In anticipation of our next episode, which celebrates the 30th anniversary of the release of Gremlins, I decided to revisit some of the great films from 1984 that weren’t among the biggest money-makers upon their initial release. All but three of the top ten money-making films were parts of franchises, either spawning sequels or serving as sequels themselves. However, 1984 also produced some tremendous films that weren’t immediate successes. This list celebrates some films that failed to be huge hits upon release. Some have gone on to realize delayed appreciation and fame, some continue to be obscure, but all of them deserve a look.
5. Once Upon a Time in America
Director Sergio Leone brought his unique sensibility to the American gangster movie with amazing results. The story of Leone’s struggles to get his completed vision seen by audiences is almost more famous than the film itself. After the studio balked at his first cut, which clocked in at over four hours, he was forced to cut it to just over two hours for American audiences. It tanked, critically and commercially. In Europe, a 229 minute cut was released to great acclaim, which is the version currently available on DVD.
The finished version is a glorious, sweeping epic. It plays out like a novel in scope and detail, telling the story of Prohibition-era gangsters by flashing back and forth from their beginnings as young hoods rolling drunks and blackmailing cops to their glory days as successful bootleggers to their twilight years in the late 1960s. Though the love story elements get a bit tedious, mostly thanks to Elizabeth McGovern’s horrifically flat performance, Leone succeeds in telling one of the most well-rounded gangster stories this side of The Godfather.
4. Blood Simple.
One of the most sure-handed first films you’ll ever see. Joel and Ethan Coen announced themselves to the film world with an intense, strange, and innovative crime story about a cheating wife and her lover, a jealous husband, and a murderous private eye. Many of the themes present in Blood Simple (greed, jealousy, secrecy) would continue to drive the characters and plots of many subsequent Coen brothers films. It is remarkable how much control the Coens exhibit so early on in their careers. At times unbearably tense, at times bleakly funny, and other times so desperately, bleakly tense, that it can only be funny.
Much of the movie’s suspense and humor comes from M. Emmet Walsh, playing the double-crossing killer private eye. Walsh is easily recognizable as a talented, “That Guy From That Thing” character actor (The Jerk, Ordinary People, Blade Runner, Fletch). He is genuinely scary as he pursues Francis McDormand (in her first role) and John Getz. McDormand, for her part, is remarkably assured. She plays the role of Abby with the intelligence and subtlety that she has gone on to infuse into each of her roles to date.
Though probably not the best Coen Brothers’ film, it holds up very well, especially for a film with as many stylistic flourishes as this one. At times the Coens seem to be trying too much, but that audacity pays off, and has helped them to produce some of Hollywood’s most memorable films for the past 30 years.
3. Stranger Than Paradise
Writer/Director Jim Jarmusch’s film Stranger Than Paradise marked another debut from a talented filmmaker with a long, innovative career. Shot in grainy black and white, the film’s scenes play out in one take each, with a couple seconds of blackness between each one. This technique guides you to fight the urge to really try to string them together to make a story. Starting at “A” and ending at “B” is not really the point. We’re dropped into the life of Willy (John Lurie) in the beginning as is irritated to find out his cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) is coming from his native Hungary to stay with him for 10 days. They end up getting along, then she leaves for Cleveland.
It’s representative of the kind of humor the film employs when a title card shows us that it is “ONE YEAR LATER,” when the passage of time and its effects isn’t and has never been the focus of this movie. The characters don’t really change aside from coming to enjoy each other’s company, but even that isn’t permanent and is subject to their moods. There is no tonal shift from one scene to the next. We watch Eva look for a vacuum with as much fanfare as we see her become an unknowing participant in a drug money exchange. Its engaging without being dramatic, funny without telling jokes. It almost seems to go out of its way to not tell a joke, especially in one terrific scene where Willy takes a stab at telling Eva a joke, but gives up after realizing he doesn’t remember any of it, assuring her it’s a good one.
Come to think of it, that scene is sort of reminiscent of explaining the appeal of Stranger Than Paradise. There’s two guys…no, there’s three guys…no, wait, two guys and one girl…or, no, one girl and one guy and he says to her…no, wait, they all go to Florida and…it’s kind of hard to explain, but it’s a good one.
2. This is Spinal Tap
Though it didn’t make a huge splash upon its release, This is Spinal Tap has become a highly regarded, ubiquitously quoted, watershed moment in comedy. Its documentary format is so perfectly executed that many people believed that the band really existed, and musicians of all stripes find the band’s misadventures painfully close to home. The film hangs on the brilliant performances of its cast, who ad lib their way through the movie deftly, firing jokes one after another (all of them gold) at such a pace that repeat viewings are required to catch the jokes you were laughing over.
Director Rob Reiner created a perfect time capsule of rock music in the ’80s, but somehow manages to keep the movie from being dated. It is just as vibrant and hilarious today and remains as such the second or third (or fifteenth) time around. Though I often get tired of overquoted movies (you’ve almost certainly heard someone say, with an awful British accent, “but this one goes to 11.”), the overquoted scenes in This is Spinal Tap still give me the giggles.
Bonus: Watch the movie with commentary. The actors play the band members remembering the film. It’s like the sequel that never got made.
1. Paris, Texas
This outstanding film from Wim Wenders feels almost like a movie that picks up where most other movies would leave off. Though the backstory is only gradually known to us, Paris, Texas is, at its core, a film about dealing with divorce and with what happens to people who made choices they wanted to take back. Nearly everything about this film is flawless. The performances by Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, and Nastassja Kinski are pitch perfect, especially Stanton and Kinski whose scenes together are heartbreaking and all the more impressive considering they are never actually in the same room.
There aren’t many films like Paris, Texas. Instead of depicting the screaming and melodrama that ended their marriage, Wenders and screenwriters L.M. Kit Carson and Sam Shepard show Stanton and Kinski four years on, when the emotions have worn down, but the scars remain. It bravely and touchingly explores what it’s like to deal with the guilt, betrayal, pain, longing, regret, and forgiveness of dissolved relationships years down the line. Paris, Texas won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, making it one of the most awarded films on this list, but failed to make an impact at the Oscars (how Kinski and Stanton were ignored is something I will never understand. Kinski has a scene that is up there with one of the best of all time) and has largely, inexplicably failed to catch on with many people today. Do yourself a favor and watch this film.