“My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” Ronald Reagan brought that oops moment to the world as he tested a microphone before a radio address; later that November Regan won a landslide re-election. That was the peak of the Reagan era. That was 1984.
1984 was, indeed, an unforgettable year! Mary Lou Retton won gymnastic gold and American hearts at the L.A. Olympics. The reining Miss America, Vanessa Williams, was stripped of her title because of a nude photo spread in Penthouse magazine. Madonna became everyone’s “boy toy” with her “Like a Virgin” performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. Marvin Gaye was killed by his father; Bernie Goetz gunned down four muggers in the NYC subway; millions starved in Ethiopia; and Bob Geldoff responded with “Do They Know it’s Christmas Time.” Thousands died in the Union Carbide Corporation disaster in Bhopal, India; and Clara Peller asked, “Where’s the Beef?” Cindy Lauper proclaimed that “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”; Prince let us know what it sounds like “When Doves Cry”; and Tina Turner made a big comeback and asked, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”
Clearly, 1984 was a year of big news, big events, and, thanks to the number one TV show, Dynasty, really of big shoulder pads! But as the ashes of have long since settled, it’s ’84’s hit movies that remain with us and have stood the test of time.
Besides being the year that introduced the first PG-13 movie, (Red Dawn), 1984 was the birth year for a number of hit features that spawned numerous sequels: The Terminator, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Ghostbusters, The Karate Kid, Beverly Hills Cop, and Police Academy. Comedies were probably the most notable feature of ’84. While the year didn’t produce any great American Film Institute darlings as weighty as Citizen Kane, it did, however, release an impressive number of comedies that are still fresh and still freakin’ funny today. Already mentioned are Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, and Police Academy; but also there are All of Me, This is Spinal Tap, Splash, Revenge of the Nerds, and Romancing the Stone.
1984 didn’t just release blockbusters that kept bottom line obsessed studio heads filled with coke and lap dancing blonds, it also saw the release of some lesser known films that have endured to become classics, films such as Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America; Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas; Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. And the cult classics such as John Sayles The Brother from Another Planet, and the NYC cult horror flick C.H.U.D.
1984 saw Regan era teen angst approach its peak, while the John Hughes’ teen classic, Sixteen Candles, solidified Molly Ringwald as the ’80s’ ginger teen queen and—along with Weird Science that same year—shot Anthony Michael Hall to geek teen stardom, as its new nerd on the rise. The Karate Kid taught us to “Wax on, Wax off,” and A Nightmare on Elm Street introduced slasher fans to a terrifying new evil villain, Freddy Krueger, who entered our nightmares and has remained with us nine sequels later. Not only did teen anxiety influence cinema, but also the collective unease of the Cold War, as 1984 released a cinematic Soviet Union invasion of the U.S.A. in cinematographer and director John Milius’s Red Dawn. The first film to receive a PG-13 rating, Red Dawn was perhaps a bit unbelievable but cathartic, and filled with up-and-coming young stars (Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, and Charlie Sheen); it was a definite reaction to the Cold War anxieties of the 1980s.
1984 was a year of movies filled with classic pop music in such films such as Prince’s Purple Rain, which produced an enduring soundtrack that still holds up today. The concert film Stop Making Sense featured the Talking Heads and was directed by a relative newcomer, Jonathan Demme. Beat Street and Breakin’ capitalized on the popularity of break dancing, and Footloose danced into theaters with its MTV look and a soundtrack that garnered six Billboard magazine top 40 hits. Footloose was promoted again and again; each subsequent music video featured clips from the film, and ultimately kept those bottom-line-obsessed studio heads “Dancing in the Sheets,” and laid the foundation for Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
In celebration of that most unforgettable year, I have listed my twenty essential movies of 1984, films that have endured, some that are well crafted, some that capture the spirit of the ’80s—thirty-year-old movies that make us think, sing, dance, scream and, above all else, laugh out loud!
—John David West
David’s 20 Essential Movies of 1984
2. Paris, Texas
10. The Karate Kid
11. Sixteen Candles
15. Purple Rain
20. Police Academy
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