Movies in 2014 were a disappointment to me. Guardians of the Galaxy, Gone Girl,and Maleficent all showed up in fussy packaging that seemed empty inside; visually impressive but in the end, unfulfilling. Muppets Most Wanted and The Grand Budapest Hotel were fun but unsurprising, nothing I hadn’t seen before. Even my girl Veronica Mars let me down. I wanted to be delighted and surprised at the movies this year, but was often left feeling frustrated and sad.
Suddenly, in the distance, a hero appeared. Dressed in bright colors and high-waisted jeans, bearing a bullwhip and an electric guitar, driving a Delorean up to the entrance of Portland’s many historic movie theaters screening classics films and fan favorites alongside second-run hits of today: the Blockbuster Films of the 1980’s were here to save the day. Some I had never seen before, some I had seen dozens of times, and some I never want to see again, but all of them showed me a better time at the movies than any new releases I saw this year.
I saw Big (1988) by myself on an afternoon in August even though I’ve seen it approximately 40 million times before and in practical terms have no need to ever watch it again. But who can apply practical terms to truest love? Tom Hanks is my favorite movie star, and Big is my most favorite of his early films. So, even though it’s on cable constantly, and even though I know it by heart—from “shimmy shimmy cocoa pop” to “sock you in the stomach three more times”—I paid four dollars to see it at the Academy Theater. I paid six more dollars for a small popcorn and a beer because this is the other benefit of Portland’s “brew ‘n’ view” theaters: 21+ screenings where you can drink for cheap.
Despite the shoulder pads, stonewashed denim, and troubling storyline of a 12-year-old boy in a man’s body sleeping with a 30-something Elizabeth Perkins, Big holds up, and it’s even more magical on the big screen. Penny Marshall’s warm directorial style, my Hanksy’s timeless charm, childhood wish-fulfillment, and the bittersweet tinge of nostalgia all come together in a film that wins me over again and again.
Back to the Future (1985) is another winner in this regard, a capital-C Classic that has been so deeply ingrained in my film vocabulary that I can’t actually remember seeing it for the first time. Usually I catch it on cable, tuning in partway through, so until I saw it in the theater this year, I had actually forgotten all about the perfect opening scene. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is introduced as a pair of high top sneakers, a skateboard, and a guitar plugging into a wall of amps in his friend Doc Brown’s garage. He strums one power chord and flies across the room. As he’s recovering from the blast, he gets a call from Doc telling him to meet him at the mall that night. Suddenly, dozens of clock alarms go off. “My experiment worked!” Doc says. “They’re all exactly 25 minutes slow.” “Doc, are you telling me that it’s 8:45?” Marty asks. “I’m late for school!”. Cue Huey Lewis and the News.
This first scene is the perfect introduction to our teenage protagonist, his eccentric mentor/friend, and the electric combination of endearing relationships, funny mishaps, and troubles with time that drive the film. In case you’ve never seen it (what’s the weather like on your home planet?), Back to the Future is about Marty’s accidental journey to the past via Doc Brown’s Delorean-time machine, and it is a near-perfect film. When I saw it with my friends and boyfriend, there were two women dressed as Marty and Doc at our screening, picture-perfect cosplay at the budget theater on a Sunday afternoon. Here’s another point in favor of seeing movies I’ve already seen: the communal good will of sitting in the dark with a bunch of strangers who are just as delighted as me.
But you know what doesn’t hold up, not at all, at least not for me? Indiana Jones and His Whole Deal. I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) with a group of pals and spent the entire movie wondering why I should care about this jerkwad and his selfish, greedy quest. I can get behind Karen Allen’s beautiful bad-assery and the revenge-fantasy face-melting of Nazis, but Indiana Jones is no hero of mine. Temple of Doom (1984) is twice as baffling, and twice as racist, as Raiders. I don’t understand why these are such beloved films, though maybe I would get it if I had seen them as an actual child. My friend Adam’s kids, ages eight and nine, came along for Raiders and had a wonderful time, laughing when the bad guys get gotten and cheering when Indy saves the day. Maybe it’s that the Indiana Jones stories, inspired by pulp magazines and adventure serials, rely on broad archetypes best appreciated by young viewers and nostalgic adults. Maybe I should apologize for being so negative about a beloved franchise that just isn’t for me at this time in my life. Or maybe Steven Spielberg should apologize to me personally for aggressively wasting my time.
Of course, it’s never a waste of time to see an old movie with good friends, and that’s the main reason these four dollar throwback theater experiences made my year. Consider Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), another beloved time-travel classic of my childhood that is, as it turns out, a giant stinkbomb, despite Keanu Reeve’s guileless charm and George Carlin’s George-Carlin-ing around. The movie follows Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Reeves), high school best bros and bandmates who have to pass history class or else Ted’s dad will ship him off to military school. To accomplish this feat, they travel through time, kidnapping important historical figures (okay) in a phone booth (sure) bestowed upon them by George Carlin (WTF). I remembered the movie as silly fun, a favorite at the height of my 8th grade Keanu phase (when Speed had just come out and I was suddenly hip to the seductive power of toned biceps and a vacant stare. Watching Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure for the first time in a long time with my friend Lauren (who had never seen it before), I noticed a lot of nonsense I hadn’t picked up on as a kid, including an abundance of swipe edits and casual homophobia. Bill and Ted have their moments, Keanu remains stupidly cute, and I confess Napolean’s adventures at the indoor water park resorts still make me laugh, but overall this is not a good film. Still, it was fun to experience it in the theater, and to have something old made new again by sharing it with a friend. In that context, I suppose even Indy was a winner.
The happiest surprise of my vintage movie-going year was Dragons Forever, a 1988 martial arts comedy/romance starring Jackie Chan, Yien Biao, and Sammo Hung, known collectively as the Three Brothers. They’re all very famous in kung fu cinema, but this was the first time I had seen a Jackie Chan film that wasn’t in English, and the first time I had heard of the other two stars. is about three goofballs who get in fights. There’s also a loose rom-com plot, a secret drug lab rivaling Walter White’s under-laundry lair, and a gangster who uses guns at the beginning of the film but deploys kickboxing champions as weapons throughout the rest. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much at a movie, and I want everyone I know to see it. There are pirated versions online, but none of them contain my favorite scene, in which Biao visits his therapist and asks (I’m paraphrasing): “How is it that I, a good-looking man with talents and many friends, living in a patriarchal society that rewards good-looking, talented men, can still be burdened by sadness?” It’s a perfect moment of satire in a 90 minute, uber-80’s kung fu delight. The friends who invited us to Dragons Forever said it was not a good representative of the kung fu genre as a whole because its comedy was intentional and there was actually some semblance of a plot. I’ve never seen another kung fu film, so I don’t know if this one was “good,” but I can say with confidence that Dragons Forever is the most fun I had in a movie theater this year.
Maybe all of this has nothing to do with whether movies are good or bad, and everything to do with my gravitating towards art that makes me feel young again when I’m increasingly fearful of growing old and irrelevant. Maybe it’s just that popular films of the 1980’s are so easy. Looking back on these familiar artifacts is comforting and safe, whereas new movies are more likely to disappoint simply by nature of being new. But if that’s all there is to it, shouldn’t I have loved Guardians of the Galaxy, a feel-good throwback that rubbed me in all the wrong ways, precisely because of its feel-good throw-back-iness? Maybe I’m a cynic: why can’t I just lighten up and enjoy the ride?
The best new movie I saw in 2014 was the Doug Pray documentary Levitated Mass, a film all about how art can move people in powerful and surprising ways. Leviated Mass documents the genesis, planning, and realization of land artist Michael Heizer’s massive sculpture of the same name, on display at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art since 2012. The film is a work of art about a work of art that attempts to answer the question, “what is art?” and I loved it so much I’m nervous to talk about it in any greater depth lest I get something wrong. So maybe I’m just a coward; it’s a lot safer to reflect on movies people already love than examine something new and relatively unexplored.
But really, I am neither cynic nor coward. Nay, I am hopeful and bold! 2014 was the year I rediscovered how magical the actual movie-going experience can be. It was the year I realized that Indiana Jones is a toolbox, Marty McFly is a dream, and kung fu has been waiting for me all along. It was the year I decided with absolute certainty that Back to the Future is the best movie ever made, unless it’s Big, or it could be Dragons Forever but I can’t possibly know until I watch it at least eighty more times. Of course, with the holidays coming up, I’ll have the opportunity to revisit even more classic films. In the next few weeks, I can go to one of my beloved neighborhood brew and views and see A Christmas Story (1983),Christmas Vacation (1989), Trading Places (1983), Die Hard (1988), and more. I’ve never even seen Die Hard. I hear it’s good. Bruce Willis had nice biceps in the 80’s. I’ll be sure to let you know what I think.