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 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.

masterful twin shots from Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America…

…including this shot here, you certainly will not find anything superior to this in 1984

 

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.

a rich cinematic painting from the opening of The Natural

Coppola’s work in the 1980s so far rivals Spielberg, Fassbinder, Scorsese and Carpenter

a dazzling shot from The Cotton Club

 

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.

Deakins bleach bypass technique completely washes out the color and it’s quite stunning in its effectiveness—rumor is he and Radford wanted black and white but were turned down by the studio.

  • 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))

Dystopian slow-burn with some scary pictures of youth that reminded me of Haneke’s The White Ribbon—Nazi implications

  • This dystopia is very different than Blade Runner– it’s drab—almost looks like Rossellini’s war trilogy with all the rubble

breathtaking landscapes in the woods- the green valley escape and surrealism sequences

  • 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

Effective use of TV’s (size), radio announcements on war, production rates increasing, via soundtrack and rows and of people at the rally and rows of desk at work in the few scenes at Hurt’s work

 

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.

Blood Simple. The Coen Brothers have such an assured voice in their debut. It is confident in structure and arc—it a neo noir but it has a perverse sense of randomness that doesn’t really touch the majority of the fatalism in the noir genre that precedes it. Like nearly all of their work to follow, Blood Simple is a meditation on fate and randomness.

28-year old Dane Lars von Trier here in The Element of Crime – this is over a decade before Dogme 95

a miraculous frame from The Terminator– the foundation of the careers of both James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger

Whether it is Blade Runner, Escape From New York, Mad Max, or The Terminator- this is a great era for the science fiction genre

Spielberg doing a Busby Berkeley impression with the spectacular opening

Ghostbusters and Temple of Doom are the big box office films of 1984

It would not stop in 1984, but it is worth noting Woody’s run. Starting in 1977, Broadway Danny Rose makes for six (6) top ten films of the year in eight (8) years.

  • 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.

Thomas Hulce in Milos Forman’s signature shot choice in 1984’s Amadeus

 

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.

an iconic frame from The Coen Brothers debut- one of the finest to come along since Truffaut’s in 1959

 

top 10

  1. Once Upon a Time in America
  2. Stranger Than Paradise
  3. Amadeus
  4. Blood Simple
  5. Broadway Danny Rose
  6. The Terminator
  7. The Cotton Club
  8. Paris, Texas
  9. The Natural
  10. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

 

Stranger Than Paradise– a major achievement and the announcement of Jim Jarmusch as a major force in world cinema—deadpan comedy, formal master

so few films are ambitious in their structure- and I don’t mean complicated. The film is a series of single take long duration shots, elliptically edited with few seconds of blank black screen— set in three cities (NYC (really NJ), Cleveland, Florida) with title cards.

Paris, Texas- Wim Wenders combines a great lead performance from veteran supporting actor and this generation’s Ward Bond, Harry Dean Stanton. It is written by Sam Shepard and Ry Cooder does the acoustic minimal music.

Dean Stanton is completely silent the first 25 minutes

Rustic photography of the southwest—plenty of road signs (ongoing visual motif) form into a slow burn poetic film about human relationships (with brother, son he abandoned, and wife who left him).

It’s another gorgeous travelogue road trip Wenders film with photography from Robby Mueller (cinematographer of Dead Man, many of  Jarmusch’s films actually, and worked with von Trier on Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark) even if it isn’t half as beautiful as Kings of the Road (also shot by Mueller).

 

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
Amadeus- Forman MP
Birdy- Parker R
Blood Simple – Coen MS
Broadway Danny Rose- Allen MS
Carmen- Rosi
Choose Me – Rudolph R
Crimes of Passion – K. Russell R
Footloose – Ross R
Ghostbusters- Reitman 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