Travelling Through Time: The Best Films of the 1980s

The first film I saw in the cinema was Honey I Shrunk the Kids, a Disney film penned (weirdly) by body horror masters Brian Yuzna (Society) and Stuart Gordon (Re-animator), and released in the summer of 1989. I was four, so the memory is a bit patchy but I do recall being very complimentary of the movie to my family and friends (as well as being freaked out by the giant ant for a long time). As I learned much later, the film was part of an increasing trend towards kids’ adventure entertainment in Hollywood at the time. The trend had begun with Star Wars in 1977 and continued throughout the 1980s with two Star Wars sequels (one good – The Empire Strikes Back, and one bad – Return of the Jedi), E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, The NeverEnding Story, Labyrinth, Batteries Not Included, The Goonies etc, etc. The success of the Spielbergs (Amblin Entertainment) and the Lucases (LucasFilm) propelled Hollywood to seek unending blockbuster potential and the focus on family entertainment was often a guaranteed ‘Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner’.

As I grew up in the nineties and beyond, the eighties became a very prominent influence on my generation – a sort of fabled place that sparked feelings of nostalgia and cringe in equal measure. The fashion, the culture, the music, the movies. It was a world away from the 1960s and 1970s. The eighties, you could say, was the birth of modern mainstream popular culture. Without the rise of VHS and MTV, it would have been very different. Video certainly did kill the radio star, but it also had a massive impact on cinema. The longevity of a film’s success could now be measured by its release on video cassette as well as its release in the theatre, if in fact it had one. MTV began to play a role in the success of movies, with new pop songs (and videos) regularly being released simultaneously with the film. In some cases, musicians would appear in the film, as in Brian de Palma’s Body Double where Frankie Goes to Hollywood bizarrely enter a scene on the set of a porno performing their hit ‘Relax’. And then you have the likes of Top Gun (‘Danger Zone’, ‘Take My Breath Away’), Purple Rain (basically a Prince album movie), Dirty Dancing (‘I’ve Had The Time of My Life’) and Flashdance (‘What a Feeling’, ‘Maniac’), which all included scenes purposively created in the form of music videos. It was a, sort of, exciting time.

Indeed, cinematic integrity took a big hit as a result. One must not look farther than the Best Film Oscar Winners to find evidence of this. Ordinary People: ordinary. Terms of Endearment: overwhelmingly sappy. Amadeus: overwrought. Out of Africa: except for John Barry’s sumptuous score, just bad. Driving Miss Daisy: worse than bad. Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor is certainly cinematic, but it is no Lawrence of Arabia. Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi is the only real stand-out amongst the crowd. As always though, our inward look towards Hollywood distracts us from the oft-excellence that occurs in World Cinema, and the 1980s were no different to previous decades. In Japan, Akira Kurosawa gave us two late masterpieces, Kagemusha and Ran, the latter being possibly one of the greatest films ever made. In Russia, Elem Klimov gave us a stunning anti-war movie with Come and See. Claude Berri adapted Marcel Pagnol’s novel into two beautiful films set in the sun-drenched Provence region of France, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. In Poland, Krzysztof Kieślowski co-wrote and directed ten one-hour films, all equally brilliant, in a serial called Dekalog. In Greece, Theo Angelopoulos gave us the amazing Landscape in the Mist. In Turkey, Şerif Gören and the imprisoned Yilmaz Güney gave us the equally amazing Yol. In Spain, Pedro Almodavor emerged with an exciting new form of film, his best of the decade being Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Down in New Zealand, the underrated Geoff Murphy directed Utu and The Quiet Earth, and up in Scotland, the equally underrated Bill Forsyth directed Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero.

It would be remiss of me not to mention some of the excellent high-scale productions that did come out of North America in the eighties. These focused on a new form of adult adventure entertainment, taking the place of Westerns and ‘revengeamatic’ thrillers from the previous decades. After the release of Alien in 1979, a whole range of special effects-laden thrillers, horrors and sci-fi epics followed suit. Some were very scary and high quality like Alien, others were just a bit camp and crap, and this largely depended on the available budget. Thankfully, the development of new techniques in special effects soared at the time, and the best examples can be seen in John Carpenter’s The Thing, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and The Fly, John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, James Cameron’s The Terminator and Aliens, John McTiernan’s Predator, Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop, and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The special effects also sometimes made their way into more straight-up but enjoyable cop thrillers like Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop and 48 HRS (i.e. via elaborate car chases, shoot-outs and explosions).

It would be of surprise to nobody that none of the last four mentioned films feature in the Sight and Sound critics’ list of the Greatest Films of All Time. But there are a few surprises from the list of 1980s films included in the Top 100 as shown below, most notably the exclusion of Ran:

  • The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick) (=88)
  • Blue Velvet (1986, David Lynch) (=85)
  • Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988, Jean-Luc Godard) (=78)
  • My Neighbour Totoro (1988, Hayou Miyazaki) (=72)
  • Sans Soleil (1982, Chris Marker) (59)
  • Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott) (=54)
  • Shoah (1985, Claude Lanzmann) (27)
  • Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee) (24)
  • Close-up (1989, Abbas Kiarostami) (17)

Other worthy films from the eighties that I would argue for are Martin Scorsese’s criminally underrated After Hours, Werner Herzog’s troubled but inevitable masterpiece Fitzcarraldo, Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, the mesmerising Koyaanisqatsi from Godfrey Reggio, Philip Glass and Ron Fricke, and Errol Morris’s game-changing documentary The Thin Blue Line. But now I want to focus on my ultimate five favourite films from the decade:

The Elephant Man (1980, David Lynch)

Many have termed The Elephant Man the most atypical David Lynch film in his catalogue, but I think that accolade better resides with The Straight Story (an equally brilliant film). Regardless, there are many Lynchian elements evidenced here: the strange, ominous opening credits showing rampaging elephants in transparent black and white being one of them. Remarkably, this was only Lynch’s second feature film, and arguably his best. One of the defining features of the Lynchian universe is its meditative reflection upon good and evil, upon humanity and inhumanity. The Elephant Man admirably swells in its showcase of this dichotomy. It is one of the most genuinely compassionate films of high regard I have ever watched.

As much as its success is down to Lynch (then only 33), the film would never have been as effective without its magnificent casting – a coming-together of some of the greatest British actors of all time. John Hurt as the disfigured John Merrick is cloaked in prosthetics, but his acting (movement, speech, eye movement) is so tender and affecting. A dark-haired and bearded Anthony Hopkins plays the physician Frederick Treves, who possesses an equally scientific-minded interest as a tear-inducing kindness for Merrick despite the many obstacles thrown in his way by the harsh and often inhumane Victorian society he inhabits. John Gielgud, then in his late 70s, offers a stern but invested and ultimately humane take as the hospital Governor Francis Carr-Gomm. These are all accomplished British Stage Thespians playing unconventional period roles in a film by an American with an artistic slant enmeshed in weirdness and the surreal (note that the film is also produced by Mel Brooks). It should not work, but it does. The black and white photography is beautiful and the set design succeeds in creating a very plausible London at the end of the 19th century.

The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982, Peter Greenaway)

This magnificently high-brow, encaptivating and utterly singular period comedy drama from Peter Greenaway (his break-out feature) is one that can easily get forgotten in time, given the overly saturated ‘classic period pieces’ that relentlessly came out of Britain in the 1980s (and still do). But the difference here is that this is not an adaptation, nor a BBC production. It came from the liberal-minded scoundrels at Channel 4 and the more polished, cinema-loving British Film Institute. The result is an unforgettable masterpiece of a film from a man with a uncompromised vision. A vision that re-occurred with his later efforts Drowning by Numbers and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. Both brilliant and unique in their own way, but my Greenaway favourite is this, a film set in the 17th Century and which follows the conniving and ultimately consequential escapades of an arrogant young artist contracted to paint for a wealthy country estate owner in Wiltshire.

Period dramas, with its proud dedication to costume and set design, is not something that really does it for me, but The Draughtsman’s Contract is an exception. Greenaway gives us an impressive universe to delve into. We rarely leave the Wiltshire estate, a veritable surrounding of rich, luscious and elegant features (filmed during an uncommon sun-drenched summer in England it appears). In the same way that Wes Anderson does now, Greenaway carefully crafts his scenes with astounding attention to detail. The story here is intense, intricate and weaved into an unconventional murder mystery, one with a stunning and exasperating conclusion. None of the characters are particularly nice, including the lead protagonist, Mr. R. Neville (played by Anthony Higgins) who is unbearably arrogant and sexually deviant. But this is the purpose, and you have no other option to be enthralled as you are rolled along with its undying pace, a pace that is brilliantly pitched by the delectable (and one of the best ever) scores by Michael Nyman.

Paris, Texas (1984, Wim Wenders)

There is an inescapable sadness to Wim Wenders’ first successful American movie, a sadness that permeates throughout the characters and the landscapes of all his previous films from the New German Cinema era. But I never find the sadness to be that unbearable. Like The Elephant Man, it can be a cathartic experience, one that focuses on an optimistic pathway away from sadness and loneliness, even though the ending may not be totally swimming in happiness. Wenders, through very understated machinations, weaves a very powerful and effecting ‘road movie’ masterpiece, indeed complimented by a brilliant script by Sam Shepard and LM Kit Carson, a perfectly balanced, guitar score by Ry Cooder, and gorgeous, contrasting city and desert imagery by Robby Müller. It is unsurprising that the beauty and aesthetic of the film has been a major influence on aspects of popular culture since, e.g., U2’s The Joshua Tree album. The opening sequence, when a seemingly broken and blankly staring man walks through the barren desert wearing a red baseball cap and dusty black suit while buzzards eagerly watch, is one of those special moments in cinema that can proudly sit beside the best of them. Its exquisite.

I have a movie book that categorises Paris, Texas as a ‘weepie,’ and although that term is reductive, I can safely say that I cry every time I watch the scene where Travis (the wandering man mentioned above, played by Harry Dean Stanton) reacquaints with his wife (Nastassja Kinski) through the recounting of a story of their lives together. By that point we have been on a journey with Travis, as he comes back to the land of the living after a trauma that caused him a psychological breakdown. We never really get the full story, only that he abandoned his young son (as did his wife, who now works in a peep-show club in Houston), and left him to live with his uncle and wife (wonderfully played by Dean Stockwell and Aurore Clément) in suburban LA. Travis’ slow journey from heart-broken and mute to caring and redemptive-seeking father and husband is a very pure experience, and this is mainly down to the authenticity that Stanton brings to the role. He was a special actor, just as Paris, Texas is a special film.  

Withnail and I (1987, Bruce Robinson)

What can be said about Withnail and I that hasn’t been said before? The Bruce Robinson autobiographical elements of the film are well known, as are the George Harrison and Ringo Starr connections, and the behind-the-scenes stories, such as Richard E. Grant’s alcohol abstinence being forced to be broken in order to make Withnail’s relentless booze consumption look more authentic. It is a cult classic, one that gave us eternally repeatable lines such as ‘I demand to have some booze,’ ‘We’ve gone on holiday by mistake,’ ‘I feel like a pig shat in my head,’ and ‘We want the finest wines available to humanity, we want them here and we want them now’. It also immortalised ideas such as the gigantic ‘Camberwell Carrot’ joint, wearing plastic bags as a replacement for wellington boots, shooting fish in a river, and of course, lathering one’s body with Deep Heat cream in order to stay warm.

It is without doubt one of the most hilarious films ever made. But it is not a shallow, pretentious comedy. The desperation and anxiety that permeates from the lead character, I/Marwood (played by Paul McGann), was a very real and serious situation that Robinson found himself in in the late 1960s. The madcap scenes of Withnail and I/Marwood’s ‘countryside holiday’ in Penrith is framed by some very resonant scenes set in inner-city London. It is clearly a time of desolation and despair for many young people (Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd’s real-life disintegration comes to mind). The disingenuous pot-dealer Danny speaks of the greatest decade in the history of mankind fizzling out. Withnail, at the end of the film, is abandoned by I/Marwood who has scored a job in Manchester and must leave – Robinson’s original novel had Withnail committing suicide after this moment. The film begins with a live version of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ by King Curtis playing on a record player – its cryptic lyrics and its solemn and soulful sound marking an equal sense of reverence and uncertainty that continues throughout the film. It is a brilliant, meaningful film that delights us with outrageous comedy but makes us very aware of a time and a place.

Spoorloos / The Vanishing (1988, George Sluizer)

Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) are a young Dutch couple on a road trip in the south of France. The first twenty minutes or so of the film follow this normal couple as they argue and profess their love for each other in between doing pretty mundane things. But we are already aware of the title of the film, and so our thoughts are filled with dread, wondering when the actual ‘vanishing’ will happen. Perhaps a tired trope, but it inevitably ends up being the vanishing of Saskia, the woman. However, it occurs at a time and location that we do not expect – at a busy service station in broad daylight, after they had already broken down in a dark tunnel (which is when we were actually expecting it). The remainder of the film sees Rex obsessively trying to locate and find out what happens to his partner. We are under no illusions that foul play was involved, and when we are transported into another character’s story (Raymond, played by Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), we sense some hope for both Rex and ourselves in finally figuring out the enigma at the heart of the film. But alas…

This iconic psychological horror film from the Netherlands is not exactly pleasant viewing, but then again, this genre is not meant to be pleasant. And yet somehow there are aspects to Sluizer’s film that look impossibly beautiful and often cinematic (is it any wonder that Stanley Kubrick was a fan?). It offers a simple mystery but weaves through a complex structure that leads to devastation and horror for the viewer. But let that not put you off. In the same way as The Shining and many of Hitchcock’s classics, you can only but revel in the artwork of this dark, mythic fable. It is a perfect film, a masterpiece that warrants several repeated viewings. Just don’t watch it if you are claustrophobic.

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