Once Upon a Time in the 80s: The Directors (Part 8 of 17)

This is a recapitulation of a paper I did in college. This is part eight in the series to read other parts go here.

When discussing the 1980s no director stands out more prominently than does Steven Spielberg. Just looking at his repertoire of films from the decade and we can see his artistry was ever-expanding. He had blockbusters in the Indiana Jones trilogy and also with the incredibly sensitive and heart-felt E.T. He also started to venture into uncharted territory. I truly admire directors who are always looking to change to make a departure so to speak, and Spielberg was always willing to do that. Even while E.T. was a success he had Poltergeist in general release, which was a supernatural horror film. It was E.T. that did it for him. It was his biggest hit to date and it allowed him to create his own production company, Amblin Entertainment.


After his second Indy film he started work on his first drama and it’s one of his better efforts called The Color Purple. There was much critical uproar over Spielberg handling a story about African-Americans. Regardless of that it’s a great film that works beautifully and like most of his films has a triumphant theme. His next film was also a drama but here we saw World War II from a difficult angle. In Empire of the Sun Spielberg beautifully documents the travails of a lost British child. This is Spielberg’s first wartime opus and the war is less involved in the events of this film than in other films and it works fantastically. The film received much critical praise including in the international media, which called this his most European film. After the third and final Indy film, for the time being, he did a remake called Always. Spielberg would continue to change from film to film doing whatever he wanted. He then went on to the much maligned but absolutely magical Hook in ’91. Then came Jurassic Park, which was in all likelihood what helped him start up DreamWorks.


Steven Spielberg was the ideal director for the 1980s. Most of the films I’ve talked about were Amblin Productions. Spielberg was producer of Young Sherlock Holmes, The Money Pit, An American Tail, Harry and the Hendersons, Innerspace, *batteries not included and Back to the Future Part II amongst others. All of these films are adventurous, family-oriented and fantastical in some way or another. Steven Spielberg’s worked has only improved and multiplied in the 90s. He was also the standard setter in the 80s whereas everyone was trying to emulate his style but none really could.

Beetlejuice (1988, Warner Bros.)

Lucas’ impact has already been noted with the Star Wars films and co-authoring the Indiana Jones series but stylistically few directors were more noticeable than Tim Burton. His first break into the big time was directing Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, a quirky film about a child-like adult’s search for his lost bike. The film surprised everyone and spawned a Saturday morning program. Burton’s flair for the quirky and unusual and his visual sensitivity got even more free-range in his next project, Beetlejuice. Not only is this one of the most original films I’ve seen but the cinematography, particularly in the after-world sequences with the sandworms, is fantastic. In Beetlejuice we follow the tale of a couple that has recently died and they try to scare the new residents of their house out. Michael Keaton delivers one of his best performances as the gross and irreverent title character and this film too was spun-off into a cartoon.

Wall Street (1987, Columbia/Tri Star)

Oliver Stone is one of the best directors out there right now [as of this writing]. He’s very different from most directors at any point in time because he’s more willing to be political than most American directors. The film that put him on the map was Salvador, which deals with Panama at a time when Reagan looked upon all of South and Central America as his toys. He then had his two anti-Vietnam films being Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, which are powerful and stirring accounts. I do believe that every good director has a bit of good fortune in their timing every once in a while. Spielberg released Minority Report when privacy and surveillance are big issues, and Oliver Stone came out with Wall Street a year after Ivan Boesky and Dennis Levine plead guilty of insider trading and just a few months after the stock market crash of 1987. Daryl Hannah’s pathetic performance aside, this one of his best films and it’s the most emblematic of the 80s, in a negative Oliver Stone-like way. Money leads to these characters downfall and it practically tears a family apart. We get Michael Douglas playing one of his most memorable characters, Gordon Gekko, delivering that fabulous speech, which Stone seems to know how to write, starting off “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” Gordon Gekko is the 80s captain of industry. Combine him and Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl and you have the ultimate cold-hearted capitalist.


The 1980s was more a decade of individual films than of directors. There weren’t a bunch of auteurs walking around but there were plenty of movies coming from all over the place. There were but a handful of powerful filmmakers, these were the foremost.

Work Cited and Footnotes: Otavio Frias Filho “Spielberg” pp. 214-220. Folha Conta 100 Anos de Cinema. Ed. Amir Labaki. Imago Editora: Rio de Janeiro, 1995.

-“Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” had probably the best set design I’ve seen on television.

-Despite the quality of the film, Beetlejuice, the cartoon series is one of the worst piece of junk I ever saw all the jokes were in pun form, who wrote that?

Best of Spielberg

Here’s a second installment of a list idea I’m borrowing from Brian Saur. Here I will discuss the films of Steven Spielberg. Spielberg is probably my favorite director of all time. I did an Ingmar Bergman list first, in part to track what I still needed to see. With Spielberg my impetus was to finally be up to date on his narrative features, which sadly I wasn’t.

As with any list, rankings may make thing seem worse than they are. There are 30 films on this list. Make no mistake I like 28 of them and am a snarky fanboy on one, and three have at one point been my all-time favorite, including my current number one (if pressed to answer). Here goes…

30. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World (1997, Universal)

This is the sequel Spielberg supposedly gave Universal so they’d leave E.T. alone. That’s almost enough to bump it past last place but I can’t. Even though I loved the score and effects it was still one of the worst, most confounding thing I saw that year. The third film and news of a fourth have softened that hurt, but seeing newly-introduced annoying character and the follow-up to my then favorite film of all-time relegated to a Godzilla/King Kong knock-off hurt.

29. 1941 (1979)

1941 (1979, Universal/Columbia)

I did try to like this. My professor tried to get me to like it. I just don’t. Spielberg doesn’t care much for it either and has moved on to bigger and better things.

28. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008, Paramount)

Nuking the fridge only happened in one scene people, Shia LaBeouf had many more scenes than that and Cate Blanchett seemed uncomfortable. Spielberg has since honestly confessed what his reservations were about this film. Hopefully that molds a better fifth film should it occur, though he certainly doesn’t need there to be one.

27. Amistad (1997)

Amistad (1997, Universal)

As oddly engaging as Spielberg’s restraint in Lincoln is, if memory serves, there was an attempt at such here too that doesn’t work quite as well. I remember Honsou and Hopkins impressed but not much else.

26. The Terminal (2004)

The Terminal (2004, DreamWorks)

Unlike Catch Me If You Can, which appears shortly, I wasn’t even compelled to go out and see this one theatrically. It’s an interesting and well-handled idea that I can indentify with on a few levels but it’s just not one of his best.

25. Twilight Zone: The Movie (segment 2) (1983)

The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983, Paramount)

I saw this recently also and Spielberg’s segment fits him to a tee (residents of a retirement home become young again) and is the second best in the anthology in my estimation behind Joe Dante’s zany one.

24. Poltergeist (1982)

Poltergeist (1982, Paramount)

One can debate the nuances and politics of whether Spielberg really directed this. To be brief: I have it on good authority that he directed most of it and just didn’t take the credit because he couldn’t per DGA rules at the time. This is a title where I could rant and rave childishly about how “My opinion is different than yours!” but I won’t. Poltergeist is fine, it just never had a tremendous amount of impact on me.

23. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984, Paramount)

To address the white elephant in the room: I do not have any issue with the character of Shortround whatsoever. Temple of Doom lands here more for being the third best in the series and Kate Capshaw than anything else.

22. Catch Me if You Can (2002)

Catch Me If You Can (2002, DreamWorks)

This is one of those that falls into the category of “There’s nothing really wrong with it, I just can’t get into it.”

21. The Sugarland Express (1974)

The Sugarland Express (1974, Universe)

This is an unusual but involving one with a great turn by a young Goldie Hawn.

20. Always (1989)

Always (1989, Universal)

This one film I finally saw last year so as I could finally create this list. I had avoided it because in clips and trailers you could not get a sense of the totality of the film. It is Spielberg’s first remake, but it’s a fairly well modernized one that features Audrey Hepburn‘s final performance.

19. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, Columbia)

Spielberg has said that the end of this film dates him as a filmmaker. I understand his point entirely but he does set it up very well. Also, in a bit of fanboy wish-fulfillment, I’d suggest the end of this film and the end of E.T. swap, but it is a very visual and evocative film with the added bonus of an acting-only participation by François Truffaut.

18. Hook (1991)

Hook (1991, Columbia)

The mark of a great director is making something that seems illogical, that shouldn’t be able to work, work. This is his best example ih that regard.

17. Minority Report (2002)

Minority Report (2002, DreamWorks)

If Robopocalypse, or something like it, ever comes to fruition it would complete a Dark Future Trilogy for Spielberg, which may seem antithetical to his ethos but something he said he’s not averse to when discussing A.I.

16. Munich (2005)

Munich (2005, DreamWorks)

I welcome departures from directors. Spielberg is perhaps more underrated in terms of his diversity than any other director. His hits and classics have commonalities to them such that it makes people think he repeats himself constantly. These two selections shake that notion massively. Munich is a dark film, where there can be no happy endings. It’s a chillingly rendered tale of an ugly incident in history that cannot be buried.

15. Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln (2012, DreamWorks)

Lincoln almost isn’t a Spielberg film, it plays with such classical restraint and removal that it’s almost anti-auteurish, but it’s still very engaging and convincing.

14. War of the Worlds (2005)

War of the Worlds (2005, Paramount)

I think this film might get overlooked in part because it stuck close to the source material, but also because it’s the kind of film Spielberg “should” take on. However, when you consider how often he’s made aliens benevolent a surviving an alien apocalypse tale is a little different for him. That and it’s another rather imperfect family.

13. Jaws (1975)

Jaws (1975, Universal)

Here’s where rankings can get you in trouble. Jaws is great. I have nothing I can say against it, except the intangible “I like other works in Spielberg’s canon a lot better.” I have and can see Jaws many times over. It’s just a matter of preference when you start slotting them.

12. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Paramount)

Yes, the Indiana Jones and the was later tacked on. Spielberg and Lucas have combined perfectly three times in this series. They take a serialized approach to a feature and update classic tropes very well and memorably.

11. The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

The Adventures of Tintin (2011, Columbia/Paramount)

When Spielberg is at his best he combines technological innovation with great stories. Although I fell under the spell of seeing motion capture for the first time in The Polar Express, it was imperfectly ahead of his time and didn’t make a jump toward verisimilitude until this film. It’s a very viable tool other animation properties should and could use. Not only that it’s a great take and a global re-introduction of a beloved character. Not many directors go from live action to animation or vice versa, this is a seamless jump.

10. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989, Paramount)

I am a fan of the Indiana Jones series, albeit a Johnny Comelately to it, and this is my favorite one. More explanation can be found in the link above.

9. Duel (1971)

Duel (1971, Universal TV)

If there was ever a made-for-TV movie that prove that it’s a meaningless distinction, it’s this one. I have to remind myself it is one. Only once in a hundred times when I think about this movie do I recall that. It’s taut, brilliantly suspenseful and relatably frightening.

8. War Horse (2011)

War Horse (2011, DreamWorks)

War Horse is one I need to revisit, but this one vaults up the list due to improbability. Spielberg is one of the directors I go out and see regardless, however, I didn’t expect much here. I was anxious for Tintin, but this one shook up my whole best of the year list. Very surprisingly emotional and engaging.

7. The Color Purple (1985)

The Color Purple (1985, Warner Bros.)

One of the most embarrassing moments in Oscar history is perhaps the fact that this film is the biggest oh-fer, garnering eleven nominations and no wins. Spielberg created some controversy by even taking this film on. I think the end result proved he could do it and paved the way for his more mature dramatic works later on.

6. Empire of the Sun (1987)

Empire of the Sun (Warner Bros.)

I saw this in 2002 just after having taken my Spielberg course. I hadn’t really heard of it ’til then. It was referenced as Spielberg’s “most European film” by my professor and one that I began anticipating in A.I.-like fashion, which should’ve set me up for disappointment, but didn’t. It’s dense and takes some wading but when you get there it’s special. Not to mention there’s a brilliant performance by a young Christian Bale.

5. Schindler’s List (1993)

Schindler's List (1993, Universal)

The next two films are ones that I really admire, have great affection for, but am leery to revisit because they are taxing experiences. However, they’re important and I hope their legacy continues through oncoming generations. A while ago, I recall I saw a kid picking up Schindler’s List at a video store and it was heartwarming, as I saw a burgeoning cineaste.

4. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan (1998, DreamWorks)

It took me a while to see this one. The tale of saving the last surviving brother is the MacGuffin, a very Spielbergian one. However, the reaction I had to this film, though very different than many of his works, was one of the strongest I had. It was a new aesthetic for him and in many ways a revolutionary work.

3. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Nearly any child of the 80s grew up on Spielberg films. I will be doing a focus on Disney, which I surmise that unless you saw re-releases and VHS tapes you weren’t getting the golden age of that studio. However, if you grew up in the 80s, regardless of who you were, odds are every few years Spielberg changed your life. E.T. is an imaginary friend come true, it’s not necessarily always an alien, but many of us were Elliot, which is what makes it resonate.

2. Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993, Universal)

Suffice it to say that upon its release, when I was still quite young, this was probably the most amazing theatrical experience I’d ever encountered. I’ve found myriad great films since then but this one has not lost its luster in the slightest. When I first saw it, this was the greatest film of my lifetime. It was the dream of every dinorsaur-loving child brought to life for better and for worse.

1. Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001)

Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001, DreamWorks)

I’ve already written a tome about this film, which I have posted on this site in installments. Making a new or different case for it would be nearly pointless.

Top 10 Movies I Can’t Believe I Liked

This is a list I originally posted on my prior site. I don’t think I’ve found newer, better examples; so the choices remain the same. Below you’ll find 10 films that for one reason or another I had no expectations going into, but ended up liking.

10. The Shining (1980)

The Shining (1980, Warner Bros.))

I first saw this film in cinema class as a freshman in high school. Until I saw this film I never really enjoyed being scared, and I hated horror movies. In a class setting it must’ve taken three days to watch it and I was riveted as if I watched it in one viewing and I looked forward to it every day. It was Kubrick‘s The Shining (which I like better than the book) that got me to read Stephen King and ultimately made me fall in love with horror.

9. Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002, 20th Century Fox)

I saw the Star Wars prequels first. Having never felt the urge to see the originals, and then hearing about the prequel concept which was popularized, if not invented by, Lucas – I wanted to watch the movies in the story’s chronological order. So I waited until 2005 to see the original trilogy. After having seen The Phantom Menace I just didn’t get the appeal, but I stuck it out and went to see Attack of the Clones and then I got it – Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones is awesome. The Phantom Menace was just not that good at all and it never will be no matter how many times I watch the film. Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones won the BAM for Best Picture in 2002 (BAMs are my personal movie awards – look out for those here next year).

8. Hook (1991)

Hook (1991, Columbia)

This film being on the list is based entirely on concept. To me the idea of a movie about Peter Pan growing up was just absurd, so I avoided Hook for a long time but then I watched it… and Spielberg does turn almost everything into gold. It will never replace the original, or come close to it, but it is a very good and underrated film.

7. Max Keeble’s Big Move (2001)

Max Keeble's Big Move (2001, Disney)

I saw this as the cherry on top of a self-made triple feature one day. Of the movies I saw that day (Zoolander and Hearts in Atlantis being the other two), I had the lowest expectations for this one and it was my favorite. It is just a zany, off-the-wall comedy that actually ended up being nominated for a BAM as Best Picture.

6. Freaky Friday (2003)

Freaky Friday (2003, Disney)

It was one of those Disney’s 70s live-action films that just never quite did it for me for a number of reasons, but mainly because suspension of disbelief becomes difficult. Complicating matters this was the second time Lindsay Lohan was remaking a Disney film after her big break in the The Parent Trap. I went to see it ‘just because,’ not expecting much and loved it. It was probably Lohan’s last appealing character pre-drug/attitude problems and Jamie Lee Curtis is a perfect foil. Thus, the ridiculous concept didn’t bother me at all in the end.

5. School of Rock (2003)School of Rock (2003, Paramount)

Keep in mind this film was released in 2003. At the time I only really knew Jack Black from Tenacious D and I didn’t think this concept would work or be funny. I was dragged to watch the film just short of kicking and screaming, and lo and behold I loved it, and consider it to be one of the 50 funniest movies I’ve ever seen. No other vehicle has quite captured Jack Black’s lightning in a bottle like this film did. I was ultimately very glad I saw it indeed and watch it frequently – and quote it as well.

4. A Dog of Flanders (1999)

A Dog of Flanders (1999, Warner Bros.)

I used to go to the movies every weekend in junior high and high school, whether accompanied or not, to see something new. It didn’t matter what I went to see, and that’s how I saw the next film. Here’s a film that misleads with its title. Having never seen or heard of the original story and films upon which this most recent rendition was based I thought it was your typical ‘boy and his dog’ film, in fact the title refers to the protagonist, Nello, as much as it does to his dog. However, at its heart it is a much more serious tale of poverty, sacrifice and the struggle to be an artist. In fact, it may well be one of the best examples of that subgenre. It is a rare film in which the protagonist ages and both performances by actors playing younger and older Nello (Jesse James and Jeremy James Kissner) are equally compelling. Along with a great supporting turn from Jon Voight, a good score, and a tear-jerking ending this is a great film that caught me completely by surprise.


3. Young Einstein (1988)

Young Einstein (1988, Warner Bros.)

I literally saw this because Home Alone was sold out, or was it Batman? Either way I didn’t see it that day and my friend’s birthday plans changed. Just watching it under those conditions should have lead to disappointment. However, I remember it being okay and not a complete and total waste of time. And looking back and considering that it starred a man who calls himself Yahoo Serious that is saying something.


2. High School Musical (2006)

High School Musical (2006, Disney Channel)

If nothing else, it’s one of those movies you watch just because you want to see what people are talking about, and I have to admit that the first one actually does work. Yes, it’s sappy, but it makes no claims to be otherwise and doesn’t try to overdevelop subplot as the 2nd and 3rd installments do. The sequels are also pretty much artistically unjustified and terrible but that can’t detract from the first.

1. Jack Frost (1998)

Jack Frost (1998, Warner Bros.)

This one sits atop the list because it deals with perhaps the most preposterous storyline of them all. A kid loses his father and finds him the next year reincarnated as a snowman. It sounds like the kind of thing that would land on MST3K. However, with the setup, the tumult surrounding the father leaving and the devastation his loss causes, and with all the insinuations of insanity handled immediately – it starts to work. What pushes it over the top are the performances of the cast: the always great Michael Keaton, both on screen and in voice becomes a character we ourselves greatly miss seeing. Joseph Cross, who is now an established character actor having recently appeared in Lincoln, after his prior comeback with Running with Scissors and a supporting role in the Oscar-winning Milk; gives the performance of his childhood career (which is saying something), as the sensitive, shy and affected Charlie. Rounding out the principal cast is Kelly Preston doing the most that almost anyone could with such a small role. It’s a film I’ve now seen a number of times and could probably pop in every holiday season without growing tired of it and still think “I can’t believe I like this, but I do.”