(For an explanation of this, read the Introduction. Other posts in this series can be found here.)
Movies We Still Care About
- E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
- Star Trek II
- Blade Runner
- The Road Warrior
Other Notable Movies
- The Dark Crystal
- Secret of Nimh
- First Blood
- Fast Times at Ridgemont High
- Conan the Barbarian
Best Picture Nominees:
- Gandhi (Winner)
- E.T. the Extra Terrestrial
- The Verdict
Top Grossing Films (US)
- An Officer and a Gentleman
- Rocky III
- Star Trek II
- 48 HRS
- The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
Rotten Tomatoes Top Movies
- ET (98%)
- Blade Runner (91%)
- Star Trek II (90%)
There’s a long list of movies for this year, so I’ll try to keep the write-ups brief.
Movies We Still Care About
E.T. the Extra Terrestrial
This is another one of those movies that have become part of our culture and mythology. I think the reason this connected so well with audiences, and continues to do so today, is that writer Melissa Mathison and director Steven Spielberg brilliantly took a (literally) alien experience that nobody has had, and used it as a metaphor for a universal experience everyone has. Sure, we’ve never met an adorable extra-terrestrial who literally touched our heart before returning to his home planet. But we have had similar experiences, both as children and adults, with a deceased pet or family member, or a close friend that moved away, or a lost love.
Given that Spielberg chose an image from E.T. as the logo for Amblin Entertainment, I think it’s safe to assume that Spielberg felt that E.T. was more important than his other early work, such as Jaws, Close Encounters, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD)
Before we get to the spoilers, here’s William Shatner yelling “KHAAAAAAN!!!”
This is widely considered the best Star Trek movie. The Star Trek TV show aired at a time where episodes were independent and not part of an ongoing story, which meant that there couldn’t be any permanent changes to the recurring cast. In contrast to modern shows like Lost and Game of Thrones which will kill off the stars at the drop of a hat, every episode of Star Trek had to end up with the main characters in exactly the same situation as they started in. So imagine the shock of the audience of the day when at the end of Wrath of Khan, Spock dies.
Of course they undid this in the next movie, but Star Trek III will most definitely not be making this list.
Tron is a movie mired in its time. The effects don’t hold up, the story is shaky, and it established the not-so-great tradition of completely absurd and nonsensical portrayals of computers that might as well be magic. (Though at least Tron was meant to be fanciful, unlike the countless movies that came after it where the silly magic computers were meant to be a reflection of reality.)
But despite these flaws, it had a truly unique visual style that had never been seen before. When I say “Tron,” you know exactly what to picture. And it maintains a sense of fun that is quite rare for films to be able to pull off. It’s the sort of film inspires enough affection that you look past all the problems.
Blade Runner ushered in the film genre of bleak gritty (but not post-apocalyptic) sci-fi. A product of the malaise of late 70s and recession of the early 80s, it posits a future world with amazing technology but where the lives of ordinary people are kind of crummy. Like E.T., it uses an alien experience to highlight a common aspect of the human experience. In the feelings among replicants and the way society treats them, we see a mirror of alienation and failure to connect among real humans.
It features a stunning production design and a vision of the future that is the most accurate of any film I can think of. No, we aren’t likely to self-aware replicants indistinguishable from people in the next five years (the film is set in 2019), but you’d be hard-pressed to tell the cityscape in Blade Runner from modern-day Shanghai or Tokyo.
The Road Warrior
Quick, imagine how people would dress in a post-apocalyptic world. You probably pictures a bunch of leather, chainmail, and possibly some repurposed football pads. You know, stuff like this.
But if you really think about it, people in a post apocalyptic world would really be dressed more like modern-day homeless people, or the stereotypical castaway on a deserted island. But because The Road Warrior has become such a part of our culture, you immediately thought of the imagery that doesn’t actually make any sense.
Other Notable Films
Given the sheer number of memorable films from this year, I’ll have to give short shrift the other notable movies in order to keep this post at a reasonable length. Please don’t take that as me insulting your favorite movies. If you love these films, I encourage you to write up your own thoughts about them in the comments.
Tootsie was a feminist movie for the time that would probably be considered mildly offensive today. It’s based on the idea that a man pretending to be a woman can be better at it than an actual woman. Plus the hero is trying to lie and manipulate his way into his dream girl’s pants, the dream girl is treated like a prize rather than a person, and while he’s pursuing her he’s also sleeping with/taking advantage of his emotionally vulnerable friend who’s clearly in love with him. (The idea of lying into the pants of a woman as a prize is still a common trope, but you wouldn’t expect it to show up in a feminist movie.) On the other hand, audiences of the day really connected with the idea of a man finding out what it’s like to be a woman. And Dustin Hoffman turned in an excellent performance.
The Dark Crystal / The Secret of NIMH / Annie
I’m lumping these three together as movies that were beloved by children during the 80s. If you weren’t of the right age to enjoy these when they came out or were frequently re-ran on television, you probably don’t have strong feelings about them. But if you are of the right age, these were a major part of your childhood and you still have quite a bit of affection for them.
Biopics are a strange genre, because a life is not a story, and it’s hard to portray a life in a way that works on film. That’s why most biopics end up being about substance abuse, mental illness, or a specific event. Those are things you can wrap a story around, and get out the details of the person through that mechanism. Gandhi is a rare biopic that avoids this. However, when you look at a Biopic of someone who is extremely well-known, over time the legacy of the film gets overshadowed by the legacy of the person. We remember who Gandhi is and what he did, rather than the movie about him.
When you think of Rambo, you think of him killing bad guys by the dozen. But that was Rambo II. (Or III, or John Rambo). First Blood is a drama about a Vietnam veteran who is abused and snaps after being pushed too far, taking an entire town hostage. It’s a bit weird that this drama was followed up with cheesy hyper-violet action movies, but it was the 80s and everyone was either ten years old or on cocaine.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
This was the forerunner of the “alienated teen” genre that became popular later in the 80s. And there’s this scene. (Not safe for work)
Conan the Barbarian
“Conan, what is best in life?”
“To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.”
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Do you disagree with any of these choices, or think that I missed something? Leave a comment below.