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?

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My Year in Film: 1994

First, a tip of the hat to @bobfreelander who was the first I saw doing retroactive year-in-review posts and why I will do a few. Now, while I will be able to contextualize my picks to an extent I cannot be as anal retentive as I wanted to. Ideally, I would’ve loved to say I saw these movies in the year in question and these later, but I cannot with any degree of accuracy. The reason this matters to me is that I was 13 to 14 when these films were being released. Now I, unlike many students around me when I was in school, have been able to exonerate many films I saw before studying films formally from over-analysis. So while many are getting a pass or some sentimental value attached to them I shall not disown them, they are still me. Much in the way I am no longer making BAM Awards for years where I didn’t actively track releases, I am also not changing winners as I did on rare occasions in my teens. This list like those awards are a snapshot, time can reshape one affection for a film, whether heightening or lessening it but the films that mark that year for you mentally remain pretty much identical.

I start with 1994 in part because it was a great year for me in general, I was out of sixth grade and into 7th and 8th and I rather enjoyed Junior High where using your mental faculties to achieve a heightened sense of immaturity was rewarded, at least amongst my circle of friends. Sports-wise it was a great year as my faith in my beloved New York Rangers was rewarded, I knew it’d be a championship season in pre-season and it was. Then not too long after I saw Brazil win its 3rd World Cup while visiting my family.

Not that movies lagged that far behind, if at all. Many of these films, whether I saw them during the calendar year or soon thereafter, have been favorites for many years.

The films are in no particular order.

1. Satantango

Sátántangó (Kino Lorber)

I’ve been meaning to give this film an annual viewing but at 7+ hours in length it is very hard to schedule. I first heard about this film in college when it wasn’t readily available on DVD but I hunted it down. Having it was like having gold such that I even loaned it to a professor once. It’s an impressive example of story-telling muscle-flexing as it goes back and forth in time with many events repeating at intersecting points of perspective, as we follow characters and see certain events over through their eyes. Its ending is a shocking as such a minimalist ending can be and gives me goosebumps every time.

2. Milk Money

Milk Money (Paramount)

Here’s one I could’ve seen in ’94 but didn’t. In a world where I didn’t have a computer or access to the IMDb I couldn’t confirm my casting misconceptions, namely at the time I confused one of the girls in a quick shot in the trailer with Anna Chlumsky. I did eventually see it on HBO and this was where my admiration for Melanie Griffith originated and I hunted down practically everything she did after seeing it. Now hooker with a heart of gold stories weren’t new to me even then but the context and the slightly verboten yet laissez-fair handling of this one along with its outcome are a major part of what won me over.

3. Once Were Warriors

Once Were Warriors (Fine Line Features)

When the Independent Film Channel (IFC) first hit the airwaves I watched it practically every night for a week, and as an atypical teen movie fan I craved something different and I got it. This is a harrowing tale of a Maori family in New Zealand. I’m not even sure if I’ve even revisited it. Even if I have it could surely qualify as a film you only need to see once.

4. Disclosure

Disclosure (Warner Bros.)

This is a great film. Yes, it’s true Michael Douglas gets Michael Douglas-ed in it, if you’ve seen enough of his films you get what I mean, but sexual harassment was a hot button issue in the country as there was a politically correct renaissance about and to flip expectations to have an actress like Demi Moore, in likely her best role, in that position make it a compelling drama.

5. The War

The War (Universal)

For those of you who may have been asleep during the 90s and didn’t know, Elijah Wood was one of the most prodigious child actors who ever graced the silver screen. This film of his is his most criminally under-seen. It’s a great allegorical tale wherein Wood does his most serious work as a youth but he’s supported by Kevin Costner, Mare Winningham and Lexi Randall. If you’ve never seen this film do yourself the favor.

6. Little Giants

Little Giants (Warner Bros.)

G-Men! OK, if you read my intro you probably surmised I’m a native New Yorker, however, that’s not the only reason that this film makes the list, there are some others. It is smart that this film does play into actual NFL rivalries and takes the Bad News Bears motif to football but there’s some more to it. Part of it has to do with seeing Ed O’Neill in a movie and perfectly cast, it being one of Rick Moranis’ last theatrically released films plays into it some. Yet it’s also about the team, which plays into the appeal of any underdog story, and also it may be the most effective rivalries in terms of having certain off-the-field relationships with the opposition.

7. A Feast at Midnight

A Feast at Midnight (Live Entertainment)

This is a film that I found a few years later. One thing that’s refreshing about it is that it’s a tale of boarding school mischief that doesn’t get too dark. Essentially the boys at this school are tired of their crap food. They learn to cook and bake and sneak about in the dead of night to have proper feasts. More comedy and tension are added by Christopher Lee who plays the headmaster who they refer to as a dinosaur and many scenes play out as homages to Jurassic Park, which are just brilliantly done.

8. Vanya on 42nd Street

Vanya on 42nd Street (Sony Pictures Classics)

If I recall correctly this was an impromptu purchase. I typically used my weekend allowance to take a bus to the multiplex and then to the mall after to pick up another film. This was likely one of them. It didn’t lead me to instantly pursue more Chekhov but it was the spark that opened the door for my appreciation of his work.

9. The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption (Columbia Pictures)

What could I possibly say about this film that hasn’t been said before? I didn’t see it in 1994 as it was slightly before I discovered Stephen King, and my life forever changed. I saw it later and I saw it before I read it, and I learned Frank Darabont is a King adaptation master, and this is his best work.

10. North

North (Columbia Pictures)

Here’s the section of the list where I’ll place a couple of movies you likely hate and I hope you’ll do me the kindness of scrolling past them if you do hate them rather than closing your browser window. For those of you who are still with me, I can even understand how you can dislike North and It’s Pat, the latter much more than the former. However, with this one I really don’t get how some claim its one of the worst things ever. Yes, it’s another Elijah Wood title and while here he’s more comedic this one really does have more to do with the concept than him or the supporting all-star cast. It’s a wish-fulfillment story and yes, based on the tale you know where it’ll likely end up, but that doesn’t stop it from being a very effective fantasy in my estimation.

11. It’s Pat

It's Pat (Touchstone Pictures)

I get it on this one, OK? Pat is gross, that’s what makes the sketch funny for those who do think it’s funny. I’d say this is likely the most avoided and reviled SNL-sketch based feature of them all, I will not claim that it’s the best, but I do like it. Julia Sweeney is a very underrated comedienne and this is her best character.

12. The Little Rascals

The Little Rascals (Universal Pictures)

I can’t remember if I ever consciously wanted to see this movie but having younger siblings it was acquired on home video and I ended up watching it many times and I ended up liking it quite a bit also. Looking back you could almost draw a parallel between this and The Three Stooges in as much as those actors were The Little Rascals, so theoretically a remake shouldn’t work but it was cast so well and the story was very much in the spirit of the original with minor updates such that it works very well.

13. Airheads

Airheads (20th Century Fox)

When you rely on cable television for your viewing you can end up watching things over and over whether you want to or not. An example or not would be Empire Records, I have no idea what convinced me that seeing it over and over would change my opinion of it. It just kept getting suckier. This I liked right away and wanted to see many times over, it’s just a hilarious and well executed premise.

14. The Client

The Client (Warner Bros.)

Joel Schumacher can be very divisive and I certainly cannot defend all of his films. However, those that I can I will tooth and nail. This is one of them. I watched The Client many years later and it has in it perhaps one of the tensest first acts I can recall. It doesn’t let up much from there.

15. Speed

Speed (20th Century Fox)

Here’s a film that’s become a bit of a punching bag in hindsight. I will grant there is a level of silliness to it, however, if you get past the whole 50 MPH thing, (which I have) it rather works. Also, one must bear in mind that this was really Sandra Bullock’s breakout role so she was new to us and about to be beloved by many. Also, this is Keanu many roles before we saw that being Keanu is about the extent of his range.

16. Trading Mom

Trading Mom (Trimark Pictures)

This is a film that it took me a while to track down, eventually it debuted on cable. My willingness to see it was mostly due to Anna Chlumsky’s involvement. It would be a great double-feature with North as there are similar themes to it, Wanting to Change Parents but Realizing Yours Are the Best, however, it also features a great performance by Sissy Spacek in many incarnations. Its a more down-to-earth and stripped-down version of the aforementioned premise that still works rather well.

17. Serial Mom

Serial Mom (Savoy Pictures)

I’ve seen this movie a lot of times but none very recently. This could be John Waters at his demented best. This is where I not only learned a rule of fashion but also got “Day Break” stuck in my head for life. Kathleen Turner is incredible in this.

18. The Hudsucker Proxy

The Hudsucker Proxy (PolyGram)

I avoided this film for a long time for a number of reasons. I like Coens films when I watch them but my viewership of their filmography is very incomplete, the title and description also made it seem like it couldn’t be that interesting. It’s perhaps the best argument for just watching the movie. I love it.

19. Major League II

Major League II (Warner Bros.)

As opposed to the sequel later in this list this is one that I think I like more than the original. It’s sillier, funnier and doesn’t take the high road in the ending but those are all things I like about it. Plus, taking the approach that this team overachieved and now rests on its laurels and struggles is pretty smart and true to life.

20. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (Warner Bros.)

It’s a very simple discussion when dealing with Jim Carrey: Either you love the over-the-top end of his comedic repertoire or you hate it. I love it and Ace Ventura is the prime example of this facet of his gifts.

21. Trevor

Trevor

This film I first saw only last year. It’s the only short on this list. It’s almost more important for its significance than the film itself for this film is what spawned The Trevor Project. Perhaps what’s most impressive is that it really was ahead of the zeitgeist in terms of a hot button issue. It deals with a youth struggling with his sexuality and is suicidal. It won an Oscar after it was made and was re-introduced in a TV special hosted by Ellen DeGeneres but now it has a third incarnation as The Trevor Project is one of the most notable and active NGOs in the nation right now. Granted its a film buoyed by its message and its significance but few films, especially shorts, have this kind of track record so far as reemergence and staying power are concerned.

22. Menino Maluquinho- O Filme

Menino Maluquinho - O Filme (Filmes Europa)

Below you will see another comic character that I love come to life. I saw this a few years after the release of the film. This film benefits from the fact that though this character is featured in Brazilian comic strips he originated in graphic novels and this film tackles the story told in the first of those books for the most part and that streamlines things and makes the interpretation very pure.

23. Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump (Paramount)

This is another film that has become somewhat of a punching bag over the years. Taking the visceral arguments out of the equation (for I do like and connect to the film) the significance of this film in certain cinematic is in fact that it breaks rules about a passive protagonist, in that it employs one, and it works very, very well. You’d be hard pressed to find many other situations where it would but here no doubt it does. I predicted Tom Hanks would win the Oscar on the eve of the show when asked, and not only was I right but I was pleased. It’s another question of time. Hanks has become more interested in producing and has become an Oscar ceremony staple but I’d never question his merits in the roles that won him statues.

24. Little Odessa

Little Odessa (Fine Line Features)

Here is another IFC special. I did revisit this one at least once. It’s a tremendously underrated film and features a great turn by Edward Furlong before his depressing decline.

25. Richie Rich

Richie Rich (Warner Bros.)

Macaulay Culkin is precisely 364 days older than I am, so his stardom was kind of a big deal for me growing up for he was, and is, essentially my age. Furthermore, add the fact that here he was interpreting one of my favorite comics characters of all time and this was going to be a must see for me. Now, here’s an example similar to one you’ll see below where the star and the involvement in a project is more significant to than the film, for I definitely nitpick this one and the follow ups (though they be Culkin-less) it wasn’t an interpretation completely without merit, I did like a lot of it.

26. Blue Chips

Blue Chips (Paramount)

Another cable special and another I’ve given many viewings. Nick Nolte is, as he tends to be, brilliant in this film. However, what really elevates this film for me is the great examination of the moralistic quagmire that amateur athletics are. Nolte’s confession speech while rather unrealistic in a real context, as sports fans know all too well, allow for the film to really expose the inevitability of star athletes getting perks and incentives to go to certain colleges.

27. My Girl 2

My Girl 2 (Columbia Pictures)

Alright, no My Girl 2 is not a great film, there are a few entries on this list I wouldn’t call great. As I mentioned in my introduction that’s not quite the point of this post. It was a film that was overly delayed, in my estimation, and brought a new writer into the fold but the fact of the matter is it’s the sequel to what was at the time my favorite movie ever, and a film I still have a great affection for, so that makes this notable. It’s a film I do pick nits with endlessly but the fact that it matters to me cannot be denied.