It wasn’t all safe and sorry — here are ten movies that really mattered.
1. Blue Velvet (1986): A visionary masterpiece from writer-director David Lynch, the undisputed wizard of odd. To visit his sick father, a college student (Kyle MacLachlan) returns to his picture-perfect North Carolina town. There he tumbles into a vortex of evil that includes a drug-pushing psycho (Dennis Hopper), a sadistic pimp (Dean Stockwell) and a masochistic nightclub singer (Isabella Rossellini). Lynch’s bizarre mix of the comic and tragic repelled many four years ago. Many more now rightfully regard Blue Velvet as the most influential movie of the Eighties. Certainly the decade saw no film more boldly original or better attuned to the perversity lurking behind the bland facade of Reagan America.
2. Raging Bull (1980): In the hands of director Martin Scorsese and actor Robert De Niro, the story of the former middleweight boxing champ Jake La-Motta became a fiercely poetic study of violence. Stunningly shot in black-and-white, this lacerating film shows how La-Motta’s fury extends from the ring to his home. Scorsese never tempts us to like or condone LaMotta, but he does make us understand him. It’s unthinkable that Scorsese lost the Best Director Oscar to Robert Redford for Ordinary People. There’s no question about which film has stood the test of time.
3. Brazil (1985): Set somewhere in England in the future, this riveting fantasy from former Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam plays like 1984, as adapted by Jonathan Swift. Technology is king and on the fritz. Computers make errors that can kill. Bureaucrats crush the dreamers, represented by Jonathan Pryce, who fancies himself the winged savior of a gorgeous blonde (Kim Griest). Gilliam creates this dehumanizing universe with demented wit, sane anger and the most eye-popping visuals since Metropolis. The images dig into your memory.
4. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986): Of all Woody Allen’s great Eighties films (Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Radio Days, Crimes and Misdemeanors), this is the most ardent, ambitious and memorable. The plot about three sisters (Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest) who mix and match men and jobs in Manhattan is merely an excuse for Allen to lay bare the complex feelings for buddies, bed mates and family we glibly categorize as love. In this compassionate comedy, Allen is wrestling with matters that concern him most: the heart’s propensity to be hurt and art’s power to heal.
5. Dressed to Kill (1980): The essence of what makes Brian De Palma a singular director can best be found in this erotic and provocative thriller, one whose high gloss does not denote superficiality. The transvestite killer who preys on the promiscuous allows De Palma to deal with sex as something to be feared and something to be Punished for — a chilling presentiment of the AIDS era.
6. Broadcast News (1987): Two workaholic TV journalists (Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks) are appalled when a dimwitted pretty boy (William Hurt) becomes a news anchor, but they’re attracted to him anyway. Writer-director James L. Brooks tackles the Eighties blight of news as soap opera, faked footage and the looks-that-shill syndrome, recently represented in so-called reality by Deborah Norville’s taking over for Jane Pauley on Today. Brooks is really tackling nothing less than the decline of Western civilization in the form of one of the most enjoyable and literate romantic comedies ever filmed.
7. Law of Desire (1987): Last year’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown established Spain’s Pedro Almodovar as the most wantonly gifted filmmaker on the international scene. But this earlier, wilder film better captures his distinctive mad magic. Sexuality -straight, gay, bi and twisted — vies with jealousy, revenge and murder to produce a combustible reaction to Franco-era repression. There’s substance as well as style here. Almodovar opens your eyes first, then he knocks them out.
8. Stop Making Sense (1984): You can call this transporting eighty-eight minutes with Talking Heads a great rock-concert film, perhaps the greatest, and let it go at that. But then you’d be failing to give credit to director Jonathan Demme for his consummate skill in finding the perfect visual complement of the New Wave group’s pared-down, dissociative and euphoric sounds. After lead singer David Byme, the embodiment of the modernist man, solos on “Psycho Killer,” the remaining Heads join him to show why they’re the stuff of legend.
9. Do the Right Thing (1989): Spike Lee makes good on the promise of She’s Gotta Have It and School Daze with an audacious and remarkably assured film about the way festering racial tensions in a Brooklyn neighborhood escalate into a riot on one hot summer day. Lee isn’t afraid of raw feeling. His film — inspired by the Howard Beach incident — has the urgency of a man spoiling to be heard.
10. Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980): Writer-director John Sayles made this impressive first film, about a reunion of friends from the Sixties, for $60,000 and gave the independent-film movement a breakout hit Three years later, Lawrence Kasdan would turn out a slick, upscale version called The Big Chill It’s a tribute to Sayles and an indictment of our times that the story of these former student activists trying to find a place for their ideals in the present hasn’t become dated or lost its pertinence ten years later.