I’m a pro wrestling fan, and occasionally, instead of the normal one-on-one or even a tag team match, they’ll stick four combatants in the ring and let them fight it out. That is how I’ve decided to conclude this project. We started out back in March 2016 with 84 films, and seven months later we’ve pared it down to four.
The choices made here over these months have been undeniably influenced by my own entertainment sensibilities, but I can assure you that I’ve done my best to be…if I may borrow a phrase…fair & balanced. I’ve given early eliminations to films that I really like, and conversely made other films victorious that aren’t necessarily my cup of tea, all out of respect for undisputable attributes like major awards, significant box office earnings, well-regarded critical praise, & enduring mass appeal. I stayed within a well-defined set of rules, which is why movies like Empire Strikes Back, Field of Dreams, A Christmas Story, & Back to the Future were not included. However don’t doubt my fanboy love for those & many others not involved in this competition.
At the end of the day I believe that we’ve ended up with a fun & interesting trek down memory lane. I’m a movie buff. I like to sit in a darkened theater with a bucket of popcorn or in the comfort of my living room snuggling with Rocco and escape into what our old pal Willie Wonka would call a world of pure imagination. Oh sure…most of us can’t spend too much time doing that. There are bills to pay, families to care for, responsibilities to fulfill, & goals to reach. But every once in a while it’s good & necessary. The 1980’s represent the latter part of my childhood & my teenage years. Life is fairly simple & typically enjoyable for the vast majority of kids, but most don’t appreciate just how truly wonderful that time was until years later, after things have become complicated, loved ones have departed, health has deteriorated, & guilt free fun is a rare commodity. Occasionally though we can temporarily close Pandora’s box and return to those halcyon days. The 80’s were a great era for cinema, and I am happy to celebrate that accomplishment. I hope you have enjoyed reading along.
The Blues Brothers
The Blues Brothers began as a Saturday Night Live sketch in January 1976. They made two additional appearances as SNL musical guests in April & November of 1978. Of course the band’s leaders…Joliet Jake & Elwood…were portrayed by SNL cast members John Belushi & Dan Aykroyd. Like so many other SNL skits that have followed in the ensuing decades an idea was hatched to evolve the characters into a movie. Aykroyd wrote the screenplay and John Landis was hired to direct. Belushi & Aykroyd formed an actual band with real & accomplished musicians, and The Blues Brothers released their first album, Briefcase Full of Blues, in 1978. Belushi had also become a movie star in 1978 after his role in Animal House (directed by Landis), and left SNL in 1979 along with Aykroyd. The film was released on June 20, 1980. The story follows Jake, upon his release from prison, and Elwood, as they put the band back together to raise money for the orphanage in which they grew up. If you are curious why a religious organization owed back taxes, well, at the time there was a proposed law in Illinois that would have stripped such entities of tax exempt status, so I suppose Aykroyd took that idea and ran with it. It’s a movie full of great music, memorable quotes, numerous car crashes, iconic imagery (dark sunglasses & fedoras), & a ton of cool cameos that modern youngsters might not understand but were awesome back in the day. Critics really liked it and it was the 10th highest grossing film of 1980. Did you know that The Empire Strikes Back was released less than a month earlier?? Heavy competition indeed. Anyway, more than thirty years later The Blues Brothers is still shown on television with some frequency, something that I consider to be somewhat of a hallmark of greatness. The Blues Brothers won the Tubular Division by defeating European Vacation, The Big Chill, When Harry Met Sally, & The Breakfast Club. That last result is probably considered a controversial upset by some, but the decision is final.
Dead Poets Society
Citizens of The Manoverse know that I am a huge Robin Williams fan, and while he was mostly known as a stand-up comedian and the star of some really funny comedy films (Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Birdcage), he was equally accomplished in dramatic roles (Awakenings, One Hour Photo, Insomnia). He won his only Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actor, in 1997 for playing a quiet, introspective therapist in Good Will Hunting. By far my favorite dramatic Robin Williams movie is Dead Poets Society. It was released on June 2, 1989 and was the 10th highest grossing film of that year. Critics liked it very much. Williams stars as Professor John Keating, the new English teacher at a stodgy New England boarding school in the late 1950s. Keating isn’t your normal uptight teacher, and his methods & perspective on life inspire a group of students, who do some research and find out that Keating was a bit of a rebel even as a student. He attended the same school as a youth and was a member of a secret organization called the Dead Poets Society. The boys decide to revive that club and also use the things they’ve learned from the professor as encouragement to take some chances and rebel against the expectations of the school & their parents. When things don’t go well for one of the youngsters after he stands up to his domineering father the lad commits suicide and Professor Keating loses his job. It sounds much more depressing than it is…trust me. Dead Poets Society isn’t on TV as much as fans might prefer, but I understand. It isn’t the sort of silly comedy or mindless action flick that folks tend to enjoy during a lazy weekend. Even with some trademark comedic flourishes from Williams it is a serious film that some might consider kind of a downer, especially toward the end. But even without as many repeat viewings as a lot of other films discussed in 80’s Movie Mania I still have a deep fondness for Dead Poets Society. Perhaps it is the enchanting presence of Williams. Or maybe it’s the academic setting where people are learning about, discussing, & enjoying poetry & Shakespeare. I suppose the fact that it is a tale chockful of deep thoughts about life is appealing as well. Dead Poets Society topped the Radical Division, defeating The Naked Gun, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, & This Is Spinal Tap to get here.
National Lampoon’s Vacation
There have been five films in the Vacation series, but only two have really retained any lasting appeal. We’ll discuss the other one next Christmas, but for now this is the original, the one that started it all. Released on July 29, 1983, the script was written by John Hughes based on a short story called Vacation ’58 that he’d written for National Lampoon magazine in 1979. The story is available to read online, and while it is amusing and many of the broad strokes are retained in the film, what we ultimately get to enjoy onscreen is much funnier and less…intense. Harold Ramis, who many will remember as Egon Spengler in Ghostbusters or Russell Ziskey in Stripes, directed. He had previously directed Caddyshack and written the screenplays for Animal House & Stripes. Of course the star of the movie is Chevy Chase, who plays Clark Griswold, a sincere yet clueless husband & father who just wants to drive his wife & children from Chicago to California for a fun time at America’s favorite amusement park Walley World. As with any road trip flick there are adventures, mishaps, & quirky characters along the way, leading to a fairly surprising conclusion that admittedly does seem out-of-date in the Internet Age. Vacation was the 11th highest grossing film of 1983, and received solid reviews for a “screwball comedy”. It bested Stand By Me, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, & Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to win the Bodacious Division. Despite its outdated final act Vacation has retained significance on the pop culture landscape more than thirty years after its initial release. It seems to be shown on television with some frequency, and the fact that the series was rebooted (with Ed Helms portraying middle-aged Rusty Griswold and cameos by Chase & Beverly D’Angelo) just last year proves its lasting popularity. The humor is accessible to a wide target audience and can be enjoyed by multiple generations.
I’m a big fan of parody & spoof films. Parody is derived from the Greek word paroidia, with para meaning “side by side” or “parallel to” and oide meaning “song”. A parody is a work that imitates the style of an earlier work, usually in a humorous manner. The Scary Movie franchise pokes fun at the Scream movies. The Naked Gun movies make fun of cop shows & films. The Austin Powers trilogy parodies James Bond. Spaceballs is a comedic ode to Star Wars. You get the idea. Parody films go all the way back to the 1930’s when Abbott & Costello did a number of movies that were a comedic take on monster flicks of that era. Then in the 70’s there was stuff like Blazing Saddles, a parody of westerns, and Young Frankenstein, yet another funny monster movie. Airplane! was released on July 2, 1980 (just a couple of weeks after The Blues Brothers) and parodies disaster flicks, which had been quite popular in the 70’s (The Swarm, Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, etc.). It is an odd remake of a 1957 film called Zero Hour!, a film most of us have probably never heard of much less seen. Airplane! was the 4th highest grossing movie of 1980. Hindsight being 20/20 it is understandable that The Empire Strikes Back topped that year, but how in the world 9 to 5 and Stir Crazy made more money than Airplane! is mind boggling and a testament to the popularity of Richard Pryor and…Dolly Parton (???). Anyway, the casting director deserves special kudos for choosing erstwhile tough guys Robert Stack, Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, & Lloyd Bridges to star in deadpan comedic roles. It was a masterstroke. The writers too must be praised, as not only does the movie spoof the disaster genre, but it does so with such a plethora of amazing dialogue, funny cameos, & hilarious sight gags that Airplane! practically demands repeat viewings. Critics have loved the film since it came out nearly forty years ago, and it continues to be shown on television with some degree of regularity. Airplane! has thus far defeated Beetlejuice, Top Gun, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, & Uncle Buck.
Dead Poets Society
As much as I love Robin Williams the fact is that, compared to the competition, I don’t know that this is a film that has resonated with the masses nearly as much. I’m not at all sure that many of my friends or family would immediately choose Dead Poets Society as one of the greatest films of the 80’s. I think it appeals to a certain demographic and I just happen to be in that group. It isn’t repeated on television all that much, and I believe that is because most folks, when channel surfing on a rainy day, gravitate toward comedies or action films. Dead Poets Society is probably a bit too erudite to be a cult classic. Perhaps that is an indictment of our culture and/or our education system, but it is what it is.
National Lampoon’s Vacation
Two strikes go against Vacation. First of all, many would agree that it might not even be the most beloved film in its own series. Secondly, because of the ending it doesn’t hold up as well as one would hope. Younger viewers probably watch it and think “Why didn’t they just go online and see that Walley World was going to be closed??”. Is it fair to hold that against the film since The Internet obviously didn’t exist in 1983?? Probably not. As a matter of fact I suppose some might say that the fact marks it as representative of the very era this competition purports to celebrate. Trust me…I rolled all of that around in my head. But at the end of the day if I’m splitting hairs I have to admit that I lean toward the ending, as funny as it is, being a mark against Vacation’s longevity.
The Runner Up
Here’s the problem with parodies/spoofs. Much of the humor comes from the audience’s familiarity with the source material that is being mocked. I love Airplane! yet I have never seen Zero Hour!, the original film from which it is derived. I’d probably appreciate the spoof even more if I’d watch the original. Not only that, but I wonder how many people, in 2016, have seen any of the disaster flicks that are also being parodied?? How many people these days are familiar with Peter Graves’ role in Mission: Impossible, Robert Stack in 1960’s TV show The Untouchables, Lloyd Bridges in Police Story, or Leslie Nielsen’s work in Forbidden Planet & The Poseidon Adventure?? Many of the jokes in Airplane! are dated references, like cameos from Ethel Merman & Leave it to Beaver’s Barbara Billingsley. We still laugh because it’s all so very silly, but many younger viewers would laugh even more if they knew why certain things are funny. I’m splitting hairs again…obviously…but that’s what happens when it gets down to separating greatness from greatness.
80’s Movie Mania Champion
The Blues Brothers
It’s repeated on television a lot for a movie that was released nearly forty years ago. It is SO quotable. It has great music. Even if the blues isn’t necessarily your thing you’ll enjoy the tunes in this film. Much like Airplane! some of the cameos are a bit passé, but it’s atleast a draw on that point. Belushi & Aykroyd are fantastic. A sequel, called Blues Brothers 2000, was made in 1998, but of course John Belushi had died 16 years earlier so, as talented as John Goodman is, the magic just wasn’t there. When I was in college our fraternity had a traditional dance/chant thing we did using the song Gimme Some Lovin’. Now that song was written by Steve Winwood and originally recorded by the Spencer Davis Group in 1966, but our inspiration was the awesome Blues Brothers cover. Back then I’d occasionally see guys don the famous dark sunglasses & fedoras. It’s little things like that that help a film endure so that it can be enjoyed by new generations. This is a movie that has stood the test of time. It isn’t deep. It doesn’t challenge one’s mind or elicit reflection on values, philosophy, or a person’s moral compass. It’s just great fun, and when judged against modern standards of acceptability it is remarkably devoid of sex, violence, & profanity. You can watch The Blues Brothers with your children and not only will they not be corrupted by much depravity, they might actually develop a taste for good music. What a bonus!!