Underrated Films of the ’80s

SOMETHING WILDIt’s amazing how some films manage to sail under the radar. You see a movie that you like and admire, and it doesn’t catch on. You assume somewhere along the line, the film will get the attention that it deserves, maybe even get a cult following. Often, the movie may turn up on DVD or be shown at three in the morning on cable, which may make you want to call your future ex-friends to tell them to check it out.

There are so many great neglected movies around that I decided to examine them decade by decade. So, here’s the first entry in the series, where we’ll consider the ‘80s. We’d love to hear what films of the era you dug that need some extra attention:

Something Wild (1986): A truly one-of-a-kind effort from director Jonathan Demme that keeps the audience guessing as it takes unexpected turns until the very end. Abetted by an eccentric pop score (The Feelies, David Byrne, The Troggs, Sister Carol), a game cast, and an eye for the eccentricities of Middle American life—tacky tchotchkes included—the  film follows bored Manhattan tax consultant Jeff Daniels who is literally dragged into the life of unpredictably kinky Melanie Griffith and, later, her dangerous ex-con former husband Ray Liotta, during a cross-country trip.

The Critic Says: “Since his early films, director Jonathan Demme has demonstrated a sharp eye for the American landscape and its people. With a keen wit and an optimistic compassion, Demme has creates vividly human characters whose quirks have the ring of truth about them”…TV Guide.

Comfort and Joy (1984): Bill Forsyth is the great missing hope from the 1980s. The Scottish director who gave us Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero and Housekeeping hasn’t made a film in some years now, abandoning filmmaking after studio problems with 1994’s Robin Williams starrer Being Human and the sequel, Gregory’s Two Girls, in 1999.  As if that wasn’t enough of a shame, Comfort and Joy, his fourth feature, has never been issued on DVD. A typically quirky Forsyth scenario, C&J is set during the Christmas season in Glasgow, and tells the story of warring Italian families in the ice cream business and a depressed Glasgow disc jockey (Bill Paterson) who finds himself in the middle of their turf battle. The bittersweet, melancholy tone, offhanded humor, and colorful peripheral characters make this—like all other early Forsyth efforts—a winner. Now, if you could just find it.

The Critic Says: “Here, for example, is Bill Forsyth’s ‘Comfort and Joy,’ one of the happiest and most engaging movies you are likely to see this year, and it comes from a Glasgow director who has made a specialty out of characters who are as real as you and me, and nicer than me”…Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

The Grey Fox (1982) Where, oh where is this marvelous movie? One-time stuntman Richard Farnsworth gives a career performance as Bill Miner, “The Gentleman Bandit,” who, upon being released from a 30-year prison stint for robbing stagecoaches, pulls off the first train robbery in Canada’s history. Farnsworth, soft-spoken with his leathery skin and sly sense of humor, is nothing short of fabulous as the memorably feisty senior.

The Critic Says: “This production is one of the finest films of the 1980s and one of the greatest films made in Canada”…Phil Hall, Film Threat

idolmaker_blu_rayThe Idolmaker (1980): The life of music manager Bob Marcucci was fictionalized and turned into a high-energy musical bio, with the late Ray Sharkey turning in a powerhouse performance in the lead role. Marcucci guided the careers of Philly boys Frankie Avalon and Fabian to stardom, and Peter Gallagher and Paul Land play the movie versions of the teen idols here with pizazz. Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman, Ray) impresses with his big-screen directing debut, capturing the energy of the burgeoning pop stars as well as some of the down-and-dirty aspects of the music industry in the 1950s and 1960s.  Someone must have liked the film—a box-office failure when released—because there’s a recently-announced remake on the boards.

The Critic Says: “The Idolmaker is an unusally compelling film about the music business in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It shows how teen idols were created, promoted, and discarded by entrepreneurs cynically manipulating the adolescent audience…” Variety

Barbarosa (1982): Aussies have given us some top-notch westerns (Quigley Down Under, The Proposition among them), and this first-rate sagebrusher is a gem: Willie Nelson is a red-bearded outlaw on the run from a powerful Mexican powerbroker who happens to be his father-in-law. Nelson’s ability to survive for decades has taken on supernatural status among the folks in the area, and he joins forces with an on-the-lam farmboy (Gary Busey) to make an effective crime team. Down Under director Fred Schepisi (Roxanne, A Cry in the Dark) calls the shots.

The Critic Says: “Transplanted Australian director Schepisi confidently threads his own route through Peckinpah territory (a Mexican patriarch demanding honour; a graveyard resurrection), less concerned with Peckinpah’s gothic haunting than with teasing dark, absurd ironies from the symbiosis of sworn enemies”…Time Out London

Birdy (1984): William Wharton’s award-wining novel about the traumas of veterans returning from World War II is repositioned to the Vietnam War for this compelling, overlooked film from British filmmaker Alan Parker (Jacob’s Ladder, Evita).  Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage are best friends from Philly who serve together in Vietnam, but Modine returns from combat with serious emotional damage—and an increasingly disturbing obsession with birds—which Cage, who has facial injuries, tries to help him deal with.

The Critics Say: “The strangest thing about ‘Birdy,’ which is a very strange and beautiful movie indeed, is that it seems to work best at its looniest level, and is least at ease with the things it takes most seriously. You will not discover anything new about war in this movie, but you will find out a whole lot about how it feels to be in love with a canary”…Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Extreme Prejudice (1987): A mucho macho movie in the Peckinpah tradition, with a script worked on by John Milius and direction from Walter Hill. In this ultra-violent modern western, Nick Nolte is the Texas Ranger embroiled in a battle with former friend Powers Boothe, now a member of a Mexican drug cartel. A third warring faction enters the ring when hi-tech, CIA-funded mercenary Michael Ironside tries to rob an El Paso bank for mysterious reasons. There’s no shortage of testosterone in this gritty action yarn filled with blood, sweat and tears.

The Critic Says: “The plot isn’t much, but director Walter Hill’s stylized approach to his subject lifts this one out of the mire of mediocrity, and Nolte’s direct and powerful performance as a man of the law is worth the film itself”…TV Guide.

after_hours_dvdAfter Hours (1985): Martin Scorsese’s black comedy fueled by irony and paranoia is something completely different for the filmmaker. It’s a zippy-paced tale of a Yuppie (remember them?) computer programmer (Griffin Dunne) losing his way in Manhattan and encountering the dangers and denizens of the city during his surrealistic journey. Among the meetups: a group of blondes, angry cab drivers, an ice cream truck, and Cheech & Chong.

The Critic Says: “Martin Scorsese transforms a debilitating convention of 80s comedy–absurd underreaction to increasingly bizarre and threatening situations–into a rich, wincingly funny metaphysical farce”…David Kehr, Chicago Tribune.

The Hidden (1987): Action meets science-fiction with superb results in this “B” movie winner. After a seemingly normal guy goes off the deep end and partakes in a wild crime spree, Los Angeles detective Michael Nouri has to track him down. When the culprit is thought to be dead, the case is seemingly closed—or is it? Enter oddball FBI agent Kyle McLachlan, and we soon learn that there is an icky creature with the ability to adapt to a human form—hence the guy on the crime spree.

The Critic Says: “Its virtues are ones that you almost never encounter in movies of this sort; it’s really a unique little item — if there’s such a thing as punk soulfulness, then this movie has it”…Hal Hinson, The Washington Post.

Salvador (1986): Before he won his Oscars for Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, Oliver Stone co-wrote and directed this engrossing story of hot-headed war photographer Richard Boyle, played by James Woods. The down-and-out Boyle travels to Salvador with disc jockey pal Dr. Rock (Jim Belushi) and finds himself in the middle of violent political upheaval as the Ronald Reagan-backed paramilitary government forces tangle with left-wing guerillas.

The Critic Says: “Fierce, ferocious and challenging on every level, Salvador remains Oliver Stone’s best film to date.  Although not without flaws (mostly of conception; it seems determined to offend the very people who most ‘need’ its message), its combination of sharp storytelling and first-rank acting keeps you on the edge of your seat”…Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant

  • Masterofoneinchpunch

    Quick correction: “There are so many great neglected movies around that I decided to
    examine them decade by decade. So, here’s the first entry in the series,
    where we’ll consider the ‘80s.” This is the second entry in the series :D.

    I figure there are two main types of underrated in dealing with movies: critical and popular (yes I analyze everything) and they are not mutually exclusive. One can quantify either by using critical tabulations say if the movie is on say TSPDT’s top 1000 list I might consider it not critically underrated or if a movie has over 50,000 votes on IMDB with an average of 7.8 I would not consider it underrated in mass popularity.

    I love After Hours and yes I still consider it underrated (not even on TSPDT’s composite list yikes), I still need to see the other picks (several like Salvador and Something Wild I feel I must see sooner or later.)

    One of my picks (I’ll look for more) is To Live and Die in L.A. which is one of my favorite films of the 80s. It has one of the best car chases I have seen (reverse freeway action) and

    William Friedkin’s (The French Connection) direction works well with several unlikeable characters and some of the most legitimate counterfeiting sequences you will see. Ebert gave it four stars in a glowing review.

  • OZ ROB

    Many great foreign films “sail under the radar” and become forgotten or unknown to a wide audience. Although it won best director at the 1980 Berlin Film Festival and was nominated in 1981 for an Oscar for best foreign language film, Hungarian director Istvan Szabo`s film BIZALOM (Confidence) was for years unavailable & rarely seen. It is a powerful drama set in Budapest, 1944, about strangers forced to live as husband and wife, concealing their links to the anti Nazi resistance. Scant critical reference is found for this riveting film, “underrated” in my opinion. The critic says.. ” In its sureness, concentration and acuity it is one of the masterpieces of Hungarian cinema… the greatest and most assured of Szabo`s work “. Bryan Burns, World Cinema..

  • Gord Jackson

    The Mike Figgis film STORMY MONDAY gets my vote. I remember a Siskel/Ebert show that was deovted to ‘buried treasures’ and this little gem is certainly one of them. It’s America week in Newcastle and greedy, booorish, Tommy Lee Jones wants Sting’s neat little jazz club. Jones’ ex, Melanie Griffith is enlisted to aid in the cause but she falls for Sting’s newest employee, and then unknown Sean Bean. To this day I still find STORMY MONDAY’s opening scene one of the most riveting ever put together. As The Hollywood Reporter put it in 1988, Dark and Steamy!

  • laustcawz

    “After Hours” is a great choice for this list. I have lots of others, though: “Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home” (1987)–one of those “Alan Smithee” films–about a boarding school student (“Two & A Half Men”‘s Jon Cryer), who’s unexpectedly invited home–he thinks because his parents miss him, but they’re really intent on using him for a political campaign; “Improper Channels” (1981), a razor-sharp satire starring Alan Arkin & Mariette Hartley as a separated couple who are drawn back together when a meddlesome social worker “rescues” their 5-year daughter & puts her in an orphanage; “Absence Of Malice” (1981), fairly well-received upon original release, but now largely forgotten, starring Sally Field & Paul Newman in perhaps the best “Freedom Of The Press” story ever; “The Last American Virgin” (1982), a teen sex comedy which morphs into a romantic drama with a sobering twist ending; “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” (1981), which, besides, of course, inspiring the title of the improv sketch comedy show, is based on the play about a sculptor (Richard Dreyfuss) who, after a car crash, becomes a paraplegic &, rather than spending the rest of what’s left of his life in a hospital, argues vehemently for the right to be left alone to die; &, in the same vein–“‘night, Mother” (1986), based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a woman (Sissy Spacek) determined to commit suicide & her mother (Anne Bancroft), who’s equally determined to talk her out of it; “The Hotel New Hampshire” (1984), following author John Irving’s surreal, tragicomic misadventures of the Berry family, including youngest son Egg & dog Sorrow, with a once-in-a-lifetime cast featuring Jodie Foster, Beau Bridges, Rob Lowe, Seth Green (in his film debut), Paul McCrane, Wallace Shawn, Matthew Modine (in a dual role), Amanda Plummer &, as Susie The Bear, Nastassja Kinski; the self-explanatory “Killer Klowns From Outer Space” (1988), the “requel” to which is now slated for release in 2016; “The Big Picture” (1989), Christopher Guest’s directorial debut about an an up-&-coming film director whose vision is put on indefinite hold by those who want him to sell out & pitch towards the lowest common denominator, featuring an impressive supporting cast, including J.T. Walsh, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Fran Drescher, Teri Hatcher & an uncredited Martin Short. Of course, these are just the ones off the top of my head…oh, & then there’s “Flowers In the Attic” (1987), based on a book read by who knows how many people & recently remade for the Lifetime Channel, featuring a more comprehensive script, but the 1987 film is much more cinematic, with much more compelling performances.

    • Bruce Reber

      “Absence Of Malice” IMO is a very underrated 80’s movie. Both Paul Newman and Sally Field give excellent performances, with Wilford Brimley (from the Quaker Oats commercials) co-starring.

  • Kevin

    One of my favorite movies from the 1980’s was one called “Inside Moves” with John Savage and David Morse. Another was one that I happened to see the end of last night while flipping through channels called “My Favorite Year” with Peter O’Toole, Mark Linn Baker, and Jessica Harper. And I’m not sure if it would quite fit into this category, but I just recently watched “Runaway Train” for the first time. Up until recently, it was very hard to find the DVD. And speaking of “To Live and Die in LA”, it seems like a lot of William Petersen movies fall into this category. I’d add “Manhunter”, which is basically an early version of “Silence of the Lambs” and “Long Gone” a made for TV baseball movie starring Petersen, Virginia Madsen, and Dermot Mulroney. And speaking of Mulroney, I remember seeing another TV movie called “Unconquered” in the late 80’s in which he played Richmond Flowers, a great football player and athlete set in the 1960’s south. That movie is almost impossible to find, but I liked it quite a bit.

    • rogerscorpion

      Actually, ‘Red Dragon’ was a re-adaption of the source novel for ‘Manhunter’.

  • Joseph23006

    Of the ones mentioned, I only saw “The Grey Fox” and “Birdy”. The second was very intense and addressed issues head on. The first was quiet, and reminiscient of of movies of the Thirties and Forties without the singing!

  • neaslon

    Have you ever seen Rage, with David Soul? That is one powerful movie. It came out in 1980.
    William GrahamDirector

    David SoulCal Morrissey
    James WhitmoreHugh Borski
    Caroline McwilliamsMaryann Morrissey

    Craig T. NelsonRay
    Tom NoonanBo
    Randy BrooksP J

    Darleen CarrHildy
    Garry WalbergMaryann’S Father
    John DurrenJud

    Vic TaybackTommy
    Sharon FarrellDottie
    Yaphet KottoErnie

  • Bill Proctor

    1941, a Spielberg classic. So much money was spent on production nothing was left
    to promote it. Stellar all star cast and a great parody of an era.

    • jumbybird

      It is a funny movie.

  • Charles M Lee

    For me, one of the most under rated movies of the 80’s was released in 1980. It is a film that the leading man Marjoe Gortner produced and of course starred in. It is a low budget film but it manages to hold your attention and interest with its clever dialogue and the mounting tension between Gortner and the other characters. Gortner plays a drug dealer who’s car breaks down in a small rural town. As Gortner and his girl friend (Candy Clark Gortner’s real life wife at the time) wait for their car to be repaired they enter the town’s diner. There Gortner begins to torment each patron psychologically and physically. His character Teddy has an uncanny ability to assess people and then use that assessment to humiliate them verbally, and physically.

    Good luck finding this film as it never hit DVD that i know of, not was it relased on VHS. Believe me I have searched.

    • jumbybird

      5Gs? Wow.

      • Charles M Lee

        Yeah but I don’t think it is going to sell at that price any time soon. The movie wasn’t THAT good.

  • Al Hooper

    “My Favorite Year” was a brilliantly funny film and a tribute to all who contributed, especially lead actor Peter O’Toole. And “Magnum Force” with Clint Eastwood is the only Dirty Harry opus that stands up today. It tries for plausibility, which was the first thing sacrificed in subsequent Eastwood films.
    – Al Hooper (E-HOOPER.COM)

    • Howard K

      Peter O’Toole deserved the Academy Award for his performance that was loosely based on Cid Caesar in the Show of Shows (I think). Cid didn’t remember any of the early shows because he was blackout drunk. Knowing that and seeing Peter’s performance was not only funny, but, bittersweet. Great warm movie. Great cast including Mark Linn Baker, (who also deserved an Oscar nod), Joseph Bologna, an Jessica Harper. Along with Al Hooper, we give two thumbs up!

      • Bruce Reber

        In MFY O’Toole’s character, boozing, womanizing, washed-up swashbuckling matinee idol Alan Swann, was loosely based on Errol Flynn. The character based on Sid Caesar was King Kaiser, which was played by Joseph Bologna. Classic line from Swann: “I’m not an actor, I’m a MOVIE STAR!!!”

    • ???????

      Have to disagree with your choice of Magnum Force for 3 reasons. Magnum Force is from 1973, therefore shouldn’t be included on cult movies from the eighties. 2) Magnum Force is hardly more plausible and definitely isn’t better then the original 1971 Dirty Harry. Lastly, Eastwood didn’t direct Magnum Force. Eastwood’s acting style hasn’t changed since he played Rowdy Yates. Sacrifices made in subsequent Eastwood films would seem to not apply, again, as Eastwood didn’t direct this movie.

  • rocky-o

    I truly agree with you on ‘the idolmaker’, one of my all time favorite films…(played the soundtrack album right thru the vinyl…)…a brilliant movie that never got nearly enough attention, and certainly will be mangled and shat upon with this proposed remake…

  • Butch Knouse

    What I’d like to know is why so many movies just drop off of the earth without turning up on a movie channel somewhere. Stations like Encore Western just seem to show the same 37 movies over and over for years.

  • PPPete

    I´m happy to see The Grey Fox listed. It´s not only a great movie, it´s one of the best and most realistic westerns ever made. I have a copy on tape but it´s a hassle to plug in that VCR so I almost never see it these days. Hope we´ll see The Grey Fox out on DVD very soon, it´s a gem.

  • rogerscorpion

    I think O’Toole was robbed, for ‘My Favorite Year’—as so many times before. Loved Liotta’s debut, in ‘Something Wild’, BUT ‘After Hours’, is one of my all-time faves!!!

  • Cara

    The Grey Fox should not be allowed to recede into obscurity. A wonderful film.

  • McVee

    I agree with Kevin that Richard Donner’s “Inside Moves” was great and probably got David Morse’s career going.
    I’m a big fan of Edward Woodward’s role as “Breaker Morant” which included Bryan Brown.
    Lancaster and Riegert make “Local Hero” a must see movie.
    Robert Preston recruiting “The Last Starfighter” is good fun.
    River Phoenix and his pals in the “Explorers” is well worth watching on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
    I’ve always liked John Cryer’s silly little movie “Hiding Out”.
    Finally, the movie that made my future ex-wife cry her eyes out whenever it ran “Somewhere in Time”, although that’s pretty mainstream now, I believe.

  • hank_reardon

    Good call on Extreme Prejudice. One of my favorite 80’s action flicks that I am always telling people about because they just don’t know. One 80’s comedy that I love and consider highly underrated is “The Burbs” with Tom Hanks before he was Mr. Serious Actor guy. Great cast and soooooooo funny.