best film: Once Upon a Time in America from Sergio Leone. This is both Leone’s final film (what a magnificent swan song) and first film in thirteen (13) years (1971’s Duck, You Sucker!). It is hauntingly beautiful in one scene– and then crass and crude in the next resulting in a spectacular contrast (1900 by fellow Italian Bertolucci is similar). It is a gangster epic but colliding with the violence and sadism are lyrical passages full of atmospheric indulgences. This masterpiece is sentimental and dense. Leone would die in 1989 at age 60.
most underrated: 1984 has a few to choose from here for this category. Woody’s entire period of 1980s/Mia Farrow films far too often get overlooked and Broadway Danny Rose is probably amongst them. It does not land in the TSPDT consensus top 1000 (currently at least- it seems to waver on the edge of the list and does land there every other year). Barry Levinson’s The Natural might be his best film not named Diner making it even better than Rain Main and Bugsy. The Natural is nowhere to be found on the top 1000 for TSPDT. The source material is superb, Randy Newman does the music, the production design is by Mel Bourne (Interiors, Manhattan) and it is shot by Caleb Deschanel (The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff). The cast is a great collection of talent. We have Robert Redford, Barbara Hershey, a young and gorgeous Kim Basinger, Glenn Close, Richard Farnsworth, Wilfred Brimley, Michael Madsen and Danny Aiello. The music and photography at the end with the light show in slow-motion is just lovely. I’m not sure the whole adds up to the sum of the parts but still- look at those parts. The Cotton Club from Coppola is excellent. You combine this with One From the Heart (1981) and Rumble Fish (1983) to form the “trio of the underrated” (my term for Coppola’s three films in the 1980s) and it completely ruins the Coppola died as an artist in the jungle making Apocalypse Now half-baked theory I once held. This is a high quality film. I don’t want to oversell it or compare it to Coppola’s 1970s masterpieces but The Cotton Club is indeed stunning to look at, well-acted, and the ending has a Coppola signature great montage sequence of a dance number and murder that certainly has a ton in common with the murder montage endings of the The Godfather films and the bull slaughtering to end Apocalypse Now so it checks the auteur box on top of being just a handsome and entertaining film.
most overrated: Cassavetes’ Love Streams at #278 on the TSDPT consensus list makes it the #3 film of the year and I cannot find any room for it in the top 10.
gems I want to spotlight: 1984 from Michael Radford was always destined to be underrated and overlooked coming in with the burden of expectations from the classic novel. The film isn’t the masterpiece Orwell’s book is- but it is a great film in its own right.
- An overlooked film for sure—underappreciated—it’s very notable for Roger Deakins photography (this was his big break so to speak) and the slow-burn performance by John Hurt.
- Also notable for Richard Burton’s last film—sadly, he passed away really young (age 58). It’s not the triumph for him it is for Hurt but he’s quite good here in his few scenes
- Uniform uniforms and lots of extras give it the proper scope despite most of the scenes involving two characters (either Hurt and Burton or Hurt and Suzanna Hamilton (also in Out of Africa the following year))
- This dystopia is very different than Blade Runner– it’s drab—almost looks like Rossellini’s war trilogy with all the rubble
- Hurt and Burton are two powerful actors
- Shot and photographed in step with novel at same time in 1984 and on same dates which is strange
trends and notables:
- 1984 has a stronger top 10 than 1983 without a doubt. The main story of 1984 in cinema is the slew of talented budding auteurs making their first archiveable films. You have to start with the Coen Brothers and their debut Blood Simple. Lars von Trier is next with The Elements of Crime and then James Cameron lands with his first archiveable film in The Terminator. We’re not done. Hayao Miyazaki’s first of many archiveable films lands in 1984 with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Lastly, Robert Zemeckis lands for the first time with his Indiana Jones-like Romancing the Stone. So we have at least four of the best 100 auteurs of all-time making their first appearance in the archives in one year. I cannot recall another year like this- but I think it is just an anomaly. I do not think it means much going forward except for it being a talented group of filmmakers pushing through at once.
- It is a very big year of firsts for actors as well. Denzel Washington’s first foray into the archives is 1984 with A Soldier’s Story and Johnny Depp shows up quickly before being swallowed up by his bed in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Frances McDormand is here in Blood Simple outdoing just about everyone in 1984 with her work though it would be another dozen years before Fargo would make her a recognizable name. John Malkovich would explode onto the scene with two archiveable films (and an Oscar nom) in Places in the Heart and The Killing Fields. Young Jennifer Connelly is here at 14 years old with her actual debut in Leone’s masterpiece.
best performance male: F. Murray Abraham gives the best performance of the year in Amadeus. I am fine with giving Tom Hulce’s hilarious Mozart a mention here as well. He’s annoyingly crude and idiosyncratic but it is Abraham who has the more complex and challenging role. Behind the dueling leads in Milos Forman’s Amadeus, I’d give mention to yet another brilliant turn by De Niro in Once Upon a Time in America. It is a pensive, understated performance that could not be more different from Raging Bull and The King of Comedy. His work here is full of regret and melancholy. What a decade De Niro is already amassing here in the 1980s. Often, we’re just looking at and pausing on his face while he restrains. My fourth and final mention in 1984 is for Emmet Walsh in Blood Simple. This is career supporting actor and character actor. All told now, he has 230 acting credits and counting and he’s never been better than he is here in the Coen brothers’ debut. You cannot take your eyes off him when he’s on screen.
best performance female: The best female performance of the year goes to Frances McDormand for her work in Blood Simple. This is McDormand’s actual debut. McDormand has become known for her sort of brazen one-liners, but there is a lot of just phenomenal silent reacting here to this wild, rat-trap of a scenario created by the Coen brothers.
- Once Upon a Time in America
- Stranger Than Paradise
- Blood Simple
- Broadway Danny Rose
- The Terminator
- The Cotton Club
- Paris, Texas
- The Natural
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind
Archives, Directors, and Grades
|1984 – Radford||R/HR|
|A Nightmare on Elm Street- Craven||R|
|A Passage To India- Lean|
|A Soldier’s Story – Jewison||R|
|Blood Simple – Coen||MS|
|Broadway Danny Rose- Allen||MS|
|Choose Me – Rudolph||R|
|Crimes of Passion – K. Russell||R|
|Footloose – Ross||R|
|Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – Spielberg||HR|
|Love Streams- Cassavetes|
|Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind – Miyazaki||HR|
|Once Upon a Time in America- Leone||MP|
|Paris, Texas – Wenders||HR|
|Places In the Heart- Benton||R|
|Purple Rain – Magnoli||R|
|Repo Man – Cox||R|
|Romancing the Stone- Zemeckis||R|
|Starman – Carpenter||R|
|Stranger Than Paradise – Jarmusch||MP|
|The Bostonians – Ivory||R|
|The Cotton Club – F. Coppola||HR/MS|
|The Elements of Crime- von Trier||R|
|The Hit- Frears||R|
|The Home and the World- S. Ray|
|The Karate Kid – Avildsen||R|
|The Killing Fields- Joffé||R|
|The Natural- Levinson||HR|
|The Terminator- Cameron||MS|
|This is Spinal Tap – R. Reiner||R|
|Under the Volcano- J. Huston||R|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives
Is Once Upon a Time in America (1984) the most “epic” film of all time?
I don’t mean is it the greatest film of all time amongst Epic films as I would certainly rank other Epic films above it; such as Apocalypse Now (1979) and Seven Samurai (1954).
For example, I think Double Indemnity is the ultimate example of film noir even though I can see the argument, that say Touch of Evil (1958) is a better overall film due to its superior direction and cinematography amongst other areas.
Certainly in that top tier in terms of “epicness”. My vote is 2001: A Space Odyssey, simply because of the expanse of time and space it covers.
@Declan – hard to argue against 2001, The Tree of Life (2011) would be another as it covers the birth of the Universe, hard to beat that in terms of scope!
I guess there are several factors to consider when determining just how “epic” a film is and I am sure people have slightly different definitions but here are some key factors that I would consider (and corresponding films that are key examples)
– commitment to a central subject or theme (Tree of Life, Apocalypse Now, 2001)
– commitment to a story or character (Seven Samurai, Laurence of Arabia, Andrei Rublev,
Godfather 1 and 2, Once Upon a Time in America)
– large scope of the central subject or theme (Tree of Life, 2001)
– spectacular visuals and set design (2001, Blade Runner. Lawrence of Arabia, Tree of
– use of music in amplifying themes (2001, Star Wars, Aguirre)
It’s a little trivia that Holly Hunter was the original choice for the lead role in Blood Simple but wasn’t able to do it. She suggested her roommate Frances Mcdormand to the Coens.
How do you see Holly Hunter in that role?
@M*A*S*H – Interesting as Joel and Mcdormand hit it off and were married shortly after. Funny how little random things can potentially change Cinema history.
Mcdormand is great but I think Hunter would be solid in the role as well. She excels in dark roles such as The Piano (1993) and Crash (1996). She was also solid in The Firm (1993) I don’t think Hunter could play the Mcdormand role in Fargo (1996) nearly as well but I think she would have been solid in Blood Simple, she was an alluring sort of mysterious vibe that would be well suited for that role.
*she has an alluring…
@JamesTrapp – you’re right about her her having a “mysterious vibe” I think that helps make her The Piano performance one of the most idiosyncratic in cinema history.
@M*A*S*H- I am happy it worked out the way it did- but Hunter would nail this role.
@Drake- what do you think of Hunter’s performance in Crash?
@M*A*S*H- Yeah, I missed that one on her page (which I’ll be updating) but I think she’s solid here. It helps round out her filmography too (on top of giving her one more great film of course).
What do you think of James Woods in Once Upon a Time in America? I thought Woods and De Niro were fantastic in their scenes together. I wouldn’t argue against De Niro having the film’s best performance but I’d be fine with someone going with Woods. I also love Woods in Casino (1995) man can he ever play a complete and utter slimeball.