Friday, December 17, 2010

MY FAVORITE MOVIES: 1980 to 1989

According to a book I read a number of years ago, the popular movies of the 1980s (or the Reagan Era) were formulaic, conformist, and emphasized enhanced screen shots and special effects over storytelling.  Two movies the writer did enjoy from the decade were Personal Best and The Fabulous Baker Boys.  The author was mistaken, however, in believing these two movies were any less formulaic.   The movies did attract smaller audiences and contained above average characterizations, but both of these movies also were extremely introspective studies of unusual relationships that appeal to moviegoers who think they are smarter than the rest of us.  These two movies were not bad, but neither movie can be watched more than a couple of times while still retaining any kind of fascination for the viewer.  What is interesting is the implication of the author that the political mood of the country was responsible for the alleged poor quality of movies throughout the decade – thus throwing Ronald Reagan’s name into the title of the book.  Personally, I think that 1990 to 1999 was the worst decade for movies, but it would be foolish to blame President Clinton for that.  The willingness to blame our political culture for everything in any case is as na├»ve as suggesting that politics never plays a role in anything.  Short of being jailed or executed for taking a stand, politics should never prevent a moviemaker from saying what he wants.
Most critics usually say that Raging Bull was the most important movie of the decade.  Released just as the decade was beginning to open, it contains that same kind of introspection as Personal Best or The Fabulous Baker Boys.  With the possible exception of The Elephant Man (released the same year) I believe Raging Bull was the first black and white blockbuster released in almost two decades (I’m willing to be corrected on this) and this gives it the feel of watching championship fights during the forties and fifties.  Stylistically speaking (if we forget that the fight scenes are no more believable than those shown in any of the Rocky movies), it is one of the best movies ever at setting a mood.  And Robert DeNiro, Cathy Moriarty and Joe Pesci give their best performances.  I just can’t get over the fact that a talented director like Scorsese would create a movie about a world champion without saying one redeemable thing about the man.  There is no development of the lead character as we never get a chance to see him grow-up or regress (it would be impossible for him to get much worse) during the entire movie.
There of course were movies made during the 1980s that did not follow a formula.  I believe that the movies listed below are about as diverse as those for any decade since movies have been made.  So here, in order, are what my favorite movies from the 1980s were:
(1) The Elephant Man (1980): Sentimental and disturbing, this movie shows us the worst of about everyone (including the enlightened and educated).  The story takes place in Victorian England, but it could just as well have taken place in any country during any era.  The tormented and deformed creature at the center of this story was more human than any other character in the film.
(2) Roger & Me (1989): Michael Moore’s straightforward documentary about autoworkers who were laid-off at the General Motors plant in Flint.  What Moore makes clear is that neither politicians, celebrities, businessmen nor social gadflies could care less about the workers.
(3) The Big Red One (1980): Sam Fuller’s World War II flick about an infantry squad led by an officer played by Lee Marvin is one of the best war movies ever made.  The squad members are both believable as kids barely out of high school and as trained killers.  Stephen Spielberg later borrowed (if not stole) the manner in which the fighting at D-Day is depicted.
(4) Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987): The protagonist played by Ryan O’Neill, after binging on some sort of drug concoction, wakes up from his stupor only to find his girlfriend’s head setting next to him in the front seat of his car.*  He then spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out if he’s the one responsible for this.  Norman Mailer wrote the novel and directed this movie that, if anything, is wilder and stranger than Pulp Fiction.  Lawrence Tierney gives an incredible performance as the father, afflicted with cancer, who will not allow his son to become a failure as a man.  He and the son “deep six” in the ocean the decapitated heads of several victims - for which the son could be implicated on murder, and for which the son discovers he was not guilty.
(5) Year of the Dragon (1985): A sort of sequel to The Deer Hunter, Mickey Rourke plays the police detective who is still fighting the Viet Nam war against the Chinese Mafia in New York City.  This movie was at first dismissed by critics for the intensity of its violence, but it’s this very intensity that allows us to uncomfortably get to know a deeply conflicted character that was formerly an American soldier in Southeast Asia.
(6) Mona Lisa (1986): Bob Hoskins plays a tough ex-con who attempts to redeem himself so that he can once again be a father to his young daughter.  He does this by not allowing himself to be drawn back into the seediness and sickness (vividly depicted) of the London underworld.  You can tell it was filmed in England by the thick accents.
(7) The Road Warrior (Mad Max 2) (1981): The phenomenal futuristic movie about what’s left of the world after the Nuclear Holocaust.  Some characters survive by being scavengers, and others survive by remembering their humanity.
(8) Runaway Train (1985): Great prison break movie with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts playing the inmates who strive for something better.  Voight’s philosophical musings in the vernacular of a felon give the viewer much to think about.
(9) Wall Street (1987): Oliver Stone’s best movie.  It’s all about people who make money off of other people’s money and never add one thing positive to anybody’s life.
(10) The Mission (1986): Two Jesuit Priests in Brazil attempt to find their own version of religious redemption among the native people.  The aristocrats among the jungle people are, of course, superior to the aristocrats from Europe who had come there to destroy them.
Some honorable mentions include the overly long crime story Once Upon a Time in America.  Amazingly, the actors who played the characters as children are better than the actors who played the characters as adults (which included Robert DeNiro and James Wood).  Diner and Tin Men are a couple of excellent and often sad comedies.  A Christmas Story is one of the best of all sentimental Christmas stories.   Sid and Nancy is also good, but it hardly qualifies as a sentimental Christmas story.  And 48 Hours is a great story about two police partners, Nick Nolte (who always does a good job of acting) and Eddie Murphy (who for once does a good job of acting).  There are many other movies that would take too long to mention.

There are a few notable movies I’ve left out.  Platoon was a decent attempt at a war movie, but it seems so much like an imitation of Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter that I can’t call it anything special.  And every other movie that won an Oscar for Best Picture during this decade (beginning with Ordinary People in 1980 and ending with Driving Miss Daisy in 1989) happens to be extremely average at best.  (The formula for winning the Oscar for this decade seemed to be as follows: “Let’s impress the viewer with the sheer length of the melodrama – remembering that only melodramas win best picture awards, maybe throw in a few exotic locations, and hope that they will forget how boring the movie really is.”)  Other movies like Blue Velvet and Brazil were imaginative movies that I can only enjoy if I’m in a very strange mood.  And the director of The Big Chill seemed more concerned with basing a movie upon a good sound track than creating a sound track that would fit into a good movie. 
Movies I would still like to see during the 1980s include Blade Runner, which for some reason I have never seen, Casualties of War and War of the Roses.  I’m sure there are many others I’d enjoy that I’ve never thought of watching.
* Correction: O'Neal actually finds the head in his stash of marijuana that was located close to where his car was parked.  I'm getting the book and the movie confused with each other.  However, the front seat of his car was covered with blood making it somewhat obvious that there may be a problem.

January 3, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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