Like most of Continental Europe - which does not have the benefit of central air conditioning - the Pencilstorm offices largely close down during the dog days of August. It was especially bad this year, since Ricki C. took home the Koolerator box fan he brought in from a West Side yard sale and Colin "borrowed" the Kenmore window A/C unit he scored at a St. Agatha's swap meet "temporarily" for his second bedroom and never brought it back.
As such, for the next week or ten days, Pencilstorm will be running a reprint series of our favorite blogs from our regular writers and some of the ringers we've solicited pieces from over the past three years. This is part one:
A Somewhat Organized List of 1980's Comedies - by David Martin
New York magazine did an interview with Steven Soderbergh that's worth reading. Among other things, the director talks about avoiding disaster film clichés ("Can’t show the president. No helicopter shots"), the gentle spirit of the Ocean's franchise, and the darkness of Saturday Night Fever.
Soderbergh's a good dude, and he makes good movies. But he said one thing I disagree with: He called the 1980s a "terrible decade" for American films.
Hmmm... Raging Bull, Blade Runner, E.T., The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Vietnam movies, Aliens and Amadeus—those are some pretty good mainstream movies. Die Hard is arguably the best action movie ever. If you can look past the shoe-sized cell phones and dated eyewear, Wall Street holds up really well.
Comedies, it seems, were especially strong. Now, I was teenager for most of the '80s, and I'm sure that colors my thinking. But if nothing else, comedies of the '80s were more varied than they are today, when everything is basically a variation of Old School (and, to a lesser extent, Office Space). Here's a list of movies I found entertaining and maybe you did, too.
This Is Spinal Tap
One of the amazing things about Spinal Tap was the fact that hard rock had not yet reached the apex of its stupidity. “Big Bottom” preceded “Cherry Pie” by six years.
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life
My first and favorite Coen Bros. movie.
Beverly Hills Cop
Coming to America
I think Cop was the first R-rated movie I saw in theaters. Eddie Murphy was huge.
I met sportswriter Rick Reilly early in my writing career, and he was kind to me. But it was once said of him that he gives off the impression that he wishes he was the guy who wrote Fletch. It was not meant as a compliment. Still, good movie.
A Fish Called Wanda
Lost in America
Both movies feature really funny scenes of Albert Brooks interacting with an older man (the sound engineer, the casino boss) who finds him annoying.
I realized after reading this essay that I’m not a big fan of joke-driven movies. I don’t think I ever paid to see a Naked Gun movie. I’ve never seen Space Balls or Top Secret! But Airplane!? Real recognize real.
The Princess Bride
When Harry Met Sally…
Rob Reiner is the Don Mattingly of directors—a guy with a great peak who couldn't sustain it over the course of a long career.
Yeah, yeah, Tootsie is Dustin Hoffman’s movie. But it looks cool in this list of Bill Murray efforts. The ’90s got off to kind of a rough start for Bill (Quick Change). But by decade’s end he had appeared in several memorable roles: Groundhog Day, Ed Wood, Kingpin and, of course, Rushmore.
In addition to these two successful comedies, The Natural, Eight Men Out and Field of Dreams also came out in the ’80s. Bull Durham loses steam toward the end but is still probably the best sports movie ever.
In this tribute to Run, TV critic Alan Sepinwall notes that it came out within five days of Die Hard. “If those two aren’t the best example of their respective sub-genres, they’re at least in the discussion.” (Sepinwall endorsed Hitless Wonder, by the way.)
National Lampoon’s Vacation
The Breakfast Club
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
I think these are John Hughes’s five best movies. (He wrote but did not direct Mr. Mom and Vacation.) Your list might look different, because he made a lot of good movies. Vanity Fair contributor David Kamp wrote a piece about Hughes after his death that's really sharp. My first real girlfriend and I went to see Ferris Bueller on our first date, I think.
You can see a rough outline of the Beetlejuice character in this obnoxious version of himself that Michael Keaton played in a short film for a prime-time Letterman special.
Pee-Wee's Big Adventure
The Blues Brothers
Roger and MeA documentary, yes, but still funny.
She’s Gotta Have It
Do the Right Thing
Do the Right Thing, Broadcast News and other movies on this list would fall in the "dramedy" category.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Clueless (1995) is an honorary ’80s movie.
James Wolcott’s memoir conveys how fresh and exciting Diner and Blue Velvet were when they were released. I’m with Wolcott in that I felt more “pummeled” than intoxicated by Velvet, but I appreciate its originality.
Hannah and Her Sisters
Crimes and Misdemeanors
“If it bends, it’s funny…”
Planes, Trains & Automobiles
I saw Parenthood with Mike "Biggie" McDermott and others. Toward the end of the movie, when everything’s wrapping up in that Lowell Ganz-Babaloo Mandel way, Biggie whispered, “Gil likes the roller coaster, too.”
Used Cars is essentially an R-rated Bad News Bears. Kurt Russell was a good Elvis, too.
Back to the Future
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Assembling this list, I see that things started to break down a little bit toward the end of the decade. Big and Parenthood are fine in their own right, but they portended the navel-gazing that I associate with comedies of the early and mid ’90s—City Slickers being the archetype. One problem, I think, is that baby boomers were becoming a little too grown-up to work effectively in the genre. Harold Ramis, for instance, was pretty much done after Groundhog Day (1993).
David Martin left the newspaper business before it had a chance to tell him his place in the industry was no longer available. Follow him on Twitter: @david2martin.