#1 1982: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

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Let me take you back to June 11-17, 1982. During that week, Larry Holmes knocked out Gerry Cooney to win the heavyweight title, 750,000 attended anti-nuclear demonstrations in Central Park, the king of Saudi-Arabia died at the age of 69, the Falkland Islands conflict between the U.K. and Argentina ended, guitarist for the Pretenders James Honeyman-Scott died of an overdose, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was the #1 movie in America.

Of course, on that last point, you could say that for 17 weeks in 1982. Steven Spielberg’s landmark film was far and away the most successful film of its year, one of the most successful films of all time. In its opening week, though, it held off previous #1s Rocky III and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, as well Spielberg produced Poltergeist. Over its first 12 consecutive week run at #1 it held off a number of iconic 80s films: Grease 2, Blade Runner, The Thing, Tron, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Friday the 13th Part III. Unfortunately, thanks to E.T., I won’t be covering any of those films in this series.

Overall, E.T. grossed nearly $360M on its original release with an extra $75M added on with multiple re-releases, translating to an astonishing $1.3B in current dollars when an inflation adjustment is enacted. This places it as the 4th highest domestic grossing film of all time, behind only Gone with the Wind [$1.8B], Star Wars [$1.6B] and barely trailing The Sound of Music [$1.3B]. Of the ten films to surpass $1B after inflation, it is the only film to have been released in the 1980s -- 2 from the 1930s, 1 from the 1950s, 2 from the 1960s, 3 from the 1970s, and Titanic rounding it out.

You don’t have to adjust for inflation to fudge the numbers of E.T.’s box office success. The film lands at #16 on the all-time domestic chart, only the second film released before 1997. For both domestic and worldwide grosses, E.T. is the highest charter of the 1980s. In fact, it is the only film from the 1980s to land in the top 150 films all time in worldwide gross.

This particular point is interesting given the birth of the summer blockbuster unofficially happening in the late 1970s, often attributed to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Now, older films obviously are at a disadvantage when not adjusting for inflation -- and though theater-going numbers have steadily been decreasing in recent years, there have been massive increases in the number of theater screens today compared to the early 1980s. E.T. peaked on about 1,700 screens, about 2,000 fewer than a typical wide release today.

The advantage a film like E.T. had, however, was longevity and rewatchability. E.T. lived in theaters for a full year -- released on June 11, 1982 on 1,100 screens, it saw its last official week of release end on June 9, 1983 on about 500 screens. Likewise, we often hear stories of people going to see a movie multiple times during its theatrical run in the old days. With limited entertainment possibilities, why not go see a great movie for a third, fourth, or fifth time at the local theater? The thought that it would be coming out on-demand in 3 months or end up on a streaming service in 6 wouldn’t have existed. If you wanted to see E.T., you had only one option.

Oh, and by the way, E.T. is an amazing film. It has a wide family appeal. It is funny, thrilling, unique, full of fantasy, truly iconic. That certainly helps its box office success.

#1 1982: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

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Let me take you back to June 4-10, 1982. During that week, Michael Keaton and Caroline McWilliams were married, Nine won Best Musical at the Tony Awards, Martina Navratilova won the French Open, Dwight Gooden was drafted by the New York Mets, Ronald Reagan met with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican, the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA finals, MLB pitcher Satchel Paige died at age 75, figure skater Tara Lipinski was born, filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder tragically died of a drug overdose at age 36, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was the #1 movie in America.

It isn’t exactly a surprise that The Wrath of Khan was extraordinarily successful -- it is, by popular opinion, the best Star Trek film ever made. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was itself a success in 1979, itself following the incredibly popular television series. With the entire cast returning, there’s no way this could have failed. It grossed nearly $79MM on a reported production budget of only $11MM. Ultimately, this placed it at #6 for the year 1982.

Interestingly, though, The Wrath of Khan had the highest opening weekend of all 1982, besting the previous week’s Rocky III by nearly $2MM. As I’ve noted several times over this project, it wasn’t as normal for a film to debut at #1 with films more likely to roll-out slowly and less changeover at the cinema creating long runs at the top. For this to happen two weeks in a row was quite extraordinary when looking at the year in whole. Only six of the top ten opening weekends in 1982 were the best showing of the week -- actually, the other four openings [The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Friday the 13th Part III, Firefox, and Poltergeist] never reached #1 at all. This would only happen one more time through the rest of the year and that particular film’s long box office dominance is the primary reason why.

One interesting tidbit concerning The Wrath of Khan’s box office is its place in the Star Trek franchise. Surprisingly, it ranks 7th out of 13, which seems to damper the gravity of its success. Looking a little closer at the franchise, however, makes things a little clearer. The top three in the franchise are the three films most recently released: the 2009 Star Trek “reboot” and its two sequels. Given increasing ticket prices, general economic inflation, and much more access to big budget Hollywood releases, this makes total sense.

Even more interesting, The Wrath of Khan trails Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home [I think that’s the one with the whales], the TGN-branded First Contact, and the original 1979 release. Despite the general appreciation for The Wrath of Khan, it seems like it may not have been able to overcome the lukewarm reception of its predecessor, grossing about $3MM less despite showing up in double the theater screens. Overall, though, the Star Trek films have been strangely consistent, with 6 of the 13 grossing between $70 and $82MM. Only four of the films topped a $100MM, which is also a bit surprising.

However you choose to tip the box office numbers of The Wrath of Khan to claim the degree of its success, it remains one of the exemplary entries into the large and long-ranging franchise. Re-watching it with Star Trek Into Darkness [which grossed roughly three times more] in mind is particularly fruitful.

Into Darkness didn’t want to market itself as a re-do of The Wrath of Khan, but the surprise entry of the title villain links them together. Star Trek 2009 successfully reset the terms of the franchise, introducing a new, young cast that held their own with the memory of Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley, Takei, and Nichols, but reintroducing Khan [especially in their secretive way] was a grave mistake. Benedict Cumberbatch is one of the best actors working today, but he couldn’t come close to the menacing philosophizing of Ricardo Montalban, exquisite chest plate and all. His energy truly carries The Wrath of Khan, making it the classic it is remembered as and creating a truly iconic movie villain.

#1 1982: Rocky III

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Let me take you back to May 28-June 3, 1982. During that week, John Paul II became the first reigning pope to visit Great Britain, actress Romy Schneider died of cardiac arrest, Molly Dieveney won the 55th National Spelling Bee on the word ‘psoriasis,’ the upcoming Doctor Jodie Whittaker was born, and Rocky III was the #1 movie in America.

When you think of the 1980s, Rocky III is part of the decade’s iconography. The music, the montages, Mr. T talking about pitying fools and predicting pain, Hulk Hogan gorilla press slamming Sylvester Stallone, there are so many touchstones that are entrenched in the cinematic pantheon. And all this despite also being emblematic of 80s excess and driving the Rocky formula completely into the ground. In some ways, Rocky III seems like an early example of a more modern #1 film at the box office -- a well established sequel from an important and critically loved franchise that has focused in and heightened its basest aspects.

I hadn’t watched Rocky III in many years. Honestly, I don’t know if I’d ever seen it all the way through. Those iconic moments and characters, though, have always kept fresh in my mind. As a huge wrestling fan [Hulk Hogan fan in particular] I always loved the Thunderlips charity match scene. Strangely, the release of Rocky III came well before the height of the Hulkster’s popularity -- he didn’t slam Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania III for another 5 years. Truthfully, Hulk Hogan never was much of a box office draw outside of the squared circle, but his appearance is characteristic to the colorfully broad approach that helped Rocky III become so successful.

Rocky III ended up as the fourth highest grossing film of 1982 at $124MM, sandwiched between future profile An Officer and a Gentleman and recent profile Porky’s. Among its franchise, it places second, interestingly not behind the Oscar winning original but its own sequel, Rocky IV -- the epitome of the series cultural success and stale critical mediocrity. Considering that Rocky IV played in nearly 1,000 more theaters than Rocky III while only out-grossing it by $3.7MM, it is fair to say that this is the actual pound-for-pound champ of the series.

Boxing has become the sports film subgenre that has garnered the most prestige and success over the years. Seemingly every major actor in Hollywood aims to get a boxing film in their filmography while major filmmakers continually expand the unique aesthetic of the “sport of kings.” It is a little surprising, then, just how much the Rocky films lord over the genre from a box office perspective. The top four all-time are all part of the series [IV, III, Rocky, Creed in that order] with Rocky II and Rocky Balboa coming in at #8 and #9 respectively. Rocky V was even a successful film by many standards. When considering all sports dramas, only The Blind Side comes out ahead.

Of course Best Picture winning Rocky was able to straddle the critic vs. popular line, but this really shows how a franchise can be built with a strong baseline followed up with heightened levels of action or comedy or crazy characters or what-have-you. The most surprising thing is that it only held on to the #1 spot for one week. But there is a good reason for that, which will become clear in a few weeks.

#1 1982: Conan the Barbarian

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Let me take you back to May 14-20, 1982. During that week, basketball player Tony Parker was born, the New York Islanders swept Vancouver Canucks in four games to win the Stanley Cup, famed actress and model Sophia Loren was jailed in Italy for tax evasion, and Conan the Barbarian was the #1 movie in America.

After eight straight weeks of Porky’s box office dominance, it took a beefed up real-life superhero to take out those dweebs.

Conan the Barbarian is the perfect convergence of two bigtime 80s genres: the beefed up action film and the fantasy epic. It was directed by one of the most powerful writer-directors of the time, John Milius. And, of course, its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was one of the most iconic actors for nearly two decades. It might not be the pinnacle of either of their careers, but it is an impressive pairing. 

Though it earned two weeks atop the box office, the returns aren’t overwhelming. It did have the fifth highest opening weekend of the year at $13.4MM, but it couldn’t sustain such a high level of success, ultimately at only #17 at the end of the year, behind films that never had a #1 week like The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Annie, The Verdict, Firefox, and The Dark Crystal. Unlike many of the top grossers of the year, Conan the Barbarian was only in theaters for 8 weeks, constantly dropping box office rates and theater counts.

This begs the question: why didn’t Conan the Barbarian fizzle in the public consciousness like many films that had good opening weekends but little sustained success at the box office. The answer definitely isn’t the quality of the film -- Conan the Barbarian might hold up as a genre exercise and for its iconography, but it really is a big, bloated snooze. As the film that firmly put Schwarzenegger on the map, however, it is worth remembering.

This wasn’t the Austrian import’s first time on screen and he was already a massive star in the world of bodybuilding. Here are the films he starred in before Conan the Barbarian: the infamous Hercules in New York [for which he’s credited as ‘Arnold Strong’], an uncredited minor role in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, Mr. Universe drama Stay Hungry, revisionist western The Villain, and a bit part in star-studded comedy Scavenger Hunt. This was a big step for him. Schwarzenegger didn’t have the acting chops or comfortable screen presence that would help him become the biggest star in the world. But he did have the muscles and Conan was the perfect kind of character to break him into superstardom. He could be stoic, a man of few words, and there were few men on the planet that could provide the sheer physicality.

As far as where Conan the Barbarian stands in the career of Schwarzenegger, it is basically where you would expect, smack dab in the middle. Interestingly, though, it ranks ahead of a few possibly unexpected titles, including the film’s sequel Conan the Destroyer [which doesn’t have the same cultural cache, but sequels do tend to outperform the originals], The Expendables 3, The Running Man, Junior, and even The Terminator, the film that truly put Schwarzenegger on his path to world domination. Of the films Schwarzenegger made in the 80s, only Twins [$111MM] and Predator [$59MM] grossed more than Conan the Barbarian’s $39.5MM. Interestingly enough, Conan the Barbarian held off another iconic 80s release for its second week at #1: George Miller’s The Road Warrior.

All the numbers suggest that Conan the Barbarian should be in line with less successful and mostly forgotten fantasy epics like Zardoz and Krull, but it remains one of the more iconic films of the decade because of what it meant for its burgeoning star. When we think about Arnold’s filmography today, I doubt many would put Conan the Barbarian up there with Terminator or Predator or even the later career comedies like Kindergarten Cop, but the image of him shirtless, in medieval costuming, and with a giant fucking sword is absolutely memorable.

#1 1982: Porky's

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Let me take you back to March 19-25, 1982. During that week, Joan Jett & Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” reached #1 on the charts for the first of seven consecutive weeks, actress Constance Wu [Fresh Off the Boat] and race car driver Danica Patrick were born, Iran launched an offensive on neighboring Iraq, a military coup took place in Guatemala, Wayne Gretzky became the first player in the National Hockey League to score 200 points in a season, Cagney & Lacey premiered on ABC, and Porky’s was the #1 film in America.

Porky’s was an unabashed hit with a domestic gross of $105MM and eight consecutive weeks at the top of the box office -- this was ultimately good enough for 5th on the year and one of only five films on the year to gross more than $100MM [#6 if you consider On Golden Pond, which technically opened in 1981 but went wide in ‘82]. Certainly this success helped fuel the film to become one of the most iconic films of the 1980s, for better or worse, with its famous shower scene and general high school boy antics. Though it became the blueprint for every raunchy sex comedy over the next three and a half decades, I have a hard time seeing a film about a group of high school boys who spy on their classmates through peep holes in the shower being made today. And yet, its spirit lives on.

Pertaining to its status as a high school sex comedy, the film remains paramount. It ranks #5 for comedies predominantly set in a high school, which is extra impressive when looking at the only four films that rank ahead: Spider-Man: Homecoming [which quite arguably doesn’t belong in the genre], 21 Jump Street, Superbad, and American Graffiti. Those films either have the benefit of inflation or were made by George Lucas. Porky’s made more money than American Pie, Mean Girls, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, among others, all films that are considered classics of the high school comedy genre.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film’s breakout, especially in reaching #1 right away, is its complete lack of stars. Looking at 1982 in whole, of all the #1 films, you could only argue that only three other films weren’t headline by a big Hollywood star [I include E.T., though Spielberg could be identified as “the star” that drove its early box office]. The popularity of Porky’s wasn’t driven by Sean Connery or Paul Newman or Hepburn and Fonda or Richard Pryor. Instead, its cast list is filled with names you wouldn’t recognize. The 1980s may be decades after Hollywood’s true star system, but upcoming films centered around the likes of Schwarzenegger, Stallone [more than once], and Richard Gere showed that big names could lead films to big numbers.

This was my first viewing of Porky’s [I imagine if I was born about a decade earlier it would have been a classic for me, discovered on a sleepover] and it yielded mixed results. Yes, a lot of the antics were a bit icky, but there actually isn’t as much nudity as I expected and most of it comes from the title night club and not the locker room. I was surprised by how loose the general plot was -- it is made up of a few setpieces, but the meandering flow felt almost out of a Richard Linklater film. This makes more sense when you remember that Bob Clark directed the film. Best known for Black Christmas and especially A Christmas Story, he is known for making big and ridiculous moments. Porky’s isn’t good enough to become an instant favorite in the modern context, but I could see why it achieved an iconic status among the horny young folks who saw it in 1982 and how it inspired so many movies since. It is more of an actual movie than the feature-length shower scene it is often presented as.

#1 1982: Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip

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Let me take you back to March 12-18, 1982. During that week, T.J. Hooker premiered on ABC, PLO chief Yassar Arafat appeared on Nightline, actress Theresa Saldana [Raging Bull] was repeatedly stabbed by a crazed fan, Quiet Riot guitar player Randy Rhoads died in an air crash at age 25, and Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip was the #1 movie in America.

If part of this project is to see how different American box office trends are today than in the past, this could be Exhibit A. Really, it says so much about how differently we consume entertainment in 2018. Stand-up comedy films are still released on the big screen from time to time, though the only prominent comedian I can think that still does this regularly is Kevin Hart. Instead, streaming services, especially Netflix, have cornered the market on stand-up specials, releasing huge event viewing from the likes of Dave Chappelle and Louis C.K. and smaller alternative acts like Chris Gethard and Bo Burnham alike.

From a theatergoing perspective, the early 80s was still a time when going to a movie theater to see a simulcast of a live event was still popular thing, whether a rock concert or a wrestling match. Live on the Sunset Strip wasn’t exactly that, but I think it comes from the same impetus. It is hard to see a live performance beamed onto a movie screen ever becoming a cultural phenomenon ever again.

The star of Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip was the most dynamic and successful comic of his generation -- and still remains one of the most beloved icons of the art form. By early 1982, Pryor was a huge crossover star, having starred in films such as Silver Streak, The Wiz, Stir Crazy, and Bustin’ Loose. He was also an infamous figure, known not for his controversial stand-up persona but also for a freebasing incident where he set himself on fire and ran down a public street.

The thing with Pryor’s controversial material is he is almost always the villain. He’s not attacking others, making fun of victims or the less fortunate. He’s the one sleeping around, he’s the one taking drugs, he’s the one starting fights with his wife [who, as it turns out, was divorced by the end of the year though they did remarry later in life]. The highlight of Live on the Sunset Strip is when Pryor talks in length about that freebasing incident. He is emotionally honest and doesn’t hold back on the ugly things he was going through but the tone keeps it from being self-deprecating. He’s cool and confident about his exploits, being completely honest about his flaws, which is disarming after being funny. Like any good comic, though, he can go off on a ten-minute tangent about African safaris and gazelle with the exact same energy.

A fun connection: during the opening credits sweep up and down the Sunset Boulevard, a billboard advertising Absence of Malice is visible. This makes me wonder: how quickly was this film turned around? According to Wikipedia [never wrong], the comedy album version of the set was recorded over two shows in December 1981 and January 1982 -- with the film being released in March, the film was completed and in the can in about two months. I imagine that stand-up films are generally pretty quick to produce, but this seems pretty impressive.

Stylistically, this looks like most classic stand-up or concert film. There is a multi-camera set-up which cuts seamlessly around the punchlines -- the natural flow of the conversation makes it easy to know when to make the cut. Occasionally, there is a shot of the laughing audience, a diverse L.A. crowd [a young Jesse Jackson is noticeable at one point]. The simple style keeps the focus on Pryor and the comedy. There is no stage dressing, complete darkness around Pryor in the famous red suit, a single spot light adding a halo of glow around him.

As long as I keep this project going, Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip may not be the last stand-up comedy film I’ll be looking at. It wouldn't even be the only Richard Pryor performance I’ll be looking at. How times at the movies have changed.

#1 1982: On Golden Pond

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Let me take you back to January 22-28, 1982. During that week, a huge snowstorm covered much of North America, the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals in one of the most thrilling Super Bowls of all time, Air Supply was named as best pop/rock band at the American Music Awards, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat opened on Broadway, Ryne Sandberg was traded from the Philadelphia Phillies to the Chicago Cubs, Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman were married, and On Golden Pond was the #1 movie in America.

This is the first film in the series that managed to hold on to the #1 spot for more than a single week, which was definitely more of the norm at the time. This happened after an incredibly successful limited release, with theater averages approaching or exceeding $100k in two or three theaters over its first seven weeks. Once it then expanded to over 500 theaters [and eventually over 1,000], the word-of-mouth and good critics' reviews helped it gross over $6 MM per week for the next 11 weeks straight. It would hold on to #1 for 7 consecutive weeks, holding off such films as Raiders of the Lost ArkRedsTapsChariots of FireArthur, last week's #1 Absence of Malice, among others.

Undoubtedly, part of On Golden Pond's success was the bump it received from the Academy Awards. Because of its limited release at the end of 1981, it was eligible for the 54th ceremony which took place in March 1982. Overall, On Golden Pond received 10 nominations, the second most of the year [behind Reds, which had 12], including major awards nominations in Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It would go on to win only three, but before the statues were handed out it was clear that this was considered one of the best films of the year and should be seen during its perfectly timed expanded release.

Even if you've never seen On Golden Pond you probably know that it stars screen legends Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn in their last major roles. They star as an aged couple enjoying their quiet life at their vacation home on the title body of water. Can't really say that either were box office stars at this point -- partly because there just isn't much data, though mostly because neither star were actively in major theatrical films [Guess Whose Coming to Dinner was a hit, for example, but that was released 14 years earlier]. The novelty, for lack of a better word, casting these two icons in what must have been known as their last real go-round, coupled with the praise for their performances [they would both eventually win the Oscar] gave it more than enough legs.

It also helps that this is a film with the most possible narrative appeal. It is perfectly wholesome, a quaint and simple drama. It may have been looked at differently at the time, but the way the film approaches topics of sex, in particular, is awkwardly cute. The way it reveals that its old stars aren't total prudes is fun. Still, crabby old people interacting with younger generations is a classic comic blueprint and On Golden Pond is just funny enough to add seasoning to the overall tone.

Is On Golden Pond a true classic today? Younger generations probably aren't going to care to discover it or have any sort of nostalgic connection, but it remains notable for its performances and success on the awards circuit and the box office. It also holds up fairly well as a modest, lightly comedic drama. And as I've seen my grandparents showing more of the effects of their age, On Golden Pond has more personal bittersweet poignancy.

#1 1982: Absence of Malice

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Let me take you back to January 15-21, 1982. On that week temperatures across the U.S. hit 100-year record lows, NBA star Dwyane Wade and musician Joanna Newsom were born, Ozzy Osborne bit the head off of a bat on stage in Des Moines, Iowa, Little Me opened on Broadway, and Absence of Malice was the #1 movie in America.

We kid about Netflix crafting entertainment through a fancy algorithm while Absence of Malice was made 37 years ago. It is a complete entanglement of prestige cinema: part newspaper investigation, part gangster film, pairing a classic star in Paul Newman with recent Oscar winner Sally Field, directed by Hollywood stalwart Sydney Pollack. There’s intrigue, there’s a dangerous romance, there are procedural aspects. It is a big, polished piece of entertainment.

While Absence of Malice may not have held up in the cultural conversation as these many parts may have been designed to, this is precisely the type of film we are thinking about when calling one of today’s crowd pleasing, Oscar-baity prestige pictures feeling something like a classic form the previous era of cinema.

In the film, Field plays a tough newspaper reporter who catches wind of a connection between the seemingly clean son of a known mobster and a missing union leader. Unaware that her source has intentionally misled her to put pressure on Michael Gallagher [Newman], she becomes entangled in conspiracy and a potential romance.

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, which must have helped its pre-ceremony box office. It was Paul Newman’s fifth Best Actor nomination, though his first since 1969, so this may have been seen as a comeback for the star -- though he never really went away during the 70s with work in popular films like The Sting, The Towering Inferno, and Slap Shot. Former newspaper editor Kurt Luedtke’s nominated script [he would win a few years later for Out of Africa] brings insider knowledge and terminology of the journalism profession.

Frankly, much of Absence of Malice is pretty dull. It might be too specific to journalistic lingo while also being a pretty cheesy [and insanely unprofessional] romance. Also, unlike most journalism films, this isn’t about the intellectual heroism of the profession, but actually a pretty bleak look at the repercussions of when the news gets it wrong -- this may be a timely theme, but creates for a strange tone. The film is saved, however, by a fantastic conclusion, a 20-minute scene with all the principal characters locked together in a room to deliberate the legal implications of what the plot has covered. Wilford Brimley of all people shows up as the scene’s moderator in a fantastic supporting turn. With all these ingredients together, I can see both how it ended up at the top of the box office and a possible influence on other films while also not surviving as a classic in its own right.

The most interesting thing about Absence of Malice’s success is unquestionably its journey to the #1 film in America. According to Box Office Mojo records, Absence of Malice took 9 whole weeks before landing at #1, a feat that makes it #2 for all films it has data for [A Fish Called Wanda was in theaters for 10 weeks before being tops]. This phenomenon was much more likely to happen in the 1980s when fewer released films allowed for longer runs and the most distributed films topped out at little more than a thousand screens. That isn’t to say it is completely unthinkable today, as the most recent film to hit #1 after 5 weeks in the theaters happened in 2015 with The Revenant, a film that had a very slow and gradual release schedule before going mass after a slew of award nominations. January is actually a pretty popular month for this to happen, as well, with 16 of the top 26 films on the list opening at the end of the year before hitting #1 during the doldrums of the notorious dumping ground month.

#1 1982: Time Bandits

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Let me take you back to January 8-14, 1982. That week, the Cincinnati Bengals defeated the San Diego Chargers in negative 59 degree temperatures to with the AFC Championship, Honduras officially adopted a constitution, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson were elected to the MLB Hall of Fame, Kate Middleton was born, and Terry Gilliam’s fantasy adventure Time Bandits was the #1 film in America.

Part Princess Bride, part Bill & Ted, the premise of Time Bandits is as enjoyable as it is radical. Living a comfortable, all-too-boring life in the idyllic suburbs, young Kevin is surprised by a pack of time traveling wannabe notorious criminal dwarves who crash through a portal in his bedroom closet. Together, they go on increasingly dangerous escapades through time, rubbing elbows with the likes of Napoleon, Robin Hood, and the ultimate evil. With the perfect Gilliam style, it is highly satirical of consumer culture and a champion for the underdog. It is fun, irreverent, full of heroics, appealing for children and adults, and also a pretty big box office hit.

Despite being in half the number of theaters as its opposition in early January of 1982, Time Bandits grossed $8 MM more than the second placed re-issue of Disney’s Cinderella. Its $37 thousand screen average over the week is exceptional even by today’s standards.

This might just be hipsterism on my part, thinking the film is too interesting for mainstream audiences to get, but the success is a bit surprising. Time Bandits was incredibly ahead of its time in blending its caustic style of humor with fantasy and horror genre elements. Terry Gilliam was no stranger to comedy, obviously as part of the Monty Python gang, but taking that generally adult and highly absurdist humor and plopping it squarely into a kids’ film must have been pretty risky. As the 80s went along, this style would become more the norm in films like Gremlins and Ghostbusters and the oncoming PG-13 revolution. Sure, Time Bandits has something to owe to The Wizard of Oz and probably other films that came before, but the complete product still today feels fresh.

It is ambitious in its narrative scope and philosophical themes, audacious for creating legitimate heros out of thieves. It challenges child audiences in the best ways possible. The final thematic question of “why is there evil in the world” is a concept most parents would rather avoid, yet it has become an increasingly important one. Sure, the evils depicted in Time Bandits isn’t exactly on the same wavelength of what we see in the news today, though the cartoonishly heightened embodiment of Evil and his dimwitted henchmen can be legitimately scary and certainly cruel. The film doesn’t pull any punches in exploring death or hate.

The other interesting aspect of the film’s success is its cast. Yes, Sean Connery is in the film, but in a very minor role, basically just one scene, though likely enough for marketing purposes. There is a fun supporting cast all around, including Monty Python vets Michael Palin and John Cleese, as well as Ian Holm, Shelley Duvall, and David Warner. Again, none of them really household names, nor major players in the film. The entirety of Time Bandits is spent with a young boy and half dozen dwarves. If the film were made today, no doubt there would be some Snow White and the Huntsman CGI effects to implant known actors into the roles. Perhaps Warwick Davis would be cast, Peter Dinklage probably passes on the remake.

Unsurprisingly, the central cast is amazing and perfect for Gilliam’s sensibilities. Not only are they authentic to their roles, they are hilariously funny, full of personality and with great chemistry. OK, the child audience surrogate Kevin is a bit whiny, but the performances of David Rappaport [Randall], Kenny Baker [Fidgit], Malcolm Dixon [Strutter], Mike Edmonds [Og], Jack Purvis [Wally], and especially Tiny Ross [Vermin] are irreplaceable. Giving them a profile they’d never had before and sadly never would get again, this group completely relishes the opportunity. They give extremely confident performances without any pretension or self-awareness.

According to Terry Gilliam, the box office success of Time Bandits allowed him to complete and release his follow-up, the weirdo masterpiece Brazil. Of course, it wasn’t as seamless as that, but it is a bonus on top of how wonderful Time Bandits remains. In terms of the filmmaker’s career, it is in an interesting sweet spot of being his most accessible, mainstream film that doesn’t water down the style or voice of its unique auteur.