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Top 50 of 1980s January 27, 2009

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1980s , 11 comments

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My lists of Top 50 films from each decade seem to be quite popular and I’m happy to continue with them. They are compiled for the purpose of submission at the Criterion forum (.org), in the Lists Project. I then put together an attempt to justify my selections via a few sentences, as well as adding links whenever I’ve written about a particular film. This decade, the 1980s, is a particularly difficult one for multiple reasons. Foremost, I don’t like it. The ’80s in general just don’t interest me. I don’t really like the movies, the music, the television, anything. There are, of course, exceptions and all 50 of these films listed below are ones I do enjoy on some level. The additional snag is that I’ve probably seen less movies of merit from the ’80s than any other decade since the ’30s, or maybe even the ’20s. I tried to fill in a lot of the more obvious gaps (I’d never seen Blade Runner before this project, for example), but some things still eluded me.

Another problem is the multiple versions for so many of the important films of the decade. There’s a director’s cut for this and an extended cut for that. Who can see all of these different iterations? Mostly, I found a version that seemed definitive and used it. Thus, The Big Red One is really the Reconstruction from 2004 and Fanny & Alexander is the longer television version. I don’t even know which Manhunter my vote is for, though. The simple idea of so many versions and so many extended cuts makes for additional anxiety. I cheated with Fanny & Alexander since it has a television and a theatrical cut, but I didn’t feel right about including mammoth productions like Berlin Alexanderplatz or Kieslowski’s The Decalogue. How do you begin to weigh a program that lasts hours upon hours against a simple 90 minute picture? My decision was to stick to theatrical features.

The list itself is one of my more eccentric offerings. There are things you won’t see and will wonder where they are, and there will probably be others that you’ll fail to understand how they either made the list at all or received such high placement. I can only say that this is what felt right at the time and I’m sure it’ll change or improve eventually. Enjoy, and thanks for reading.

1.) Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986) - A film full of disorienting playfulness hidden behind suburban America. Lynch is so good at turning the sense of what makes us feel safe completely on its side and resulting in something terrible and horrific. I’m not a fanatic of Lynch’s films, but absolutely no one in American cinema has been able to so successfully peel back the scab of suburbia. I think this is still his best film and I’d be extremely disturbed to encounter either Dennis Hopper or Dean Stockwell in the darkness of night. Virtually every film (plus Twin Peaks) that Lynch has made since owes some debt to Blue Velvet.

2.) After Hours (Scorsese, 1985) - Better than Raging Bull?? I don’t know. I do know that I’d rather sit down with After Hours. I absolutely love movies that veer off into unpredictable and odd directions with the protagonist in tow. This is, in my opinion, the best of that sort of film. Griffin Dunne plays a guy who has the night of his life in New York City, all while simply trying to get back home. You get a sense of the frustration and the strange exhilaration he experiences in the process. Scorsese is one of my favorite directors, and I’ve seen virtually all of his films, but this may actually be my favorite. When I met him a couple of years ago, this was the DVD I asked to have signed.

3.) Wings of Desire (Wenders, 1987) - The idea of the “life-affirming” film too often gets relegated to a ghetto full of junk. This is different. This is nearly perfect in its insistence on gathering everything we know about the human experience and reminding us how privileged we are. We’re privy to the idea that our emotional treasure chest is greater than most anything the world has to offer. I’ve not seen all of Wenders’ work by any means, but it’s nonetheless surprising to find him having made this particular film. It is far from being overly sentimental or treacly. It is, however, entirely life-affirming.

4.) Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980) - Brilliant indeed, but what turns me off slightly from Scorsese’s mammoth achievement is the sheer brutality of the whole thing. There is no redemption. There is no sense of any warmth being exuded at all. I don’t feel that even Scorsese likes Jake La Motta. De Niro probably does, but not screenwriter Paul Schrader or Scorsese. Otherwise, this is a high point in the film biography for its unflinching desire to reveal the unsympathetic reality of celebrity. There’s no one in the film I feel any emotion for, but like a car crash, I’m still completely enthralled.

5.) Videodrome (Cronenberg, 1983) - I was a latecomer to the Cronenberg parade. It took actually hearing him speak and then trying to understand his point of view before being sold, but I think I’m there now. I watched Videodrome one night and couldn’t believe my eyes. Where Cronenberg excels is by inventing these situations seemingly indebted to the science fiction genre while still maintaining a more intellectual stance that allows for separate consideration apart from stomach cavities. This is, for me, his peak thus far and just about as compelling as cinema gets. If you can get past the muck and ooze of the make-up, there’s an important cautionary tale about technology and obsession. And, of course, some people enjoy the muck and ooze.

6.) Do the Right Thing (Lee, 1989) - Incendiary statement against racism, certainly. Powerful announcement of a new voice in American cinema. Spike Lee is another of my favorite contemporary directors. This is simultaneously loud and aggressive, truly the work of a master filmmaker with strong opinions. He’s since managed to alienate a great deal of the moviegoing public, making his name almost a liability on a picture, but very few directors from Lee’s generation have branded themselves to such a degree on the public at large. Do the Right Thing is special because it was clearly made for a select few who might understand the intentions of a simmering racial divide in the midst of what is supposed to be one of the most diverse areas in the country. The film was slightly misunderstood, but has never abandoned its reputation of being, foremost, an important work of its time.

7.) The Verdict (Lumet, 1982) - Unfortunately, this didn’t even rank in the final tally, but it’s very nearly Paul Newman’s best performance, rivaled by The Hustler and, possibly, Hud. I particularly like Sidney Lumet’s films because they seem free from so much of the superfluous nonsense actors often try to inject. Lumet got great performances from his actors time and again. The work here from Newman and the script from a young buck named David Mamet are extraordinarily balanced and distressing. The film does well in highlighting one man’s attempt at redemption and the constant force he seems to be struggling against. It’s not a movie about alcoholism or, really, the judicial process, but the idea of a last chance where failure really means the end.

8.) Something Wild (Demme, 1986) - Proof that the studio system didn’t take a break the entire decade. Jonathan Demme’s outrageous and entertaining tribute to both film noir and screwball comedy is a marvel of the unexpected. You think one thing and the film does another. It’s two very separate halves that form an impressive whole. Melanie Griffith has never been better and Ray Liotta has rarely been as psychotic, though the competition is a bit fierce there. Yet, it’s Jeff Daniels who holds it all together as the suburban geek whose home life is shot to hell. Griffith’s Lulu is using Daniels no more than he’s benefiting from her.

9.) The Purple Rose of Cairo (Allen, 1985) - Jeff Daniels once again, this time in an effective dual role as both a 1930s film character who emerges from the screen and the worried actor who portrays him. Mia Farrow seems to basically be imitating Woody Allen with her mannerisms, but it’s somehow okay this time. If you love film in general, especially watching old movies in the cinema, this should resonate. There’s a perfection via Allen’s reluctance to go overboard that he rarely achieves in his films. The only complaint is Danny Aiello’s character, who may be necessary but still comes across as a stereotype.

10.) Veronika Voss (Fassbinder, 1982) - Such beautiful black and white cinematography that the rest almost seems beside the point. Inspired by the tragic life of Sybille Schmitz, Fassbinder finds an affecting plot to complement the aesthetics and ends up with a film that’s both engrossing and deeply unsettling. The character of Veronika Voss may have been modeled after German actress Schmitz, but here she also resembles Norma Desmond from Sunset Blvd. and I think that elevates the film into something beyond simply the fictional biography.

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