Big hair.  Acid wash jeans.  A plethora of bad heavy metal and pop bands.  Fluorescent clothing. 

Ah yes, this was the 80's.

The 1980's, much like any other particular decade, had its share of ups and downs.  In was the decade when John Lennon was shot in New York.  It was the decade where the first test tube baby was born.  It was the decade where the makers of the forever tasty Coke decided to release NEW COKE, the worst idea that any major corporation had in maybe my lifetime.  It was the decade of a new greedy philosophy of "me, me me" when a generation of status seekers, through a series of corporate takeovers, buyouts and mega-mergers, became new breeds of billionaires. Tom Wolf even went as far as labeling the "baby boomers" as the "splurge generation", and rightfully so.  It was also in the 80's when the sexual revolution had its first major obstacle in the AIDS virus, and with the death of actor Rock Hudson of the disease, it was revealed to the world that anyone could get it.  We also had to suffer through the miscarriage that was Iran Contra, bare witness to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and watch several astronauts give their lives in the first of two Space Shuttle disasters.  On the lighter side, cable TV as we now know it, was truly born, especially with the advent of MTV.  VCRs gave boom to the home video industry which paved the way for the current success of the DVD format.  The video game craze peaked with the release of a simple little yellow creature that liked to eat small pellets and colorful ghosts, and who could forget the Rubik's Cube, the Smurfs, Cabbage Patch Dolls, and the rise of the "king of pop" himself?  

Oh yeah, and acid wash jeans were the craze, the most devastatingly unattractive fashion of arguably the last 30 years.

The 80's were my childhood years, so my real awakening to cinema as a respectable art form never really developed until I was older in the 90's.  Yet, some of my most memorable filmgoing experiences were from the 80's and many more of my favorite films from this decade would later be discovered as an older teenager and adult in the next decade.  The 80's clearly were not better than the 70's in terms of quality work (the advent of home video may have been the best and worst thing to happen to the medium, allowing for an increase in the prevalence cheaply made and crude popcorn entertainments), but I nevertheless offer up to you my own personal picks for what I think are the seminal works of the decade.

 

WATCH me talk about some of my picks on CTV:

 

1. RAGING BULL(1980)

 
 

Well, I've said it once (okay, maybe more than once), but director Martin Scorsese made the best film of the 70's (TAXI DRIVER), the best film of the 90's (GOODFELLAS) and he most certainly made the best film of the 80's in RAGING BULL, his unflinching and hypnotically watchable screen biography of the legendary middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta.  So much of the film rings so memorably, from its beautiful and lush black and white cinematography, to its hauntingly violent and kinetic boxing scenes (this might be the first boxing film to show the sport as the bloody and needless gladiatorial contest that it is), but the film also works amazingly for one simple reason: it's really a meditation on the inner jealousy of a man that uses boxing as a sort of sexual catharsis to release his energies.  RAGING BULL is flawless from beginning to end, and is always involving and highlighted by one of Robert De Niro's most infamous of performances.  One of the final scenes with him alone in a jail cell is one of cinema's great moments of dread and inner despair and suffering.

 
 

2. STAR WARS: EPISODE V - THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

 
 

There has been a considerable amount of buzz that the yet to be released REVENGE OF THE SITH just may, in fact, be the best of the STAR WARS films. Although I am keenly aware of that film's potential and good advance word of mouth, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK remains the very best of all of the films of George Lucas' STAR WARS saga.  It arguably is the finest sequel ever made and the best pure escapist film of the 80's.  What is completely amazing about this work is just how much it takes firmly established themes, characters, and worlds from the first STAR WARS film (A NEW HOPE - 1977) and not only greatly expands upon them, but also improves upon them.  Characters are given more depth, the drama and tension are much higher, and, most crucially, EMPIRE ends on a downer of sorts, putting the characters in places and predicaments we would have never dreamed possible after watching the first STAR WARS.  Not only that, but the scene where one character reveals his true lineage to another remains one of cinema's most iconic and memorable moments.

 
 

3. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) 

 
 

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is one of the all-time great action pictures, a loving homage to the B-grade adventure serials that creator George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg loved as children.  RAIDERS is pure cinema: fun, exciting, action packed, involving, and transcending.  Action films, as a genre, were drastically different before and after RAIDERS, and its influence can't be disputed, as it transformed the landscape, the look, and the feel of the genre.  Harrison Ford also created one of his most famous screen persons in Indiana Jones, a rugged everyman that audiences could relate to on a much more personal level than James Bond before him, and the film is full of those wonderfully realized, pulp fiction inspired cliffhanger thrills that defined this film apart from others.  The film is also as perfectly paced as any film I've seen, not to mention that it shrewdly plots its intense action scenes (watching this film puts lesser contemporary films to shame, where real internalized thrills have been replaced by breakneck and obnoxiously fast-paced MTV style editing that pungently defines the style of directors like Michael Bay).  This is a film that has not diluted in the last 24 years; it's still just as enjoyable and entertaining as ever.

 
 

4. E.T. - THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982)

 
 

If someone were to tell me say...23 years ago... that a film about a young boy that befriends an alien that is stranded on Earth would be one of the decade's most cherished classics...I would have laughed.  Alas, that is what Spielberg's E.T. - THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL accomplishes.  It tells a deceptively simple story about a child of divorce who tries to escape out of his situation by taking in and befriending an alien with all sorts of revealing powers after he is stranded by his posse and left on Earth.  E.T. works, still to this day, as one of cinema's most satisfying and emotionally charged family entertainments, and I never once, not ever, feel that I am watching a product of special effects puppetry when I see that pudgy little alien.  The character of E.T. remains as real as his human counterparts, and it's a credit to Spielberg and company that they allowed us to invest in him on the levels we do, especially during the final moments where its impossible not to cry.

 
 

5. SCARFACE (1983)

 
 

Say Hello to my little friend, indeed!  This represents director Brian De Palma's finest hour, a sprawling, three hour epic of the life of a Cuban refugee turned Miami drug kingpin.  This film is the true epitome of the "gangster" genre - hard-boiled, violent at its core, ruthlessly unpleasant and lurid, irrepressibly stylish, and, yes, enormously entertaining.  There is not a dry moment in SCARFACE, and this is largely due in part to the bravura performance by Al Pacino in the role of Tony Montana, who is a wise-cracking, foul-mouthed, and show boating mobster who takes an enormous amount of pleasure in stealing, cheating, and killing his way to the top of what he considers the American dream.  Some critics complained that his work here is grandstanding, pompous, self-indulgent, and over-the-top...which are all apt descriptions, but they are missing the notion that this is precisely the character he is playing.  Everything about the film - the cheesiness of the music and clothing, the wicked indulgences of the characters, and the larger than life portrayals - all help to feed the film's themes of excess and the desolation and depravity it leads to.  Powerful, shocking, frequently and darkly funny, and always provocative, SCARFACE remains a gangsta classic.

 
 

6. ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984)

 
 

This just may be the least appreciated work of the decade, an enormously dense and epic portrayal of fifty years of the lives of New York gangsters, all directed with the proverbial wit, style, and elegance by the late, great Sergio Leone.  This is one of those mob pictures where the passion of the participants truly show (it took nearly ten years for Leone to get this film to the silver screen).  It's an enormously gratifying work that has been seemingly ignored, and just may be the least seen of the great mob pictures.  Like THE GODFATHER, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is a completely invigorating work that transports you to another time and another place and, much like CITIZEN KANE, it tantalizes the viewers with its large leaps in narrative structure and time (you can see where modern directors like Quentin Tarantino get their style from; Leone is a personal hero of his).  But, even more so than THE GODFATHER, Leone's film's is expansive in time and place (it covers three distinct decades of a group of friends in the mob, from childhood to old age) and also is tempting as a period piece where subtle hints are dropped about the authenticity of the proceedings (are the film's events actual or dreamed?).  ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is once of the all-time great films about friendship betrayal, and regret.

 
 

7. BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (1989)

 
 

Many may notice the exclusion of Oliver Stone's 1986 Vietnam film PLATOON on this list, but I sincerely think that his BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY is a more assured, confident, and arresting portrayal of the social effects that the war had.  The film, based on the life and times of real Vietnam vet Ron Kovic, is a harrowing and exhaustive biopic about a young man being drawn into the myth of being an All-American and serving his country proud, until those naive ideals are destroyed when he comes back home from his tour of duty paralyzed and must then face a country that both respects and deplores him.  PLATOON was a personal story and loosely autobiographical account of Stone's own tour in Vietnam, but BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY is a more complete and thorough effort, an account of misplaced patriotism in an era where it was manifested in ill conceived efforts.  Tom Cruise is noteworthy here as well, as he established himself with his gritty performance as Kovic to be an actor of range and credibility, and not just a pretty face.

 
 

8. THE RIGHT STUFF (1983)

 
 

Forget about APOLLO 13, because Phillip Kaufman's THE RIGHT STUFF is still, to this day, the pre-eminent film about space exploration.  This is one of those rare biopics that does not get made anymore, one that is good-natured, ostensibly patriotic at its core, and not overly critical of its personas and their accomplishments.  This is a film that explores and celebrates the bravery of the original Mercury 7 astronauts and the personal sacrifices they made to help the US get a firm foothold in the space program.  THE RIGHT STUFF is a very detailed look at the space program from many vantage points - the exploits of the early test pilots to break the sound barrier, the development of the space program, and all the way up to the first exploration of space itself. The film deserves a place on a list of the 80's best films because of the story it tells and tells so simply and well, that of normal men that, let's face it, risked their lives to achieve what was then the impossible.

 
 

9. ROGER & ME (1989)

 
 

Long before Michael Moore became the famous, Academy Award winning documentary filmmaker that everyone loves to hate, he made a small. low budget exploration on how GM Motors slashed tens of thousands of jobs at his hometown auto factory at a time of record profits.  ROGER AND ME is an angry film, one where the voice of reason, Moore, tries desperately to meet and discuss the sheer insanity of Roger Smith's (then CEO of GM) decision to ruin the lives of thousands to make, well, just a bit more money.  ROGER AND ME may not be as inflammatory with its content as Moore's future works, but its still remains one of the more indicative films of the 80's, one that reinforces the corporate mentality of its time.  Even 16 years after its release, Moore's documentary still is a powerful work of social satire and a sad statement on the greed and fanatical consumerism that tainted the decade and hurt the country in ways we may have not otherwise have known.

 
 

10. FIELD OF DREAMS (1989)

 
 

People often completely misread FIELD OF DREAMS as a basic baseball film, which it is not.  This film is not really about baseball, but rather how the sport of baseball is a metaphor for the character's lives in the film.  Baseball occupies the film, to be sure, but this is one of the rare screen gems that actually is able to pontificate on just how the game affects its fans and the bonds that it creates in family lines.  This is an existentialist baseball film, where the game is essentially used as an emotional backdrop to deal with other more integral themes, like the regret for the loss of family ties and the redemption of a son's guilt about his father.  FIELD OF DREAMS remains as enchanting as ever, and its final two lines of dialogue still tear me up.

 
 

 

 

 
     
 

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