The 20 Best 80s Movies That Time Forgot
[NOTE: This article was updated and re-posted with five new picks.]
So you love the 80s? I suppose that sentiment never left (when it comes to movies), but it’s come back in a big way thanks to Netflix’s 1980s self-aware sci-fi series, Stranger Things, which of course is ramping up for more references in Season 2, this October. That series references many films from the 80s, and obsessives have compiled all the references. From its Evil Dead poster on the wall, to its Stand by Me band of friends on a quest to find a body (this one alive) and the musical score that would fit easily into a John Carpenter film. And beyond.
There are many more references, but those have been detailed all over the Internet. Many of the referenced films are indeed classics and deserve to get Valentines from modern filmmakers (though, for me, Stranger Things is less a love letter and more of a late night text barrage). However, we’re beginning to look at 1980s cinema with blinders on, only referencing certain directors and certain films. If the 70s were a decade under the influence, then the 80s are a decade of our current influences. From major political commentary to major action films, to envelope-pushing horror and exploitation films—with many midsummer sex comedies and sci-fi spectacles thrown in—it’s a great decade to mine from. Let’s just not lose focus of some films that haven’t been getting a lot of nostalgic shine lately.
If the films of Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, Rob Reiner and Ridley Scott and Tony Scott are the shinier things, then these 20 films are the less showier things. The great 80s movies that time forgot.
I feel an eye roll coming for that title, but the method for making the final list was first created by coming up with magnificent films that aren’t mentioned with great frequency and/or haven’t received the Criterion treatment or a big splashy rerelease recently. And then that list was whittled down to only include films that have received less than 10,000 ratings on IMDb. For what better barometer do we have of what’s becoming forgotten than stagnant database pages? (For the interested, I trimmed a few titles that were north of that barrier, such as The Changeling, Jonathan Demme‘s Married to the Mob, Brian De Palma’s Body Double and surprisingly, the psychosexual terror of Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession, R.I.P.).
Now that you know the method, my 20 selections (featuring at least one for each year of the decade) are listed below. Sound off on some of your favorites, what you think was missed (remember that 10K vote methodology) and what sounds intriguing enough to give a shot.
Related: The Best Movies of 2017
Melvin and Howard (1980)
Melvin and Howard kicks off this decade list with Jonathan Demme‘s graceful and screwball approach to the 1980s money-obsessed landscape. Always being up-sold something would dot Demme’s lively output for the decade—from Swing Shift to Something Wild to Married to the Mob, which reduces mafia movies to a fast food jingle—but before the decade boomed with excess, Demme began with a tranquil twilight recreation. Melvin and Howard is a gentle lullaby of hopeful kitsch; the calm before the hyper-Capitalist storm.
A motorcycle races through the dark, a speck of dust spitting up dust, alongside a larger highway. The wildman on the motorcycle claims he’s Howard Hughes (Jason Robards), the man who picks him up, a people-pleasin’ goof songwriter named Melvin(Paul Le Mat), and for an act of kidness in picking him from the side of the road and taking the ole grouch to his final destination, the man says he’ll include him in his will. A will does end up comin’ and so then do the lawyers for the family members who want every bit of Hughes’ wealth kept amongst themselves.
Demme’s landscape includes a burlesque revue, a landlocked boat, a TV contest and an aces Marty Steenburgen for all; all of those venues represent a hope for the down-trodden (and reinforce the John Steinbeck quote that an economic revolution will never happen “because the American poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires”) but unlike social services or a gas station lotto, it’s entertainment. There’s so much cake to eat here, from Robards’ bum-looking millionaire fighting through mental illness to the lawyer circus surrounding the poverty-line songwriter. He’d certainly become an unwitting folk hero by inheriting millions; trouble is, family doesn’t allow for outsider heroes. Millions of dollars come and go like the breeze over a desert in Melvin and Howard, but personal nirvana for the bum-like billionaire and the near-bum Le Mat, are pretty similar in nature. It’s a warm and delicate reminder, particularly as the decade of excess is the sun that’s rising tomorrow.
Mon Oncle D'Amerique (1980)
Alain Resnais is most known for his arty cinema like Hiroshima, mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, where black-and-white images and whispered narration—cut with neutron bombs, declarations of love, and beautiful people in hallways who are dressed elegantly but have nothing to do—made for the type of films that philistine folks would mock when people talked about foreign films. Mon Oncle D’Amerique is his most pop aware, star-studded (Gerard Depardieu, at the height of his French popularity) and most humorous film. But it still is very arty and philosophical; it’s his easiest film to digest but it’s nevertheless exciting because it’s so easy to digest as a film with direct messages, but you’re still left pondering your own existence afterward.
Depardieu plays one of three adults who come from different walks of life. He’s a bourgeois politician who leaves his wife for a young Communist who ran away to join the theater (Nicole Garcia), but no longer rebels after she experiences his lavish lifestyle. The other is a farm boy (Roger Pierre) who leaves his pregnant girlfriend to get a better job at a mill in the city. All three make choices to run away from something. We call this free will. A fourth individual in Mon Oncle breaks the fourth wall and re-creates their interactions with real mice and humans dressed as mice while narrating various experiments. He’s Henri Laborit, a famous philosopher whose teachings laid the groundwork for advertising market research. Mon Oncle D’Amerique is funny. It’s dramatic. But it’s also very illuminating of human experience—how we condition ourselves to survive, resign, or fight with one another.
How is Looker not already a cult classic? Is it because Albert Finney wears high wasted-pants during a shootout and that’s not meant to be ironically funny? Michael Crichton‘s beauty-in-advertising satire is some straight up Nicholas Ray + Frank Tashlin meets B-John Carpenter shit. I suppose a reason why it’s lesser known in cult factions is because it’s an earnest satire and not cooly detached. But that’s also what makes it unique.
Looker concerns a brainwashing advertising conspiracy that a plastic surgeon (Finney) uncovers because his beautiful model clients keep coming back to him with orders for specific centimeter measurements paid for by one agency and then they end up dead a few days later. The specific measurements are for advertising beauty requirements that will make actors replaceable by A.I.
Nothing about Chrichton’s movie fits the proper mold of cult classic but damnit it should mentioned right up there with They Live. And some aspects of Looker are done even better than many 80s cult classics. Firstly, the cinematography and set design is more dazzling than anything Chrichton’s ever written. Yes, the story is ludicrous but it allows for a lot of great set pieces and fake commercials that are full of surprises (especially when they’re filmed in front of an audience of investors). But the biggest surprise is that for an 80s movie that’s centered on models, not a single model is treated like a dummy airhead or even leered at. Industry standards and a short (shelf) life lends them more sympathy than most early-in-the-film horror victims. And Finney’s plastic surgeon is just a standup dude. (Aside: When esteemed actors stoop to low genre, Finney is probably my favorite. He’s essentially the same good guy rascal here that he is in Erin Brockovich or Tom Jones; see: Wolfen for further proof; Finney’s early 80s was Swiss Army Genre Dad).
There are some dumb plot shifts in Looker but even those are earnest and aligned with 50s low-budget sci-fi. They Live had sunglasses to show the truth, but here in Looker, only a few years earlier, the only way you could block out mind-controlling advertisements was the old fashioned way: by putting her hand over your eyes.
Stylistically, there are a few camera punches, backdrop shadows and computer simulation scans that are just pure art. Shout out to the once cinematographer of Nashville, Paul Lohmann, and the future production designer of Tron, Dean Edwart Mitzner, whose work here has aged better than that movie. This is kinda the perfect 80s socially conscious popcorn movie, in the same way that Gremlins and the aforementioned They Live are.
Ms. 45 (1981)
Because he doesn’t use the killing of men to wash away awful rape scenes, director Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant) punked the “rape-revenge” subgenre (and exploitation films in general) with Ms. 45. In fact, Ferrara even paints himself as a victimizer behind the camera. This is a film that boxes in its victim and constantly pushes her into corners (the victim is mute for christsakes!). Ultimately, Ms. 45 expresses something we should all be able to agree with, that the societal silencing of women in rape cases is awful, but also, in a less popular opinion, so might be the filmmaker who makes an exploitation film about it. There’s a droney and acidic score, a dress-up disco party, a pentagram gang, and numerous other genre awareness tropes that take you to the edge of a thrill and then says, “fuck you.”
There are two rapes and they are shocking here. They happen back-to-back on one awful day and it shatters the worldview of a beautiful mute woman (Zoe Lund) who cannot call for help. The first rape is in an alleyway and the rapist is the director himself, Ferrara. The second happens when she returns home and a burglar is in the house. He is killed in gruesome fashion and Lund purchases a gun (and later a nun costume to hide her features) and begins offing catcallers, stalkers, and anyone who takes away her dignity when she can’t even talk back. After a few kills, her methodology gets muddled and more bloodlust-y. The score is great. Lund is great. And New York has never looked this soul-crushingly sick.
Ms. 45 lacks gratuitous nudity and the forced sex is frightening, as it focuses on the horror of her face; a face that can’t scream for help. Rape is awful and should make you uncomfortable. Having it happen back-to-back is a blatant admonishment of the audience who’s ready to get into the genre kills but might not have let the full scope of depravity seep in yet. Because Ferrara is the man who attacks her first and leaves Lund in a pile of garbage, the film routinely puts her gun square in the center of the frame and Ms. 45 turns into a film about desiring to kill the man who is making her constantly go over the pain that was caused to her: Ferrara, the director of her first film.
Prince of the City (1981)
Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Network) had made a film about a whistleblower detective against the corrupt NYPD before, Serpico, and many think it’s one of the best films of the 70s. But Lumet felt guilty for showing the cops who opposed Serpico as so one-dimensional. Prince of the City, which also details an NYPD police officer who records and turns in other policemen, is done not with a hero vs. everyone else story line, but instead shows a flawed individual, who is used by a flawed governmental whistleblower system, and shows that both decent cops and bad cops both go through a judicial minefield where every investigator or District Attorney is trying to get promoted through this case.
Treat Williams plays Daniel Ciello (based on Robert Leuci) a narcotics investigator who is loyal to his partners. That loyalty eventually blurs into a loyalty to his informants, which sees him scoring heroin for them so that they’ll continue to tip off the suppliers. It’s important that Ciello isn’t a perfect cop who exposes corruption, but instead is a flawed cop who returns the calls of federal watchdogs because he feels guilty and can’t pinpoint when the lines began to gray for him professionally. And the resulting film, involving more than six dozen speaking parts and sprawling for nearly three hours, is more about the lengthy litigation process (which is slowed down by all of his initial agents getting promoted for their work on this case; thereby he’s shown no loyalty, just a pat on the back and left for new egos to tend to) than it is about dirty cops. One lawyer notes, rather profoundly, that we never hear of “a whistleblowing doctor or lawyer”. Prince of the City shows that while there’s dignity in a policeman’s attempts to come clean, it’s almost as murky as a junkie’s attempts to come clean.
Wolfen is perhaps the most curious film on this list. It’s the only narrative film from Michael Wadleigh the director of Woodstock. The cast is intriguing and a bit oddball, starring Albert Finney, Diane Venora, Gregory Hines and Edward James Olmos. And although it’s a horror film that first introduced the in-camera thermography to show the predator’s point of view, staying low to the ground and pouncing on victims whose bodies are gradients of heat (later used more famously by Predator), there’s a pretty heady story about Native American land rights and an anti-gentrification stance in this film.
What are the Wolfen? An advanced species of wolves that can exchange souls with specific tribes of humans. They’ve taken residence in an abandoned Bronx housing project that wealthy individuals are about to bulldoze over to put another corporate monstrosity. Wolfen is a horror film with an extra layer that shows that every race and every species has a right to protect their land.
Liquid Sky (1982)
“Two Miss Americas.”
Fashion photographer: “And we could end it the two of them fucking!”
Margaret: “He can’t fuck.”
Jimmy: “I can too fuck. I just can’t fuck you.”
Liquid Sky is a lo-fi pansexual delight about junkie fashion models and the aliens who are harvesting the endorphins from their orgasms. Anne Carlisle plays both the quotable Margaret and the quotable Jimmy. She is beautiful as both a woman and as a man; id and ego. This film is quintessential counterculture 80s, which—like the American mainstream—was all about excess and entitlement. But the excess and entitlement here is to drugs of any kind and sex of any gender.
Its strange sci-fi leanings and genre mashups (at times this is a “rhythm box” musical, exciting neon runway show and a hyper-sexual gender-fluid experiment) make it every bit as much fun as Alex Cox’s Repo Man, just far less known (probably for that whole sexual fluidity thing; oh, and the novice acting). Slava Tsukerman’s film deserves its cult status.
The horror conclusion and electro soundtrack is what makes Trance a cult film but it’s the build to that conclusion that’s truly divine. This West German film follows a young woman (Desiree Nosbusch) who is obsessed with an emerging pop star who’s remained an enigma by only going by the name R and saying very little in interviews; we’re talking a deranged obsession here. She harasses a postman for not delivering her a response to one of her many, many “we’re soulmates” fan letters. She skips school, she withdraws from her family (except when R performs on TV), and after seven days of no letters, she hitchhikes to Munich to find him. The type of music R makes—minimalist synths and deadpan lyrics with repetitive keys—is a perfect soundtrack for Simone’s repetitive and morose obsession, abstaining from all human contact except when writing her letters. And the film’s imagery and pace perfectly matches that music style; occasional twitches that blip like a heart monitor for someone on life support.
I don’t think the cult-film ending works, personally, but Trance is a well-crafted find for fans of post-punk and rancid teen spirit; and genre fans should definitely seek it out to form their own opinion on the two halves of the film. But Simone’s parent’s statement that they didn’t call in a missing person’s report for her—in order to prevent a scandal—perhaps reinforces how isolated and alone she truly is. And why she’s drawn to such a blank slate human being whose song lyrics smack of depression and an identity crisis.
Baby It's You (1983)
John Sayles, the working man’s filmmaker who got his start in Roger Corman’s grindhouse fantasia with scripts for Piranha and The Lady in Red, is best known for his socially conscious portraits of the working man. Whether they were miners going up against union busters in Matewan, or an alien who takes the form of a black man in America in The Brother from Another Planet or The Boss to workers everywhere, in an iconic and still misunderstood video for Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”, Sayles’ heart always beat for those who were being both denied—and fed the falsehood of—the American Dream. Still, with Baby It’s You, Sayles also made one of the absolute best teen dramas set in a high school where the American Dream feels possible for some and distant for others.
Set in a 1960s New Jersey high school, Jill Rosen (Rosanna Arquette) is prepping to go to college and finds herself drawn to the slick crooner from the wrong side of the tracks, a fella who guys by the name of The Sheik (Vincent Spano). It’s a familiar set up, yes, but with a lot of heart and attention to various period details. The masterstroke of Baby It’s You is that it doesn’t end in high school, but continues to follow her collegiate path and his destructive path. You are aware that these two probably shouldn’t be together, but you want the best for each of them.
In 2016, Baby It’s You is most known as a trivia footnote, for featuring the film debut of Robert Downey, Jr. (in a very small role), but it should really be sought out to experience. Arquette turns in an amazing performance, Sayles is delicate in his direction and the script (co-written with Amy Robinson) is perhaps the most authentic high school-to-college transformational romance ever made by an American movie studio.
The Ballad of Narayama (1983)
The 1958 film of the same name (by Keisuke Kinoshita) received a crisp Criterion Collection reissue, but Shohei Imamura’s film richly deserves the same treatment. The “ballad” concerns a rural Japanese village where residents who make it to the age of 70 must climb the Narayama Mountain and await their death.
This particular ballad is for the matriarch of a family of three unwed sons. As she approaches her 70th birthday, she attempts to marry them all off. One is honorable (Ken Ogata), and finding him a match proves easy, though perhaps the woman is not as honorable as she leads his mother to believe. The other two sons are in hopeless situations. One is known as the Stinker and he’s disheveled, dirty and sexually frustrated. He hears of a sick man’s request for his wife to sleep with every man in the village before he dies. The catch? Don’t sleep with Stinker. The last son is able to find his own match and they are young, in love, and need no help in sexual situations. The problem is, her father is a thief, and the town reacts to that family’s presence in one of the most horrifying long takes you’ll ever see.
The Ballad of Narayama has a lyrical title and it’s a lyrical film. It views these characters omnipotently from above, but their souls and the souls of those before them create a mist. It is not clear from the mountain; and nor is the matriarch sick enough to die anytime soon. You have the sense that she’ll be watching the tragic comedy of her sons for a very long time. The Ballad of Narayama is for fans of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, taken down a few notches.
Star 80 (1983)
The possessive power that an image gives to the viewer is integral to Bob Fosse‘s (Cabaret, All That Jazz) final film. Star 80 shows how the male gaze creates ownership. And how that ownership is enhanced by an image that can be looked at whenever the person of power decides that they need to feel whatever addictive feeling is attached to it.
The true story of the murder of the young Playmate of the Year, Dorothy Stratten, is a bit of an oddity now because it doesn’t attempt to humanize the delusional man who discovered her, sent her photos to Playboy, married her and then murdered her when she was going to leave him. The movie is better for lacking that attempt to humanize outright and just allows Eric Roberts to show moments of self-awareness at the monster inside his character. We see him explode into fits of rage and then retreat into apologies, we see him ex attempt to direct her photoshoots himself, not maliciously, but because he thinks he knows the correct response to achieve from a man who’d be looking. We observe his behavior instead of hearing him explain his past. And film is an image, so observation works best for seeing that level of compulsive control over capturing the correct imagery of someone else’s body.
Star 80 observes his predatory ways of selling women at auto shows, at clubs, and then in his bedroom, to be sold to the world. He cheats on Dorothy (Mariel Hemingway) because he’s addicted to using women to feel good about himself. He only grows attached to her when she begins to pull away, which causes the fixation to turn into a perverse display of surrounding himself in photos of her, floor to ceiling. Plastered in his bedroom are the Playboy centerfold photos and their wedding photos. The combination, of finding her and marrying, creates an encasement of ownership; it’s less a shrine to her than it is a shrine to his feeling over ownership.
Roberts is fantastic, he doesn’t go for sympathy, he goes for creepy in both his relationship with Dorothy but also his worship of Hugh Hefner (Cliff Robertson), a man he idolizes; he feels that Hefner should instantly see himself in this small-time hustler and Hefner doesn’t. Hemingway is heartbreakingly sweet but also enigmatic; she gives canned fantasy answers in interviews and isn’t self assure in her day to day life, allowing herself to be told what to do by the men who have the ability to give her a career that she didn’t feel the desire to pursue on her own. She’s so young, she’s moldable and not yet sure who she is.
If I have a critique it’s that Fosse goes easy on Hollywood by giving Peter Bogdanovich‘s real-life affair with Stratten (and subsequent marriage of her younger sister) a cover-up by giving him a stand-in director by the name of Aram Nicholas, despite Hefner getting his name used, and his mansion and parties are shown as an arena for sharks. He’s also shown peering through the scope at nude models declaring that he likes that they’re from small town Iowa, because it feeds the fantasy of the girl next door not the urban woman whom a bulk of his readership would never encounter. This girl could live right next to you! But Star 80 and Hollywood itself is quick to critique the arena of pornography and place themselves above it. There’s a reason why film directors and producers are at these parties too. They too peddle in “the girl next door” territory and they too like to be surrounded by pretty young women who might not know what career they want for themselves but could be persuaded in many directions.
But that’s a minor quibble. Star 80 is very, very good; even if you know where it’s leading to from the outset. Roberts not getting an Oscar nomination for this also highlights Hollywood’s inability to applaud a creep. But this is one of the best portraits of a creep as a young man that’s ever been made.
The fear of a nuclear war missile strike was still immense in the 1980s and as such, it was dramatized a few times. Never has it looked like Lynne Littman’s Testament, however. The blast itself is a brief flash of light. Because the attack is in the distance, we don’t see rubble. We don’t see smoky streets. We see confused suburban people who try and make sense of what to do next when they cannot make contact with surrounding cities. Some homes are missing family and they wait for word from them. Most attempt to carry on and wait for authorities. Eventually the radiation leads to deaths. Bodies are buried. Eventually there are so many they are burned. And everyone in the town of Hamlin, California knows their days are numbered.
Generally, a nuclear blast film will show survivors on the road, disheveled, hungry and desperate. Testament, however, follows the nuclear family of a mother (Jane Alexander) and her children (including the screen debut of Lukas Haas) as they go about their day. They put on a school play. They sell batteries on the side of the road to those who flee. They offer shelter to the children whose parents didn’t come home. Eventually there are signs of sickness, but Littman doesn’t over-focus on the grossness. This is a very patient and maternal film, full of quiet horrors in situations where most filmmakers would go loud. There are tears to be shed from Testament, but none more so than a beautiful description of sex from Alexander to her oldest daughter, followed by a prick of sadness that her daughter will never understand how truthful her mother’s words are.
Crimes of Passion (1984)
Liquid Sky is the first of a handful of films on this list that dealt with the dual identity crisis facing many people in the affluent and excessive 1980s. But that one did it in casting the same actress as two different genders. Ken Russell’s obscene opus Crimes of Passion shows many characters engaging in double identities. Kathleen Turner’s fashion designer by day, prostitute by night (with the name China Blue) is the vessel for men to enact their socially not-accepted dormant fantasies upon. Whether it’s attempting to save her, engaging in rape fantasies, or for her most constant threat, it’s a preacher (Anthony Perkins) who snorts amyl nitrate and carries around a lethal dildo to silence his shameful desires.
This film features some of the craziest, most ribald dialogue ever put on film (sample: “If you think you’re going to get back in my panties, forget it, there’s already one asshole in there”). It’s over the top, but also a weird bloody valentine to a woman’s right to choose who she wants to be. And she’s completely in control of even the most depraved situations.
Just One of the Guys (1985)
Of all the double identity films on this list, Lisa Gottlieb’s sex comedy romp is definitely the most fun and definitely not one that you’ll need a palette cleanse after. Joyce Hyser stars as the 80s high school dream girl, beautiful, kind and smart—except everyone just recognizes her for her beauty. When she’s passed over for an internship, despite having a stronger proposal, she thinks that sexism is to blame and decides to adopt a new-to-the-school male persona and do some undercover reporting about what it’s like to be one of the guys. Things get complicated, however, when a girl wants to sleep with her when she’s Terry, when she’s under attack by a bully for not being manly enough and when she starts to fall for her best new male friend, Rick (Clayton Rohner).
Just One of the Guys is one of the more hilarious 80s oversexed high school comedies and Hyser is surprisingly very good in the boy situations. It’s fluff, but it’s good fluff. Perhaps if you remember it, it’s probably for a surprisingly lax PG-13 rating that showed many boys the first breasts they’d probably ever seen. But give it another watch. There are some great jokes, some decent gender nuggets, and a ludicrously over-the-top and perfect movie horny younger brother (Billy Jayne).
Smooth Talk (1985)
Smooth Talk has a bit of a bad reputation because it tones down the implied serial killer history of Arnold Friend in Joyce Carol Oates’ short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”. The author herself loves how the screenwriter Tom Cole and director Joyce Chopra instead chose to focus on elongating her prose about the young woman’s relationship with her friends, family, and body. Because something that was implied but never outright stated in her text (a serial murderer in town), is instead given the point of view of the young woman and not the monster. And by going that route, Cole and Chopra are able to explore the sisterly jealousies and a mother’s jealousies at her daughter’s burgeoning sexuality. And Friend (Treat Williams) is plenty menacing and icky here. We don’t need his full backstory. How he presents himself to 15-year-old Connie (Laura Dern) is both creepy but also creepily alluring, from the get go. The symbolism of the numbers on his car and his passed out friend in the driver’s seat go far enough down the track to let our own minds fill in the blanks with multiple icky histories.
Friend first appears at the mall, in shades, trying to talk to young women who are trying to get the attention of older boys. When he shows up while Connie’s parents and sister are gone, Connie quickly realizes that she is in over her head. Williams has a fantastic near monologue of inappropriate smooth talk, but Smooth Talk appeals most with small touches. Such as Connie and her mother (Mary Kay Place) getting in a slam-the-door argument about her lying about where she’s been, followed by a scene of them both dancing in private to the same song from the kitchen. Smooth Talk is a story about the women of the house and not Friend, himself.
Shadows in Paradise (1986)
Calling all adventurous Wes Anderson fans! If you appreciate Anderson’s mid-century furniture fetish, obscure rock tunes, and odd characters but wish he was less twee and had a little more desperation? You really should check out Aki Kaurismäki. Kaurismäki’s films have an oddball pacing, oddball characters, and sublime art direction—but everything is minimal. The story is minimal, the dialogue is sparse, the run times are short. His film world is a wholly unique experience where you feel every pause where emotional dialogue is left unsaid between his characters. When they do speak, it’s in delicious non-sequiturs and when they listen, it’s usually to Finnish bar band covers of American pop hits.
Shadows in Paradise is a great place to start your Kaurismäki obsession. It’s just a simple love story between a garbage man and a woman who has no interest in him. But it goes something like this:
– “What’s your first name?”
– “I’m not telling.”
– “Why, is something wrong with it?”
– “Might be. Come here…”
So goes one of the loveliest and loneliest first kisses I’ve ever seen. Kaurismäki has his own type of cinematic chemistry and it’s just so beautiful and heartbreaking. His characters never smile, but they always make me smile. Even when horrible things happen. It’s hard to pull off, but Kaurismäki frequently does.
Sherman's March (1986)
To call Ross McElwee the original vlogger might be a bit offensive and trite, but the case could be made. Most filmmaking movements begin with some innocence. Sherman’s March is a video diary of McElwee as he attempts to make a documentary about the lasting effects of General Sherman’s fiery march of destruction that ended the Civil War and attempted to show the South that they should not rise again. But McElwee was also dealing with a difficult breakup at the time and was having a bit of a breakdown, so he takes a southern detour and meets up with the women he’d dated before and interviewed them about why they broke up. (He still valiantly tries to stay on point and provides some info about the Civil War trail of fire.)
As McElwee becomes less and less confident that he’s even making a film about anything, he also includes on-camera updates about his fear of nuclear war, trying to blow up everything he’s working on. Perhaps this sounds overly navel-gazey and self-important. But we all try to find parallels from our projects to our personal lives and why we’re drawn to them. At first, McElwee is combative with his previous heartbreakers, but he learns to see his own faults, and their own light. Unlike, Sherman’s march, McElwee’s march through relationships past and phobias present, is a genuine march to try and be a better person. And it’s funny, sad and tender.
Eyeballs. To me, there’s nothing more disgusting than things happening to eyeballs in a horror film. These violent images are being observed through your own eyeballs after all. The very thing that is being harmed in the film in front of you is entering your own iris and traveling up to your brain. Anyway, Dario Argento (Suspriria) fully understands the eyeball horror and he exploits it gleefully in Opera.
Opera is an elaborate stalker film. Betty (Cristina Marsillach) is an operetta singer who’s about to perform Phantom of the Opera in Rome but she’s forced to watch everyone who gets close to her die in a horrible fashion, while the killer has her trapped behind glass with needles placed under her eyelids, so closely, if she closes them her eyes will be shredded. So, for her, the show must go on.
Argento goes even further with eye terrors, using peepholes and the point of view of a crow’s eye in the rafters of the opera (from a crow cam!) and it’s delicious and grotesque fun (not for the squeamish, Argento also heightens the sound of the kills and plays metal music on the score; he’s gutting your every sense!). He also puts a camera in a trashcan to frame the dumping of evidence as though it’s dropping through an iris. It’s also pretty deep, right? She’s being forced to watch unspeakable horrors but her eyes also deceive her ability to see the killer fully.
Clint Eastwood currently has one of his biggest directing hits in theaters right now (Sully) and though he’s wearing out his welcome with a handful of critics, he’s definitely cemented as one of the best—if not the best—actors who direct. But Bird always gets overlooked when we talk about Eastwood the director. And it’s hands down one of the best films he’s ever made.
Anyone who’s followed the director’s touches throughout the years knows that he’s a jazz enthusiast. And this biopic of saxophonist Charlie Parker (Forest Whitaker) is one of the best music biopics ever made. Parker was a virtuoso of improvisation but also a drug addict and a horrible husband. Perhaps those are music biopic tropes, but Eastwood, the jazz enthusiast films his life like a waking dream full of moments of bliss, moments of internal struggle, and moments of acceptance. Whitaker gives a career best performance and despite having many great solos, like any great jazz musician, he and Eastwood also know when to step aside and let the rest of the players shine—whether its Diane Venora, Samuel E. Wright, Michael Zelniker or Keith David.
How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)
Denis Bagley (Richard E. Grant) is an adman who’s struggling to come up with a campaign for pimple cream. He’s stressed. His skin is getting irritated. He begins to battle internally about the ethics of advertising. Then a boil pops up on his shoulder with eyes, a nose, lips and a moustache. And Boil Bagley has no qualms selling anything as the fleshy growth takes over in How to Get Ahead in Advertising.
This highly original comedy was Bruce Robinson’s follow up to the drunken holiday crowd-pleaser, Withnail & I. In comparison to Withnail, there are equal one-liners here, with two Grants for the price of one (now that’s an ad campaign!) and a strong stance against greed, consumerism and Margaret Thatcher. And there’s a transplant scene that’s worthy of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Ultimately, it does get a little too preachy by the end, but the set-up and many of the situations are a flat-out brilliant satire that popped the red, swollen, pus-filled crown on the face of the 80s.