Best movies by decade: the 1980s (19-26)

31 Aug

The past's future that looks a lot like the present.

19. The Breakfast Club/Blade Runner—Critically, John Hughes is a divisive figure; commercially, he’s a smash. He treats teenage suffering, angst, and longing seriously, and here shows a world of raw, mistreated youth. The villains are the unseen parents and the bullying school teacher. Here he uses a very strong brat pack cast: Emilip Esteves, Molly Ringwold, Judd Nelson, Alley Sheedy and Anthony Michael Hall. The film has some weak spots, especially the absurd marijuana dance sequence and some of Judd Nelson’s jokes, but in the aggregate it’s a sterling example of teenage suffering made manifest. Too easily dismissed, but not easily forgotten. Blade Runner—A lot is made of this Ridley Scott film. I’ve always been on the fence. It is a good film, but I’m not sure it’s great, partially because I’m so fond of the novel. Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, a detective who hunts replicants, robots that appear to be human, so lifelike that they often themselves don’t know they are fakes. The future looks a lot like the present, only with more pollution, noise, distraction. Ford is at his best when he plays arch, unemotional characters, and here he gets to fumble through the most existential of plots. As he hunts down the rogue replicants, he begins to suspect his own humanity, as well as the humanity of the entire human race. It’s an up and down movie, but when it’s up, it dazzles.

 

An exercise in occult absurdity, but also funny.

20. Ghostbusters/Amadeus/The Empire Strikes Back—No purer expression of the silliness of pure cinema. A great, comedic cast (although some of the humor hasn’t dated well): Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver, Ernie Hudson, Rick Moranis and Annie Potts. The story follows supernatural detectives, of a sort, as they begin their business of capturing and storing ghouls and ghosts. A movie with few ideas, but fun, fun, fun. Amadeus: The legend of Mozart, the angelic composer and rakish man, as filtered through the mad excess of the 1980s. A very fine, very interesting play is adapted to the screen by Milos Forman and the author of the play, Peter Shaffer, with interesting, if at times mixed, results. The music is great, and F. Murray Abraham, who sometimes is prone to overacting, does a fine job as the jealous, insecure Salieri. Tom Dulce is problematic as Mozart; he lacks the gravitas the role requires. The play only works if behind the youthful chatter there’s a great, probing mind at work. I like this film, but I’m not sure it’s going to stand the test of time. The Empire Strikes Back: The story goes that when George Lucas saw a rough cut of the second Star Wars movie, directed by Irving Kushner, he said, “He’s ruined my movies.” Of course, he’s wrong. The second film is stranger, more mythic, and more personal than the all of the others, and the final action scene is the best scene in the entire long-winded cycle. The movie is torn between a half-hearted Buddhist mysticism and a brutal sense of existential hopelessness. The entire film is essentially the brutal extermination of the rebel forces, where mid-level officers chase our heroes from one end of the galaxy to the other. The result is a blockbuster with a chilling, morose center.

 

The Dark Crystal—inspired, puppeteered madness.

21. Blues Brothers/The Dark Crystal—John Landis’s follow-up to Animal House is a larger, bigger spectacle. The basic conceit is Belushi and Akroyd’s deadpan shtick in contrast to the thigh slapping verve of those great soul song and dance numbers, and a placid disassociation with the absurd chaos that surrounds them. There are amazing scenes: James Brown as a reverend; Aretha Franklin as a fed up waitress; the car chase along I-90 and the final blues show. The film has some problems, mainly an outsized reputation based on the individual pieces as opposed as the sum of the parts. But when it works, it’s a hell of a viewing. The Dark Crystal: Jim Henson’s artistic statement about good, evil, and the therefore unseen power of puppeteering. It’s a kid’s movie with ideas. A small, dwarfish creature named Jen, believing himself to be the last of the Gelflings, finds himself caught in a longstanding conflict between the peaceful, agrarian Mystics, and the violent, bird-like Skeksis. Jen journeys across a dangerous, surreal landscape, where he hopes to save the world and perhaps fall in love. It’s a fantastic little movie, better than most fantasies, the otherworldliness of the plot amplified by the strange puppets and plot.

A movie as charming, and cloying, as Matthew Broderick singing in the shower.

 

22. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off/Biloxi Blues—A great movie about the inevitable clash between the old and the young. Matthew Broderick offers a stellar performance as the titular character, a know-it-all wiseguy who is too clever for the adults to understand. He’s decided to take his final day off from high school, taking his girlfriend and best friend along for the ride, and he wants to end his childhood with a bang. Ferris’s flaws are the movie’s flaws. Both are smug, self-involved and too cute. But Ferris’s virtues are the movie’s virtues. Both are charming, funny and intriguing. Biloxi Blues: Mike Nichols’s gift, or one of them anyway, is to make things look easy. Here he adapts Neil Simon’s play about his stint in the army, utilizing Matthew Broderick as Simon’s stand-in. The film follows Broderick as navigates the various personalities of basic training, and his conflict with his drill sergeant, played with laid back brio by Christopher Walken, in what is probably his finest performance. Walken balances his tendency to undercut his films with a smirking irony with a believable, compelling character. One of those movies you can watch over and over.

 

Space laser opera as refracted through the dream logic of David Lynch.

23. Dirty Dancing/Dune—A very fine film about first loves, growing up, and the days before the huge cultural shift of the 1960s. Jennifer Gray is very good as Baby, a well-meaning but sheltered girl from a middle class background. She and her family spend the summer at a family camp retreat, where she becomes infatuated with local dance instructor and absurd hottie Johnny, played by Patrick Swayze. The film offers it’s ideas in subtle, half-concealed flashes—the illegal abortion; the Ayn Rand acolyte; the well-meaning liberal who wants to go on a freedom ride but can’t see the meanness he dishes out to his own staff—and the result is a rare thing: kids see one movie, adults see another. This is a very difficult thing to do, and speaks to the film’s timelessness and popularity. Dune: An underrated blast of science fiction weirdness. David Lynch corrals, and ultimately harnesses, the unwieldiness of Frank Herbert’s epic novel. In the far future, multiple royal houses fight for control of the spice trade. The spice is a drug that allows a specialized guild to fold time and allow for faster than light space travel. The spice is mined from enormous worms that slide and burrow through the desert planet’s vast sandy surface. A large cast of characters war against each other with intrigue, assassins, and outright warfare, all through an idiosyncratic lens of a ritualized, arcane society. The sets, costumes and treatment are simply fantastic. Naysayers should give this film another look.

 

Yes, that's a snake tattoo rising out of his pants. John Carpenter was never subtle.

24. Escape from New York/Batman—John Carpenter had an incredible B-movie run, including Halloween, The Fog, The Thing, Starman, Christine and Big Trouble in Little China, a body of low-budget work that is brutish, nasty, unsentimental, and unparalleled. (Excepting Samuel Fuller, of course.) He deals with the dark, with murderers, ghouls and casual dismemberment. He is not subtle. He is not kind or nice. He had missteps, and his later films are miserable. But in his early career, he is a grand raconteur of the dead and the dying. His movies are often stuffed with ideas. His worldview can be summed up in a few words: the universe is cruel, capricious and violent, full of sucking black stars and dark matter; the human body is frail; and death can come at any time, and it is meaningless. In New York, the island of Manhattan is taken to the logical conclusion of the 1970s crime spree films and turned into the nation’s penal colony. When the president crashes into the island, one man is sent inside to bring him out. Co-stars B-movie experts Lee Van Clief, Harry Dean Stanton and Donald Pleasance. Batman: The 1980s were a great time of grandiose pop posturing. Tim Burton’s stagey, loopy take on the Batman mythology is dark and twisted, and although badly dated and outshined by the recent films, an intriguing take with a dazzling performance by Jack Nicholson as the Joker. He plays it as a murderous, baffling clown, a very literal interpretation that works. His overblown performance steals the movie away from everyone, including Burton, who at times seems a bit lost amidst the jagged sets and smog and rain machines. Still, appropriately grim.

 

An epic characters study of an American communist.

25. Reds/Parenthood/Peewee’s Big Adventure—Warren Beatty’s distills the visual style of Woody Allen, the narrative pacing of Coppola and the social engagement of Elia Kazan. into an epic character study of infamous American communist, John Reed. The film is patient, warm, suitably outraged and honest. Beatty’s acting skills were always meager; he picked good directors and didn’t work much, and the result is a body of work that is impressive, considering his wooden, flat delivery. But, watching this film, which is too long but very fine, it’s clear that Beatty could have been a very fine director.  Parenthood: A suburban take on Hannah and Her Sisters, a comedic romp through the tough challenges of adulthood and parenting. The cast is excellent, especially Diane Wiest, Jason Robards, Rick Moranis, and Steve Martin. Martin and Moranis especially let down their comedic defense shields and show a hard cherry pit of humanity. Look at Martin’s performance in particular; he could have been a very intriguing dramatic actor. This is a very fine movie, funny and touching without being corny. Peewee’s Big Adventure: Who knew that Pee Wee Herman, Paul Reubens’s arrested man child, was such a prescient creation? We can see traces of Pee Wee’s refusal to grow up, compromise, or accept the hard realities of the world in all of our schlubby, fat and soft characters peopling every comedy released. This is a funky little film, a road movie following the ultimate house-bound nerd. Time rests uneasily on this relic of a former age, but there’s something

 

The Running Man: violent, silly, prescient.

26. The Running Man/Raising Arizona—Sometimes it’s the cheesy movies that get so much right. Schwarzenegger had a big-money decade in the 1980s, turning his hard body and weak grasp of English into an improbable blockbuster machine. The films are dated; the blasé violence, from a distance of over 20 years, now seems vicious and nasty; the jokes are terrible; and the acting is, across the board, mediocre. But his body of work does hold little gems, including Predator, Terminator, Total Recall, and later, True Lies. Running Man is a very fine little satire that prefigures the reality TV craze. Schwarzenegger plays a policeman in a totalitarian state who has been falsely accused of committing a massacre. His only way out of a life sentence is to participate in a game show where felons must duel with all-star murderers who hunt them down through a series of combat spaces, all for the delight of the viewing public. Raising Arizona: Inspired lunacy. Nicholas Cage, who when contained by a great director is a very fine actor, plays a dumb as hell thief married to a barren cop. They decide to steal a child from a wealthy family of septuplets. The wealthy father hires a mercenary to track them down, while Cage’s former criminal partners appear to make life difficult for the struggling couple. It’s a Warner Brothers’ cartoon writ large, a slapstick onslaught of stylized violence at a breakneck pace. At any dozen moments the film could have fallen apart, but it doesn’t, and it is this recklessness that gives the movie such machine gun energy.

Honorable mention: The Long Good Friday; The Outsiders; Poltergeist; Highlander; Paris, Texas; Hoosiers; Labyrinth; Class of 1984; Scarface; The Last Temptation of Christ; Chariots of Fire

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2 Responses to “Best movies by decade: the 1980s (19-26)”

  1. ozarkurk September 1, 2011 at 3:02 am #

    Walking back from seeing the just-released Breakfast Club in the theater, my friend, also a thoughtful outcast/veteran of punk rock bands, said “well, I guess that what that movie is saying is that people are really all the same underneath, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.

  2. Sean(again) September 12, 2011 at 9:04 pm #

    The Running Man was, of course, based upon a Stephen King novella (one of 4 released together as King’s Bachmann Books.) The one from there that has always haunted me was The Long Walk. I don’t know that it would film well, but it was a different way of looking at the American love affair with the blurry line between death and entertainment.

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