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My Favorite Movie Year: 1986

With all the talk about 2007 as a singularly great year for movies, we at The A.V. Club have been discussing among ourselves what years we'd nominate as the best-of-the-best. The A.V. Club's regular film reviewers are offering our individual choices.)

When Keith first broached the idea of writing up our favorite film year, I was positive I was going to end up writing some part of the 1940s. My favorite films are screwball comedies and noirs; the former flourished in the '40s, and the latter were born there. Hitchcock, probably my favorite director, was in high form in the '40s. The women were glamorous, the men were dashing or rakish or hard-bitten, the cinematography was aces, and the banter was terrific. I love films from the '40s. Problem is, as I found out once I started digging, that I only loved a handful of films from any given year. And beyond that was a morass of B-films and lesser-known works and serials that have never made it to DVD, and a vast, embarrassing gap in my film-going knowledge.

So how did I somehow travel from writing about a sophisticated, serious-critic era of black-and-white film and smartly crafted dialogue to defending a year in the heart of the cheeseball '80s, one of the most commercialized, MTV-driven, flash-without-substance eras in American cinema?

Answer: Reluctantly. But honestly. Once I started looking at a year-by-year rundown of releases, I couldn't help but admit that an awful lot of the films I love come from smack-dab in the midst of that cultural wasteland. Sure, the '80s were packed with dross, but it doesn't take much digging to get to the gold. And thanks to the filmmaking boom of the '80s, there's a whole lot of gold to get to.

First, though, it's worth noting that a surprising amount of said dross sits firmly at the top of 1986's box-office charts. Little of the year's top-grossing list withstands the test of even a little bit of time. Top Gun is a hollow style-fest that didn't impress me even back in its heyday. Also depressingly among the year's box-office top 10: Crocodile Dundee? The Karate Kid, Part II? Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home? Back To School? The Golden Child? Ugh. A whole lot of ugh.

So why 1986, already? For one thing, it was generally a year where films were fun. Not capital-G Great, necessarily, but after the anarchy and New Wave stylings of the '60s, the deep-'n'-depressing naturalist classics of the '70s, and even the stripped-down guerilla styles of the no-wave late '70s and early '80s, the selfish, money-happy mid-'80s were more about enjoying yourself at the cinema than anything else.

And there was more cinema to enjoy than ever before, in part because there were more ways to access it than ever before. The rise of multiplexes meant more theaters in smaller spaces, which meant more potential variety, and more specialization of audiences. At the same time, the dropping costs of VCRs opened up new markets in home video, further fracturing audiences by ensuring that every film, no matter how specialized or outré, had a second chance to find its own cult status on video. Which left the '80s as an era without a great cinematic movement to call its own—there was a potential market for almost anything. In 1986, grimy neo-noir like Blue Velvet and Mona Lisa hit theaters alongside shiny teen-pop fluff like the influential, successful one-two punch of Pretty In Pink (written by John Hughes) and Ferris Bueller's Day Off (which Hughes both wrote and directed). Those films shared screen space with adapted stage dramas (the Best Picture nominee Children Of A Lesser God, David Mamet's About Last Night, and Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs), stylish imports (Leox Carax's Mauvais Sang, Alain Resnais' Mélo, Pedro Almodóvar's Matador), less-stylish, meatier imports (Denys Arcand's comedy The Decline Of The American Empire and Andrei Tarkovsky's Sacrifice), and the slowly growing number of non-Disney animated features, like An American Tail and Transformers: The Movie.

Granted, there were attempts to unify the multiplex and home-viewing audience—the '80s saw an increasing attempt to nab big audiences with big, accessible eye-candy blockbusters and with sequel cash-ins on previously successful films. But 1986 was a year of relative sanity—apart from the aforementioned Top Gun and the Star Trek and Karate Kid franchise installments, it wasn't a major blockbuster/sequel year.

It was, however, a year when movies were getting shorter and snappier. Possibly because there was so much going on, possibly because multiplexes wanted to churn people through faster, or possibly because MTV was helping shorten younger viewers' attention spans, mainstream cinema in the '80s tended to be polished, brief (fewer two-hour-plus movies, more 90-minute ones) and stylish. To the degree that there was a major film movement in the '80s, it was about crowd-pleasing genre films, influenced equally by George Lucas' success with the Star Wars series and Steven Spielberg blockbusters like Raiders Of The Lost Ark and E.T. More than anything, 1986 is a heartland of infinitely rewatchable genre/adventure films like Aliens, Highlander, Labyrinth, The Fly, Big Trouble In Little China, F/X, and From Beyond. (Okay, yes, the same rising tide also pooped out Short Circuit, Clan Of The Cave Bear, and Howard The Duck. No year is perfect.)

The same influences—shorter, snappier, more stylized—extended to action films and dramas (Sidney Lumet's The Morning After, Bertrand Tavernier's 'Round Midnight) as well as comedies like Hollywood Shuffle and Down And Out In Beverly Hills. Obviously, not everything was quick and punchy: Directors like Peter Weir (The Mosquito Coast) and Clint Eastwood (Heartbreak Ridge) still continued to follow their personal muses more than their immediate eras.

Nonetheless, there was plenty of room for all sorts of weird stories in 1986. It was a wildly diverse year, one that simultaneously produced dark, stylish personality pieces like River's Edge, Sid And Nancy, Manhunter, Down By Law, and The Hitcher, talky arthouse fare like Woody Allen's Hannah And Her Sisters, and costume dramas like Lady Jane and the medieval murder mystery The Name Of The Rose. It was the year America first really noticed Merchant-Ivory films, thanks to the import A Room With A View, and the year it noticed John Woo, thanks to A Better Tomorrow. The same year saw Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger sexing each other up in Adrian Lyne's tawdry, exploitative 9 1/2 Weeks, and Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene romancing each other with rib-ticklingly silly Ashman and Menken songs in Little Shop Of Horrors. It wasn't so much a year without an identity as a year with an appealingly fractured identity, one trying to be all things to all people, with all sorts of strange cultural detritus piling up around the fracture lines between previously clear-cut genres.

Finally, it's worth noting that 1986 was the year a little startup computer-hardware company named Pixar put out a cute little proof-of-concept computer-animation short called "Luxo, Jr."—starring the little hopping-lamp character that still serves as the company logo. Everything Pixar is began here.

Tasha Robinson's top five of 1986:

1. Made and released the same year, the French saga comprised of Jean De Florette and Manon Of The Spring tells one continuous story and is essentially one film, and a hell of a film at that. Claude Berri's almost unbearably beautiful picture (cinematography by Bruno Nuytten) etches out a morality play in which two cunning French farmers contrive to deprive newly arrived city boy Gérard Depardieu of the spring that feeds his land, hoping he'll go away and leave them to snap up that land for themselves. Over the course of hours, the story sprawls out into an epic of bad choices, poor excuses, and finely calculated poetic comeuppances. It's Shakespearian tragedy in a luscious French setting, with brilliant performances to set it all off.

2. David Lynch already had three films under his belt in 1986 (Eraserhead, Dune, and The Elephant Man) but he truly launched his career in professional weirdness with Blue Velvet, a dread-soaked, moody exploration of the secret horrors lying in wait behind all those suburban picket fences and carefully groomed lawns. Fresh off Dune, a young Kyle MacLachlan kicks off the horror when he finds a severed ear in a field, and follows a trail back to a grown-up world of death, sex, and violent games that threaten to bridge the two.

3. Equally promising but nowhere near as successful, director Tim Hunter peaked early with River's Edge. Had it come a year later, he might have been derided as a Lynch follower, especially given Dennis Hopper's iconic presence; as it is, River's Edge feels more like a dark, bitter echo of early-'80s Brat-Packy angst-fest films like The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo's Fire. A dark, creepy, pervasively despairing examination of alienation among the young, River's Edge follows a pack of high-schoolers (among them, Keanu Reeves and Crispin Glover) as they apathetically react to the discovery that one of their number has killed his girlfriend and left her body lying by the river. And yet the film has a bitterly hilarious edge, delivered largely through baffled deadpan humor.


4. Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki made more vivid, dynamic works later in his career with Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, but virtually none of his films have topped the sweet perfection of Laputa: Castle In The Sky, a family adventure about two children with a secret, on the run from pirates and kidnappers, heading toward a mythical floating island. It's Miyazaki at his best, full of not-quite-villains who show their kinder sides under pressure, and breathtaking setpieces that send the protagonists plunging deep underground and soaring high into the air, in a massive roller-coaster ride that doubles as a gentle love story.

5. Jim Jarmusch continued to redefine independent cinema throughout the decade, with 1984's Stranger Than Paradise and 1989's Mystery Train bookending 1986's Down By Law, a low-key existential character study in which Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni escape from a Louisiana prison, clinging together out of various shared needs, pushing each other away out of frustration and prickly irritation. It's less a narrative film than a beautifully shot cinematic poem—about Louisiana, about companionship, and about physical, personal, emotional, and even linguistic barriers.


True Stories: This bizarre-but-enjoyable travelogue about a fictional Texas town—written by, directed by, and starring Talking Heads' David Byrne—is a must-see, if only for Byrne's straight-faced performance as the traveling narrator, and his weirdly quotable dialogue. Okay, that and all the Talking Heads music. And Jo Harvey Allen as a bubbly self-proclaimed psychic who explains that her powers come from the tail she was born with, which was surgically removed and stored in the medicine cabinet. In a way, True Stories sums up everything of interest in '80s cinema: quirk, of an unpredictable, accessible, but oddly personal kind.

Something Wild: Jonathan Demme's prototypical into-the-night movie reads as a shadow of 1985's After Hours and Into The Night, but it has its own charms, largely in the form of Melanie Griffith's trashy-trixie character.

She's Gotta Have It: Spike Lee's debut feature film earned praise as a turning point in black cinema and independent film–but while it was well-received by critics at the time, the biggest praise came after he made a huge splash three years later with Do The Right Thing, and moviegoers took a step back to look at his previous works. His first feature sums up a lot of the wonderful things about his work–keen observation, stylistic daring, the ability to do a lot on a little budget–as well as some of his most infuriating flaws, particularly his penchant for putting himself into his own films, as the most caricatured and irritating character. But while it's raw and amateurish compared to his later polish, and his Mars Blackmon character really needs to be smacked around the block, it's still an exciting and innovative character study, and a worthy entrance to the field for Lee.

When The Wind Blows: This terminally sad little animated British import looks like it was made on the cheap, but the voice characterizations are so perfect, and the proceedings are so touching that it's hard to fault it. A heartbreaking anti-war film in the spirit of 1988's Grave Of The Fireflies, When The Wind Blows follows two trusting British country types as they dutifully follow their country's instructions and prepare first for a nuclear war they can't begin to understand, and then for their own slow deaths, which they similarly don't comprehend.

Labyrinth: Almost the dictionary definition of a sleeper, Jim Henson's puppet-filled fantasia, led by a young Jennifer Connelly and a prancing David Bowie in very tight pants, flopped at the box office, found a cult fandom at home, and steadily crawled upward from curiosity to classic.

More notable films from 1986:

Top Gun: It's hardly fair to dismiss the year's top-grossing movie ($176 million, according to the IMDB, and that's in 1986 money) with a hand-wave and a grunt, and yet that's pretty much how I feel about it. I can see why people love it, but it does nothing for me.

The Color Of Money: What's way more fun than Tom Cruise in a jet plane? Tom Cruise in a pool hall alongside Paul Newman, in a Martin Scorsese film about an old hustler teaching a young hustler the ropes.

Ruthless People: Another box-office top-tenner for the year, and one I can't really defend critically, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for it. One of the last times I actually enjoyed either Danny DeVito or Bette Midler in a movie. I think it's the Keanu Reeves effect: They aren't necessarily better here than they are elsewhere, but they're so perfectly cast, it passes for quality.

Hoosiers: One of the last underdog-sports films to really capture me, back before I became heartless, cynical, and really tired of the formula.

Peggy Sue Got Married: Having a hard time understanding what Francis Ford Coppola is getting at with his new Youth Without Youth? You could do worse than approach the same ideas from a different direction with Coppola's dramedy about an unhappy housewife (Kathleen Turner) who faints at 43 and wakes up young and caught up in her own past, where she has a chance to make different life choices than she made the first time around.

Stand By Me: One of the more acclaimed (and least gory) Stephen King adaptations on the market, Stand By Me features a group of kids—including Corey Feldman, River Phoenix, and Star Trek: The Next Generation's Wil Wheaton—on a coming-of-age/bonding trip to see a supposed dead body. Also, there are crotch-leeches and an evil Kiefer Sutherland. It's overrated, as far as I'm concerned, but it beats King's other big 1986 project, the trucks-gone-wild horror film Maximum Overdrive.

Still unseen:

I'd feel guiltier about having never seen Oliver Stone's Best Picture winner Platoon a) if I didn't feel like I've seen enough Vietnam films to last me the rest of my life, and b) if I'd mentioned this fact to anyone over the past couple of weeks without getting the immediate response "You aren't missing anything." It made a lot of money and it earned a lot of status, but all the cinephiles around me seem to find it overblown and unworthy. I feel worse about having never seen Ross McElwee's Sherman's March, even though the prospect of a 157-minute documentary, half about the Civil War, half about McElwee's girlfriend dumping him, fills me with a vague sad dread, no matter how terrific Scott Tobias tells me it is. I've somehow perpetually managed to miss My Beautiful Laundrette (even though I'm told Daniel Day Lewis has never been in a bad film) and Roland Joffé's star-studded Best Picture nominee The Mission. Less shaming but still fairly iconic, and on the someday list: Troma's Class Of Nuke 'Em High. Finally, in keeping with my ongoing need to catch up on Federico Fellini, I've missed Ginger & Fred.


Of all the years I researched around the 1940s, the one that stood out most was 1940 itself, the year of The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday (oh, that rat-a-tat dialogue…) Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Fantasia, Pinocchio, The Bank Dick, Gaslight, My Little Chickadee, Our Town, and The Great McGinty. But in the end, I just didn't feel like I'd seen enough of the minor films of the era to pull it off. And if Noel hadn't already tackled 1974, I would have happily ditched the '80s in favor of 1975: Jaws, Dog Day Afternoon, Nashville, Picnic At Hanging Rock, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Love And Death, Three Days Of The Condor, Tommy… Still. I can live with 1986. It made me happy enough as a filmgoer the first time through. No reason I shouldn't stand by it in return.

Tune in next week for My Favorite Movie Year's final installment: Scott Tobias on 1955.

And in past installments:

Noel Murray's thoughts on 1974.

Keith Phipps' thoughts on 1967.

Nathan Rabin's thoughts on 1994.