1984 Ten Best Movies

Edson/Balint/Lurie: Stranger Than Paradise

There is nothing Orwellian or particularly sinister about movie year 1984; if anything, the year is notable for the quiet but definitive arrival of the American independent film movement, a tendency that suggested itself many times before (and would get its supposedly official coronation with sex, lies, and videotape in 1989), but is gently confirmed with the arrival of Stranger Than Paradise, the title atop my list.

1984 offered larger movies in every way, but Jim Jarmusch’s road trip – as uncompromising as the severest European art picture, as winning as the mainstreamiest Hollywood offering – is really sort of perfect in its plain, sneaky way. I was at the beginning of my getting-paid-to-write-about-movies career when STP came to Seattle’s Market Theatre in early ’85, and said at the time, “Writer-director Jim Jarmusch has a wanderer’s feel for the road, and he’s got a keen sense of the languid, speechless, awkward moments that make up the time between the conventional movie behavior. Sometimes we will watch people wordlessly watching TV, or driving a car, or sweeping the floor, and somehow Jarmusch makes these things fondly recognizable rather than excruciatingly boring.”

(Note to self: Examine whether “languid, speechless, awkward” constitutes autobiographical authorship.) I guess I haven’t seen the movie in a couple of decades, although I saw it a few times back then, but it’s been with me, the way good movies are; and its depiction of the ultimate destination of all road trips – the blankness of Lake Erie in winter, the eventual sameness of different landscapes – is prescient.

As for the runners-up, Paris, Texas and Year of the Quiet Sun travel a similar road as the #1 movie, Heimat is an amazing long-format TV project that seems to sum up the German national soul in the course of its 15 or so hours, and Stop Making Sense bids fair to be considered the best concert film ever. Choose Me is maybe the most sweetest distillation of Alan Rudolph’s talent, and The Terminator needs no excuses for its ingenuity or moviemaking chutzpah. The ten best movies of 1984:

1. Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch)

2. Heimat (Edgar Reitz)

3. Stop Making Sense (Jonathan Demme)

4. Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders)

5. Choose Me (Alan Rudolph)

6. The Terminator (James Cameron)

7. A Year of the Quiet Sun (Krzysztof Zanussi)

8. Amadeus (Milos Forman)

9. Places in the Heart (Robert Benton)

10. Under the Volcano (John Huston)

The big movies of 1984 were a cut above the hits of other Eighties years; the Oscar-winner was Amadeus, a marvelous Tradition of Quality picture laced with Forman’s stubbornly rebellious spirit, and many of the top-grossing films are firmly in the it-could-have-been-worse category: Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Splash, Star Trek III – enjoyable outings all – plus Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which is the maddest and most inventive of the Indy series. (The year looks pretty good set aside the horrifying hit parade of 1986, a year that suggests Orwell got it wrong by two; alongside that, we can forgive 1984’s attempts to make Steven Bauer and Karen Allen top-shelf movie stars.)

Include in the success stories Places in the Heart, a fine film that has one of the greatest endings ever. And although John Huston’s adaptation of Under the Volcano is strangely stark compared to the novel’s ornate interior monologue, the film finds a haunting, unexpected way into the material, led by Albert Finney’s mighty performance.

Just missing: Once Upon a Time in America (a movie full of great things that I have never quite been able to buy into, even though it made my list back in the day), This is Spinal Tap, Gremlins, After the Rehearsal, The Hit, Tavernier’s Sunday in the Country, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. I like David Lean’s Passage to India although it doesn’t come together in a variety of ways, and the year boasted some small-scale stuff that is almost-ten-best-worthy: Repo Man, Sixteen Candles, Body Double. Pleasant times at the multiplex included Top Secret!, All of Me, Tightrope (one of the early heralds that Eastwood was going rogue), and Starman. Did you notice how Gremlins just got tossed off in a list up there? I mean, Gremlins, people. Any year in which Gremlins is relegated to the also-rans has much to recommend it.