Throughout the month of January I’ve been highlighting great movies from the decade of the 1980s. Although often maligned as a decade that lacked creativity or produced any really stellar movies, the 80s did produce films that have stood the test of time some 30 years later. Here’s the last part of my top 25 films of the decade.
19. The Princess Bride
What more can I say about one of the most icon films of all-time? Rob Reiner’s brilliant adaptation of William Goldman’s classic book is full of quotable lines (who hasn’t shouted, “inconceivable!” or recited, “my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die,” at least once in their life?). The Princess Bride is great for a multitude of reasons. There are all the rich characters, even in the supporting roles (look for Billy Crystal who steals the show in the role of Miracle Max), the witty banter, the great casting. But for me the real joy of this film is watching conventional fairy tale wisdom get turned on its ear. It has the fractured fairy tale spirit of modern tales like Enchanted and Wicked. The Princess Bride is smart, fun, and as enjoyable at age 8 as age 80.
My next choice is a movie you’ll have to set aside a large chunk of your day to watch. But it’s worth it. The film is Reds. Produced, directed by, and starring Warren Beatty, it’s one of the most ambitious films of the decade. Here’s a synopsis to get you up to speed:
American journalist John Reed (Warren Beatty) journeys to Russia to document the Bolshevik Revolution and returns a revolutionary. His fervor for left-wing politics leads him to Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), then married, who will become a feminist icon and activist. Politics at home become more complicated as the rift grows between reality and Reed’s ideals. Bryant takes up with a cynical playwright, and Reed returns to Russia, where his health declines.–IMDB
Beatty’s passion project is the type of bold, sprawling period epic that Hollywood doesn’t make often anymore. It stands out and makes my list because of the ambition it took to make it and because of all the outstanding performances. In addition to Beatty there’s the always wonderful Diane Keaton. Also look for yet another great performance by Jack Nicholson who plays playwright Eugene O’ Neill. Equal parts history lesson and human drama, Reds is not to be missed.
Often sequels are a pale imitations of the original. But the 1980s had at least two films that defied that convention. There was The Empire Strikes Back, which appeared earlier on my list. And now comes Aliens. Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) was one of the best and most influential science fiction films to be made. How could it be topped? In 1986 James Cameron came around and did just that. While Alien relied more on suspense and we had just the one alien (which was plenty terrifying when we finally saw it), Aliens gave us more of the scary creatures. But it isn’t just great because of all the creepy critters. It also further fleshed out the character of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver). Ripley was a major player in the original, but not front and center. In Aliens she’s front and center. Weaver’s performance was so remarkable that it garnered her an Oscar nomination. That’s almost unheard of for actors in sequels or action pictures.
The plot picks off where the original film left off. Ripley is discovered in deep space by a salvage ship. When she comes out of hyper sleep, she’s horrified to learn that the planet where contact was made in the first movie has been colonized. And contact has been lost with the planet, because of course. What do you expect when you colonize a planet populated by acid-tongued aliens? Ripley is eventually talked into joining a military crew as they journey to the planet to find out what happened. As far as science fiction or creature feature films go, it’s hard to beat Aliens. The creatures are terrifying (wonderfully created by Stan Winston and his effects crew), there’s a main character we can root for, and there are genuinely terrifying/suspenseful encounters with the aliens. There’s a particularly claustrophobic scene where Ripley and Newt (the lone survivor of the human colonists) are trapped in a room with the face hugger aliens. And then there’s the showdown with the queen alien where Weaver delivers the iconic line, “get away from her, you bitch!” Aliens isn’t just a mindless action picture. It’s made with genuine craftsmanship. From the great creature designs, to James Horner’s score, and Sigourney Weaver’s performance, Aliens delivers.
22. The Breakfast Club
Too many films aimed at teens today rely on being raunchy to attract audiences. There used to be a writer/director who really wrote intelligent and honest films aimed at teens. The man was John Hughes. In 1985 he released one of his many iconic teen films: The Breakfast Club. It starts with a simple premise. A group of high school students all come in on a Saturday to serve detention. Principal Vernon (Paul Gleason) assigns them an essay where they have to write about who they think they are. The genius of The Breakfast Club is the writing and the performances. The way the story is constructed, the true personalities of the characters gradually emerge in a series of smart and moving revelation scenes. The talented young cast (dubbed “The Brat Pack” at the time) are more than up to the task. Unlike modern teen films that rely on shock value, The Breakfast Club draws us in with its richly written characters. The truths that come out as the characters learn more and more about each other are sometimes humorous and sometimes heartbreaking. But like every Hughes teen comedy it resonates with audiences because it’s honest about what it’s like to be a teenager.
There’s a short list of films I can recite practically the entire screenplay of. Ghostbusters is on that list. The story, about a team of paranormal investigators who set-up a business where they catch ghosts in New York City, doesn’t sound like much on the surface. But the magic of Ghostbusters comes from the witty dialogue and the chemistry of its talented cast. Written by stars Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis and directed by Ivan Reitman, there isn’t one dull moment in this comedy. From the opening scene where a librarian is haunted by a ghost in the stacks to a showdown on top of a New York City apartment building complex, this is a fun film.
The special effects of the ghosts are convincing and the dialogue is very fun to listen to. The cast is composed of veterans of Saturday Night Live and Second City TV. In addition to Aykroyd and Ramis there’s Bill Murray, Rick Moranis, and then the wonderful Sigourney Weaver. Weaver plays the first client of the Ghostbusters when she discovers a demonic presence in her fridge. There’s a real joy in watching all these talented actors interact. While I enjoy all of them, my favorite is Bill Murray. His dry delivery just makes his dialogue even funnier (as an example, he goes to Weaver’s apartment, and upon finding her possessed very casually says, “that’s a different look for you, isn’t it?). Ghostbusters is so iconic I think we have started to overlook all the hard work that went into make it. Good comedies are hard to make. Ghostbusters is one of the best.
24. The Lost Boys
Vampire movies, like zombie movies, have become very commonplace. With the popularity of TV shows like The Vampire Diaries and the inexplicable success of Twilight (that’s a topic for another day), vampires are as much a part of popular culture now as they were when Bram Stoker kicked the whole phenomenon off upon penning his seminal work Dracula. There have been a lot of broody teenage vampire films of late. But one of the best came out in 1987: The Lost Boys. Featuring a cast that included a young Kiefer Sutherland, Corey Feldman, Corey Haim, and veteran actors like Dianne Wiest, it’s become a cult classic. Here’s a brief synopsis for the uninitiated:
A mother and her two sons move to a small coast town in California. The town is plagued by bikers and some mysterious deaths. The younger boy makes friends with two other boys who claim to be vampire hunters while the older boy is drawn into the gang of bikers by a beautiful girl. The older boy starts sleeping days and staying out all night while the younger boy starts getting into trouble because of his friends’ obsession.–IMDB
It has plot points that echo other vampire classics, especially Near Dark. Director Joel Schumacher’s resume has been a mixed bag to say the least. His good credits include The Client, Phone Booth, and St. Elmo’s Fire. But the bad on his resume is pretty bad. Batman & Robin is one film I would like erased from my memory and Bad Company badly wasted the talents of Anthony Hopkins and Chris Rock. But as bad as those films were, Lost Boys was great. It has a lot of fun with its premise, gives us a fun look at goth and vampire culture, and is sharply written. It’s rightly credited as iconic film of the 80s.
The last film on my list of great 80s movies was directed by Norman Jewison, a director who deserves to be on more lists of great directors IMHO. It’s the witty and fun Moonstruck from 1987. It features an inspired screenplay by John Patrick Shanley (it deservedly won an Oscar), and Oscar-winning performances from Cher and Olympia Dukakis. It follows the exploits of Loretta Castorini (Cher), a book-keeper from Brooklyn, New York, who finds herself in a difficult situation when she falls for the brother (Nicholas Cage) of the man she has agreed to marry (Danny Aiello). The two brothers had a falling out and Loretta is supposed to convince Nicholas Cage’s character to come to the wedding. Well, in comic opera fashion, Cher and Cage end up falling in love, complicating the situation.
But Moonstruck isn’t just a broad farce. It’s a film where not one character is wasted. In addition to Cher and Nicholas Cage, there’s Loretta’s large, crazy Italian family (headed by her parents, beautifully played by Olympia Dukakis and Vincent Gardenia) and all the colorful people in the neighborhood. Even the little side stories are interesting. Moonstruck paved the way for films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where the comedy comes from the rich culture of its characters and from situations that happen when you live in a large family. No amount of writing can do Moonstruck justice. It’s one of the smartest, funniest romantic comedies of the 80s, or any decade for that matter. This year will mark 30 years since its release. I have a feeling that when the film’s 50th anniversary comes around, audiences old and new will be enjoying it together. It’s that good.
I hope you enjoyed my look back at great films of the 80s. As I said earlier, it produced more great films than people realize. So if you see a film from the 80s on a great movies list, don’t be so quick to scoff at it.