The great and the good films of the eighties were often box office failures, re-discovered within a few years by audiences and critics on video, as home entertainment brought a whole new world to audiences and the movies. Suddenly audiences could watch the films at home, on their TV by renting a video, which became a huge success, and video rental stores popped up all over North America. Within a year of release a film was on video, sometimes longer, and there were holdouts from directors and studios who believed films should be seen on the big screen, though eventually they gave in to the new toy that would help save the business. Suddenly it was possible for a film that initially failed to be found within a year and celebrated for the work of art it was, rather than waiting years, which had been the case for Citizen Kane (1941) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). An example might be Blow Out (1981), celebrated by critics, but audiences stayed away in droves, only to find the film on video, making it something of a cult classic. The new medium would allow audiences of the next generation and beyond to be the best educated film audience in history, simply because of the sheer availability of the films. I remember coming home for the weekend from college, and Dad having been among the first in our area to buy a VCR would stop at the video store and I would rent ten movies. It was like John’s wet dream, movies at my fingertips. Suddenly I could see films I had wanted to see again, films I had not seen, and foreign language work that had not made it to the theaters in my area. It was incredible.
The decade began with another nail in the coffin to help bury the directors era, when Heaven’s Gate (1980) a forty four million dollar western was savaged by critics and actually pulled from the release schedule of United Artists. The film would eventually bankrupt the studio, which was bought by MGM, and made clear that indulging directors and their inflated egis had become dangerous. Oscar winner Michael Cimino, with just two other films under his belt as a director, one of them The Deer Hunter (1978) was indulged to the point of idiocy, insulting his employers, refusing to speak to them, sending memos’ that they were not to speak or look at him while on set, all sorts of silly garbage like that. When the film failed, few mourned Cimino who seemed to be due for a major come-uppance, having developed an ego that was simply out of control. He got it, the come-uppance, rarely working again, his name synonymous with failure, self indulgence and waste.
If anyone director understood the excess of the seventies and early eighties it was Steven Spielberg, who cut back the budgets on his films and seemed to take pride in making a film for fewer than ten million dollars. The failure in 1979 of his war comedy 1941 left the young whiz kid with his first taste of failure, and he did not like it one bit. Like Cimino, he let his ego get the best of him and went through nearly forty million dollars on a comedy that was not at all funny. You could see where every cent of the budget was on the screen, but the movie did not work. He learned, oh did he learn. Neither Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), which looked expensive or E.T: The Extraterrestrial (1982) were costly films, yet made a fortune for their respective studios and Spielberg evolved as both an artist and producer, careful with the money of the studio he was working with to create his film. His colleagues, De Palma (Blow Out; 1981), Coppola (One from the Heart; 1982), Scorsese (New York New York; 1977) and Friedkin (Sorcerer; 1977) all had major failures which impacted their careers, but only Scorsese would truly recover and achieve greatness along with Spielberg. All the greats of the seventies continued to work and for the most part put out excellent work, though Spielberg was by far the most prolific. Scorsese, De Palma, Allen, Pollack, Lumet, and Beatty all had excellent films in release through the eighties, but as well, each struggled with at least one failure, sometimes more. And Coppola, the man who had owned the seventies? By mid-decade he was a director for hire, unable to get films he wanted to make green lit, fighting bankruptcy and tragically reeling with the death of his beloved son. The best of his post Apocalypse Now (1979) was the experimental, surrealistic Rumble Fish (1983) which sadly very people saw at the time of its release, or frankly, since. He enjoyed some success with Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), a lovely time travel romance, but by this time he was broke, fighting bankruptcy, and now seriously considering directing The Godfather Part III (1990) to get out of debt.
Viet Nam became a comic book on the big screen, with stars such as Gene Hackman, Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone portraying characters that go back to Viet Nam and somehow manage to win the war all by themselves, in their own special way. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) was downright insulting, with dreadful dialogue, pathetic homespun patriotism that was laughable, and Stallone, defying all odds of surviving human endurance to pain and loving his country…still. It would take Oliver Stone’s superb Platoon (1986) to put an end to those stupid films, a film of unflinching honesty and raw power, based on Stone’s own experiences in Viet Nam as an infantryman. Made for less than seven million, the picture was a powerhouse at the box office grossing in excess of one hundred and fifty million, winning four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, but more importantly seemed to bring a greater understanding about the war from moviegoers.
And finally MTV, music videos would have a profound effect on movies, dumbing them down as it was. If a story could be told in two or more minutes on video for a song, why did films have to be so long, and why could they not as polished, as clean? The results were films influenced by MTV, all style over substance, as deep as the paper they were written on. The best films of the eighties come at the beginning of the decade for the most part, and though there were impressive, often daring films made later, if you look at the years of the films listed, you will find, seven of the top ten made before 1985, and seven of the fifteen runners up also made before 1985, when the influence of the seventies still raged on.
THE TEN BEST AMERICAN FILMS OF THE EIGHTIES (1980-89)
1. RAGING BULL (1980)…Though not an enjoyable film, not a date movie or something you put on for fun, the artistry in Martin Scorsese’s seething Raging Bull (1980) cannot be denied. The biography of Jake LaMotta, a middleweight champion in the ring in the forties and fifties, who was unable to control his anger and rage out of the ring, making the lives of anyone near him absolute hell. The first scene, in which we see LaMotta (Robert de Niro) shadow boxing before a fight tells the entire story right there, a man fighting himself through the course of his life. With demons we see, anger, jealously, self loathing, but that he is unable to control, LaMotta will alienate everyone he loves or who loves him (or tries to love him) from his life, beating his first wife, driving his second away with his incessant, near psychotic jealousy, and his beloved brother, his manager with wild accusations finally attacking him in his own home in front of his wife and children. De Niro gained eighty pounds for the film’s later sequences, and is astounding in the part, the finest work of his career, a true method performance. Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty as his brother and second wife respectively are each sublime, neither equaling the superb work they do here. The black and white cinematography sweeps us back to the New York of the forties and fifties, romanticizing the city but not the lead character, and Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing is as always, perfection. The director manages to place the audience in the ring with LaMotta to allow us to her what he hears, and see what he sees. One of the most savage films ever made about one of the most repellant men who ever fought professionally. A dark and unsettling masterpiece.
2. E.T.: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL (1982)…Steven Spielberg’s magnificent fantasy about a wise, little alien stranded on earth, who is found and befriended by a lonely little boy, who takes him home and cares for him remains one of the most deeply movies I have ever seen. The two forge a strong bond that evolves into something far beyond friendship, in fact a deep love for one another, each bringing out the very best in one another, their humanity? Henry Thomas gives an astonishingly real performance as Elliott, the child who finds the alien, and at first fears him, but then realizes the creature means him no harm. When E.T. learns to speak, it is Elliott who will help him set up his machine in the forest, so E.T. can phone home. And what the alien gives to the boy!! A soaring midnight ride high above the forests on his bicycle, healing a cut finger at the touch, and something more, teaching the child to look into his heart for the answers to life, always trust the heart. The goodbye scene is heartbreaking, and beautifully cited by Thomas and the rest of the cast. People forget that this little boy did most of his acting with a large creation of latex rubber, with cables coming out of his back, operated by a group of men. He had no other actors standing up there with him feeding him that all important energy…he found that himself. Spielberg’s direction is perfect, the performances sublime, the cinematography, visuals and pure sound genius, and that John Williams score is one of the best in film history. A dream of a film, with Christ metaphors, from the poster into the movie, healing, performing miracles, promising to be with the boy even after he is gone, resurrected and ascending to the heavens, all make the film a bliss out. Arguably the finest film of Spielberg’s career though would go with Schindler’s List (1993) and they would be right.
3. TOOTSIE (1982)…The greatest American comedy ever made and also the finest film ever made about the art and craft of acting. Dustin Hoffman gives the finest performance of his career as Michael Dorsey, an actor not unlike Hoffman, a perfectionist which means he is seen as difficult, one who will argue for what he believes in, meaning money will be wasted on set, something they cannot afford on film and TV sets. Unable to get work in LA or NY, he dresses as a woman and lands a network daytime drama (back then a soap), changing his identity to Dorothy Michaels. Before he knows he is a big star, as Dorothy, and she becomes something of a symbol for women standing up to men and fighting for their rights. But Michael feels trapped by what he has done, by being Dorothy and worse he has fallen head over heels for his co-star, Julie (Jessica Lange), who becomes his best friend, when he is Dorothy. Smartly directed by Sydney Pollack as a farce, the film moves along at a brisk pace, so fast sometimes you might miss the extraordinary dialogue within the film. Pay attention to the sequences with Bill Murray, hysterical as Michael’s droll playwright roommate, and the scene with Pollack as his agent George, where we gain an understanding of the depth of devotion Michael has to acting. What is astonishing about Hoffman’s performance is that partway through the film we lose Michael, he’s gone, and we see only Dorothy. Wow. Critics loved it, so did audiences, and the Academy, which gave the film ten nominations and a single award for Supporting Actress to Lange. Hoffman was robbed, horribly robbed, because this was not just the best performance of the year, but one for the ages.
4. REDS (1981)…Warren Beatty had long wanted to make this film about radical writer John Reed who penned the eyewitness account of the Bolshevik Revolution Ten Days That Shook the World in 1917. An American communist, Reed would marry Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) and through their turbulent marriage they would cover the First World War and the Revolution in Russia that saw the overthrow of the Czar by the people. An intimate epic, often vast in scope, the film never once loses sight of the fact it is about people and a cause that mattered dearly to them, a cause they were willing to die for. Beatty soars as a director, in particular the scenes of the Revolution to the strains of the anthem Internationale, and again as they travel by train in the desert, spreading the word about the Bolsheviks and communism. As Reed he is outstanding, but it is the supporting actors who steal the film, in particular Maureen Stapleton as anarchist Emma Goldman, and Jack Nicholson as lonely, lovesick playwright Eugene O’Neill, who fell in love with Louise Bryant. Keaton is marvelous as Bryant, a woman growing before our eyes into a substantial human being and writer. Each capture the ferocious passion with which they are devoted to their cause without ever once going over the top. Nominated for a whopping 12 Academy Award it won a mere three, for director, supporting actress (Stapleton) and cinematography. How it lost Best Picture?? Who the hell knows?
5. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)…The gasp in the theater was audible, loud actually when Darth Vader hissed to Luke, “I am your father”, suddenly sending the Star Wars saga into a very different area than straight forward science fiction adventure, The second film from the very beginning had a depth the first lacked (as good as it was) and emotional ties between the characters began to happen. Vader is Luke’s father and Han Solo and Leia fall in love which makes it clear that suddenly these characters have a great deal to lose. Luke goes to Dagoba to train with the ancient Jedi master Yoda, finding him to be a tiny little reptile looking creature with astounding powers and grand hopes for the impatient Luke. Directed by Irvin Kershner, obviously with George Lucas looking over his shoulder, the film was richer than Star Wars (1977), darker, certainly more complex with finer acting and stunning visual effects. Is it not generally accepted that this film was better than the first? Or more, the best of all the Star Wars film? I thought it was from the first moment I saw it, gasping right along with the other shocked patrons in the summer of 1980 when Vader confessed the secret, suddenly making the film about something, giving them a dramatic heft that had none been there until he spoke that line. Along with the love story which emerges between Han Solo and Princess Leia, suddenly the film became very human. The film is on a grand scale, from the ice planet Hoth, through to Yoda’s swamp, and finally to that fight between Vader and Luke in which Vader admits he is the young Skywalker’s father. I got chills. Still do. Who saw that coming????
6. TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983)…The best film about the mother-daughter dynamic ever made, something we guys will never understand and frankly, are not meant to comprehend. Anna might back me up here, maybe not. There is something that grows between the, perhaps unspoken, but there forever. I saw with my wife and her mom, my sister and our mother and with Sherri and our girls. Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) is a rich widow with one child, a daughter, Emma (Debra Winger) and the two possess a love-hate relationship. Aurora adores her daughter, but always believes she could be doing more with her life, more with herself as a person. When she marries Flap Horton (Jeff Daniels), Aurora predicts a rough time for Emma, and she has no idea how right she will be. Flap turns out to be serial cheater, even after his wife has given him children, and when Emma is found to have terminal cancer he finds he does not have the stuff to handle it, continuing to betray his wife. Aurora can handle it. Faced with losing a child, the most horrible thing that can happen to a parent, she reaches down inside herself and finds the strength to be there with Emma, to do what Flap cannot, which is care for his kids, and to remind Emma of just how much she is loved. The performances in the film are first rate, with MacLaine and Jack Nicholson earning Oscars for their work, Nicholson at his most likable as the astronaut next door Aurora falls hard for. Winger is superb as the defeated life force Emma, who expects less out of herself and life than her mother, but learns to love what she does have, and appreciate her mother’s devotion. Directed, produced and written by James L. Brooks, his first film after years of TV, this one is a knockout, and deeply human. It is a film Sherri and I loved together, we named our daughter Aurora, but one I struggle to watch now, after her battle, and loss to brain cancer. Believe me it hits home with the truth.
7. AMADEUS (1984)…Based on the Broadway play of the same name by Peter Shaffer, who adapted his play to the screen, director Milos Forman insisted the play be opened up to include life in Vienna during Mozart’s short life. The director wanted to see streets teeming with people, audiences enjoying the opera both at court and among the common people, he wanted the characters and time to come to life. Forman also wanted to cast unknowns when every major actor in Hollywood wanted to be in the film. Al Pacino wanted to be Salieri, as did Dustin Hoffman, while Kevin Bacon and Tom Cruise (yep) were considered for Mozart. Luckily the director chose relative unknowns, F. Murray Abraham as Salieri, and Tom Hulce as Mozart, each man having made a few films, but not widely known by anyone really. As the raging old man Salieri, who believes himself responsible for the death of Mozart, Abraham is a revelation, creating a portrait of a man consumed with jealously, knowing that the work of Mozart is timeless, just as he knows his own is doomed to be forgotten by the passing of time. As Mozart, the obscene child, Hulce is terrific, capturing what is known about the composer through letters he wrote, his fascination with sex, bodily functions, his adoration of games and his constant challenging of the rules, knowing because of who he was he could often break them. Forman makes Mozart the rock star of his time, with his clothes and wigs shaded purple and pink, and the absolute confidence that his work is the finest. And that laugh, that braying, hysterical laugh that seems directed right at Salieri. The pain that wrinkled old Salieri feels as he lives through his own music becoming extinct is shattering. One of the greatest studies of genius as compared to mediocrity ever put on screen. Eight Oscars including Best Film, Director and for Abraham, Best Actor, which took right back to off Broadway plays and obscurity.
8. BLOW OUT (1981)…John Travolta had been nominated for an Academy Award for his superb performance in Saturday Night Fever (1977) and later did fine work in both Grease (1978) and Urban Cowboy (1980). He was the biggest star of his time. Did anyone though suspect that there was a hugely gifted actor lurking under those dreamy looks? Indeed there was, and as Jack Terry in this top notch thriller from the gifted Brian de Palma, Travolta for the first time was playing an adult, leading critic Pauline Kael to compare his performance with the brilliant, early work of no less than Brando. Hefty praise indeed, but accurate. As a sound man who records a murder and then is drawn in a political scandal while trying to help a young woman, Sally (Nancy Allen) out of a terrible fix, Travolta is mesmerizing. Watch him with his microphone, waving it like a conductor in front of an orchestra creating magic or listen to his voice as he retells his story about the terrible failure with the police that left a man butchered. Focused, yet haunted by his failure in the past, Jack Terry is a most flawed, most real human being, who wants to do something for once in his life. His final scenes in the film, where he utters the words, “That’s a good scream…good scream” will break your heart as he listens over and over to someone he once again failed, haunted forever by this one. Superbly directed by De Palma, this is his masterpiece, shot with genius and edited with crisp precision. Nice work from Nancy Allen and John Lithgow as a hitman who kills young women to create a diversion, hoping the police will think a serial killer is on the loose. Dark, breathtaking magic.
9. EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987)…A rarity for Steven Spielberg, a box office dud. Released in late 1987 the film won Best Picture and Best Director awards from the National Board of Review and seemed poised for Oscar glory. Spielberg was up for the DGA Award as Best Director, but when the Oscar nominations were announced, the film was absent from the top categories. A stunning slap in the face. I saw the film the same day I saw The Last Emperor (1987) which eventually won nine Academy Awards, and for me there was no comparison, Spielberg’s film was the stronger picture. Based on the J.G. Ballard book, which was based on Ballard’s own experiences, the film explores the life of Jamie (Christian Bale) a twelve year old British boy in Japan, who is separated from his parents by accident and placed in a POW camp in Japan for several years, where he is left to his own vices to survive. And survive he does, becoming a nonstop moving force of energy, striking deals with everyone, getting something for something each time, weaseling and worming his way through the years, doing what it takes to stay alive. Bale is superb as Jamie, but again this is a Spielberg film, and once again his direction is magnificent. The scene where the boy is re-united with his parents after so long is haunting in its gentle subtle power, and with the bodies washing into the Japanese harbor, we see finally, all that remains of Jamie’s childhood, his battered suitcase, floating among the dead.
10. HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986)…It begins with a jaunty score and the introduction of the characters. From there the film breezes along like a well created and executed piece of jazz, each character like a note in a piece of music, each as important than the last. Hannah (Mia Farrow) is one of three sisters (yep, Chekov connection), and somehow she is the only one that is not dysfunctional though unknowing to her, certainly her marriage is. Her husband, Elliott (Michael Caine) is in love with her sister Lee (Barbra Hershey) while her ex-husband Mickey (Woody Allen) has fallen in love with her other sister, a recovering drug addict, Holly (Dianne Weist). Thus we move through the world that these people inhabit, with others moving in and out, allowing us to grasp what is in their lives and what is not. Weist is sensational as she always seems to be with Allen, winning her first of two Oscars for Best Supporting Actress, while Michael Caine won for Best Supporting Actor for his work here. Mia Farrow is luminous, and Allen himself is very funny, but what struck me about the film is the manner in which it moves, how the characters move, and their wonderful relationships with one another. Without question one of Allen’s very best films. The critics loved it in Los Angeles and New York, and incredibly it was Allen’s biggest box office success until Midnight in Paris (2011). Just magnificent.
- BLUE VELVET (1986)
- THE SHINING (1980)
- DO THE RIGHT THING (1989)
- GLORY (1989)
- THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)
- PLATOON (1986)
- ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984)
- THE RIGHT STUFF (1983)
- WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? (1988)
- CRIMES AND MISDAMENORS (1989)
- UNDER FIRE (1983)
- BLADE RUNNER (1982)
- RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)
- SHOOT THE MOON (1982)
- CASUALTIES OF WAR (1989)