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.

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9 Responses

  1. Repo Man is still a great film.

  2. Have you seen the 229-minute cut of Once Upon a Time In America? The version commonly available in 1984 was, of course, the 139-minute butchering. I can’t remember which critic it was, but there was a notable critic who called it one of the worst films of 1984. But when he saw the restored cut a few years ago, he then had to concede it was one of 1984’s best.

    I’ve only seen the restored cut myself, but I can see where that critic was coming from. The movie is so loose on story but tight on tone that I can’t imagine either angle surviving getting chopped nearly in half.

    A few of my 1984 favorites that missed a mention here: The Killing Fields, Bizet’s Carmen, Threads, Blood Simple, and Broadway Danny Rose.

    • I have seen both versions more than once, and the cut one is a mess; the full version restores the grandness. But there is something at the center of that movie that doesn’t cohere for me (and I would also say that on the level of casting, it really presents problems, almost all the way across the board). I admire the full version greatly, and it does come in at #11, but that’s where it stays.

      Just watched Broadway Danny Rose again recently, and like it a lot. There were three Carmens that came out in short order back then (Francesco Rosi’s opera film, Carlos Saura’s flamenco version, and Jean-Luc Godard’s Prenom Carmen), all of which are exciting movies with compelling lead performances from their actresses.

      As for Blood Simple: I go on about the madnesses of the dating of modern movies elsewhere in these lists. Blood Simple seems to have played only at festivals in ’84, then properly opened in 1985. So I stuck it on the ’85 list. But don’t get me started on that.

      • Aargh! That bugs me, too. Okay, so I’d consider that a 1985 film too, then.

        Rosi’s version was the Carmen I was referring to. I haven’t seen the others, but now you’ve piqued my interest.

  3. This is a nice list, and I love this line on STP: “as uncompromising as the severest European art picture, as winning as the mainstreamiest Hollywood offering.”

    A couple of other highlights I’d throw in: L’Argent, A nos Amours, A Summer at Grandpas, and my sentimental favorite Purple Rain.

    Though I’m not with you on the second Indiana Jones–other than the opening reel, I think it’s much weaker than 1st and 3rd entries in the franchise.

  4. My two-penn’orth: it’s Blood Simple (1984), not Blood Simple (1985), so the film should be included in this list. Easier all round to use the date of first premiere, not of first commercial release. Otherwise we end up with absurdities like Killer of Sheep (2007)…

  5. I have a lot of time for Stranger’s Kiss, Love Streams and Secret Honor. Roland Joffe never managed it again but I think The Killing Fields is the towering achievement of the year.

  6. Grotesquely enough, even the historical integrity of the Oscars (a hypothetical notion) has been compromised by commercial openings lagging behind festival sightings. Two recent “Best Pictures” were showcased at the Toronto Int’l Film Festival the year before the one they’d officially rule: Crash and The Hurt Locker. The time is out of joint indeed.

  7. The time-lag thing is part of my problem. The Hurt Locker has an official 2008 vintage, and obviously there are a number of festival-goers who saw it in that year. For everybody else, including me, the movie was part of the life-rhythms of summer 2009 – it was seen, talked about, written about, “happened” at that moment. You might say its zeitgeist was echt-2009. (I probably would say that.) And for list-makers, there was no way Hurt Locker could go on a list for year-end newspaper accounting, or a magazine poll, or something, in December 2008, unless you’d happened to be part of the community that makes the rounds of festivals. Ten years from now, looking back, we will see that IMDb has Hurt Locker as an official 2008 movie, and who can argue? But I had to make up some rules for my project here, and this is what I came up with.
    Killer of Sheep is an especially good argument point (and it’s my #1 of 1977), and it would be absurd to count it as “best of 2007,” or even “best of 1981,” which is IMDb’s first festival listing for it. But in those cases the rules will be bent by the whimsies of the blogger-in-question.

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