The 1980s had more than its share of great summers for movies. There's 1982, still my favorite of all time. There's '85, which saw the release of the best movie ever made. One year later, summer '86 got The Fly and Aliens and Big Trouble in Little China and two Tobe Hooper movies.
But the summer of 1984 is pretty hard to beat for total greatness; it's got many of the great blockbusters of the decade and lots of genre weirdness carried over my beloved '82. Just a few weeks before summer, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter hit theaters. A few weeks after summer, Amadeus was released. The best in both high and low art were represented.
This column is dedicated to Albert Muller, who provided the inspiration for choosing summer 1984 as the last entry in this series.
Steven Spielberg) The more years that go by and the more times I see this sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, the more I'm convinced it's one of Steven Spielberg's best-directed, most entertaining movies. I know it's not as good as Raiders, but it is more breathlessly paced and goofy (while at the same time being an angry, often racist, often ugly movie). The thought of any summer blockbuster trying to top this one for sheer entertainment value is almost impossible, but the summer of '84 was up to the challenge.
Once Upon a Time in America (dir. Sergio Leone) Considered a disappointment at the time of its release, Sergio Leone's final masterpiece hit theaters in the summer of 1984 in a butchered, 130-minute cut that made little narrative sense and cut the cuts out of his crime epic. The footage has since been restored in subsequent releases and the film correctly reappraised for being a true work of greatness. Just in case you wanted to hang yourself, this came out the same day as Star Trek III and Streets of Fire. All three are still movies we talk about today. How many movies from summer 2016 do you think we'll still be talking about one year from now, much less more than 30?
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, still the best Star Trek thing ever produced. While Search for Spock is not without its problems (chief among them an absence of Spock, plus the casting change of Mr. Saavik and an underwhelming payoff to Merritt Butrick's storyline), I still like a lot of stuff about this movie. It's weirder than most Star Trek movies, with first-time director Leonard Nimoy leaning into some of the nasty alien-ness of it all, and Christopher Lloyd is fun as a Klingon who's a real dickbag. When I was a kid and went to see this movie with my family, we sat in the balcony and I was positive we were going to be shot because I had just learned about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. I was a stupid kid.
Streets of Fire (dir. Walter Hill) Yes, released the same day as Search for Spock and Once Upon a Time in America, Walter Hill's rock and roll fable more or less flopped in '84, probably because the world wasn't ready for this much fucking awesomeness packed into one musical/romance/action movie noir. It's the kind of movie that people discover later in life and then kick themselves for sleeping on it upon release. It's a movie that celebrates so many things that are only possible in movies. It's a movie I love dearly. If this had been the only classic released in 1984, it would still have been a memorable and special summer. Instead, it's one of more than a dozen classic movies released in the same four-month period.
Ghostbusters (dir. Ivan Reitman) There may be no better point of comparison between this summer and summer 1984 than this movie, as both summers have their own Ghostbusters. This one is a true classic and maybe my favorite comedy ever made -- that rare case of everything working just right. This summer's Ghostbusters, while not without its charms and an appealing cast, is indicative of many of the problems of today's current blockbuster model.
Gremlins (dir. Joe Dante) This and Ghostbusters were released into theaters on the same day. Timeless classics, movies that are still beloved by all ages today, two of the highest-grossing movies of the year opened opposite one another. Dante's horror comedy is both a fun and nasty little monster movie and a really clever refutation of the Spielberg model so pervasive in Hollywood filmmaking at the time (made all the more clever because Spielberg himself acted as producer). The fact that this is a Christmas movie released in the middle of summer is just one of the many ways in which Gremlins don't give a fuck.
The Karate Kid (dir. John Avildsen) One of the great sleeper hits of the '80s came out in 1984 with no major stars and a title that was savagely unpronounceable to little kid me and then went on to become one of the most beloved movies of the decade, spawning two sequels, one spin-off and a remake. None can touch the original, which is beautiful and sweet and utterly sincere in every way. Ralph Macchio gives one of those great, natural performances that's less about brilliant acting than it is about finding the person who really is that guy. Elisabeth Shue plays maybe the ultimate '80s movie girlfriend. This movie is so special.
Conan the Destroyer (dir. Richard Fleischer) Even for 1984, this is basically an also-ran. But because it's a holdover from the fantasy-rich days of the early '80s, it deserves a mention here. Like much of what we get in 2016, this is a sequel to a movie that's based on an existing IP. Unlike much of what we get in 2016, it is as least done with a lot of imagination, even though it is far from entirely successful.
The Last Starfighter (dir. Nick Castle) At this point I'm almost tired of talking about all the special films released in the summer of 1984, but I would be remiss to leave out The Last Starfighter. The story of a teenager from a trailer park (Lance Guest) who's great at an arcade game and is enlisted to fight in a real war in outer space, this is a sci-fi adventure that's all heart. The effects and the pacing probably leave something to be desired by audiences in 2016, who are used to summer entertainment that's all spectacle and less character-based. These are reasons I love the movie. Plus, Catherine Mary Stewart and her jean shorts.
The Muppets Take Manhattan (dir. Frank Oz) One area that summer 2016 is at least as good or better than summers past is in their kids' films. I don't mean junk like Secret Life of Pets or The Angry Birds Movie (kill me), but Finding Dory is pretty ok and Kubo and the Two Strings is pretty great. But because the original years of Jim Henson's Muppets -- which more or less ended here, because I'm not counting Christmas Carol or Treasure Island or From Space -- were a golden age of specialness. I still think Muppets Take Manhattan is my third favorite of the original trilogy, but it's a ton of fun and introduced the Muppet Babies. As a kid, it was my favorite thing in anything and a cartoon I watched religiously for many Saturdays.
Purple Rain (dir. Albert Magnoli) I mean, come on. It's like summer '84 is that kid on the soccer team who is secretly a 30-year old professional pretending to be a kid and you're one of the parents being all "Just give one of the other kids a chance! Please?" and the pro won't listen. The big screen debut of the late, great Prince wasn't just another summer movie; it was a total fucking cultural event. The musical performances come alive in a way that once seemed only possible in a live concert setting (or maybe a concert film, which this isn't...at least, not exactly). The album changed the face of pop music and the movie paved the way (for both better and worse) for a specific type of vanity project from singers and rock stars done with an MTV aesthetic. The movie Purple Rain isn't great art, but that doesn't mean it isn't great.
Red Dawn (dir. John Milius) What's a summer without a little paranoid war fantasy courtesy of the great John Milius? This film's greatest contribution to cinema is that it was the first movie released with the PG-13 rating, devised by the MPAA in response to the violence and intensity of both Gremlins and Temple of Doom. But those were released just a few weeks earlier in the same summer! Can you believe how quickly these people had their shit together back then? We're going on more than a decade of texting and rampant piracy and can't make a dent in any of it, but once upon a time a 12-year old couldn't hear the battle cry of "Wolverines!" without a parent or guardian present.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (dir. W.D. Richter) With most of the big blockbusters already out of the way, August of 1984 was freed up for some weirdness. Buckaroo Banzai is very much that weirdness. A kind of pre-fabricated cult film, the movie represents the freedom of early-to-mid '80s genre cinema at its peak -- that period between '82 and '86 when horror and sci-fi and fantasy movies were completely commonplace and made with studio budgets. It is only in this environment that a film like Buckaroo Banzai is even possible. A cast that's impossibly cool -- Peter Weller, Jeff Goldblum, John Lithgow, Clancy Brown, Ellen Barkin, Christopher Lloyd, etc. -- and a plot that includes aliens, time travel and rock and roll make this a movie for advanced students of genre weirdness. That it got a wide release in the summer is further evidence of how special '84 was...as though more evidence was needed.
C.H.U.D. (dir. Douglas Cheek) Might as well close out summer '84 on a high low note. Just because the summer of 1984 was filled with beloved classics, huge blockbusters and family fare doesn't mean there isn't also room for sleazy trash like this. Released on the last day of August, C.H.U.D. did for cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers what Jaws did for sharks. It attempts to be political in the way many exploitation movies of the '50s through the '70s would, indicting both the plight of the homeless and environmental waste (see, the monsters are homeless people turned into man-eating mutants by environmental waste -- politics!), but what makes C.H.U.D. so weird and special (besides its inspired title) is the thick layer of grime that seems to cover everyone and everything in the movie. No shower can possibly get this movie clean.
That's the end of the "Better Than This Summer" for the year. Hope you enjoyed it! I also hope that next year's summer is better than this summer so that I don't have to write this column anymore. Bring on the fall.
Better Than This Summer: Summer 1982
Better Than This Summer: Summer 1990
Better Than This Summer: Summer 1999
Better Than This Summer: Summer 2002