For millions of moviegoers, 1985 was the year Rocky and Rambo punched, knifed and machine-gunned their way to glorious box-office triumphs. But in darkened cinemas across the land, the musclebound Sylvester Stallone failed to vanquish one enemy -- America's film critics.
Now, as 1985 fades into memory, the critics have sprung forward to exact their ritual revenge -- choosing the 10 best and worst movies of the year.
To take stock of the camps and splits in the critical fraternity, 75 newspaper and magazine reviewers were surveyed and their votes tallied for best and worst movies. The sampling reflects geographical balance and includes only those critics who published year-end lists or commentaries.
Was there any consensus? Yes and no.
This survey is proof, if any is required, that American remains a big and unruly country. Among film critics, local opinion may not hew to the national trend. To know that what went over stinko in New York City is clasped to the bosom of an obscure film critic in, say, Georgia can be solace to the filmmaker even as it confuses the average moviegoer.
By nature, film critics are an eccentric lot -- and 1985 inspired them in that regard. Best movie nominations for such obvious choices as "Prizzi's Honor" and "The Purple Rose of Cairo" vied with such unlikely selections as "The Black Cauldron" and "The Ballad of Billie Jean." More than 125 pictures received at least one vote from at least one critic as one of the year's best.
Anything goes when a film critic gets to list-making -- there were scattered ballots for Dustin Hoffman's interpretation of "Death of a Salesman," French television, educational slide shows and Jean Renoir's 1937 film classic "La Grande Illusion." Movie critics disputed almost everything that happened at the movies in 1985 -- even the nature of the year itself.
"One sorry year for movies," commented Catherine Rambeau (pronounced Rambo) of the Detroit Free Press.
"More worthwhile offerings than we've had in years," countered The Pittsburgh Press' Ed Blank.
"The year of the great famine," lamented the Los Angeles Times' Sheila Benson.
"A year well-spent at the movies," opined Susan Stark of The Detroit News.
"What kind of year was 1985?" asked Joe Leydon of The Houston Post. "Don't ask."
"I think it was a good year for the movies," answered Henry Edgar of the Newport News, Va., Daily Press. "I had no trouble finding the best films ."
Michael Ventura of The L.A. Weekly had some kind of trouble -- he found only four measly titles worthy of year-end best honors, three of them noteworthy for not being cited by anyone else in the survey. By contrast, Jeff Simon of The Buffalo News expanded his list to a generous 15 entries. No other writer could match that enthusiasm, but several, like David Elliott of The San Diego Union, did manage to squeeze in 11 or 12. Elliott explained his magnanimity by quoting Pascal: "The heart has reasons which reason knows not."
The year did offer more new film releases -- about 400 in major markets -- than any since 1970. The problem, as Vincent Canby of The New York Times cautioned, was that "quantity did not increase the chances of quality."
Apart from Rocky 'n' Rambo, the discerning critic had to endure imitative sequels like "Police Academy II," "Ninja III," "Godzilla '85" and "Friday the 13th, Part V: A New Beginning." Critics had to sift through the relative merits of "Weird Science," "Real Genius" and "My Science Project" without confusing the plots, let alone the titles.
Such responsibilities might have turned a few self-respecting critics into cranks, but as Ted Mahar of the Portland Oregonian pointed out, "I like going to movies. I've been doing this for 19 years. So if I wanted to, I obviously could have left this onerous job."
Some preliminary observations on the drift of film criticism in 1985:
*Despite their hostility to Sly Stallone, the tastes of most movie critics really didn't diverge much from the general public. Sure, critics shunned popular carve-'em-ups and unusually vacuous teen comedies, but they still cheered along crowd-pleasers like "Back to the Future" (1985's top-grossing picture), "Witness," "The Color Purple" and "Cocoon."
*Critics do like to champion the esoteric import. Not many writers went so far as The Boston Globe's Jay Garr, who listed six foreign-directed films on his 10 best list -- and only one made in Hollywood -- but most of those surveyed noted at least a couple. Kerry Drake of the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle managed only one non-U.S. film on his 10 best wrap-up, but he was operating under a liability perhaps, being in Wyoming.
Sometimes critics are defensive about their foreign proclivities. "I'm as American as the next person," insisted the Oregonian's Mahar, after opting for favorites like "Utu" (New Zealand), "Comfort and Joy" (Scotland) and "Man of Flowers" (Australia). Martin Moynihan of the Albany, N.Y., Times-Union proudly proclaimed his first-ever "all-American list of films," then kicked it off with "Kiss of the Spider Woman," which happens to be directed by Brazilian Hector Babenco.
Non-U.S. films that scored high in the survey include Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's epic, "Ran," the multinational production of "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "The Official Story" from Argentina, Bertrand Tavernier's "A Sunday in the Country" from France and "Himatsuri" from Japan. Anglophilia surfaced among critics in a distinct preference in 1985 for such British films as "Plenty," "Wetherby," "Dance With a Stranger," "The Shooting Party," "The Emerald Forest," "A Private Function" and "Brazil." The last-named, a "1984"-type satire, pulled an upset when it was voted Best Movie of the Year by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association -- even though, at the time, Universal was refusing to release the picture, and the only people who had seen it were . . . film critics.
*An interesting corollary of the critical infatuation with foreign films crops up upon close inspection of the year's worst lists: Though critics can name more than 100 terrible movies as among the year's lousiest, they can muster barely a quorum of votes for any and all non-English language contenders. In effect, critics are saying, bad is better with subtitles.
*The critics from Podunk may not have the same array of alternatives as the metropolitan muckamucks but, not to worry, they adjust. Joan Bunke of The Des Moines Register admitted that several of her 10 best nominees "haven't played here. I saw them on trips to New York." On the other hand, the Big City scribes may not have seen "Def-Con 4," which played Des Moines and wormed its way onto Bunke's worst list. "Half of my worst list probably only played out here," Bunke explained. "They try this stuff here and figure if we gag on it, they know it's a loser."
*It was an exceptional year for documentaries, according to the critics. "Streetwise," "7-Up" and "28-Up," and "George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey" all rated hosannahs from the critics. "Shoah," a 9 1/2-hour meditation on the Holocaust, finished among the top dozen vote-getters in this poll. "Heimat," a 15 1/2-hour (fictional) story from West Germany, also attracted a share of votes -- indicating that film critics, unlike most audiences, don't mind the occasional marathon sitting.
*It is worth noting that the critical fraternity is still just that -- a men's club, by and large. Roughly one-fifth of the critics in this survey are women. This might bear on the final results. Some female critics, like Carrie Rickey of the Boston Herald (and New Woman magazine), went out of their way to celebrate "woman-made movies," but they were outnumbered by their male colleagues.
*Finally, it was a triumphant year for old pros making a comeback with the fickle critics. Septuagenarian director John Huston, a past inhabitant of the critical doghouse for such transgressions as "Annie," topped the critics' collective census with "Prizzi's Honor," along with another director advancing on age 80, Kurosawa. Other top-rated directors who have in the past suffered critical brickbats -- but who were flying high in 1985 -- include Sydney Pollack, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. Newcomers like the Coen brothers ("Blood Simple") impressed many a critic, but 1985 was a year dominated by veterans.
Without further ado, the Big 10, as reflected in the total number of times each movie appeared on a best list:
1. "Prizzi's Honor" (48 lists)
2. "The Purple Rose of Cairo" (44)
3. "Witness" (39)
4. "The Color Purple" (33)
* "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (33)
5. "Back to the Future" (30)
6. "Ran" (29)
7. "Out of Africa" (28)
* "After Hours" (28)
8. "Shoah" (20)
9. "Lost in America" (18)
10. "The Official Story" (17)
Other movies wooing at least 10 votes from the nation's corps of film critics include "Cocoon" (14), "Blood Simple" (14), "The Killing Fields" (13, although it was released in 1984), "Desperately Seeking Susan" (12), "Plenty" (11), "The Emerald Forest" (10) and "The Breakfast Club" (10).
For Spielberg, 1985 proved a banner year. Though he attracted a plethora of "worst" votes for his producership of "The Goonies," the effect was balanced by sizable "best" plaudits for directing "The Color Purple" as well as for producing both "Young Sherlock Holmes" and "Back to the Future."
Several critics also doubled their praise for David Hare, who wrote the screenplays for both "Plenty" and "Wetherby" -- directing the latter -- as well as for actress Meryl Streep, who costarred in "Plenty" and also top-lined the Isak Dinesen story, "Out of Africa." Other double winners embraced by critics include directors Robert Altman (with a trickling of votes for "Secret Honor" and "Fool for Love") and Australian Paul Cox (for "Man of Flowers" and "My First Wife").
There was plenty of cause for fierce critical debate in 1985, and many a movie enshrined in the "best" pantheon by one scribe was singled out for particular abuse by another. "Prizzi's Honor" may have been the U.S. film critics' overwhelming choice for movie of the year, but that didn't stop Stephen Hunter of the Baltimore Sun from describing John Huston's wry piece of work as "senile and dithering." "Kiss of the Spider Woman" may have materialized on more than one third of the best lists in the country, but that didn't deter Paul Attanasio of The Washington Post -- he alone banished it to the year's worst list.
The most controversial entertainment of all turned out to be "Pee-wee's Big Adventure." Paul Reubens' oddball comedy was either the absolute worst movie of the year, according to Carole Kass of the Richmond Times-Dispatch; or "one of the year's ten best, a New Wave cross between Jerry Lewis and Harry Langdon," said Lou Lumenick of the Bergen County, N.J., Record, or a film "made for, about and by second-graders," in the words of People magazine, or a "demented masterpiece" (Mike Clark, USA Today).
"Year of the Dragon," a potboiler about the Chinese-American underworld, ranked as one of The Pittsburgh Press' Ed Blank's best, but Corinne F. Hammett of the Baltimore News-American described director Michael Cimino's first film since "Heaven's Gate" as "an excessively violent tale with cardboard characters and lurid visual effects which signify nothing." Dean of the profession Andrew Sarris of The Village Voice liked William Friedkin's "To Live and Die in L.A." enough to award it a top 10 niche, but in the same issue Voice compatriot David Edelstein differed -- and consigned it to the year's scrap heap. Other movies that found loyal friends as well as rabid enemies among the nation's film critics include "Agnes of God," "White Nights," "Silverado," "Pale Fire," "Jagged Edge," "Into the Night" and "A Chorus Line."
Due to the vagaries of film distribution, some 1984 movies like "The Killing Fields" and "A Passage to India," totted up some 1985 votes. "Passage" presented a "beautiful evocation of India" to the eyes of Joan E. Vadeboncoeur of the Syracuse, N.Y., Herald-American. But sure enough, Joanne Rhetts of The Charlotte Observer decided the 1984-Oscar-nominated production was "so big, so pompous, so beloved" that she duly condemned it as one of 1985's worst. "Clothes on elephants," she shuddered.
Indeed, critics can be arbitrary and they are hardly immune to exercising a parochial bias. Paul Johnson of The Arkansas Gazette was alone in elevating the Disney studio's "One Magic Christmas" to his 1985 top 10, but he explained his curious choice: "We call it Mary Steenburgen's movie around here." (The actress grew up in Arkansas.)
Perhaps Robert W. Butler of the Kansas City Star would have liked Robert Altman's "Secret Honor" just as much if Altman were not himself a famous native of that Midwest city. But Richard Freedman writing for the Newhouse chain in the Newark Star-Ledger felt compelled to list both "Plenty" and "Out of Africa" among the annum's finest, referring to the star of both films as "Bernardsville's own Meryl Streep." Oh?
(Lou Lumenick of the nearby Bergen County Record was less moved by his newspaper's proximity to Bernardsville. He was one of the few film critics in the country who objected to "Plenty" as one of the year's worst.)
All this critical hullabaloo demonstrates the one immutable law of film criticism: Just as acclaimed movies such as "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and "A Passage to India" are bound to wind up on someone's worst list, so too do the critical turkeys inevitably materialize on someone else's best. Movie reviewers love to put themselves at odds with their peers -- and 1985 offered the usual gamut of opportunities.
In that spirit the following lists offered of movies that received but one, solitary, courageous vote as the best of 1985:
"Volunteers" (Eleanor O'Sullivan, The Asbury Park (N.J.) Press)
"Macaroni" (Joe Leydon, The Houston Post)
"The Ballad of Billie Jean" (Karen Arnold, The Macon News and Telegraph)
"Perfect" (Nat Segaloff, Boston Herald)
"Revolution" (Michael Ventura, The L.A. Weekly)
Alas, no true canvass of the critics would be complete without a nod to the year's most unremittingly wretched films -- the worst of the worst, bar none. In 1985, natch, the choices were legion. Film critics whittled them down to slightly more than 100. "I could have picked one thousand worst," sighed Rhetts of The Charlotte Observer. She settled for 10, the operative number.
If it was a good year for "The Color Purple," thanks to the palette of Steven Spielberg, and Woody Allen ("The Purple Rose of Cairo"), it was a bad one for any movie with the word "death" or "dragon" in the title. If 1984's worst were nicknamed the Dudleys -- for Dudley Moore -- 1985 might be dubbed the Chevys -- in deference to Chevy Chase, who delivered a triple-whammy in the form of "worst" votes for "Fletch," "National Lampoon's European Vacation" and "Spies Like Us."
Considering the sheer volume of rotgut movies that infested movie theaters last year, Al Walentis of The Reading Eagle compared the year's lesser output to Charles Bronson's line about criminals from "Death Wish 3": "They're like cockroaches. It doesn't do any good unless you kill them all."
Film critics tend to save up their best (i.e. nastiest) salvoes for their most detested film-going experiences, thus achieving a measure of vengeance that any bona fide ninja could appreciate.
Mike Clark of USA Today, for instance, called James Bridges' "Perfect," the body-beautiful melodrama pairing John Travolta and Jaimie Lee Curtis, "on a one-to-infinity scale, the perfect one." The Village Voice's David Edelstein described "The Slugger's Wife" as writer Neil Simon's ultimate cri de bore.
"If I had an enemy and wanted to leave him a mental wreck," observed Kerry Drake of the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, "I'd strap him to a chair and make him watch 'Goonies' over and over." Well, you get the picture. In deference to the besmirched, the vote totals for the leading worst film of 1985 will be withheld. Here they are in ascending order of ickiness:
10. "Death Wish 3"
8. "National Lampoon's European Vacation"
7. "Year of the Dragon"
6. "The Goonies"
4. "The Slugger's Wife"
3. "Rocky IV"
2. "King David"
And the truly worst . . . "the most insidiously awful of the lot," in the words of The Des Moines Register's Bunke . . . the runaway choice of the nation's critics for the worst movie of 1985 . . . ah, what else could it be but "Rambo: First Blood, Part II"?
Indeed, not only did "Rambo" crown this year's cinematic junkpile, but Stallone's macho war fantasy drew more worst votes from the nation's film critics than other movie has in the six years of this survey.
Or, as one film critic might have said to another: This time we get to win.