1986 and All That
Victorino Matus loves the ’80s
Feb 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 23 • By VICTORINO MATUS
I’ve been told 2010 was a great year for movies—everything from The King’s Speech to The Social Network to Inception. Not that I would know. As a parent of two toddlers, I get to a movie theater at most once or twice a year.
The reasons are obvious: In order to escape our parental duties for a few hours, my wife and I need to hire a sitter. This costs money, as do tickets plus soda and maybe a small bag of popcorn—let’s round it up to $100. If we’re going out, we’d rather do it with friends over dinner and drinks.
In theory, we could watch movies at home, but our younger child sleeps in the adjoining den, and the flicker of the screen and the noise inevitably wake her up. As a result, we have retreated to the basement, which has an old television set with no high-definition and no functioning DVD player.
Fortunately, we enjoy watching the classics—by which I mean anything from the 1980s. And because I always hit the info button on the remote to find out when a movie was released, I am in a position to conclude that 1986 was the greatest year in film. Ever.
No, I’m not talking about critics’ favorites such as Platoon, Crimes of the Heart, or Children of a Lesser God. I am, however, talking about movies like Top Gun, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Aliens, Back to School, Hoosiers, “Crocodile” Dundee, and Stand by Me.
So maybe I ought to qualify my earlier statement by saying 1986 was the greatest year in film if you were 13.
All told, I must have seen close to 30 movies that year—usually with my two best friends at the nearby mall, followed by Burger King and the arcade. I can remember how upbeat everything seemed: The economy was humming along, Reagan was cruising through his second term (although the Iran-contra scandal would break at the end of that year), and even the Soviet Union seemed a little less threatening under Gorbachev. Sure, I might be glossing over unpleasant details—I was probably wearing short shorts, an Ocean Pacific T-shirt, and knee-high tube socks—but it was -nevertheless a time of optimism.
On the radio were songs like Wang Chung’s “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” and “Walk of Life” by Dire Straits. On television, NBC’s family-friendly lineup dominated Thursday nights: The Cosby Show, followed by Family Ties, Cheers, and Night Court. And in theaters there was “Crocodile” Dundee, about an Australian from the Outback who is suddenly transplanted to Manhattan—antics ensue! In Back to School, Rodney Dangerfield enrolls at his son’s university—antics ensue! And in Short Circuit, a robot comes to life after being struck by lightning and, well, you know the rest.
There were genuinely earnest feel-good movies like Hoosiers, based on a true story about a high school basketball team from a small town in Indiana that goes on to win the 1954 state championship, and Stand By Me, a poignant coming-of-age story, also set in the 1950s, in which four boys set out to find a dead body. Of course the highest-grossing film that year was Top Gun, which made you want to pilot an F-14 Tomcat, stare down Soviet MiGs, and get the girl (I’ll omit playing beach volleyball—a scene involving shirtless men slathered in suntan oil).
But my favorite movie from 1986 was and is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I was in New York City with my sister who dragged me to see it at an RKO theater on the Upper East Side. It was one of those films I knew absolutely nothing about until it started. In short, a high school senior from the Chicago suburbs, along with his girlfriend and best friend, decides to cut class, no matter the cost. They go to the Mercantile Exchange, a Cubs game, Sears Tower, the Art Institute, and even a German parade where Ferris sings from atop a float.
Much like everything else around that time, the film left you feeling bright and cheery. Even George Will loved it, devoting an entire column to what he called “The Greatest Movie,” by which he meant “the moviest movie, the one most true to the general spirit of movies, the spirit of effortless escapism.” (The essay, from June 26, 1986, is still worth a read. It also generously quotes a certain Joseph Epstein.)
If I had to choose to see 30 movies from today or from 25 years ago, I’d still choose the latter. Sure, we didn’t have The King’s Speech. But we did have Ferris. We also had Space Camp, in which a group of kids accidentally get launched into orbit—antics ensue!
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