This week Netflix unleashed a whole slew of streaming movies made in the 1980s. That decade often gets a bad rap as one in which superficiality and glitz ruled the day, but if you dig deep, you’ll find untold treasures. There were subversive cult movies that raged against the emptiness of the day, movies that looked deeper and more lovingly into relationships between men and women, and paranoid movies that feared the threat of nuclear war with the Russians. (And yes, there was a lot of hair spray.) And sometimes, great art emerged.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
The great screenwriter W.D. Richter—whose resume ranges from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Home for the Holidays—made his directorial debut with the cult movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984); its motto was probably “everything but the kitchen sink.” Peter Weller stars as Buckaroo Banzai, who is a race car driver, surgeon, rock star, stunt man, kung fu master, and—in his spare time—an all-around hero. Though the story is awfully busy, it boils down to this: Buckaroo and his faithful team (including a young, skinny Jeff Goldblum) must stop a mad scientist (John Lithgow) from causing alien invaders from the eighth dimension to take over the Earth. All this, and the amazing Buckaroo still finds time to romance the sexy Penny Priddy (Ellen Barkin). If nothing else, it’s worth it to watch Lithgow devour the scenery like he’s never had a meal in his life.
Another cult classic from the 1980s features much sharper storytelling. Written by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehmann, Heathers (1989) was the pinnacle of the decade’s black comedy, starting with bullying, popularity, and social status in high school and taking it to an entirely new level. Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) has recently been allowed to join the most elite group of girls on campus, consisting of three Heathers (one played by future TV star Shannen Doherty). Meanwhile, a mysterious, cool new guy at school, J.D. (Christian Slater), turns Veronica’s head. He introduces her to a whole new way of dealing with the cool kids, and it involves murder made to look like suicide. The movie’s finishing touch is a popular song about teenage suicide (“Don’t do it!”) that sweeps the school. Lehmann and Waters manage to get big laughs while digging into the blackest reaches of the human soul.
Withnail and I
Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I (1987) is a slightly less well-known cult film, at least in the United States, though its fans are very devoted. The movie tells the tale of two struggling actors in London of the late 1960s. Paul McGann plays Marwood, the “I” of the title, and Richard E. Grant plays the more colorful Withnail. Fed up with their unemployed lifestyle, they decide to take a free vacation in the country, staying in a cabin, courtesy of Withnail’s Uncle Monty. Unfortunately, constant rain and a lack of food are just the beginning of their troubles. The humor here is very dry and offbeat, and many have tried and failed to tune into its unique rhythms. But if you do, lines like “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake!” will have you laughing months later.
Aside from cult movies, the 1980s also produced several sophisticated comedy romances. Writer/director James L. Brooks, best known for his work on TV shows like Lou Grant and Taxi won an Oscar for his feature directorial debut Terms of Endearment (1983). His follow-up, Broadcast News (1987) is even more light-hearted and enjoyable, but with a slight, stinging commentary on 1980s superficiality. William Hurt plays a square-jawed blonde newscaster, Tom Grunick, whose looks get him ahead in the TV news industry, while the smarter and much more talented Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) struggles. They both love Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), though she sees Aaron as more of a friend, and is drawn—like everyone else—to Tom. Brooks’s filmmaking is squeaky-clean, but his writing is sharp (“I’ll meet you at the place near the thing where we went that time.”) and he manages to avoid caricatures. Jack Nicholson and John Cusack appear in small roles. The movie received seven Oscar nominations all around but did not win.
John Cusack became the hero of a generation of smart, nerdy, romantic boys, and Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything (1989) gave him his richest romantic lead. He plays Lloyd Dobler, a dreamer and would-be kickboxer who falls in love with the sensible Diane Court (Ione Skye) just after high school. They only have a summer together before Diane flies to England, but their romance turns into something deep for both of them. Lili Taylor co-stars as Lloyd’s friend who has a secret crush on him. John Mahoney plays Diane’s father who, in a subplot that doesn’t really work, is under investigation by the IRS. Some of Crowe’s lines (“I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed,” etc.), and the indelible image of Lloyd holding the radio, became part of a generation’s reference book.
The Falcon and the Snowman
English director John Schlesinger won a Best Director Oscar for Midnight Cowboy (1969), but hadn’t done anything of note since the 1970s when he turned up with the surprisingly good espionage thriller The Falcon and the Snowman (1985). Based on a true story, it focuses on two childhood friends. The “falcon” (Timothy Hutton), so called because he trains falcons, gets a job working for a defense contractor. He becomes disillusioned with what he sees as the U.S. government’s dirty deeds and decides to sell secrets to the Russians. He joins forces with his smuggler buddy, the “snowman” (Sean Penn), so called because of his voracious drug use. Not to take anything away from Hutton, but Penn is frighteningly good in this crazed, manic role. Jazz musician Pat Metheny provides the moody score, and David Bowie recorded a song for the soundtrack.
Watching thrillers from the 1980s hints at a serious preoccupation with Russians, as the summer hit WarGames (1983) clearly shows. Matthew Broderick became a star after his performance as computer nerd David, who hacks into a U.S. military computer in search of cool video games, but accidentally (almost) starts a world war. Ally Sheedy plays his cute sidekick, and Dabney Coleman is the uptight engineer McKittrick, but Barry Corbin steals the movie as the old-fashioned, scenery-chomping General Beringer. Director John Badham went from the gritty New York streets of Saturday Night Fever (1977) to this slick Hollywood thriller in a matter of six years, but he creates an irresistible blend of innocence, mystery, suspense, and humor. It received three Oscar nominations, for screenplay, cinematography, and sound.
Just when things had become too slick and superficial, the Irish writer and director Neil Jordan made the refreshingly low-key, character-based neo-noir, Mona Lisa (1986). Bob Hoskins stars—and received an Oscar nomination—as George, an ex-con newly released from prison. His old boss, crime lord Mortwell (Michael Caine), gives him a job driving a high-class call girl, Simone (Cathy Tyson), from job to job. She’s tall, elegant, and aloof, while George is a pint-sized firecracker, but together they develop a fascinating relationship, which leads to troubles with the London underworld. Jordan makes the most of the city’s nighttime lights, tones, and atmosphere. Former Beatle George Harrison co-produced the movie for his company HandMade Films.
Just in case you thought the 1980s were nothing but glitz and surface, check out The Sacrifice (1986), the powerful final film by the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. In it, a retired journalist and philosopher (Erland Josephson) celebrates a birthday at his country house just as nuclear war has begun. He learns that if he visits his neighbor and sleeps with her—she’s supposedly a witch—he could stop the war. Tarkovsky was dying of lung cancer while shooting; while a kind of finality permeates the film, he also seemed unafraid of trying any idea that passed through his head. The movie is made up of long, meditative takes as well as philosophical discussions and strange dream logic. It’s an unforgettable film of terror and beauty.