Parachute pants, giant boomboxes, breakdancing, the Fat Boys, and even (in a sequence after my own heart) Casey Kasem’s “long distance dedication”: yes, the ‘80s live on, or at least they do in the new comedy Ping Pong Summer, out today in limited release. It’s the latest entry in the cinematic ‘80s nostalgia movement — a bit of an ironic idea, since those of us who lived through the decade recall that there weren’t that many great movies being made then. But there have been some awfully good ones set then, and with that we dust off our Trapper Keepers and Rubik’s Cubes and select the very best post-’80s ‘80s movies.
Wet Hot American Summer
The State’s David Wain and Michael Showalter gloriously send up the semi-obscure subgenre of horny ‘80s summer camp comedies (Meatballs, Little Darlings, Oddballs, Poison Ivy) with the help of a remarkable cast of then-current (Janeane Garafalo, David Hyde Pierce, Molly Shannon, Paul Rudd) and future (Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks) stars. So keep an eye out for drowning kids and talking vegetable cans, and you’ll make it to the end of the summer in one piece (except for a few campers who are lepers).
The Wedding Singer
This charming little rom-com dates all the way back to 1998, a time when Adam Sandler and his crew bothered to make comedies with actual “jokes” and “laughs.” It was also fairly early to the ‘80s nostalgia game, with the expected Flock of Seagulls haircuts, wacky soundtrack cues, and joke props (how about Glenn’s DeLorean?). And while some of the references are a little off (the film is set in 1985, so the chances that someone would be watching the 1980 “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of Dallas are pretty slim), it’s got a real affection for the era. Plus, this is the best work Billy Idol had done since, oh, 1987.
Greg Mottola’s utterly charming 2009 coming-of-age comedy/drama is set in a Pennsylvania amusement park in 1987, so you know what that means: “Rock Me, Amadeus.” Lots and lots of “Rock Me, Amadeus.” However, there is a plus: unlike the actual experience of being alive in 1987, after 107 minutes, you don’t have to hear “Rock Me, Amadeus” anymore.
The House of the Devil
Ti West’s masterful 2009 horror film isn’t just set in the 1980s — it looks like it was made in the 1980s, and then locked away in a vault somewhere for 20-plus years. West not only masters the grainy aesthetics of low-budget ‘80s horror (the look, the compositions, the score); he gets the feel of the era right as well, remembering a time when babysitters filled our newly opened multiplexes and Satanists were supposedly lurking in every attic. The result is a delicious throwback that’s also scary as hell.
One of the most controversial books of the era, Bret Easton Ellis’ original novel was condemned in many circles as vile, misogynistic, and disturbing. So how (or, even, why) could it become a motion picture? After several false starts, the film’s producers ultimately hit on a masterstroke: they hired feminist director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) and co-writer Guinevere Turner (Go Fish), who transformed Ellis’ book into a sleek and (sometime literally) cutting satire of ‘80s materialism and masculinity. D’you like Huey Lewis and the News?
The great Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father) directed this 2002 drama, penning the script with his daughters Naomi and Kirsten, and telling the slightly fictionalized version of their arrival in New York in 1982. Sheridan didn’t have the budget to recreate the Big Apple of the era, so he instead merges the past and present. Some critics complained about the anachronisms, but within the confines of the modest memory film, it works — serving to emphasize that both NYC and the ‘80s are a state of mind.
A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
Dito Montiel wrote and directed this 2006 adaptation of his 2001 memoir, a coming-of-age story set on the streets of Astoria, New York in 1986. Shia LaBeouf is surprisingly effective as Montiel’s teenage avatar, while Channing Tatum’s sturdy performance was our first indication that he was more than just a pretty face and killer neck. The romance between LaBeouf and the wonderful Melonie Diaz nicely captures the flush of first love, while the present-day sequence between their adult counterparts (played beautifully by Robert Downey Jr. and Rosario Dawson) is absolutely lovely. A moving, evocative, underrated picture.
Cold in July
Jim Mickle’s terrific, neo-noir action/mystery (still rolling out in limited release) is set in 1989, and wears its ‘80s influences as proudly as star Michael C. Hall’s mullet: the synth-heavy music reminiscent of John Carpenter’s thrillers, a rough style akin to late Sam Peckinpah, the bare-knuckle masculinity of Road House. But what begins as an affectionate homage morphs into something altogether unique — a revenge thriller of horror and sadness, as entertaining as it is unnerving.
Both Martin Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece and its spiritual successor, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 breakthrough film, treat the ‘80s in a similar fashion: as the decade when the fun stopped, when the good times and golden nostalgic glow gave way to a bleary-eyed, coke-fueled waking nightmare. Before the turn of the decade, it’s all warmth and family and cheery excess, but when the ‘80s hit (in Boogie Nights’ case, at the precise moment when the ‘80s hit), the party’s over. It’s hard to pick a more indelible image for the new decade: a runny-nosed Ray Liotta slamming on his brakes in the midst of the worst day of his life, or a hauntingly smiling William H. Macy putting a gun to his head at the end of his. Happy 1980s, everybody!