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