college comedy genres.  Like Superman, it is more of a spectacle movie, working due to jokes rather than story.  The characters are mostly a bunch of obnoxious jerks who could easily be the villain in another movie, but are funny enough that you end up caring about them.

Plus in my personal opinion, John Belushi’s guitar smash is one of the all-time funniest moments in film.

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Do you disagree with any of these choices, or think that I missed something?  Leave a comment below.

Movies We Still Care About – 1977

(For an explanation of this, read the Introduction.  Other posts in this series can be found here.)

Movies We Still Care About

  • Star Wars
  • Annie Hall

Best Picture Nominees:

  • Annie Hall (Winner)
  • The Goodbye Girl
  • Julia
  • Star Wars
  • The Turning Point

Top Grossing Films (US)

  1. Star Wars
  2. Smokey and the Bandit
  3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  4. Saturday Night Fever
  5. The Goodbye Girl
  6. The Rescuers
  7. Oh, God!
  8. A Bridge Too Far
  9. The Deep
  10. The Spy Who Loved Me

Other Notable Films

  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Movies We Still Care About

Star Wars

This is going to be the longest entry on this list, because there’s the most to say about it.

In terms of the development of cinema as an medium, art form, and industry, Star Wars is certainly one of the most important movies that has ever been made.  It’s the reason the modern era of film starts in 1977.  If we judge a movie’s quality by how much people care about it, (which is what I am doing in this series of posts) then Star Wars is by far the greatest movie of all time.  It also happens to be my personal favorite.

I could talk about the plethora of fans, the toys, books, comics, conventions, fan clubs, prequels, sequels, TV shows, video games, artwork, lunch boxes, rip-offs, etc.  Any other movie that had inspired so much derivative art and commerce would certainly be worthy of being included on this list for that alone.

But Star Wars is bigger than that. I believe that at their highest level, movies rise beyond art to become mythology.  They are a part of our culture.  Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Obi Wan Kenobi, Chewbacca, R2D2, C3PO, Darth Vader, The Emperor, The Death Star, Millennium Falcon, X-Wings – these are all part of our shared cultural experience.  I can mention them and you know exactly what I mean.

And by being such an important part of our culture, they have become part of our identity.  These figures are as much a part of our experience as Zeus and Hercules were to ancient Greeks.  Sure, nobody’s making a sacrifice to Luke Skywalker to ensure a good harvest.  But when Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire, everyone knew exactly what he meant, and he was able to use that to conjure up the emotional reaction he was seeking.

To get an idea of our emotional tie to Star Wars, look at the reaction we had to the prequels.  Think back to 1999 and how huge of a deal Phantom Menace was.  I was a junior in college at the time, and I remember just before the movie started, my roommate leaned over to me and said “Our whole lives have led up to this.”  It was a tongue-in-cheek comment, but he was only half joking.

After seeing Episode 1 and the huge drop in quality compared to the original series, there came denial, disappointment, and finally, anger and hatred. Why was there so much hatred for a movie that failed to live up to exceedingly high expectations?  I’m not going to claim Phantom Menace was a great movie, but there are plenty of movies that are much worse which don’t attract remotely as much ire.  For example, look at the Matrix sequels.  People were expecting the sequels to live up to the brilliance of the original.  But when they turned out to be god-awful, we collectively said “Well, that sucked,” and moved on with our lives.  Nobody ranted about their hatred of the Wachowski Brothers.  Nobody made a documentary entitled “The People vs. The Wachowskis.” They were derided as bad movies, and that was the end of it.

But Star Wars is different.  A mediocre Star Wars movie felt like an attack on our culture.  An attack on our souls.  It was an insult on a deep and personal level, savaging the values we hold dear. A mediocre movie was only able to have that much power over us because of just how deeply the original Star Wars had touched us.

Annie Hall

This is a difficult entry for me to write, because personally I don’t care for Woody Allen movies.  I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with his fans or with him as a filmmaker.  (And his personal life is outside the scope of this article.)  He is highly skilled, and his movies generally achieve what wants them to do.  It just that what he succeeds at doing doesn’t match my personal taste.  I was bored by Annie Hall.

But despite my own opinion, I can’t deny that there are plenty of Woody Allen fans.  In a long career of beloved movies, Annie Hall is widely considered to be his best.  Many people will call it the gold-standard for romantic comedies.  So it deserves to be on this list.

Other Notable Films

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Certainly this is a movie that most people are familiar with.  If you’re like me, as soon as you read the title you heard those famous five notes and could visualize the multi-colored lights of the alien ship cresting the mountain.

So if just reading the title can conjure up such visceral images, why doesn’t this belong in the list of movies we care about?  Because all of that comes from the last 10 minutes of the movie.  The bulk of the film is taken up with Richard Dreyfuss’s slow decent into madness and the collapse of his marriage.  Nobody remembers that because, well, it’s not very memorable.  So despite the compelling ending, I don’t think Close Encounters quite makes the list.

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Do you disagree with any of these choices, or think that I missed something?  Leave a comment below.

Movies We Still Care About – Introduction

How do we define what makes a good movie?

Sure, there are movies that *I* like.  Perhaps that defines what makes a good movie *to me*.  But you don’t necessarily have the same tastes as I do.  Just as you don’t necessarily have the same taste as any particular critic.

The Academy Awards are supposed to list the best movies of the year.  But these are generally limited to dramas.  Comedies and action movies get short shrift when it comes to award season.

You can look at box office numbers, which is a reasonable measure of how many people wanted to see the movie.  But that doesn’t tell you how glad the audience was that they saw it.  Plus there are often a lot of weird factors at work in box office numbers that don’t relate to the quality of the film.  For example, what are you feelings on Shrek 2?  You probably think that at best it was reasonably entertaining, though a step down from the original.  Yet Shrek 2 is the highest grossing animated movie of all time, and the eighth highest grossing movie of all time (US box office).  It outgrossed the original Shrek, any classic Disney animation, any Pixar movie, E.T., Jurassic Park, any Harry Potter movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Empire Strikes Back, and countless other movies that any sane person would agree were greatly superior to Shrek 2.  So box office numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Rotten Tomatoes is a bit better.  This measures what percentage of the audience likes a movie.  But that has its own drawbacks.  It’s limited to people who bother to go to the site and vote, and is further limited by people who actually chose to see a movie.  For example, as I’m writing this I looked at the Rotten Tomatoes home page.  Two of the top three ranked movies opening this weekend are ones I’ve never heard of, and the third is a biblical epic that appeals to church groups but won’t have any interest to secular audiences.

So how do I define what makes a good movie?  I say that a movie is good if it makes the audience care about it.  This definition applies equally well to action, comedy, and drama.  It takes into account whether a large audience wanted to see the movie – if people don’t see a movie, they can’t care about it.  But it doesn’t use box office numbers as the sole judge of quality.

And the best movies are those that we still care about when we look back at them years later.

This series of posts will be looking back at the best pictures of each year by this criteria.  I’ll identify what movies that I think a significant percentage of people still care about.  I’ll start this process with 1977, which is when the modern era of film began, and end it with 2009.  (I think five years is a reasonable minimum for looking back.)

For comparison I’ll also be listing the best picture nominees, top ten grossing movies at the box office, and the top movies on Rotten Tomatoes.  (The Rotten Tomatoes listing will start with 1980, as they don’t have yearly rankings prior to then.)  It will be interesting to see how much overlap there is between these different lists.

For the movies we still care about, I’ll offer a brief analysis as to why we still hold these movies in our hearts.  I’ll also have some brief commentary of other notable movies from that year which don’t quite fit the category of films we still care about, but are worth discussing for some reason.

I hope that you’ll enjoy this journey, as we reflect back on what makes movies great.

(Other posts in this series can be found here.)