The Best Discoveries of 2020: The 1980s and 1990s
The mid-1980s and the entirety of the 1990s continue to be a gaping hole in my movie-watching experience. These were the years I was busy teaching and working on graduate degrees, so I had little time for movies. Some the films from the early ‘80s I missed out on due to limited theatrical venues and a scarcity of VHS movies to rent. Even today, I’m probably more interested in films from the ‘80s than the ‘90s, but I’m always open to suggestions.
So today I’m combining movies from the 1980s and 1990s I saw this year for the first time.
Au Revoir les Enfants (1987) Louis Malle (Criterion Channel)
Two 12-year-old boys become friends in a French boarding school, a place where innocence often begins to vanish in the midst of shenanigans and growing up. Yet Julien (Gaspard Manesse) and Jean (Raphael Fejto) have the misfortune of attending school in 1944 during the German occupation. You can probably guess what’s going to happen, but the way in which Malle allows the story to unfold is both restrained and powerful. This is indeed a great film.
El Norte (1983) Gregory Nava (Library DVD)
Nava’s powerful film is much more than the story of the struggle of a young couple (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez and David Villalpando) escaping persecution in Guatemala to cross into the United States. It’s also a film that has lost none of its power and significance in the 37 years since its release.
Maurice (1987) James Ivory (Kanopy)
Maurice is perhaps the most unfairly neglected Merchant Ivory production, possibly due to its release during the peak years of the AIDS crisis, but also because many in and out of the movie industry considered E. M. Forster’s source novel a substandard effort. Like other (perhaps all?) of Forster’s work, Maurice concerns English society and class structures, but is primarily the love story of Maurice Hall (James Wilby) and Clive Durham (Hugh Grant) at a time when homosexuality was punishable in England by imprisonment or worse. As with all Merchant Ivory films, the production values and acting soar.
Moonstruck (1987) Norman Jewison (Amazon Prime)
This doesn’t always happen, but when I hear everyone going on and on about a movie, novel, album, etc., I tend to run in the opposite direction. That’s what happened with me when Moonstruck became such a mega-hit in 1987. Well, sometimes all those people are right, and I’m wrong. Moonstruck is charming, touching, and funny with tremendous performances. These days I try not to be such a dope about such things, but there are no guarantees.
My Bodyguard (1980) Tony Bill (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)
Clifford Peache (Chris Makepeace) is the new kid at a Chicago public high school, which shouldn’t be too much of a problem, except that Clifford clashes with the school bully (Matt Dillon). Ah, but Clifford has a brilliant idea: Instead of giving the bully protection money, he’ll simply hire the most-feared kid in school (who apparently raped a teacher and killed a cop), Ricky Linderman (Adam Baldwin), as his bodyguard. Everything is great for awhile, but then… This is the rare teenager movie that’s fun, dark, and substantial, hampered only by too many scenes of light comedy involving Clifford’s man-crazy grandmother (Ruth Gordon). Many thanks to Brian over at Rupert Pupkin Speaks for recommending this film.
Smash Palace (1981) Roger Donaldson (Arrow Blu-ray)
With Smash Palace, Roger Donaldson dares to attempt something few would even consider: turning a family drama into an unforgettable thriller. Al Shaw (Bruno Lawrence) has retired from auto racing to keep his father’s auto shop/salvage yard in rural New Zealand going. Al clearly loves his young daughter Georgie (Greer Robson), but his wife Jacqui (Anna Jemison), tired of Al’s emotional distance, starts seeking attention from other sources. Smash Palace is a slow burn that’s both thrilling and heartbreaking.
Buffalo ’66 (1998) Vincent Gallo (Amazon Prime)
Just released from prison, Billy Brown (Vincent Gallo) kidnaps a stranger (Christina Ricci), demanding that she pose as his girlfriend while they visit Billy’s parents (Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Huston). Gallo’s independent film is far more than a simple character study, although it certainly is that. It’s also a family drama, a quest for identity, meaning, belonging, and much more. Although most of the supporting cast gets little screen time, the film contains excellent work from Gazzara, Huston, Rosanna Arquette, Jan-Michael Vincent, Mickey Rourke, and others.
The Last Days of Disco (1998) Whit Stillman (Criterion DVD)
I was really surprised I liked this. Stillman walks a fine line between effective drama and pretentiousness, following several young men and women professionals during the last days of a fashionable New York disco. Written differently, I could've easily wanted to slap most of these characters, but instead, I felt I understood them.
The Sandlot (1993) David Mickey Evans (Library DVD)
I’d spent years having no clue what “You’re killin’ me, Smalls!” meant. Now I know. I also know that The Sandlot is one of the most enjoyable movies about kids and baseball you’ll ever see. I only wish the film had been about 10 minutes shorter, and I know exactly which 10 minutes I would cut: most of the many attempts to get the baseball away from the angry dog next door. Still, I really enjoyed this one.
Suture (1993) Scott McGehee, David Siegel (Amazon Prime)
If you can buy into its premise, Suture has the potential to provide much food for thought. If you can’t, watching the film could be an intensely frustrating experience. After the funeral of his father, the wealthy Vincent Towers (Michael Harris) meets Clay Arlington (Dennis Haysbert), the identical half-brother he didn’t know he had. Vincent sets Clay up as a pawn, using his half-brother to fake his own death and escape into anonymity. The problem with the premise is that Vincent is white and Clay is black, yet to everyone in the film, there’s no distinction whatsoever between the two men. Directors McGehee and Siegel are obviously making a commentary on racism, but some viewers may not be able to get around the premise. Suture is sometimes referred to as an art house noir, filmed in gorgeous black-and-white.
That's it for both the '80s and '90s. Next time I'll take a look at from from 2000 to the present.