Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Acidemic Best Films of the 1980s

Ugh, February, the month of hassles and cold and weariness. Slogging towards March like a slouchy Bethlehem that evaporates on clammy handed contact. Another March 2nd means another year older for your humble narrator, another step closer to the grave. I've been looking for a way out, and I found one --the past, thirty very odd years ago, to the 80s! NatGeo is showing their entire 80s series today - Sat. March 1st -- right now they're saluting Reagan. And now skate parks...

To me, the 1980s begins and ends with the arrival of VCR (starting with a Betamax vs. VHS war).

I had to assemble this list to combat the best of the 80s lists on the web that all either include nostalgia-invoking propaganda like Ferris Bueller (which I loathe on principle) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (I saw it eight times in the theater as a kid, it was the second pre-recorded VHS tape I ever bought at the then cheap price of $39.99) or acts of admittedly brilliant but manipulative pop like Tootsie and Terms of Endearment.  Don't think I don't love some of them too, in my fashion and can quote them endlessly (because of the VCR), namely, Tootsie and RaidersWas ist los? Warum schläfst du!? Nobody cared... nobody showed. Blow it up! Blow it back to God! That is one nutty hospital. Too bad you don't speak Hovito, you might have warned them! I could have done without the dancing. Truth is... truth is you were okay company. Why don't you tell where the ark is, right now? Michael, I begged you to get some therapy. The charmer's name was Gaffe... I'd seen him around. Wait, that's Blade Runner's now excised voice over, and thank god - how we hated that damned voiceover. We all hated the 80s, until 1987 of course, when we discovered we didn't have to live in it at all. We could hide in the 60s.

10. PASSION (1982)
Directed by Jean Luc Godard

We invariably come to any film with pre-set responses to cinematic iconography. Godard assumes this and intentionally screws with our narrative-based expectations. We're made aware of how dogmatically we're conditioned by a lifetime of filmgoing and story hearing. When a film adheres too closely to predetermined narrative formulations, we have cliche; when a film deliberately screws with them we have Godard: a medieval knight on a horse is seen trying to scoop up a naked, running maiden while racing a horse around a circular spinning scenery wheel --thunderous classical music on the soundtrack, hoofbeats, her frightened panting and shrieks--this generates a certain preconditioned response: will we see this chick being carried off? Will we see the hero ride to her rescue? Where is this hero? Your stomach might clamp in suspense, used to a thousand permutations of the same violation. Suddenly the horse pulls up short so it doesn't bump into a moving camera; the naked maiden runs off set and hides behind the cameraman; he rides after her; she climbs up into the lighting rigging to escape; the knight dismounts and goes to have a smoke... (more)

9. AKIRA (1988)
Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo

The quintessential cyber punk anime, Akira occurs in a riot-scarred "Neo-Tokyo" on the verge of some massive unnamed catastrophe and peppered with amok biker gangs, conspiratorial cops, cute anarchists, flying vehicles, telekinetic mutants, and teddy bear hallucinations, all so gorgeously illustrated that time melts and even the tear gas flows gorgeous enough to leave your already-dropped jaw so low it distends off your skull and HDMI-ready flesh tendrils reach out, connecting your tongue directly to the screen.

The plot may hinge in the end on one of those typical Asian male friendships between misfits, one of whom goes crazy, but there's a cataclysmic beer-after-liquor-never-sicker sort of apocalypse as government-sponsored Methuselah syndrome psionics try to reign in the crazy friend who's become godlike and fallen in love with smashing half the city. When things get quiet enough you can hear Walt Disney's frozen head explode.

8. MOONSTRUCK (1987)
Directed by Norman Jewison

Does a mainstream film like this really belong on a disreputable site like mine, you ask? How dare you? What would you put instead, Tootsie? I thought about it, but it hasn't aged well. We've grown hipper about patriarchal subtext so we're hip to Dustin Hoffman's whole schtick, that he's a better mother than Meryl Streep in Kramer Vs. Kramer and that that he knows more about feminism than all women in Tootsie; and also that awful Stephen Bishop song ("It Might Be You") by itself is enough to keep it off this list. But Moonstruck looks to the great Italian operas for its soundtrack, and it's the best Cher role ever; her chemistry with Nicolas Cage sizzles. He was a relative unknown at the time but brings such mushmouth ferocity to lines like "Gimme da knife so I can cut my froat!" and "I'm going to take you to da bed" that we all would have fallen off a cliff for him if he asked. Between this and Raising Arizona (also 1987) and The Vampire's Kiss (1988), Cage's effect on us was akin to what Brando must have been 30 years before, same mix of madness, heat, wit, beauty, and ferocity all unleashed at the right time to electrify an entire generation. Interestingly enough, all three are dark comedies, though Jewison's is dark literally, a beautiful palette of black clothes and nights, which makes overflowing with color and character balanced without need for animosity, climaxing in a family breakfast where all grievances are aired, love declared, and Olympia Dukakis steals the film with little more than exasperated but resigned sighs. Forget Scorsese, it was this film that made me proud to be dating back-to-back Italian-American chicks at the time. If you have to hate a sweet optimistic comedy from the 80s, hate Tootsie! Telling me it must be you / telling me it must be you / all of my life / RIFFS! / YEAH, RIGHT!

7. MATADOR (1986)
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

His fifth film, Matador marks the turning point of Spain's beloved Pedro Almodóvar from post-Franco celebratory punk shock cinema anarchist to something infinitely darker, yet more tender and compassionate as well. After a disturbing credit sequence involving masturbation to a slasher film highlight reel, we find gored ex-toreador Diego (Nacho Martinez) lecturing a class on the proper way to kill a bull in the ring intercut with a strange woman (Assumpta Serna) killing her lover in just such a way. A disturbing juxtaposition of imagery to be sure, but then as it plays out Almodóvar adds a small minor key piano motif and it becomes an almost Sleepless in Seattle-level melancholy reverie. These two sick fucks need each other in ways that make the suicide pact of Romeo and Juliet seem a second tier booty call. Hitchcock / Wellesian / Bunuelian homage, death drive-to-the-floor Freudian psycho-savvy, color-coded symbolism, a theater playing King Vidor's Duel in the Sun, a solar eclipse, and oblique fashion show commentary on Spain's post-Franco identify crisis all pave the way forward to a romantic lover's climax so free of the usual last-second morality and phony sentiment it restores your faith in cinema. Dub it downer if you want but then you'd best run back under the censor's skirts for protection, puta madre, because cinema's true heart is darkness, not sentimentality. With: a jovenes Antonio Banderas as Diego's repressed, psychic, vertigo-stricken protege; Eva Cobo as the model girlfriend who dresses in red like the cape of a toreador; Almodóvar regulars Carmen Maura, Veronica Forque, Chuz Lampreave; and the astonishing drag-ulicious Bibi Andersen as a flower girl. Almodóvar himself cameos as a fashion designer. They're all great but the film belongs to Martinez's cobra-hooded toreador and Serna's luxuriantly bloodthirsty femme fatale (Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct is but an ice tray-cracking naif by contrast). Most American fans of Almodóvar came around with the 1988 hit Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (or Todos Sobre Mi Madre in 2000) but rich, hilarious and subversively life-affirming as those films are, I'll take Matador, to the bloody grave!

 6. EXCALIBUR (1981)
Directed by John Boorman

Time has been kind to this deeply Jungian retelling of the Arthur legend. It takes a few dozen viewings to really understand what's going on, especially if you see it on a pan and scan. But thanks to the beautiful Blu-ray I have finally figured out most of it, but even if incomprehensible there's the beauty and the Wagner and the natural magic, a mythic interpretation of how lust can wreck the noblest intentions, and the stirring manly grace that only loyalty to a worthy king can provide. See it again and bask in its Jungian archetypal richnesss. Director John Boorman stocks the film with an array of dreamy class-A Brit thespians players (incl. Helen Mirren, Liam Neeson, Nicol Williamson, Gabriel Byrne, Patrick Stewart, Nigel Terry) all drinking the same Wolfram von Eisenbach-laced Kool-Aid through glistening lenses that make the armor gleam like mirrors. See it again and become a fan of "Siegfried's Funeral March" from Wagner's Ring cycle, which I love so much because of this movie it made it onto the climax of my own Arthurian retelling, Queen of Disks (2005).

5. L'AMOR BRAQUE (1985)
Directed by Andrzej Zulawski

L'amour braque is a 1985 gloss punk-style French action movie of sorts, falling between Subway (1985) and La Femme Nikita (1990 (with which it shares the amazing Tcheky Karyo) while helping itself to Dostoevsky, Chekhov, PCP snorted off the legs of whores, Brecht-fast emotional eleven scale butoh Panic Theater frothing at the mouth, and smashing of stuff, all in all a high-octane end game for the entirety of the European nouvelle vague, with actors raving and cavorting, trashing the sets and badmouthing the bourgeoisie while rolling around in the street, twitching herky jerky. Typically 80s synth stabs invoke Hong Kong and Mondo Vision's subtitles keep up brilliantly with Zulawski's poetic post-structural dialogue. For relatively un-intoxicated bros expecting Luc Besson-ish linearity, finding the end frenzy of Antichrist stretched to feature length. Action fans who wondered -- as I did -- if Karyo was just a dud actor after his stone-faced blank of a performance in Nikita will cry for joy as the man tears it up like a dozen Oscar Jaffes on a bath salts and whiskey bender one minute and care about his suffering, on the next. 

The story finds easygoing Czech refugee Leon (Francis Huster) spontaneously adopted by an insane bank robber (presumably) Mickey (Karyo) and his gang of gibbering, joking, Shakespeare-quoting Arab terrorists. The beautiful Sophie Marceau is their mutual obsession, yet another Lynch pin in Zulawski's string of love triangles. She's rich, damaged, nymphomaniacally insane, and proceeds to destroy half of France while pursuing her ancient vengeance against a ritzy conglomerate. Meanwhile Leon's hot cousin Aglae (Christiane Jean) competes for his attention while performing in a version of Chekhov's "The Seagull". (more)

4. BLUE VELVET (1986)
Directed by David Lynch

I'll confess it took me a long way to come around to this movie. I found it disturbing and without a cathartic resolution. After a few decades of film theory and great books by Todd McGowan and Zizek that helped me unravel my private relationship to its Freudian subconscious Oedipal separation trauma. The purple and blue velvet apartment where Kyle McLachlan spies through the closet blinds isn't mere anger/anxiety over a woman being hurt, but a primal scene as understood through the mind of a child who mistrusts the animal grunts of sex and seethes with resentment over the dad's power to shut him out of the bedroom at a whim.

Highlights include of course the beautiful Dean Stockwell lip syncing Roy Orbison as a nightmarish gay stereotype while Kyle behaves like a frightened kid hanging out with his drug dealer to score coke in order to impress some girl. The initiation these terrifying people provide him is invaluable, and eventually he becomes a mature man through their abuse. Lynch's subsequent works would all point back to this key moment, some improving on it (Mulholland Dr.) some not so much (Wild at Heart). But Blue Velvet is Lynch's first great 'cracking it wide open,' his Picasso's "Demoiselles d'avignon" his Pollock's 1947 drip stick moment.

Directed by Ron Clements

If The Shining set the uncertain scary tone at the start of the 80s, then The Little Mermaid signaled the glorious start of the ending. Tapping deeply into the Jungian dream core of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, it reinvigorated Disney and sent them scrambling back to animation full time. Voiceover work is uniformly strong (the congested kid bad-acting Flounder being the only exception) especially Ursula the Sea Witch, luxuriantly voiced by Pat Caroll like a zaftig, tentacled hybrid of Margo Channing and Ethel Mermen. And what's most impressive, Ariel (Jodi Benson) breathes and her eyes dilate when she's turned on. Not to mention the prince is named Erich, all of which make Little Mermaid the best example of resonant Jungian archetypal myth since The Wizard of Oz. It's universal, yet we all feel it belongs only to us, that it's about us, and that's what myth does when it's working.

2. THE SHINING (1980)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

This is really a 70s movie, or rather the last movie of the 70s, virtually creating the 80s to come in its molten intellectual crucible. It even has a whole documentary to itself discussing the film's myriad meanings (Room 237: See: Ripped Danny's Dopey Decal, baby), and I've got my own, each new viewing uncovering new layers of meaning and madness. The film is open to almost anything because the space of the hotel is so vast the Torrance family each falls into a separate madness. With no direct link to the social order present to keep them anchored--whether to each other, the social order or linear time/space--they dissolve into the archetypal time warp created by their own unconscious minds who are, for our purposes, indistinguishable from the ghosts and dark energy of the hotel. They are like an iPod that must erase its current contents to connect with a new hard drive (the family name isn't 'torrents' for nothing!) Danny is erased from his body altogether, to be replaced by his talking finger, Tony. Jack goes off the deep end; in his writerly determination to not be 'a dull boy' he's compelled to literally sever his family ties so he can escape into the past; Shelly's inability to get a 'normal' response from either of the Torrance males drives her into hysterics. There's no new hard drive waiting to fill her memory, the social connection won't erase. With each new viewing she's less annoying and more genuinely heroic. (See: Pupils in the Bathroom Mirror).

1. COME AND SEE (1985)
1985 - Dir. Elem Klimov

A stunning movie that changed me absolutely, left me literally trembling in awe, and yet I never want to see it again. It's just too beautiful and disturbing, taking the Munch-ish scream of Kubrick's Shining, flooring it to the ceiling and exploding through the wall of what is possible in depicting brutality and beauty at once, telling through a child soldier's eyes of Bellarus's suffering at the hands of the Nazis until it becomes a bizarre transhumanist poetry, staggering in the way it encompasses the best of Tarkovsky, Kubrick and even David Lynch and just keeps expanding from there, widening from the unfathomable horror of war wider even than insanity's parameters.

As a side note, one thing that's kind of deeply reassuring about WWII is the way the Nazis bound us to the Russians in a forced realization of our relative humanity. Politics, sides, none of it mattered compared to the horror of the camps, the sheer monstrous scale of it. There was no way not to shudder if you were human, and that bound us non-Nazis together. In Come and See we are as viewers united in a similar way, watching the sparkle in this kid's eyes gradually replaced by a twisted leer of a horrified face, something the boy and girl stars (Aleksey Kravchenko and Olga Mironova) were supposedly hypnotized to be able to provide, something beyond human, a face unseen before or since in any cinema.

Directed by John Milius

Fuck it, I'm putting this in. We now know that 1982 was the single greatest year for sci fi and fantasy, giving us Blade Runner, The Thing, Road Warrior, Cat People, to name just a few. But of them all, for me, Conan has best survived the winds of change and become a classic as enduring as that ancient king's sword. The dead set opposite of many of the artier films in this list, it uses all the narrative tricks modernism eschews but brings such a heady focus, such an enraptured attention to even the smallest details, that repeat viewings just continue to reveal facets--especially in beautiful widescreen anamorphic and with some cut scenes restored. And best of all, surprisingly enough, is the love story between Valeria and Conan, one so touching it's been making fanboys of a certain age weep for the last 30 years. (more)

  3. REPO MAN (1984)
Directed by Alex Cox

Long before there was straight-edge, goth, emo, and granola, we just had the one thing - punk, and the film that defined us was Repo Man. Alien conspiracies, oblique metatextual greek chorus TV commentary, Emilio Estevez in the role for which we still love him (fuck Breakfast Club, man), consumer parody ('generic'), Harry Dean Stanton in the role for which he is now and forever considered cool by those who know, and the Circle Jerks gamely going lounge. Along with Rude Boy, Gimme Shelter, and a Lou Reed Live video I had, this was part of a daily after-school TV party ritual for myself and my suburban punk brethren. We'd all imitate Dick Rude's whiny timbre, "let's just go do the job" when going off to score booze, and "I blame society" when we failed. The Criterion blu-ray finally reveals what we never saw on our ratty pan and scan taped-off-cable version, that director Alex Cox has a modernist knack for capturing not just the sunny desolation of L.A.'s seediest outer fringes, but its natural magic. I still write within its kinetic but forlorn rhythms. And it made me a lifetime fan of the great Fox Harris ("I had a lobotomy, man!") - It's worth having Forbidden World (1982) on blu-ray just because he's in it and it's almost a prequel.

 4. PLATOON (1986)
Directed by Oliver Stone

It's impossible to describe the effect this had on America and me at the time but I'll try: I was a sophomore in college in 1986, in upstate NY, where psychedelic molds and tie-dyes grow wild and free and my hippie-ish posse and I were all in the class America in the 60s (which PS- I failed). We had to see it while it was still in the theater, as homework. We called for a cab, piled in, smoked a joint with the driver at his request -- and the mushrooms we'd taken an hour earlier were kicking in by the time we sat down in the dark - our heightened sense giving the amazing jungle foley work an extra 3-D surround boost: every humming bug and footstep dripping with possible ambush menace; humanity's potential for raw violent evil about to be unleashed palpable in the jungle shimmer. We howled with relief when Sheen finally finds some a tent where everyone's smoking weed. Later, my buddy Jason had to leave for awhile when Bunny says those immortal words, "Sarge, did you see the way his head busted open like that?" But I was enthralled, the psilocybin in my brain giving me rare access to the feeling of "hell yeah kill 'em all!" like I was channeling the madness of Mai Lai, the mushrooms short-circuiting my pre-set empathic response, making everything I saw seem brand new and sans social sermon. The soul fear terror of the jungle was so palpable to me that the soldiers' level of sociopathic anger and violence seemed the only way any kind of courage might manifest. If you ever took 'too much' of anything maybe you know the feeling: without a warrior howl, a game face, courage screwed sticky side-down, you'd wind up strapped down to a gurney, or freaking out your parents.

and his hair was perfect.
Seeing it later, on VHS, over and over, zonked out on whiskey and 3' graphix, was never quite the same as that magical afternoon in 1986, but I still have sympathy for the hardened Tom Berenger character and think Dafoe's hippy sarge is way too naive. Some elements are downright racist, (the Asian characters are all extra-alien and inscrutable, though that works for creating paranoia there's no excuse for making the black soldiers mostly cowardly and the first to fall asleep on guard duty) and Sheen's tacky voiceover ("They're the best I've ever seen, grandma") is almost as bad as the one, now excised, from Blade Runner.

But I'd heard of vet's cathartic reaction to the film, and I actually saw a sobbing vet-age man in the audience on the way out of the theater that afternoon, and even in the low house lights I could see he'd been crying, a cathartic wave of inky aura was fizzling around him like a fading wall of gnats, replaced by a pink light. He'd clearly been keeping a dark secret venom up in his nervous system for the last 15 years, and it was now broken open, leaking all over the floor. I must have been staring as he looked up, but the shrooms saved it from being awkward. I gave him a small salute he nodded, and I walked out on rubber legs. I'd know that feeling too, in about 10 years, being able to admit I had a drinking problem, and feeling the black iceberg within my soul melt and drain all over the floor. With Platoon, the horrible secrets of a nation seemed at last exposed to light as if some glorious combination award ceremony and drug intervention. This wasn't some dumb Russian roulette gambit, or Hearts of Darkness, or a hippie Jon Voight. this was what it was like being in, as they say, the shit. The kind of low-to-the-ground pulp story only a writer-director who was there at the time could tell. The last time we were graced with such a survivor's eye view was the 50s, with Sam Fuller's Fixed Bayonets and Steel Helmet. --each of which made a comparable, if less publicized, mark on a generation of vets struggling to unpack their collective traumas. But those boys had been heroes; before Platoon, these guys had been outcasts. Now, at last, we could begin to welcome them home.

5.  RAGING BULL (1980)
Directed by Martin Scorsese

I remember hearing a WBNC talk radio review of this film (I would have been 13) on my dad's clock radio one morning while he was in the shower and I was trying to think of a good illness to feign so I could stay home from school. The way the announcer went on I thought this landmark movie was going to crack open the world. I felt like wow, this movie sounds soooo adult and dangerous. It's sad that you don't hear that kind of literally unrestrained enthusiasm anymore, as if critics no longer trust their own instincts, or is it the pictures that got small? Maybe Raging Bull was the last time they really knew a masterpiece had landed brand new in front of their eyes. Yeah, maybe.

Flash forward a decade, Seattle, 1990: my girlfriend coming home from a traumatic day of work with a bad headache; me loafing in front of our tiny TV, drunk; LaMotta in a Florida jail pounding the wall shoitng "Dummy! DUMMY!" over and over while I drank; her raincoat angrily dropping onto the floor; I was hoping La Motta would stop beating the wall soon, as I could see what the misery of that scene was doing to her. But he kept pounding and screaming, and our apartment was too small to escape it. On and on the pounding went, breaking our relationship apart. I was to drunk to defend Scorsese's choice, or to find the remote and press stop, or remember how long that scene dragged on from past (also drunk) viewings.

We broke up. I drove to Syracuse in time for the block parties. When I came back to get my shit she was already dating a jackass hippie whose claim to fame was that he curated an open mic at the O.K. Hotel. He whinnied like a horse when he laughed and danced arms akimbo when he walked. But he was so terrified of me he ran literally the other way when he saw me comin' - I'm not gonna hurt ya! I shouted. Come 'eah!

Sure, despite it breaking up my relationship, Bull is a towering masterpiece but it's not fun, or perfect. And after the string of Leo-starring bros-behaving-badly films Marty's given us this past fifteen or so years, Scorsese's inability to depict a strong female character (even Alice should have just whacked Harvey Keitel over the head with a frying pan instead of running away) and his over-reliance on manly violence rather than exploring his castration anxiety head on and cutting through, if you'll forgive the expression, the bullshit, shows a willingness to use flashy editing and resonant masculine humor to avoid using the mirror for anything except lines, coke or poetry - makes no difference; they're the same, ain't they? Come 'eah!

The result is that now Jake LaMotta seems an odd choice for such artful storytelling. He's a thug, a bruiser, and might be suffering from paranoid derangement brought on by consistent head trauma. One last thing I remember from that relationship: trying to sleep at her place while I was in the midst of a terrible fever (Syracuse = always sick). She was in the other room, painting (VPA). I got up and in my delerium accused her of having a lover in the closet - then after I looked, I knew he was under the bed, I looked there too, nothing, but then I knew he was back in the closet. I kept looking in the closet over and over. I knew he was there even if he wasn't. Even while she was all alone in the other room I could hear her conspiring whispers and a man's voice, even though it was just a Billie Holiday album. I heard males whispering about me, laughing quietly with her about how easily they could snow me.  So when I see LaMotta all supernaturally jealous I wonder if head trauma would be the same thing as my fever.

That's no excuse though, and either way, the film is certainly rich enough with the language and pulsing rhythmic emotion of Little Italy it doesn't need great psychological insight, and yet... there's Cathy Moriarty laying out by a sparking community pool, being lured over to the wire fence by LaMotta (and in some senses the most courageous thing he does in the film) and in her breathy agreement, as much worldly romantic poetry as in any other movie on this list, .

Aside from Valeria's of course. DUMMY! 


  1. Nice pick with Come and See. Would have liked it if To Live and Die in L.A. replaced the Little Mermaid. When Petersen's character got shot in the face (I was 12 years old and sitting next to my dad at the Plitt in Century City) was when I was jolted, very quickly, out of whatever childish viewing habits and expectations (of what movies were supposed to do and what constituted a good guy and a bad guy, etc., etc.,) I had up to that point in my life. That movie moment signified my paradigm shift. Also would have liked to see The Hitcher - the best film ever made by a schizophrenic about schizophrenia - chosen. The 80s are still a very underrated decade, as everyone seems to be still in thrall to the Golden Age of the 70s. Other great 80s movies: Skolimowski's Moonlighting; The Fly; Alan Clarke's Elephant ; The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; Miracle Mile; Blow Out; and Landis' Into The Night, which is his masterpiece and a inadvertent dry run for what Tarantino was about to offer.

  2. INTO THE NIGHT! Yes, I was just trying to remember that title when JG was on Colber this past week. And also THE FLY is awesome. COOK, THIEF makes me too nauseous but I appreciate its formal elegance, and Helen Mirren in the bathroom et al, but good lord.

  3. jervaise brooke hamster17 August, 2014

    Poltergeist, Poltergeist II, and Poltergeist III, but only because Heather was in them obviously.