25 Great ’80s Movies Time Has Forgotten

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Buried among the also-rans within this week’s Blu-ray releases, past The Act of Killing and Runner Runner and (not making this one up) Big Ass Spider, you’ll find the HD debut of Tequila Sunrise, Robert Towne’s 1988 mystery/love triangle thriller starring Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Kurt Russell. It’s the kind of movie studios don’t make that much anymore — an entertaining and reasonably intelligent picture for grown-ups, done on a medium budget with the expectation of a medium return. (Nowadays, every budget is either tiny or giant.) Look, there’s not a surplus of love out there for mainstream American moviemaking in the 1980s — and for good reason, as the number of genuinely great films from that era are dwarfed by the masterpieces of the decades on either side, and the films that’ve gained iconic status have mostly done so via smirking nostalgia (since, in and of themselves, they’re mostly terrible). But there are also a handful of films from that much-maligned era that have stood the test of time, and deserve more retroactive attention than they get.

After Hours

Plenty of viewers (and even critics) seemed surprised by how very funny The Wolf of Wall Street was, since Martin Scorsese’s distinguished pedigree has vaunted him to the status of Serious Filmmaker — though his best films (Goodfellas, Mean Streets, The Departed, even Raging Bull) have flashes of humor throughout. And then there’s this 1985 mini-masterpiece, perhaps his only true “comedy,” though its laughs are wickedly dark and twisted. Griffin Dunne plays an office drone whose late-night Soho date takes several unexpected turns; Joseph Minion’s script is genuinely unpredictable, and Scorsese’s direction is witty, energetic, and paced within an inch of its life.

Angel Heart

When Angel Heart was released in spring of 1987, people who saw it were only talking about one thing: Lisa Bonet from The Cosby Show, whose supporting performance found her doing a bit of voodoo chicken-sacrifice (in the nude) and taking a bloody roll in the hay with Mickey Rourke (see previous parenthetical). The sensationalism of TV’s squeaky-clean Denise Huxtable getting down and dirty overshadowed what remains a moodily effective mash-up of neo-noir and supernatural thriller, with a scrappily off-the-cuff Rourke performance at its center and Robert De Niro entertainingly chewing the scenery in the side role of Louis Cyphre (get it?).

Bird

Clint Eastwood’s 1988 biopic of jazz legend Charlie Parker was the first film he directed but did not appear in; it was also one of his few films to lose money. As you can see from the trailer above, Warner Brothers clearly had no idea how the hell to market the story of the towering bebop genius, but Eastwood’s film is heartbreaking and richly atmospheric — a jazz pianist himself (and lifelong aficionado of the music), he evocatively captures the look, the feel, the smell of those clubs. And Forest Whitaker (who won the Best Actor award at Cannes) is masterful in the title role.

Broadway Danny Rose

Woody Allen’s run of 1980s masterpieces is so remarkable (Zelig,The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days, Crimes and Misdemeanors) that this modest laugher often gets left out of the discussion. But this is one of the finest of his all-out comedies — funnier, I would argue, then such vaunted “early, funny ones” as Bananas and Take the Money and Run — and Mia Farrow’s all-but-unrecognizable performance as a bleached-out, chain-smoking, sunglasses-clad gangster’s moll is perhaps her greatest moment onscreen.

Clean and Sober

A year before becoming Batman, Michael Keaton made his first significant stretch from the fast-talking comic persona that’d been his 1980s bread and butter with this low-key drama from director Glenn Gordon Caron (creator of TV’s Moonlighting). As a coke addict who goes into rehab to escape a bad business deal and a dead girl in his bed, Keaton curbs his comic instincts without diffusing the electricity of his earlier work — it’s a marvel of a performance, while the stellar supporting cast (including Kathy Baker, M. Emmet Walsh, and a still up-and-coming Morgan Freeman) is aces.

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

The first of Robert Altman’s many 1980s experiments at fusing the stage and the cinema (see Streamers, Secret Honor, Fool for Love), his direction in this adaptation of Ed Graczyk’s play is deliberately theatrical; he embraces the film’s origins rather than dodging him, using old-fashioned sets and traditional lighting effects. The Ingian script is all mirrors and memories, somewhat obviously constructed — everyone gets a secret, everyone gets a monologue, and the big revelation is visible a mile away. But it’s still an awfully good film. Altman’s direction is high-spirited and emotionally connected, and he coaxes wonderful performances out of his mostly female cast (including Karen Black, Sandy Dennis, Kathy Bates, and — in her first serious film role — Cher). Inexplicably never released on DVD (you can watch it on YouTube), but slated at long last for a DVD and Blu-ray release this year.

Cousins

The only thing less popular than the ‘80s trend of remaking French farces for American audiences is the collected oeuvre of Joel Schumacher (Batman and Robin, The Phantom of The Opera). Yet both elements are not only acceptable but delightful in this charming 1989 remake of Jean-Charles Tacchella’s Cousin, cousine; Schumacher nicely captures the messy likability of the story’s large, extended family, and the screenplay is coy and sweet. Most of all, Isabella Rossellini and Ted Danson, though a seemingly improbably onscreen coupling, are just plain marvelous together.

Dead Calm

One of the many unfinished projects from Orson Welles’ final years was The Deep, a film adaptation of the Charles Williams novel Dead Calm. After his death, producer/director George Miller (Mad Max) secured the rights from the legendary director’s companion Oja Kodar and turned the picture over to young director Phillip Noyce (who would go on to helm Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, The Quiet American, and more). Noyce crafted a taut, suspenseful three-hander, by turns tense and sexy, and coaxed effective performances out of stars Sam Neill, Billy Zane, and a promising newcomer named Nicole Kidman.

The Fabulous Baker Boys

It took The Big Leboswki to turn him into an icon and Crazy Heart to make him an Oscar winner, but Jeff Bridges has been quietly carving out a niche for himself as one of our finest film actors for decades, and his turn in Steve Kloves’ 1989 drama is one of his most unjustly overlooked — he gets at the temperament, disappointments, and self-loathing of the moody genius as few other actors have. What attention Baker Boys garnered at the time of its release was mostly focused on Michelle Pfeiffer, flat-out terrific as the tough-talking singer who shakes up the title act (her “Makin’ Whoopee” number is deservedly beloved).

Gloria

Fans of maverick writer/director John Cassavetes tend to dismiss this 1980 effort as some kind of a commercialized sellout — it is, after all, a studio film with stunts and shoot-outs and an overblown Bill Conti score. But in spite of being his most conventional picture, Gloria is one of his best, a gangster movie and chase picture, yes, but one embedded with the intelligence of his smaller and more personal movies. And it’s got yet another stunning performance by his off-screen partner and muse, Gena Rowlands, who packs both a pistol and a sharp tongue with equal skill, growling her hard-boiled dialogue with an abundance of moxie.

The Hit

This moody 1984 drama/thriller from Stephen Frears (who would direct My Beautiful Laundrette and Dangerous Liasons later in the decade) isn’t exactly forgotten — the Criterion Collection released it, in a striking new transfer, back in 2009. But it’s still only really known to cinephiles, which is too bad, since this smart and stylish picture really sneaks up on you. It’s a bit low-energy for a crime thriller — there are bursts of action, sure, but for most of its running time, it’s more of a character study. Director Frears and screenwriter Peter Prince never give us dialogue for dialogue’s sake; quietly, between the lines, they’re choreographing a delicate battle of wills and wits that comes to a brutal head at the picture’s conclusion. It’s a film that demands patience, but rewards it.

Hopscotch

Another Criterion release, but one that even that label’s fans tend to shrug off — it is, after all, a 1980 spy comedy starring Walter Matthau. But it’s a wonderful piece of work. Matthau is a delightfully droll secret agent man, recently punted to a desk and burning all his bridges in retaliation; he’s as funny as ever, but after his stint in serious ‘70s action movies like The Taking of Pelham 123 and Charley Varrick, he brings a genuine credibility to the character. Glenda Jackson, Matthau’s unlikely romantic opposite in House Calls, re-teams with him beautifully (they wear their romantic history like a comfy old pair of slippers), while a young Sam Waterston and a blustery Ned Beatty are first-rate foils. Ronald Neame’s direction is witty and nimble, and the globe-trotting script by Bryan Forbes and Brian Garfield (adapting his novel) is constantly clever and often uproarious.

Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling

Joe and Henry David’s new Richard Pryor biography Furious Cool, while wonderful, is weirdly dismissive of Pryor’s autobiographical 1986 drama, seizing on its occasional weaknesses and soft-soaping. But it’s still a fascinating picture, for both fans and casual admirers, in which Pryor stars, co-writes, and directs (for the first and only time), dramatizing his rise to the top, his various excesses and errors, and — most hauntingly — the famous 1980 suicide attempt that left him scarred inside and out. Daring and risky filmmaking, and hinting at a director whose talents were sadly left unexplored.

Lucas

This 1986 comedy/drama from writer/director David Seltzer was a standby on HBO, but has seemingly vanished in the subsequent years — quite possibly due to the increasingly peculiar public persona of star Corey Haim, who was here just a bespectacled lovable loser in the title role of an awkward 14-year-old who tries to become a football player to impress his dream girl. It sounds like typical ‘80s fare, but Seltzer’s uncommonly intelligent screenplay gives its characters unexpected depth, nuance, and humanity.

Murphy’s Romance

Haim again, weirdly; he plays the son of Sally Field’s single mom, who tries to start a new life in a new town, only to find her old one (in the form of her old husband) knocking on the front door. James Garner, deservedly Oscar nominated, is a sly marvel as the town druggist who quietly works his way into her heart, and director Martin Ritt (Hud, Sounder) nicely captures the rhythms and rituals of small-town life.

Pale Rider

By the mid-1980s, Clint Eastwood had just about given up the Westerns he’d made his name on for Dirty Harry movies and other, lucrative cop pictures. But in 1985, he starred and directed in Pale Rider, the story of a mysterious gunman who saves a small town from an evil miner and his henchman. Critics mostly dismissed it as Shane Lite, but Eastwood’s performance is lean and muscular, his direction brutally efficient, and in both areas, you can see the beginnings of the genre exploration and demystification that would culminate in his next oater, 1992’s Unforgiven.

Penn & Teller Get Killed

Neither critics nor audiences knew quite what to make of this pitch-black 1989 comedy written by and starring hip magicians (and future Bullshit! stars) Penn & Teller. It was, frankly, just a little too weird and meta-textual for its time, a smirking examination of fantasy, reality, cinematic conventions, and audience expectation, with one of the darkest endings in any studio-released comedy, ever. (Suffice it to say that they’re not kidding with that title.) Extra curio factor: it was the last theatrical feature by iconic director Arthur Penn, who helmed Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man, and Night Moves.

Pennies From Heaven

The big studio musicals from Hollywood’s Golden Age were always a little puzzling — in the midst of a crippling Depression, audiences couldn’t get enough of these dazzling, hyper-designed tales of escapism. Dennis Potter’s BBC miniseries, and this American film adaptation by director Herbert Ross, fused the style and the period, creating a true Depression-era musical, where the songs of the day are mimed by the actors, opening a portal into true fantasy. Steve Martin, playing it mostly straight, is a revelation in the leading role, and Bernadette Peters is terrific as usual; the film also provided our first pre-“Weapon of Choice” indication that Christopher Walken is, despite all preconceptions, one helluva hoofer.

Prince of the City

The poet laureate of New York City cop cinema, Sidney Lumet (Serpico, Q&A, Night and the City), tells the true story of an NYPD officer who goes undercover against his own colleagues to expose police corruption — to save his own neck. Sprawling and operatic in its ambition and scope, this unjustly overlooked Lumet effort is a tough, powerful look at a department (and a city) in free-fall, and the performances, particularly by star Treat Williams and the late, great Jerry Orbach, are aces.

Star 80

Bob Fosse’s final film is no easy sit — it’s the true story of Dorothy Stratten, the Playboy Playmate and actress who was brutally murdered by her ex-husband Paul Snider, who then turned the gun on himself. Fosse’s dramatization of the tale is mercilessly grim, but it’s also an unnerving and powerful commentary on celebrity and exploitation. Mariel Hemingway is startlingly good as Stratten, while Eric Roberts (who, yes, was a good actor once upon a time) is unforgettable as her sociopathic ex.

Sweet Liberty

Alan Alda did his best to transform himself into Woody Allen in his post-M*A*S*H years, writing, directing, and starring in several comedies (The Four Seasons, A New Life, Betsy’s Wedding) that were pleasant enough, but ultimately forgettable. But Sweet Liberty is a sharp little comedy (surprisingly so if you watch its vanilla trailer, above), with Alda anchoring a sturdy ensemble cast, including a wickedly funny Michael Caine and Michelle Pfeiffer as a fetchingly unpredictable actress.

Talk Radio

Between the controversial, high-profile Wall Street and Born on the Fourth of July, Oliver Stone knocked out this low-budget big-screen adaptation of Eric Bogosian’s play, which Stone then fused with the true story of slain Denver talk-show host Alan Berg. Stone seems the revel in the opportunity to work on this smaller scale, seizing in on the claustrophobia of the play’s radio studio set and squeezing it like a vice, while Bogosian’s inspired performance is intensely theatrical and bracingly brilliant. Watch out for young Alec Baldwin and John C. McGinley in supporting roles, as well as a post-Little Shop Ellen Greene.

They All Laughed

This one makes for a rather tragic double bill with Star 80, since co-star Dorothy Stratten had completed filming this 1981 film for director (and new boyfriend) Peter Bogdanovich when she was murdered. That tragedy scared off studios, and Bogdanovich ended up distributing it himself, taking a huge financial hit. That’s an awful lot of sturm und drang for a lightweight screwball comedy riff like this one, but separated from that story, They All Laughed plays beautifully; it’s a sweet little charmer (one of Quentin Tarantino’s all-time favorite films, oddly enough), and includes, among its many virtues, the final feature starring role by Audrey Hepburn.

True Stories

After the unexpected success of Stop Making Sense, the folks at Warner Brothers gave Talking Heads frontman David Byrne the opportunity to make whatever film he’d like, and he wound up directing, co-writing (with Crimes of the Heart playwright Beth Henley and character actor Stephen Tobolowsky), and starring in this sweet, strange, episodic story of a Texas town’s Sesquicentennial celebration. Equal parts Errol Morris, David Lynch, and MTV, True Stories has a sprung sense of humor, a bizarre style all its own, and a wonderful leading performance by a pre-Roseanne John Goodman as Louis “The Dancing Bear” Fyne, a lovable everyman who only wants to marry.

Under Fire

His subsequent success ultimately brought Oliver Stone’s 1986 film Salvador the acclaim it deserved, but audiences still haven’t stumbled upon the decade’s other harrowing film about American photojournalists in Central America. Roger Spottiswoode’s 1983 drama (co-written by future Bull Durham scribe Ron Shelton) has an improvisational spirit and anything-goes electricity, thanks in no small part to the livewire leading turn by Nick Nolte (in his pre-caricature days) and Gene Hackman, who was in every third ‘80s movies and great in each of them.