Our Critic Finds the '80s Produced Some Thoughtful, Provocative Films


AMERICAN FILM magazine took a poll of movie critics and found some disappointments about the '80s. Old-fashioned story values were swamped by meaningless technical feats, the reviewers said. Foreign films took a downturn with American audiences. And some of the most exciting directors of the '70s - such as Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola - failed to deliver on their promise. While there is some truth to these charges, I can't bring myself to be too discouraged by the '80s. Yes, the talented Mr. Altman failed to give us a masterpiece during the past 10 years. On the other hand, Mr. Coppola made a rousing comeback with ``Tucker: The Man and His Dream,'' a comedy-drama about an automobile maker that proved to be one of the decade's most wryly entertaining (and socially conscious) movies.

It's also true that foreign pictures were not imported and shown in sufficient numbers during the '80s. Americans still had some dazzlers to see from other countries, though: ``Babette's Feast,'' a Danish film about love and cooking; ``L'Argent,'' from master French director Robert Bresson; ``Berlin Alexanderplatz,'' by West German prodigy Rainer Werner Fassbinder; ``Wings of Desire'' and ``The State of Things,'' by Wim Wenders, also from West Germany; and my favorite of all, ``Local Hero,'' Bill Forsyth's comedy about an American in Scotland.

In Hollywood, I have to agree that technical wizardry - fancy camera work and special effects - often did wipe out more important ingredients such as story, theme, and characters. Look at the No. 1 moneymaker for each year in the '80s, and you find such glossy entertainment machines as ``Top Gun,'' ``Beverly Hills Cop,'' and ``Three Men and a Baby,'' along with better but still shallow fantasies from George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

Still, when you look beyond Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker, you find plenty of thoughtful and provocative movies in the '80s. The decade ended with ``Do the Right Thing,'' for example, an explosive look at race relations in the inner city. A few years earlier, white filmmaker John Sayles also took a heartfelt look at racial problems in ``The Brother From Another Planet,'' about a black extraterrestrial who (unlike E.T.) has no way to call home. And all kinds of social issues were satirically viewed in Terry Gilliam's ferocious ``Brazil.''

OTHER winners made outside Hollywood ranged from ``Raging Bull'' and ``After Hours,'' both by Martin Scorsese, to ``Lost in America,'' Albert Brooks's satire on yuppies. Equally memorable were Jonathan Demme's ``Melvin and Howard'' and ``Something Wild,'' Jim Jarmusch's ``Stranger Than Paradise,'' and ``Love Streams,'' by the grandaddy of the independents, the late John Cassavetes.

Oscar-winning writer Horton Foote made a superb comeback during the decade. ``The Trip to Bountiful'' was his most widely praised film, but he also gave us the insightful ``On Valentine's Day'' as well as ``Tender Mercies'' and ``1918.'' Also brilliantly verbal was ``My Dinner With Andr'e,'' an absorbing talkfest directed by Louis Malle.

High culture wasn't left out during the '80s. Lots of attention went to ``Amadeus,'' which portrayed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a musical genius who also happened to be a very silly man. James Joyce's story ``The Dead'' was the source for John Huston's last, and best, picture.

And documentaries did well during the decade, from the Holocaust film ``Shoah'' to the new ``Roger & Me,'' a scathing look at corporate America in the Reagan years. Especially vivid was ``The Thin Blue Line,'' by Errol Morris, about a wrongly convicted prisoner - who was set free from jail after the movie was released. Along different lines, actor-turned-director Robert Duvall bridged the gap between fiction and nonfiction with ``Angelo, My Love,'' focusing on New York City gypsies.

Pictures like these were serious, yet as watchable as any fantasy epic. They showed that in some cases, at least, technical cleverness (not showiness) can enhance (not replace) the themes and characters that matter most in films. Heading into the '90s, the movie scene appears to be in good shape for a solid future.

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