Best Discoveries of 2021: The 1980s
(Here's last year's look at the '80s and '90s.)
Only in the past few years have I come to appreciate the 1980s. It wasn’t all bad hair styles and neon-colored clothes. As you dig deeper - and more globally - you might find some treasure as well as some really good junk. Here’s where my ‘80s explorations took me in 2021. (Please let me know where yours took you.)
Roadgames (1981) Richard Franklin (Indicator Blu-ray, Region B)
Stacy Keach plays Pat Quid, a truck driver traveling across an Australian highway, playing a cat-and-mouse game with the driver of a mysterious van, a man Quid believes is a serial killer. When Quid picks up a hitchhiker called “Hitch” (what else?), played by Jamie Lee Curtis, he tries to convince her that there’s something odd going on. Roadgames is an effective thriller combining elements of Rear Window, bits of odd-couple comedy, and more. Richard Franklin has captured just the right tone with the film, although many of its elements strain your suspension of disbelief. The film is available in Region A from Shout Factory (but is not a scan of the 4K restoration), but the Indicator (which is a scan of the 4K restoration) is the one to get. You can find a comparison of the two here.
A Year of the Quiet Sun (1984) Krzysztof Zanussi (Kanopy)
It’s a crime this film isn’t watched and discussed more than it is. It was nominated for a Golden Globe Award and won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion and Pasinetti Awards. Roger Ebert included it in his Great Movies list. I discuss it in more detail here.
Monsieur Hire (1989) Patrice Leconte (Kanopy)
From Roger Ebert’s Great Movies list, a remake of Julien Duvivier’s 1947 film Panique, Patrice Leconte’s version spends much more time with Hire (Michel Blanc), a reclusive tailor who becomes the object of derision from his neighbors, particularly the local school children. Perhaps understandably, Hire desires no contact with others, but becomes obsessed with a young woman named Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire) whom he can easily watch from his apartment across the way. Meanwhile, a police inspector (André Wilms) believes Hire is the killer of a young local woman. As I watched the film, my preconceptions and predictions about where the film was going were assaulted in the best of ways. A tremendous film, and a great double feature with Panique. This is how to do an effective remake.
Eight Men Out (1988) John Sayles (discarded library DVD)
Previously discussed here
As Tears Go By (1988) Wong Kar Wai (World of Wong Kar Wai box set, Criterion)
Kar Wai’s first feature film (as well as the first film in the Criterion box set) combines conventional elements from earlier gangster films with moments of unconventionality which would fully emerge in his later work. Andy Lau plays Wah, a debt collector for the Hong Kong mob. Wah’s friend Fly (Jacky Cheung) is also a mob enforcer, but nowhere nearly as effective as Wah, who has to keep bailing his buddy out when Fly can’t get the job done or when he can’t pay his own debts. Then out of nowhere Wah’s aunt calls to tell him that his cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung), whom Wah has never met, is coming to live with him. As Tears Go By is essentially a gangster film in the vein of Scorsese’s Mean Streets, but - like that film - focuses primarily on character. Perhaps not a great film, but a good one, and a wonderful way to start the Criterion box set.
Vibes (1988) Ken Kwapis (Amazon Prime, free with ads)
Thanks to The Magic Lantern podcast’s bonus episode on this film, I was reminded that I’d missed this one when it originally appeared in 1988. Wise-cracking medium Sylvia Pickel (Cyndi Lauper) and psychometrist Nick Deezy (Jeff Goldblum) decide to help a desperate man named Harry Buscafusco (Peter Falk) find his lost son in the Incan territory of South America. Ah, but is Harry telling the truth? Okay, Vibes may not be a great film, but I loved it. Lauper is a natural in her first feature role and could’ve developed into a fine actress. Goldblum hasn’t reached full-blown Goldblum status yet, but he’s goofy and charming. As he often does, Peter Falk steals the show.
Say Amen, Somebody (doc.1982) George T. Nierenberg (Criterion Channel)
Previously reviewed here
Trouble in Mind (1985) Alan Rudolph (Criterion Channel)
If you’ve never seen it, there’s no way for me to adequately prepare you for Trouble in Mind, other than to say it’s a film noir romance, science fiction/fantasy, slapstick comedy, goofy crime picture featuring Kris Kristofferson, Geneviève Bujold, Keith Carradine, Joe Morton, Lori Singer, and Divine playing a mob boss. Expect the unexpected and enjoy.
Dead of Winter (1987) Arthur Penn (Amazon Prime)
Nice remake of My Name is Julia Ross (1945) with a few nods to that unfairly neglected noir, especially in calling one of its characters Joseph Lewis. (Julia Ross was directed by Joseph H. Lewis.) Mary Steenburgen plays Katie, an actress who auditions for a lead movie role made vacant by a woman who suffered a nervous breakdown. The producers need to finish the movie quickly, and Katie looks remarkably like the other actress. But when Katie arrives on the “set” of an isolated house in upstate New York, she senses that something’s not quite right. Steenburgen is wonderful, as is Roddy McDowall, until the scriptwriter decided to make his part go in a different direction. Dead of Winter is a good thriller, but not top-shelf.
Breaker Morant (1980) Bruce Beresford (Criterion DVD)
My college roommate once told me this was a movie worth seeing. 41 years later, I saw it and agree with him. During the Second Boer War, Australian Army lieutenants Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward), Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown), and young George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) stand accused of murdering six Boer prisoners and a German missionary. The men are defended in court by untested and inexperienced defense counsel Major James Francis Thomas (Jack Thompson). There’s much more going on, however, than a simple trial. This is a tremendous film with large, sweeping thematic elements of war, justice and injustice, honor, dishonor, and much more. Many compare the film thematically to Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957). Although far less-seen, I believe Breaker Morant could be the better film. Don’t wait 41 years to see it like I did.
That’s it for the 1980s. Next time: The ‘90s.