New Year – Retrobacktive Returns with AFI: Eighties-ized!

Hello, and happy 2014.

It is now a new year and aspirations are high. Given the plethora of twists and turns Retrobacktive has yet to explore (“give or take a decade…” Damn it! Where are the 70s and 90s?!), why not start 2014 with an ambitious undertaking married to a tried-and-true staple of the digital reliquary?

From 1998 to 2008 the American Film Institute presented 13 lists of movies that were categorized and rated based upon their merit and cultural impact. As one of those lists was an update presented ten years after the original, AFI compiled a total of 12 unique countdowns within their series. There are 12 months in a year. Thus (wink wink, nudge nudge)…

Here are the guidelines: Retrobacktive will present its take on AFI’s “greatest” series with an original countdown based upon the institute’s lists starting with 1998’s 100 Years…100 Movies. Each month there will be a new countdown that follows the next chronological list from the series. While some subjectivity will find its way into these lists, attempts to measure each entry based on creativity, legacy, and artistic merit are considered. All films will have been released between 1970 and 1999, with the exception of this inaugural list which contains only films released between 1980 and 1989.

Finally, considering the abbreviated era of time within Retrobacktive’s scope, only 20 films will be presented for each list.

This seems fair.

And so, our first drum roll for 2014 leads to…

20) Batman (1989) – Believe it or not, there was a time when superhero movies were not that popular. Today it feels like studios release a new comic-book flick every week, but back in the early 80s there wasn’t much outside the Superman franchise. By 1987, however, even that series had floundered thanks to Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Warner Bros. had been sitting on the rights to Batman for some time, and wanted Tim Burton to direct, but were wary of the unproven director’s abilities. After the success of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, Warner Bros. greenlit production for Batman with Jack Nicholson as the Joker and Michael Keaton in the titular role.

The casting of Keaton as Batman sparked controversy among fans as he was known at the time for playing comedic characters. Producer Jon Peters, however, lobbied for the actor’s casting, and Keaton’s tormented performance is often lauded for adding to the film’s dark tone. Batman was a commercial success breaking opening-weekend box office records and going on to win an Academy Award for Best Art Direction.  While much of the character’s legacy today is centered around Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Tim Burton’s Batman deserves as much, if not more, credit for establishing the iconic image of the brooding, tortured superhero.

19) Return of the Jedi (1983) – To address the immediate concern of all Empire Strikes Back devotees, yes, the first Star Wars sequel was made in 1980 and could have been included on this list. But it wasn’t. And no consideration was given to include only one Star Wars film on this countdown, though in many ways Empire is the superior film. This is, however, an 80s retrospective, and when it comes to cultural impact that exists in the vacuum of time, it’s hard to deny posters of lovable Ewoks on every Gen X boy’s bedroom wall. As captivating as The Empire Strikes Back’s morose tone was, ROTJ provided a bit more of the effervescent jubilation inherent to the 80s.

18) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) – John Hughes is as synonymous with 80s cinema as Woody Allen is with awkward charm – which incidentally is also what most of Hughes’ films are about. But Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is Hughes’ masterpiece. It inspires every boy’s favorite fantasy of dodging school to spend a day carousing through an urban wonderland with your beautiful girlfriend, best pal, and a really fast, red car. It may not have the varied introspection of The Breakfast Club, but who needs introspection when you’ve got Abe Froman: the Sausage King of Chicago?

17) The Thing (1982) – Allow me to save the trouble for anyone interested in seeing a Retrobacktive face-off between Wes Craven and John Carpenter for best 80s horror director. Carpenter wins. As great as Craven, Hennenlotter, and Barker were, Carpenter had a subtle charm that the others just couldn’t match. With The Thing, he nails it despite the fact that its gore level is through the roof. What Carpenter does with this remake of 1951’s The Thing From Another World is elevate the psychological component of isolation and distrust among those fighting for survival. This is a more faithful recreation of the original source material Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, only with all the grizzly benefits of 80s animatronics.

16) The Princess Bride (1987) – “Hello. My name in Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” “Good luck! Have fun storming the castle!” “Never go in with a Sicilian when death is on the line.” Shall I continue? “Miracle Max: Beat it or I’ll call the brute squad. Fezzik: I’m on the brute squad. Miracle Max: you are the brute squad.” Swashbucklers may have seem dated in the era of big hair and neon tights, but The Princess Bride out-slices any Errol Flynn flick. Although lead stars Cary Elwes and Robin Wright never recaptured the recognition this film brought them, they are supported by one of the strongest casts ever assembled for the screen, including Christopher Guest, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal, Chris Sarandon, and the undeniably charismatic Andre the Giant.

15) Top Gun (1985) – It was the movie that made Tom Cruise a bona fide superstar. All those retro-trendy aviator sunglasses the hipsters sport now? Guess where the trend originally started. Cruise’s cocky-yet-competent fighter pilot Pete Mitchell personified a decade marked by brazenness – Pete’s ‘call name’ is Maverick after all. When he’s not buzzing the tower in an F-14 jet, Mitchell races his motorcycle down runways, picks up girls with cheesy renditions of Everly Brothers tunes, and rocks a mean pair of tighty-whiteys (admit it, fellas, we all think of buying some after watching Top Gun). Despite being the Miami Vice of the Air Force, this movie continues to hold its own against today’s ubiquitous military dramas. While known better now for his outlandish talk show appearances and devotion to Scientology, Cruise gives a meaningful performance nuanced with brushstrokes of human infallibility. Watching Top Gun today consistently begs the question can’t someone tell Tom Cruise to go back to drama.

14) The Road Warrior (1981) – Few film franchises have ignited legacies as indelible to an era as George Miller’s Mad Max series. Images of leather-clad, mohawked biker gangs set against the backdrop of desolate wastelands became staples of 80s post-apocalyptic sci-fi.

The original Mad Max was a cultural phenomenon that realized massive global success and sparked the Australian New Wave cinema craze. The one country where it remained relatively unknown was the United States. When Miller and production partner Byron Kennedy decided to make a sequel it was simply dubbed Mad Max 2. Warner Bros., however, feared American audiences wouldn’t relate to the subject matter as a sequel, so the stateside release of the film was titled The Road Warrior. And unlike Mad Max, it found critical and commercial success in the U.S., as well as the rest of the world.

Much like a western, the plot is uncomplicated; Mel Gibson’s despondent anti-hero rediscovers his lost humanity while aiding a group of settlers in their battle against a merciless group of thugs. Where the films excels is in its fast-cut pacing, non-stop fight scenes, and one of the greatest car chases ever captured on film.

13) The Fly (1986) – Here is another example of a classic 50s horror film – based on an innovative sci-fi short story – being updated in an age of seemingly limitless cinematic effects work. The Fly is arguably the greatest “science-experiment-gone-wrong” story ever told, and there was no better director to capture the torturous physical and mental transformation of Jeff Goldblum’s doomed main character than David Cronenberg.

After finding success with cult horror films such as Scanners and Videodrome, Cronenberg was primed to make his mark with a big-budget production. He delivered with a reinterpretation of George Langelaan’s 1957 short story about a scientist whose experiments with teleportation go horribly wrong when a housefly is sent through space with him. Although the premise provided Cronenberg with an endless platter to set his trademark gore upon, the film’s cornerstone is the deterioration of the relationship between Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle and Geena Davis’ Veronica Quaife. Goldblum in particular gives a gut-wrenching performance as a lost soul whose physical destruction is eclipsed only by his mental collapse. Be warned: this film is not for the weak of heart, and requires a strong stomach to sit through. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

12) Gremlins (1984) – Gremlins is the Johnny Rotten of movies. It did everything wrong and without apology. First, all the wrong names were attached to the film, namely Steven Spielberg as executive producer and veteran character actors Hoyt Axton and Polly Holliday, who were better known for playing lighthearted television roles. Second, the film had a vivid Christmas setting despite a summer release. But the biggest curveball was the extensive promotion that revolved around Gizmo, the cute little mogwai the presented the movie as a story of one mild-mannered young man’s fluffy little pet. From there the movie spit right in the audience’s face. Many parents who brought their kids to see Gremlins did, in fact, leave halfway through the film, unprepared for its graphic violence, dark humor, and unnerving tone. This, however, only mirrors the eponymous characters’ qualities. The gremlins are punks; they’d want to see mothers whisking their children away in disgust. Gremlins was widely criticized for being too explicit for a PG rating. Hence it became, along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, one of the catalysts in the development of the PG-13 rating.

11) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – Most fans all know the story by now: Tom Selleck was originally offered the role of Indiana Jones, but had to decline because of his commitment to Magnum P.I. The truth is Harrison Ford was Steven Spielberg’s first choice to play the adventuring archeologist. Screenwriter George Lucas was concerned Ford would be seen as his go-to actor, but that ultimately would not matter. Raiders of the Lost Ark proved to be bigger than the sum of all the principals who came to create it. It was far and away the most successful film of 1981, and is still one of the top 20 highest-grossing movies of all time when adjusted for inflation.

10) First Blood (1982) – Sylvester Stallone’s most well-known character may be Rocky Balboa, but an argument for his most nuanced performance could be made for that of the unhinged Vietnam veteran John Rambo. Adapted to screen from David Morrell’s book, First Blood is the story of an aimless war hero suffering from deep survivor’s guilt after learning the last living member of his platoon died from cancer as a result of exposure to agent orange. Isolated and out of touch with civilian life, Rambo runs afoul with a small-town sheriff who attempts to make an example of him. The result is a mental snap which Stallone executes brilliantly as a stoic but efficient killer. And his emotional breakdown at the movie’s climax gives sobering insight to the suffering many veterans endure after returning from war. First Blood went on to spawn three sequels, and is widely considered the progenitor of the archetypal 80s action film where one man must defend himself against many in a contained, foreign environment.

9) Rain Man (1988) – It wasn’t all machine guns and monsters in the 80s. Hollywood managed to turn out a few dramatic flicks, too. Rain Man remains most notable for Dustin Hoffman’s celebrated performance as Raymond Babbit, an autistic man with a nearly eidetic memory who has spent the majority of his life in a mental institution. Tom Cruise plays Raymond’s estranged brother, Charlie, who seeks out Raymond when he learns their late father bequeathed his multimillion dollar estate to the older, autistic son. Although Hoffman won the Academy Award for Best Actor, film critics often consider Cruise’s character to be the film’s actual protagonist. His transformation from a callous, money-hungry opportunist into a caring and sensitive brother desperate to reconnect with his family is deftly executed, but understated by Hoffman’s unbreakable acting. The film also won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Barry Levinson), and Best Original Screenplay.

8) The Terminator (1984) – This is one of those films that had such an enormous sequel, it’s almost always overshadowed in any discussion about the franchise itself. A shame because The Terminator is the best Terminator film in the series. Terminator 2: Judgement Day was a tour de force – the other two sequels pale dimly with the absence of protagonist Sarah Connor – but it steps into bounds that borderline fantastic (read: campy). The original is pure sci-fi/horror/action with a tight but brilliant script (there’s even a moment in the movie where one of the characters admits that the plot is brilliant because it “doesn’t require a shred of evidence to prove!”), and a perfect cast. Try to imagine anyone else in Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s respective roles. It’s impossible.

7) Back to the Future (1985) – Everything about this movie scream 1980s. It stars the definitive 80s actor, Michael J. Fox, features a cameo by Huey Lewis (as well as his bitchin’ soundtrack song “The Power of Love”), and the story’s MacGuffin, a time machine, is a DeLorean. It helps that the script is hilarious and witty, the acting perfectly balanced, and the suspense nail-biting. If it weren’t for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Back to the Future might have had a possible contender for the title of Greatest 80s Trilogy. But as it stands, the Back to the Future series has no competition. Even considering Back to the Future II. It probably seemed funny on paper, but Michael J. Fox in drag just doesn’t work.

6) Die Hard (1987) – This film really deserves its own Retrobacktive entry (and honestly the number one spot on this list, but as mentioned, an actual measuring system was used). To be clear: this is the greatest action movie ever made. Are there flaws? Yes. Are they kept to a bare minimum relative to the garbage barges of ridiculous crap audiences are forced to put up with in other action films. Also yes. While it has been referenced in virtually every review ever written about Die Hard, it’s worth noting again; the pièce de résistance in this flick is Bruce Willis’ everyman characterization of John McClane. Stallone and Schwarzenegger did what they did very well, but the last thing film-goers needed in the late 80s was another overblown superhero. Willis gave audiences something everybody could relate to. Of course, let’s not forget Alan Rickman… but wait, that’s topic for another month’s list.

5) Field of Dreams (1989) – A sports movie had to find its way onto the list. Bull Durham and Major League were strong contenders, but there’s something to be said for a picture that can produce a phrase so ubiquitous people say it without even thinking of the source from which it came. If you build it, they will come. And they did. Phil Alden Robinson’s directorial debut In the Mood may have disappointed audiences, but sophomore effort Field of Dreams‘ story of an Iowa farmer’s mystical reconciliation with his father though baseball undoubtedly redeemed the filmmaker and further propelled star Kevin Costner’s career. James Earl Jones’ monologue best sums up the heart of this gem.

4) Big (1988) – Heart-warming. Funny. Original. Sentimental? Perhaps, but is that the worst quality we could attribute to a big-budget Tom Hanks vehicle? For those exclusively familiar with the AIDS-patient/Forrest Gump/lost in space Tom Hanks, Big is the film that took the once tongue-in-cheek actor from a likeable goofball and transformed him into an Academy Award-contending film star. Virtually all of Big‘s emotional depth can be attributed to Hanks’ uncanny performance as a 13-year-old boy trapped in a thirty-something’s body. But what really gives this film it’s iconic reputation are the numerous scenes that stand-out as indelible, if not cliched, classic cinema moments. Most notably Hanks and Robert Loggia’s “Chopsticks” duet on the pedal-powered keyboard. Moments like that aren’t constructed; they just occur while the camera happens to be rolling.

3) This is Spinal Tap (1984) – Despite the seemingly endless amount of famous quotes that emanated from this Rob Reiner classic, the truth is This is Spinal Tap was not a huge, breakout success upon release. But eventually as a number of renowned musicians began to take note and compare their own experiences with that of England’s dim-witted but “loudest band,” This is Spinal Tap soared in popularity. Say what you want about Gone With the Wind; when it comes to quotable movies lines… well, again, topic for another list. But the whole production is all the more impressive when you consider the vast majority of the dialogue was ad-libbed by Reiner, and lead actors Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer.

2) Robocop (1987) – Part Man. Part Machine. All Cop. Imagine yourself a young boy in the 80s whose tastes for the finer things in life include superheros, gunfire, explosions, robots, and invincibility. If you can come up with a better tag line for such an audience, quick your job and write movie poster copy.

Of course, any young person watching this movie in his or her youth (Warning: do not let young people watch this movie; it is traumatically violent) will miss the endless allegories and critiques of capitalism, greed, consumerism, commercial exploitation, and identity loss. On the surface, Robcocop is a sci-fi superhero thriller where the protagonist holsters his gun inside his leg. Similar to The Terminator, no one should have expected such a cerebral story and polished production. Yet it was praised by critics and became the 16th top-grossing movie of 1987. Although many of the film’s themes reflect the monetary and commercial obsessiveness of the 80s, the film continues to echo through time as a dark foreshadow on the dangers of reckless technological and social incorporation.

1) Ghostbusters (1984) – Of the things one could say of Ghostbusters‘ legacy, none is more appealing than the addition of Bill Murray. Yes, the film is rounded out by a flawless cast, including writers Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, and Annie Potts. But it is Murray who remains indefatigable in his signature role as the wise-cracking, aloof Peter Venkman.

When Aykroyd first conceived the project he had fellow Blues Brother John Belushi in mind for the role of Venkman. Belushi, however, died while the script was still in development. Murray stepped into the role, improvising the majority of his lines and ad-libbing his way into comedy history.

The strength of Ghostbusters lies in the cast’s collective performance. Aykroyd and Ramis are the brains and subsequently the nerds; Murray is much like the older brother who is by now immune to his surrounding absurdity yet beyond reproach in his criticism of it. Hudson is the everyman; Weaver is the beautiful damsel in distress; Potts and Moranis are the quintessential New Yorkers providing an elemental sense of geography (where else could Ghostbusters take place?). The story was never intended to be highbrow, but just as most Hollywood triumphs weren’t, the sum of its parts magically work together to create something bigger. Ghostbusters is in the hearts and minds of a generation still yearning to wear a proton-pack and drive Ecto-1, and its legacy is now ready to be passed down to the next audience who will undoubtedly find something to relate to, something to mimic, something to idolize, and always something to laugh at.

Honorable Mention: Aliens, The Karate Kid Part II, Manhunter, Rocky IV, Pretty in Pink, Wall Street, To Live & Die in L.A., Lethal Weapon