Tag Archives: Coen Brothers

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


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.