The best movies by decade: The 1980s (11-18)

29 Aug

Philippe Noiret and Isabella Huppert in Bernard Tavernier's Coup De Torchon.

11. Dead Poet’s Society/Coup De Torchon/The Naked Gun—A great movie about being young, and the danger of charismatic mentors. This film holds two stories, and two lessons simultaneously: students being inspired by a great teacher, and students being ruined by an arrogant egotist. The young (or optimists) see it one way, the old (or cynics) see it the other. It is this dissonance that makes this a timeless, moving work. Peter Weir is a fantastic filmmaker. Picnic at Hanging Rock, Witness, even The Mosquito Coast are all intriguing, haunting films, but here, utilizing the tropes of the boarding school story, he crafts a film that is both a celebration of teaching, individualism, life and poetry, as well as a condemnation of living a life without consequences. Coup De Torchon: A great adaptation of a very fine Jim Thompson novel. Moving the action from the American South to French colonies in Africa, the film follows Lucien, a dim-witted cuckold who is tolerated by the townspeople and his superiors because he is so laughably dull. But beneath the banal veneer is a vengeful intelligence who hides his violent urges behind slack features and sad eyes. The sick values of the colonizing French are laid bare, as are the petty, self-destructive vices of small town people. A great original score and a scoured, godforsaken landscape provide the backdrop. Not to be missed. Naked Gun: One of the silliest, dumbest comedies ever made, yet it’s also one of the funniest. It’s all because of Leslie Nielson, who attacks the character and material with class, brio, and panache. He plays officer Frank Dreben, a loveable fool who punches, shoots, insults and kicks his way through a world too complicated for his simple mind to understand. He’s a parody of Dirty Harry, an aged Clint Eastwood without the looks or the brains.


A fantastic, pulpy as hell jaunt through a vicious boy's reformatory.

12. Bad Boys/Diner/The Karate Kid—A guilty pleasure that is also a great film. Sean Penn plays a rough and tumble juvenile who is sent to a detention center after accidentally killing a child. The center is run by two baddies who intimidate anyone who doesn’t do things their way. His rise through the ranks, through guile, fearlessness and a pillowcase full of soda cans is a harrowing journey through adolescent hell. When his nemesis, played by Esai Morales, enters the center, it’s only a matter of time before the two face off in a duel to the death. A pulpy, low-brow classic of blank-faced adults facing violent, amoral children. Astonishing. Diner: Barry Levinson’s first film follows a group of mid-twenties characters as they move through a weekend of Baltimore nights. There are multiple stories, such as Mickey Roarke’s debt to a local gangster, but the movie’s pleasures lie in the scenes of casual hanging out, mostly between the males at the diner. It’s a rambling, funny and melancholy little movie, and the best film Levinson ever made. A superb ensemble cast. The Karate Kid: A great movie about a friendship between two damaged souls. Pat Morita plays a Japanese expatriate suffering through a lonely existence on the petroleum-damaged shores of West Coast America. Ralph Macchio plays a hardened boy picked on by local karate hoodlums. They both deliver sensitive, intriguing performances, and the unfolding of their improbable friendship is fascinating. The movie does some interesting things, including a sly ramping up of bullying, making the villains seem both realistic yet terrifying. The essential figure in the film is John Kreese, the unscrupulous leader of the mean-spirited dojo where the bullies have learned their ass-kicking trade. He’s a careful counterbalance to Morita’s patient, non-violent training. This is the impact of bad teaching and cruel adults.


Ran: A very Japanese take on Shakespeare.

13. Ran/The Road Warrior/Raiders of the Lost Ark—Kurosawa’s stately reimagining of King Lear to feudal Japan is a great example of an east meets west high brow mashup. Many of his familiars are here, following a foolish king who divides his kingdom between two unworthy heirs, leaving out the child who really loves him. It’s all wide shots and long takes, a taxing pace compared to most movies, but beneath the placidity there’s a raging ball of fire. Once the movie heats up, the whole world breaks open. The Road Warrior: One of the rare instances of a sequel that is superior to its predecessor. Mad Max returns here in this Australian B-movie epic about a small band of survivors attempting to hold on to civilization while besieged by the madness of the fallen world. They are the remnants of a once-great civilization locked in a war to the death with a band of homosexual, transgressive, amoral cannibals. It’s silly, yet magnificent. Raiders of the Lost Ark: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg combine to create an homage to the pulp comic heroes of their youth. The results are implausibly fantastic; Indiana Jones—archeologist extraordinaire—shoots, punches, whips, bikes, rides and slides through a trans-global romp in search of the Ark of the Covenant. He’s racing a deranged gaggle of Nazis, and a villainous nemesis in the field. The film charges along with the speed and power of a locomotive, and for sheer entertainment, it’s unrivaled in its artifice.


After Hours: A long night's journey into day.

14. After Hours/King of Comedy—Scorsese really shines in his little oddball side projects. After Hours is the story of one man’s attempts to make it home on a really strange night. The obstacles keeping from his home are myriad, both real and psychological, and New York has never looked so confounding and otherworldly than it does here. It’s funny, scary, unpredictable and weird. And it feels like something cosmic is at stake, this little man’s nightmarish ordeal. Black humor at its finest. King of Comedy: De Niro and Scorsese team up again, this time with a comedy. De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a lonely, introverted talentless little man, obsessed with becoming famous. The vehicle for his passage towards fame is talk show host Jerry Langford, played by Jerry Lee Lewis, giving a peek at the tough, stern-faced (and bitter) man behind the manic mask. De Niro is marvelous and has a knack for comedy. It’s a very funny, cynical and discomfiting little film, a precursor to the awkward comedies of the 2000s.


A bloody little crime film, and arguably the Coen Brothers' best.

15. Blood Simple/Mona Lisa—The Coen brothers first film is anything but simple. They take a standard crime story, basically a riff on The Postman Always Rings Twice, and infuse it with macabre humor, random chance, and idiosyncratic filmmaking. It’s a landmark film, the entrance of the Coen Brothers to the world of movies, and a very fine child of the 1940s noir movies. Mona Lisa: A British take on the American crime movie. Bob Hoskins plays an unlucky tough guy who is hired by a call girl to protect her in this British take on Taxi Driver, only with a redemptive streak. Hoskins emerged in the 1980s as a snarling dwarfish presence. He’s a fierce actor, when handled properly, and with this and The Long Good Friday, he seemed poised to become a new Richard Widmark or Robert De Niro. It never quite happened; instead he’s become a reliable character actor with predilections towards cartoonish overacting. Still, here he delivers a frightening but fragile performance of a violent man who feels every little betrayal in the cockles of his enlarged heart. There’s menace, gunfights and underworld aplenty, held together by Hoskins’s surly snarl.


A bloody romp through ancient history, as man redefines his relationship to the gods.

16. Pixote/Conan the Barbarian/Beverly Hills Cop—A gritty vision of raw youth. Street children in Brazil, at the mercy of thugs, police, predatory adults, attempt to survive in the brutal shantytowns. The movie follows half a dozen characters through a few months of their homelessness. It’s a subterranean tour of a hopeless, pathetic world, but with bright moments of virtuosic filmmaking. A wonderful but grueling precursor to City of God. Conan the Barbarian: Better than you remember, and almost superb. Oliver Stone and John Milius wrote the script, with Milius directing. They harness the rough physicality of Schwarzenegger (and limited English and wooden delivery) by giving him only a handful of lines. A lot of films have attempted to capture the amoral, animalistic horror of pre-recorded history, but I would argue that this movie does it better than the rest. Conan is an orphaned warchild forced into slavery, fighting his way to freedom as an unnamed pit warrior.  He then wanders the world. Max Von Sydow plays an aging Viking king who hired Conan to save his daughter from a snake cult. James Earl Jones adds class and depth as the leader of the cult. The movie would be perfect, really, except for a silly, unnecessary scene with a succubus that is just lame. Still, the final climax is harrowing stuff, and Conan’s prayer to a god he doesn’t believe in is a touching testament to man’s relationship to the gods. Beverly Hills Cop: Eddie Murphy was, for a long time, a potent force in pop culture. He made a number of very good films—Trading Places, Coming to America, and 48 Hours—that were funny, engaging, well made. This is probably his best movie, where he gets to play a tough and funny detective from Detroit, looking for a murderer in the sunny inanity of Los Angeles. The supporting cast is strong, the story works, and Murphy has some great lines. Overall the movie has dated well, and has a touch of the classic. The problem with Murphy is his refusal to reveal the darkness he has inside. He could have been a very good dramatic actor, and his comedies would have benefited from a bit more honesty from his performances. He is dark; look in his eyes during his scenes, when he isn’t being funny. There’s a world of weird menace in there, and like Jerry Lewis before him, he seems incapable of letting it out. As he ages—and this is the problem with all of our funny, manic actors—he seems to be stuck in a mobius strip of his previous performances.


Tim Roth as a vicious neo Nazi thug in Alan Clarke's Made in Britain.

17. Made in Britain/The Hit—Alan Clarke is a tough as nails British director. His films lack much of the window dressing that accompanies most movies. They don’t have clear character arcs, plots, or even arguments. Instead they are a study of social problems through intense, well-shot scenes. Scum, his take on the British juvenile reformatory system, watches like a swift forehand to the throat. Here, he has Tim Roth playing a vicious, bullying racist who despises the juvenile system attempting to rehabilitate him. He is smart, charismatic, and clever, but also violent, unpredictable and mean. He hates those who wish him well, and betrays every small kindness offered to him. The resulting movie follows Roth through five or six scenes, each ending with Roth’s snarling, irredeemable rage. The Hit: Essentially a play with four characters, and a movie that is both artful and commercial at the same time. Terence Stamp is an informant, mellowed out on stoicism and too many drugs, whose luck has run out. Two hitmen, played by John Hurt and Tim Roth, are taking him across Europe to kill him near the bosses he betrayed. It’s a road movie and a thriller, but Stamp’s blessed out weirdness, his refusal to fight, gives the movie a ghostly charm. And John Hurt, a wonderfully bizarre character actor, here gives a great and strange performance.


Bertolucci's ravishing, meditative story of the last emperor of China.

18. The Last Emperor/Breaker Morant—The 1970s and 1980s heir apparent to the Italian cinematic tradition, Bertolucci makes big, operatic films. 1900, for instance, runs over 5 hours long in the full version. (The short version is useless) He’s a flawed filmmaker, prone to moralizing, loose with the English dubbing, and too easily distracted. He’s overrated, too; Last Tango in Paris is an interesting film, as is The Conformist, but they lack something meaty, something human, and have dated badly. Emperor follows the career of the last emperor of China, from his ascendancy as a three year old to his life as an ordinary citizen. It is a beautiful and powerful piece of work, suitably grandiose, although one viewing with swear you off of Bertolucci for decades. Breaker Morant—So many films from Australia are great, and here’s another one. An updated telling of Paths of Glory, here a group of soldiers in the Boer War are charged with war crimes. They’ve executed some Boer prisoners under orders, and now the powers that be use them as deranged lone wolf scapegoats. (Sounds familiar.) It’s an austere, powerful piece of filmmaking, and alongside Gallipoli illustrates the ease with which commanding officers can throw away human lives.


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