By Jim Dietz
Welcome back to Retropolis and on behalf of myself and the Minister of Nostalgia I hope you have a pleasant visit. Please no flash photography and keep all of your limbs inside the ride at all times. Thank you.
This was another tough year to narrow my selections down to only 8 so as with previous entries I will give the nod to those movies that just didn’t quite make the cut in the Honorable Mentions…
I love the sexually charged horror of Paul Schrader’s Cat People, as well as the Giorgio Moroder score. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid was an editing tour de force, a who’s who of film noir and, most impressively, a really funny movie. Hal Needham’s Megaforce is probably my favorite block of cheese from this year. After the success of his Cannonball Run movies, former stuntdriver-turned-director Needham cast Barry Bostwick and his beautifully feathered hair as the leader of a very GI-Joe like military strike team with flying motorcycles. Other notables included Dark Crystal, Diner, Rocky 3 and Tron. ET isn’t on this list on purpose as it’s not really one of my favorite Spielberg movies.
Fanny and Alexander– I know because I am a chef I am more prone to food metaphors but this film begins as a grand feast and then becomes a famine for which the viewer becomes grateful. This is my favorite Ingmar Bergman film ,and its a bit of a cheat as the theatrical release was an edit of the original six-hour-long miniseries he made for European television. If you haven’t seen it, and can deal with the length, I would recommend that miniseries over the theatrical release but either is a wonderfully realized film that portrays so many things so well. Fanny and Alexander is set at the dawn of the 20th Century and the movie begins with a big ensemble set piece of a Swedish theatrical family celebrating Christmas together and this first act is worth watching almost as a movie of its own. Few films portray the uncertainty and wonder of childhood the way this one does.
Blade Runner – One of our Millennial representatives on the HHWLOD Podcast Network, Mr. Jordan From Jersey aka Doctor Esquire doesn’t like Blade Runner, doesn’t see what the big deal about it is and actually did not enjoy it. It’s this kind of thinking that makes me weep for the future generations. He established an esthetic for science fiction that still resonates today, and came at the “more human than human” concept head-on thanks to the fourth dimensional brain of Philip K Dick upon whose writing the movie is based. This movie even beyond its rainy, neon-lit multiculti dystopian setting is memorable for so many other reasons: the toy collection of Jay Sebastian, Brion James’ Leon telling Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard it was “Time to die” , Edward James Olmos as the enigmatic Gaff, the scene where Rutger Hauer as the lead replicant Roy Batty literally “meets his maker”, Dr. Tyrell. Even the soliloquy Hauer delivers at the end works because of everything that has come before it; he cannot escape his fate so instead he embraces it. Classic existential dilemma writ large. These kids today have no use for metaphors and stuff.
The Thing – There are a rare few horror films I would hold up as perfect exemplars of the genre. John Carpenter’s The Thing is one such film. The way it slowly turns up both the creepiness and the paranoia among the characters is masterful and its full of good performances by actors like Keith David, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart and long-time Carpenter collaborator Kurt Russell. The thing (pun intended) that really puts it over the top for me are the practical special effects which I think still hold up and are creepier than any CG rendering of the same effect would be. When I hear the term “reimagining” instead of “remake” I think of this movie as an example of the best possible outcome of such an endeavor; a new version that retains elements from its source material without being slavish to it and in turn creates something that stands up gloriously on its own.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – Still my favorite entry of any of the Star Trek movies and after the overblown stuffiness, gratuitous monologuing and clumsy plot of Star Trek The Motion Picture, Wrath of Khan is one of the few sequels that outpaces its predecessor. From the opening sequence in which we are led to believe that the Enterprise has been led to its demise by Kirstie Alley, to the bronzed pecs of the revenge-driven Ricardo Montalban flexing as he leaves his arch nemesis Captain Kirk to die, even the sacrifice of Mr. Spock (which at the time we thought would actually be the end of Leonard Nimoy’s appearances in the franchise) felt right as part of the story. This movie was so iconic to the Star Trek franchise that the recent Star Trek Into Darkness remixed some of the story elements and characters of Wrath of Khan into its script with varying degrees of success.
Conan the Barbarian – At a time in my life as a young geek when I was playing Advanced Dungeons+Dragons (First Ed.) and reading Robert E Howard, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock and Andre Norton, this movie was almost like an affirmation. It didn’t matter that Arnold Schwarzenegger was still a few films away from speaking something akin to intelligible English, or that John Milius and Oliver Stone’s script was so overwrought or even that James Earl Jones was kind of stuntcast as Thulsa Doom. None of that mattered because this movie understood what made Conan the Barbarian cool and went with it. Brutal to his enemies, loyal to his friends, suspicious of magic and ultimately the conqueror of those who would stifle his freebooting ways, what made Conan an enduring character in paperbacks and comics for years was translated fairly faithfully to the screen here. Some may prefer Conan the Destroyer’s lighter tone but when I think of 80s barbarian movies I think of this one that started it all.
Creepshow – As a young fan of horror films and books, when I first read in Fangoria magazine that George Romero and Stephen King were collaborating on a horror anthology movie in the style of the 50s EC Comics, my brain exploded. I remember seeing it opening day in the theater and I can still recall the payoff for each story, the dead father in “Father’s Day” shrieking for his “cake”, Stephen King as idiot farmer Jordy Verrill suiciding after losing his fight against alien moss, EG Marshall trapped in an airtight apartment with millions upon millions of cockroaches, Leslie Nielsen’s maniacal laughter as he says he can hold his breath a long, long time and the cracking of the crate full of creature as Hal Holbrook dumps it in the water. So very few movies can skirt the line between horror and humor so well (Evil Dead and Shaun of the Dead come to mind) and Creepshow’s over-the-top sensibility blends slapstick and repulsion masterfully.
Tempest – This is one of those little movies that few people have seen but deserves a wider audience. I only saw it because I went through a big John Cassavetes phase (He did pretty much invent American Independent Film in the 1960s on top of being a top-notch actor.) I wanted to see any and every movie of his I could get my hands on. This is a very loose “reimagining” (there’s that word again…) of Shakespeare’s Tempest, shifting its metaphor from the death of magic in the rise of the Age of Reason as originally written to the search for personal meaning in one’s life. Cassavetes is a successful architect who travels to an island in Greece to try to come to grips with his own lack of personal satisfaction and brings his girlfriend (Susan Sarandon) and his daughter (Molly Ringwald) to, as he puts it, “find the magic”. Raul Julia steals every scene he is in as their guide on the island, Kalibanos. Paul Mazursky’s script and direction take what could’ve been just another “white male mid-life crisis” movie and elevates it to something a little more universal.
Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip – I had seen Richard Pryor on Saturday Night Live and here and there on TV and in movies but I had never seen his stand-up act before I saw this movie. Do I really need to say more than that? I think the thing that stuck with me most was that this performance was soon after he had set himself on fire freebasing cocaine and instead of distancing himself from the incident and his addiction he embraced it, found the humor in it and made it part of his act. That kind of truthtelling is part of what made Pryor so genius.
I hope you are digging this archeological dig through my old VHS tapes! You can comment or weigh in with your list or whatever you’d like to send that makes sense to firstname.lastname@example.org. See you next time for 1983!