Everywhere movie fans turn this week, they will find a Best of 2012 article. With several of the Oscar-contender crop yet to open in Boston, it feels premature for me to discuss my favorites; after all what if Zero Dark Thirty turns out to be my favorite movie of the year? I could go ahead and close the book 2012 regardless, or I could do nothing, but I’ve written too much nothing for the past few months. Or I could write about something unique and personal.
A debate has raged for years amongst cinephiles regarding whether 1939 or 1962 was the greatest year in cinema history. If you’re a nerd, there is only one answer to this question: 1982. This being the 30th Anniversary of the greatest year in movie-nerd history, it feels like a good time to review a portion of the films that made me glad to have lived through that era. When I say it was a great year for movie nerds, you may assume that I’m thinking solely of genre movies. 1982 offered great genre and non-genre movies, but it was in the area of genre movies that ’82 shaped the generation that would follow. Let’s consider not one or two but five essential sci-fi films: E.T. The Extraterrestrial, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Tron, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and Blade Runner.
If you grew up watching Steven Spielberg‘s E.T. on video, you may not recognize what a juggernaut it was for theatrical audiences. Not only did it usurp the #1 box office champ spot held for 5 years by Star Wars, it took 11 years before E.T. was knocked from his perch. No one was prepared for how popular a simple film about a boy helping a stranded alien find his way home could be. One might expect that after the runaway success of Kenner’s Star Wars toys that E.T. dolls would be in toy stores a month before the movie opened. This did not happen, and when the first doll finally arrived, it was proportionately all wrong. E.T.’s stubby legs were made as lanky as his elongated arms, and his face was more pudgy and cute. When my Mom and I saw that inaccurate doll at Macy’s in Manhattan, a sales lady told us they were flying off the shelves. Kids embraced a substandard toy because it was the only option available. 15 years before throngs of high school girls saw Titanic multiple times to cry together, kids from 8 to 80 cried together with E.T., keeping it in theaters for a year. That was not a typo. Once upon a time when a good movie could last 3 or 4 months in theaters, E.T. played on some screens for an entire year. There was even an ad campaign in spring 1983: “After one year, E.T. is going home!” How does a movie last that long? We needed it. The Gordon Gekko ’80′s were years away, we were still trapped in the Patrick Hale ’80′s. We needed something new and different. We want to believe in magic and care about someone pure and innocent. This “poor bastid who looks like he crawled outta the sea and forget to go back in,” as my Grandma Delaney described him, fit that bill perfectly. I saw E.T. several times with friends, but my strongest memory is seeing it on two consecutive nights with my dad, The Fats. We had taken a road trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. There wasn’t much to do after dinner, especially in a hotel where the only TV was in the lobby, so both nights we went to see E.T. in the one movie theater in town. The first night was like any other movie night. The second night, The Fats had a few extra drinks with dinner, and introduced this pastoral small town bijou to the Times Square tradition of audience participation. No one told him to shut up or complained to management. They were too busy laughing. A few other folks even joined in, with everyone falling silent during the finale. When it was over, a few dozen emotionally exhausted people stood under the marquee with tear-stained eyes and laughing smiles, taking in a magical summer night that would have made Ray Bradbury feel right at home. Show me another movie that folks could laugh with, and then laugh at, and bond with strangers after sharing.
If you’ve seen Nicholas Meyer‘s Star Trek II then you don’t need me to tell you that it is one of the most meticulously crafted genre movies ever made. This was an all too seldom case of the big studio development system doing its job properly, by finding the right people for the movie, and trusting them to do their jobs. Personally I was a fan of the first Star Trek movie in 1979, but many found it too cerebral, or just plain boring. Star Trek II was produced for less than one third of the first movie’s budget, and was a bigger hit, because the story appealed to both core and passive fans. Admiral Kirk and the Enterprise crew do battle with a villain from their past who hijacks a scientific experiment with the intention of using it as a weapon. There was a more compelling tie to the original series than the first film offered to the core fans, and there were themes of family and aging (and ol’ fashioned revenge) that proved more accessible for passive fans than the 2001-esque existential quandary of the first film. I saw it on a rainy opening weekend with my brother Ed and my Mom. The theater was so full that we had trouble finding three seats together. Ed and Mom sat toward the back and I joined some classmates way up front. This may be the hardest I ever heard Ed cheer for a movie, and I was on the opposite end of the theater from him! He wasn’t alone; a moment during the ship battle in the Mutara Nebula is to this day the loudest I’ve ever heard an audience erupt in applause. Was there anything groundbreaking here? Not so much. It was just a conspiracy of cool the likeness of which no other sequel had ever aspired let alone achieved. There is not one thing you can change that would make Star Trek II a better movie; for the film they were making, this was as good as it gets.
Steven Lisberger‘s Tron was only a modest success at the time, perhaps partly due to its being considerably ahead of its time. Science fiction films had given us tales of people shrunken to Gulliver proportions, and further, but Tron was a distinctly ’80′s vision of this story. Jeff Bridges plays a videogame designer whose crowning achievement is stolen from him. When he tries to recover his game, he becomes sucked inside the world of his own creation. A few years after the arcade game Space Invaders ignited the competitive spirit of legions of kids, in the summer that Pac Man and Donkey Kong battled for gamer supremacy, Tron took us more deeply into that world than we’d imagined. The impact of this film is felt more with each passing blockbuster videogame; we have not be able to journey inside a computer as Tron suggested, but we have figured out how to surround a gamer with the game. Comparing contemporary video games to watching Tron in the summer of ’82 is an experience similar to considering your smartphone while watching Mr. Spock use a tricorder on a classic Star Trek episode. In what was a first for me, I read the script for Tron (purchased for $10 at a Star Trek convention) before seeing the movie. When you read Steven Lisberger’s script, you realize the immense imagination that went into the production. As a kid familiar with Atari 2600 and arcade games, I drew from a narrow visual reference as I read the script. The story is all in the writing, but the film’s scope needed to be conjured by people truly capable of seeing the future. This was my first experience reading a script by a director, where you can see that they had the full film in their head, even if it is not all on the page. The perfect creative storm of the uniquely qualified production designer Syd Mead and electronic music pioneer Wendy Carlos pulling out all stops on Lisberger’s story created a world with no precedent, a world every kid wanted to visit. None of us actually thought we could be zapped inside a video game, but damn if we didn’t spend that entire summer in the local arcade, hoping that it could happen. OK, not the entire summer; we needed some time for the movies!
George Miller‘s The Road Warrior was originally released in Australia as Mad Max 2 in 1981. While Miller’s original Mad Max had been successful in Australia and elsewhere around the world, it was mostly relegated to drive-ins and grindhouse dives in the U.S. and Canada. The Road Warrior featured Mel Gibson as an ex-highway cop who becomes a guardian to an outpost of survivors of a nuclear war. The retitling distanced The Road Warrior enough from its source that it seemed especially refreshing to American critics, who embraced the action and gritty tone of this film above just about any other adventure that year. There was even a re-release in January ’83 to give it an extra push during awards season. That push resulted in The Road Warrior winning Best Foreign Film from the L.A. Film Critics Association. From the opening montage sequence, I realized I was in a different world with The Road Warrior. I had seen montage in other films, and recognized some of the images of war and socio-political unrest here, but I had never seen montage so precisely evocative. As my movie education progressed, I understood that this sequence could be traced back to Eisenstein, but this was all new to me. By juxtaposing those famous images with scenes from the first Mad Max film, we see both how the world at large and Max Rockatansky himself came to such a desolate existence. I like Mad Max, but I remain in awe of the opening sequence in The Road Warrior; it is some of the finest editing in a trilogy known for its kinetic editing style. Max helped me define my idea of heroism and bravery. I grew up with Batman and Superman, but Max was something different. Rocky Balboa was my closest comparison, refusing to stay down even as his coach Mickey implores him to let Apollo Creed win their exhibition bout. In later years I learned this was a staple of spaghetti westerns, but Max was one of my earliest experiences with an anti-hero. I had never seen a hero get his ass kicked like Max, and had never seen one keep coming back, more for the benefit of others than himself.
The science fiction film from 1982 that has had the most extensive path from obscurity to quintessence would have to be Ridley Scott‘s Blade Runner. Harrison Ford plays a burned out detective tasked with hunting down 5 cyborgs in 2019 Los Angeles. It barely broke even at the box office, and was largely overlooked by all but the nerdiest of movie goers, but among those nerds it resonated deeply and quickly. Blade Runner is likely the film about which more has been written, studied, and derived from than any other, sci-fi or otherwise, from this year. The impact was seen most clearly in the production design of movies that followed, from Brazil and Batman to Dark City and The Matrix, plus a litany of anime films. Blade Runner‘s grungy and rain-slicked production design, by the way, was created by the same man who made Tron glow in the dark. There is more to this film though; artificial intelligence with this sort of character complexity existed in novels, but never on screen before Blade Runner. Before Bishop and Lt. Cmdr. Data, before Andrew Martin and David, Blade Runner introduced us to the full spectrum of the notion of a robot becoming sentient. The Replicants were fearsome and fearful, vengeful and noble, in short: they had soul. A few days after I first saw Blade Runner, I met up with the friends I saw it with at my school’s football field, waiting for or town’s 4th of July fireworks. I recall being stunned that I was alone in loving this movie. Everyone else liked it, but like most of the nation at the time, they were more focused on E.T. This was my first experience with being certain that I had witnessed something amazing and transformative, even if no one else around me recognized it. I had just seen the first movie that ever made me cry for a villain.
When you look back at what critics dismissed as Big Dumb Summer Fun, you might be surprised by how it stacks up to contemporary Big Dumb Summer Fun. We definitely had some crap, every generation gets their fair share, but most of ’82′s Big Dumb Summer Fun was comparatively impressive. Sequels were nowhere near as ubiquitous as they are now. Among that handful of sequels were the aforementioned Star Trek II and Road Warrior, and the aforementioned Rocky Balboa battling for his title against Mr. T in Rocky III. Mr. T’s electrifying debut made him an overnight star, and a hero to kids, which is all the more impressive given that he played the antagonist. Later in the fall, Sylvester Stallone would introduce us to the beginning of his other notorious franchise with the tight as a drum action thriller First Blood. We also had Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th 3-D, one of the most successful ventures of the brief 3-D revival of the early ’80′s, and William Shatner showing his comedic chops in Airplane II: The Sequel.
Aside from sequels, movies adapted from comicbooks have also become inevitable, but 1982 only gave us two: Wes Craven‘s Swamp Thing and John Milius‘ Conan The Barbarian. George A. Romero and Stephen King also gave us their homage to Max & William Gaines’ EC Comics in Creepshow. If you’re only going to have three comicbook related films, this is a strong collection: all three were dismissed as lurid and violent goofiness, but all were deceptively well made. Roger Ebert not only fawned over Swamp Thing during is initial review with Gene Siskel on their PBS show Sneak Previews, he revisited it later that year during a special episode focused on hidden gems that audiences might have let slip by. Conan the Barbarian kept comicbook fans happy, though it was occasionally derided by devotees of the Robert E. Howard pulp novels that inspired both the comics and the movies. A film aficionado’s reaction might be that Conan’s Hyborian Age is also a perfect canvas for Milius to explore his warrior poet ethos. A movie nerd’s reaction is that Conan the Barbarian is a perfect movie to blaze up a joint and have a few laughs. The Fats took Ed & I to see Conan at the long gone Rivoli Theater on Broadway. Aside from loving the movie, this was also my first encounter with the grindhouse audience participation that made my dad so popular during E.T. in Cooperstown. Much as I loved Conan, it still cracks me up at inappropriate moments, anytime I recall the disciples of Cheech & Chong who sat behind us in the Rivoli. Creepshow, which Ed & I saw with The Fats rather than spending Thanksgiving at the kids’ table with my Mom’s family, is that rare movie that absolutely lives up to its tagline: The Most Fun You’ll Ever Have Being Scared!
Horror was as well represented in 1982 as comicbook films, though two of the finest were remakes. Paul Schrader remade Jacques Tourneur‘s 1942 Cat People with Nastassja Kinski and John Carpenter remade Howard Hawks‘ 1951 The Thing with Kurt Russell. Considering these films together could trigger an interesting debate about sexuality in horror films. Schrader’s Cat People does not amp up the sexiness of the earlier film simply by showing more skin, he blurs the line between human and animal sexuality when his characters encounter their transformations. Tawdry sexy marketing? Maybe, but this also helped this were-cat movie stand apart from a crop of pretty good were-wolf movies in the preceding year. In his adaptation of The Thing, Carpenter chose to do away with the love interest of Hawks’ film, adhering more closely to the original John W. Campbell pulp story. To this day, Carpenter cites this as a mistake, which he feels hurt The Thing at the box office. Success is guaranteed neither by making a film chastened like Carpenter’s nor steamy like Schrader’s. Though I dig both immensely, both barely covered their production cost. The most successful horror film of 1982 is probably also the scariest PG-rated film ever made: Tobe Hooper‘s Poltergeist. Watch Poltergeist again, and you will find it like a book you can’t put down; its pace entices you with what could have been a standard family drama. By the time the supernatural element is introduced, you are already as engaged in the well being of this family as you would have been with the Jarretts or the Kramers.
A few films featuring military characters were amongst the year’s memorable dramas. The other surprising success story of the year besides E.T. was An Officer & A Gentleman. This love story between Navy aviator Richard Gere and smalltown girl Debra Winger took several weeks of word of mouth promotion before it hit #1 in its 6th week of release. Most movies are headed for second run theaters by then, but An Officer & A Gentleman spent most of Fall ’82 vying with E.T. for the #1 spot. I can’t speak for what drew everyone else to it, but I’ll tell you why it hit me like lightning: until then, every movie I’d seen that included nudity or sex made me eager to grow up so I could experience that for myself. This was the first movie I’d ever seen that showed me the responsibility that comes with, and the damage that can come from, relationships if they are not properly cared for. Wolfgang Petersen‘s Das Boot was monumental to filmgoers in general and to me personally. This intense submarine drama achieved what would have previously seemed impossible: it made us despair for WW2 German sailors, and recognize their positions as pawns to a Fuehrer they come to reject. It also made me grow up and start giving subtitled movies a chance. Clint Eastwood took a rare turn away from westerns and cop movies to play an Air Force pilot in Firefox. This cold war espionage thriller was based on the first of four novels. Had it been more successful, it would have been cool to see Clint reprise this shell-shocked character, but Firefox got lost in the same flood that swept up Blade Runner and The Thing.
Aside from stories of men in uniform, 1982 was a helluva year for drama in general. The most game changing, generation defining performances in the acting profession since Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire came via Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice and Ben Kinglsey in Gandhi. Before these two performances an actor could get away with playing another nationality or ethnicity as long as they were charismatic. No longer; after Streep and Kingsley in ’82, an actor will be taken to task if they cannot pull off a convincing accent as well as an emotionally compelling performance. Traditionally outstanding performances in exceptional films, like Jessica Lange in Frances, Paul Newman in The Verdict, or Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek in Missing, or the ensemble from That Championship Season were not enough to be rewarded by Oscar voters that year. Not that this would make them any less compelling, and worthy of your attention, if you have not yet seen them. A comedy-drama for which I have a soft spot, and which seems to have been utterly forgotten, was David S. Ward‘s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. It was not the most faithful adaptation; it is more an adaptation of Steinbeck’s sequel Sweet Thursday, using Cannery Row as backstory. That doesn’t make it a bad movie, just different from its source, and still more faithful than many novel adaptations. The perennially cool Nick Nolte plays an over the hill baseball pitcher who becomes smitten with Debra Winger, the new lady in town, who takes up living and working in a brothel in Depression era Monterey, CA.
1982 was also a strong year for comedy. Despite Jessica Lange losing her Oscar nomination for her dramatic leading role in Frances, her supporting role in Tootsie provided her first Oscar win, and made her the sixth (currently of thirteen) actors to be nominated twice in the same year. Tootsie was loved by most, but reviled by a few, who were upset by Dustin Hoffman‘s character cross-dressing. This was not the only comedy of the year to address gender identity issues, or as some in my homophobic adolescent circle called them, movies that make you gay. Deathtrap gave us Michael Caine wondering aloud if Christopher Reeve was gay, as well as a magnificently underplayed answer delivered later in the film. This answer came as no surprise; I had already seen the Ira Levin’s play of Deathtrap on Broadway with my family. Victor Victoria was a surprise. Blake Edwards‘ masterful farce featured Julie Andrews as a woman pretending to be a man who pretends to be a woman, and James Garner as her suitor, who can’t tell if his affection for her means he is gay. Everything about this movie was so rambunctiously playful and positive that it made me begin to question whether I should be taking my queues about gay people from family and friends who don’t actually know any gay people. John Lithgow’s former football player going through a sex change in The World According To Garp was another well drawn character and fully realized performance that introduced me a larger world than I’d see in standard drama. One of the most successful comedies of ’82 was The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, featuring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds in an adaptation of the Broadway musical. If I had any doubt that the information I was receiving about gay people, cross-dressers, prostitutes or anyone else not on the straight-n-narrow, I need look no further than Porky’s. My male peers were as ignorant about women as the chumps in this guilty pleasure skin-fest, which put their advice in proper perspective, and made me begin reading between the lines on movies a lot more closely.
One of my favorite comedic actors, Richard Pryor, had a great year in ’82. He released best performance film, Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, which also remains the best stand-up comedy film I’ve ever seen. He also delivered one of his finest performances hitting both comedic and tragic notes, as a Vietnam veteran trying to rejoin society after being held for 5 years as a prisoner of war, in the underrated Some Kind of Hero. Anyone who thinks of Lois Lane when they think of Margot Kidder will be impressed by the understated range she shows opposite Pryor as well. Personally I’m not a fan of The Toy, but I’m in the minority; this was one of the most successful films in Pryor’s career.
This was also a year for breakout comedic performances. Eddie Murphy single-handedly turned 48 Hrs from a violent crime drama to an action comedy. Ron Howard shed his apple pie image by directing the year’s third bordello-set comedy Night Shift, featuring his Happy Days partner Henry Winkler and an energetic new lad named Michael Keaton. Though he’d already delivered dramatically the year before with Taps, Sean Penn proved that he was equally adept at comedy with one of the iconic performances of the decade in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. A cast of actors with supporting credits in TV movies-of-the-week (raise your hand if you’re old enough to remember M.O.W.’s!) was turned by Barry Levinson into the most memorable ensemble of the year in the prototype for his Baltimore films, Diner. Making her feature debut in John Huston‘s extravagantly budgeted Annie, Aileen Quinn was hyped as a rising star in celeb magazines, but she chose a different path with her education.
In anything but a breakout performance, Peter O’Toole earned his 7th Oscar nomination for My Favorite Year. In my favorite performance of his career, and my favorite comedy of 1982, Steve Martin cracked wise with Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney and romanced Barbara Stanwyck and Better Davis in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. This deliciously conceived story, and impeccably edited and designed production, is the ultimate valentine to anyone who loves film noir mysteries and gangster movies.
As I mentioned earlier, 1982 was not without its fair share of crap, like the blight on the resume of the underrated Charles Bronson that was Death Wish 2. Somehow, even the crap then was more fun than the crap now. We had vulgar medieval fun like the blades-n-boobs fest The Sword & The Sorcerer and Don Coscarelli’s blatant rip-off of Excalibur, Conan, and the Dungeons & Dragons Handbook The Beastmaster. There was also Larry Cohen‘s Q: The Winged Serpent, which is memorable if for no other reason than that they fired live rounds from an automatic rifle on top of New York’s Chrysler Building. I guess they were counting on the bullets landing safely in the East River. The wacky part is they were firing at nothing; the monster was stop-motion animated in during post-production. Q took the term “guerilla filmmaking” to an absurd extreme. Garry Marshall‘s parody of daytime TV soaps Young Doctors In Love was an even guiltier pleasure comedy than Porky’s,i.e. it is just as vulgar, and even more dumb. Hands down the biggest pile of crap in ’82 has to be MegaForce. If you ever want to see how little you can buy for $20M, or what a movie about elite commandos by way of disco-land would resemble, check out MegaForce.
High art, low art, and no art aside, 1982 also gave us two of the most genre defying oddities ever produced by a major studio: Pink Floyd: The Wall and The Dark Crystal. If you can figure out which paragraph above either of these films would have belonged in, you’re a more decisive fan than I am. In a year full of surprises, a year full of movies that have inspired a myriad of imitators, Pink Floyd’s descent into paranoia and Jim Henson‘s philosophical adventure were such singular experiences that no one has attempted to copy them. There were also movies that I was too young to see at the time, but came to appreciate later: István Szabó‘s Faust-themed Nazi drama Mephisto and Jean-Jacques Beineix‘s wonderfully unpredictable thriller Diva opened in 1981, in German and France respectively, but opened in the U.S. in 1982. It take until just a few months ago before I finally saw Jack Nicholson in one of his lesser known performances in Tony Richardson‘s initially X-rated police thriller The Border. Jack plays a Texas border officer surrounded by corruption and racism, and conflicted by gnawing compassion for those he arrests. Two things immediately struck me about The Border. First if it were released today, times and tastes have changed enough that it would be rated R, and second that it would probably be even more controversial. It didn’t cause much of a stir when it was released, because the X-rating limited the theaters that would show it, and thus greatly limited its audience. With illegal immigration no less a hot-button issue today than it was thirty years ago, this film reaching a wider R-rated audience would elicit some entertaining and frustrating polarized debate. Three decades later, I am still engaged by and learning from the films of 1982.
I used to think that if I ever wrote an autobiography, it would be titled Godzilla Eats Junior Mints, following a gullible moment when The Fats took Ed & I to see Midway when I was 6. After taking a glance at these films, I think an equally viable title might be All I Really Need To Know I Learned In The Movies When I Was Twelve.