I’m in the minority opinion that about most of what came out of the eighties was utter dreck. Movies, music, fashion, and television, a good portion of it is dreck that has remained in the public consciousness based solely around nostalgia and people still muddled by their own fond memories of the decade. Since I’m in an eighties mood I thought I’d finally settle our top ten movies of the 80’s, a decade that gave us mind rotting MTV, and Mr. T only to name a few of its crimes, of course. Rounding out our top ten of the decade was not an easy task since it was a decade consisting primarily of disposable fare in the way of comedies and horror films, while the dramas were basically mostly middling fare.
I was, however, up to the challenge. I did set some guidelines of course. Since the 80’s were all about the slasher film, about every slasher film made in the decade is off the table since this list would be filled with them and ruin the purpose. I’m a heavy fan of the “Friday the 13th” series and the like, so it wouldn’t be an interesting list. We also left out most of the Nightmare on Elm Street films, Critters, Gremlins, and most horror films from the decade altogether. We give enough respect to them, here are ten films from the ten years that I thought were the absolute best.
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
Before Woody Allen dived in to the murky realm of mediocrity with pretty faces and melodrama, he directed and wrote films like “Crimes and Misdemeanors” a two fold film about a director stuck in a dead end unhappy marriage contemplating infidelity that could lead down a bad road if he isn’t careful, and an optometrist whose torrid love affair has gone much too far and threatens to destroy every aspect of his life if doesn’t end it as soon as possible.
Hiring his brother to murder his mistress, Judah Rosenthal as played by Martin Landau, is left with the shreds of memories and remorse for his lover, and Allen never quite turns away from the unrelenting guilt experienced when greed and vanity gives way to a cruel death. While Allen is noted for describing his discontent for his own comedic sub-plot, it makes for an interesting case of juxtaposing an affair that’s gone horribly awry, and a possible affair that could go potentially awry if Allen’s character Cliff doesn’t step carefully. In the end both men are shells of their former selves, and Allen went on to remake this in to the putrid “Match Point.” This 1989 dramedy though stands as a personal favorite from Allen’s legacy.
Ordinary People (1980)
Hate and regret can be poison in our systems. Horrific accidents and senseless crimes can bring out the worst in us and muster up old emotions and suppressed resentment within us and our family members and in the case of Robert Redford’s family drama, it’s an endless stream of reminders that nepotism and guilty will always go hand in hand when it comes to certain parents. Redford’s dramatic character study is one of the few dramas that focus in on the subject of tragedy and death that doesn’t wrap up in a nice neat little bow. Timothy Hutton leads a cast of all-stars in a story of Conrad, a younger brother of a beloved young man who almost perished in a horrible boat accident one night.
Conrad, the black sheep, managed to survive while his brother died out in sea. Conrad is sadly forced to go back to his normal life enduring the hatred and neglect from his mother Beth who favored his brother over Conrad, the depression of his put upon father Calvin who must watch helplessly as mother and son turn on one another, while Conrad sees a local therapist as a last ditch effort to retrieve some sense of personal closure and hope to re-claim a life he lost when his brother died so many years earlier. Constantly gripping and consistently compelling, Redford’s drama keeps me going back every time.
Any fan of comedy, laughing, genius, and all around timeless lampoon cinema will want to plant themselves down and watch the 1980 comedy disaster flick “Airplane!” about an airplane doomed to crash unless its hapless crew and control team don’t guide it down on to the ground safe and sound. A spoof of the popular disaster flicks of the late seventies, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker composed a slew of non-stop hilarious one-liners and skits all of which manage to form in to a surprisingly coherent narrative about an ex war veteran who happens on board the doomed airliner with an old love who is a stewardess.
Thanks to bad food that has an unusual side effect, it’s up to him to fly the ship, and that’s if he can stop regaling passengers with his accounts of his love affair, that always ends in a suicide. Tackling classic commercials, the incoherence of jive talk, and breaking all stereotypes by giving Leslie Nielsen one of his first of many comedy roles, “Airplane!” is a non-stop laugh riot that competes for the title of the best spoof of all time and even gives Mel Brooks a run for his money. You won’t have a second to catch your breath.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Pretty much the pinnacle of the “Star Wars” mythology and the signpost up ahead that explained to millions of fans that this just about as good as it gets, “The Empire Strikes Back” is a masterpiece of science fiction cinema. The darker and much more complex sequel to “Star Wars,” Lucas handed the reigns over to Irvin Kirschner who directed a moody and melodic confrontation between good and evil that ends in a lost limb, a fallen hero, and a revelation that changes the characters forever.
Being one of the few youth oriented science fiction epics to end with a dark open ended climax, “Empire Strikes Back” manages to develop these characters beyond their fantasy archetypes established by Lucas in the previous film and adds quirks and idiosyncrasies to every hero and villain who take on black and white and delve in to shades of grey. Luke experiences the full brunt of his force training after the death of Obi-Wan, Leia soon finds something new to fight for in her life, and Han Solo, once the selfish pirate, soon become the valiant hero whose choices ultimately prove to develop his friends for much better and for much worse. “Empire Strikes Back” is that one capsule of eighties cinema that was never again duplicated… but it hasn’t stopped dozens of filmmakers from trying at it.
A Christmas Story (1983)
Pretty much the perfect holiday film for all kids and family members, Bob Clark’s Christmas dramedy revolves around the classic themes of growing up and aiming for your goals, however small or trivial they may be. Reaching down in to realistic themes of materialistic fulfillment, Clark zeroes in on Ralphie, a young bespectacled boy who lives a humble life in the early 1900’s among a bratty little brother, a caring mother, and a working class father stuck in an endless tug of war with hillbilly neighbors.
Involving everything from the first utterance of the F word, Ralphie’s father’s obsession with a leg lamp that also ends up being his introduction in to sex, and his battle with a vicious bully who gets his kicks out of tormenting the neighborhood kids, Ralphie only wants “an official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time,” if only he could convince his parents to buy him one… because he’ll shoot his eye out. What’s a kid to do? Clark’s tale of a boy and his beloved toy has become a bonafide Christmas tradition for yours truly.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Originally George Lucas wanted to buy up some of his favorite fantasy franchises and comprise his own visions for them. When he couldn’t, he decided that he’d make his own big budget knock offs that double as fan fiction. One of them was “Star Wars,” the other was “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Both takes on the space and adventurer serials, George Lucas teamed up with long time rival and best friend Steven Spielberg to direct possibly one of the greatest action adventures of all time that managed to re-invent the way we looked at whips, and how we looked at Harrison Ford.
Doomed to be pigeonholed, Ford managed to make it out of “Star Wars” fandom hell portraying the fedora donning archaeologist looking for the Lost Ark of the Covenant. Beginning a brand new legacy, a brand new franchise, and a hero for people who never quite managed to watch or read the old swashbuckling tales of Allan Quartermain, Indiana Jones is a Jack of all Trades, a man who gets beaten, and torn, and battered all for the sake of restoring priceless artifacts to their rightful places in the world–while declaring his sheer loathing for snakes. Ford set a new standard for the every man as the action hero, and movie buffs have fallen for this mythology over and over again. Jones is a hero for the average man… and not just because he always brings a gun to a sword fight.
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Before Rob Reiner went on to direct a slew of tedious mind-numbing romance comedies, he brought us the immortal cult classic rock documentary “This is Spinal Tap,” the 1984 comedy and Beatles satire about the band that experiences no end of troubles and mishaps when they re-invent themselves for umpteenth time for a new generation. Forced to endure a rabid fan base of homosexual young Asian men, David, Neigel, and Derek deal with the changing of the management, the changing of the accident prone drummers, a fault cocoon stage prop, poorly measured stone henge (“In ancient times, hundreds of years before the dawn of history, an ancient race of people… the Druids.
No one knows who they were or what they were doing.”), intrusive girlfriends, skewed logic clouded by excessive spending (“These Go to Eleven.”), and getting lost on the way to the stage. Played with sharp comedic timing and–let’s face it–pure brilliance by future “Simpsons” veteran Harry Shearer, potential cinematic auteur Christopher Guest, and character actor Micheal McKeon, “This is Spinal Tap” is a bittersweet and incredibly funny look at a band who refuses to become dinosaurs in the changing face of music and public sentiment.
Rain Man (1988)
Recalling a time where Tom Cruise wasn’t a walking pun and Dustin Hoffman wasn’t starring in mediocre drama after drama, Barry Levinson’s “Rain Man” explores the blossoming relationship of two brothers, one whom learns to grow up and accept his priorities when a life of decadence leads him to meet his older brother, the mentally disabled Raymond Babbit. Kidnapping Raymond Cruise’s superficial character Charlie gets much more than he bargained for when he discovers his brother Raymond is much more than a man set to inherit a fortune he can’t claim.
Pure Oscar bait and a genuinely touching and heartfelt tale about the bonds brothers hold with one another only they can understand, “Rain Man” is a wonderful road film that features Hoffman and Cruise at their all time highs, playing off of one another as polar opposites who find common ground and something more than money in a superficial world. Levinson brings us some of the most brilliant moments in film history including Raymond’s counting of matchsticks, his urging to watch Wapner, his frantic refusal to fly on an airplane, and his final meeting with his brother which involves an improvisation from Hoffman that will make any grown man break down and touch base with his brother again.
The Thing (1982)
The remake to end all remakes, the adaptation to end all adaptations (until the prequel arrives), John Carpenter’s horror flick is a classic Monster in the House genre gem that involves a group of Antarctic explorers in the middle of a frozen wasteland void of life all of whom are battling with an unseen and amorphous alien that happens to be the most horrific form of evil they ever have or ever will encounter in their short lives. Filled to the brim with respectable character actors and the immortal Kurt Russell, Carpenter zeroes in on a claustrophobic and nightmarish fight for survival among men who must deal with a being that doesn’t just rob bodies, or identities, but souls in the process sucking the life out of their personality to where it can blend in among its foreign hosts.
This war of course turns in to a battle for self-preservation among humans and extra terrestrial, as the being shifts from man to man taking grotesque forms when avoiding being snuffed out by its human hosts and gives way to some memorable scenes including the dreaded blood test, and the disembodied head that becomes an arachnid. “The Thing” remains a genre heavyweight and is arguably a perfect horror film.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
Pretty much setting the standard for eighties dramatic and cinema and influence almost three decades of misunderstood youths, director John Hughes wrote and directed a bonafide testament to misunderstood youth and alienation in a world that continues to demand so much from its young crowds. Hosting a slew of eighties heavyweights like Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, and Emilio Estevez respectively, “The Breakfast Club” is a lot like “The Big Chill,” except watchable. A group of immensely different high school personas are forced to sit in school on Saturday detention and do their time.
Seeking only to wait out the clock, the day blossoms in to an endless series of confessionals, explorations in to the social and educational obligations that can weigh us down, and the traps many of us are stuck in that we may never be able to pry ourselves out of. Though directed almost thirty years ago, John Hughes’ masterpiece remains one of the most down to Earth depictions of the pressures of teenagers and the decisions they make that will decide how they develop in to adults for better or for worse. They can remake this as much as they want, but for many movie buffs around the world, there is only one “The Breakfast Club.”
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Stand By Me (1986), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), Aliens (1986), After Hours (1985), An American Werewolf in London (1981), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Blue Velvet (1986), Cannibal Holocaust (1980), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), The Fly (1986), Lethal Weapon (1987), Raging Bull (1980), Ghostbusters (1984), Tron (1982)