By John H. Foote

While it was happening, the eighties did not feel like a great decade for film, perhaps because we got off to such a rough start with Heaven’s Gate (1980) which in fairness was never the horrific movie which film critics claimed at the time. Nevertheless, it ended the artistic and financial freedoms directors had enjoyed through the late sixties and seventies. Then Robert Altman flopped with his murky Popeye (1980), Francis Ford Coppola failed mightily with One from the Heart (1982), Raise the Titanic (1980) tanked, and Inchon (1980) failed, terrifying the studios with their losses.

Suddenly the studios watched spending, took back the power the director had enjoyed and forced them to work to a schedule and budget. That was not necessarily a bad thing, and many truly great films came out of the eighties, but so many of them bombed at the box office when first released and had to rely on the new advent of home video to find a second life.

Eventually directors found a way to work with the budget control, they really had no choice, and once the dust had settled, things got back to the new normal.

Hindsight being 20/20 many films were re-discovered on home video, as houses across North America became equipped with a VCR to rent tapes of films. The initial copies were terrible pan and scan things, but gradually they evolved into letterbox to capture the entire image, later the DVD and of course, now Blu Ray. Now the image is as clean as it was the first day it screened, and there is a virtual film school on each disc, which come loaded with making of featurettes, interviews and shot by shot discussion with the director, star and writers.

New directors such as Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, James Cameron, James Foley, Kathryn Bigelow, James L. Brooks, David Lynch, and Robert Zemeckis emerged to stand along with the veterans Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Brain De Palma. Falling from grace was Francis Ford Coppola, one of the most staggering falls a director had ever taken, he was by the end of the decade, a director for hire and could no longer make a film with just his name.

Steven Spielberg owned the decade with his great films, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) the two sequels, E.T. The Extra-terrestrial (1982), and Empire of the Sun (1987). Emerging from under his wing was Robert Zemeckis who scored with the Romancing the Stone (1984) films, Back to the Future (1985) and best of all Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1987). By the end of the decade Oliver Stone, best known before the eighties as a writer, was a two-time Academy Award winning Best Director for Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989).

Jack Nicholson owned the decade with an array of brilliant performances beginning with The Shining (1980) and closing out the decade as Joker in Batman (1989). In between he gave superb performances in Reds (1981), Terms of Endearment (1983), Prizzi’s Honor (1985), Ironweed (1987), and Broadcast News (1987), firmly establishing himself as the finest actor in America.

Rising with him was Meryl Streep, who had at the end of the seventies made her presence felt in The Deer Hunter (1978) and gave an Oscar winning turn in Kramer vs Kramer (1979). In the eighties she gave the finest performance ever given by an actress, to this day, in Sophie’s Choice (1982), followed with SIlkwood (1983), Out of Africa (1985), Ironweed (1987) and A Cry in the Dark (1988) earning Oscar nominations for all. Throughout a now extraordinary career she has never equaled her work in Sophie’s Choice (1982).

Vietnam became a comic book war on film in the early eighties, trivializing the war itself and the men and women who died there with a series of stupid films such as First Blood (1982), Rambo; First Blood Part II (1985), Missing in Action (1984), and Uncommon Valor (1985) before Oliver Stone gave us Platoon (1986) which brought back the startling realism of Viet Nam. Full Metal Jacket (1987) followed, then Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and Casualties of War (1989) all of which dealt with the war with a frightening honesty.

I repeat, it was a much better decade in hindsight than it was as it was happening, because the studios were concerned first and foremost with money, how much they could make, how much they could exploit each for, theatrically or on home video.

20. AT CLOSE RANGE (1986)

A superb, wildly underappreciated drama, brilliantly acted, based on a true story about a criminal father who brought his sons into his small time empire and when things went bad, killed one of them and was trying to kill the other. Christopher Walken was never better as Brad Sr. and Sean Penn matches him every step of the way as Brad Jr. Penn’s growing awareness of just how evil his father really remains a powerful study in acting awareness, in listening and conveying what you hear and see. The film was a powerful reminder of what a gifted actor Walken was, but even more so for Penn, who is brilliant in the film. Madonna wrote the score and sang the song Live to Tell for the film, which is brilliantly directed by James Foley. Easily among the most underappreciated films of the decade. Foley should have been Oscar nominated for the film, as should have both actors, just a stunning study of evil incarnate.

19. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)

There is more action packed into the first ten minutes of this wonderful adventure fantasy than some of the greatest action films have in their entire running time. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg went back to the roots of cinema, the serial thrillers from the thirties and created a hero for the ages, Indiana Jones, portrayed with gritty charm by Harrison Ford in the role that he would forever be identified with. As a hunter of ancient relics he is hired by the American government to find the precious Ark of the Covenant before Hitler and the Nazis find it first. From the jungles of South America, back to America, to Nepal and Cairo the film has an epic sweep but moves so breathlessly we barely have time to get settled anywhere. Loaded with incredible action sequences and wild stunts, it is also very funny, and manages to be a good love story. The beginnings of a franchise, it allowed Spielberg to atone for 1941 (1979) and make a film that looked far more expensive than it truly was. Here he learned how to produce.

18. THE RIGHT STUFF (1983)

It had it all, a great story, interesting characters, adventure, great script, direction, cinematography, effects, soaring musical score, and fine performances. And it was all true. This superb film about the Mercury space program, the first American astronauts into space was a knockout film in every way, but the studio fumbled the release and dropped the film in the summer where a near three-hour film had no chance. The Right Stuff indeed had the stuff to make it a great film, it IS a towering American film, all except box office. Beginning with Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) and the breaking of the sound barrier, faster than the speed of sound, the film moves briskly through the intense history of the astronauts as they race the Russians into space. Different, each of them they represent what is best in the American male (they think), and some of them are exactly that, honest, strong, intelligent, protective, and decent, John Glenn (Ed Harris) most of all, yet all in their own way are flawed, human. Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Harris and Shepard give exceptional performances. Just a fine, gung ho American movie with startling images, a superb script and God those performances…. how did the Academy nominated it for seven and miss the director, Philip Kaufman?? Shameful.

17. HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986) 

Like Chekhov’s Three Sisters, this mesmerizing film explores the lives and intertwining lives of three sisters in New York and the men in their lives as they slip in and out of affairs. Woody Allen gives one of his best performances as hypochondriac Mickey who falls in love with his ex-wife’s sister Holly (Dianne Wiest) a former cocaine addict. Hannah (Mia Farrow) is the anchor of the family, troubled by the distracted distance of her hubby, portrayed by Michael Caine who is smitten with her other sister Lee (Barbara Hershey) …. caught up yet? It is all wonderfully directed and written with bouncy charm by Allen, who won his second screenwriting Oscar for the film. Wiest is a revelation, a huge burst of energy in the film, moving like a hurricane through her life, winning her first Oscar for this, she won again for Allen in 1994. The love story between she and Allen will make you grin from ear to ear as it unfolds, with the last words of the film, allowing a full, radiant smile, an homage to Chaplin’s’ magnificent City Lights (1931). Superb.

16. BLUE VELVET (1986)

A haunting, surrealistic nightmare of a film about the ugliness that lurks beneath the beauty of a small town. In the performance of several lifetimes, Dennis Hopper is superb as Frank Booth, a terrifying maniac who enhances the impact of the alcohol and drugs he takes with nitrous oxide, a small tank attached to his hip at the ready. The moment that mask comes out and he begins to inhale, we know things are going to get frightening and ugly. Hopper is at the heart of gang in a small town who have taken a woman from her child and husband and are holding the child and man hostage. Booth routinely shows up and rapes her whenever he pleases, until a young man stumbles upon the crime and gets far too nosy. There is a haunting cameo by Dean Stockwell as Ben, “so fucking suave” who lip syncs to a Roy Orbison tune which will sear itself into your mind. “In dreams I walk with you” indeed…. hellish dreams, we call them nightmares.

15. THE SHINING (1980)

Stanley Kubrick’s horror film initially drew laughter in the cinema when first released and was not hailed the masterpiece it is now considered. The thing with Kubrick, you do not merely see his films, you must experience them, be a part of them more so than any other director who ever made a film. Audiences found Nicholson funny, missing completely the perversity of his performance. Consider Nicholson coming through the door with an axe screaming “Here’s Johnny!!”….and audiences laughed. But is it funny if YOU are on the other side of that door?? Not at all, and the performance the underappreciated Shelley Duvall gave suddenly becomes so much more, as she becomes us. The movie belongs to Jack Nicholson as a writer haunted by the ghosts of the Hotel he is caring for through the winter months. As the ghosts take possession of him, the performance becomes big and broad but never crosses the line into buffoonery, he is frankly terrifying. The camera roams the halls with a sleek, glide to it, like a ghost might move, and Kubrick is in full control. Audiences flocked to see slasher films during its release, but it is this one you remember for its subtle sly horror. A nightmare becomes real.

14. THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)

Among the most controversial films of the decade, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ had been a film the director had wanted to make for more than fifteen years before he was able to do it. At one-point Robert de Niro was going to play Christ, which would have been grotesque, another time, Aidan Quinn was set for the part, but finally with a meager budget of 6 million dollars, Willem Dafoe, fresh from Platoon (1986) was cast as Christ. Based on the book by Kazantzakis and NOT the Bible, the film asks the audience to accept that Christ was just a man, a man plagued with voices, haunted by voices telling him who he was and what he must do. In an infamous fantasy sequence, tempted by the devil, in the form of a beautiful child, Christ is permitted to come down off the cross and live out his life as just a man, he marries, she dies, he re-marries and then realizes he has been duped by the devil in the form of a beautiful child. Back to the cross he demands to go, and he does to fulfill his destiny. One of the most extraordinary religious experiences I have had in a cinema. The best film of its year.

13. BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985)

One of the sharpest screenplays, gave birth to this wildly entertaining film that made a star director out of Robert Zemeckis, and a super star of Michael J. Fox, the diminutive star of the time travel comedy-adventure that would become a hugely profitable franchise for Universal, spawning two sequels. Marty McFly is a dreamer who wants more, but his family is not the sort that gets more, the father is a loser, still picked on by a high school bully, and the mom is a boozy housewife, tired of her life. Marty is able to go back in time with his friend, the mad inventor Dr. Brown (Christopher Lloyd) to the fifties and time his parents were teens and about to fall in love. Here he learns more about them than he had ever considered and sees them in a different when he returns to a world not quite the same and impacted by his having been in the past. A terrific picture that holds up well to this day. Fox is a perfect casting choice, and Lloyd is sublime as kooky Dr. Brown, his eyes wide, his hair going in all directions, and exclaiming, “Great Scott!!”

12. PLATOON (1986)

Oliver Stone directed and wrote this powerful film based on his own experiences in Vietnam as a two-time winner of the Purple Heart. Stone was a grunt soldier, on the front line and he wrote it all down and created this tough film about the soldiers who hacked through the jungle looking for an enemy they could often not see. Tom Berenger is superb as Barnes, a born warrior, made for war, a horribly scarred soldier who loves war because it is the only thing he has ever been good at while Willem Dafoe is equally good as the decent Elias. Charlie Sheen is the Stone character, and does well enough, but anyone could have played the part and made it work, it is the supporting characters that give the film its alarming power. The film captures the intense heat of the jungle, the sweat, the bugs, snakes and yes, the death, which comes swift and unexpected from an enemy they often cannot see. The film won Academy Awards for Best Film and Director and wiped out the comic book mentality of the war that had begun to dominate the industry. War is hell, and Stone plunged his audience down into the midst of hell.

11. ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984)

A massive, leisurely told gangster epic that spans more than sixty years beginning in the early years of the 20th century and ending in the sixties. Two friends, Max (James Woods) and Noodles (Robert de Niro) build a decent criminal empire until one betrays the other, ending the lives of their gang. Returning to the neighbourhood after thirty years, Noodles finds everything has changed, and when they encounter one another yet again, old wounds do not heal when betrayal is at the heart of them. The performances in the film are excellent, De Niro does some of his best work, Woods is sublime, Tuesday Weld is outstanding. Directed by Sergio Leone, with patience and daring, with an elegant score and fine cinematography, it is often like peering into the past, its burnished camera work taking us back in time easily. Violent, and often misogynistic it is sometimes a tough watch. One piece of miscasting, Elizabeth McGovern is horribly miscast as the love interest, but it does not impact the overall film, it is simply too good to be undone by one weak performance. Demanding to be sure, but worth being patient.

10. BLOW OUT (1981)

Released in the summer of 1981 the film never stood a chance against the blockbusters of the day. Intelligent, taut and filled with tension, Blow Out was re-discovered on video and then DVD for being the superb work it is. Now it is widely considered to be the finest film of De Palma’s career. Containing the finest performance of John Travolta’s career, the first time he portrayed an adult onscreen, he is magnificent as a sound man for B horror movies, who accidentally records what could be a political assassination. Suddenly he and the young lady he saved from the car are targets; of both the government, and a deranged assassin covering his tracks. Brian De Palma shoots the film smoothly, capturing the gritty existence of a sound man, but also the fascination with sound and sounds of Jack (Travolta), to him creating an orchestra he hears in his head. The film is filled with motion and is thrilling to its haunting and powerful end. Travolta finally captures a sound he would give anything not to have heard but will hear for the rest of his days.

9. UNDER FIRE (1983)

Superbly acted, directed, written shot and cut, with one of the finest scores in film history, Under Fire is a searing, political thriller that earned rave reviews but found no audience. Directed by Roger Spottiswoode in one of those hit it out of the park movies once, and then never again made another great film. Set during the revolution in Nicaragua, the film centers on journalists who are covering the war, getting far too close to the action. Nick Nolte is Russell, the man who wears cameras around his neck, a photographer, like they are appendages, while Gene Hackman is a news anchor for the network who will be shot by the army in front of his friends, his murder caught on film by Nolte.  His shooting is based on the real-life death of ABC news reporter Bill Stewart, whose death was recorded on film as it happened. Joanna Cassidy is a reporter, Claire, and the woman both men love. The film gives remarkable glimpses into the lives of press in a war-torn country and the CIA’s often unwelcome involvement in a country under revolution. Ed Harris is quietly terrifying as a jaunty, bright eyed psycho path working as a killer for the government. Superb with one of the great musical scores of the decade, haunting. Had justice prevailed, Under Fire would have been a major player at the Academy Awards.

8. REDS (1981)

Warren Beatty won the Academy Award for directing this masterpiece, a biography of writers John Reed and Louise Bryant, the former wrote Ten Days That Shook the World, the seminal book on reporting. The pair were in Russia during the overthrowing of the Czar in 1917, believers in communism, and were deeply moved by what they experienced. Reed became a major player in Lenin’s Russia, and when he died he was buried in the Kremlin. Beatty creates a wonderful film, bringing to us David Leans sweeping, epic style and the intimacy of Sidney Lumet and Elia Kazan. The scenes of the Bolsheviks overthrowing the city are remarkable and the sequences in the desert equally thrilling. There is a moment at the beginning that gives us Reed, always chasing history, literally running into the fray of battle, placing himself in the thick of it at great peril. That single scene sums up John Reed, the story was everything, the story was his life blood. Beatty is terrific as John Reed, Diane Keaton superb as Louise Bryant, with strong work from Jack Nicholson as playwright Eugene O’Neill and Maureen Stapleton (who won an Oscar) as anarchist Emma Goldman. Among the most literate films of the decade.

7. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1981)

Darker, deeper and certainly more complex than the first film, it is a marvel of art direction and special effects, but also pure story. It contains of course one of the biggest twists in movie history, a gasp inducing moment that no one saw coming and altered the course of the trilogy in every way. From the winter wastelands on the ice planet Hoth to the swamps of Dagobah to the cloud city, the film has a sweeping grandeur that the first did not have, and an urgency to it, as storylines merge and intertwine, characters become more vital to the plot. Yoda emerges here, the tiny mentor of the force, mightier than all, and the relationship between Han Solo and Princess Leia becomes clear. But it is the war between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader that takes center stage with the words, “I am your father.” I still remember the entire theater gasping aloud and getting instant goosebumps and chills…. they had me, they had us all. This should have been a Best Picture nominee and remains the finest of the entire Star Wars series.

6. AMADEUS (1984)

Both men dedicate their lives to music, one giving his life to God for the ability and right to play music, the other is a gifted prodigy, brilliant beyond words. The only two people who know of the young man’s gifts are the cocky young man himself, Mozart, and court composer to Vienna, Antonio Salieri, who though consumed with hatred and jealousy for Mozart, adores his music. Milos Forman brought the stage play to the screen, casting two relative unknowns, a bold but brilliant move, and then gave the film a modernist edge. Mozart, played with devious charm by Tom Hulce is always seen in pink or purple shaded wigs, like a rock star of his generation, while Salieri is a stodgy, conservative man cursed with knowing his own music will die with him, while Mozart’s will be for the ages. There is a remarkable scene of Salieri finding some sheet music composed by Mozart and knowing as he reads it, hearing it in his head, it is work for the ages that he will never be able to write. The pure joy of hearing his music is evident in the Hulce performance, his smile broad, his arms pumping madly as he conducts the orchestra. Only Mozart and Salieri know that the music of Mozart is timeless. The film won eight Academy Awards and never feels like a period piece. Breathtaking throughout, with an urgency that makes it feel modern.

5. EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987)

Five years before Schindler’s List (1993) Spielberg gave us this masterpiece based on J. G. Ballard’s book about his experiences growing up in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during the war. Separated from his parents as they try to get out of war torn Shanghai, the boy spends four years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, scrambling to eke out an existence, leaving behind his childhood forever. What was once a wealthy existence, is now one of fighting for food, making deals, trusting those you know you should not, and watching the unspeakable happen all around you. Christian Bale was a child when he gave this remarkable performance, and Spielberg directed with sure confidence and subtle power, letting the performances, images and script tell the story. Beautifully shot and scored, it is among his masterpieces, and oddly, one of his few box office failures…. despite rave reviews and several awards, though snubbed by the ever-fickle Academy.

4. TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983)

No greater film has ever been made about the mother daughter relationship, one that we as guys will never fully understand or appreciate. Here it is portrayed as sometimes prickly, sometimes nasty but the love is never in doubt. Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) is the wealthy widow raising her daughter Emma (Debra Winger) on her own, but an overbearing, more manipulative mother never lived, she loves her no question, but wants everything her way. Emma is a free spirit, falls in love, defies her mother by marrying a man Aurora thinks little of and then moves away. Yet despite the distance they speak every day, they know everything about each other, and their lives. Aurora falls in love with neighbor, a former astronaut played by Jack Nicholson with leering charm, while Emma’s marriage falls apart and she is diagnosed with terminal cancer. The love between mother and daughter is felt in every frame of the scenes of Emma in the hospital where Aurora can be a ferocious maniac, or then reduced to tears when Nicholson shows up to be the friend she needs, to help. Five Academy Awards, MacLaine gives the performance of her career…a brilliant, moving work.

3. TOOTSIE (1982) 

The best American comedy ever made. The best film ever made about the craft of acting. Directed by Sydney Pollack, this farce explores what happens to an out of work actor, Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) who pretends to be a woman to get a job, and then when cast on a daytime drama becomes a national star and spokesperson for women. What is remarkable about the film is that it does not ask us to accept a man in a dress, but rather the man in the dress becomes a woman, and you will know exactly when it happens (he is holding a baby), nurturing. So great is the Hoffman performance as Dorothy Michaels, you will lose the actor and when a character says wistfully “I miss Dorothy” we realize how much we do too, and that the world, his world, was a better place with her in it. Acting is all about truth, and Michael captures the truth in Dorothy to perfection, Hoffman has never been better, and this is among the screen’s greatest performances. Strong support from Jessica Lange (who won an Oscar), George Gaynes, Teri Garr, and best of all Bill Murray. Very funny, and deeply moving. The scene with the agent, played by Pollack?? To die for.

2. E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982)

A dreamscape of a film. If there is a finer film made about friendship I have not seen it. A gentle little alien is accidentally left behind by his crew while gathering plants here on earth and befriended by a ten-year-old child who takes him and protects him. Teaching him to speak, the child, played with absolute perfection by Henry Thomas, will help him build a device to communicate with his people to “phone home”. Their friendship is such that somehow through the alien, the child feels what he feels, experiences some of the things the little creature does, fear, surprise, love. When the government discovers the alien is here, they close in, but they are not the monsters they are in other films, in many ways the leader of the group known as Keys, could have been the child in his youth. There are so many astonishing set pieces in the film, that magical flight across the sky on the bicycle, E.T. healing a nasty cut with a touch of his finger, Elliott and E.T. listening to the boy’s mother read Peter Pan, the heart-breaking death of the alien, and then resurrection, and that gut wrenching goodbye. Henry Thomas deserved an Oscar nomination for his wondrous performance, and this was far and away the year’s best film. Directed by Steven Spielberg, nominated for nine, the film won four Academy Awards. A beautiful wonder of a film.

1. RAGING BULL (1980) 

The first image we see defines the man being portrayed in the film, Jake LaMotta, one-time middleweight champion of the world. He is alone, shadow boxing in the ring, dancing about, throwing punches to unseen opponents. He seems to be fighting himself, and he will do so the entire film, as he did his entire life, fighting the demons that drove him in and out of the ring. Robert De Niro gave the performance of his lifetime, several lifetimes as LaMotta, whipping himself into fighter’s shape for the fighting sequences which led LaMotta himself to comment De Niro could get into the ring and hold his own with anyone. They then shut down production to allow the actor time to pack on eighty pounds of fat to play the actor after he quit fighting. He was a formidable fighter, able to take as good as he gave, but in life he was plagued with insecurity and jealousies that drove his wives away from him and eventually his beloved brother Joey, player by the great Joe Pesci. Abusive, especially to those who loved him, LaMotta never understood why people thought he was an animal. De Niro is darkly breathtaking as the man who could not escape the violence with which he made his living, and there are excellent performances from Pesci and Cathy Moriarty as his second wife who he too drove away. Shot in black and white, Scorsese (who else) beautifully captures the time and place but is in the boxing ring that the film is at its best, placing us in the ring to hear and see what the fighters do. A dark brooding masterpiece but not a date film, not the sort of film you pull down to watch on a Sunday afternoon. It is a tough one.

Leave a comment