*Amadeus (1984)*

amadeus

Starring: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Jeffrey Jones, Roy Dotrice, Charles Kay, Cynthia Nixon

Director: Milos Forman

Summary: The 18th century composer Salieri confesses to a deadly rivalry with Mozart

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Abraham)*, Actor (Hulce), Adapted Screenplay*, Sound Mixing*, Art Direction*, Cinematography, Makeup*, Costume Design*, Film Editing

Note: I watched the Director’s Cut which is about 20 minutes longer and has nudity-it was the version I had available to me on Netflix Instant. I believe it’s the slightly Inferior version, as most of what’s added isn’t worth it.

Easily one of the best nominees of the 80s so far and by far the best of the BP winners. Abraham is given an amazing part in Salieri and absolutely crushes it and is a deserving Best Actor winner. The rest of the cast is great as well, especially Hulce (who was seemingly cast solely due to his voice and having the most irritating laugh in the world which perfectly fits the character), Berridge (who feels really natural and authentic in her role as Mozart’s wife and I feel should have picked up a Supporting Actress nomination here) and a pre-Ferris Bueller Jeffrey Jones. The movie has strong themes of religion, faith and a terrific main storyline: Salieri was more successful than Mozart in many ways-the Emperor loved his work (considering him superior to Mozart) and he lived an extremely comfortable life, but he as a trained musician saw how inferior he was to Mozart and the only thing that would satisfy him is if he either did something he considered superior to Mozart, or he dragged Mozart down into to failure in order to spit in the face of a god who he thinks played the cruelest of jokes on him. Finally, the makeup by Dick Smith (The Exorcist) for the older version of Salieri is top-notch and the kind of work you rarely see anymore.

One common criticism (or something akin to criticism) is that the movie’s extremely loose with the facts; for me, historical accuracy is not especially important here, as it’s not a biopic but is instead using historical figures to tell a much broader story than just their life stories. The one negative I would say though is that the movie isn’t as strong whenever it shifts focus from Salieri to just being on Mozart, who is a far less interesting character when he’s not playing off of or being contrasted with Salieri.

Overall: One of, if not the best BP winner of the 1980s, it’s an outstanding story of faith and obsession with a compelling main character and many terrific performances.

Rating: A

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The Killing Fields (1984)

killing

Starring: Sam Waterston, Haing S. Ngor (his first role), John Malkovich, Julian Sands, Craig T. Nelson

Director: Roland Joffe

Summary: An American journalist and his Cambodian adviser fight to survive the country’s communist takeover

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Waterston), Supporting Actor (Ngor)*, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography*, Film Editing*

This is a very visceral and gritty movie that pulls no punches and feels very authentic. A lot of this is owed to the cinematography, which is filmed in a sort of documentary-style that works really well. The authenticity is also very evident in the choice of Ngor as the co-lead, a (then) untrained actor who was actually imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge and has an obvious personal connection with the project. He is very is good, although it’s hard to say if I would have given him the Supporting Actor Oscar without seeing the other performances (that, and he’s not really supporting as he gets more screen-time overall than anyone I believe). The last thing I would say as far as realism is that it depicts journalists better than most other Hollywood films-Waterston (who is also very good) has a clear sense of detachment (at least at the beginning) from what is going on around him, which is more realistic for someone like him who has covered wars and atrocities before.

The story really takes off for me in the second half, when it shifts from a broader war story to a more personal one. Waterston’s character becomes angrier at his own government and feels guilty as he reflects on what he did and didn’t do there, and Ngor’s character has his own compelling storyline which produces some really good, high-tension scenes. The only thing that stood out to me as detracting from the film is the score by Mike Oldfield (of Tubular Bells aka the Exorcist theme fame). While it’s most fine, there are some really bizarre choices for a movie like this, to the point where it reminds me of SNES RPG Midi-style synth music. Examples: https://youtu.be/mGPiUGuWsA0; https://youtu.be/xLfyRQfHAio

Overall: In most other years this would probably won Best Picture, but alas this one of the few years this decade with multiple great nominees. Nonetheless, a strong, intense and intelligent look at one of the forgotten and most tragic outcomes of the Vietnam War.

Rating: A-

A Passage to India (1984)

passage

Starring: Judy Davis, Victor Banerjee, Peggy Ashcroft, James Fox, Nigel Havers, Alec Guinness

Director: David Lean (his final film)

Summary: A criminal accusation threatens British-Indian colonial relations

Other Nominations: Director, Actress (Davis), Supporting Actress (Ashcroft)*, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score*, Sound Mixing, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing

For being the last film of the great director David Lean, it’s…fairly underwhelming. The sets, locations, costumes and overall look of the movie are strong; the score that is there is as good as to be expected considering it’s from Maurice Jarre, even there’s not a lot of it; and I liked some of the performances, mainly Banerjee and Ashcroft’s. Everything else though was pretty mediocre though. The story takes way too long to get in gear-it takes an hour and a half for there to be something that moves the plot in a real direction versus just establishing the setting and characters. Some of the characters have their moments (again, mainly Banerjee’s and Ashcroft’s), but others were fairly dull given their significance (Davis’). While Banerjee’s performance and character are the highlight, the last 15 minutes of the film really muck up a lot: we get a total character change that feels very unnatural and rushed, and kind of sets an odd coda to the whole movie. Whatever message or themes were there are muddled and the way the film is trying to make the audience feel about everything seems wrongheaded and detracts from the previous 2 and a half hours.

Overall: Disappointing farewell from a legendary director. While the visual, score and a few performances are good, the movie takes too long to get somewhere and the ending feels rushed and unsatisfying.

Rating: C

Places in the Heart (1984)

places

Starring: Sally Field, Danny Glover, John Malkovich (his first feature film), Lindsay Crouse, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan

Director: Robert Benton

Summary: A widow fights to keep her land during the Depression

Other Nominations: Director, Actress (Field)*, Supporting Actor (Malkovich), Supporting Actress (Crouse), Original Screenplay*, Costume Design

Even if there’s nothing exceptional here, this is a pretty solid film all-around. It definitely gets the period feel right, it has some charm to it with some solid characters (mainly from the A-plot with Fields/Glover/Malkovich), and is a quality drama. Fields is very good and this kind of “plucky single mother with a lot of gumption” (the same type of role she won her other Oscar for in Norma Rae) fits her like a glove, and Glover has a lot of natural charisma in one of his earliest major roles. The only thing that really drags this movie down is the B-plot with Harris, Crouse & Madigan, as the two plots feel barely-related and the characters are far less interesting. It doesn’t get developed all that well and it feels like it’s there to just pad time.

Overall: A nice little drama set during the Great Depression with some very good performances from a strong cast even if the B-plot doesn’t add a whole lot.

Rating: B-

A Soldier’s Story (1984)

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Starring: Howard E. Rollins Jr., Adolph Caesar, Larry Riley, Denzel Washington, Art Evans, David Alan Grier, David Harris

Director: Norman Jewison

Summary: During WWII, an African-American officer investigates a murder that may have been racially motivated

Other Nominations: Supporting Actor (Caesar), Adapted Screenplay

Initially, this movie looked to be suspiciously similar to Jewison’s previous BP winner, In the Heat of the Night: both involve a black man from the North sent to the deep south to investigate a murder, where the White police/military doubt his abilities and he has to put up with tons of racism despite being by far the most competent person there. With that said however, the films end up being quite different and in this case, I found this movie to be the superior one. For one, the way they are told is very different, with this one having a large chunk of the story told through flashbacks that are quite effective at getting us to know the characters. Second, the mystery aspect of the murder in here is handled a lot better: one of my big problems with ITHOTN was that the mystery is solved in an abrupt and confusing manner at the end, like it’s something they just had to get out of the way, whereas here it develops well and has a number of good twists and turns.

Most importantly though, it has more depth to its themes: ITHOTN was basically a proto-classy Blaxploitation film where the super-smart and dignified black guy one-ups the bumbling racist white hicks, with the white police chief learning a lesson by the end. This movie is really about racial self-hatred, revolving around a Northern, light-skinned black man who hates the Southern black men around him who he sees as ignorant and “holding the race back”, and has an extremely conflicted self-identity. To me, this is much more interesting territory and the film is much stronger for it. I will also say that Adolph Caesar would have been my pick for Best Supporting Actor (over Haing S. Ngor), as he was really outstanding as the murdered military officer.

Overall: Norman Jewison again tackles the subject of racism in the South, but this time his source material is more layered and engaging than that of his Best Picture Winner In the Heat of the Night, and he still has a terrific performance to rely upon (Sidney Poitier in ITHOTN, Adolph Caesar in this film).

Rating: B+

1984 in Review

One Interesting Film from 1984

I’m going to make another change starting now, which is highlighting a single film (maybe two if it’s a year with multiple movies I know well and want to talk about) instead of a brief rundown of a lot of films, most of which I haven’t actually seen. These might be great classics, hidden gems, films I go against the consensus on, or whatever else I feel like for the year.

For 1984, I chose Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. While not my absolute favorite movie from the director, it was unquestionably one of, if not his most, significant work for a variety of reasons. First, it was (effectively) the debut movie for the late great Studio Ghibli, a group that had an extraordinary record when it came to consistently great animated movies that was only matched by old Pixar. Second, it really helped legitimize anime features as a medium for film in Japan…in the west, unfortunately it was released in American theaters with 22 minutes cut under the title “Warriors of the Wind’; seriously, check out the poster, which is hilarious and horrifying if you’ve ever actually seen the movie: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/e/e6/Wotwuscover.jpg/320px-Wotwuscover.jpg. Finally, the movie is where a young Hideaki Anno got noticed as an animator; he would later that year co-found Gainax and would eventually make a rather notable TV series I will end up talking about in 1997 in the form of its film ending.

As for the film itself, it fits in perfectly with many of Miyazaki’s later works, featuring beautiful and complex animation, strong anti-war and environmental themes, strong female characters and fantastical settings/worlds. If you have enjoyed some of his other works (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle), I would definitely recommend this one.

Other Notables from 1984

Ghostbusters

The Terminator

This Is Spinal Tap

Beverly Hills Cop

Gremlins

The Karate Kid

Paris, Texas

Blood Simple

The Natural

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Once Upon a Time in America

1984 Nominees in Review

Amadeus: A (Won Best Picture)

The Killing Fields: A-

A Soldier’s Story: B+

Places in the Heart: B-

A Passage to India: C

A very good year, and pretty easily one of the best of the decade. I feel bad for The Killing Fields, as it would have had an extremely good chance of winning pretty much any other year of this decade based on both its quality and its subject matter being appealing to voters, but it was simply matched up against a better movie. There’s also nothing especially poor this year which is nice, although A Passage to India is a pretty disappointing final film for a director who at his best, made some of the greatest epics of all-time.

For 1985, we get both Gomez AND Morticia Addams in career making roles! It’s: The other movie besides The Turning Point that was nominated for 11 Oscars but didn’t win any; the first Academy Award win for someone playing an openly gay character; A movie generally considered one of the weakest to ever win Best Picture and one of the only to have a “Rotten” score on RT; John Huston directs another family member to an Oscar; and a movie that ended up being a nightmare for the Amish community because they got overrun with tourists as a result.

The Big Chill (1983)

bigchill

Summary: A friend’s death brings together a group of former college activists

Other Nominations: Supporting Actress (Close), Original Screenplay

This is classic baby-boomer nostalgia, with its constant use of late 60s-early 70s songs and it’s about a group of former college activists back together, realizing how far they’ve drifted away from their former ideals. That’s a big part of why it was a huge success at the time, but for someone not from that intended audience, it’s just okay. The cast is terrific and features a ton of people who would go on to do huge things over the course of the decade. It works pretty well as both a dramedy and as an ensemble character piece, giving enough time to most everybody (although Goldblum’s character feels very superfluous however). With that said, it doesn’t do that many things that really stand out: the movie really takes a while to get into gear, and the ending is anticlimactic (and for three of the characters, it’s in a very weird way). I also really didn’t like the soundtrack-I love the songs as songs, but the way they’re used at an almost constant clip doesn’t work for me although it wasn’t as bad as Coming Home was. It’s a lazy device to remind the audience of a time period and to appeal to nostalgia. Contrast it to something like Guardians of the Galaxy, which also had an old-school soundtrack, but actually had an in-story reason for them and they generally fit better with the scenes they were used in.

Overall: Has a great cast and good performances and other than the soundtrack I don’t have any major complaints, but the beginning and ends are mediocre and the middle isn’t good enough to make this particularly memorable.

Rating: C+