There is something rather fascinating about the 1980s. I feel like a lot of the sensibilities we feel in our pop culture today stem from how things evolved in that decade from entertainment all the way up to the effect that politics had on society, particularly that with the Presidency of former actor/Governor of California Ronald Reagan…and what a horrific reign that was.
People either seem to really love the 80s or hate the 80s for a lot of its entertainment offerings. I am more inclined to say I love it rather than hate it, but it is certainly true that the quality of film dipped after coming off such a high in the 70s.
The 80s definitely did have its fair share of fantastic films when you dig through the constant barrage of slasher movies…and I also feel the 1980s brought us more films of a lighthearted nature that were willing to be mentioned alongside the heavy-hitting dramas that tend to permeate these kinds of lists. Let’s see what you think of the following:
The Elephant Man
Hannah and Her Sisters
When Harry Met Sally
#10-The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985-Woody Allen)
-When Woody Allen made this film, it was actually something of a departure not just because of its setting outside of New York or how it took place in a different time period (the 1930s), but because it was only the second time in his career up to that date that he chose not to appear as a character in one of his films. I think this was a wise decision as he didn’t really fit as any of the characters plus it gives the film an extra dose of whimsy without him there to sort of pull us out of it.
#9-Cinema Paradiso (1988-Guiseppe Tornatore)
-After having something of a slump for the previous decade, Italy’s film industry got a boost of sorts when Cinema Paraidso was released to passionate raves at the Cannes Film Festival and began new resurgence in their film output. The reason I personally love this movie is not that far removed from the general critical consensus: it feels like a true love letter to cinema, and it also pays great homage to the works of Federico Fellini in particular. The story revolves around famed Italian film director Salvatore Di Vita who is grappling with a past that seems all too typical at first: a distant relationship with his father. The remarkable thing about Cinema Paradiso is that it wasn’t so much a story of distance due to disagreement but rather distance due to love. Sal’s father, Alfredo, runs a movie theatre during the 1950s and teaches his son how to run the movie projector…he also witnesses the horrors of censorship when a local priest demands that several feet of film be cut from the reels that depict romance/kissing…and soon after, young Sal has to deal with his own heartbreak when a relationship he longs to have doesn’t pan out…which leads to his father telling him he must leave this small town and never return or write to anyone….he has dreams that are worth more than what he and this town can provide him. The ending, which Sal returns to the town for his father’s funeral, his a famous moment in which Alfredo left him a film reel that contains all of the romance/kissing scenes that the local priest demanded be cut years before…and Sal watches with tears in his eyes. Simply put: a film about cinema and love…and yes, it is, indeed, a paradise.
#8-Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988-Robert Zemeckis)
-Although movies like MARY POPPINS utilized the technique first, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was the first film to truly perfect the concept of putting live action sequences and animation on the screen at the same time with seeming ease. The final result was a triumph that managed to ignite the box office and critics with the same fervor but of course…the Oscars didn’t bite aside from a couple of technical wins. Private Detective Eddie Valiant (played by the underrated Bob Hoskins) is vowing to never help “Toons” again after one of them kills his brother Teddy during a bank robbery investigation…which sets up that “Toons” move about and act in their own films just as we humans do in this world. Things end up taking a drastic turn Valiant ends up having to exonerate a Toon named Roger Rabbit, who is being accused of killing a wealthy businessman. With his beginnings with this film and particular the first film in the BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy, Robert Zemeckis proved himself to be a great director that was worthy of being Steven Spielberg’s protégé…though a lot of that vitality would disappear once he fell down the rabbit hole of FORREST GUMP in the 90s.
#7-Fanny & Alexander (1983-Ingmar Bergman)
-It may be a drama about the death of a father…and it may deal with child abuse at the hands of a new stepfather…and yes, it may seem a little more conventional than his previous efforts…but damnit, if anyone is going to make a “conventional” film feel like pure art, it is going to be Ingmar Bergman. In what was intended to be his final film before he retired, Fanny & Alexander tells the story of the two titular siblings who are coping with their mother’s new marriage to the rather strict Bishop who takes to abusing Alexander in particular for his vivid imagination. When their mother, Emilie, refuses to stand for this abuse and requests a divorce, the Bishop Edvard tells her it would be considered desertion and the children would then remain in his custody….and thus begins a battle of wills for her to maintain custody of her own children despite the efforts of this new horrific man in their lives. In some ways, Fanny & Alexander feels lighter and more hopeful than Bergman films typically do…and it also just goes to show that he COULD make the kind of films that might’ve gotten him more praise and attention if he really wanted to…but he didn’t…and he stood his ground…and with this film, he did manage to get another Oscar nomination for Best Director along with another win for Best Foreign Language Film…but it was the best film of 1983 in my eyes. Much like his SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE ten years prior, this film actually began as TV Miniseries that ended up getting cut down for a theatrical release first before the original lengthy version was seen. That version has since been seen theatrically and is one of the longest films ever made at 312 minutes. Either version is fantastic but once again, I recommend the original full version if forced to choose.
#6-Ordinary People (1980-Robert Redford)
-One of the biggest complaints among those who know the history of the Oscars is how Ordinary People beat RAGING BULL for the Oscar. At the time, the latter wasn’t as strongly received but I do agree that DeNiro deserved his Oscar and I think Scorsese should’ve won Director. However, ORDINARY PEOPLE is unfairly treated and I feel it more than deserved its win…plus its emotional punch is certainly a major plus. I have always been a sucker for the domestic drama as a genre where dysfunction reigns supreme, and here, not only is there extreme discomfort, but we get Mary Tyler Moore cast against type and she is fantastic as a cold and emotionally distant mother who can’t cope with the fact that her favorite child died in a boating accident while the other son, Conrad (the brilliant Timothy Hutton) managed to live and then tried to commit suicide out of guilt since he couldn’t save his brother. All the while, Donald Sutherland is there as the warm and giving husband Calvin and then, in another stroke of casting genius, Judd Hirsch is the blunt psychiatrist who is tasked to help Conrad cope. Robert Redford ended up winning the Oscar for directing this and while he did a fine job, he wasn’t my first choice. Having said that, he showed great instinct with his casting choices and then…for better or for worse, he started a trend of actors turning into directors which led to the likes of Warren Beatty, Richard Attenborough, Kevin Costner, and Mel Gibson winning Oscars (and only Beatty deserved his but I digress…). I will always defend and stand by Ordinary People and it does seem to be getting a better reputation in recent years…which makes me happy.
#5-Tootsie (1982-Sydney Pollack)
-I feel Tootsie is a movie that isn’t often mentioned when discussing the best films of the 1980s but it is also a film in which I rarely hear a negative word mentioned about it. In fact, I feel like most film fanatics think it should’ve won Best Picture over GHANDI (unless you really loved E.T. THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL). While SOME LIKE IT HOT is often considered the granddaddy of men in drag in film, I feel like Tootsie represents a more interesting take on the concept because Dustin Hoffman’s character of Michael Dorsey finds out more about himself and becomes a better human being while acting as an alter-ego, Dorothy Michaels. Hoffman gives what may be my favorite performance of his career as Dorsey, a very temperamental actor who can’t find work until he decides on a drastic whim to go audition in drag for a female role on a daytime soap, a role he learned about when his friend Sandy (deliciously played by Teri Garr) tried to get the part but was denied an audition strictly based on her look….then he gets the part. A recent musical adaptation for Broadway which was adapted for modern times proved that a lot of what made the film work can’t really be done as well nowadays (not to mention an incredibly disappointing score by the typically brilliant David Yazbek), but for the early 80s, Tootsie was close to perfection.
#4-My Dinner with Andre (1981-Louis Malle)
-1981 was a great year for Louis Malle, a film director that doesn’t get a lot of discussion nowadays. Truthfully, his other film from that year (ATLANTIC CITY, which got an honorable mention) was of a success in terms of what he brought to the screen. In the case of My Dinner with Andre, he was helped by the fact that we got a passionate debate between Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn which made for a film that was so invigorating even though it took place entirely at a dinner table at the Café des Artistes (though it wasn’t actually filmed there). However, Malle’s contribution can’t be ignored…and these two men are brought to life with such vigor that you never thought watching two men at a table could be more rewarding than say…most of the films that were nominated for Best Picture that year (which happened to include ATLANTIC CITY, which deserved its nomination).
#3-Amadeus (1984-Milos Forman)
-I always love it when a great play becomes a great film, especially when the playwright themselves can rework the material so it can done on a more thematic level. Peter Shaffer more than exceled here adapting his 1980 Tony Award winning play Amadeus to the big screen, which tells the story of one particular legend around the death of famed child prodigy turned classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart…in this case, that his death was actually brought upon by a bitter rival of his, lesser known composer Antonio Salieri. On Broadway, Salieri was played by Ian McKellan while Mozart was played by Tim Curry…..what a fucking duo that is! For the film, Czech director Milos Forman opted to cast one relatively unknown stage actor (F. Murray Abraham) as Salieri and Tom Hulce, an actor primarily known for his performance in the raucous comedy ANIMAL HOUSE, as Mozart. Both of these actors would primarily focus their careers on the stage after this except for a few scant film appearances, but for this film, Forman did manage to find gold with them. Told through the backdrop of an elderly bitter Salieri narrating the history to a Priest following his attempted suicide, we watch as Salieri explains his history and connection to Mozart, whom he considered a juvenile vulgarian, and how that would lead to him causing his death. It would go on to sweep the 1985 Oscars and managed to become quite the success despite the expectation that people wouldn’t care about such a stuffy story…but it ISN’T a stuffy story…and yes, it is basically hearsay but it is damn good hearay with a stellar script, lush direction, gorgeous designs, and fantastic performances…even a young Cynthia Nixon shines in a brief role proving what a wonderful character actress she would soon become.
#2-Do The Right Thing (1989-Spike Lee)
-It took nearly 30 years for Spike Lee to win an Oscar after the controversial snubs he received for Best Picture and Best Director for his work on Do The Right Thing, a very tense tale about racial divides on a steamy hot summer day in then rather seedy Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, or is it is more commonly called, BedStuy. The film that won Best Picture that year was DRIVING MISS DAISY, a film adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning Off-Broadway play that revolved around the growing friendship between a wealthy Jewish widow and her African-American driver in the segregated South. While a nice film, it was certainly something of a very bland take on race relations. Then you have GREEN BOOK, the movie which won Best Picture of 2018…and pretty much immediately became one of the more derided winners in recent memory. Why? It was one of those “white-savior” movies in which a white person, often racist, ends up turning around and becoming a savior for civil rights due to their friendship with someone who is black…and it just so happening to be another moving about driving someone (in this case, Dr. Shirley, a cultured pianist, who was performing in the segregated south and he happened to be black). Once this win occurred, Spike Lee (who had won Screenplay for his film BLACKKKLANSMAN) reportedly tried to leave the theatre in a huff only to be reprimanded to return to his seat (which the fact that security did that to him is appalling). The truth is even Lee’s movie wasn’t my favorite from that year…but his crown jewel still remains Do The Right Thing. Everything that is wonderful about the vibrancy which is Spike Lee’s talent as a filmmaker is on full display here…and for an added touch, he plays the film’s lead opposite the recently deceased Danny Aiello as a racist Pizzeria owner with whom he ends up challenging. The film should be seen and experienced by everyone…and it will always remain one of the most glaring and unforgivable snubs the Academy ever gave to a film.
#1-Blue Velvet (1986-David Lynch)
-After the opening credits, we get an iconic opening montage of various dreamlike shots of small town suburban America as Bobby Vinton’s song “Blue Velvet” plays to set the tone. It all seems like some kind of fever dream of a colorized “Leave it to Beaver” world and then we see a man suffer a stroke and then a metaphor of dirty things beneath the surface as the camera pans into the grass as we watch worms squirming about. If I were to pick one movie that left a profound and somewhat indelible impression on me from the moment I first saw it, it would probably be Blue Velvet. Having said that, this might be the most flawed film to be given the honor as my top choice for the best of a decade. So why does it get that honor then? David Lynch is the most well-known and respected surrealist filmmaker to have come out of Hollywood and despite the fact that he is capable of writing his own scripts, a lot of his films rely on the story and the atmosphere rather than the dialogue…and while this film does have its fair share of memorable dialogue, it also suffers from some odd structural pacing near the end (more than likely due to Lynch having to cut the film down from nearly 4 hours to 2 hours) and, something else that is a staple with Lynch, erratic performances which can sometime be fantastic or fairly weak…or both. While this isn’t as overly apparent as it often is in his other movies (ex: MULHOLLAND DRIVE where you get a stunning performance by Naomi Watts and then a horrific performance by Billy Ray Cyrus), you do get scenes where I feel like the sincerity doesn’t quite come across, like Kyle MacLachlan’s “Why are there people like Frank?” speech followed by the corny monologue from Laura Dern…and yet we have Dennis Hopper as one of the most despicable villains ever captured onscreen, Frank Booth….and that is a performance that should’ve won him the Oscar. Blue Velvet is a mystery that swirls around a woman…which is essentially a staple that Lynch revisits again multiple times (the TWIN PEAKS franchise, LOST HIGHWAY, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, and INLAND EMPIRE)…and a young man who becomes obsessed with unlocking the clues to it. Despite its very blunt and abrasive nature, Blue Velvet is also something of a good selection if you wanted to have a good gateway into the world of Lynch. The storyline/script is fairly straightforward so unlike a movie like ERASERHEAD, LOST HIGHWAY, or MULHOLLAND DRIVE, this movie seems like a good blend of his surrealist style while also being accessible in terms of how the story is presented…even though it is film that created a firestorm of controversy upon its release due to its sexual content, particularly a scene in which Dennis Hopper brutally assaults Isabella Rossellini, who endures the abuse (which she actually seems to like) in order to keep her husband and young son alive while they are held hostage by Hopper’s character. A movie as polarizing as Blue Velvet is why I find film criticism so fascinating because it can show how people find brilliance in different places…and sometimes, it may take a passage of time for you to grow to appreciate it. I think British film critic Mark Kermode, who actually said he despised the film when it came out, said it best, and this is a slight paraphrase: “I didn’t hate Blue Velvet because it was a horrible film. I hated it because it was a very good film…and I was not good enough for it”. It made people angry…as it should have…it did its job.
The 80s didn’t feel like an artsy decade and I feel like a lot of my films here are either more populist or based on pure entertainment value…but in the end, I do love these films and I think that it was a very interesting decade to follow the genius we got doused with during the 70s. Going into the 1990s, I feel like indie movies begin to slip into the forefront and we see another uptick in high quality foreign films as well. It is certainly a very eclectic decade before the general quality in film would dip post-2000.