The FOTS team gets back together to divvy up and discuss their favorite films from the 1980s. Don’t worry — all the usual suspects are here. But not The Usual Suspects. That was the next decade.
Amadeus (1984) — Directed by Milos Forman; Written by Peter Shaffer
I deferred to my more enthusiastic brethren on Star Wars and Spielberg, though those films certainly have a place on my personal Top 10. Instead, I want to talk about three smaller, no-less beloved masterpieces, leading off with Amadeus. I’d argue there’s no better depiction of the agony and ecstasy of the Creative Process; Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham, as the jealous composer Salieri, can only shake his fist at God as the “vulgar creature” Mozart (Tom Hulce) makes sublime composition look as effortless as breathing. But Milos Forman’s film has also an undeniable wit and — indeed — musicality in its structure and editing. One of my all-time favorite scenes (full stop) is where a dying Mozart feverishly dictates his Requiem to his mentor/nemesis, who — for a frustrating, fleeting moment — is given a glimpse inside the young genius’s mind. A stupendous, romantic, perfect film, that sweeps you along within the mad alchemy of a director and cast working at the absolute height of their powers. “Too many notes?” Never.
The Princess Bride (1987) — Directed by Rob Reiner, Written by William Goldman
The success of The Princess Bride can never be replicated. The tone had to be just right; the dialogue had to be that sharp; the cast had to be that perfect; it had to become a cult favorite just as the home video market took off (Inconceivable!). The film’s unabashedly lo-fi charms — synthesized score, men in ROUS suits — only increase as the years pass, where other special effects swashbucklers have fallen out of memory. I could spend the entire rest of the paragraph just quoting lines, but you know them already. I could talk about Inigo Montoya, and the glorious Andre the Giant, and “never get involved in a land war in Asia,” and “he’s only mostly dead,” and “mawage,” and the LEGITIMATELY EXCELLENT sword fighting, and how the film manages to be sweet without being saccharine, and how it’s probably the greatest “family film” of all time — or you could just pop in your DVD copy and watch it, again. I’ll be right behind you.
This is Spinal Tap (1984) — Directed by Rob Reiner; Written by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Rob Reiner
Amazingly, it was Reiner’s efforts on this film — the first great “rock-mockumentary” — that got him the gig on Princess Bride. And aside from sharing Christopher Guest, they couldn’t be more different… except that they’re both among the most iconic, influential, endlessly quotable, screamingly funny comedies of the 80s. Tap skewers the hair bands of that era with songs (“Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight!” “Stonehenge!”) and episodes that are just inane enough to feel real — as the story goes, some audiences thought they were real. Now it’s essentially a right of passage for a budding teenage filmmaker to take their own stab at improvised musical chaos, hoping that it might be 1/10th as funny as Spinal Tap. I certainly gave it my best shot in high school. But what you may not appreciate until studying (or re-creating) Tap is how much blood and sweat really goes into making it seem natural. Guest, McKean, and Shearer are the masters of the form. I’d rank them an 11 out of 10.
Airplane! (1980) — Written and Directed by Jim Abrahams, David Zucker & Jerry Zucker
Airplane!, Zucker, Abrams, and Zucker’s disaster spoof, is a monument to commitment, because none of its endless sight gags, wordplay, or slapstick comedy would work without the full engagement of the cast. The film takes the familiar disaster and turns it on its head for satirical gain. An ex-fighter pilot with a fear of flying, an inflatable “Otto Pilot,” and a co-pilot who’s definitely NOT Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are just a few of the film’s endless laughs. The film simply doesn’t care that it’s blatantly juvenile, because it knows that stupid jokes are still incredibly funny when they’re done this well and the cast is fully invested in selling them. Leslie Nielsen, then known as a serious actor, parlayed the film’s success into a second career as one of film’s all-time great deadpan comedians. Surely, Airplane! is one of the funniest films ever made, right? It definitely is. And don’t call me Shirley.
Blade Runner (1982) — Directed by Ridley Scott; Written by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples
The question that really haunts Blade Runner is just what makes us human: is it the organic makeup of our bodies? Or is it the emotional depth of our experiences? Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is assigned to track down four escaped “replicants,” artificial robots that are physically indistinguishable from humans. The irony, of course, is that Deckard is tasked to hunt down and kill four robots whose last wish is simply to live with real experience – to be human. Set in a dystopian future Los Angeles, Blade Runner’s sci-fi noir was an early influence on cyberpunk, and its cutting-edge visuals and effects are still landmarks of the futuristic film landscape. Philip K. Dick is the thinking man’s science fiction writer, so it’s just right that this adaptation of one of his novels is so rife with critical discussion. Blade Runner actually exists in three wholly different versions: the 1982 theatrical cut, the 1992 “Director’s Cut”, and Ridley Scott’s 2007 “Final Cut,” and they offer surprisingly different takes on the same story. How does the film end? Is Deckard actually a replicant himself? It depends which version you watch, and that’s part of the brilliance. Watch them all, and decide for yourself. Experience, ponder, find meaning. It’s so human.
Raging Bull (1980) — Directed by Martin Scorsese; Written by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin
It’s ironic that Raging Bull was shot in stark black and white because it deals with such messy moral complexity. By now it’s legendary that Martin Scorsese, deep in the throes of cocaine addiction, was convinced that Raging Bull would be the last major film that he would ever make, and thus he poured all of himself into making the film. But that doesn’t make the story or results any less miraculous. The film is the apex of both Scorsese’s style and favorite themes (and huge shout-out to editor Thelma Schoonmaker!), using the boxing ring as a metaphor for Jake Lamotta’s complex personal life. For all their complex blood, sweat, and fury, the boxing scenes were actually choreographed as dances for De Niro and his opponents. Indeed, Robert De Niro’s stunningly complex and physical performance won the actor his second Oscar and solidified his reputation as Hollywood’s preeminent “man’s man.” Lamotta’s story is one about ravages of insecurity, violence, and guilt, and how a man who earns a living beating other men to a pulp must learn to exist in a “civilized” society. There are many films we love on this list, but Raging Bull may well be the single greatest film of the 1980s.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)– Directed by Irvin Kershner; Written by Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett (Story by George Lucas)
The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite movie, as it has been for most of my life. For a long time I would have considered myself incapable of actually elucidating why. At the expense of this being several thousand words, I’ll narrow it down to but one thing: this movie is as aesthetically evocative as any I’ve ever seen. It evokes. Mostly, this is due to the way it’s shot, the way it’s lit. Where Star Wars and Return of the Jedi are filmed in a more… traditional way, Empire does something simple; it endeavors to make every light source look as though it actually exists in the world, with a minimum of obvious set dressing. Combine this with how dymanically the film is shot, all wide angles and swooping, and the frankly terrifying amount of (well-lit) smoke billowing out of starkly memorable locations like Bespin, Echo Base and Dagobah, and Empire stands alone in the Star Wars series as an ineffably gorgeous-looking movie. Of course, the soundtrack is gorgeous as well, but the biggest card in Empire’s favor is that it is, without a shadow of a doubt, the Han Solo movie. From the moment Luke Skywalker is attacked by a Wampa, Han takes center stage, driving the action until Luke shows up again to take on Vader (in the best fight in the history of cinema, probably). It’s a showcase for Harrison Ford, who is roguish, dashing, cunning, and even a little bit scruffy-looking during he and Leia’s journey from Hoth to Lando Calrissian’s humble abode. Han is an important character type to this sort of high fantasy film, the skeptic who tempers the religious fervor of those who believe in ordained champions and chosen heroes. Those who only need a good blaster at their sides.
Lethal Weapon (1987) — Directed by Richard Donner; Written by Shane Black
Let’s be honest here: it’s hard to remember what it was like when Mel Gibson was a likable and marketable film star. It’s funny, then, to look back on this star turn and realize that it’s the very same attributes we find so off putting now (volatility, psychosis, a general disregard for the thoughts and well-being of other human beings) that make Martin Riggs (*Danny Glover voice* Riiiiigs) so compelling. While the Lethal Weapon series is most well-known for its propagation of the “buddy cop” genre, the first film is unique for how much it focuses on Gibson as Riggs. Danny Glover is a major presence, to be sure, but it’s Riggs’s explosive anger, and his death wish, that drive the film. The primary villain, Gary Busey’s Mr. Joshua, is a reflection of Riggs’s more unsavory traits. The film ends with Riggs pulling himself back from the suicidal abyss brought on by the death of his wife and committing himself to Murtaugh’s friendship, to his new family. Telling, then, that Lethal Weapon is much less of a comedy than its descendants. In creating a new genre of action film, Shane Black and Richard Donner gave life to their own cinematic styles. Pretty much everything Shane Black has written since sprung from this film, which is why it’s so odd how unlike the others it is.
Ghostbusters (1984) — Directed by Ivan Reitman; Written by Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd
Looking back, the basic premise of Ghostbusters is really weird. It’s something we’ve all lived with for over three decades now, but it’s odd nonetheless. Three psychologists (and a… what is Winston, exactly? Their employee, I suppose?) investigate a series of paranormal occurrences around New York City, culminating in a strangely erotic showdown with Gozer the Gozerian. In between, our ostensible heroes have run-ins with Zuul (only Zuul, no Dana), Vinz Clortho, Slimer (though not named as such in the film) and the notoriously dickless Walter Peck. It’s this sense of bizarre, almost foolhardy strangeness that pervades the movie, best embodied by Bill Murray’s trademark laconic sarcasm. For a man facing down immortal paranormal beings bent on world domination, he’s remarkably… smooth through the whole thing. Throw in Aykroyd’s panicked enthusiasm, the late Harold Ramis’s detached bemusement and Ernie Hudson’s stalwart confusion, and you have one of the best ensembles in film history. Not to mention Rick “Many Shuvs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, I can tell you” Moranis.
Say Anything… (1989) — Written and Directed by Cameron Crowe
Lloyd Dobler is the perfect boyfriend — nay, the perfect man. A kickboxing (“It’s the sport of the future”), responsible, hopeless romantic, Dobler (John Cusack) gives Ione Skye his heart, and she “gives him a pen.” Since 1989, every girl has wished for a boy to stand under her window in the early morning light, blasting Peter Gabriel from a boombox. Cameron Crowe, the master of the love story, most adequately encapsulates passionate, true, unadulterated love in this eighties treatise on firsts. It’s the kind of film with quiet, nuanced performances that often gets overlooked, but the subtle coming-of-age story tackles the big question of “what is love, and how important should it be in one’s life?” better than most. It’s not a sappy film or romantic comedy complete with meet-cutes and overweight best friends: this is a sophisticated look at relationships. You know, with Eric Stoltz dressed in a chicken suit.
Heathers (1988) — Directed by Michael Lehmann; Written by Daniel Waters
Oft referred as the “Original Mean Girls” — much to Rachel’s annoyance — Heathers is the kind of black comedy that takes satire to an uncomfortable and dynamic level – complete with heartthrob Jason Dean (Christian Slater) lighting a cigarette off of girlfriend Veronica’s (Winona Ryder) scorched hand. You kind of have to see it to understand. What is better than a film with earnest lines like: ” I love my dead…gay…son”? One of the best whip-smart, in-your-face, witty scripts ever written, Heathers is the kind of film you watch over and over and memorize the lines. It’s required viewing for any teen in danger of losing themselves in the halls of high school. This is not Mean Girls; the film is an indictment on sheep, lemmings, and those that fall into the crowd mentality. It’s 1984, THX 1138, A Brave New World in how it chronicles suicides, murder, and the thought police; Heathers displays how dystopia never dies in the halls of high schools across America — and it does so with a kick-ass soundtrack and Corn Nuts.
Back to the Future (1985) — Directed by Robert Zemeckis; Written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale
The quintessential time-travel film — that does not even address closed-loop or multiverse theory — brought the adventures of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and the logic-defying DeLorean into iconography forever. Amazingly, a film so obsessed with time holds up today — even with Huey Lewis and the News cameos. Loosely based on the principle of the Butterfly Effect, Future explores the idea that one moment can change absolutely everything in your life, and it does so while reaching great comedic and heartfelt heights. Marty is such a relatable character; it’s easy to root for the everyman who only yearns for his parents’ happiness and his friend’s well-being to stay intact. Future is populated with career performances and so much charm, it’s the kind of film missing in today’s pessimistic cinema experience. Good guys win, bad guys are introduced to trucks laden with manure: Back to the Future brings the whole family together!
Aliens (1986) — Written and Directed by James Cameron
Director James Cameron’s follow up to Ridley Scott’s 1979 science fiction horror masterpiece Alien is an adrenaline-fueled thrill ride from beginning to end. Rather than simply rehash the original, Aliens takes on the guise of an action film set in space with Vietnam War allegorical overtones. It has also got a strong feminist kick, with Sigourney Weaver getting to play a badass action heroine while displaying deep motherly affection towards a displaced orphan girl with a keen survival instinct. Weaver’s battle with the Alien Queen (a Cameron invention) remains a marvel of technical excellence (through its seamless use of animatronics, miniatures, models and puppets) while having deep thematic impact as the two mothers duke it out to death. “Get away from her you bitch!” instantly became one of the most iconic lines in film history. Sigourney Weaver’s second performance as Lt. Ellen Ripley was so powerful that it resulted in her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress, a rare feat for a genre film. Aliens remains one of the greatest and most memorable sequels ever made. (RIP James Horner, who’s action score is every bit as influential today as it was back in 1986. Your absence will be felt in the Avatar sequels.)
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) — Directed by Steven Spielberg; Written by Melissa Mathison
E.T. is pure film magic. There isn’t any other way to put it. It’s the reason we go to the movies. It also happens to be my favorite film of all time and the earliest movie I can recall seeing. Spielberg’s story of an alien from another world being lost on earth and befriended by a young boy is deceiving in its innocence, but there are deep emotional layers to unfold in its framework. E.T. can be seen as a film about childhood loneliness and longing (a theme that deeply resonated with me as a military child constantly moving from place to place), the effects of divorce on the family unit, the power of imagination, and some even see it as a retelling of the Christ story. However you connect to it, though, you’ll be hard pressed not become a puddle of tears by the time E.T. touches Elliot’s forehead with his glowing finger and says, “I’ll be right here.” Cue the rousing John Williams score, spaceship takeoff, shimmering rainbow, and uncontrollable waterworks.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) — Directed by Steven Spielberg; Written by Jeffrey Boam
While E.T. is the earliest film I can recall seeing, The Last Crusade is the first film I can remember seeing in a theater and it’s for that very reason it’s on this list over Indy’s first outing in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But besides deep nostalgia, Crusade has other incredible assets, such as gorgeously-crafted action set pieces, thrilling historical recreations (the Nazi book burning sequence is grandly terrifying), and an inspiring quest for the true meaning of faith. But the film’s beating heart lies in Indiana’s estranged relationship with his hard and disciplined father, played memorably by Sean Connery. Getting the original James Bond to play Indy’s father was certainly a casting coup, but Connery isn’t resting on his star image, instead infusing charm and intelligence in his performance; his natural chemistry with Harrison Ford provides more than one laugh-out-loud moment. The Last Crusade is really a film about the bond between fathers and sons, and provided a meaningful and moving close to the series… until that abomination The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came along, but that’s a whole other rant for an entirely different Pick 3.
Predator (1987) — Directed by John McTiernan; Written by Jim Thomas and John Thomas
What starts as the typical “Ahnuld” action film turns into a sci-fi thriller as an alien sport-hunter picks off a Special Forces team one by one deep in a Central American jungle … seriously, what else do you need? Yes, with his super-strength, iconic stealth cloak, super-cool 80’s FX heat-vision and a vast array of nifty alien gadgets, the Predator makes quick work of the hard-as-nails American death-machines, but somehow earns our love and admiration when he shows his sporting side at the end — discarding his super-technology to go mano-a-mano with an unarmed Schwarzenegger, giving us a villain to respect amongst a genre glutted with mindlessly evil creatures. As surprising as it is for me to admit (especially with Die Hard in the mix), this film may have had the largest cultural impact of all of my three picks, showing up in the decades to follow in wildly successful comics, video games, novels, and a handful of sequel films (a solid percentage of which were a part of the wonderfully geek-tastic crossover Aliens vs. Predator). I absolutely love that this film, which is a great genre film that could’ve just as easily ended up as a one-off, spawned a legacy that continues to outlast newer and newer sci-fi films nearly thirty years later.
Die Hard (1988) — Directed by John McTiernan; Written by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Sousa
A New York cop in a failing long-distance marriage comes to Los Angeles for Christmas to be with his family only to end up in the middle of a heist by German terrorists in his wife’s skyscraper office building … which is a completely unnecessary synopsis, because everyone EVER has seen Die Hard, so I’ll just continue with that understanding. There’s a fun fact about Die Hard that I’ve discovered recently, and that fact is that it’s socially unacceptable and inappropriate to talk shit about Die Hard – the greatest Christmas movie ever made. It’s got action, it’s got perfect, forever-quotable one-liners, it’s got explosions, it’s got heart, it’s got Alan Rickman, it’s got Christmas, and when you add that all together you get something that, literally, everyone loves. Seriously, some time when you’re talking with strangers about movies, be they action, Christmas, neither, or both, just try to toss out something like “I think Die Hard is overrated,” and someone will emphatically stop you, and they’ll be in the right to do so.
Beverly Hills Cop (1984) — Directed by Martin Brest; Written by Daniel Petrie Jr. and Danilo Bach
A smart-aleck, street-wise Detroit cop travels to the snooty, weird world of Beverly Hills to investigate the death of his friend at the hands of a crooked art dealer … and it’s amazing. It’s not high cinema, and it’s not on too many desert-island top fives, but it’s an early example of a near-perfect buddy cop film, a classic fish-out-of-water story, and a damn fun film at its core. I have to admit that Beverly Hills Cop is almost a genetic condition of mine, as my love of it was passed down from my mother, so while other kids my age were using up their future nostalgia points on crap like the Goonies, I was falling in love with this 80s showcase, filled with ridiculously wardrobed extras, a cornucopia of the music-of-the-day (including the iconic Harold Faltermeyer track “Axel F”), and a silly story that effortlessly strings together an inconsistent collection of scenes that range from “hilarious, racially charged Eddie Murphy rant” to “gritty execution-style killing (featuring Mike from Breaking Bad!)”. This movie shouldn’t work, but it does, beautifully.
Caleb wasn’t able to participate in this one, but he wanted you to know he’d have written about: Batman, The Thing, and The Three Amigos. Tell us all about what we left out in the comments!