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The Top Ten Films of the 1980s

Filmmaking in the 1980s, more than ever before, seemed to reflect a fatalist mindset in America. We were doomed; hemmed-in by the very institutions we depended on. Some of the films we chose to represent the ’80s work as escapism but, seeing as us critics tend towards cynicism, the majority of our picks were birthed from a deranged, hellish zeitgeist devoid of sentimentality and raging for some sense of clarity in Reagan’s new America. These were the early days of Cronenberg, Lynch, Errol Morris, Michael Moore, and the Coen brothers: All artists who saw (and still do) that their culture hoped for the best, but couldn’t be bothered to actualize it.

1. Blue Velvet: When Blue Velvet was released, it was clear that the gloves had come off. The films that had preceded it and influenced David Lynch — from detective stories to teen comedies — suddenly felt distanced and careful in retrospect. Indeed, no femme fatale before had seemed as beaten and sullied the way Isabella Rossellini’s Dorothy Vallens was, and no villain was as ferocious and sublimely creepy as Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth. And all along, Kyle McLachlan’s Jeffrey Beaumont played Curious George with a decaying, severed ear. In Lynch’s zombie-Rockwell view of America, there was something dark and degrading under the manicured suburban lawn, and he was out to find it. Guy Maddin once referred to Lynch’s milestone as ‘the last real earthquake to hit cinema.’ We are left to ponder both when and by what force the tectonic plates will shake free once more. CC

2. Raging Bull – Someone once said that the best boxing movies are about the losers, and no celluloid pugilist has lost more than Robert De Niro’s Jake La Motta in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Best known for his ability to absorb excruciating amounts of punishment, La Motta provided Sugar Ray Robinson with his only true rival and briefly held the world championship before watching it all slip away. For De Niro and Scorsese, it was a chance to study the American male and expertly mine the mercurial concept of machismo, given its own special passion play within the film when La Motta suspects his brother of sleeping with his wife. An unrelenting and intense emotional journey, the director embraced both pathos and immense fury while painting the tragedy of La Motta, whose most prized qualities in the ring ended up destroying everything he held dear. RV

3. Do the Right Thing – Spike Lee’s complex and layered masterpiece Do the Right Thing remains cinema’s boldest, most powerful statement on race relations in America, 20 years after its release. Expectedly embellished yet thematically sincere, Lee’s film is painted in broad, angry strokes to depict a world on the brink of complete social collapse, combined under a canopy of grand formalism. The characters, all richly heightened constructions of society’s racial pillars, are at once funny, controversial, and heartbreaking, spanning the divide between seemingly lovable and overtly hateful. What Lee so urgently exposes is how our want or need to be liked weighs on this struggle. We would all like to do the right thing, but it is increasingly difficult to discern what the right thing is. Our fearful confusion morphs into blind hate, and our hate boils over into violence, as it does in the film’s thundering climax. Lee doesn’t offer a clear answer for any character in the end, for to have one would mean that an end was visible. JMac

4. Wings of Desire – All religious beliefs are a mixture of philosophy and superstition, but few superstitions are sillier than the belief in angels. Wim Wenders’ dreamlike Wings of Desire (disastrously remade into City of Angels) confronts some of the logical problems of personal deities: Do they make things happen or only watch things happen? How could they sort through the myriad thoughts and purposes of real people, with our inseparable good and bad motives? And what would be the meaning of an afterlife which lacks the essential conflicts of real life — love, struggle, pain? Arguably too ‘Euro’ in its inattention to plot and action, Wings of Desire is nonetheless a haunting contemplation of the mortal and eternal. DB

5. Hannah and Her Sisters Hannah and Her Sisters is the ne plus ultra of Woody Allen’s career; an eloquent menagerie of every theme, neurosis, and joke in his arsenal. The eternal Manhattanite stops in SoHo, where Barbara Hershey is sick of her aging boyfriend (Max von Sydow); the Upper West Side, where kindhearted Mia Farrow has no idea husband Michael Caine (in an Oscar-winning performance) has the hots for her sister; and all around the city, where scatterbrained Dianne Wiest (another Oscar winner) nearly implodes. In the end, though, it’s Allen’s own Mickey who finds some semblance of the meaning of life, naturally enough, in a movie theater, spellbound by Duck Soup. ‘Jeez, I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I’m never gonna get, and just enjoy it while it lasts.’ says Mickey, a statement from a film that in itself summarizes Allen’s world better than a dozen of his lesser works. DW

6. Ran – Lord Hidetora divides his kingdom among his three sons, and intends for them to rule as an unbreakable united front. His youngest son warns that the lust for power will corrupt indefinitely and, for his dissent, is banished just before being proven right. Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, based
partially on King Lear, holds true to Shakespeare’s most crucial observations on the naiveté of wisdom, greed, and hubris. Kurosawa made Ran at age 75, long after what was thought his salad days and at a point when he was essentially an outcast in his own country. The film took over a decade to come to fruition but in this film Kurosawa, who must have seen a little of himself in Hidetora, has rarely been more powerful, crafting images and themes that are among the most powerful in all of cinema. JMac

7. Blade Runner – Having survived uncountable re-edits over the years, Blade Runner remains a richly stylized sci-fi rarity that imagines our future as culturally compromised rather than overtly conceptualized. Through the steamy fog of L.A. flies detective Rick Deckard in his hovercraft, tasked with hunting down and destroying a pack of homicidal humanoid replicants. Into the mix comes the beautiful Rachel, an experimental replicant who is just nearly human. But what does it really mean to be human, anyway? Adapting Philip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep?’ director Ridley Scott and his world-class creative team manage to create a future that, scarily enough, is starting to look like the present. At the sight of huge LCD screens on the sides of buildings (or perhaps a Lady Gaga video), you no longer think of Blade Runner as a forecast but as the stormy present. DW

8. This is Spinal Tap – If Wall Street holds a mirror up to the ridiculousness of 1980s financial excess, Spinal Tap does the same for its heavy metal mayhem — performed and written with such acute wit and startling nuance, you’d think you were watching an actual band. And yet, there is a gentleness and understanding afforded to this (initially) fictional band by the director, cast, and writers, making the film oddly melancholic. Director Rob Reiner provides a light directorial touch and allows the performers to loosen up the material with bravura results. Living on at midnight screenings and endless references to ‘But this goes to 11,’ Tap remains a comedy classic and continues to breed numerous (unworthy) imitators and broaden its enormous glut of ardent fans. NS

9. The King of Comedy – To be a celebrity is to have your entire existence turned into drama packaged for popular consumption. The cynical (not unfounded) extension of this idea is that popular filmmaking takes that drama and makes it easy to swallow, but this is not the case of Martin Scorsese’s unsettling dark comedy The King of Comedy. At center is Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro in a sensationally loony performance), a messenger and wannabe stand-up comedian who kidnaps talk-show host Jerry Langford (a brilliant Jerry Lewis) in the hopes of securing a spot on his show. The drive for recognition in Scorsese can be felt just as strong as the uneasy self-reflexivity of Lewis’ performance, but The King of Comedy is most frightening and bravely perverse in its prognosticating of a culture where everyone is the celebrity host of their own psyche. CC

10. Raiders of the Lost Ark – There are better movies than Raiders of the Lost Ark. There are more important movies, there are more profound movies, and there are movies which stretch the boundaries of the medium in far more creative ways. But on some level, if you don’t love Raiders, you have no business loving all those ‘important’ movies which supposedly surpass it. It represents the purest distillation of popcorn fun, complete with a hero for the ages, a heroine who throws better punches than he, and a gaggle of the most fiendish Nazis this side of Laurence Olivier. But its most essential element is the bracing dose of humanity director Steven Spielberg and star Harrison Ford give Indy: No matter how many scrapes he miraculously escapes, you still feel like he just can’t catch a break. RV

Honorable Mentions (Alphabetically):
Back to the Future
Blood Simple
Brazil
Ghostbusters
The Right Stuff
Roger & Me
The Shining
Something Wild
The Thin Blue Line
Tootsie

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