The Big Chill (1983)


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+

The Dresser (1983)


Starring: Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney, Eileen Atkins, Zena Walker (her final film), Edward Fox

Director: Peter Yates

Summary: A theatrical dresser tries to get an aging star through one more performance of King Lear

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Courtenay), Actor (Finney), Adapted Screenplay

I was pleasantly surprised as I had no expectations whatsoever coming in. The movie really is the two leads, and they both deliver: Courtenay is obviously playing a gay man as the dresser, but avoids the temptation (especially considering the time period) to let that define him, and the writing and acting makes the character feel fleshed-out; Finney is excellent as the senile actor who’s over the top, but in the way you would expect a lot of prima donna theater actors would be. What the two performances get across is that you feel the shared history between these two characters, which is vital to the film and not always easy to pull off. In a related note, the movie also does a great job of making the audience feel the camaraderie between the members of the traveling theater troupe, through their often darkly-comedic dysfunction, long-standing relationships and that they have performed these same plays over and over again for years. Both of these serve to give the film a surprising amount of tension over whether Finney can get through his performance without a breakdown, or whether everything else will go okay as well, considering London is being bombed during this WWII period piece.

Overall: Very solid love-letter to the tenacity and eccentricity of those who make a living in the theater, helmed by two excellent lead performances.

Rating: B

The Right Stuff (1983)


Starring: Dennis Quaid, Sam Shepard, Fred Ward, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Lance Henriksen, Scott Paulin, Barbara Hershey, Harry Shearer, Jeff Goldblum

Director: Philip Kaufman

Summary: The first astronauts fight for their place in space

Other Nominations: Supporting Actor (Shephard), Film Editing*, Original Score*, Sound Mixing*, Sound Editing*, Art Direction, Cinematography

What this movie probably does best is underscoring the heroism of those early astronauts who were put in life in death situations every time they flew, but also making them feel like real people whose jobs put a huge strain on their families. The movie in general also does a good job of feeling like the age it took place in, by highlighting the space race/cold war in a dynamic way well, and by using old film stock for certain sequences, integrating it with the real footage. I also like the space/flight scenes, they have aged well, and Sam Shepard gives the best performance as Chuck Yeager, and I’m surprised his rugged manliness didn’t get him better action roles than it did.

The biggest issue is that at 3 hours, 12 minutes, it really feels its length. Personally, I would have either cut out a lot of the pre-Sputnik stuff with Yeager and mostly just focus on the space race part, which would save about 40 minutes; this is apparently what William Goldman’s original screenplay would have done, so I guess wasn’t alone in thinking this. I like a lot of the scenes with Yeager but it feels like a separate storyline that barely ever converges with the main plot and it adds a lot of length. I also thought that making the engineers look like buffoons was a very strange choice. It makes the astronauts look even more heroic I guess, but it’s ridiculous to portray them as anything but amazing at their craft considering they were in completely uncharted territory and pushing the boundaries of what was humanly possible.

Overall: A good tribute to the early astronauts and their remarkable accomplishments, even if it’s a little too long.

Rating: B-

Tender Mercies (1983)


Starring: Robert Duvall, Tess Harper (her film debut), Allan Hubbard (his only acting credit), Betty Buckley, Wilford Brimley, Ellen Barkin

Director: Bruce Beresford

Summary: An alcoholic country star stranded in a small town finds love

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Duvall)*, Original Screenplay*, Original Song (“Over You”)

The movie I would compare this to is Lilies of the Field, which I reviewed earlier for this project: they’re both short, simple, low-budget movies that take place in middle of nowhere with great lead performances (both Duvall and Poitier won Best Actor Oscars) and have strong religious themes. The people and setting feel very authentic, and the character-driven story is effective: a country singer who crashed and burned built himself back up with a new family in the middle of nowhere Texas, but still has to come to terms with his past (itch to still do music, reconcile with his daughter); small-town family values, genuine love and religion redeem this character whose fame led to alcoholism and a strained marriage. The only real issue is that I would have liked a tighter narrative rather than just the series of character vignettes that basically comprise this movie. Other than that, it’s solid even if nothing exceptional.

Overall: Even if it never reaches any sort of great heights, it’s a simple and effective low-budget film with a great and understated lead performance from Duvall and good themes.
Rating: B

*Terms of Endearment (1983)*


Starring: Debra Winger, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson, Jeff Daniels, Lisa Hart Carroll (her debut), John Lithgow, Danny DeVito

Director: (His feature film debut)

Summary: A mother-daughter relationship survives years of rivalry and romantic problems

Other Nominations: Director*, Actress (MacLaine)*, Actress (Winger), Supporting Actor (Nicholson)*, Supporting Actor (Lithgow), Adapted Screenplay*, Film Editing, Original Score, Sound Mixing, Art Direction

This is a tearjerker to the max (especially towards the end), which isn’t really my kind of film. I will say that there were some good performances: MacLaine was good as an ice queen who ends up thawing, although she has definitely done better work though. Winger was honestly even better than MacLaine, and it really is her movie but MacLaine won because she had a much greater body of work behind her and no previous Oscar for her efforts. Nicholson won his second Oscar and for me I didn’t like him that much, as this was maybe the first time Nicholson played the kind of role he would unfortunately end up playing for most of the rest of his career-smiling a lot, doesn’t take things too seriously quippy womanizer, and he’s even got the sunglasses. I hate this because he had such a great range of roles previous to this and this may have been the beginning of the general downturn of him as a great actor (with some notable performances excepted).

I hated the sappy score-it fit with the general tone of the movie and emphasized it, but it really clashed with some of the more serious moments and honestly would have been really dark if not for the music moments. The screenplay was a mixed bag, with some great scenes involving Winger and MacLaine and Winger and her children, but I didn’t like how the movie jumps around constantly without a good transition (oh, it’s 2-3 years later I guess based on how much older the kids are? Okay) and big weepy melodramas aren’t my favorites.

Random note: I didn’t even know they made a sequel (The Evening Star)-this one of the only BP winners to get a sequel, and retained some of the original cast.

Overall: Decent melodrama with some great lead performances but overall nothing all that special, with the score especially sticking out as bad for me.

Rating: C+

1983 in Review

Other Notable Films from 1983

Return of the Jedi: The final chapter in the Star Wars trilogy and definitely the one that’s the biggest mixed bag. On one hand, the Luke-Vader-Emperor storyline is fantastic and one of the highpoints in the series (on paper…) and the opening part of the movie in Jabba’s palace is great; on the other hand, the Luke-Vader-Emperor storyline makes no sense-at the end of Empire, Vader is 100% ready to kill Luke for not joining him and shows no indications otherwise, but here Luke tells Vader he knows he can’t kill him and Vader suddenly cares about Luke’s well-being. We also have the ewoks and the whole endor plot in general which just feels like a way for Han and Leia to do something during the movie and to sell toys. Overall a very good movie with a great finish, but some cracks show in the series that would later be busted wide-open.

The Dead Zone & Videodrome: Two of David Cronenberg’s best films in the same year! The Dead Zone is probably the best movie with Christopher Walken as the lead (and he’s great); I also love Martin Sheen essentially playing alternate universe Jed Bartlet, where this time he’s a pure evil nutjob running for President. Videodrome is a prototypical Cronenberg from the period-lots of disturbing body horror, but with some real meat under the hood, this being a commentary on technology, TV and society in general.

The King of Comedy: Of the many collaborations between Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, this is probably the only one to get mixed reviews upon its release, yet is as good as anything either of them have ever done. De Niro played an incredibly diverse series of roles in the 70s and 80s, and this is one of his boldest, playing a character remarkably similar to Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, but this one is a black comedy rather than a straight psychological thriller even if they deal with a lot of the same themes.

National Lampoon’s Vacation: Harold Ramis, John Hughes and Chevy Chase: three people who were all at the height of their powers when the collaborated to make this seminal 80s comedy, but who all turned to garbage right around 1991-1993. It launched the Vacation series (which produced two more solid films, especially Christmas Vacation), and solidified the National Lampoon label (after their first hit Animal House in 1979 and a few busts in between) which eventually became a cesspool of horrendous films that continues to this day.

Scarface: The remake with Al Pacino that’s much more famous than the original 1932 version with Paul Muni. Personally, the movie didn’t do all that much for me-while the character’s arc is solid if not pretty standard, but it’s way too long at 3 hours and 10 minutes, and I absolutely hate the ending with which undermines the entire message of the movie by making Pacino look like an awesome badass. It’s alright, but I consider it massively overrated except for the Push It to the Limit montage, which is one of the best ever.

Flashdance: Decent underdog story of a nightclub dancer trying to make it as a ballet dancer, but is mainly remembered for its two incredibly memorable songs accompanied by great dance scenes-What a Feeling and Maniac, the former winning Best Song at the Oscars.

Silkwood: This dramatization of a whistleblower case against a nuclear power plant was biggest critical hit that didn’t get a BP nomination-it was nominated for five Oscars with all of them coming from substantial categories-Director (Mike Nichols), Actress (Meryl Streep) Original Screenplay, Editing and Supporting Actress (Cher); the only reason I can think of why The Big Chill got a nomination instead is that it made more money, but it’s not like it crushed it or anything ($56 million vs. $35 million).

1983 Nominees in Review

The Dresser: B

Tender Mercies: B

The Right Stuff: B-

Terms of Endearment: C+ (Won Best Picture)

The Big Chill: C+

A bit better of a year than I was expecting coming in (mainly the first two movies which I had no real knowledge of beforehand) and the Best Picture winner was only the second worst of the nominees! Still, it’s pretty clear we have settled into the mediocrity of the 80s Best Picture category, although next year has at least two very promising films.

For 1984: The last movie to get multiple Best Actor nominations; the second and last film where an untrained actor won an Academy Award; David Lean’s final film, 42 years after his first film that was also nominated for Best Picture; A movie that is solely remembered as the answer to the question “what was the movie Sally Fields won an Oscar for that led her to say ‘you like me, right now you like me!’”; and Norman Jewison makes a film about a black man sent into the racist deep south to investigate a murder…no, not In the Heat of the Night, the other one.