The best movies by decade: The 1980s (1-10)

28 Aug

The white powder decade began with a blast. Disco exploded into punk, hardcore, and heavy metal, while the Cold War was losing its chill. Our society was stratifying. The personal computer—once a trope of science fiction—moved from a rarity to commonplace in less than a decade. The cyberpunk notion of worlds within worlds became manifest with the early saplings of interconnected hard drives. A new terminology appeared.

End of the world anxieties surfaced: population pressures, nuclear annihilation, comets run amok and the world itself gone mad with dwindling resources and droughts. Inflation, terrorists, oil scares, it was a time of great escalating violence, brooding eschatology.

Life felt scripted; we were living in a film (and not a very good one, either). To complete the invasion of fiction into real life, a Hollywood studio actor moved into the white house.

Filmwise, any decade would look shabby against the personal, idiosyncratic 1970s. That decade had delivered a generation of visionary filmmakers, serious film nerds dedicated to the medium. The movies focused on the fringe, outsiders being scrubbed and peroxided by a noxious American conformity. What is Travis Bickle, really, other than another rebel forced to confront the limitations of his rebellion? But if the 1970s punished its rebels, the 1980s rewarded them with accolades, riches, notoriety, and absurd body counts. Bickle kills exactly three people; John Matrix, in Commando, kills close to a thousand. Look at Die Hard. Look at Lethal Weapon. Bodies everywhere, and no real accountability. Celluloid life and death became cheap.

The 1980s eased up. Films moved away from social engagement. That dirty realism—that was engaged but never very realistic, really—fell out of favor. The overall tone lightened, although the dark movies resounded with a vicious bleakness that eclipsed all that had come before. It was a decade of visual excess; onscreen violence ramped up to industrial kill ’em all efficiency. There were no musicals, few westerns. The films vacillated between an unbearably light touch (today some feel as substantial as a twinkie) and a hard, excessively punishing vibe.

The big story of the 1980s was the shift towards youth. Blame it on money. The cartoon/cereal/cheap toy/fast food machine reached its grubby hands into cinema. Teenagers and adolescents had susceptible tastes, free time and their parents’ money. They became the market, and we’ve been living with this shift ever since.

But as these were the first movies of this type, they are unself-conscious and in their way, groundbreaking. They had few antecedents; the results, when they work, are fascinating.

Dean Stockwell steals the show in the best film of the 1980s.

1. Blue Velvet/Goodfellas—A beautiful, funny, grotesque, horrifying nightmare of a movie, which vacillates between extremes of human behavior. Home from college, Kyle McClaughlin, upset over his father’s failing health, finds an ear in a field near his house. He reports the ear to the police, and is slowly pulled into an investigation that involves his girlfriend (Laura Dern) a haunted lounge singer (Isabelle Rossellini) and a deranged madman roaming the town at night (a ferocious Dennis Hopper). The movie shifts from harsh realism to dream logic, often within seconds. MacLachlan, Dern, Rossellini and Hopper are all excellent, but the supporting cast of Dean Stockwell and Brad Dourif are superb. Stockwell’s lip synch of Roy Orbison is unparalleled; it’s scary, funny, alienating yet almost wholesome. Goodfellas: It’s tough to say anything new about the best edited, planned, and put-together film ever made. Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco and Ray Liotta yell, drink, punch, kick, shoot and stab their way through three decades of mobbed up New York life. The movie streaks along with an intense visual and aural power. It’s images, music, beatings and dinners and shooting and cards and violence, a stunning collage of brutal pop music fantasia. The effect is a powerful study of restless men in the crime trade, but also a disturbing example of grand technique masking a lack of moral inquiry.


Portrait of the Jewish gangsters as young men.

2. Once Upon a Time in America/The Shining—The Jewish had their mafia, too, and Sergio Leone explores their rise, might and impact in this fantastic, and fantastically underrated, mobster epic. Sergio Leone spent years adapting the source novel, and then years more filming, editing, fiddling. The result is a hard sell: over three hours of non-linear storytelling, with a main character who is suspicious, quiet, and sexually aggressive. The film fell on hard times immediately, butchered by its U.S. distributor. The U.S. release was cut down to two hours, and put in chronological order. It’s a shame, because the long version is splendid. The hard-scrabble Jewish boys in the ghetto, forming up their own little gang, is some of the best stuff cinema ever produced. Ennio Morricone gives the best score of his career—and this is saying a lot. The Shining: One of the greatest horror movies of all time begins as a formal exercise in arch aesthetics. Jack Nicholson and his wife and son move to a mountain hotel to keep watch over it while it’s shut down for the winter. The isolation wears on each of them, as do the ghosts of dead people who keep popping up in their waking nightmares. The hotel carpets, the walls, the rooms, the air—you can smell the place while you’re watching it—the aggregate is an oppressive immersion into a psychological space that feels real.


Woody Allen apes Fellini to great effect in Stardust Memories.

3. Crimes and Misdemeanors/Hannah and Her Sisters/Stardust Memories— Perhaps Woody Allen’s best film, a thrilling drama and a hilarious comedy connected by shared characters, Crimes and Misdemeanors benefits from a great cast and a probing script that doesn’t stray from Allen’s major obsessions: we are living in an abandoned world; man must make his own moral decisions; whatever meaning we ascribe to life is put there by us. There are two stories. The first follows a wealthy, philanthropic doctor (Martin Landau) who has ensnared himself in a foolish affair. His angry mistress (Angelica Huston) threatens to reveal all to his family if he doesn’t get a divorce. The second story follows a documentary filmmaker hired to make a movie about his brother-in-law (Alan Alda), a man he despises. There are a number of other characters in what is perhaps Allen’s best film. Landau is superb, and Huston is so aggressively obnoxious, it feels like Allen is tempting the audience to desire her demise. Hannah: Just a great film, easy and comforting. Woody Allen’s most ensemble piece of filmmaking—there are over ten characters—follows a family of women and the men who cheat, abuse, lie and neglect them. Woody Allen plays a neurotic who turns to various religions when he’s confronted with his imminent demise. Funny, but with a streak of melancholy ten miles wide. Stardust: Woody Allen mimics Fellini, and the results are spectacular. He plays a filmmaker facing a series of professional and personal crises. The movie looks like a sequel to 8 1/2 , and the film’s raw, primal power offers a vicious counterpoint to the funny and gentle comedies of some of Allen’s other films.


One very hot day in the mean streets of Brooklyn.

4. Do the Right Thing/The Verdict—Spike Lee’s best film, where his personal politics, filmmaking skill, and urban aesthetics (on-location shooting, hip hop soundtrack, and diverse, multi-ethnic cast) all combine in a compelling story of race, music, history and culture on an impossibly hot day in the racial incubator of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Lee plays Mookie, a young man struggling with his relationship and his unfulfilling job at an Italian pizza joint, owned by Sal, played by Danny Aiello. Aiello’s sons embody the complicated relationship to their neighborhood: Pino (John Turturro) detests the place, while Vito feels like it’s his home. Two dozen or so characters wander through the increasingly volatile day, culminating in a murder and race riot. It’s a grim, uncompromising film, punctuated by humor, great music and fantastic performances. Just look at the cast: Ossie Davis, Samuel Jackson, Ruby Dee, Giancarlo Esposito, Rosie Perez, Bill Nunn, and even Martin Lawrence. A great New York film. The Verdict: A nail-biting drama about ethics, middle-age, and morality. Paul Newman plays a washed up drunk, an unscrupulous, untidy and not very smart lawyer who discovers a deep, abiding morality in what might be his last case. He is hired to settle a wrongful death suit, against a large Catholic hospital. His client isn’t dead, just comatose without a hope of awakening. His client’s family wants the settlement money to start over. The diocese offers him a settlement, but he refuses. And the white-knuckle legal work begins. It’s a very fine film, dramatic, intense, unpredictable, and Paul Newman’s performance is unforgettable.


Cinema's wildest man lost in the wilderness.

5. The Mission/Fitzcarraldo— One of the only films to realistically deal with religious faith without sarcasm or scorn. Jeremy Irons stars as a Jesuit priest in South America, working with a local tribe to build houses, develop agriculture, and promote beautiful music. The Ennio Morricone score is astonishing, as are the lush on-location shots of waterfalls, verdant forests and tribal villages. Irons and his indigenous peoples achieve a type of working utopia, but trouble comes from the old world. The Spanish cede the territory to the Portuguese, who crave the land where the tribes live. Robert De Niro plays a slaver, who slowly converts to the peaceful Jesuit point of view, only to be pulled back to the violent life by the double-dealing Portuguese. A somber but very fine film, with moments of exquisite beauty. Fitzcarraldo: Werner Herzog’s almost doomed journey into the Amazon is the story of a failed dreamer whose biggest ambition is to build an opera house in the Amazon. It’s a great counterpoint to the calm beauty of The Mission; the wild here is unknowable, unpredictable, and dangerous. The backstory of the film strains belief; Kinski was so obnoxious, he blew off an extra’s thumb with a rifle, and his onset tirades were so inflammatory that, supposedly, the tribal people offered to kill him for Herzog. Herzog’s raw, half-crazed filmmaking—he’s essentially a gonzo filmmaker—is put to great use here in what is the best of the Kinski-Herzog films.

While we're watching the television, it's also watching us.


6. Videodrome/Raging Bull—Still beautiful, still titillating, still shocking. James Woods plays a sleazy television producer who one day stumbles across a low quality show that appears to be a woman being tortured. He investigates, and slowly enters a world where he can’t tell where reality ends and television begins. Twisted, unnerving, beautiful: the arrival of David Cronenburg as a great director of ideas. Cronenburg’s revulsion/fascination with bodily functions is on full display, and his insistence, even now, on making high brow B-movies is the thing that has set him apart from the pack his whole career. It would take years, really beginning with Dead Ringers, for Cronenburg to be accepted as an artist, as opposed to a John Carpenter-esque shocker. (Which, by the by, is a fair analogy; look at The Brood or The Fly to see how his career could have gone.) Raging Bull: A movie that gets so much right, but some things wrong, with an outsized reputation resting on a great performance and three or four incredible scenes. Until The Fighter, it was probably the best boxing movie ever made, but it suffers from at times glacial pacing and a confused moral and narrative point of view. As time passes it becomes less and less clear what Scorsese’s argument is; he seems to be saying that redemption comes in odd forms, that we all deserve forgiveness, but I can’t be sure—do we all, really?—and I don’t think he is either.


Bruno Ganz as a melancholy angel, helping absorb the misery of the world.

7. Wings of Desire/The Lost Boys—Wim Wenders teamed up with Peter Handke to produce a wonderful, shimmering film about earthbound angels, who’s sole purpose is to observe, absorb, and sublimate the suffering of their mortal wards. They live in a black and white universe, devoid of feelings, and they don’t interfere. Bruno Ganz plays an angel who falls in love with a circus performer. His great love leads to his becoming human, which gives the film its emotional core and also the scaffolding of its tragedy. The real coup, and source of delight, is Peter Falk, who plays himself, an actor on the set of an East German production. A complex, wonderful, life-affirming film. The Lost Boys—The best thing Joel Schumacher ever did, connecting the vampire myth to youth culture. A divorced mom and her two sons move to a seedy West Coast city. They discover a disturbing city infested with vampires. The vampires are, in essence, teenagers. They want to sleep all day, romp all night, and do whatever they please in their super-strong bodies. They scare the adults and prey on the children. It’s a brilliant concept, the best take on vampires since Bram Stoker, and the results are thrilling, fun, and at times even elegant. An antsy, timeless little fairy tale.


Michael Douglass as Gordon Gecko, the scourge of Wallstreet.

8. Wallstreet/Platoon—For a brief moment, Oliver Stone was a great director; it didn’t last long. With Platoon and Wallstreet, he made two of the best movies of the 1980s (and Salvador was an interesting, highly watchable failure). Wallstreet follows a young Charlie Sheen, being seduced into the world of high finance by Gordon Gecko, played with a reckless gusto by Michael Douglas. It’s a fast film, staccato dialogue and lots of plot, but the essential story is the journey of Sheen from son of a working class union man to adopted child of Gecko, scion of financial power. Stone’s career offers a fascinating glimpse into how talent and ambition can go wrong. His later films all possess good ideas, but he lacks the coherence to hold the camera still and observe. Platoon is, besides Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and to a lesser extent Full Metal Jacket, the best film about Vietnam. Stone draws upon his own experiences, delivering a searing, personal, and disturbing view of the war on the ground, utilizing a fine cast and great music. It is a troubling film, with its cutthroat themes of loss of innocence and survival, but the film feels so close to the action, so honest and right.


Inspired, comedic madness.

9. Back to the Future/The Terminator—Michael J. Fox is underrated in this very fine movie about time travel, first loves, and taking control of your destiny. Writer Bob Gale stashes all manner of time travel paradoxes in his trilogy of movies, echoing the eternal return of the hero’s quest; in each film, the same scenes keep playing out, in the same way. It’s an ambitious message, and a damned torpedo to the notion of free will. It’s only in the final minutes of the last film does he drop the notion and allow for personal growth. The Terminator: Time travel of a different type. James Cameron’s B-movie science fiction film does something spectacular and new; the action is set before the apocalypse, allowing the action to have a moral weight, with the added bonus of saving millions of dollars on sets, costumes and design. The story is simple: self-aware machines in the future, determined to wipe out their fleshy human creators, send a killing robot back in time to kill the leader of humankind. The adult leader of the humans sends a human emissary to save his former self. It’s a powerful piece of pop sci fi nonsense that prefigures the prophets of singularity that swear of self-aware machines in our lifetime.


Creepy, dystopian vision from the puckish Terry Gilliam.

10. Brazil/Time Bandits—Terry Gilliam’s anarchist paean to the end of freedom and free will. A bean counter (Jonathan Price) in a society over-crowded, over-controlled, and obsessed with nonsensical medical treatments, discovers a clerical error that ruins a poor schmuck’s life. He tries to rectify the error, and runs into a terrorist group intent on overthrowing the bloated government that hides behind a society of capitalism and consumption. Gilliam is the Puckish figure of American cinema, a grand prankster, irascibly talented but distractible, undisciplined and prone to too much weirdness. Still, despite a career littered with false starts and discarded projects, he’s produced a substantial body of work, linked with childlike wonder of the atrocious nature of humankind. This is considered his best, although the much-maligned The Adventures of Baron Munchaussen wears the passing years well, and 12 Monkeys is a minor masterpiece. Time Bandits: A cosmic adventure story linked by comic scenes of history, dream, and unbounded imagination. A lonely boy takes up time travel with a group of lusty, untrustworthy pirates, all little people armed with pilfered weapons from up and down humanity’s timeline. They are looking for a map of the universe, pursued by pure evil. Gilliam makes little effort to qualify or explain his conjurings; later, in The Fisher King, he would attempt to meld his quirky view of the world to the insane ramblings of the city’s homeless, giving some half-hearted social commentary. I like him better here; there’s no need to explain the deranged nature of the world. Not for everyone, but for those so inclined, a unique rumpus of a romp.


One Response to “The best movies by decade: The 1980s (1-10)”

  1. FCM September 1, 2011 at 5:40 pm #

    Woody Allen and Spike Lee do deserve to be on a top ten list, the one of the top ten most hyped but most redundant directors. Woody could have stopped with, “Broadway Danny Rose,” and Spike could have stopped with, “She’s Gotta Have It.”

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