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30 Years Later: Ranking The Movies Of Summer 1984

by The Playlist Staff
June 5, 2014 3:36 PM
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Friday, June 8th, 1984 was quite a day. Homosexuality was decriminalized in New South Wales, Australia; an F5 tornado struck the town of Barnevald, Wisconsin, USA, destroying 90% of it; President Ronald Reagan attended a summit in London; the Celtics beat the Lakers 121-103 to take a 3-2 lead in the NBA finals; TV gameshow “Press Your Luck” paid out the biggest ever jackpot (to that point) of $110,000 to one Michael Larson who had figured out how to beat the system; and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time was poised to knock Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It For The Boy” off the Billboard Charts number one spot. Oh, and modern classics “Ghostbusters” and “Gremlins” were both released.

Coming just the week after “Once Upon a Time in America” hit screens, while “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” was still in cinemas and followed a fortnight later by both “The Karate Kid” and “Top Secret!” people of a certain age and penchant for nostalgia are tempted to look back on that year and sigh, “what a vintage summer that was!” and “they don’t make summers like that anymore” etc etc. And so, intrepid reporters that we are, we decided to investigate: was the summer of “Ghostbusters” and “Gremlins” truly some sort of epochal moment, a confluence of greatness, a crossing of the streams, if you will, of film history?

Well...not so much. For every unforgettable classic, there was a stinker and for every stinker there were two middling efforts largely lost to the mists of time. But there’s no doubt that summer 1984 did straddle the highs and lows of cinematic achievement in quite a spectacular manner, which made us curious to go back and look at it all all over again. So here, ranked from worst to best, in terms of which belong in the dustbin of history and which will shine on through posterity, is every major release from that summer season (defined as always as the first Friday in May through Labor Day, which in 1984 fell on September 3rd). So dust off your Slinkys, prepare for a little body popping and take our hand as we dive headfirst into the spinning 80s graphic that denotes a time tunnel, to emerge 30 years in the past, blinking into the sunshine of summer 1984.

35. “Bolero” (August 31st)
An attempt to revive the career of Bo Derek, who’d leapt to fame in 1979 as Dudley Moore’s co-star in “10,” as directed by her husband John Derek, “Bolero” is a dismal softcore romance, a sort of film version of a housewife paperback bonk-buster about a virginal boarding school graduate who sets out on a worldwide tour in order to find the perfect lover for her first time. Both conservative and sleazy, it was mostly notable for being released without an MPAA rating, for causing a fall-out between producers Cannon and distributors MGM, and for being absolutely fucking terrible.

34 “Cannonball Run II” (June 29th)
1981’s all-star road-race pic “Cannonball Run,” a Burt Reynolds-toplining blend of “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World” and “Wacky Races,” wasn’t exactly much cop, but it proved to be an absolute bona-fide smash, the sixth biggest of its year. As such, a sequel was inevitable, but somehow director Hal Needham turned out something that made the original look like “Nashville.” It’s essentially a retread of the first movie, with a few more star cameos (Shirley MacLaine, Telly Savalars, Ricardo Montalban, Don Knotts, Jaws from James Bond, the monkey from “Every Which Way Is Loose”), but otherwise coming off as deeply half-assed. The film proved to be the last on-screen appearances for Dean Martin (returning from the original) and Frank Sinatra (reunited with his old pal for a cameo), and it’s hard to think of a more ignoble way to end a film career.

33. "Best Defense” (July 20th)
In theory, a movie starring Dudley Moore, star of megahit “Arthur,” and Eddie Murphy, who’d go on to lead 1984’s biggest hit “Beverly Hills Cop,” should have been massive. But instead, “Best Defense,” is a dire military satire penned by George Lucas pal and “American Graffiti” co-writer Willard Huyck that sees Moore as a tank designer and Murphy as the commander of said machine during an eerily prescient war in Iraq a few years later. In fact, Murphy wasn’t initially in the film: test-screenings of the Moore-only version were so disastrous that Paramount threw their new darling a truckload of cash to shoot for a few days to liven things up. It didn’t work, and Murphy later dissed the film while hosting 'SNL', calling it “the worst movie in the history of everything.” That’s probably unfair, but not by much.

32. “C.H.U.D.” (June 10th)
Does the title stand for “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller” or “Contamination Hazard Urban Disposal” is just one of the many questions you won’t care enough to ask of this deeply dull horror. Starring John Heard and Daniel Stern, “C.H.U.D” tells the story of a government conspiracy to bury nuke-u-lar waste beneath Manhattan, which then mutates some of the city’s underground homeless population into ravenous cannibals resembling spongy knock-offs of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Which could in itself be fun, but the budget is so low here that the vast majority of the film is actually just people talking, ever-so-slowly piecing together the mystery of these terminally unfrightening monsters. In fact the film’s main claim to fame now is that it was chosen by those wacky japesters at the Criterion Collection as the subject of a joke release announcement on April Fools Day, something its inexplicable “cult” following made oddly plausible. And yet not.

31. “Breakin’” (May 4th)
The other, and lesser, of 1984’s two breakdancing “classics,” (after “Beat Street”) the ropy acting and hamfisted storytelling of “Breakin’” make any moment when the protagonists aren’t dancing pretty unbearable. But the dancing is good, largely due to the presence of non-professional dancers like Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers and personalities such as Ice-T (in his debut), both of whom were imported to this narrative film directly from the German breakdancing documentary that inspired it, “Breakin’ and Enterin’” (in the 80s, nothing was cooler than droppin’ that last ‘g’). So go for the dance-offs but be warned, the threadbare plot in which a nice white girl teams up with the street dancers and, yawn, wins their respect with her awesome moves is, in Ice-T’s own words, “wack.”

30. “Sheena” (August 17th)
A contest between which of “Sheena” and “Bolero” is more in thrall to the physical charms of its leading lady would be too close to call, but the also just-fucking-awful “Sheena” gets held off the very bottom spots because of some pretty Kenyan landscape photography and the occasional unintentional hilarity of its lady-Tarzan vibe. But not too far, because the bland blonde Tanya Roberts becoming Queen of a tribe of Magical Negroes is exactly as idiotic and racist as it sounds, as comic book creation Sheena, aided by her allies the animals and hunky smitten TV reporter Vic (Ted Wass) stops an evil Prince from strip-mining her tribe’s land. When it’s not stupid, it’s boring, and when it’s neither it’s about as convincing as Sheena’s favorite mode of transport: a zebra that is very obviously a horse that’s been painted to look like a zebra.

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  • Jackie | August 17, 2014 9:11 PMReply

    I get that "Temple of Doom" and "Gremlins" got the bump cuz they helped create the PG13 rating, but I'm not personally a fan of either. Heck, "Purple Rain" wasn't the best made film, but I'd have put it on the front page personally :P Just because it had a kick-ass soundtrack and it was such a pop culture phenom.

  • todd | June 21, 2014 8:32 PMReply

    Pretty unforgivable to leave out the Neverending Story.

  • RobThom | June 18, 2014 10:17 AMReply

    The first two pages had some oddities (Rhinestone higher then Breakin'),
    but Streets of Fire above Purple Rain is where you disappeared up the proverbial butt.

  • Jerry The Bookie | June 11, 2014 12:52 PMReply

    Well, I apparently forgot just how bad the Summer of 1984 was... I'd have to go with Purple Rain, The Natural and The Karate Kid... wow those are some bad movies, I wonder if any will even make my soon to be release list of greatest movies I've ever seen... thinking probably none make the cut. Bolero... ha ha... still trying to remember what theater had that playing on Friday for release, but actually pulled it on Tuesday, not allowing it the full first week run... too funny.

  • cory everett | June 9, 2014 1:44 PMReply

    Haaaaaated OUATIA.

  • Andrew Miller | June 8, 2014 8:15 PMReply

    and Pope of Greenwich Village, Meatballs II, Woman in Red, Making the Grade, Neverending Story, Corsican Brothers and Electric Dreams.

  • Andrew Miller | June 8, 2014 8:14 PMReply

    left out Cloak & Dagger

  • olivia hynes | June 7, 2014 6:58 AMReply

    thats my boy!!!

  • It Sure Is | June 9, 2014 7:11 PM

    It sure is!

  • vp19 | June 6, 2014 8:52 PMReply

    I was going to ask, "Where is 'All Of Me'?". a brilliantly crafted, Thorne Smith-style fantasy comedy from Carl Reiner starring a then-seemingly restrained Steve Martin and the delightful Lily Tomlin, as I recall seeing a flyer promoting the film that summer on a bridge at the University of Minnesota.

    Then I checked IMDb and discovered it wasn't released until Sept. 21.

  • loudrockmusic | June 6, 2014 6:24 PMReply

    Sixteen Candles gives me LIFE every day. From quotes to arguing about the original score in the opening sequence (it's different for broadcast), it is definitely my favorite Hughes movie.
    Top Secret! also had a big impact on what I think is funny, how to tell a joke, and how to pick up on little things in a movie. I watched it again a few days ago. I watch it on Netflix a lot, actually. I also have a copy of the soundtrack on LP. I listened to it more when Netflix wasn't streaming it. I've had that record for years, though. I just smile to myself when I think of the cow wearing boots or "I see. Let me know if his condition changes......He's dead." Ha ha! Oh, and Val Kilmer! I didn't know that was his first movie! We were all so young then.
    Oh! Listen to me carrying on! Sorry. Later!

  • LA2000 | June 6, 2014 6:14 PMReply

    I worked at a movie theater from January 1982 until August 1986, and as wild as the summer of 1984 looks, nothing in my mind beats the craziness that went down in the 4 short weeks between Memorial Day 1982 and the third weekend of June that year - "Rocky 3", "Star Trek 2 Wrath of Khan", "Poltergeist," " ET," "Blade Runner," "John Carpenter's 'The Thing" - it was hard to pick a bad movie, even if you just picked at random ( "Grease 2" and "Annie" were the duds during that period, so it was possible to pick a bad one, but not likely...)

    And talk about legs: "Rocky 3" and "ET" played the entire summer with "ET" remarkably continuing to sell out every weekend for the first 3 months of release with a run did not ultimately wrap up at our theater until we finally needed to free up screens for the Holiday movies that started arriving the third week of NOVEMBER!

    Imagine that happening today.

  • Gary Palmucci | June 6, 2014 11:50 AMReply

    Folks, what about Repo Man?

  • skierpete | June 6, 2014 8:13 AMReply

    Thanks for bringing back memories. I was 14 and I think I saw at least 20 of the movies on your list in theaters. I remember me and a friend did a movie marathon day where we saw 4 movies in one day. Pretty sure they are all on your list. I know it was Star Trek III and Temple of Doom on that list, pretty sure a third one was Ghostbusters, don't remember the fourth. I saw Temple of Doom 11 times in theaters that year (mostly at the local $1 theater), which will probably forever be the most I will ever see any movie in the theaters. Never liked that this movie was dissed by so many, including Speilberg and Lucas. Doesn't match the near-perfection of the first, and Kate Capshaw grates at times, but it is SOOOO good.

    Another memory of that summer, going to see Ghostbusters the first time not really knowing what to expect and loving it. And particularly the scene when Rick Moranis' character is being attacked by the "devil dog" in Central Park, his backs against the wall, and sitting in the theater you heard the dog growling BEHIND you. Yes, with home theaters and surround sound in every theater this is the standard, but at the time, I had never heard such sound separation in a movie theater, such that to this day the memory of that moment still sticks in my head.

  • MUNIER | June 6, 2014 1:49 AMReply

    "Streets of Fire" was my shit! Pare' flipping the butterfly knife in the trailer; "Deeper and Deeper" by the FIXX! I cut class to see it opening day!

  • Dangelo | June 5, 2014 10:24 PMReply

    The first half of Once Upon...was great then it fell apart. So not #1

  • Dave | June 5, 2014 5:19 PMReply

    Did I miss Terminator on this list?

    If I didn't... then you did.

  • tangy | June 5, 2014 5:42 PM

    Terminator released October 26th. This is a list of summer movies.

  • Read | June 5, 2014 5:39 PM

    Our did you MISS that it was about the SUMMER of 1984 and the Terminator came out in October?

    Hmm... i guess... then you did.

  • Jason | June 5, 2014 4:40 PMReply

    Incredible how many fairly high-profile (if not always good) movies were still being released back then. Hollywood has really slowed down.

    Couple things. "Volcano" was not Huston's penultimate film--"Prizzi's Honor" came after it (and then came "The Dead"). And the characterization of "The Natural"'s plot as "silly" and exposing the "dated" novel that is its source material makes me suspect you've never actually read it. Malamud's novel is an established classic, and its rather extravagant plot feeds off of the Arthurian legend--i.e., the plot is *supposed* to be fairly over the top. It's not the novel's fault if the filmmakers seemed unaware of this dimension to the story (or that they compromised the novel's main point--that a man given a second chance in life is probably going to screw up the same way he did the first time).

  • Robthom | June 18, 2014 10:26 AM

    "About "The Natural"--I've read the Malamud book. It is better than the movie. "

    It was better in ways.
    The movie is gorgeous and Redford is great, I could just watch the first half over and over.
    But they took out all the beautiful cruelty of the book and replaced it with hollywood shmatlz.
    Especially the entire second half.

    "There are more highly regarded baseball movies."

    But are they they better?
    Avatar was highly regarded.

    That costner movie stunk.

  • Skippy | June 6, 2014 3:41 PM

    About "The Natural"--I've read the Malamud book. It is better than the movie. The movie is too long. There are more highly regarded baseball movies. But I watch it every single damn time I run on TV. For me it's one of those, "Yeah, I know it's not great but I just love it" movies.

  • Nathan Duke | June 5, 2014 3:46 PMReply

    Great choice for number one. The best film of that summer and, in my opinion, one of the 10 best of the decade.

    On another note, Red Dawn and Rhinestone are two of my favorite hilariously awful movies of the 1980s.

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