The 80’s have now become a decade of pure nostalgia, full of style and incredible personality that contemporary Film and Television have caught on to – so much so that it’s unique cheesiness has been used time and time again as a setting (think Stranger Things [2016-] and It  for their Goonies-esque protagonists and 80’s Horror framework). They are the kind of shows and films that make us envy those that experienced it, but you can’t beat the work that emerged from the decade itself.
70’s darlings Scorsese and Spielberg were looking to broaden their horizons from the work that made them famous, John Hughes single-handedly epitomised the High School experience with films like The Breakfast Club (1985) and more individualism was being inserted into big-budgets and blockbusters. It’s truly the time of popcorn cinema, and while they’re the films that will always have a special place in people’s hearts you have to remember that as time goes on, the vast landscape of filmmaking and creativity expands.
In a Century with two World Wars, numerous conflicts and political discourses clashing all over, World Cinema became a vast spectrum of creative ideas and wonderfully unique films. Much like Hollywood it was a place in which young filmmakers were beginning to make a name for themselves – In Japan, Takeshi Kitano made a name for himself as a unique auteur with Violent Cop (1989) and John Woo brought Hong Kong action to an International status with A Better Tomorrow (1986) and The Killer (1989). Cinema was truly in it’s most expansive form to date, and with so much quality from every part of the globe, it’s difficult to forget a lot of the films that came out.
The Color Purple (1985)
Director: Steven Spielberg | 2h 34mins | Drama
Based on the pulitzer prize winning novel by Alice Walker, The Color Purple follows the life of Celia Johnson, an African-American woman who spends her life in an abusive marriage, as she struggles to find identity in the world that she’s pushed into. It’s a movie that first and foremost made stars out of a number of people including Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey, but more importantly it was proof that Spielberg had the directing maturity to deal with such an acclaimed source material.
We know now that Spielberg can turn his attention to any story and affectively tune it to any desired tone (in the same year he made Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List) but back in the early 80’s this wasn’t a proven thing. It’s a common thing for Director’s to change course drastically in an attempt to prove their range but this time it worked, and despite The Color Purple taking a while to get going, it’s sense of community and identity are still wonderfully prominent in the vast time it’s covering.
The start is full of deep dramatisation with a hint of comedic moments that are almost cartoonish, it’s a strange mix that takes some adapting but it certainly pays off by building a community of characters through this odd tone. Celia is a woman that slowly becomes a product of her environment and becomes stronger because of the people around her, it’s a transition that is beautifully played Goldberg in the sprawling change of her performance, but it’s equally matched by a film that is well aware of it’s setting and time but never loses focus on Celia’s journey, making the ending all the more joyous because of the emotional punch it has.
Paris, Texas (1984)
Director: Wim Wenders | 2h 25mins | Drama
Paris, Texas feels almost like a fable. A dusty man appears out of the desert after four years and aimless wandering, with no explanation as to why he started walking in the first place. Wim Wender’s is a director that stamped enough quality into the 1980’s with Wings of Desire (1987), but the soft connectivity of Paris, Texas, as well as a wonderful starring turn from Harry Dean Stanton, is the reason it makes this list so clear cut.
Stanton plays Travis, a tall gangly man who’s mystery lies in his inability to reconnect to the world after four years of wandering. But, he begins to find solace in the attempt of rebuilding foundations with his son, and eventually is ex-wife. It’s a movie all about baby steps, gradually watching a man rebuild and save that which he lost. Sure it’s a slow-burner, but Wenders knows that with his pace he can create tender moments of thought and nostalgia for better or worse.
We’ve seen the wandering figure of a broken man many times before (most notably in Western gunslingers), but what makes Trevor so complex as a human being is his journey’s end. He’s a man that was all consumed by love and fear, and his journey isn’t about forgiveness or reconciliation but rather about saving the lives of those he has cherished for so long. Wender’s is so delicate with his message that it really builds to one fabulous scene involving Trevor and his ex, one that remains one of the greatest scenes of all time.
The Long Good Friday (1980)
Director: John Mackenzie | 1h 54mins | Crime, Drama, Mystery
John Mackenzie’s London gang thriller is a violent affair that feels straight from an 80’s cinema textbook. It’s flashy, tense and often funny in a dark way. But what makes The Long Good Friday unique is it’s ability to balance the Noir story elegantly with the cheese of an 80’s score and the grime of a London underbelly. While the film as a whole is wonderfully exciting and gritty, it’s partly down to a fantastic cast as well – especially Bob Hoskins as main character Harold.
Harold is your stereotypical Gangster (although has more love for his wife that most are depicted to have), he runs numerous businesses questionably, and is overtly proud of the city he controls. But when people start to sabotage his ‘corporation’ while he’s in the midst of making a huge deal, he must seek out the disturbance and take care of it. As Frank marauds from one interrogation to the next, a little added pleasure we get as a viewer is seeing a who’s who of British acting royalty and a constant wonder of “where have I seen them?” (notice a young Pierce Brosnan), but the film’s applaud is in it’s ending.
Without spoiling anything let’s just say it becomes clear who Harold’s biggest threat is, himself. After all he is a bad guy, and while thematically it doesn’t sound particularly new it does show the movies maturity. Harold is all force and no strategy, and the movies gradual change of focus is a wonderful addition to an already entertaining film. It’s one that’s easy to brush off as 80’s cheese, but it’s much more than that, both as a Neo-Noir and as a gritty British thriller.
The Big Chill (1983)
Director: Lawrence Kasdan | 1h 45mins | Comedy, Drama
Kasdan’s delightful Comedy-Drama is quintessential nostalgia viewing, not in the 80’s style we’ve come to see recreated in recent years but for it’s personal attachment of the director, and that feeling of ‘friends no matter what’ mantra the film has coursing through it. Supposedly Kasdan based characters on people he went to school with, but what’s genius about The Big Chill is it’s ability to trigger our own nostalgia, reminiscing of times that shape your identity and for a lot of people, find life long friendships.
After the death of a peer, a group of friends spend some time together to celebrate and reminisce about their time together, and even reopen some old wounds and feelings. It’s a simple structure that gifts you simple viewing pleasure. They make dinner, they drink, they fight and they embrace. It’s a glossy picture of what it means to be life long friends, and it’s made all the better by a cast of acting heavyweights who take chemistry up to a new level. The movie doesn’t just glide from one scene to the next though, it uses it’s stakes wisely in order to give the film juice while never tarnishing the overall message it’s sending.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re in your old age, mid-40’s or even mid-20’s, this movie speaks for every memory you have of your College or University days. But the important thing that The Big Chill does is, not teach you to live in the past but rather enjoy the ability to share memories with the people you’re most fond off. It’s such a sweet movie, with an even sweeter soundtrack, that is endlessly watchable because of it’s openness.
Come and See (1985)
Director: Elem Klimov | 2h 22mins | Drama, War | Languages: Russian, German
Many times when we’ve been exposed to World War II the films find a much more euphoric tone through heroism and patriotism – especially in American depictions – so it’s an even more shocking experience to watch something like Come and See. One of, if not the, most brutal depiction of War ever to be put to screen, Klimov’s harsh realities of one of the most brutal times in World History will stay with you for years.
It follows a young Russian boy as he joins a resistance, and consequentially suffers at the hands of the War. The no holds barred style of Klimov’s film strike a cord for so many reasons, but one that is so harrowing is the idea of lost innocence and identity in the children. Flyora (played wonderfully by Aleksey Kravchenko) is forced to face much more than warfare, he gradually becomes ingrained into the War taking place around him, and through his eyes we can visualise just how horrid of a time this truly was.
Not to say that heroism and patriotism don’t have their place in War, but Klimov knows that what seems to be missing is the reality of it all. A visceral interpretation that rattles you to your core as well as there being no film to this day that has a scene as challenging as Come and See‘s barn burning scene, and there is really no film that’s had the ability to capture the horror’s of war is such a soul-crushing way.
Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989)
Steven Soderbergh | 1h 40mins | Drama
The tale goes that Soderbergh wrote the screenplay for Sex, Lies and Videotape over the course of a flight. It’s a story that’s plausible because of the films simplicity, but also one that seems impossible because of it’s quality. The film challenges desire, faithfulness and sexual liberation through four characters that are equally complex, but completely different in their relationship and connection to the world. It’s a story that feels built for the stage, but Soderbergh utilises his camera in the most crafty way, legitimising the cinematic relevance, but never overpowering the words he has written, or the performances by it’s brilliant cast.
The characters in question are Graham (James Spader), an enigmatic old friend who harbours a fetish for videotaping women’s sexual confessions; Ann (Andie MacDowell), a quiet and innocent woman with a lack of resiliency; as well as her husband John and her sister Cynthia, who have been having an affair behind her back. These four characters share the screen together in exquisitely made scenes that are so wonderfully balanced, and it does so much for the films quality to have such complexity in each character involved.
This film is so high in quality that I’d argue this to be Soderbergh’s best (sorry Ocean’s Eleven fans). He’s a Director with an eclectic filmography, but Sex, Lies and Videotape is so wonderfully fluid and exact that it’s hard to argue against it being his best film, as well as being one of the finest debut’s to come from a decade that is chock full of them.
Jean de Florette / Manon Des Sources (1986)
Director: Claude Berri | 2h / 1h 53mins | Drama | Language: French
Despite being two separate films it doesn’t feel right putting either Jean de Florette or Manon Des Sources on this list on their own, after all, they are apart of the same story. The first (Jean de Florette) is a heartbreaking tale of greed and envy and the second is about getting vengeance on those that caved in on their own jealousy. Both are equally as gorgeous as the other, capturing their themes perfectly while also basking in the sun-kissed beauty of a rural French countryside.
It’s a film that’s full of beautiful performances by some of France’s greatest performers, including the likes of Yves Montand, Gerard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil and Emmanuelle Beart, all showing just how good they are when working with characters that feel so ingrained into the setting and story. But it’s not just about the setting’s beauty, Berri is able to emphasise true heartbreak by telling such a bleak story in such a gorgeous environment – doing wonders for every emotional punch the film has to offer.
Despite the movies being released separately it has to be said that they work so much better together. Jean de Florette‘s greed-filled pessimism is adjusted for the better by the second film’s redemptive plot, and Manon Des Sources is nothing without the first. As one product it allows it’s themes to weave wonderfully – making Berri’s heartbreaking tale on human greed take on all the qualities of an epic – allowing the film to become one of the decades highlights, as well as a highlight for French Cinema also.