Appreciating 80s cinema

Every Tuesday and Thursday, Adam Kuntavanish posts and solicits (respectively) top ten lists on various cinematic topics over at Next Projection. For this week’s topic — the best male performances of the 80s — I finally took the time to assemble a list. His introductory remarks struck a chord with me, though, on a broader note:

The cinematic output of the 1980s is too often derided for its glut of sequels, special effects blockbusters, and crass commercialism brought on by the summer fare from late in the previous decade. One could easily scour the box office results of the decade and come across examples of all of these, but there was also a wide range of new and old performers on screen, some of whose work could only become prominent in retrospect with greater availability. Whether in competition with big-budget “high concepts” or showcased in the new wave of independent features from around the world, some actors were able to embody fresh, three-dimensional characters in the decade of excess and spectacle. This week we focus on the best of the men in 1980s cinema; let me know your favorites below and this upcoming Tuesday I’ll unveil my own Top Ten.

The intriguing thing is that Adam’s introduction has to take the form of an apologia at all. Sure, the 80s are famous for so-called “Reaganite” cinema, but even Reaganite cinema isn’t all bad. Some of it is pretty darn good. And then there’s the wealth of other offerings from around the world. I’ve made this point many times in various places, but I don’t think any one decade of cinema is better than another. If we’re going to draw arbitrary boundary lines around ten-year blocks and use them to gauge quality, I don’t see how we could possibly say that that a decade like the 80s is not every bit the equal of the legendary 70s or 30s. I suppose one could make the argument that the technical limitations of cinema’s earliest days render the achievements of the late 1800s and early 1900s as brilliant experiments, with the occasional masterpiece. (You could make that argument; I wouldn’t necessarily accept it.) But it seems that the 80s are synonymous with bad taste: the epitome of crass commercial culture and outre stylings. That’s just poppycock.

For example, take just one year: 1982. I choose it because it’s my birth year, and for that reason alone I’m quite fond of it. Just look at the movies, though. The following is a partial list of the films from that year that I’ve seen.

  • 48 Hrs.
  • Blade Runner
  • Conan the Barbarian
  • The Dark Crystal
  • Dragon Lord
  • E.T.-The Extraterrestrial
  • Fanny and Alexander
  • First Blood
  • Fitzcarraldo
  • Gandhi
  • Koyaanisqatsi
  • The Man from Snowy River
  • A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy
  • An Officer and a Gentleman
  • Pink Floyd-The Wall
  • Poltergeist
  • Porky’s
  • Prodigal Son
  • Sophie’s Choice
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
  • Swamp Thing
  • Tempest
  • The Thing
  • Tootsie
  • TRON
  • The Verdict
  • Victor/Victoria
  • The World According to Garp
  • The Year of Living Dangerously

I’m not a fan of each of these films, but they all have their fans, and based on those titles alone, I’d say ’82 qualifies as a pretty friggin’ good year. (Okay, okay, probably no thanks to Swamp Thing.) I’m sure that each year has a list of comparable quality. This goes for each medium, too. The assumption that the 80s were somehow creatively impoverished simply because of a few questionable hairstyles and the prominence of the keytar is completely misguided. The 80s rocked, pure and simple. I’m proud to hail from that decade.


About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

8 responses to “Appreciating 80s cinema

  • Satish Naidu

    I suppose it’s a little unfair to throw in Bergman’s film, because hey, you start accounting for world-cinema’s output for the decade, you might be convinced it’s the greatest decade for cinema ever. Until you walk into another one.
    But still, 80s will always be the decade the probably shaped my appreciation of the medium and its aesthetics. Every viewer has one decade, or a set of years, which he immediately feels at home with, and if I were to randomly dab through movie channels, chances are I might instinctively stop at one which’s airing a 80’s movie.
    That said, I’ve a 80’s feel in my mind, and it’s best represented by Mann’s Manhunter, one of my personal favorites. If 70s were washed-out yellow, then 80s were anti-septic blue.

    • mjschneider

      Heh, I never thought about the color scheme of the 80s, but that’s certainly true of Mann’s films in general. And I do like walking through the decades of cinema. Even if I’m traversing one through which I’ve already journeyed several times over, I’m always seeing something new and wonderful.

  • jubilare

    I’m 82 vintage as well, and early in the year, so my tastes were formed in that decade. I have a marked weakness for 80’s cars, and certainly some 80’s films. The 90’s have a bit more of a claim on me, as it was the time of my adolescence, but I think all decades have their share of bad taste and good work. I am completely befuddled by the return of some 80’s style clothing though…

    • mjschneider

      Hey, 80s clothing wasn’t all bad. Jean jackets are surprisingly utilitarian! I’ve seen quite a few more movies from the 90s than the 80s, and I consider that more “my” decade as well, but it seems weird to me that the general consensus is that the 90s were some kind of rebound from the awfulness of the 80s. It’s just odd, because so many crowd-pleasers that have now almost become standard works are from that decade, e.g. Ghostbusters.

  • Adam Kuntavanish

    First off, thanks for putting your choices up on my topic; as I commented on NP, I love the eclecticism on display that ignores the artificial distinctions of Hollywood/independent, commercial/art cinema, and American/rest of the world.

    That said, I simply needed a way into the topic by way of introduction, and I opted for the codified approach of empty style and ballooning budgets in the mainstream, commercial Hollywood system. Good, bad, and mediocre films come out every year, every decade (a decidedly artificial yet helpful set of demarcations), from every place, but my aptly-labeled “apologia” (I hope) started out stating the Conventional Wisdom but shifted into how good acting can still shine in that kind of seemingly explosion-based environment. I think we both agree that the 80s gets a bad rap, both for its commercial titles and when viewed as if it consisted only of its commercial titles.

    Since I can’t go past a list of movies without adding a few of my own, here are some more to look out for:
    To go with Fitzcarraldo, Les Blank’s making-of documentary Burden of Dreams;
    the surprisingly good Willie Nelson-starring Barbarosa;
    the groundbreaking Asian-American comedy Chan is Missing;
    the spiked nostalgia and great ensemble work of Diner;
    Greenaway’s icily composed The Draughtsman’s Contract;
    the delightful sex and anarchy of Eating Raoul;
    a sweet and funny moviemaking satire from Kinji Fukasaku, Fall Guy;
    featuring my second-favorite Jeremy Irons performance of the decade, Jerzy Skolimowski’s immigrant drama Moonlighting;
    the Criterionized, long unavailable late-career masterpiece from Sam Fuller, White Dog.

    If you’ve seen some of these and just didn’t list them for whatever reason, apologies, but hopefully someone reading will pick up some titles that sound cool, an all-important trait of “Reaganite” cinema!

    • mjschneider

      Don’t get me wrong: I loved your intro, and I think you were right to transition from the Conventional Wisdom to the argument for quality. But it seems sad that you need to make that apologia at all, given how many great films were made in the 80s. And I do like using decades as distinctive periods. It’s as useful as any other boundary. It’s just bothered me for a long time that the 80s are dismissed so frequently as a whole, despite the obvious love so many have for its offerings.

      I haven’t yet seen any of those films you’ve added. Barbarosa, Eating Raoul, and Fall Guy weren’t even on my radar, although I’ve at least heard of Eating Raoul. They’re all on my to watch list now, if they weren’t before!

      The big question I’ll have answered next Tuesday isn’t whether Irons will be on the list, but which film. Given your love of Cronenberg, I’d guess Dead Ringers, but you could pull a fast one and go with The Mission or The French Lieutenant’s Woman for reasons that elude me at the moment.

  • jubilare

    I didn’t say it was all bad, but some of the fashions coming back are…
    Yes, indeed. A lot of our pop/nerd culture has its roots in the 80s.

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