Welcome to Part 3 of a 5-part, decade-wise exploration of the finest English language cinema. So far, we’ve done the 60’s and the 70’s. This, and the following lists, look not just at the most acclaimed films of the decade, but the ones with the most impactful cultural footprint. We hope you enjoy the show, and go back to your classic DVDs with a smile on your face.
Bring on the big hair.
MTV. Pac-Man. India winning the cricket World Cup. The fall of the Berlin Wall. Aviator sunglasses. Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Protests in Tiananmen Square. Bananarama. Rubik’s Cube. The assassination of Indira Gandhi. Duran Duran. He-Man and the Masters Of The Universe. Madonna. The Chernobyl disaster. Jane Fonda workout videos. Live Aid. Oprah Winfrey. The famine in Ethiopia. Iron Maiden. Prince. Miami Vice. Boom boxes. Alan Moore’s Watchmen. The assassination of John Lennon. Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.
It was indeed a decade of mayhem. The largest period for global population growth in history, the 80s gave us disasters of both fashionable and fatal kind. Caricaturists rejoiced as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher led their countries, while popular culture became pop-er than ever as synthesisers and music videos turned everything we saw and heard into bright and colourful plastic.
In film, the blockbuster era only grew stronger, and successful sequels minted money. The extreme popularity of home video allowed films to tap into cult audiences more easily. Action movies grew into a niche of their own, and critically acclaimed directors got their hands dirty with horror. Teen movies and fantasy films all flourished, as filmmakers tried to bend the censor’s rules and squeeze in as much explicit sex and violence as they possibly could.
In many ways a transitional phase for English cinema, the 80s is a deceptively tricky decade to filter into a list so tiny simply because it saw the birth of several genres and yet, not enough standout masterpieces. In many ways, it was a decade that laid the ground for better-crafted film — while also being a period that created the most popular and enduring cinema.
Without further ado, here’s a chronologically presented top ten. And it’s one crazy, mixed up bunch.
Release Date: 14 November 1980
Director: Martin Scorsese
Scorsese’s masterpiece is a constantly spellbinding film, right from the opening credits. As Pietro Mascagni’s immeasurably sad Cavalleria Rusticana intermezzo plays over the greyness of it all, a boxer — still in his pre-fight silk robe, the prizefighter robe — is glimpsed leaping onto his toes. Nimbly he dodges and weaves, feints and leans in — all by himself in an empty ring, as the tragic music approaches an epic quality, and the magnificently self-assured camera, doesn’t move a millimeter.
That first distant look at Robert De Niro’s take on Jake La Motta comes from the perspective of a standing front-row fan, an astonished commentator rising to his feet or even the glovesman’s manager; whoever be watching, like us, is frozen to the spot in awe — we are aware of something very special unfolding in front of us.
The legendary facts behind the making — that De Niro pushed a convalescing Marty to make the film, the director later crediting that for bringing him back to life; that the actor put on 60 pounds and trained as a boxer, winning matches in Brooklyn; that Bob and Joe Pesci, playing brothers, lived and trained together and became great friends forever; that Scorsese and De Niro overhauled the entire script in two weeks — would normally be enough to overshadow the movie itself, but then the movie is Raging Bull. And nothing about it is normal.
A fascinating black and white biopic about a faded boxer’s life flickering alive in flashback — and home movies, seen in grainy colour — this is one of the most rousing, compelling and subtly crafted character studies seen in American cinema. It is a modern masterpiece in every way, and one that established De Niro as the finest English-language actor of his generation.
Every scene is crafted to perfection, every line nuanced. Which is why, in this lovely bit involving Jake snapping over a potentially overcooked steak — discord obviously arising from fidelity issues more than a piece of beef — we are wowed when he, between bites, tosses in the abruptly articulate line that overcooking ‘defeats its own purpose.’ Click here for video.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Release Date: 11 June 1982
Director: Steven Spielberg
On first look, marketing executives at a candy manufacturing firm thought the alien nicknamed ET in Spielberg’s film was so ugly — the filmmakers called it a combination of the faces of Albert Einstein, Carl Sandburg and Ernest Hemingway — that they refused to have their M&M candies used in the film. Ironic, really: you’d expect a company called Mars Inc to show more empathy towards alien lifeforms.
Hersheys siezed the chance, ET picking up Reese’s Pieces following a Hansel-and-Gretel like trail of candy. For Hersheys, it led straight to the bank as Reese’s sales skyrocketed several times over — because Spielberg’s film quickly outdid Star Wars to become the biggest blockbuster in the history of cinema.
Based on Spielberg’s relationship with an imaginary friend he made up after his parents’ divorce — and bearing an uncanny similarity to a Satyajit Ray treatment called The Alien doing the rounds in Hollywood for several years before this film was made — ET is the moving story of a young boy befriending an unsightly alien, and remains one of the finest examples of movie magic.
So much so that Richard Attenborough, whose Gandhi bested ET for the Best Picture award at the Oscars, recently went on record to say that Spielberg’s film was a far greater achievement than his own biopic, calling it ‘an infinitely more creative and fundamental piece of cinema.’ Indeed.
Over the years, the film has come to represent all kinds of moral and spiritual allegories, but nothing can quite express the unadulterated wonderment you feel as a child the first time you watch this movie, and especially this particular iconic scene: Click here for video.
The Big Chill
Release Date: 28 September 1983
Director: Lawrence Kasdan
It opens with a funeral. We are told Alex is dead, and while we never quite see Kevin Costner playing him, the rest of the stellar ensemble cast looks heartbreakingly plunged in gloom. Glenn Close, William Hurt and the others sit in church, inconsolably sad as the offscreen priest details the funeral arrangements, and JoBeth Williams solemnly moves to the piano to play one of the late Alex’s favourite songs. Without warning, she invokes the Rolling Stones with a couple of immediately unmistakable keyboard notes, making the others grin. Big, sad, unstoppable grins. Goose-pimpling never comes this automatic.
As the coffin is wheeled out and Jagger’s voice cuts through to a defiant background score, his song sounding more melancholy than ever, the friends meet and hurry to their cars. And the vividly varying sets of headlights show exactly why this is one of the finest soundtrack choices of all time: You Can’t Always Get What You Want.
An exceptional film about generational angst, The Big Chill is about a group of 60s idealists — beatniks, treehuggers, radicals — finding themselves cocooned in the complacent safety on the 80s. Radical journalist Jeff Goldblum now writes for People; frontline protester Tom Berenger now stars in a primetime TV series. More than that, however, the film is about disillusionment to a frighteningly nihilistic extent, eventually emerging heartbreaking and life-affirming all at once.
The humour is warm, yet savage. In an early scene, Mary Kay Place tells William Hurt that the last time she spoke to Alex, they had a fight and she yelled at him. ‘That’s probably why he killed himself,’ Hurt half-smirks, and the film cuts away for a couple of seconds before he asks what the argument was about. ‘I told him he was wasting his life,’ says Meg.
It’s one of the finest films about friendship, and despite the potentially dismal subject matter, contains more smiles than sighs. It is, after all, about how death of a friend brings about an immensely cathartic reunion for all his closest friends. Every bit of the cast is incredible, and just to give you a glimpse of that awesome Stones song at full healing force, here’s the opening scene: Click here for video, and watch out for Jeff Goldblum’s lips twisting into a wicked grin.
This is Spinal Tap
Release Date: 2 March 1984
Director: Rob Reiner
As films about music go, on a scale of 1-10, this one’s the eleven.
A groundbreaking mockumentary detailing the exploits and hubris of fictional rock band Spinal Tap, this is a constantly referential and ridiculously funny film about a group of musicians taking themselves too seriously, alluding to all and leaving no stone sacred.
Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer play the unchanged line-up, the Americans lampooning the British accent with uncanny accuracy, with tongue always in cheek. Rock and roll’s most hallowed cliches, from drummers dying of spontaneous combustion to a Yoko/Linda like girlfriend leading to a split in the band, are explored with affectionate genius, and the results are incredible.
Ad-libbing almost throughout, the actors and director Reiner (here playing documentary maker Marty Di Bergi, who introduces himself as a filmmaker who makes a lot of commercials) come up with imminently quotable gold throughout the film, not to mention the hilarious songs that are ironically often better than the many genres they massacre.
Rockers down the ages have expressed both outrage and great grief at the film, seeing themselves reflected in this pretention-bashing project.
For example, an incredible bit of coincidence saw Black Sabbath once straddled with oversized Stonehenge props for a tour after they gave set measurements in feet which were built using metres. Spinal Tap, in its own inimitable style, didn’t just do a very similar thing funnier and more memorably, but they did it earlier. Ha. Click here for that video, and go buy the DVD.
Such a fine line between stupid and clever, and you got to hand it to Tap for gliding along that tightrope — even with armadillos in their trousers.
Once Upon A Time In America
Release Date: 1 June 1984
Director: Sergio Leone
Leone, obsessed with Harry Goldberg’s autobiographical novel The Hoods since well before The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, spent several years trying to find the author and secure the book’s rights. Paramount Pictures, in the interim, offered the great director the chance to adapt Mario Puzo’s bestseller, but he balked at the thought — only to eventually cringe as American critics reverently yet foolishly referred to this classic as ‘the Jewish Godfather.’
What sets this masterwork apart from other crime cinema is the extreme detailing: gangster shootouts are recreated from press photographs, characters are direct parallels of real-life mobsters, and period visuals are based on artists like Norman Rockwell while the protagonist Noodles, played by Robert De Niro, was influenced by F Scott Fitzgerald novel The Great Gatsby.
It is a film impossible to not be awed by, and the running time of 229 minutes only justifies its epic tag. De Niro is surrounded by a brilliant cast, with Joe Pesci, James Woods and William Forsythe handing in performances of a lifetime.
Oh, and there’s a very young Jennifer Connelly as well. In this wonderfully tender scene, she reads to the adolescent Noodles: poetry that gushes about him only to be frequently interrupted by biting scorn. Click here for video.
Release Date: 19 September 1984
Director: Milos Forman
The narrative is almost like a particularly pulpy piece of fiction. A man in a sanitarium confesses about his misdeeds, and it is a story of wild mayhem and jealousy, the story of how this man was blinded by self-righteousness and rage against a more naturally gifted contemporary. But blinded enough to kill him, as he claims?
The man telling the story is Antonio Salieri, and he is speaking of having killed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and while the story is an extremely fictionalised tale based only very loosely on fact, Forman sets the film in Prague and endows it with such compelling magnificence that we can’t take our eyes off the screen — while Mozart naturally ensures that our ears belong to him.
A subtly fascinating character study, Amadeus recounts how Salieri, who believes in his musical talent as a blessing from God earned through staunch reverence, is scandalised by the oafish, debauched and unashamedly salacious Mozart. Unable to comprehend that the wild youth is more talented than himself, Salieri finds his belief system — and his musical reputation — in tatters, and sets out to salvage his life any way he possibly can.
It is a sordid tale of intrigue, and yet Milos Forman plays up the humour and the colours, the magic and the brilliance of the Maestro’s music complemented by a tale with an essentially upbeat heart. Mozart’s high-pitched laughter before the end-credits even signals that the entire narrative, for the spirited genius composer, is but an in-joke.
F Murray Abraham plays a spectacular Salieri, and is deftly complemented by Tom Hulce, playing the part with a face and manner resembling present-day superstar Robert Downey Jr. And while Salieri’s machinations are sinister and eventually thwarted, this film achieves greatness only because it explores his point of view.
Consumed by a vile jealousy, Salieri even goes to an ill Mozart dressed in his father’s mask to get the sickly composer to craft a requiem — a requiem Salieri plans to use as his own for Mozart’s death. It is a chilling plan, and the scenes of its execution, and of Old Salieri’s recounting of the narrative, show just why this film is considered a classic: Click here for video.
Release Date: 18 January 1985
Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen
‘In films, murders are always very clean,’ once said Alfred Hitchcock. ‘I show how difficult it is, and what a messy thing it is, to kill a man.’
Equally convinced that blood was a harder stain to remove than burgundy, two young directors from Minneapolis made their feature film debut trying to show just how horribly accurate Hitch was.
Deceptively straightforward at the outset, Blood Simple is a wonderfully gripping noir woven around basic human themes like infidelity and a paycheck, but the Coen brothers are masters at detail, and bestow this modest little film with masterfully intricate plotting as well as a banality that borders on the brutal.
The film’s macabre starkness is best expressed in this one scene, where a flustered Dan Hedaya offers private detective M Emmet Walsh $10,000 to kill a man. The matter-of-fact ruminations take place in a car so silent you can feel the actors’ sweat, Walsh comparing that sum with what he think is a Russian’s wage. It’s an incredible, musicless scene, and giving more away about the film would be just criminal. Click here for video.
Release Date: 18 December 1985
Director: Terry Gilliam
Satire could only be this magnificently surreal with a Monty Python man at the helm.
Terry Gilliam’s frightening yet freakishly funny science-fiction film takes dystopia to new visual heights, its authoritarian, omniscient government regulated through a vast network of ducts — and it is control of the ducts, obvious or subversive, that shifts the flow of information: and hence the flow of power itself. A Kafkaesque nightmare, but by golly it’s pretty.
Jonathan Pryce stars as Sam Lowry, a mediocre, clerkish man working in an appallingly bleak government job, his godawful routine salvaged only by a vague recurring dream he has involving a beautiful woman he has never seen in real life. The world he lives in, however, depends on toeing the line to a T, and when he falls erratically in love, he upsets the entire bloody apple cart.
Originally titled 1984 1/2 — as Gilliam’s nod to George Orwell’s iconic book and Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 — Gilliam’s film finds its title in a chimerical song from 1939, in the fact that a simple melody about Brazil, sung in a whole different tongue, can be evocative enough to a stranger to transport him to that land.
In a landmark scene, Lowry’s first day at work at the Ministry of Information Retrieval sees him perplexed as the receptionist knows exactly who he is. It is Information Retrieval, after all. Sam heads up in an off-kilter lift that drops him lopsidedly onto an unpeopled floor, a nondescript sea of grey. Soon, like a piranha infestation, a crew of fast-moving executives pass through and Lowry attaches himself irrevocably to the head of the phalanx to meet his new boss, one making four decisions a sentence while greeting Sam, never breaking stride.
Until he stops at Sam’s door, revealing an office no bigger than a broom closet. It’s a super scene, getting the audience level with Sam’s utter haplessness: Click here for video.
Release Date: 1986
Director: David Lynch
Lip-syncing never seemed the same again, not after Dean Stockwell caressed a lamp like a microphone and crooned along to Roy Orbison’s In Dreams, as Dennis Hopper first sang along, thoughtfully, before the song made him implode with anger. A harmless diversion the music wasn’t, as curious Kyle MacLachlan soon learnt when he was dragged to a lumber yard and thrashed to the overture of the same song.
The noir genre itself, as a matter of fact, had never seen something quite as twisted and graphic as Blue Velvet — and yet Lynch’s film is a visually sensual, superbly crafted experience. It’s as beautiful as it is scary, as polished as it is visceral.
The film is the story of a young boy who finds a human ear on his way home from college. His imminent investigation plunges him into an inexplicable world of romance, sadomasochism, violence and intrigue. And while the film frequently makes you wince in horror, it’s impossible to look away.
Isabella Rossellini and Hopper show off performances of a lifetime, playing characters of trauma and violence, while Laura Dern and MacLachlan are ideally cast as the young twosome inadvertently caught up in the seamy shadows.
Here, just to give you a glimpse of the tantalisingly twisted tone of the film named after the Bobby Vinton song, is the scene with Dean Stockwell, one where Dennis Hopper suddenly loses his cool and turns off the music. Amazing. Click here for video.
A Fish Called Wanda
Release Date: 15 July 1988
Directors: Charles Crighton, John Cleese
The word uproarious is used loosely when it comes to describing comedies, but in Wanda’s case, it barely manages to convey the hysteria. Not just is the film a perfectly and intricately plotted film about a jewel robbery, but armed to the teeth with brilliant dialogue and absurdist humour, it also superbly caricatures the cultural differences on either side of the Atlantic pond.
The humour is often shocking, even bordering on offensive — but all in a way that just underscores our modern-day overreliance on political-correctness and our inability to comprehend humour arising from different cultures. The film is written and co-directed by John Cleese and stars — alongside Jamie Lee Curtis and a marvellous Kevin Kline — his fellow Monty Python alumnus Michael Palin, and really is the only film that deserves to be called a fitting follow-up to that loony legacy.
Cleese dons Cary Grant’s real name and stars as Archie Leach, a woebegone British barrister utterly besotted by Jamie Lee Curtis’ touristy American law student Wanda, who actually happens to be a con-artist trying to seduce him for her own heist-related ends. All this while her feckless partner in crime Otto, played by Kevin Kline, stands by trying vainly to control his jealousy and willing to explode if anyone accidentally calls him stupid. And then there’s poor Michael Palin, who hates him but can only probably get as far as saying ‘st.’
The crown jewel of the caper-comedy genre, A Fish Called Wanda has everything from subversion to the single funniest torture scene in history, not to mention some of the most quotable lines in British comic history. And for all of you who wondered why on earth one should learn a foreign language, pray check out just how Curtis responds to them: Click here for video.
What made the Eighties a particularly hard decade to pick from was the fact that there aren’t flat out arthouse masterpieces littering the landscape. Unlike the 60s and 70s when we saw American filmmakers at their most experimental, the 80s was a largely populist decade for English-language cinema, the format struggling to find success with home video while filling theatres at the same time.
I’ve left out some absolute favourites — Kiss Of The Spider Woman, The Shining, Miller’s Crossing, The Verdict, Chariots Of Fire, Tootsie, Terms Of Endearment, Blade Runner and Aliens — which are all individually worthy but eventually fell short of the cut. Leaving out The Princess Bride still hurts.
What do you think of the 80s cinema? What have I missed and what do you think deserved to be lauded? Scribble up your own top ten and fill me in.
That’s it for now. Coming soon to a webpage near you: The 90s.
Originally published Rediff, October 23, 2008.