The Screening Meemies

Judd Nelson? Howard the Duck? The Eighties weren't exactly the best years of our lives

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. The best if you were selling tickets; the worst if you were buying them.

And now, only one question remains. Will film historians of the future refer to this as "The Heaven's Gate Decade," "The Ishtar Decade," or "The Howard the Duck Decade"?

If it comes to a vote, I'm going with "The Judd Nelson Eternity."
I know. If you placed all the movies of any 120-month period back to back, you'd see a curve in quality. But this collection had more short, jerky climbs and long, sudden drops than a roller coaster.

The first hair-raising fall was made by Michael Cimino's 1981 botch job, Heaven's Gate. And the implications of Cimino's failure extended well beyond the folly of United Artists, which allowed a $12 million budget to bloat somewhere over the $40 million rainbow. What UA bought was the only motion picture in history ever to scuttle an entire studio.

Mostly, the Eighties were a downhill scream from there: an endless barrage of celluloid cowchips so vacuous, fatuous, miscalculated and/or outrageously popular that they sapped your enthusiasm for the movies. If they didn't, well, you must have been among those who couldn't get enough sequels, remakes, rip-offs, sci-fi fantasies, teen sex, urban vigilantes, one-man armies, faceless psychopaths, baby comedies, cop dramas and odd couples. Lots of odd couples. Of all shapes, sizes, sexes, races, species and intergalactic types.

Optimists look at the full curve of the Eighties and spot some happy trends. It's been three years since the last Cheech and Chong movie, for example; six since the last Smokey and the Bandit; five since John and Bo Derek's last embarrassment, and five since Sly Stallone turned a domestic dime.

But really, how far did the art progress? The most stirring event of the decade was the reissue of Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean's 1962 classic restored to its original, 70-millimeter glory. Two close runners-up were the revivals of Abel Gance's silent 1925 epic, Napoleon, and John Frankenheimer's 1962 thriller, The Manchurian Candidate.

Whenever you hoped a serious new American film would save the day, it was almost always a hope aborted. Most seemed manufactured, instead of crafted out of the need to tell a certain story a certain way. Others tackled ugly, real-world truths, then misrepresented the facts to make their points (Cry Freedom and Mississippi Burning among them).

When it was discovered there was money to be made by dredging up our collective memories of Vietnam, we were dredged on a semiweekly basis. Yet only Oliver Stone's Oscar-winning Platoon seemed to contribute anything lasting or substantive to the debate.

Although the Hollywood hype machine clanged at peak volume, it brought only trickles of curiosity business to such bloated "events" as Buck Rogers, Annie, Dune, Enemy Mine, and The Abyss.

Meanwhile, many of the decade's top moneymakers came straight from the blue.

No other movie had the popular impact of E.T., which Columbia dropped and Universal reluctantly acquired. Steven Spielberg completed the 1981 film for about $10 million, a paltry sum for a major studio production shot in Los Angeles. But by the end of its first year in release, E.T.'s domestic gross approached $820 million. And after foreign sales, merchandising, a theatrical reissue, and a killer video debut are included? Only Amy Irving's divorce lawyer knows for sure.

Spielberg has already emerged from the decade as our most popular, powerful and influential filmmaker. But what of our great and innovative filmmakers?

Oh, they were around, ducking the hyperinflation, specializing in films that were small-scale, singular, literate, and without precedent.

There was John Huston, bouncing back and forth between comebacks with Wise Blood, Prizzi's Honor, and The Dead, a most elegant swan song. There was Woody Allen, bouncing from failed drama to the seriocomic highs of Hannah and Her Sisters, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Crimes and Misdemeanors. There was Martin Scorsese, whose Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, and The Last Temptation of Christ have landed on a number of early top-o'-the-decade lists.

If the best films of these ten years proved anything, they underlined the power of words. And in a great many cases, those words came from writer- directors: Allen, John Sayles, David Lynch, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Agnes Varda, Oliver Stone, James Brooks, Steven Soderbergh, Barry Levinson, Alan Rudolph . . . all double hyphenates who learned that the only way to protect their words is to escort them onto the screen.

If there was additional handwriting on the studio walls, it was boldly scribbled by films like sex, lies and videotape and Kiss of the Spider Woman, which reflected the increasing importance of independent films and the rise of small, nurturing distributors who understood the urgency of guiding "little" films to their audiences.

Here in Phoenix, we saw a few more exhibitors break from the mainstream (if only now and then during the off-season). As videocassettes were changing the moviegoing habits of millions, it was nice to be given the chance to line up for films we didn't want to watch on TV.

Of course, the real challenge of "The Judd Nelson Eternity" was finding movies that were worth watching anywhere. From that frighteningly short list--and a very personal viewpoint--these were the ten best films of ten very long years:

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