Whether or not you agree with Quentin Tarantino’s unsparing assertion that “’80s cinema is, along with the ’50s, the worst era in Hollywood history,” there’s a curiously undeniable truth to his follow-up statement: “Matched only by now! Matched only by the current era.” Revisiting the defining movies of the ’80s from our current perspective at the height of Barbenheimer summer, two things become abundantly clear.
The first is that modern Hollywood would probably need a Barbenheimer every month in order to equal the creative output of a studio system that used to be capable of releasing “Blade Runner” and “The Thing” on the same night (June 25, 1982) as if it were just another Friday. The second is that, in a wide variety of different ways both negative and not, the ’80s provide a perfect match for the movies of our current moment — if not the current moment itself.
Perhaps that doesn’t come as much of a surprise in the middle of a year when the box office charts read like a kid’s 1988 Hanukkah wish list (Barbie, Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles…) or in the aftermath of a decade that struggled in vain to recapture the glory days of ’80s fandom (an effort that included a “Blade Runner” sequel and a “Thing” prequel, among a litany of more dubious efforts).
But to watch “Akira” through the mushroom cloud left behind by “Asteroid City,” or “Modern Romance” in the self-loathing shadow of “Beau Is Afraid,” or “Videodrome” in the wake of Tucker Carlson’s pivot to Twitter, or “The Decline of Western Civilization” four decades further along the actual decline of Western civilization is to appreciate that contemporary pop culture wasn’t simply inspired by the anxieties and preoccupations of ’80s cinema, but also inescapably predicted by them. Quoth “Sans Soleil”: “Who said that time heals all wounds?”
Now, at a time when nuclear paranoia, the existential threat of automation, and the politicization of the human body are so in vogue that it can be easy to forget that Reagan has been dead for almost 20 years, the best films of the ’80s boast an enduring immediacy that allows them to feel as relevant today as they ever have before — and in some cases more so. We certainly think that’s true of the movies you’ll find on the list below, many of which proved remarkably prescient (e.g., “Broadcast News”), others of which found a timeless power in bearing witness to the past (e.g., “Shoah”), and all of which have retained every last volt of their electrical vitality for those who know where to look (we thought to include a list of streaming/Blu-ray options for each film, but the data would be unhelpfully obsolete before long).
And while Tarantino’s comments were limited to Hollywood fare, the fact of the matter is that winnowing the decade down to just 100 titles proved far more difficult than it was to do the same for our ’90s Week last year, as major studio milestones like “E.T.” were forced to jockey for position alongside subversive masterpieces like “Robocop,” the best of New Taiwanese Cinema, the true emergence of America’s indie movement, a generation of established auteurs at their absolute scuzziest, a global reckoning with the ecstasies and agonies of the flesh, a half-dozen classics from Éric Rohmer alone, and the sight of Prince astride a 1981 Hondamatic.
Despite our willingness to challenge the canon, a process that naturally resulted from refracting conventional wisdom through a modern point-of-view, there were still hundreds of great films that didn’t make the cut, and dozens of great filmmakers who remain absent as a result. Needless to say, a decade that allows you to put the likes of “Atlantic City,” “The Sacrifice,” and “Distant Voices, Still Lives” on a list of honorable mentions demands to be remembered fondly. Then again, a decade that gave us “Do the Right Thing” and “Back to the Future” hardly needs to be remembered at all, as it feels as if it’s still just starting to unfold before our eyes.
This list features contributions from Carlos Aguilar, Samantha Bergeson, Christian Blauvelt, Gus Edgar-Chan, Robert Daniels, David Ehrlich, Kate Erbland, Susannah Gruder, Jim Hemphill, Jordan Hoffman, Guilherme Jacobs, Proma Khosla, Eric Kohn, Leila Latif, Ryan Lattanzio, Sean Malin, Vikram Murthi, Tambay Obenson, Katie Rife, Adam Solomons, and Christian Zilko.
“Steets of Fire” (dir. Walter Hill, 1981)
Walter Hill’s raucous, wild, and still not nearly as appreciated as it deserves to be “Streets of Fire” opens with two key title cards: it’s a “rock & roll fable” (true) and it takes place in “another time, another place” (as if the ‘50s and the ‘80s had a love child set in all of New York City’s boroughs, with a generous streak of Chicago thrown in for good measure).
There’s so much to recommend this film, but we’ll start with the basics: in the fictious city of Richmond, hometown hero and talented singer Ellen Aim (a very young Diane Lane) has returned for a sold-out show that the entire district seems to be attending. In the middle of her performance, the venue is beset by leather-clad biker baddies The Bombers (led by an also very young Willem Dafoe), who kidnap Ellen in the middle of one of her jams (Jim Steinman wrote two original hits for the band, and man, do they cook) and haul her off to their rockin’ hideout in the Battery.
Who could possibly save Ellen? Enter: her brooding ex-boyfriend Tom Cody (Michael Pare, whose entire performance hinges on him, well, brooding), called into action by his little sister Reva (“The Warriors” star Deborah Van Valkenburgh), who soon joins forces with drifter McCoy (Amy Madigan). And did we mention that Ellen’s current flame is played by a very young Rick Moranis, who is as mean and dismissive as you’ve ever see the Candian comic gem?
And this, still, is just plot. What unspools in Hill’s incredibly rewatchable and compulsively entertaining vision is difficult to fully convey: there’s the music (again, the Steinman jams, who sound like the best songs Meatloaf never sang), the inventive but familiar setting, a propulsive energy, and seemingly endless appearances by a string of “I love that guy/gal!!” talents (E.G. Daily, Bill Paxton, Lee Ving, Mykelti Williamson, Robert Townsend, and Rick Rossovich, to name a few). It’s like if “The Warriors” was a Western with a perfect soundtrack, but somehow better.
Not yet sold? No spoilers here, but the entire affair ends with a street fight between Pare and Dafoe that includes the single most unexpected weapon possible. It hits, hard. —KE
“The Age of the Earth” (dir. Glauber Rocha, 1980)
It’s rare to find a filmmaker so given to writing political manifestos about the purpose of cinema who also is capable of pure, lizard-brain sensory experiences in the mode of “Flaming Creatures.” But that was Glauber Rocha, one of the leading figures of Brazil’s Cinema Nova, and one of the most complicated artists of the 20th century. He’d write the essay “The Aesthetics of Hunger,” a rallying call for all filmmakers working outside of North America and Europe, but his best known movies — the bounty-hunter dramas “Black God, White Devil” and “Antonio Das Mortes” — combine leftist politics and trigger-happy action with all the flair of a glorious spaghetti Western.
His last film, “The Age of Earth,” is as much of a mixed bag as the man who made it. It combines elements of slow cinema — the film opens with a four-minute shot of a sunrise — with the experimental camp of Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger. It alternates between touristic elements, like a lengthy sequence of samba lines at Carnaval, and direct-to-camera interviews that serve as political screeds. And it devotes itself to those things with such fervor and aplomb that it takes more than 38 minutes for anything that could be called a “plot” to kick in. The story, such as it is, follows Rocha’s frequent alter ego (played by the hulking Mauricio do Valle) as he goes on a Frank Booth-style rampage while spewing obscenities that not so subtly equate capitalism with sexual misconduct. Do Valle’s character is an American businessman named John Brahms, and he’s on a mission to exploit the Global South with carnivorous glee. Thrown up against him are, of course, a series of Jesus figures: Indigenous Christ, Black Christ, Military Christ, Guerilla Christ.
Mesmerizing both despite and because of its scatterbrained strangeness, “The Age of the Earth” amounts to a series of swings so big you can’t help but get absorbed by it. You can also appreciate why moviegoers at the Venice Film Festival in 1980 might have despised it — if they didn’t already despise the fact that Rocha had taken some money from Brazil’s right-wing military junta to make it. But those willing to submit to “The Age of the Earth” on its own terms are in for a pummeling of the highest order, as Rocha’s exultant assault on the senses leaves you with nothing less than the ecstasy of seeing a new kind of cinema come to life right before your eyes. —CB
“Blood Simple” (dir. Joel Coen, 1984)
The Coen brothers — they’re Joel and Ethan, in case you didn’t already know — have become so synomous with the “crime gone wrong” genre that it’s impossible to imagine American cinema without their blueprint. That’s partly because 40 years ago, they established it in such coherent terms that it was almost like a whole new approach to storytelling was born overnight.
The series of mishaps that pile up after nefarious private detective Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) arrives at the office of sleazy bar owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) are disturbing, but they unfold with such nefarious glee that the Coens make the case for the entire mess as one big joke. Marty wants Visser to knock off his wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover (John Getz), but a series of anarchic circumstances leave pretty much everyone dead, dying, or confused about who they’ve killed. “Blood Simple” imports the ominous air of classic film noir into a sense of near-slapstick glee, right down to its iconic climactic image: A doomstruck figure on the verge of his last breath, gazing up at a single bead of water, mortified that his last sight could be that single drop heading towards his face. It’s that kind of comic dread that has always been at the root of the best Coen brothers movies, and it’s no wonder that the siblings pulled it off for a still-modest $1.5 million budget that they crowdsourced with family and friends. This kind of masterful storytelling requires little more than pure vision to pull off — and a welcome dose of cynical humor that lasts through the ages. —EK
“Wend Kuuni” (dir. Gaston Kaboré, 1982)
Gaston Kaboré’s masterfully directed drama tells the story of a non-verbal boy named Wend Kuuni (or “God’s Gift”), who’s found abandoned at the edge of a remote village in pre-colonial Burkina Faso. Adopted by a local family, the child embarks on a gentle but devastating journey of self-discovery —one that weaves Mossi traditions of oral storytelling into a rich tapestry of human experience that transcends cultural boundaries.
Produced at a time when the Burkinabé film industry was in its most nascent stages, and such compelling explorations of African life were even more lacking from the global cinematic landscape than they are today, Kaboré’s poetic fable went on to become his most celebrated work, as it won the 1985 César award for best French-language film before eventually spawning a sequel (“Buud Yam”) that further deepened the original’s impact. Recently restored by the Cinémathèque royale de Belgique, it remains one of its decade’s most vital tales of the search for belonging in a broken world. —TO
“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1984)
Before there was “Mad Max: Fury Road,” there was “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” as sustained a piece of cinematic velocity as ever delivered by Hollywood blockbuster cinema. A work of pure, sensation-driven maximalism, Spielberg’s oft-maligned sequel careens through the streets of Shanghai, then flies, crashes, toboggans, and white-water-rafts its way to India for a plot more akin to a horror movie than what one would have expected as the follow-up to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — and all after opening with a dynamic, Busby Berkeley-style chorus-line staging of “Anything Goes.”
“Raiders” was grounded enough that even a gag as silly as a monkey giving a “Heil Hitler” salute could be absorbed into the stew without too much trouble. But where that earlier film works in spite of such moments, “Temple of Doom” works because of them — it’s a purely artificial construct, and all the better for it. It’s Spielberg and George Lucas doing for ’30s cinema what Tarantino would later do for the ’60s and ’70s, but powered by a pace of singular energy where action and comedy beats are fluid: “Water! Water!” Indy cries, desperate for someone to extinguish the fire on his feet after he uses the soles of his shoes to brake his runaway mine cart. Then “WATER! WATER!” he cries a beat later, frantically pointing at a wall of water that appears, as a torrential flood cascades down a mine tunnel and threatens to drown the entire cast.
Ke Huy Quan is more than a comic kid sidekick: he actually saves Indy as much as anyone in the franchise ever does. Kate Capshaw’s Willie is like a Howard Hawks character, extremely game despite all the horrors thrown her way, which are far worse than anything Marion Ravenwood had to experience. And Amrish Puri — a legendary Bollywood actor who specialized in villain roles — couldn’t be more terrifying as Thuggee big-bad Mola Ram. But the mind always returns to that famous mine cart chase, a literal roller coaster ride that Spielberg staged in response to his films being derided as exactly that. “Temple of Doom” shows that yes, cinema can be like a theme park ride, but also, at its most thrilling, even more fun than any theme park ride could ever hope to be. —CB
“My Beautiful Laundrette” (dir. Stephen Frears, 1985)
Stephen Frears’ British classic “My Beautiful Laundrette” stars Gordon Warnecke as Omar, a young gay Pakistani man who takes over an old London laundromat from his uncle in hopes of turning the business around. But when he’s attacked by a racist gang, Omar reignites a relationship with their leader, and his former lover, the imperiously named Johnny Burfoot (Daniel Day-Lewis in his breakout role).
Frears’ film confronts all manner of taboos, not only in terms of the gay relationship at its center, but also the entrenched xenophobia and nationalism that imperil it from all sides. This touching gay love story is also situated squarely at the height of the Thatcher years amid already fractious relations between the English and Pakistani communities, so “My Beautiful Laundrette” also becomes an unlikely kind of “Romeo and Juliet” story. Oliver Stapleton’s 16mm cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s emotional score help to create a distinctive, period-specific portrait that never feels salacious or heavy-handed.
With a screenplay by Hanif Kureishi and sensitive direction by Frears, “My Beautiful Laundrette” is also deeply sexy as well, which comes to feel like its own winning expression of defiance. —RL
“Reds” (dir. Warren Beatty, 1981)
Warren Beatty’s passion project, developed over 10 years, is so involving that even hall of fame Commie-hater Ronald Reagan was impressed; after screening the film at the White House, he said, perhaps in jest, that he “Was hoping it had more of a happy ending….” And that’s the thing: Beatty’s sprawling biopic about the life of John Reed — the only American ever to be interred in the Kremlin — makes you feel so profoundly for its characters that you can’t but be swept up in their cause. No Hollywood epic has ever been more intimate.
In the span of a single movie, you have Diane Keaton singing the 1910s idyll “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard,” Beatty dodging cannon fire while running across a desert plain near Baku, Jack Nicholson discussing literature as Eugene O’Neill, and even a frantic escape over the icy tundra into Finland. That Paramount, under the auspices of Barry Diller and Michael Eisner, was willing to sink $32 million into a vast cinematic portrait of the American Left from a movie star making his solo directorial debut (Beatty’s “Heaven Can Wait” was co-directed with Buck Henry) is a rare testament to the artistic ambition that studios executives were still capable of nurturing in the early 1980s.
Smart in its form and sweeping in intent, Beatty’s film remains clear-eyed about how badly Lenin and the Bolsheviks betrayed the Russian Revolution, with Reed dressing down an overly idealistic Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton) over how revolutions are all about bloodshed and firing squads and suffering. Documentary interviews with surviving public intellectuals of the 1910s (“The Witnesses”) interspersed throughout the narrative — conducted as early as 10 years before the film’s release — add a degree of intelligence and perspective that makes “Reds” a living record as well as a singular artistic interpretation of history. —CB
“Crossing Delancey” (dir. Joan Micklin Silver, 1988)
In the 1970s, director Joan Micklin Silver established herself as an observant chronicler of both Jewish traditions (“Hester Street”) and the hilarious and painful vagaries of the human heart (“Between the Lines,” “Chilly Scenes of Winter”). Her 1988 romantic comedy “Crossing Delancey” synthesizes her earlier preoccupations and explores them with a lighter, more fanciful tone than her ‘70s work; it’s her most deliriously entertaining film, yet none of the subtleties we had come to expect from Silver were lost.
Amy Irving gives one of the best performances of her career as a Manhattan bookstore owner whose Lower East Side grandmother hires a matchmaker to save her from the single life; Irving initially has no interest in her prospective love interest, a pickle salesman played by Peter Riegert (also fantastic), but the more she pushes him away the more she starts to notice his virtues. The plot might sound like conventional rom-com material, but Silver’s delicate approach to both the performances and their milieu gives “Crossing Delancey” an irresistible charm and a deeply affecting sense of the precariousness of our romantic choices.
Silver presents New York in a slightly idealized manner that gives the whole film the quality of a fable or fairy tale, with Irving as a bewildered princess and Riegert her frog prince; yet underneath the magic is a wealth of penetrating insights into human nature, clearly and concisely delineated by playwright Susan Sandler’s script and expertly captured by Silver’s unerringly placed camera. —JH
“The Vanishing” (dir. George Sluizer, 1988)
Saskia. The name reverberates through “The Vanishing” like a scream echoing in the mountains or a one-sided conversation. George Sluizer’s haunting thriller is built around a woman’s disappearance and her lover’s maddening desire to know what became of her. When Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) pause at a rest stop during their cycling trip through France, Saskia goes to get a beer and never comes back. The rest of the film is spent alongside Rex, as the possibilities of where she could be run through his mind, and ours.
The film takes an intriguing turn part way through, branching off and introducing us to Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), who, it becomes clear, is the man responsible for her absence. The picture slowly comes into focus as we learn more about Lemorne, our feverish desire for answers mounting every moment. The film’s French title is the very Hitchcockian “The Man Who Wanted to Know,” and indeed, like James Stewart in Vertigo or Laurence Olivier in Rebecca, Rex’s obsession with a missing woman soon comes to fully define his character. Even as we want him to give up, acutely aware that nothing good will come of his continued quest, we need him to soldier on — we want to know what happened to her as much as he does. Our thirst is almost despicable.
What do we expect to find at the end? What we discover is worse than the most horrifying possibilities that we imagined. “There you have it,” Lemorne says to Rex, and to us by extension. Are you happy now? —SG
“Salaam Bombay!” (dir. Mira Nair, 1988)
The transportive nature of Mira Nair’s filmmaking would eventually make her one of the Western world’s most popular Indian directors, but before the likes of “Mississippi Masala” and “Monsoon Wedding” there was the irrepressible “Salaam Bombay!,” a strikingly intimate look at the life of a child surviving on the streets of one of India’s most relentless cities. Co-written by Sooni Taraporevala, the film tells the story of young Krishna (Shafiq Syed), who’s forced to go to the city to earn money for his return home, only to end up embroiled with a whole range of eccentric characters along the way. There’s the struggling addict Chillum (Raghuvir Yadav), the dealer Baba (Nana Patekar), the young girl sold into prostitution (Chanda Sharma), and several kids even smaller than Krishna who’ve already been hardened by the street smarts of adult gangsters.
In story and style alike, “Salaam Bombay!” draws clear threads to the children of “Pather Panchali” before it, “Slumdog Millionaire” after, and a handful of films in between that delve into the underbelly of Mumbai’s glamor. The cast are mostly newcomers and children, with exceptions for Patekar, Yadav, and exactly one scene of a young Irrfan Khan. The shots are tight, rich, and grainy, the dialect raw, the violence clumsy yet brutal. All of it blends together into an immersive experience that crystallizes Nair’s supreme command of her craft. —PK
“To Live and Die in L.A.” (dir. William Friedkin, 1985)
It almost seems unfair that one of the true giants of the 1970’s New Hollywood revolution also managed to perfect the 1980’s crime movie aesthetic. But William Friedkin’s true genius was his ability to straddle the worlds of intimate character-based filmmaking and popcorn spectacle, which left him equally suited to working in the blockbuster era. “To Live and Die in L.A.” saw him bringing his “French Connection” grit to the coke-riddled, sunset-hued, Wang Chung-blasting streets of 1980s Los Angeles.
It might not be the least cringe-inducing piece of ’80s nostalgia that you could possibly seek out, but “To Live and Die in L.A.” has endured because it backs up those immaculate vibes with gripping neo-noir storytelling.
Friedkin’s script is fueled by the simplest of premises — a lawman is determined to find the bastard who killed his partner, even if he has to go outside the law to get him. But Friedkin found a fresh way to pull some of Hollywood’s tried-and-true emotional levers by centering the film around Secret Service agents instead of cops (it’s impossible to leave the film without the overwhelming feeling that making counterfeit $20 bills is a menace to society on par with murder and domestic terrorism).
Throw in a perfect Willem Dafoe performance as a disturbingly sexy ’80s villain and Friedkin’s unparalleled knack for set pieces — the man wisely understood that a Los Angeles car chase would consist of as much sitting and honking as actual driving — and you’re left with a masterpiece that’s on par with the late director’s very best. —CZ
“Police Story” (dir. Jackie Chan, 1985)
Thanks in large part to American lists like this one, which often default to “Police Story” as the easiest and most broadly representative way of honoring the countless action classics produced by Hong Kong’s film industry during the 1980s, Jackie Chan’s death-defying smash has been elevated to masterpiece status at the expense of so many other movies that deserve similar respect. Is Sergeant “Kevin” Chan Ka-Kui’s first adventure really that much stronger than ultra-stylish Michelle Yeoh vehicles like “Royal Warriors”? Are Chan’s stunts really that much more impressive than the balleticism Donnie Yen brought to “In the Line of Duty IV,” or the comic antics that surround them that much funnier than the gags found in similarly light-hearted Shaw Brothers gems like “My Young Auntie”?
Truth be told, the argument could be made that “Police Story” isn’t even the best installment of the franchise it started (“Police Story 2” falls well short, but 1992’s “Supercop” offers all the same I can’t believe they really did that insanity without any of the endless lulls that Chan strings between setpieces here).
But in spite of those doubts, “Police Story” still manages to earn its reputation because the movie’s euphoric highs so beautifully crystallize the serious fun and artful freneticism that Hong Kong offered in response to Hollywood’s steroidal brawn. The opening sequence delivers an immediate and unparalleled masterclass in balancing chaos with control, as the action segues directly from the most explosive car chase Michael Bay never staged into a Keaton-worthy stunt that finds Chan using an umbrella handle to grapple onto a speeding bus; it takes an hour of goofy slapstick to get there (the comedy redeemed by Maggie Cheung’s endearing performance as Chan’s girlfriend), but “Police Story” eventually manages to top itself with a glass-shattering finale so awesome that we delight in getting to watch it from three different angles.
The decade went on to see more dangerous stunts, but none of them bristled with the giddy showmanship that Chan brought to the screen. That flair is ultimately what sets “Police Story” apart from the rest of the golden age that it helped to define, and also what makes Chan worthy of being compared to the silent icons who inspired him: At the top of his game, there was simply nobody else like him. —DE
“Ishtar” (dir. Elaine May, 1987)
Elaine May’s gut-busting interrogation of American foreign policy — once derided as the nadir of modern Hollywood — has aged into a bonafide classic. A brilliant subversion of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s road comedies, “Ishtar” tells the story of struggling songwriters Chuck (Dustin Hoffman) and Lyle (Warren Beatty) as they become enveloped in a geopolitical crisis while touring an imaginary North African country. Rather than relying on tawdry exoticization or some version of the noble savage trope, May finds all-time laughs in painting Chuck and Lyle as bumbling symbols of their country’s imperialism who charge into countries without considering the untold damage they might inflict.
A bewitching Isabelle Adjani and a waggish Charles Grodin fill out the flawless cast, while Hoffman and Beatty work as a perfect double act whose wholly empathetic male friendship makes for an old-fashioned love song about how telling the truth can be dangerous business. —RD
“Golden Eighties” (dir. Chantal Akerman, 1986)
The late, great Chantal Akerman — of the “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” Akermans — wasn’t exactly known for making light and frothy matinee fare, so it’s somewhat understandable that potential investors were a bit gun-shy when the Belgian auteur began fundraising for a musical in the grand tradition of MGM’s Technicolor classics at the start of the 1980s (an effort that she preserved in the documentary “Les Annees 80s”). Akerman was ultimately forced to pare down her vision, but “Golden Eighties” is all the more sublime for its intimate scale.
A shoebox musical that’s almost entirely set within the ultra-artificial confines of a Brussels shopping mall and backdropped by the post-war dispersal of Europe’s remaining Jewry (because this is still a Chantal Akerman film, after all), “Golden Eighties” chronicles the romantic entanglements of regular people as they criss-cross into a single lovelorn knot.
A playful and capricious energy takes hold from the very first shot — a whip-pan sight gag for the ages — and only grows stronger as the girl-crazy Robert (Nicolas Tronc) fends off the affections of two beautiful hairdressers who work at the salon next to his parents’ department store, and fawns over a third. Meanwhile, his Holocaust survivor mother (Delphine Seyrig) has a chance encounter with the American soldier who fell in love with her during the war, and old feelings come bubbling up to the surface in the span of a single note. The heart wants what it wants, and nothing is better at keeping a beat.
“Golden Eighties” may seem gossamer thin on the surface, and even spontaneous in its casualness and organic “choreography” (a lot of well-posed crowd shots and excellent use of an all-male, ultra-fashionable greek chorus), but the songs are catchy as hell, and Akerman is attuned to sea changes both large and small. Is it ever too late for poptimism to save the day? Is romance only for the young? Do we ever stop shopping for a better deal? Akerman’s musical outlier may not have become a hit, but it knows full well that a little bit of love is always good for business. —DE
“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (dir. Amy Heckerling, 1982)
As the legend goes, filmmaker Amy Heckerling was struck by severe culture shock when she moved from her hometown of New York City to Los Angeles, where she enrolled at the American Film Institute. And yet, her first film — inspired by screenwriter Cameron Crowe’s investigative book of the same name — offers an indelible look at young teenage life in LA’s own San Fernando Valley. That might be the secret: young teenage life is the same, no matter where you live, maybe even no matter when you live.
A slice of life dramedy that lives up to that designation with style and substance, “Fast Times” follows one year at the titular Ridgemont High, where various students mix and mingle, fall in love, learn about the facts of life, do very little schoolwork, and manage to glean a handful of lessons from at least one teacher. The concerns that beset these kids are both hyper-specific to the ‘80s (like trying to scam cheap Van Halen tickets) and startlingly relatable no matter the period (like Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Stacy, whose subplot about needing an abortion is still resonant, even in a heavily edited released cut).
But what makes Heckerling’s feature debut really endure is the way the filmmaker manages to blend teen high jinks (sexy fantasies, going to class high, screwing up at your after-school job) with exceedingly adult concerns. Brad, Stacy, Damone, Rat, Linda, and Spicoli are all believable (read: fallible) teenagers, but they’re never treated as children, their concerns are never silly, their lives are always of value, and their experiences are valid. It doesn’t just get to the heart of what it feels like to be a teenager, but what it means to be a teenager. —KE
“The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” (dir. Kazuo Hara, 1987)
If there has never been another anti-war documentary quite like Kazuo Hara’s singularly unstable “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On,” that’s because there’s never been another documentary subject quite like Kenzō Okuzaki. Conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army at the height of World War II and stationed at a New Guinea garrison where all but six of his 1,200 fellow soldiers were killed or starved to death, the calm and slender Okuzaki emerged from the war as the world’s most pathologically dedicated anti-monarchist. By the time Hara started filming him a few decades later — fresh off a decade or so in solitary confinement — Okuzaki had made it his mission to track down and confront the former members of his unit about the truth behind a series of executions that took place just after the Japanese surrender (a process that involves several fistfights, torturing an old man in his hospital bed, and even an attempted murder). Who gave the order to shoot the so-called deserters after the war had already been lost, and, even more distressingly, what happened to their bodies?
Observing — and perhaps also facilitating —an increasingly tense and unforgettable series of Okuzaki’s surprise visits, “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On” renders the remarkable profile of a man who adopts personal violence as his best hope for preventing another war. Of course, the rigidity of someone’s moral code doesn’t necessarily make it right (on the contrary, history has shown us that such unyielding systems of belief are often used as weapons by people who lack the strength to be at war with themselves), and Haru’s documentary is all the more fascinating because of the ambivalence that it encourages towards Okuzaki and his mission.
Where Michael Moore adopted a similar approach towards more polemical ends, Haru creates enough friction between camera and subject to align viewers with Okuzaki’s hunt for justice while also questioning his self-sustaining belief that “Violence is justified if the end result is good.” At the same time, it’s hard to stomach his former captain’s insistence that “Everyone has the right to live in peace,” and so this utterly inimitable film ends the only way that it can: Unresolved, save for the fact that surviving some of this world’s truest horrors is no guarantee they won’t eat you alive in the end. —DE
“High Hopes” (dir. Mike Leigh, 1988)
A hodge-podge of stalwart socialist beliefs, yuppie posturing, and the harsh realities of Margaret Thatcher’s England, Mike Leigh’s “High Hopes” brilliantly juxtaposes opposing lifestyles and political leanings in late ’80s London. The film centers around three couples, each occupying a different social milieu — working class Marxists, bourgeois bootlickers, and insufferable upper-crusters. With a cast made up of actors who would come to be Leigh’s recurring collaborators (including Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville and Phil Davis), “High Hopes” concerns itself with how to believe in a better future in a world where it seems like the odds are inexorably stacked against you.
Leigh intentionally aligns us with the more down-to-earth Marxists, Cyril and Shirley (played by the wonderful Davis and Sheen), the only couple whose values encompass things beyond conspicuous consumption and ruthless gentrification, and whose genuine romantic connection allows them to find contentment despite their meager incomes and cramped quarters. Their primary concern is whether or not they can justify procreation; Shirley wants a baby, Cyril thinks the world is overpopulated enough as it is. Leigh’s film chronicles their struggle to keep their heads high and their beliefs intact as they face a world increasingly aligned with accumulation — the accumulation of money, of power, and of ostentatious possessions. That these characters stay hopeful about their life together, and the possibility of a child, proves to be their bravest political act of all. —SG
“The Dante Quartet” (dir. Stan Brakhage, 1987)
So mythically strange are the experiments in sound and image undertaken by the filmmaker Stan Brakhage that they are often forgotten when compiling lists like this one. As one of the foremost figures of the cinematic avant-garde, Brakhage’s works are frequently sidelined as staples of academic curricula, better to be studied and interpreted than to be enjoyed. Forgotten about this towering artist, however, is his tremendous ability to entertain, and the vigor of the labor he invested in doing just that.
Brakhage’s phantasmagorical meditation on The Divine Comedy, “The Dante Quartet” is among the great experience films of the 1980’s or any other decade. It’s the kind of movie that divides one’s mind into a “before” and “after.” Created over six years by painstakingly hand-painting single-frame abstractions directly onto assortments of 70mm, 35mm, and IMAX film stock, it presents four sections representing echelons of the afterlife — “Hell Itself,” “Hell Spit Flexion,” “Purgation,” and “existence is song” — spliced together in a trance-inducing staccato. Figures and objects (flames, a face, a door) appear sporadically beneath the roiling mash of paints. There is no noise or narration. One is simply left to drown in a tidal wave of color.
That description might strike some readers as the stuff of a pretentious slog, but for all the intensity of its subject, “The Dante Quartet” is a delicious feast for the eyes that builds suspense in wondering what Brakhage will do next. Watch the film on YouTube today, and it holds the same power as it might in any theater, classroom, or museum. That its production required a longer dedication of time and effort from Brakhage than shooting “Apocalypse Now” in croc-infested waters required from Francis Ford Coppola or dragging a boat over a mountain for “Fitzcarraldo” did from Werner Herzog only adds to the sense of beholding an artist’s magnum opus. —SM
“Tenebrae” (dir. Dario Argento, 1982)
The 1980s were the best of times and the worst of times for Italian horror. At home, giallo was widely considered to have the same level of artistic merit as listless pornography, while in the UK, Dario Argento’s “Tenebrae” was blacklisted as a “video nasty.” But even when trying to enter into the mindset of the era’s horror-hating prudes, it’s hard to see how anyone could deny just how gorgeous Argento’s films are. That’s true of “Tenebrae” most of all, in which blood-splattered maximalism lusciously drips from every frame in time with an achingly cool synth-heavy score.
The plot is bare bones, but this is much less of a standard slasher than it is a strangely profound portrait of the era. Peter Neal (Anthony Fanciosa) plays a popular murder-mystery author who travels to Rome, only to find himself being stalked by a serial killer who may have been inspired by his work. In many ways, “Tenebrae” feels like Argento’s most personal film, as it finds the horror master reflecting on his legacy and grappling with the moral consequences of filling the world with violent imagery — a passion that saw him blamed for polluting young minds with thoughts of slashed throats and sexual deviancy.
“Tenebrae” is particularly attuned to that last point. Not only does it satirize the objectification of women in genre cinema, it does so while being sexy as hell. Expecting that the film will awaken some latent serial killer tendencies in its audience may have been a stretch, though surely a few carnal urges have come to fruition over the course of Argento’s 101-minute running time (a fact that only heightens the movie’s power today, when the cinema is struggling for any semblance of horniness). But censoring “Tenebrae” was always going to backfire in the end, as the film is arguably the ultimate testament to the artistry and innovation of the “nasty” giallo sub-genre it was used to disgrace. —LL
“The Fly” (dir. David Cronenberg, 1986
Of allthe purported advancements in filmmaking and technology, the body horror sub-genre has fallen off a cliff since the ‘80s served up the likes of “The Thing,” “Re-Animator,” “Possession,” along with a veritable smorgasbord of twisted Cronenbergian delights. All of these films were nasty in their own way, but only one of them involved Jeff Goldblum impregnating Geena Davis with a fetus that might turn out to be half-fly.
Remade from the distinctly tamer 1958 film of the same name, “The Fly” tells the story of a scientist named Seth Brundle (Goldblum) who accidentally fuses his DNA with that of an errant housefly during a botched teleportation attempt, causing him to slowly transform into an oozing abomination. Cronenberg uses flesh itself as a canvas, having Seth’s bone and sinew contort in an ungodly symphony of human matter.“You only know society’s straight line about the flesh,” Seth screams when his fate has been made clear “You can’t penetrate beyond society’s sick, grey, fear of the flesh. And I’m not just talking about sex and penetration. I’m talking about penetration beyond the veil of the flesh! A deep penetrating dive into the plasma pool!”
Cronenberg’s headlong swan dive into the plasma pool is viscerally disgusting in all the best ways, with Chris Walas’ chimerically horrifying creature designsposing all manner ofbig questions about the true nature of man; it’s rare to find special effects so expressive that they invite people to project unintended readings unto a film (released in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, “The Fly” became an inadvertently trenchant metaphor for those suffering from the disease), and even leave audiences wondering if their souls can somehow exist separate from the base needs of their bodies’pullulating meat. I
n the final act, Seth has all but ceased to exist, becoming increasingly erratic and dissolving into nothingness as the fly’s DNA makes all that he once was erode and collapse. The mind, the heart, and the dreams of this once brilliant man dissolve in a stream of acid vomit, and even the person he loves the most (Davis) is deemed acceptable collateral damage. If Cronenberg’s “The Fly” leaves us with any message beyond nihilistic tragedy, it’s a distrust of technological advancement. When it comes to teleportation or replacing practical effects with CGI, terrible mistakes have been made in the name of progress. —LL
“Sugar Cane Alley” (dir. Euzhan Palcy, 1983)
Forget that “Sugar Cane Alley” won the Silver Lion and Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival, or that its director, Euzhan Palcy, won a historic César Award at the age of 28. Forget that its success catapulted Palcy into the top echelons of auteurist entertainment, allowing her to become the first Black woman to direct a studio film in Hollywood with her follow-up feature “A Dry White Season,” and eventually earning her an Honorary Academy Award in 2023 alongside Michael J. Fox, Dianne Warren, and Peter Weir. And forget that the film remains among the most influential postcolonial texts in film history, with a massive network of artistic descendants in cinema, literature, and music across the globe.
Look beneath all of that legacy and you’ll find a brilliant but gentle fable of colonial grief and early love set in the cane fields of 1930’s Martinique. At its heart is José Assam (played by Garry Cadenat in one of the movies’ great child perofrmances), a poetically-minded village orphan whose elderly mentors push him towards a bright future away from the so-called Black Shack Alley. An avatar for Joseph Zobel, whose semi-autobiographical bildungsroman Palcy adapted for the film, José’s local journey is fraught with potential traumas, of course, but his memory holds onto far more than the race and class abuses inflicted on him and his community. It also clasps the thrill of brushing hands with a first crush; the taste of a street vendor’s hot rolls; the unfixable stiffness of a grandparent’s dead body.
In style and form alone, “Sugar Cane Alley” is a feature debut as assured as any in the cinematic canon. Forty years after its release, it is as beautiful as ever, with images of the Martinican countryside that sear your brain. That such a landmark remains out of print on physical media and unavailable to watch on any streaming service is a travesty, but whomever fixes this problem will be a hero to future generations of audiences. —SM
“Born in Flames” (1983, Lizzie Borden)
What if the revolution happened, and nothing changed? That’s the inciting question behind Lizzie Borden’s righteously militant fiction debut. (She completed an experimental documentary, “Regrouping,” in 1976.) The film is set in a parallel version of New York City, 10 years after a social democratic uprising whose leaders smugly congratulate themselves on “the most peaceful revolution in history.” Many of the goals of wealthy white second-wave feminists have been achieved. But for marginalized groups — Black women, Latinx women, poor women, sex workers, lesbians — the world is just as dangerous and hostile as ever.
As a critique of establishment neoliberalism, “Born in Flames” is both of its time and strikingly prescient: Paeons to incrementalism and “not rocking the boat” with radical social change were present in the 1970’s and ‘80s as well as today. But disgust with toothless, self-serving elites is only a part of Borden’s film. Much of its running time is spent rapping with the revolutionary sisters of the Women’s Army, a multi-racial, working-class coalition who, over the course of 90 minutes, radicalize and transform themselves into an armed militia dedicated to seizing the airwaves by any means necessary.
“Born in Flames” contains elements of docudrama, as Borden adds to the street-level verite atmosphere by shooting guerilla style at protest marches and on subway cars. Borden also pulls the electrifying energy of the No Wave movement into the film, weaving in performances from musician Adele Bertei with documentary news footage and staged scenarios to create a collage-style narrative. Fans of more mainstream ’80s cinema should also keep an eye out for future Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow in a small role as an editor at a socialist newspaper. —KR
“Fitzcarraldo” (dir. Werner Herzog, 1982) // “Burden of Dreams” (dir. Les Blank, 1982)
It may be a bit of a cheat to cram two films into one slot, but Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” has always been so inextricable from the story of its own making that it would feel more unnatural to separate it from Les Blank’s “Burden of Dreams” on this list. It’s certainly impossible to separate them in your mind, as these twinned films — conjoined at the source of their mutual ecstasy and madness — can be said to tell the same story from opposite ends of the creative spectrum.
Herzog’s picture, infamous for its hellish four-year production, is a fictionalized bio-epic about an opera-obsessed Irish rubber baron (a subdued Klaus Kinski, as Irish as a schnitzel) in early 20th century Peru who becomes hell-bent upon bringing his favorite artform to the remote port city of Iquitos. Blank’s behind-the-scenes documentary amounts to a feature-length reverse shot of “Fitzcarraldo,” as it effectively observes the indefatigable Herzog clinging to a Sisyphysean fantasy of his own — one that sees the “Stroszek” auteur recreating Fitzcarraldo’s efforts to pull a 320-ton steamship up a steep hill in order to access a fortune in unclaimed rubber.
In real life, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald had the good sense to dismantle the boat and carry it over the isthmus in pieces, but Herzog rightly surmised there wouldn’t be enough cinema in that. So he invented his own, more expressive version of the truth, with Blank’s camera on hand to render Herzog as both the artist and the subject of everything he makes (a perspective that Herzog would later default to in his own documentary work). “There is no harmony in the universe,” he declares aloud in his usual monotone, the gravity of his voice endowing those words with the immortal weight of fact. But then, as if Herzog were talking to himself across a jungle of dissonance a half-century wide, Fitzcarraldo responds with a grin on his face: “We are gonna take advantage of this myth.” —DE
“Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” (dir. Todd Haynes, 1987)
Think of it as the original “Barbie” movie. For his experimental 43-minute debut, future “Carol” director Todd Haynes used Mattel dolls to portray the rise and fall of singer Karen Carpenter, which culminated in her death at the age of 32 from heart failure after a tortuous battle with anorexia. Karen’s brother and stage partner Richard was incensed by the short film’s portrayal of his family — and the fact that Haynes never obtained the licensing to use the many classic Carpenters songs that feature in the film.
Richard sued, and won, and while a print exists behind closed doors at the Museum of Modern Art, the film hasn’t received a proper exhibition since playing film festivals in 1987. As it stands today, the only reliable way to watch “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” is still via scuzzy VHS bootleg on YouTube. That may change at some point in the near future, but for now the elusiveness of Haynes’ first effort continues to add to its legend.
Adopting the style of a tabloid news magazine, Haynes never flinches away from the body horror that Karen suffered as a result of her affliction, nor does he hesitate to point blame at the people who enabled her illness, casting them as grotesque, disfigured Barbies in scenes where they sit around trying to solve the problem Karen’s sickness poses for them. In retrospect, Haynes’ montages of Ex-Lax and controlled eating almost evoke a Barbie doll version of “Requiem for a Dream,” while his painstaking attention to detail — seen in shrunk down food labels and rigorously recreated sets of restaurants, recording studios, and Karen Carpenter’s own Century City apartment —lends the film an uncomfortable authenticity that may not have been possible to achieve with live-action. To this day, the Carpenters’ story has still never been rendered on film with such brutal honesty. —RL
“The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” (dir. Peter Greenaway, 1989)
Erudite Welsh filmmaker Peter Greenaway is still best known for his sensational and visually lurid masterpiece “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and His Lover,” a satire of Jacobean Europe dipped in the chiaroscuro-red blood of a Caravaggio painting. And while Greenaway has always taken an ironic stance toward the state of filmmaking in general, here he’s at the height of his powers with a dead-serious story about Michael Gambon’s tyrannical restaurateur (a natural stand-in for a corrupt political ruler), who’s taken down by an uprising of his underlings led by his wife (Helen Mirren), who is also a member of their ranks.
Mirren is wonderfully prim and restrained as Georgina, who escapes her abusive marriage by falling in love with a bookshop owner (Alan Howard), who reads alone at her husband’s restaurant every night. That lovely ritual is a sharp contrast to the rest of the business going down at Le Hollandais, which ranges from castration to coprophilic torture.
Minted as an arthouse name by this X-rated, Miramax-backed delicacy, Greenaway has aggressively challenged the conventional rules of moviemaking for decades. As a trained painter who never intended to be a filmmaker, Greenaway’s body of work takes a Brechtian attitude toward the audience, incorporating montage and tableaux to disorienting effect. He sees the filmic medium as limiting in its architecture, an architecture that “The Cook” defies at every turn. With the help of costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier and a vaunting, classically styled score by Michael Nyman, Greenaway’s vision bursts out of the frame. His masterpiece epitomizes the work of a filmmaker who never shies away from the violence and brutality of this world, and instead chooses to realize it deliciously. —RL
“Purple Rain” (dir. Albert Magnoli, 1984)
It’s hard to coherently express the intensity with which a love for Prince can manifest itself in those of us who adore him. A complex, frequently difficult artist who had a singular vision that didn’t conform to expectations of race, gender or pop stardom, he reinvented himself and his sound many times across the span of his too-short life. And yet Prince’s chameleonic nature makes it all the more fascinating to watch him lean into (and further immortalize) his pre-established persona in “Purple Rai,” in which he starred as the complex but frequently difficult leader of a Minneapolis band whose members were played by the real cast of The Revolution.
Unlike Elvis before him, whose movie roles tended to present him as a wholesome stalwart hero, Prince looked to his troubled childhood in order to create a screen persona who reflected his own struggles with creating art that is both meaningful and exhilarating. “Purple Rain” was a star turn of the highest order, but it doesn’t find Prince shying away from his own inadequacies. His character’s artistic talents are never up for debate, but he mistreats many of the people in his life and luxuriates in the role of the tortured genius. His relationships with the women around him range from oedipal to abhorrent, as “The Kid” is unable to break the cycle of abuse that he ultimately turns into generation-defining music.
Bolstered by sequences of Prince and The Revolution performing on stage, where they’re bathed in cinematographer Donald E. Thorin’s purple light as if they were receiving the music directly from the heavens, even the hammiest moments of Prince’s performance are endowed with a supernatural elegance that transcends the predictable plot beats around them and establishes “Purple Rain” as a work of and about creative genius. —LL
“Stranger Than Paradise” (dir. Jim Jarmusch, 1984)
In Jim Jarmusch’s breakthrough feature “Stranger Than Paradise,” surly bohemian Willie (John Lurie) proudly identifies as an American, but for him that mostly means eating cheap TV dinners, smoking Chesterfields, and watching a lot of television inside his tiny apartment. When he reluctantly takes in his Hungarian cousin Eva (Eszter Balint) after she gets stranded in Brooklyn, he refuses to show her the city, insisting that a claustrophobic, slacker lifestyle captures the heart of his adopted country.
It’s only when Eva heads to the Midwest to live with their aunt that Willie and his friend Eddie (Richard Edson) decide to leave New York to see America. Only they can’t figure out why everywhere they go looks exactly the same.
Shot for $100,000, and expanded from a 30-minute short that Jarmusch directed with leftover film stock gifted from Wim Wenders, “Stranger” depicts America as an eerily blank nation, a country where New York, Cleveland, and Florida all basically look like one bombed out ghost town. Jarmusch has always filmed his home country with the keen eye of a curious tourist, someone who can mine poetry from the mundane. But in “Stranger,” still his most perfect feature, he defamiliarizes America until it reflects the aimless interiority of his subjects. It’s as iconic an urban portrait as any created by Michelangelo Antonioni or Yasujirō Ozu, two filmmakers whose work hangs over Jarmusch’s second feature like a shadow. The film’s lengthy single takes seem like Jarmusch putting a distinctively American spin on the painterly style of those titans.
Yet, the deadpan sensibility of “Stranger” feels entirely sui generis, a new voice synthesized from a plethora of disparate cultural influences, equal parts arthouse and punk rock. The film ends on a specifically American note of irony that suggests people can be flung across a country (or a globe) and end up exactly where they started, but Jarmusch kept moving forward, developing his style further and further. With one film, he demonstrated to a generation of filmmakers that a national independent cinema can be accessible without sacrificing formal rigor, ambitious with limited resources, and comedic entirely on its own terms. —VM
“Streetwise” (dir. Martin Bell, 1984)
Martin Bell, Cheryl McCall, and Mary Ellen Mark’s 1984 documentary “Streetwise” may be the most trenchant examination of the impacts of trickle-down economics that the film world has ever produced, but the homeless youths followed by Bell’s roving camera can hardly grasp the potential importance of the film they’re in, distracted as they are by the pressures of surviving on the unforgiving streets of downtown Seattle.
Working from a Life Magazine article written by McCall and photographed by Mark, the filmmakers capture an impoverished Dickensian milieu in what was then supposed to be America’s most livable and progressive city. Though often referred to as “gritty,” “raw,” or “unfiltered,” “Streetwise” is hardly trauma porn. Even its most painful images of addiction, incarceration, and underage prostitution are suffused with empathy and curiosity; and the floating narration delivered by Dewayne Pomeroy, Erin “Tiny” Blackwell, and other unforgettable members of their cohort borrows more from Terrence Malick than, say, Frederick Wiseman. Though Bell’s is a political lens, to be sure, his criticisms are lobbed not at his characters, but at the institutions (read: the police) that have forsaken and abused them.
Despite receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature in 1985, and more recently being the subject of a Blu-ray release by the Criterion Collection, “Streetwise” has lost some of its foothold in the public consciousness (in 2013, Bell and the late Mark, who were married, turned to crowdfunding a sequel in lieu of traditional production funds). Yet its influence is felt everywhere from the films of Harmony Korine and Gus Van Sant to the music of How to Dress Well and Saraya; without it, there would be no “Kids” or “Gummo” or many other essential works of art. For such an impactful, intelligent film to fade into the recesses of cinema history would be a crime. —SM
“Veronika Voss” (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982)
To understand the headspace that Rainer Werner Fassbinder was in when he made “Veronika Voss,” just look at the picture that was taken of him celebrating the film’s Golden Bear while James Stewart — who was at the Berlinale to receive a lifetime achievement award — looks on in the background with warily affectionate concern. “Veronika Voss” was the second-to-last of the 40+ features that the prolific German filmmaker would finish before his death, which came just a few months later after he overdosed on the cocaine and barbiturates that had facilitated the mad pace of his career, and had also informed his decadent, garish, and unkempt approach to the cinema itself. Fassbinder was 37 years old.
A gorgeously melancholic black-and-white melodrama about a fading actress in the thrall of the quack doctor who’s pumping her full of morphine, “Veronika Voss” makes Norma Desmond seem down-to-earth by comparison. An unforgettably tragic Rosel Zech plays the title character, a neurotic onetime movie and TV star who’s struggling to get roles in her late middle age and huffing off the fumes her burned-out legacy. “She tries to be all the women in the world wrapped up in one,” Veronika says of herself at one point, lost as usual in reveries of the past and/or drug-induced mania. Embellished by cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger, whose blindingly white lighting feels like a visual manifestation of the afterlife made real, Fassbinder’s film is a portrait of self-immolation that could only be made by someone in the process of following its heroine’s footsteps. “You may only die when I say so,” says Veronika’s doctor, who also insists she’s Veronika’s best friend as maintaining the Munchausen by proxy dynamic of their relationship. What’s worse is that she may well be Veronika’s only friend. —RL
“Tongues Untied” (dir. Marlon Riggs, 1989)
Marlon Riggs’ galvanizing “Tongues Untied” is an ode to Black gay male liberation and repression, mixing cinematic montage with music, spoken word poetry, and choreography to query both the external forces of racism and homophobia working against the population as well as those same forces roiling within it. The film unsurprisingly stoked controversy and Republican backlash when PBS aired it in 1989, a backlash exacerbated by Riggs’ backing from the National Endowment for the Arts.
While that response may have been rooted in the film’s explicit and tender portrayal of Black gay sexuality, “Tongues Untied” further enraged right-wingers by openly confronting the AIDS epidemic in the final stretches of its 55-minute running time (Riggs would die five years later from complications due to HIV/AIDS). The film also includes archival materials chronicling homophobic attacks against Black gay men and the brutalizing forces that tried to silence them through segregation in bars and public spaces, depicted here in New York and San Francisco.
But for all of its pot-stirring ambitions, “Tongues Untied” remains a celebratory, mind-and-body-positive portrait of Blackness, complete with a lesson in learning how to “snap like a diva,” loving scenes of drag culture (even as they’re countered by worse moments of prejudice and hate), and rare-for-the-times screen depictions of the Vogue dancing that continues to challenge heterosexual orthodoxy. The influence of James Baldwin is acutely felt in the film’s narration, a haunting complement to Riggs’ hallucinatory filmmaking style that still revelatory and all too urgent when seen today. —RL
“Hollywood Shuffle” (dir. Robert Townsend, 1987)
The uproarious laughter that greeted director Robert Townsend’s critique of Tinseltown’s stark valuation of Black actors has only died down because, almost 40 years later, its central joke remains a troubling reality. Townsend stars as Bobby Taylor, an aspiring actor searching for a break in an industry that restricts Black folks to limited roles.
Many of the tight satire’s bits are repeated classics. The audition room of Black men doing their best Eddie Murphy impression for a casting agent who only sees one kind of Black stardom is one standout example, while the Black acting school, in which white people teach specifically dark-skinned African-Americans how to shuck and jive, and how to play gangsters and slaves, is another.
But perhaps the most resonant sequences are the ones that flesh out Bobby’s fantasies of playing gumshoes, Shakespearean kings, and action heroes — the kind of roles still mostly reserved for white folks. These skits aren’t the stuff that dreams are made of, but rather the bitter pill of a dream too often deferred. —RD
“Sherman’s March” (dir. Ros McElwee, 1986)
The title “Sherman’s March” is a slight misnomer, considering that non-fiction director Ross McElwee doesn’t exactly trace the lingering effects of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s military campaign on the contemporary South like he initially planned. Instead, the film’s subtitle, “A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation,” accurately captures the scope and digressive structure of McElwee’s most celebrated feature.
Armed with a small camera, a tape recorder, and some grant money, McElwee travels on Sherman’s route through the South meeting various women, some strangers and others old girlfriends and acquaintances, while reeling from a breakup. Following in the tradition of cinema vérité that anticipates future first-person filmmakers (like John Wilson), “Sherman’s March” follows a simple narrative pattern: McElwee briefly becomes immersed in the lives of these women — some of whom include an aspiring actress, a linguist working on her PhD, and an old activist girlfriend — until one of them eventually leaves, but not before McElwee frequently falls head over heels for them.
McElwee adopts a charming eye towards his crushes as well as Reagan-era Southern life, which he observes without authorial judgment. Eccentrics across a broad ideological spectrum cross his path to share their honest, oft-conspiratorial views on the future stained by the threat of nuclear holocaust. (It’s too easy to imagine a contemporary version of this film with climate change as the pall of terror.) However, McElwee, a personal filmmaker to his core, keeps returning “Sherman’s March” to the subject of himself. While the film’s epic length and repetitive structure might scream of solipsism, it ultimately veers toward a pointed self-critique, as it becomes clear that McElwee uses his camera to keep himself from being an active participant in his life.
Though he craves passionate relationships, his self-effacingly romantic persona also betrays an insecurity that engenders a vicious cycle of loneliness. At times funny and bittersweet, “Sherman’s March” features McElwee on a personal campaign of spiritual discovery that leaves behind a path of fractured connections and broken relationships, one that the film suggests might continue forever. Call it a “total war” of the self. —VM
“Thief” (dir. Michael Mann, 1981)
That a clip from “Thief,” Michael Mann’s first and arguably best feature film, did the rounds on Twitter at the outset of the writers’ and actors’ strike tells us plenty about its blue-collar politics — and how little has changed. “You are making big profits from my work, my risk, my sweat,” James Caan’s titular thief Frank tells mob boss Leo (Robert Prosky), whose stranglehold over Chicago’s criminal underworld leaves skilled laborers like Frank out of pocket. He finishes: “I want my end, and I’m out.”
Are you crazy? Well, a bit — although mostly Frank is just impatient. A hardworking ex-con with undeniable skills (this is a Michael Mann film, after all), Frank wants a taste of the sweeter side of life. Jessie (Tuesday Weld) offers a way out, while Okla (an outstandingly good Willie Nelson) gives Frank a glimpse at the wonder of a found father. But adoption services won’t play ball, and Frank’s desperate hunt for a future drives him further into an underclass that giveth some, taketh lots.
“Thief” is probably Mann’s simplest film, a Cassavettes-style study of a character on edge in a straightforwardly brutal world. But its aesthetics are unforgettable (neon didn’t look like that before), and Tangerine Dream’s synthy score is one of the best of the decade. In an era where prosperity was enshrined as an American religion and the movies mostly adapted to support that notion, “Thief” is a counter-cultural nightmare about when “security” becomes hell, and nobody gets their fair share. It’s aged terribly. —AS
“Pauline at the Beach” (dir. Éric Rohmer, 1983)
“Pauline at the Beach” opens with a Chrétien de Troyes saying that casts a large shadow over the loquacious film to come (“A wagging tongue bites itself”), but this sly and spritzy and very French sex comedy — the most effervescent installment of Éric Rohmer’s “Comedies and Proverbs” film cycle — has plenty of killer lines of its own.
Few of them belong to the teenage Pauline (Amanda Langlet) herself, who tags along with her divorced older cousin Marion (Arielle Dombasle) on a holiday to their family’s summer home along the coast near Mont Saint-Michel. Pauline is no shrinking violet, but her youth frees her from the demands of having to justify her own feelings about love. Marion, on the other hand, is so at the mercy of her emotions that she’s willing to obliviate herself in order to serve them. “Freedom doesn’t interest me,” the statuesque blonde tells her freckle-faced mentee. “I believe that to really love, you must believe that it will last forever.” Marion won’t be happy until she’s imprisoned by desire, even if that means condemning herself to solitary confinement.
Windboarding instructor Henri (Féodor Atkine) is clearly the kind of guy who would fuck a hole in the beach if the sand got wet enough, but that’s exactly what inspires Marion to throw herself at him — it’s also exactly what leads him to grow bored of her in return. “Learn to let yourself be desired, or you’ll be unhappy,” Henri tells the under-aged Pauline after molesting her in her sleep (an act forgiven in the span of a single cut).
Pauline might not be interested in Henri’s advances, but she’s very willing to learn from his aggression, and the breeziness of Rohmer’s comedy of manners belies the complicated matrix of attachments that undergird its story at every turn, especially once “nice guy” Pierre (Pascal Greggory) starts lighting himself on fire with the torch he carries for Marion. “Love is a form of insanity,” Marion declares in an effort to justify her own self-sabotage, but here — in the late summer light of Nestor Almendros’ pétillant cinematography — there’s something ineffably honest about watching these people so knowingly become prisoners to their own beautiful madness. —DE
“Grave of the Fireflies” (dir. Isao Takahata, 1988)
Speaking in broad terms, one aspect that distinguishes the body of work of the late animation master Isao Takahata from his fellow Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki is that some of the former’s most powerful storytelling derived poetry and levity from ordinary life devoid of magical beings, as is the case in “Only Yesterday” and “My Neighbors the Yamadas.” That Takahata chose to adapt a novel as devastating as Akiyuki Nosaka’s “Grave of the Fireflies” represents a consummate materialization of his humanist sensibilities.
Unflinching in its depiction of the horrors of war, the heart-rending drama chronicles the efforts of 14-year-old orphan Seita (voiced by Tsutomu Tatsumi) to save his adorable four-year-old sister Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi) from starvation in the aftermath of the bombing of Kobe during World War II. The siblings are doomed from the start. Following Seita’s roaming spirit, we witness the series of tragic misfortunes that led to the premature deaths of both siblings. Details about the geopolitical conflict unfolding are nearly absent from the film, yet its repercussions are evident in the precariousness that plagues civilian life.
This harrowing account of that time transcends into a lyrical state because of how Takahata uses exquisite animation to observe the seemingly miniscule moments of glee others might have skipped: a playful evening under the rain, a day at the beach, the stillness of life even in the midst of chaos, and, of course, the mesmerizing luminosity of the fireflies, who, like the young protagonists, burn bright only for brief time.
In Takahata’s hands, a can of fruit drops — a less prominent element in the original material — becomes a symbolic reminder of better days and of smiles shared. It’s a container of sugary morsels of hope. “Grave of the Fireflies” examines history via the eyes of the most vulnerable, and thus it cuts through the intellectual coldness of history and discourse to reach a soul-stirring poignancy beyond mere sadness. Each hand-drawn frame expresses the paradox of our worst instincts and our species’ most cherished emotions. —CA
“Chocolat” (dir. Claire Denis, 1988)
A Black father and his son enjoy the beach together, letting the waves wash over them in an image meant to convey the relative freedom of Cameroon’s post-colonial era. The father (Emmet Judson Williamson as William J. Park) offers a ride to a white woman who’s been watching them; she was raised in the country when it was still a French colony, and as William drives her towards Limbe the film flashes back to her childhood.
Claire Denis grew up in French Cameroon as well, and her semi-autobiographical debut is a delicate memory piece, as episodic and fragmented as recollections from childhood tend to be. The girl’s name — perhaps a bit unsubtly — is France (Cecile Ducasse), and her father was a French colonial administrator. He was often gone for long periods of time to help with cattle migration or to assist with the building of a runway for a plane, leaving France in the company of the family butler, Protée (Isaach de Bankolé, whose performance makes the entire film work). Their friendship both reflects and subtly resists a society in which white and Black are clearly separate and unequal, a divide that cuts to the core of a film that never romanticizes the past even though its story is filtered through a child’s naivete.
Protée has a richer internal life than any other character in “Chocolat,” and it’s fitting that Denis reserves her only close-ups for he and France in while shooting the rest of the movie at the distance of memory. That the flashbacks takes place in the dusty Sahel offers a striking contrast to the “present”-day bookends set along Cameroon’s verdant coast, a contrast that feels like a celebration of the nation’s journey towards liberation. Denis drew on her own memories, but her framing makes it clear that while the story of her childhood is meaningful to her, the story of this land has never been hers to tell. —CB
“Tampopo” (dir. Juzo Itami, 1985)
The saying goes that some people eat to live, and some people live to eat, but Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo” is the rare serving of food porn that brings both groups to the table. The only movie ever made that could accurately be described as a cross between “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly,” “Babette’s Feast,” and “Songs From the Second Floor,” this “ramen Western” begins with a petulant gangster (Kōji Yakusho) bringing a full picnic into a movie theater, and ends with a hungry infant instinctively suckling on his mother’s breast.
In between, Itami’s fiercely beloved film unfolds like a prix fixe tasting menu of strange comic delights. The meat of the story concerns a recently widowed restaurant owner named Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) whose noodles —described as “sincere, but lacking in character” — are in desperate need of some new spice. Enter a pair of long-haul truckers played by Tsutomu Yamazaki and a young Ken Watanabe, who rededicate their lives to saving Tampopo’s business, and possibly also her soul.
Starting from that oh-so-familiar premise, Itami’s fabulist sensibilities feed into a singularly delectable foodie fantasia about all of the things that give life its flavor and make it worth savoring. —DE
“Smithereens” (dir. Susan Seidelman, 1982)
Susan Seidelman’s debut film “Smithereens” begins with the wayward runaway Wren (Susan Berman) confidently stealing a pair of checkered sunglasses in the subway and ends with her homeless walking around New York City in a daze. In between, we watch her struggle to be a wannabe it girl in a punk scene that’s already drifted away from Lower Manhattan towards Los Angeles. She litters the city with flyers of her face sporting those stolen sunglasses marked with the question “WHO IS THIS?” in cutout letters to generate mystique. But truthfully, Wren doesn’t really know who she is either, and the crowd she’s trying to impress couldn’t care less about her. She ran away from suburban New Jersey normalcy to find herself in the big city, but all she does is alienate everyone she meets, including family, roommates, strangers, and would-be-lovers. Wren tries to glom onto people like a parasite, but only succeeds in fascinating them in the same manner as a car crash.
Berman’s admirably abrasive performance, entirely unconcerned with normative ideas of feminine likability, lends “Smithereens” a rough edge neatly in line with Seidelman’s remarkable urban portraiture. Shot on 16mm for $40,000, “Smithereens” represents a high-water mark in low-budget American independent cinema, utilizing guerilla-style location shooting to capture a long-gone underground New York, a place where one could still conceivably reinvent themselves and join Richard Hell’s “blank generation.” (Hell co-stars in the film as a scummy rock musician whom Wren foolishly admires.)
While Seidelman’s more successful sophomore feature “Desperately Seeking Susan” depicts East Village bohemia as a glamorous locale, “Smithereens” depicts the same area with a realistic sense of grit and poverty. It’s a place where transplants scrounge for scraps and struggle to stay warm in between chasing ill-defined dreams.
For all of Wren’s narcissism and social failures, both Seidelman and Berman portray her as a survivor. She repeatedly gets knocked down, largely because of her own poor decisions, but still finds a way to get back up and keep moving. “Smithereens” might end on a darkly ambiguous note, but it’s easy to imagine Wren still trouncing around Manhattan, trying to make a name for herself on her own terms, while continuing to adapt to a city in a permanent state of transition. —VM
“Hannah and Her Sisters” (dir. Woody Allen, 1986)
While Woody Allen first became a phenomenon with his nervous, surrealist comedy in the 1960s, then imprinted himself on the wider culture in the 1970s with his masterpiece “Annie Hall,” it was in the 1980s where he hit his true cinematic stride. Nestled among the Fellini-inspired “Stardust Memories,” ahead-of-its-time mockumentary “Zelig,” mob-meets-showbiz comedy “Broadway Danny Rose,” Hollywood fantasy “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” memoir picture “Radio Days,” and the Dostoyevsky-in-New York fatalism of “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is one of the most influential sprawling character-driven comedies of the time, “Hannah and Her Sisters.”
The 1986 film, which won Allen a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, as well as Supporting trophies for both Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine, is a celebration of intelligent adults intentionally causing problems for themselves. Caine is married to Mia Farrow (Hannah, of the title) but is in love with Barbara Hershey (Lee, Hannah’s sister) but she’s shacked up with a brooding painter, Max von Sydow. The other sister (Wiest) is a struggling actress who, with her bestie, Carrie Fisher, pines for rich architect Sam Waterston, but somehow collides with Hannah’s ex-husband, played by Woody Allen, who is caught up in his own tornado of existential despair. The film exploits every corner of Manhattan as the characters roam from Central Park West classic sixes to SoHo lofts, from East Village rock clubs to The Carlyle Hotel, from Tower Records to office corridors at “Saturday Night Live,” from Hare Krishnas in Central Park to Catholic priests at St. Patrick’s.
This was the first movie in which the Allen character was not the lead, but part of the ensemble. It was also among the first in which he leaned in to long, master takes, letting characters walk in and out of frame (as in the moment of comedy gold in which Allen tells his aging, immigrant parents that he is renouncing his status as a Jew). A highlight is a brunch-from-hell when the three sisters air grievances and hide key facts, all of it shot in lengthy 360-degree swoops.
The moments of drama land because the writing is so sharp and the performances are perfect, but this is also a very funny movie. Max Von Sydow’s lament about modern culture (“if Jesus came back and saw what was going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up”) is the sharpest monologue in any Woody Allen film. That the movie concludes with a salute to the Marx Brothers doesn’t hurt either. —JH
“The Long Good Friday” (dir. John Mackenzie, 1980)
John Mackenzie rejuvenated the British crime film with this 1980 delight about a guy whose ambition outstrips his talent (if that isn’t a portrait of a nation). Bob Hoskins duly rejuvenated the British gangster, which for more than a decade had been butchered on bad cop shows by mostly middle class actors. Like them Hoskins started on stage, but he could also sound like a real working-class scumbag, and mean it. Hoskins’ forever-receded hairline and natural roundness made him an unlikely heartthrob in a decade where hot people became far less interesting, but a heartthrob he was. Helen Mirren is also wonderful as Victoria, a smart scrapper and — as a role — a useful but rare accompaniment to the stately women she would become known for playing.
Hoskins would continue to embrace type, while Mackenzie’s successors would imitate “The Long Good Friday” for decades to come, in the same way his own generation had copied “Get Carter.” Admittedly, “The Long Good Friday” has some of the features that still appear in British films, and can make them annoying. The insistence on our “underdog” status, an obsession with pride in the face of adversity, and the notion that we’re somehow purer than Americans, apparently for being less clever. Yet these frustrating qualities just make “The Long Good Friday” a better-matched part of the furniture of British cinema. It would certainly look very different without it. —AS
“Akira” (dir. Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988)
The ’80s may have seen directors like David Cronenberg and Andrzej Żuławski at the absolute height of their powers, but the decade’s most nightmarish and spectacular body horror came from a first-time filmmaker named Katsuhiro Otomo who was determined to bring his own manga series to the big screen as viscerally as possible. Needless to say: Mission accomplished.
A scuzzy post-apocalyptic fable about the beauty and terror of human potential in the Atomic Age, “Akira” not only became synonymous with anime at a time when the Western world was first encountering the form en masse, it also exemplified Japanese cinema’s uniquely traumatized — and singularly prescient — vision of the impact that modern technology might have on the social order and our individual sense of self. …A vision manifested here (spoiler alert!) in the image of a teenage boy named Tetsuo mutating into a tumorous giant baby whose sick pink flesh metastasizes into a mass of twisted metal and rotten flesh so dense that it eventually triggers an interdimensional singularity. And who among us doesn’t how that feels, am I right?
But “Akira” demands to be celebrated for its constant splendor, and not just its occasional grotesqueness. Neo-Tokyo is among the most brilliantly realized backdrops in all of science-fiction, thanks in part to 160,000 cels of hand-drawn animation and a hyper-percussive Geinoh Yamashirogumi score that gets your blood up as if you were riding into the old city alongside Kaneda’s biker gang. Otomo’s masterpiece may be set in 2019, but at a time when nuclear fears are on the rise once more and new technology has triggered a new round of existential crises, “Akira” still feels like an urgent message from the near-future. —DE
“Babette’s Feast” (dir. Gabriel Axel, 1987)
Across cultures and across history, asceticism and self-denial are thought to be the path to enlightenment. “Babette’s Feast” emphatically argues the opposite, and the theology of abundance that director Gabriel Axel puts forth in his Oscar-winning foodie extravaganza is more than a little convincing. It suggests that sensual satisfaction, and the generosity of providing that fulfillment for others, is the path to happiness and fellowship — not withholding.
Somewhat out of necessity and somewhat because of their puritanical religious outlook, elderly sisters and certified good people Martine and Filippa have led a life of the utmost austerity in their 19th century Jutland village. It’s their way of honoring their late pastor father and his efforts to give back to the less fortunate. Martine turned down a chance at love with a young Swedish cavalry officer in her youth. Filippa rejected her chance at opera stardom when her singing voice was discovered by a famous tenor. That opera connection is ultimately what brings their French maid Babette into their lives. When Babette wins the lottery after years of living with the sisters as their housekeeper, she decides to give back to these two old ladies with an extravagant French feast, the kind that takes several days to prepare.
The thing is, Martine and Filippa aren’t sure they’re up for such an indulgence. Nor are their friends and neighbors. But in this most food porn of food porn movies, this decadence becomes the pathway to an even greater munificence and generosity of spirit from these very kind people who actually very much deserve such foodie riches. The way Axel directs his actors to show how a little pleasure can open up their characters and make them even kinder to their fellow man is a magnificent achievement, and it speaks to the intentions of a film concerned with so much more than just making you hungry. Pass the amontillado! —CB
“The Empire Strikes Back” (dir. Irvin Kershner, 1980)
One particular shot near the end of Irvin Kershner’s endlessly obsessed-over “Star Wars” sequel sums up its greatness: It’s as Han Solo is comforting a distraught Chewbacca right before Han himself is about to be lowered into carbon freeze, an act that could kill him. Suddenly, the scene cuts to a close-up of Carrie Fisher’s face as Leia turns to look, blankly, at the person who’s subjecting them to this trauma: Darth Vader, holding lordly sway over the proceedings, which, in every respect of their staging, come across like an execution. Fisher’s look at Vader is one of subtle searching: Why is Vader doing this? Why does anyone go out of their way to inflict misery upon others? Life is hard enough, whether here or in a galaxy far, far away.
The soulfulness captured in that moment is why people keep returning to “The Empire Strikes Back” again and again. There’s an emotional logic to this film — a poetic understanding that overcomes the more literal gaps in its logic. The Millennium Falcon is suddenly able to travel between star systems without lightspeed? Luke’s able to slip through the Imperial blockade of Hoth, but Han and Leia aren’t? Boba Fett’s most badass achievement is shooting the wall behind Luke? But the emotional truth of this story of mentorship and its limits, of friendship and its compromises, and of one very deranged father’s quest to be reunited with his son (a father who thinks he can sever his son’s hand but still win his companionship and loyalty), cuts through any plot holes with a commitment to its themes so timeless that even Homer and Virgil could understand it. —CB
“À Nos Amours” (dir. Maurice Pialat, 1983)
Sandrine Bonnaire was just 16 years old when she made her on-screen debut in Maurice Pialat’s “À Nos Amours” as the teenaged Suzanne, but her performance suggests an emotional maturity far beyond her years. Bonnaire imbues her character, who experiences a sexual awakening under the vigilant eyes of her disapproving family, with all of the explosive feelings of a young woman plunging headfirst into adulthood.
Stubborn and fearless, promiscuous and sensitive, Suzanne embarks on affairs with multiple men after losing her virginity in disappointing fashion to an American visitor. Her furrier father (Pialat himself) reacts with petulance and violence to her daughter’s burgeoning sexuality, but when he abandons the family for another woman, that disapproval extends to Suzanne’s overtaxed, jealous mother (Evelyne Ker) and her equally envious brother Robert (Dominique Besnehard). Pialat films the vicious, brutal family arguments with discomfiting intimacy, as Robert physically beats Suzanne, ostensibly with their mother’s approval, every time he suspects she’s been out with a man.
Pialat frequently suggests the noxious familial dynamic stems from their suppressed sexual desires; watching Suzanne fulfill her needs only increases their capacity for violence towards her. Yet, “À Nos Amours” excites because of Pialat’s studied refusal to judge his characters, even at their cruelest and most unforgiving. His commitment to observational realism lends the film’s more uncomfortable moments a genuinely nerve-wracking quality. The most famous scene in “À Nos Amours” features Suzanne’s father making an unexpected return to the family home during an engagement party, which feels like eavesdropping on a horrible event brimming with menace. He insists his audience embrace the film’s discomfiting, taboo subject matter with open eyes.
A psychologically complex work, “À Nos Amours” captivates because of its indifference to neat moral conclusions, best defined by Bonnaire, who renders Suzanne’s provocative, searching journey with remarkable emotional legibility. By embracing the contradictions within her character, Bonnaire elevates Suzanne above a mere character into a person with a rich inner life whose history extend far beyond the end of the film. Although we only see a small glimpse of her life, Pialat insists she lives outside the confines of the screen. —VM
“El Norte” (dir. Gregory Nava, 1983)
Halfway through Gregory Nava’s soulful drama, a young Guatemalan migrant named Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) stares out into the United States for the first time after having crossed the border from Mexico with her brother Enrique (David Villalpando) via a rat-infested tunnel. An overwhelming sense of hope rushes through her exhausted body. Later, while working as a housekeeper for a wealthy white family, Rosa gazes out a window, yet now her optimism has been replaced with the debilitating realization that “el norte,” a colloquial nickname for this country, is far from the promised land she had imagined it would be.
The brilliance in Gutiérrez and Villalpando’s convincing tuns as inseparable siblings lies in the combination of wide-eye innocence and the unwavering determination needed to risk their lives for a semblance of safety and prosperity. But the laws of the world and the interests of the powers that be never benefit those like Rosa and Enrique, indigenous people running away from the violence in their homeland only to discover that on this side of the border they will be exploited and persecuted just as violently. “Maybe when we die, we’ll find a home,” a tearful Rosa tells Enrique, who doesn’t have the words to reassure her.
Unlike most immigration tales that reduce their protagonists to simplistic victimhood, Nava’s picture immerses us in the culturally rich environment where his characters departed from and then laces their ordeal with touches of magical realism that reinforce their ties to the people and places they left behind. Furthermore, his dedication to details that might go unnoticed by the average American viewer, such as the distinct Spanish variants spoken across Latin American — Guatemala and Mexico in this case — and the inclusion of dialogue in the K’iche’ language, contribute to a work that might hopefully ring authentic to those portrayed. Nava would go on to direct several Chicano classics such as “Selena” and “My Family,” but “El Norte,” which earned him and co-writer Anna Thomas an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, remains his greatest artistic triumph. —CA
“Blade Runner” (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982)
Hollywood sci-fi filmmaking can be lumped into two categories: pre-“Blade Runner” and post-“Blade Runner.” Ridley Scott’s futuristic neo-noir changed the game for genre filmmakers, introducing an oft-imitated cyberpunk aesthetic that proved the perfect canvas for a generation of artists whose access to technology was matched only by their existential angst.
Many of the science fiction films that directly proceeded “Blade Runner” dealt with humanity exploring the vast mysteries of open space — from the optimistic space opera of “Star Wars” to the horrors of Scott’s own “Alien.” But “Blade Runner” looked internally for its vision of dystopia, imagining a future that was directly shaped by our current worst impulses. Set in Los Angeles in what was then the far away year of 2019, the film pulls liberally from classic noir production design to create a version of the future that evokes the past.
It’s an appropriate choice for a film that explores eternal themes about mankind’s hubris and the choices we make that ultimately destroy us. At once both a provocative commentary on the ethical scientific dilemmas that would emerge in the 21st century and a timeless work of literature that defies surface level interpretations, “Blade Runner” is nothing less than the work of a master at the top of his game. Studio interference likely prevented the film from being properly appreciated from its theatrical release — so the easy availability of subsequent directors cuts is a privilege that modern cinephiles shouldn’t take for granted. —CZ
“Reassemblage” (dir. Trinh T. Minh-ha, 1982)
Trinh T. Minh-ha’s avant-garde documentary challenges traditional ethnographic conventions with its innovative portrayal of Senegalese village life, particularly in regards to its emphasis on women, who here get to tell their own stories. Instead of adhering to a linear narrative, “Reassemblage” presents a montage of fleeting images, local sounds, and traditional Senegalese music that Minh-ha punctuates with occasional reflective statements of her own. These elements are layered and juxtaposed in a way that disrupts traditional notions of synchronicity between image and sound. Additionally, the film intentionally refrains from assigning specific meanings to the scenes, resisting the temptation to relate the film to a particular way of life. As a result, viewers can engage with the material in a more personal and interpretive way.
“Reassemblage” also explores gender and post-colonialism, presenting intimate portraits of Senegalese women that highlight their roles in society. At the same time, the film critiques the power dynamics inherent in the filmmaking process itself, specifically in the context of a non-African filmmaker documenting an African culture. For Trinh, who is Vietnamese, it was important to avoid the othering and exoticization that often plagues ethnographic cinema. In that sense, “Reassemblage” doubly functions as a work of film criticism itself, putting western biases and documentary tropes in conversation with each other in order to lucidly examine them both. —TO
“Twenty Years Later” (dir. Eduardo Coutinho, 1984)
When writing about “Twenty Years Later,” people often get hung up on the process of how it was made. It’s easy to understand why. First conceived by Eduardo Coutinho as a biopic about popular farmer’s leader João Pedro Teixeira, who was shot to death for his role in organized labor, the project was halted as a direct result of the 1964 military coup that transformed Brazil. Crewmembers either fled or were jailed, assets were seized, and the footage was nearly lost.
It would be two decades and a dictatorship later before Coutinho was able to return to the story, the director transforming his “Cabra Marcado Para Morrer” (lit. “A Man Marked for Death”) into a documentary that leverages Teixeira’s life into a self-reflexive portrait of the non-professional actors who Coutinho had cast in his abandoned feature, most of whom were farmers themselves. The resurrected version of the project focuses on how those people fared during the hard years after the coup, Elizabeth Teixeira — Teixeira’s widow, who had been hired to play herself — chief among them.
The result is an incredible achievement of moviemaking. “Twenty Years Later” amounts to a bittersweet portrait of resilience and struggle that depicts with extraordinary feeling and detail how difficult it is to build something, be it a country, family, union or a film — and how rebuilding those things can feel impossible once they’ve been destroyed, be it by lost time or a bullet.
A bridge between what was and what is, Coutinho’s film reaches its peak when showing would-be actors like Elizabeth the footage from all those years ago capturing their thoughts. This poignant juxtaposition of fiction and reality reveals similarities in theme and changes in opinion as it listens for the echoes of history. Coutinho naturally inserts himself into the story as an active agent trying to close the gap between his two generations of images — can he find all that was left behind? Sometimes that search leads to a shooting location, other times an idea. More often than not, it’s a missing relative. Perhaps, he seems to think, putting his cast back in front of the camera will somehow fill the void of what they’ve lost.
As Coutinho helps people find closure, and works towards it himself, his film morphs into an act of much-needed healing. While allowing mothers and children to reconnect, he finds in both their hopes and scars a remarkable showcase of what cinema can do. Here is a movie about endurance that finds an extraordinary meta-textual power in the fact that, for 20 years, it had to do just that: endure. —GJ
“The Right Stuff” (dir. Philip Kaufman, 1983)
Tom Wolfe’s instantly recognizable prose and his understanding of status as the defining force of American life in the 1980’s made him the most important literary mind of the Me Decade. But as anyone who had the misfortune of watching Brian De Palma’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” can attest, translating Wolfe’s idiosyncratic writing style to the big screen can trip up even the most skilled filmmakers. So much of his appeal stems from his ability to craft images on the page, using excessive punctuation and strange formatting as visual flourishes in the same way a filmmaker would use a dolly zoom or lens flair. Any cinematic adaptation was inevitably going to lose some of that.
Those initial restrictions only make “The Right Stuff” all the more impressive. Philip Kaufman’s epic endorses the same New Journalism ethos as the Wolfe book that inspired it, which documented the lives of the first seven American astronauts selected for space travel in the 1950’s with a literary eye for detail that was rarely seen in nonfiction at the time. This three-hour behemoth of a film captures the events of Project Mercury with the same scope that Wolfe achieved in his book, switching cultural lenses at a whiplash-inducing rate to simultaneously offer intimate biographical stories, larger cultural commentary, and a special effects-laden depiction of a true scientific triumph. Kaufman’s ability to merge Wolfe’s distinct style with the language of cinema is an achievement on par with Terry Gilliam’s take on Hunter S. Thompson’s writing in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” — but more than that, the film stands on its own as a distinctly American portrayal of one of the nation’s greatest accomplishments. —CZ
“Variety” (1983, Bette Gordon)
In most films set on the filthy sidewalks of old Times Square, women are either set dressing — the Girls! Girls! Girls! on neon marquees — or victims. But being female doesn’t preclude a perverse fascination with the seedy dynamics of transactional sexuality, or the shady characters who inhabit that world. Director Bette Gordon unpacks this taboo obsession, and its murky consequences, in “Variety.”
Our protagonist, repressed Midwestern transplant Christine (Sandy McLeod), is a riff on the concessions girl who rolls her eyes at Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” and on Bickle himself. An aspiring writer struggling to make rent, Christine takes a job in a ticket booth at a porn theater in Times Square at the beginning of the film. At first, she finds the job both amusing and repulsive. But over time, she drifts into a paranoid reverie that inverts the gendered voyeurism of Alfred Hitchcock by way of feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey. Aggressively entering the all-male world of strip joints and sex shops, Christine has become the subject, staring down the camera as it stares at her.
Written by experimental postmodernist Kathy Acker, “Variety” reflects its era both as a rebuff to rising anti-porn sentiment among feminist intellectuals and as a document of the early ‘80s downtown NYC art scene. Photographer Nan Goldin, recently immortalized in the documentary “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” plays Christine’s friend Nan. Will Patton and Luis Guzmán co-star in early roles, while Spalding Gray appears as a creep on Christine’s answering machine. Jim Jarmusch collaborator Tom DiCillio serving as cinematographer completes the film’s hipster bona fides, although the most telling behind-the-scenes detail is that Gordon herself operated one of the cameras. She likes to watch, too. —KR
“Taipei Story” (dir. Edward Yang, 1985)
While Edward Yang’s “Taipei Story” doesn’t feature the large ensemble casts or narrative sprawl characteristic of his later, more novelistic work, the relative modesty of Yang’s second film allowed the director to examine the rapid westernization of his home city, Taipei, through the lens of a failing relationship. Corporate assistant Chin (pop star and Yang’s future wife Tsai Chin) and former Little League star Lung (filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien) have been together since childhood; Chin wants to immigrate to the United States to escape her family, especially her chauvinistic spendthrift of a father, but Lung drags his feet on the immigration plan, partially because he doesn’t want to work for his brother-in-law’s import business. Subsequently, Chin and Lung find themselves stuck in a rut, as the former becomes enmeshed in the bourgeois modernization of their homeland while the latter retreats into the regressive traditions from his childhood.
A would-be architecture student, Yang emphasizes the anonymous middle-class spaces Chin and Lung move through — bland condos, cramped pubs, impersonal office buildings — as a reflection of their shared alienation, even though their angst manifests across a philosophical divide.
By working for a construction company, Chin contributes to Taipei’s globalization even though she recognizes modernity’s potential hollowness. At the same time, she clearly sees the oppressive nature of traditional living, whereas Lung, whose life has completely stalled following his athletic glory, finds satisfaction in the masculine world of old-fashioned homes and gambling parlors. “Taipei Story” follows a deterministic track—a sharp contrast to the complex narratives of “A Brighter Summer Day” or “Yi Yi” — but the film’s tragedy lies in how Chin and Lung’s relationship comes to an inevitable, unceremonious end. Passive communication, multiple compromises, and ideological differences contribute to a bone-deep feeling of isolation that no amount of love can overcome. Yang acutely understands how two people can share a life together only to discover they’re living with a stranger. —VM
“Risky Business” (dir. Paul Brickman, 1983)
It’s been 40 years since “Risky Business” hit theaters — and the fact that its leading man now looks at least five years older than he did back then is a cruel reminder that time comes for us all.
Audiences in 1983 may not have immediately realized they were watching a coming out party for one of the greatest movie stars of all time, but revisiting “Risky Business” with the full context of Tom Cruise’s career makes it obvious that immortality was the only plausible outcome for him. Over the course of 97 glorious minutes, Cruise transitions from an awkward rich kid one step removed from dipping pigtails in inkwells to a swaggering pimp who gets the call girl — and gets away with the perfect crime. He has a lot of help from Rebecca de Mornay’s pitch-perfect performance as a business-savvy sex worker, but his ability to infuse aspirational heroes with everyman charm was already on full display.
Paul Brickman’s glorious ode to adolescent misbehavior is the rare film that makes capitalism feel downright sexy. Lana’s unapologetic materialism and Joel’s pipeline of deep-pocketed doofuses make transactional relationships seem like the most civilized thing in the world, as Brickman shoots sex workers tending to queues of high school johns with all the elegance of a Jane Austen ballroom dance sequence, and by the time it’s all over Joel and Lana making money together somehow feels as intimate as fucking in a way that only an ’80s movie soundtracked by Phil Collins and Tangerine Dream could ever hope to equate (the train climax offers what might be the decade’s greatest back-to-back needle-drops). The image of Tom Cruise dancing in his underwear to Bob Seger might be irreversibly burned into our brains, but “Risky Business” owes the bulk of its cultural staying power to the universal truth at its core: no matter how bad things get, it’s never too late to say “what the fuck.” —CZ
“The Terminator” (dir. James Cameron, 1984)
As the kids would say, this one hits different these days. But even in 1984, James Cameron’s first true smash (sorry to you, “Piranha 2: The Spawning”) hit pretty damn hard. In the rush to (rightly) fete “The Terminator” as the predictive and perceptive piece of sci-fi cinema it is, it can be too easy to forget the horror roots that hold it all together.
Cameron initially conceived of the film as a slasher, though admittedly a slasher for people who didn’t normally vibe with that horror subgenre. Still, it’s the gritty, deeply personal terror of Sarah Connor (a perfect Linda Hamilton) that keeps it both heart-pumping and grounded. Just imagine it: you’re a hip LA lady, living in a cool apartment with your best pal and a sweet iguana, slinging food at the Big Jeff’s (Cameron’s spin on Bob’s Big Boy), and looking forward to what high jinks you might get up to on Friday night. It’s a good life, until you start noticing that other LA ladies (hip or not) that share your exact name are suddenly being murdered in increasingly awful ways.
The truth is stunning: a murderous cybernetic robot has come back in time to kill Sarah (our Sarah), in hopes of stopping the eventual rise of her son (her what?), who may be the key to saving humanity, at least a few decades from now. Now that’s a great concept for a film, and one that Cameron explodes into exceptional ends, building a chilling horror story that fires on all cylinder and works on multiple levels. Yes, the threat of artificial intelligence has never been more cooly murderous (well, so far) as it is in the massive mitts of Arnold Schwarzenegger; no, modern American cinema has yet to fully capitalize on the power of female action leads as wonderfully human as Sarah Connor. Cameron didn’t just stop there, he also tucked in a love story, a vision of Los Angeles that still rings true, and endlessly inventive special effects that give the film its distinct feel. Its sequel may be the more “iconic” of the films, but “The Terminator” I still the best of the bunch. —KE
“Matador” (dir Pedro Almodóvar, 1986)
While “Matador” found Pedro Almodóvar still honing his singularly flamboyant style, the Spanish auteur has yet to make another film quote so brazenly nihilistic. It’s certainly his sickestmovie (no mean feat from the director of “Bad Education” and “The Skin I Live in”), and you know you’re in for it from the start, as the film begins with faded bullfighter Diego (Nacho Martínez) jerking off to images of women being decapitated and brutalized from Mario Bava’s 1964 slasher “Blood & Black Lace.”
Psychopathy actually seems contagious in “Matador,” as it isn’t long before Diego’s strain begins to infect his young pupil Angel (a brilliant and uncomfortable-in-his-skin Antonio Banderas), as well as the woman who appears in the psychic images that Angel has begun to experience, in which she murders someone with a hairpin mid-sex and then finishes with his dead body. Yes, necrophilia is a phrase in Almodóvar’s film, too.
Desperate to prove his masculinity, Angel confesses to a series of murders after unsuccessfully trying to rape a woman (who’s also Diego’s girlfriend). From here, the body count rises along with the kink as Diego and Angel’s lawyer — that same hairpin-wielding woman in Angel’s visions — launches into a sordid affair that shares in their mutual psychosexual death fetish.
“Matador” earned an NC-17 rating from the then-MPAA when it was released in the United States, and it would hardly be Almodóvar’s first brush with that kiss-of-death imprimatur, which has also become America’s most alluring mark of bad taste. Directed within an inch of its life and gilded with dreamy costumes by J.M. Cossío, Almodóvar’s mid-’80s provocation may be his most icily directed film, but its hot flashes of forbidden mania and desire also make it one of his most scintillatingly human, as well. —RL
“The Decline of Western Civilization” (1981, Penelope Spheeris)
A documentary is always only as good as its subject, but a really good one makes its subject into something bigger than it was before. Filmed at the exact moment when X was starting to get radio airplay but Black Flag was still playing house parties, “The Decline of Western Civilization” both documented the beginnings of L.A. punk and throttled its bands onto the world stage.
For her feature-length debut, director Penelope Spheeris spent two years hanging out in squalid punk clubs and crash pads filming the damaged eccentrics who made up the L.A. scene and the teenagers who beat each other bloody at their shows. Interviews with concert-goers under a single unadorned light bulb establish the nihilistic mood, and the crew risks ruining their equipment by filming in the center of violent circle pits. But there’s a tragic, wounded heart under all this aggro posturing, personified in footage of Germs frontman Darby Crash in his kitchen cooking eggs just months before his death by suicide. Asked why he hurts himself on stage, he replies, “to keep from being bored.”
Spheeris would repeat the breakfast bit in “The Decline of Western Civilization Part II.” But The Germs’ performance in the first movie is like nothing else. Crash, wasted beyond human comprehension, throws himself around the stage with suicidal recklessness. The rhythm section, neither of whom know how to play their instruments, tries to hold some kind of beat together. Guitarist Pat Smear, who would go on to play with Nirvana, looks bored. As a microcosm of the moment, it’s chaotic, unsettling, self-destructive — and perfect. —KR
“A City of Sadness” (dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1989)
The Emperor of Japan offers his unconditional surrender over the radio in 1945 as the eldest son of a Taiwanese family awaits the birth of his son, and so Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Golden Lion-winning masterpiece immedaitely establishes its ground-up perspective on history: The most seismic events of our time are experienced as the background noise of our own lives, which are epic enough in their own way.
Over the course of almost 160 minutes, “A City of Sadness” paints a panorama of the first four years after Taiwan’s liberation following a half-century of Japanese rule, seeing that period of time through eyes a single family. Tony Leung plays Wen-ching, a doctor and photographer who’s the moral center of the film; deaf since childhood, he writes down explanations for a nurse — who will later become his wife — of who’s who in a series of photographs he took of his brothers, as Hou endows even the most immediate past with a sense of unsolvable mystery.
Told with undeniable sweep, Hou’s film is nevertheless more compelled by quiet moments of beauty — the care taken to set up a photograph in front of the soft glow of the family bar’s neon sign, the sea wind whipping through the trees, fireworks lit and crackling in the street — than in scenes of society-wide import. “A City of Sadness” was notable for being the first Taiwanese film to allude to the 1947 February 28 Incident, in which the Nationalist government went on a purge of thousands of suspected communists, but Hou declines to dramatize it directly, even as he alludes to its aftermath.
High drama is not the aim here, as this wistful film prefers a tone of gentle reflection; Hou is no stranger to excruciating heartbreak (see: the grandmother’s death in “The Time to Live and the Time to Die”), but he never brings the hammer down here. His camera always sits removed, forcing you to come to the film, and not the film to you. The immense feeling Hou creates from that distance is one of history being eternally present-tense — something lived and carried with us at all times. —CB
“Amadeus” (dir. Miloš Forman, 1984)
Few great irreverent films get their due, but “Amadeus” is one of them. Legendary Czech-American filmmaker Miloš Forman adapted Peter Shaffer’s play, a wildly revisionist and — more importantly — hysterical portrait of the life and times of Europe’s greatest and most famous composer. Shaffer toys with myths and counter-myths invented by Pushkin, who first suggested that Mozart was poisoned by his great rival Salieri (he had to be great somehow). “Amadeus” is a historical epic that makes late 18th century Vienna feel like the centre of the universe, then Rashomons us (or even “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari”s us) into distrusting the tale weaved by its unreliable narrator.
But don’t be fooled by its narrative nihilism: “Amadeus” is about as good a portrait of the erratic artist as we’ve seen, and is pretty on point about celebrity, too. In Forman’s film, the universal acceptance of Mozart’s brilliance is about as important as that brilliance. Watching an artist rule a room of iron-fisted dictators is quite a thing, and Tom Hulce’s performance as Mozart is necessarily noisy. He conducts histrionically when refinement was all the rage, and giggles loudly at the pitch of a boy whose voice hasn’t broken. That feels intentional, because “Amadeus” is also a movie about a boy wonder whose rugged immaturity eats away at the soul of a boring grownup who can’t remember the last time he had fun. F Murray Abraham’s lead performance remains the gold standard for camp jealousy in a movie that unexpectedly weaponized that energy like few others before or since. —AS
“Losing Ground” (dir. Kathleen Collins, 1982)
Long considered the first feature directed by an African-American woman, Kathleen Collins’ revolutionary, semi-autobiographical “Losing Ground” is as aesthetically lush, confidently humorous, ecstatically experiential, and deeply intelligent as they come. Seret Scot plays Sara Rogers, an academic who seems to stand on professional and personal terra firma with her painter husband Victor (Bill Gunn). Victor, however, mostly disregards the importance of Sara’s professorial occupation. To regain her footing, Sara turns to the arts by starring in a student film with the debonair Duke (Duane Jones). Sara’s choice, tellingly, isn’t a disavowal of brains. Through Collins’ transfixing lens, Black intelligence is alluring, sensual, potent, boundless, lively and luminous. The same can be said of Collins’ radical vision of Black womanhood, which stands distinctly separate from the Blaxploitation era that preceded it, giving rise to the firm and grounded realistic portraits of Black life — from “Daughters of the Dust” to “The Watermelon Woman” — that would follow in the decades ahead. —RD
“Die Hard” (dir. John McTiernan, 1988)
With the benefit of hindsight, the casting of Bruce Willis as the perpetually pissed off John McClane was unimpeachable. At the time? Controversial! Everyone was in the running for the role —we’re talking Frank Sinatra (it was a contractual thing), Arnold, Sly, Clint, Harrison, and even Pacino and Newman — but none of them bit at what director John McTiernan was throwing down, a sort of “Rambo in an office building” concept that probably seemed a touch played out at the time. (Also worth noting whenever “Rambo” is invoked: did you people see “First Blood”?) But Fox’s desperation for a bonafide summer blockbuster couldn’t be denied or ignored, so eventually they settled on Willis, at that point best known as the smooth-talking jokester of TV’s “Moonlighting.”
Sometimes these things really work out. Willis brought plenty of fresh elements to the hard-bitten NYC cop, from his natural charm to his comedic timing, even a physical bearing that reoriented what audiences expected from their ‘80s-era big screen heroes. It would be nuts to call McClane an everyman — even more nuts as the franchise wound on into the next three decades, with diminishing returns —but our grizzled hero is in possession of some wonky relatability. Mostly, he’s pissed off and stressed and annoyed at the holidays and really keen to reconnect with his wife, and did we mention pissed off? Wouldn’t you be?
As McClane — plus Reginald VelJohnson as an unlikely sidekick and Bonnie Bedelia as McClane’s whipsmart wife Holly — navigates his way through a terrorist attack that hits (very) close to home, we see our hero try (and sometimes fail) in a way that’s both thrilling and brand-new. This is not Rambo in an office building, this isn’t Rambo anywhere, and that made it all the more exciting, iconic, and unexpected. —KE
“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1988)
Toontown might serve as a metaphor for the Los Angeles neighborhoods displaced during the mid-20th century in the name of progress and freeways, but its colorful, 2D inhabitants have always been timeless. That includes the kooky fugitive at the center of this one-of-a-kind cartoon noir, Roger Rabbit (charmingly voiced by Charles Fleischer), as well as the voluptuous femme fatale in love with his wacky antics, Jessica Rabbit (Kathleen Turner). Together they form one of cinema’s most emblematic couples, animated or otherwise.
Not only is “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” the most accomplished testament to director Robert Zemeckis’ lifelong penchant for technical innovation, but the best live-action and animation hybrid production Hollywood has ever conceived. The seamless integration between the two realms reads fundamental on a narrative level, as this is the story of two factions struggling to coexist in the same city. Because of the ingenious ways in which the tangible and the hand-drawn elements interact with one another — think of Roger spitting water on Bob Hoskins face — every single scene boasts an unprecedented kind of movie alchemy.
In one of his career-defining roles as the prickly Eddie Valiant, Hoskins grounds the lunacy of this alternative world on a recognizable noir trope: the no-nonsense detective. The absurdity that surrounds him turns his exasperated reactions into sidesplitting comedy. Playing Judge Doom, a devilishly amusing villain who’s part corrupt politician and part sadistic baron, and who despises the toon’s unseriousness, the great Christopher Lloyd proves that even the on-screen human talents approached their roles with the humor of caricatures.
Even in our multiverse-obsessed entertainment landscape, the collection of characters featured in Zemeckis’ Toontown seems unthinkable to recreate today. The convincing that producer Steven Spielberg pulled off in order to have Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Warner’s Bugs Bunny chatting mid-air during one sequence is the stuff of legend. Thirty-five years on, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” has so firmly earned its place as a genre-bending, medium-pushing achievement that even Doom’s dreaded toon-killing acid, “the dip,” wouldn’t stand a chance of erasing it now. —CA
“The Thin Blue Line” (dir. Errol Morris, 1988)
It’s unlikely that the visual graininess of Errol Morris’ documentary about criminal injustice was intended to match the knotty legal and moral ambiguity of its story. But what a way to illustrate it. Randall Dale Adams was convicted in 1976 for shooting policeman Robert Wood, but he didn’t do it. A guy called David Harris was the perpetrator, and tells us.
“The Thin Blue Line” didn’t set out to free Adams from death row, originally choosing instead to focus on evil psychiatrist James Grigson, or “Dr. Death,” who relished in wrongful death row convictions like Adams’s. Grigson never appears; those more intimately involved in the Wood murder are more interesting than the guy who helped make injustices like this happen.
Few can say their documentary has substantively made the world better. “The Thin Blue Line” did — by freeing one man, of course, and for exposing systemic bloodlust about as thoroughly as any documentary has. And that’s not even Morris’s most important cinematic achievement here: His careful reconstructions injected drama to a format that had gone stale, and influenced a generation, with an imposing score by Phillip Glass that made “The Thin Blue Line” feel like a real-life police procedural playing out in real-time (which, to a certain extent, is exactly what it is). Morris has gone on to become known for exploring the quirks and hangups of his documentary subjects, in the same vein as Agnes Varda or Louis Theroux. There’s nothing wrong with that, but “The Thin Blue Line” is the one we still talk about. —AS
“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1982)
As a child, our local small town video store had a (seemingly, at least in my memory) massive, 3D poster for “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” hanging on the back of its front door, with the titular extraterrestrial’s head rendered in pop-out brown plastic. In short: it terrified me, even though every time we left the store, my mom would try to gently nudge me toward renting the Steven Spielberg classic. (“It’s really good,” she’d say.) No dice. I was freaked.
More than two decades later, I relented. And, as is so often the case with mothers, she was right. Maybe they just made ‘em differently in the ‘80s, but as will likely emerge as a through-line through each blurb that appears on this list heralding a different blockbuster, the decade is unmatched when it comes to the quality of its biggest crowd-pleasers. “E.T.” was a massive smash hit, a record-cracker that both premiered at Cannes (remember when they picked good mainstream films?) and enthralled general audiences for literal years.
And why not? Spielberg, as ever, brought his distinctly human touch to a film about, yes, an alien, but perhaps the most emotive alien ever put on film. While seeing the titular little guy scoot about American suburbia —he’s riding bikes! he’s in a Halloween costume! he’s raiding the fridge! —is surely appealing to a wide range of viewers, it’s the inner workings of the family he lands in that turn the film into a true masterpiece. The Taylor family (including Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Robert MacNaughton, and charming kiddo Drew Barymoore) is already in a state of upheaval and disillusionment even before a darling alien crashes into their world and springs the full might of the United States government on them. How they navigate what comes next is both deeply relatable and thrillingly original. It’s a fairy tale, writ large, write real. Scary? Still. Scary good. —KE
“The King of Comedy” (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1983)
Still the best film ever made about an unhinged stand-up turned violent criminal, Martin Scorsese’s 1983 masterpiece stars Robert De Niro as obsessed super-fan Rupert Pupkin, who idolizes legendary comedian Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). After submitting a series of self-tapes to no avail, Rupert decides to infiltrate Jerry’s personal life and share his genius first-hand. And afterthatdoesn’t go according to plan, the desperate Rupert teams up with fellow Jerry stalker Masha (Sandra Bernhard) to kidnap their hero and blackmail him into letting Rupert do a tight five on his late night show.
Tapping into the pitfalls of celebrity, the religious cult of pop culture, and the morbidity of our collective bloodlust for violence onscreen, “The King of Comedy” has come to serve as slippery footbridge connecting several different generations of American cynicism; its ending parallels “Network” on one side, and was recently emulated (or copied wholesale) by “Joker” on the other. De Niro allegedly spoke to his own stalkers to prepare to play Rupert, with Scorsese and De Niro encouraging a layered Method acting approach on set. The results are unmistakable: Bernhard and De Niro’s dynamic is frenetic, ever-shifting, and forever on the brink of combustion. Their chemistry is unparalleled in their sizzling descent towards the realization that ambition is just another word for madness.
As celebrity culture has grown exponentially and started to dismantle under its own weight, the slow-burn critical reception for this darkly comic gem has at last give way to adoration. From a rumored Broadway adaptation to Bernhard striking down possible reboots, “The King of Comedy” feels as relevant today as it was in 1983… for better or for worse. —SB
“Desert Hearts” (dir. Donna Deitch, 1985)
A sapphic spin on the Reno marriage film, a sub-genre popularized by 1930s titles like “Merry Wives of Reno” and “The Women,” Donna Deitch’s 1959-set “Desert Hearts” is a wind-swept romance that begins with a buttoned-up Columbia professor named Vivian Bell (Helena Shaver) going to stay at a guest ranch in Nevada —a haven for women who are waiting to have their divorces granted. While counting down the minutes until she’s legally separated from her ex-husband, Vivian ends up falling for the young, free-spirited and fully out sculptor named Cay (Charbonneau), and the two engage in a slow, somewhat tortured romance against the sunburnt backdrop of the American Southwest.
Based on Jane Rule’s 1964 novel “Desert of the Heart,” the film was groundbreaking for its portrayal of lesbian love, fraught as it might be. Despite her seen-it-all attitude, the ranch’s owner never can seem to wrap her head around two women being together. Vivian isn’t completely comfortable with the idea herself, leaving poor young Cay as the lone out-and-proud member of the bunch. But all the hand-wringing in the world can’t deny the sultry power of the film’s more intimate scenes, which radiate a certain sultriness between its two stars that seems to reflect their characters’ inner desires. That palpable force, along with a swoon-worthy soundtrack and costume design that manage to feel both period-appropriate and unmistakably of the 1980s, combine to create a love story that has only grown more popular as its timelessness has become apparent. —RL
“Chan Is Missing” (dir. Wayne Wang, 1982)
Hong Kong-born American director Wayne Wang has ricocheted across genres and sensibilities in his career as an independent force, frequently skirting the studio system whenever he’s not doing his best to fit in a more conventional box (although the days of “Maid in Manhattan,” “Because of Winn Dixie,” and “Last Holiday” appear to be done).
But his cinéma verité-inspired spirit is most playfully — and enigmatically — on display ini his first solo directorial effort, the black-and-white quasi-noir “Chan Is Missing” from 1982. The title riffs on the complicated legacy of the early 20th century’s “Charlie Chan” franchise, which didn’t become popular on the big screen until the title character was recast with a white actor in yellowface. A Chinese immigrant detective working in Honolulu, Charlie Chan is a fitting point of reference for Wang’s take, in which a no-nonsense San Francisco taxi driver named Jo (Wood Moy) and his nephew Wteve (Marc Hayashi) moonlight as hardboiled Chinatown detectives, but that context never distract or diminishes from the power of a film that feels entirelysui generis.
The story begins with Steve and Jo trying to buy a taxi license, but their liaison — a money handler named Chan — has disappeared. So they go up and down the city, whose working and immigrant classes are still rarely portrayed with such affection and personality, interviewing people who may have seen Chan before he vanished. Jo and Steve’s amateur sleuthing quickly leads them into a darker mystery involving a murder at the center of a dispute between supporters of mainland China and Taiwan, which allows the film to explore yet another layer of Asian-American identity while remaining effortlessly light on its feet. “Chan Is Missing” remains a low-key mystery throughout, its ultimate lack of resolution trenchantly reflecting the challenges and possibilities of immigrating to a country that makes no effort to know who you really are.—RL
“Something Wild” (dir. Jonathan Demme, 1986)
Many summations of Jonathan Demme’s career point to the weepie AIDS drama “Philadelphia” as his big “message movie,” but the ideas of “Something Wild” come through in far shrewder terms in part because it’s such satisfying escapism at the same time. The playful two-hander finds Jeff Daniels perfectly cast as a smug tax consultant whose attempt to dodge the bill at a diner catches the attention of troublemaker Melanie Griffith, a seductress so eager to yank the man into her trap she may as well be the devil in disguise. Yet after she tricks him into getting her car and takes him on a seedy road trip, the man gradually realizes that he’s been entranced by a complex and conflicted woman whose gentler side appeals to him in ways he didn’t think possible. But that itself is only half the story, as “Something Wild” careens into a violent second half with Ray Liotta turning up as Griffith’s criminal husband as Daniels’ character must grapple with the sincerity of heroism for the first time in his life.
From Demme, the movie bridged the gap between his early Roger Corman exploitation efforts and the more highbrow, character-based undertakings of “Melvin and Howard,” cementing the identity of a seminal director capable of juggling the joy and substance of filmmaking in a single gratifying package. As a Regan-era movie about a Regan-era stiff getting a second chance to a decent man, the movie functioned as both satiric fantasy and an unabashed plea for a better world. The one we’re stuck with is a little bit better with “Something Wild” in it. —EK
“A Room with a View”(dir. James Ivory, 1985)
To live life with the same passion one derives from experiencing art: That’s the hope the Rev. Mr. Beebe has for Lucy Honeychurch, a young Englishwoman on holiday in Italy. As played by Helena Bonham-Carter, Lucy does indeed display a great emotional intensity at the piano, but much less so when navigating her own affairs. Short of “Hamlet” itself, what unfolds is one of the greatest stories of a person not knowing her own mind — just what exactly it is that she wants from life.
Adapted from E.M. Forster’s novel by the titanic troika of writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, producer Ismail Merchant, and director James Ivory, “A Room with a View” is a character piece so powerful it arguably kicked off the particular version of the “young woman finding herself in Italy” trope that’s been a rom-com mainstay for the past 35 years (all apologies to “Summertime” and “Rome Adventure” before it). But unlike most that have followed in its wake, from “Only You” to “Under the Tuscan Sun,” Lucy truly has no idea what she’s looking for. She certainly doesn’t think it’s the enigmatic young man (an unclassifiable Julian Sands) who abruptly kisses her in a field flanked by cypress trees.
Ivory and Jhabvala tell their story in episodic fashion, allowing Lucy’s developing inner sense of her desires to flow with the feeling of life rather than be shoehorned into a plot. That allows ample time for the extraordinary cast of supporting characters, including Simon Callow as Mr. Beebe (who claims he played his role straight, only for it to be thought as pure comedy by American audiences), Daniel Day-Lewis as possibly the most uptight Englishman in the history of cinema, and Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, bouncing off each other in inimitable fashion.
Despite its Italian setting, “A Room with a View” is actually where U.S. audiences’ obsession with British period costume dramas begins (the BBC reported it was then the fastest-grossing film in the history of New York City’s Paris Theatre), introducing “Merchant-Ivory” as an adjective for an entire kind of cinema, never better than when actually in Merchant-Ivory’s hands. —CB
“Sweetie” (dir. Jane Campion, 1989)
Fuzzy at first, and then profoundly discomfiting, Jane Campion’s self-possessed debut foretold the sort of groundbreaking career the Oscar-winning director of “The Piano” and “The Power of the Dog” would go on to have (she was only 25 at the time, but her first film catapulted her into the heavens of the Cannes and New York Film Festivals before winning her 1991’s Indie Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film).
From the start, Campion’s work dwelled in the psyches of women who flirt with unlikability — or, in the case of the bawdy and delusional title character of “Sweetie,” border on being downright insufferable. “Sweetie” is a story about two sisters on the edge; one of them, Kay (Karen Colston) is eking out a peaceful if paranoid life working at a factory and sharing a life with her boyfriend Louis (Tom Lycos). Dawn, aka Sweetie (Genevieve Lemon), is no longer part of the delicate equilibrium her dysfunctional family has left, until of course she is, as the wannabe actress returns home unannounced with her drug-addicted “manager” in tow, eager to cast herself in the most destructive role she can (imagine if Terence Stamp’s character in “Teorema” was stunted by a severe childhood psychosis and you’ll have the right idea).
Co-written by Gerard Lee, “Sweetie” careens between the lyrical and the profane with violent grace, as Campion creates a nervously combustible atmosphere that’s abetted by Sally Bongers richly colorful 16mm cinematography — the tender remains of Sweetie’s once twinkling innocence. A year before “An Angel at My Table” and almost a full half-decade before “The Piano,” Campion announced herself with her most peculiar film (although she’d later return to the damaged sisters trop with “In the Cut”), a haunting lament to adolescence lost that doubles as one of the ’80s’ most auspicious debuts. —RL
“Stop Making Sense” (dir. Jonathan Demme, 1984)
“Stop Making Sense” still feels like joy incarnate because it privileges immersion over mere documentation. Director Jonathan Demme eschews many of the traditional elements of the concert film, such as behind-the-scenes interviews and, up until the last minutes, shots of the audience. Instead, he focuses entirely on the live Talking Heads experience. We witness the show expand from David Byrne playing “Psycho Killer” alone on Hollywood’s Pantages Theater to an eight-person company joined together to stimulate the heart and body in tandem. Compiled from footage over the course of three nights, “Stop Making Sense” spotlights its construction by illustrating how the band constructs its live show in real time.
In retrospect, the Heads were the perfect band for this type of filmic treatment as their dynamic sound, which combined elements of punk, funk, and the avant-garde, always had cinematic scope. In turn, Demme doesn’t solely shoot the group from a distance or a fixed set of angles, but instead engages with their humanistic, live-wire energy from within the stage, emphasizing their pleasure and their sweat. He particularly captures how Byrne’s blank expression lies in tension with his physicality, how his face keeps people at a remove but his body conveys all the feeling. Compare his aloof demeanor with his physical gestures: his synchronized high-jump running during “Burning Down the House”; the marionette-esque leg movements in “Life During Wartime”; the Elvis-style hip shaking in the iconic Big Suit in “Girlfriend is Better.” Byrne creates the sense that he’s discovering the power of his body in real time. Case in point: it’s unspeakably moving to watch him dance with the floor lamp during “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” because it’s as if he’s communicating with light itself, even as he’s surrounded by shadows on stage.
While Byrne brims with unparalleled vigor, it’s his relationship with the band that generates poetry. “Stop Making Sense” features an understated narrative about how a community can break down self-imposed walls. It’s telling that the Heads, a band composed of four white musicians, compiled a touring company of entirely Black artists, all of whom — Steve Scales, Lynn Mabry, Edna Holt, Alex Weir, Bernie Worrell — Byrne deliberately foregrounds. They feel essential not just to the music and the performance but also to help him, a uniquely cerebral musician, engage with a community outside his own head. It takes a village, bonded by vision and light, to instill ecstasy into a world that can feel all too cold and isolated. —VM
“El Sur” (dir. Victor Erice, 1983)
“Can it be that an unfinished film is one of the best in Spanish cinema history?,” Pedro Almodóvar once asked before answering his own question. “Yes, it can, and that film is ‘El Sur.’” Needless to say, Almodóvar is right on both counts: Victor Erice’s tender and immaculately textured film — the rare coming-of-age story attuned to the ache of an absent past — is one of the best Spanish movies ever made, and yet it is, indeed, also unfinished.
Not that you would necessarily notice anything missing from the end of this quiet drama, adapted from Adelaida García Morales’ short novel of the same name, about a young girl named Estrella (Sonsoles Aranguren) who lives in the north of Spain in the years following the country’s civil war. Confounded and enchanted by the notion that her scientist father (Omero Antonutti) never speaks about his time growing up in the south, nor the political divide that estranged him from his family there, Estrella’s imagination is galvanized by the discovery that her dad is hung up on a famous actress who may once have been his off-screen love. The girl’s quest to reconcile these two incongruous images of her father presages Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” similar use of a child’s imagination as a metaphor for the heartsick mysteries of a divided country, as Erice’s gentle direction renders the cinema itself as a portal between memory and imagination.
The experience of watching “El Sur” feels complete, its enigmatic open-endedness only further inviting us to share in Estrella’s mystery, and yet the fact remains that producer Elías Querejeta died Erice the chance to film the other 90 minutes the directed had intended for this film, which would have taken this story to the place alluded to by its title. It’s hard not to be frustrated on Erice’s behalf, especially because the guy has only made four films in the last 50 years (including his recent Cannes success, “Close Your Eyes”), but there’s always the chance that completing his vision may have spoiled what audiences have always been able to see in its current form. —DE
“Body Double” (dir. Brian De Palma, 1984)
It’s astounding how many people have misunderstood Brian De Palma’s razor-sharp comedic mind, particularly as it reflected itself throughout the funhouse mirror of an erotic thriller like “Body Double.” Not that there are any other erotic thrillers like “Body Double.” I won’t spoil the wild twist for those who haven’t seen it for themselves, but suffice to say it can be hard to know what De Palma is up to during the first half of the film, a characteristically fetishistic (and voyeuristic) Hitchcock homage thatfollows wannabe actor and full-time claustrophobic Jake Scully (Craig Wasson) as he spies on the bombshell next door(Deborah Shelton) through a telescope in the Chemosphere.
The film only switches gears from “Rear Window” to “Vertigo” when Jake tries to warn his neighbor of the ghastly maniac stalking her around L.A., and De Palma begins to power-drill all sorts of fascinating peep holes into the framework of his own obsessions. As Scully’s wandering eye refocuses its gaze on porn star Holly Body (a dynamic Melanie Griffith), De Palma’s camera following the two of them through a porn set as Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” blasts in the background, this self-reflexive romp starts to tunnel so deep beneath the surface of its own fixations that down becomes up, virility becomes impotence, and low-rent exploitation becomes the stuff of high art. —RD
“A Short Film About Love” (dir. Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1988)
In 1988, just before Krzysztof Kieślowski made the “The Double Life of Véronique” and the “Three Colors” trilogy, the Polish auteur double-dipped back into his recent past to put an exclamation point on another one of most immortal projects. An expanded version of an episode from his “Dekalog” series, “A Short Film About Love” is neither particularly short nor about love — at least not the kind of romantic love we usually see depicted on screen. All the same, it explores several of the themes that would define his Kieślowski’s subsequent output, and that he’d been beginning to think about in earlier works: synchronicity and meetings between strangers, moving beyond moral binaries, and the redemptive possibilities of true human connection.
The film tells the story of 19-year-old Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko), who’s captivated by Magda (Grażyna Szapołowska), an older, sophisticated woman living across the courtyard. Each night he sets up his telescope at 8:30 on the dot to watch her as she goes about her routine: arriving home, languidly wandering around her apartment, embracing one of her several lovers at the door. When Magda realizes she’s being surveilled, she’s less disgusted than intrigued. “Why do you watch me?” Magda asks Tomek. “Because I love you,” he responds.
What starts off as a clever spin on “Rear Window” and “Peeping Tom,” implicating the viewer in Tomek’s voyeuristic tendencies, soon morphs into a treatise on empathy and the unexpected ways it arises in our increasingly alienated world. Tomek may have merely desired Magda physically, at first — he’s a young man discovering his sexuality at a safe distance. But in truth, he, and Kieślowski, fixate more on Magda’s interior life rather than her exterior appearance. Tomek watches one evening as she comes home heartbroken, spills a bottle of milk, and cries, tracing circles in the puddles on the table. Magda is eventually able to imagine what Tomek sees when he watches her, evoking the sublime strangeness of witnessing yourself through another’s eyes. As compassion for her onlooker emerges, Magda finds a bit of empathy for herself, too. —SG
“The Times of Harvey Milk” (dir. Rob Epstein, 1984)
Way before Gus Van Sant’s rousing if glossy and conventionally shaped “Milk” biopic earned Sean Penn his second Best Actor Oscar for playing the first openly gay man to serve public office in California, Rob Epstein’s 1984 documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk” captured that watershed LGBTQ moment in time. Narrated by Harvey Fierstein (the ASMR poster boy for the gravel-voiced), this celebratory and unembellished film offers a rich and authoritative chronicle of Milk’s journey to becoming San Francisco’s first gay supervisor among the lively milieu of his cohorts and lovers. But it also snapshots the rise of San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood in becoming one of America’s gay meccas, and why that process was inextricable from Harvey’s influence.
Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone were assassinated by Dan White in 1978, shortly after the former’s victory over the Briggs Initiative and Proposition 6 (which sought to discriminate against public servants based on their sexual orientation), a tragedy that Epstein’s film deftly contextualizes into the larger fabric of American history. The cast of characters it introduces along the way represent a jaunty bunch, from Milk’s aide Anne Kronenberg to archival footage of Dianne Feinstein, who became mayor after Moscone’s death. All adored Milk, and this portrait helps us see why. The gay movement in the United States owes a great deal to Harvey Milk (as much as it does to Stonewall and to the ACT UP activists that fought against American governmental suppression of AIDS, a groundswell Milk would’ve undoubtedly been part of), and Epstein’s film now serves as a sobering reminder of how far we’re backsliding in his absence. —RL
“Robocop” (dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1987)
Like many of the films that appear on this list — a hearty number of them falling under the general umbrella of “action blockbuster” —Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 vision of the future has been endlessly revaluated, eventually emerging as a beloved, prescient classic that should have earned more adulation when it was first released. Still, it’s easy to understand why audiences may have balked at Verhoeven’s ultra-violent (hilariously so) nightmare of what a too-plugged-in society might look like.
Even Verhoeven didn’t vibe with the film’s script, from then-Universal Pictures executive Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, not understanding the satirical stance it was taking on what seemed like played-out material (robots? again?). But the director eventually got what was being thrown down, gamely aiming for excessive (and often heavily edited scenes) violence to further drive home the point of the story at hand.
In a world ruled by corporations (you don’t say) and in a city struggling to find purpose for its cops (you don’t say), an evil company and its attendant evil band of criminals capture and kill one of the last good cops (Peter Weller), maiming him to the point of near-death. What’s left of Alex Murphy — and there ain’t much —is turned into the titular RoboCop, a robotic crime-fighter who is aces at taking out criminals and besieged by the lingering sense he used to be, well, not RoboCop. Incredibly violent, bitingly funny, and unnervingly prophetic, “RoboCop” upended our ideas of what an on-screen robot could feel and what an off-screen world might turn into. Only one of those things is worth salvaging. —KE
“Come and See” (dir. Elem Klimov, 1985)
Unfolding like the nightmarish inversion of a child’s fairy tale, Elem Klimov’s notorious war epic feels more inspired by — and inspiring of — horror movies than any war film that came before it. Yet it remains one of the most haunting and effective examples of the genre for its unforgettable images of inhumanity, and for the surrealism oozing beneath them. Aleksei Kravchenko, just 14 at the time of filming, was asked to things that must have been unbearably difficult to even simulate, and his performance as a Belarusian boy attempting to fight the German occupation of his homeland alongside Soviet partisan forces summons up deep wells of pain.
Too young to fully understand the chaos around him, Florya is thrust into genocidal trauma all the same. That trauma is rendered in scenes of strikingly portentous beauty. One finds Florya accidentally stepping on a nest of bird eggs, their shells cracking beneath his feet to reveal squalid death where life should be. Another watches as an ill-fated young girl named Glasha (Olga Mironova) performs a tap dance for him in the rain, the first steps in her efforts to help Florya realize that his family has been destroyed.
A number of the techniques that Klimov employed on “Come and See” wouldn’t be allowed today, from the agony enacted upon the film’s young cast (Klimov used hypnosis techniques on Kravchenko to bring him to the depths of Florya’s pain), to the live tracer rounds used in the battle sequences, to the cow that’s killed before our eyes onscreen. For better or worse, such cruelties palpably contribute to the death stench of collateral damage that permeates every aspect of this film, onscreen and off, and seeps into your bones forever after only a single viewing. —RL
“Videodrome” (dir. David Cronenberg, 1983)
“Long live the new flesh” might be the most succinct distillation of an artistic worldview that a filmmaker has ever inserted into their own movie. As David Cronenberg enters his fifth decade of making films about the tension between the laws of the universe and the emerging technologies that allow humans to skirt them in pursuit of our baser instincts, “Videodrome” is an essential skeleton key for understanding his singular mind. Both a master class in practical effects and a primer on the themes that have guided Cronenberg’s career, the box office bomb has emerged as the definitive entry in the Canadian auteur’s endlessly prescient filmography.
Stylistically, “Videodrome” is a product of the 1980’s if there ever was one, immersing audiences in an aura of dated techno-sleaze that pairs perfectly with a story about an antique medium like cable television. But while we’ve abandoned the days of staying up late prowling for violence and smut on obscure TV channels, depraved Internet porn and the reality distortion field of social media have validated Cronenberg’s damning predictions a thousand times over. “Videodrome” is unparalleled in its understanding of the ways that contemporary entertainment consumption can reveal just how chained we are to our primal urges. The “Videodrome” TV show might not be broadcasting from Malaysia anymore, but humanity may never shake the feeling that there’s a world of secret pleasures that could liberate us if we could only find the forbidden media that contains them.—CZ
“Back to the Future” (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1985)
The implication has always been that Marty McFly’s (Michael J. Fox in his signature role) life is already complicated enough, even before the time traveling starts: he’s trying to keep things serious with his girlfriend, his band can’t seem to break through, and his dear old dad (Crispin Glover) is a hardly the kind of role model who can help make any of this feel A-OK. With those pressures, who wouldn’t want to go back in time? Well, not Marty, who ends up tossed back three decades into the past in an attempt to save a pal (also worth noting: his best friend is a significantly older, absolutely wacky local dude? Marty, what is up?), and only once he’s back in the ‘50s realizes the impact of what he’s wrought.
And with that realization comes the possibility to not just make things right, but to make them even better. It’s a classic idea, trussed up in a wonderfully inventive, surprisingly warm, and definitely wacky package. As Marty comes to understand — care of director Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s structurally and logically perfect script — what ‘50s Marty (AKA “Calvin Klein”) can do to ‘80s Marty, the ride really kicks into gear.
“Back to the Future” appealed then, now, and forever because it doesn’t talk down to anyone involved, instead unspooling a crowd-pleaser that doesn’t trade fun for thoughtfulness or vice versa. It’s a pleasure to watch because it’s entertaining and thought-provoking (and, yes, that includes any and all discussions of the implications of whatever the hell is going on with Marty and his mom, played by a delightfully unhinged Lea Thompson), a time travel story with airtight constraints, a coming-of-age comedy with true insights, and a character-driven story played out by extremely talented actors. And it’s funny? Take us back to a time when this was the kind of film that inspired an entire franchise. —KE
“My Brother’s Wedding” (dir. Charles Burnett, 1983)
After his seminal 1977 debut “Killer of Sheep,” L.A. Rebellion legend Charles Burnett continued his textured approach to exploring the nuances of underrepresented African American life with the story of Pierce Mundy (Everette Silas), a young man at a fascinating crossroads in life in South Central Los Angeles. While his older brother prepares to marry a snooty woman and his parents judge him for failing to get his act together, Pierce falls back on the messy exploits available to him with his lifelong friend.
The movie assembles a riveting snapshot of a Black identity crisis, though Burnett intended the blend of humor and tragedy to open up his style to a new audience— but he hadn’t finished polishing up that approach when producers forced a 115-minute rough cut to screen at the New York Film Festival, deterring buyers sending the movie careening into distribution limbo.
It wasn’t until 2007, when Burnett shaved off around 30 minutes for a Milestone release, that the full intent of the scrappy project came together. Now clocking in at under 90 minutes, “My Brother’s Wedding” is a sweet, involving slice-of-life dramedy that doesn’t waste a frame.—EK
“Yeelen” (dir. Soulemayne Cisse, 1987)
Make Soulemayne Cisse’s mystical 1987 fable a double feature with “The Empire Strikes Back.” This father (Niamanto Sonogo) doesn’t want his son (Issiaka Kane) to join him on a quest to rule, though — he just wants to kill him. With the madness of Cronos devouring his children, Soma embarks on a quest to snuff out his progeny, because he fears his eldest will become a more powerful sorcerer than him. “Break the sky! Break the earth!” he chants as part of a ritual that requires him to burn a chicken that he thinks will point the way to son Nianankoro, who starts the film mostly oblivious to his father’s unhinged intent.
What results is a hero’s journey across the sagebrush and sand of Mali. Nianankoro has to become a mighty sorcerer quick, and he’s up for the challenge: Cisse finds clever ways to show the young mage using his powers, such as when he “freezes” a warrior in place, and when he sends a swarm of bees to fend off the enemies of a people who’ve taken him in. Cisse presents the magic in an absolutely matter of fact way: it’s just a part of life. And the fact that most of these wondrous occurrences happen in bright daylight — “Yeelen” literally translates as “brightness” — makes you accept them all the more.
Regarded by many as Africa’s greatest living filmmaker, Cisse set out make a movie that would defy the ethnographic lens European filmmakers often apply to Africa and its stories. He based this particular tale on a Bambara legend — one inextricable from the people who originated it, but told here with a universal resonance that allowed it to make borders disappear like magic. —CB
“Blow Out” (dir. Brian De Palma, 1981)
In the current zeitgeist, the term “a love letter to filmmaking” is exclusively reserved for sentimental films about little boys who realize that they want to be movie directors while sitting under a hazy projector, but Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out” is the kind of movie that illustrates our need for a broader application of the phrase. The stylish political thriller is a full-throated salute to the craftsmanship that goes into making a movie, as it treats every gadget you can find on a film set as a storytelling device that’s worthy of carrying its own narrative.
De Palma overtly says as much with his story of a sound designer who accidentally records evidence of a murder with his boom mic, and the director then uses that premise as a Brechtian playground for a film layered with images and sounds that remind his audience that they’re watching an artificially constructed pop spectacle that’s guided by an unreliable narrator. That dissonance is heightened by the film’s rich meta-context, which has only grown more expansive over time (De Palma wanted audiences to know they were watching a giallo-inflected riff on Antonioni’s “Blow-Up,” but had no way of predicting that his film would inspire Quentin Tarantino to cast John Travolta in a certain role more than a decade later). But even in a vacuum, “Blow Out” endures for the brilliance with which it straddles the line between formalist mindfuck and pulp fiction without sacrificing the essence of either. —CZ
“Koyaanisqatsi” (dir. Godfrey Reggio, 1982)
Fourteen years after Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” articulated the rise and fall of human civilization in the span of a single edit, Godfrey Reggio’s “Koyaanisqatsi” doubled back to connect the dots; its technique was equally blunt, and its impact equally effective. A symphonic lament over the frenzy of modern living (the film’s title is borrowed from a Hopi word that loosely translates to “life out of balance”), Reggio’s mega-montage devotes its first movement to primordial images of the natural world — desolate landscapes that seem to be a million years old — before the sudden appearance of a mining truck marks the dawn of industry. Cue the sun, or at least the most famous notes of Philip Glass’ totemic score, which combine with Ron Fricke’s time-lapse photography of cities in motion to create the violent euphoria of a virus invading its host body. It’s the wagon wheel effect in documentary form, as our entire species is sped up so fast that it feels like we’re seeing it clearly for the first time. We are Pac-Man running through the maze. We are mass-produced hot dogs without a bun.
Truth be told, Reggio is mercifully restrained when it comes to the visual metaphors, but he gets a lot of mileage from the idea that the microchip is a perfect synecdoche of the society that created it. If “Koyaanisqatsi” was just a technophobic cautionary tale about the need to slow down, the film would probably feel like an obsolete product of its time by now. It would also feel somewhat hypocritical, considering the tools used for its construction. But Reggio isn’t advocating for a return to the abacus so much as he’s illustrating the extent to which technology is — and has perhaps always been —a self-portrait of civilization itself, as inextricable from our lives as our faces are from our bodies. We are the world we’ve made and vice-versa, a truth that “Koyaanisqatsi” articulates with a clarity that makes the movie feel more valuable than ever at a time when A.I. is starting to present an existential threat. —DE
“Fanny and Alexander” (dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1982)
With its sumptuous set design and baroque period details, “Fanny and Alexander” found Ingmar Bergman at the peak of his imaginative capabilities, immersing viewers in a Proustian, child’s-eye-view portrait of a bourgeois family in turn-of-the-century Sweden.
Bergman zeroes in on the perspective of Alexander (Bertil Guve), the child of two theater directors, whose life is built around storytelling and escape into daydreams. Episode one of the 312-minute “television cut” begins with some of filmdom’s most vibrant and boisterous Christmas celebrations, and ends with Alexander’s first brush with death.
With a painterly touch, Bergman painstakingly crafts this microcosm, showing how vast and full of wonder the world can seem as a child, even if you hardly leave your house. Each frame that Sven Nykvist shot is brimming with color — that is, until we enter into the cold lair of Alexander’s mother’s second husband Edvard, a punishing Lutheran minister who seeks to dominate his new family into submission through fear and violence.
Influenced by Bergman’s own strictly religious childhood, “Fanny and Alexander” is a singular lesson in the power of storytelling, particularly in the ways that Alexander uses it to resist authority and builds a magical world all his own. —SG
“Where Is the Friend’s House?” (dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 1987)
Ahmad — played by Babak Ahmadpour, who delivers one of the best childhood performances in a national cinema teeming with greats — accidentally took his classmate Mohammed’s notebook. Their tyrannical teacher has said Mohammed will be expelled if he forgets his notebook one more time, so Ahmad defies his mother and basically walks a 7K up and over the hill to the town in the next valley looking for his friend to return his notebook to him. From that spartan premise, Abbas Kiarostami creates an empathetic masterwork of subjectivity and childhood apprehension, exquisitely rendering the memory of being ignored by all around you and feeling deeply alone in a world that you only half-understand. As night falls on Ahmad’s journey, the filmmaker captures this rural Iranian village wrapped by the most isolating, crepuscular shadows: Is Ahmad himself even going to be okay, let alone his friend?
Newcomers to Kiarostami sometimes assume his films are dense works for the arthouse, but even his more high-concept fare, such as “Close-Up” and “Taste of Cherry,” balance their metafilmic devices with bracing immediacy and emotion. The ’80s most unexpectedly nerve-wracking thriller, “Where Is the Friend’s House?” is alsp as straightforward an empathy machine as any Chaplin film ever was (Kiarostami himself noted its connection to “The Kid”), and, in the directness of its visual storytelling, will prove just as enduring. —CB
“Wings of Desire” (dir. Wim Wenders, 1987)
Its premise alone imparts a rare degree of existential terror: A watchful angel, hoping to discover the meaning of life by choosing to die, considers forsaking his immortality in order to grasp the finite pleasures of human existence. The film around him follows the opposite path towards similar ends, as Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” becomes eternal by finding a life-affirming hope in the horror of oblivion.Thecommon legacy of this movie in the cultural imagination tends to be one of booming sentimentality or grim detachment (depending on who you ask), but Wenders has his cake and eats it too, his magical-realist masterpiece embodying the outrageous joy of existence in what so frequently feels like a cruel and unfeeling universe.
In West Berlin, we are introduced to two angels, ever-present but invisible to humans, who have existed far longer than the city or any of its inhabitants. Cassiel (Otto Sander) and Damiel (Bruno Ganz) watch over the disaffected and despairing Berliners who experience all the agony and joy that living has to offer. Time has no meaning to the angels, who can see all of history and humanity unspooling before them as if they simply looking out a window. Their attention to detail has become rather intense over the year, and unlike its saccharine Hollywood remake, “City of Angels” (aka the Meg Ryan movie that gave us the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris”), “Wings of Desire” captures the microscopic sensations that make life so wondrous.
Damiel operates on the cusp of divinity and humanity, particularly as heprovides comfort for a man dying in a pointless motorcycle accident. As the casualty passes into non-existence, Damiel whispers to him reminders of “potatoes in the ashes,” “The Great Bear Lake,” and “stromboli” until the man takes over to comfort himself with memories of “the old houses of Charlottenburg” and “the spots of the first drops of rain.” Love doesn’t prove the answer. Sacrifice does not necessarily reap rewards, and pain and confusion radiate from West Berlin apartment blocks whose residents have no easy fix, as divided amongst themselves as they are from those on the other side of the Wall. But “Wings of Desire” fluctuates between being both joyous and morose, just as humans do, and eventually reframes death itself as inevitable and desirous in equal measure. All good things must come to an end, and to truly savor the potatoes in the ashes, man must ultimately return to ashes himself. —LL
“The Shining” (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Few of Stanley Kubrick’s myriad achievements are as impressive as the fact that he turned a glorified airport novel into his generation’s most haunting adult fairy tale. From the moment Jack Torrance signs the Faustian contract that seals his family in a hotel famous for making men kill their families, there’s only one possible way the tragedy can end (to the extent it ever does). Yet Kubrick treats his pulpy premise with the same obsessive craftsmanship he brought to his “highbrow” fare, creating a study of the darkness in the human soul that’s as hard to define as the layout of the Overlook Hotel.
Few horror movies before or since have been executed on the scale of “The Shining,” and the film is an enduring reminder of what the genre is capable of when treated with the seriousness it deserves. From the deliberately disorienting set design and meticulous Steadicam shots to the religious and literary symbolism oozing out of every frame, Kubrick immerses audiences in the a world that seems like it emerged fully formed long before mankind set foot in Colorado.
The craftsmanship is matched by a career-defining performance from Jack Nicholson, whose command of subtle mannerisms turns an objectively predictable descent into madness into something that never ceases to be thrilling. He embodies the character with a lethal combination of machismo and insecurity, terrorizing his family with his mood swings for so long that it’s hard to gauge the exact moment when his jackassery is replaced by good old-fashioned insanity. His piercing stare is an image that — much like the ghosts at the Overlook Hotel, and the very presence of evil itself — seems to have been haunting us since time immemorial. —CZ
“Broadcast News” (dir. James L. Brooks, 1987)
The movies have often been able to see television more clearly than television has been able to see itself, a truism that takes on a life of its own in James L. Brooks’ searingly brilliant workplace comedy about the personal and professional tensions that form between an ultra-intense news producer (the inimitable Holly Hunter as Jane), a hard-nosed reporter who shares her unfettered passion for journalism (an immaculately droll Albert Brooks as Aaron), and a himbo anchorman who looks so good on camera that even some of the best people in the business aren’t able to see right through him (William Hurt as Tom). What starts as a spirited love triangle soon escalates into a battle over the future of news itself, as Jane — to Aaron’s hilariously sweaty chagrin —finds herself sleeping with the enemy at a time when the corporate push for ratings is beginning to blur the lines between journalism and entertainment.
As anyone reading this knows all too well, that battle turns out to be more like a massacre, but the bitter fun of “Broadcast News” is all in how it goes down swinging (and in one of the most quotable American scripts this side of “Casablanca”). While it would be fair to say that Brooks’ masterpiece is both the best rom-com of the ’80s and its most prescient film about the seductive power of fake news, it might be even more accurate to say that “Broadcast News” is the best rom-com of the ’80s because the emotional geometry between its beautifully drawn characters is such a perfect analogue for television media’s dwindling self-respect (and vice-versa). It’san analogue made all the more appropriate by the messiness of the movie’s polarizing coda, which leaps forward into the future it has already predicted so well in order to find Aaron, Tom, and Jane each declaring their own kind of victory in a forever war that’s lost all over again every time the devil convinces us to lower our standards. —DE
“Raging Bull” (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1980)
Fittingly enough, there are many legends that surround the creation of Martin Scorsese’s 1980 boxing opus, like that eventual star Robert De Niro became obsessed with the true story of Jake LaMotta while on the set of “The Godfather Part II,” during which director Scorsese balked at taking on a boxing film (sports? not really Marty’s thing). But persistence paid off — call it the LaMotta influence, if you will —and the film was (eventually) made with the dynamic duo both in front of and behind the camera.
At first glance, Scorsese’s reticence to take on the project is understandable — a boxing movie? about a violent striver who gets mixed up with the mob, his own foibles, and his fraught relationships? been there, done that — but the twist on that seemingly tired formula is the classic Scorsese touch: he went into the project with all of those considerations firmly in hand.
What follows is a bruising drama about male fragility, dreams differed, and the price of violence in all its forms. De Niro’s Jake La Motta? An anti-hero for the ages, a bold (even then, and especially now) choice for a film that would seem ready-made for the heroic treatment, and a stunning twist on the very formula that initially scared off Scorsese. Instead of the typical sports drama, Scorsese and De Niro (aided immeasurably by the always thrilling work of editor Thelma Schoonmaker) excavated the deepest, darkest reaches of the boxer-turned-standup-comedian’s life, in turn building out a new blueprint for not just what a “sports movie” can be, but what they actively should be. —KE
“L’Argent” (dir. Robert Bresson, 1983)
Sinners beware, Robert Bresson’s final film brings a frigid blast of Catholic guilt and austerity to the most decadent of decades. A harrowing rondelay about the viral transference of vice, “L’Argent” is a story as lean as any its director ever told. It begins with a schoolboy being denied a bigger allowance by his father, and then in turn deciding to pass off a counterfeit 500 franc note that he’s given by a friend. When the shopkeeper who receives it doesn’t realize it’s fake, the note sets off a stunning chain of events that span the course of several years before eventually culminating in a series of savage murders.
Told with the moral urgency of a Bible parable and the tautness of a masterful thriller, “L’Argent” found Bresson reaching the limit of his style: no music, richly textured ambient sounds, a guiding camera that focuses on subtle details as opposed to reactions, and expressionless actors serving more as models that he can order around to illustrate his points. There are times his lens focuses on his cast member’s hands as they count money, or steal it, or pass off fake bills, or read letters of absolute heartbreak, each of these seemingly isolated actions accruing a shared moral velocity so immense that it allows Bresson to snowball a single misdeed into one of cinema’s most damning indictments of society at large. The mechanics of the plot might strain belief if seen too literally (can one small transgression really be held responsie for consequences of such enormous magnitude), but Bresson is playing with cause-and-effect on a spiritual level — one that’s meant to straddle the outer limits of our understanding. In lesser hands “L’Argent” might have felt like an arthouse Sunday school lesson, but Bresson’s final masterpiece was a cold splash of water that proved all the more invigorating for the way its judgment trickled down throughout the rest of a decade where greed was good. —CB
“Blue Velvet” (dir. David Lynch, 1986)
“There are opportunities in life for gaining knowledge and experience,” Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle Machlachlan) tells Laura Dern’s Sandy near the beginning of David Lynch’s picket-fence thriller. What an eye-opening opportunity presents itself for Jeffrey indeed! As well as for viewers, who may have expected Lynch to position himself as an heir to Hitchcock — on paper, “Blue Velvet” seems like an ‘80s version of “Shadow of a Doubt,” with its plunge into the dark side of small-town Americana — but got something that aspires more to the universal understanding that can only come from Lynch’s beloved transcendental meditation.
As Jeffrey, a kind of solo Hardy Boy looking for a mystery to solve, gets drawn in deeper to the underbelly of folksy Lumberton, North Carolina, he encounters a horrific scenario involving a nightclub singer (Isabella Rossellini ) forced into sexual captivity by a nitrous-oxide-huffing madman named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). Some viewers couldn’t get beyond the darkness of Lynch’s vision, and “Blue Velvet” is indeed exemplar of a time when movies could still be dangerous — so much so that Roger Ebert accused David Lynch of mistreating Rossellini, something she denied, going on to work with Lynch again.
But staring into the deepest dark is sometimes necessary in order to have a more complete understanding of life, and to let the good things shine all the brighter. Hitchcock never has a scene bursting with the radiant goodness of Sandy retelling her dream about a cloudburst of robins spreading love over the world, while Angelo Badalamenti’s soaring synths touch the spiritual. That monologue doesn’t come across as silly or naïve, but rather essential for a world in which there are far too many Frank Booths. Just remember: Somewhere a robin might be clutching a beetle in its beak. —CB
“Ran” (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1985)
If we owe the existence of “Star Wars” to Akira Kurosawa, whose “Hidden Fortress” offered valuable inspiration to a galaxy far, far away, then we in turn owe the existence of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” to George Lucas, who used his sci-fi riches to rescue Japan’s most legendary filmmaker at his lowest ebb and set him on a course to create a pair of late-career masterpieces. In that light, it’s fitting — and perhaps not entirely coincidental — that the later and greater of those two projects is a Shakespearean epic about an aging warlord who forfeits the throne to his three sons, only to find that his former strength was all that protected him from being subsumed by the same ruthless pursuit of power that he’d participated in for so long.
While Kurosawa ultimately benefited from the kindness of foreigners who’d been raised in his shadow, he would spend the rest of his life suffering from the whiplash of being sidelined by a business that he once ruled like an emperor. “Hidetora is me,” Kurosawa once said of the King Lear-inspired daimyo at the center of this story; he gave the Japanese film industry his all, and in good time he gave it.
Despite the success of 1980’s “Kagemusha,” the director came to “Ran” half-blind, almost widowed, and fully distressed by a world that had learned nothing from the horrors of his lifetime (among other things, “Ran” offers an allegorical take on the nuclear anxieties that curdled along the fringes of Kurosawa’s art for more than 40 years). He knew this would be his last chance to paint on a canvas big enough for the entire planet to see, and he made extraordinary use of the opportunity.
“Ran” is the work of an old man shouting into the wind with every ounce of power left in his lungs. Awash in the shimmering colors of Emi Wada’s feudal costumes even as it’s swallowed by the darkness that had been creeping deeper into Kurosawa’s work since the days of “High and Low,” “Ran” is one of cinema’s most beautiful and unsparing visions of humanity’s collective madness, all of it refracted through the prism of Tetsuya Nakadai’s performance as a man hollowed out by the horrors of his own nature. Even more embittered and damning than “Lear,” Kurosawa’s film synthesizes Noh-like drama with apocalyptic despair to create a vision of self-destruction as raw and brittle as the black sands of the volcano on which much of it was shot. Elsewhere, as the castle Kurosawa built on the slopes of Mount Fuji burns around him, Hidetora sits in blinkered silence as arrows whiz by his head and blood rains down through the floorboards. It’s the first spark of his insanity, and it proves to be terribly illuminating by the end — incandescent in its rage and heartache alike. —DE
“Sans Soleil” (dir. Chris Marker, 1983)
No feature-length film of the ’80s more bewitchingly challenged the most basic notions of what a film can be than Chris Marker’s unclassifiable cine-essay, “Sans Soleil.” Is it a fictional documentary or a purely invented construction? Is its graceful assemblage of “home movies” and stock footage meant to be the stuff of diaristic self-reflection or a broader commentary on the nature of time itself? Shot over years on his travels around the world, especially Japan and Guinea-Bissau, it’s framed as dispatches from a fictional cameraman named Sandor Krasna, with his “letters” read aloud by a coolly-detached female narrator as if she was their recipient.
But that description doesn’t do justice to this incredible homage to/montage of porcelain cats, Japanese street festivals, Icelandic volcanoes, the emus of the Île-de-France, eight-bit computer graphics, and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” It moves at the speed of thought with the kind of tangential, stream-of-consciousness logic of one idea bleeding into another. Some of Marker’s syntheses lean towards the galaxy-brained, such as his choice to play Mussorsky’s “Sans Soleil” over “sunless” images from videogames, but such flourishes only add to the mystery of a film that unfolds in riveting, epistolary conversation with itself — one that combines the abstraction of poetic verse with the emotional vulnerability of a letter to a long-lost love.
There are glimpses of the sublime along the way. Some of them are purely sensorial, like the otherworldly sonic ambience of the Hokkaido ferry (Marker didn’t film using sync sound, so the collisions of non-verbal audio and image result in something far beyond realism). Others are conjured through the interplay of narration and image. Sandor wrote that he wanted to isolate a moment of pure ecstasy — three children walking hand-in-hand in Iceland — by adding some black leader to set it off: “If they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.” Marker needn’t have worried: “Sans Soleil” traces both with perfect clarity, finding its ineffable power in the contrast between them. —CB
“Possession” (1981, Andrzej Żuławski)
To say that Polish auteur Andrzej Żuławski’s most famous film — and, not coincidentally, his only English-language effort — functions on multiple levels is almost doing it a disservice. Confrontational grossout monster movie, forceful cold-war metaphor, dense literary allusion, adult arthouse drama about the dissolution of a marriage blown up to apocalyptic proportions: All of these elements are present before Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill enter the frame.
But over-intellectualizing “Possession” is a mistake. Above all else, Żuławski’s movie operates as a raw, visceral experience, using heightened artificiality as a conduit for deep emotional truth. The end of a relationship feels like the end of the world, and the incremental frog-boiling experienced by Neill’s bug-eyed character is a descent into madness that reflects the movie’s attempts to disentangle itself from logic and the rules of narrative storytelling. By the time the characters’ personal Armageddon is reflected by their surroundings, we’ve entered a space where anything truly can happen, and in fact already has.
Trying to separate “Possession” from Adjani’s performance is also a mistake. Her extreme commitment to her role as a dissatisfied housewife who transforms into a feral, sex-crazed killer got her the Best Actress award at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival — and drove her to a suicide attempt after seeing the finished product, according to her director. Hysterical, manipulative, cold-hearted, and untrustworthy, Anna (Adjani) has all the characteristics of a misogynist stereotype. But we’re entranced by her anyway, in thrall to the primal power of her percolating rage.
That power is barely suggested when Anna tells Mark (Neill) that she wants a divorce at the beginning of the film. It comes bursting out of her, along with some disconcertingly foamy goo, in “Possession’s” famous subway freakout scene. Seized by unhinged laughter that shifts into raw screaming and rhythmic gyrations as the camera follows her like a predator, she stuns the viewer into shocked silence. There is no logical explanation for what is happening, but emotionally it’s the most cathartic spectacle imaginable.
A telling sign of “Possession” as a moving target of meaning is its evolving place in the canon. The film’s initial U.S. release in 1983 cut around 40 minutes from its running time, rendering this already cryptic film downright unintelligible. As a result, critics dismissed it as empty shock value — a judgment that some, like The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman, would retract after seeing the uncut version. (It also made a brief, bizarre appearance on the U.K.’s famous “video nasties” list.) In the early 2010s, it re-emerged as a hip horror repertory title, its infamy spurred on by its unavailability and secondhand descriptions of its monster sex scene. It broke through onto the long list at #243 on the 2022 Sight & Sound critics’ poll of the best films of all time, completing its transformation from misunderstood outcast to transgressive curiosity to legitimate masterwork. —KR
“The Green Ray” (dir. Éric Rohmer, 1986)
No movie has better captured the profound stress of relaxation than Éric Rohmer’s deceptively simple summer idyll. Newly single and unexpectedly alone, Delphine (Marie Riviere) doesn’t know what she’s looking for when her weeks-long vacation begins (yes, my fellow Americans, “weeks-long vacations” are a real thing in Europe). Reluctant to travel by herself, Delphine is also not particularly comfortable in the company of others, and we get the sense that her recent relationship was long-distance and low-commitment by design.
How can you be happy when you can’t even pinpoint what it is that mightmake you happy? Rohmer frequently used beaches as settings in his movies, as they’re places where people go to feel good about life. They’re also places where people find themselves acutely unaware of the fact that they don’t. “The Green Ray” is Rohmer’s deepest exploration of that dichotomy and its portents, even as this ineffably delicate film seldom appears to peek under the surface; Rohmer never cuts in to emphasize Delphine’s distress, his camera always giving her a little space to breathe. The only major use of Jean-Louis Valero’s music is at the end: That’s when Delphine and a new male acquaintance watch the sunset at Biarritz and try to glimpse the flash of green light that appears when the last sliver of the sun’s disk sinks beyond the horizon.
That phenomenon isn’t easy to find in nature, and the brunt of Rohmer’s budget for the “The Green Ray” was spent on a trip to the Canary Islands to film it. Delphine is similarly determined to see it for herself because of a promise once made by Jules Verne, who wrote that a glimpse of the green ray is enough for someone to finally make sense of their own feelings, and those of the people around them. It’s the perfect parable for this exquisite film about the struggle we all face on our wayward journey towards knowing who we are, and where to look for it. —CB
“Vagabond” (dir. Agnès Varda, 1985)
Mona is the name of the ill-fated “Vagabond” played by a 17-year-old Sandrine Bonnaire in Agnès Varda’s 1985 film, and tracking shots are the only space that consistently belongs to her during the last days of her too-short life. The camera follows her for a time as she trudges through the French countryside in winter, and then stops — as if distracted by something in the background. Mona may give “Vagabond” its title, but she often escapes its gaze, refusing to stay anywhere long enough to be pinned down or defined by it. It’s as if she happened to wander into Varda’s view, as fascinating to her as any of the unlikely characters who appeared in the director’s nonfiction work over the years.
Always interested in the loners, wanderers, and various other hidden personalities she encountered, here Varda gives us one of the earliest and most iconic depictions of a female drifter — a young woman without a job, home, or real sense of morality to ground her in any sense. Mona says she’s chosen this life to escape the dictums of civilized society (the film’s French title is “Sans toit ni loi,” or, “without roof or rules”), and she finds pleasure in being on her own, unabashedly indulging in the sex, drugs and alcohol she finds in her travels. But her life is not without loneliness.
Varda informs us of Mona’s demise before we even meet her — the film begins with a farmer discovering her frozen corpse alone in a field. This opening colors the events that follow, as Mona drifts between makeshift lodgings and pitstops. For a time she crashes with a small family of goat farmers who have chosen to “live off the land.” The father, a former intellectual with a wife and child, says he took the middle route because he couldn’t stand to be alone. “You chose total freedom but you got total loneliness,” he says. Mona often masks her own solitude with music — she’s always listening to the radio, and will spend what little money she has on the cafe jukebox. If only she could hear Joanna Bruzdowicz’s dissonant and otherworldly string score as it creeps in over the soundtrack, a nagging reminder of the realities of the road and Mona’s ultimate path toward self-destruction.
“Vagabond” is organized as a collage of episodes in Mona’s short life, the film as interested in the people — mostly non-actors playing some version of them themselves — who she meets on the road as it is in its heroine. That split focus allows Mona to becomes a Rorschach test for the world around her. This rootless girl barely leaves a trace after she’s gone, but she reveals a little bit about each of those who cross her path, or are lucky enough to follow her through the lens of Varda’s camera. —SG
“My Neighbor Totoro” (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)
Far and away the humblest movie that Hayao Miyazaki has ever made (and likely also the most beloved), “My Neighbor Totoro” is an 86-minute fable about two small girls adjusting to their rickety new house in rural mid-century Japan while their mother convalesces from an unspecified illness at a nearby hospital. The younger sister follows a trail of acorns into the woods, where she befriends a massive, bear-like wood spirit who likes to sleep a lot. One night the girls show Totoro how to use an umbrella as they wait for their father’s bus in the rain. Later, the locals grow concerned over an urgent corn delivery gone wrong, but the crisis is averted with appropriate sweetness. The end.
To look at “My Neighbor Totoro” from a certain perspective, that’s really all there is to it. More stuff happens before the opening credits of several Pixar movies, whose stories are as intricate and fussed over as a Swiss watch. Indeed, it’s fair to say that few of the masterpieces on this list would prove more baffling to those who only think of movies as plot delivery mechanisms, and even fewer would be so inconceivable to the A.I. tools that some people see as the future of animation (as opposed to, in Miyazaki’s words, “an insult to life itself”).
And yet kids around the globe have always understood “My Neighbor Totoro” so implicitly that it’s as if they’re seeing their own imaginations reflected back at them on-screen. Some of that magic can be attributed to the movie’s aesthetic virtues: Joe Hisashi’s reassuring score is full of tunes that stick to your bones for life, while the hand-drawn animation is vibrant and detailed in a way that continues to humiliate even the most artful CGI (the summer breeze in Studio Ghibli’s films is more expressive than any of the main characters in “Frozen”). But those effervescent joys, which can be found in so much of Miyazaki’s work, become singularly potent in a movie that takes the mysterious beauty of our world as its main subject.
Softening — but never domesticating — the animistic spirit that leads to war in “Nausicaä” and “Princess Mononoke,” “My Neighbor Totoro” is a fundamentally moral story about the magic that avails itself to those who don’t live their lives in fear. It’s a movie about two little girls who find new strength in the unknown when confronted with every child’s greatest fear; who learn to laugh away the things that scare them and rescue each other from their darkest thoughts. Miyazaki deliberately emphasizes the most frightening aspects of Totoro’s design, often isolating his giant claws away from his less intimidating features, so that viewers of all ages are invited to appreciate the warmth that’s often lost inside fear’s shadow.
There’s a reason why the film’s most euphoric scene takes place during a downpour, just as there’s a reason why the Cronenbergian Cat Bus, with its piercing spotlight eyes and mutable flesh, has become a universal symbol of rescue. In Miyazaki’s world, the only thing worth being afraid of is losing the people you love. It’s a fear the young heroines of “My Neighbor Totoro” are forced to stare at directly in the face, but in doing so their eyes are opened to a world of wonder right in their new backyard, and everyone who sees this movie comes away knowing just where to find it. —DE
“Shoah” (dir. Claude Lanzmann, 1985)
Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” runs more than nine hours long, and yet every frame of this landmark documentary — perhaps the single most valuable artifact of Holocaust memories we have — points back to the first words spoken by a survivor in the film’s opening minutes. Staring out at the quiet green fields where the Chelmno extermination camp incinerated Jews by the thousands just four decades earlier, Szymon Srebrnik simply observes that “It’s hard to recognize, but it was here.” How ironic that the longest film ever made about the Holocaust should also characterize it the most succinctly.
Filmed almost a half-century after the end of the Holocaust, several generations removed from when it was still possible to inventory a visual inventory of the camps to the same degree as had been done by documentaries like Alain Resnais’ 1956 “Night and Fog,” “Shoah” exists and is defined by the absence of certain images — by the absence of archival footage, and the guiding voiceover that so often accompanies it. The testimony collected by Lanzmann’s film, which was solicited from survivors, perpetrators, bystanders, and historians alike, is relentlessly obsessed with death at the direct expense of personal detail, and yet not a single dead body is ever shown on screen. “The proof,” Lanzmann would later say, “is not in the corpses; the proof is in the absence of corpses.”
Whether interrogating a former SS officer on closed circuit video, interviewing one of the many Jews who drove trains to the camps or worked on “special details” in the gas chambers in order to save their own lives, or listening to crowds of Auschwitz locals as they eagerly try to downplay their understanding of what they witnessed from a safe remove, “Shoah” is defined by selective acts of seeing and the limits of human vision. It is, in spite of those parameters, a visually inexhaustible film, one bound by a righteous fury that defies the formal stodginess that viewers might expect from such a totemic vessel of Jewish history. The scene where Lanzmann tries to interview a low-ranking Nazi commander at the beer hall where he works anticipates the door-stopping aggression that Michael Moore would later make so de rigeur, while a handful of quietly self-reflexive flourishes speak to the essence of a documentary that’s as preoccupied with distance and futility as it is with preservation. “Shoah” is not the most vital film about the Holocaust only for how it fortifies the memory of what happened and gives the six million dead an everlasting name, but also for how it articulates the agony of remembering, and so viscerally laments all that gets lost in the translation of an incomprehensible act. “It was here,” Lanzmann’s history tells us, “but it’s hard to recognize.” —DE
“Paris, Texas” (dir. Wim Wenders, 1984)
Wim Wenders understood in his bones that the road was a place to get lost. It offers an escape not just from the confines of a home but also an identity — the unique promise of constant forward motion. Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) first appears in “Paris, Texas” wandering in the middle of the West Texas desert; Robby Müller’s evocative photography catches him over a ridge as Ry Cooder’s plaintive slide guitar rings out over the score. We know nothing about him just yet, but we immediately understand that he’s been lost entirely by choice for a long time (four years, in fact). After he passes out in a convenience store, a local doctor calls his estranged brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) to come pick him up. Walt discovers that his brother has become a shell of his former self: a mute amnesiac who lost his sense of self somewhere on the road.
The reasons for Travis’ disposition are no less potent for being so ordinary: a marriage torn asunder, partially by the arrival of a child whom husband and wife weren’t ready to care for, but mostly because of depression and resentment neither were willing to confront. Co-screenwriters Sam Shepard and L. M. Kit Carson reveal the full details of Travis’ separation from his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) in a tour-de-force confessional sequence near the film’s end, but the specifics, while enlightening, are somewhat beside the point. With “Paris, Texas,” Wenders wanted to make a film about America, and he accurately diagnoses that loneliness as an integral part of the national condition. Travis was alone surrounded by family and alone when he began running with no destination; isolation can be literal or an emotional state. The vast expanse of the American West only confirms such a conclusion.
Travis eventually begins to speak — albeit tentatively, as if he’s relearning the properties of human speech — over a lengthy road trip with Walt back to his home in Los Angeles. There, he reconnects with his son Hunter (Hunter Carson, Kit’s son), whom Walt and his wife Anne (Aurore Clément) have raised since Travis and Jane disappeared. Though Hunter initially distrusts Travis, like any seven-year-old boy would of a strange man who enters his home mostly to clean their dishes and shine their shoes, they eventually bond over walks home from school and old home movies and photographs. In a film filled with exceptional performances, the warm chemistry between Stanton, whose melancholy primarily resides in his eyes, and Carson, who exhibits a wisdom well beyond his years, stands out as an especially indelible pairing. In their limited screen time together, Carson makes you immediately understand why Hunter would want to travel with Travis on an indefinite trip to find Jane. They speak with each other openly and honestly, without any concessions made to their gap in maturity.
The two road trips that bookend “Paris, Texas” feature a slice of America defined by images one would see outside their car window: motels, gas stations, highways that stretch the infinite, barren deserts, railroad tracks, masses of vehicles, fast food restaurants, billboards, neon signs, nondescript skyscrapers, suburban sprawl. In interviews, Müller expresses a distaste for images that call too much attention to themselves, but it’s so easy to get lost in his painterly compositions — the very best of his career — especially considering his loving emphasis on warm colors. (Reds and greens have rarely looked better than in this film.) He captures a country with a fluid identity—and sure enough, the America of “Paris, Texas” would soon be permanently in the rearview mirror—and yet his photography endures because of how in tune he and Wenders are to small gestures. A comforting hand on a stranger’s back, a phone receiver used to wipe away tears, the anxious pull at the hem of a fuchsia sweater dress — to Wenders, these moments are as American as any roadside attraction.
Paris, Texas never makes an appearance in “Paris, Texas” outside of a crumpled photograph; its absence stands as a metaphor for self-actualization always out of reach. By film’s end, Travis remains lost by choice, back on the road again except a little less lonely. A reunion between mother and child comes at the expense of a father who fears his permanent restlessness will poison their wellbeing and a makeshift family (Walt and Anne) bereft of their adopted child. Yet, a shared, unspoken understanding between all five people ties them together even as they remain miles apart. The road can always bring them back together. —VM
“The Thing” (dir. John Carpenter, 1982)
“First goddamn week of winter,” snarls MacReady (Kurt Russell) as he and the other 11 American researchers at Antarctica’s Outpost 31 survey the burnt wreckage of a helicopter. No one yet knows why two Norwegian pilots sacrificed their lives in a desperate attempt to kill a sled dog, but they’ll soon learn the horrible truth about the extra-terrestrial in their midst, and this one has no interest in spreading love or phoning home. With “The Thing,” John Carpenter combined Hawksian social dynamics with nasty creature effects to create one of the most potent cinematic statements on paranoia. When an intruder can assume the form of other organisms until they can imitate them perfectly, who can you trust?
Everything goes pear-shaped the moment the sled dog in question metamorphizes into a Thing that can only be killed via flamethrower. Not long after, the team finds a buried spacecraft in the snow and the biologist Blair (Wilford Brimley) learns that the creature could absorb all life on Earth in a few years. Tensions flare, no one knows who’s a human or a Thing, and suddenly everyone has a literal or proverbial target on their back. Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster deliberately mete out new information about The Thing and its abilities so we are trapped in the characters’ terror and suspicion. Rob Bottin’s various ultra-gory Thing manifestations — the deformed Dog-Thing, the chest-mouth Norris-Thing, the monstrously looming Blair-Thing—are played for genuine shock as well as the ultimate validation of collective fear. The bleakness of “The Thing” lies not only in the belief that any community can fall apart with just the slightest provocation but also that kneejerk mistrust is often justified.
The critical and commercial failure of “The Thing” has been attributed to oversaturation of sci-fi films in 1982, a lack of adequate marketing, and the fact that a R-rated nihilistic creature flick opened against Spielberg’s accessible, family-friendly “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” That it was eventually reappraised as one of the strongest, most influential horror films of its time can’t erase the devastating impact its failure had on Carpenter’s career and outlook. Yet, “The Thing” looks more and more prophetic and perceptive with each passing day.
When asked by Jonathan Rosenbaum if his film was pro- or anti-science, he responded by saying it was “pro-human”: “It’s better to be a human being than an imitation, or let ourselves be taken over by this creature who’s not necessarily evil, but whose nature it is to simply imitate, like a chameleon.” “The Thing” can be interpreted in a million different ways — a Cold War allegory, a critique of the myopia of machismo, an illustration of the dangers of groupthink. But during the rise of A.I., it might behoove us to heed the obvious warning that anything that attempts to replicate flesh-and-blood humanity will eventually reveal its monstrous nature and destroy us all. —VM
“Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” (dir. Paul Schrader, 1985)
There are two types of people in this world: those who think “”Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” — a kaleidoscopic character study of author-turned-nationalist Yukio Mishima — is the greatest biopic of all time, and those who haven’t seen it. Schrader’s film gloriously dismisses the genre’s foundations, paints a delirious portrait of its controversial Japanese figure, and directly transmits his flamboyant and flamboyantly contradictory psyche into its viewers via lucid dream.
Biopics rarely escape the trappings of their forced objectivity. Schrader makes it look easy. Retelling a character’s life is simple enough, but to evoke that figure, along with his ideals and obsessions, is something else entirely. And so we begin not with our protagonist at their deathbed and the promise of a decade-spanning flashback, a structure of the genre defined by “Citizen Kane” and rigidly adhered to since, but with the cryptic image of a black slate of sea and grass, and a red dot threatening to breach the skyline.
By the end of the film, that red dot — a sublime symbol of Japanese tradition — makes its appearance. For Yukio Mishima to reach that point, where “the bright disc of his sun soared up behind his eyelids and exploded”, he has to soar himself: through greens and golds, rotating noodle parlours and a walled set that caves in on itself. Every single facet, from set design to Philip Glass’ stirring score, is pushed to the extreme, the blatant artifice obscuring the conviction of his ideals. There’s nothing quite like “Mishima”, and there may never be again. Schrader has turned the man’s life into a line of poetry written in a splash of blood. —GEC
“Do the Right Thing” (dir. Spike Lee, 1989)
It’s a sweltering summer day in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, as racial tensions bake in the sun until they burst. Anyone who knows American movies has been down this block before: The frayed brownstones, the sputtering fire hydrant, Sal’s Pizzeria and its controversial wall of Italian Americans. Da Mayor walks these blocks spouting the wisdom of a mad man, and so does Radio Raheem, with knuckles that speak to the eternal battle of love and hate. Watch the movie now and of course it feels timelier than ever — just as it did in the midst of the George Floyd protests — but before all that, watch the movie now and marvel at the sheer precision of a filmmaker capable of rooting his audience at the center of the action from start to finish.
Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” radiates with tremendous power, in part because it grounds a searing perspective on Black life and racist persecution within an immersive world. No matter the infuriating tragedy at its core, Lee turns his milieu into a lively, inviting place, centering its underlying ideas around an empathetic core — and damn good filmmaking to boot. “Do the Right Thing” is funny, romantic, and bittersweet well before that harrowing conclusion, which hits hard in part because of everyting lead up it. It’s intoxicating cinema rich with ideas and emotion that spill from the screen: Consider it a screed, a warning, and a lament, but first and foremost, it’s a timeless work of art.
The movie has become so synonymous with the energy, frustrations, and communal uprisings of modern Black struggle in America that it’s hard to imagine a world in which it doesn’t exist. Lee’s virtuoso filmmaking juggles a vast ensemble with the colorful vitality of an MGM musical and a righteous indignation on par with the great orators refenced in its credits. And it makes these arguments approachable to anyone, whether or not they bring a personal grasp of the stakes to the story from the start. The dueling quotes that close the movie, as police violence gives rise to a riot and nobody knows where to turn for consolation, pit Martin Luther King Jr.’s pacifism against Malcolm X’s argument for self-defense. Yet the true of voice of reason comes from Radio 108FM, the last on your dial but first in your hearts, and that’s the truth, Ruth: “There’s no end in sight for this heat wave so today the cash money word is chill.”
As pizza deliveryman Mookie, Lee portrays the face of innocence melting into fury found throughout much of the provocative and rewarding work that followed, from “Bamboozled” to “BlackKklansman.” Subjugation sits at the center of Lee’s oeuvre as subject and object, but it all started here, on a sweltering day that goes very wrong. America is still sorting out its lessons, but the discourse on race relations wouldn’t have gotten even this far without “Do the Right Thing” to kick it off. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” sets the stage for the movie’s passionate tone, but its poetic sense of purpose comes from the first full-fledged example of Lee’s extraordinary aesthetic. Filmmaking —and, indeed, society itself — is better because of it. —EK