Those underrated gems of the 1980s

Posted by · 1:09 am · May 9th, 2009

BirdFor me, no decade was as overall weak for films as the 1980s, a 10-year span when bad movies made a fortune good ones went unnoticed. Of course there were exceptions to that rule.  “Amadeus,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Platoon” were brilliant productions that also scored at the box office, but more often than not, great films were discovered on video, sometimes years after release.

A quick glance at the decade will show you that “Raging Bull” was not hailed as a masterpiece right away, and was by all acounts a failure at the box office, as was Warren Beatty’s masterful “Reds.” Phillip Kaufman’s extraordinary space adventure “The Right Stuff” had all the makings of a great American film (which it was and remains) and a box office smash, but sadly never found an audience, falling by the wayside in the summer of 1983. Audiences were flocking to see junk like “Flashdance,” “Footloose,” “Top Gun” and “Dirty Dancing” while many great films opened and closed without causing a ripple.

I went back through the 1980s recently and re-visited 15 films that deserved attention when they were released, deserved Academy Award nominations (or more than they got), and certainly should have found an audience at the time of their release. Many of them were admired by critics, but I have left out the obvious — “Raging Bull,”  “Blade Runner,” etc. — to include smaller films that need a little love. Here they are, in no particular order…

“Pennies from Heaven” was a wild musical from Herbert Ross with Steve Martin as a sheet music salesman during the Depression who cheats on his timid wife and impregnates a schoolteacher (Bernadette Peters). The film is often bleak and sometimes depressing but there are moments that light the screen as the characters lip-synch songs from the time.  Martin was a revelation and Peters is wonderful. In a startling cameo, Christopher Walken does a stunning song and dance as Peters’s pimp, very nearly stealing the film. Pauline Kael called this “the most emotional movie musical ever made.”

“True Confessions” brought Robert Duvall and Robert De Niro together as brothers, Duvall a tough-as-nails cop, De Niro a priest on the way up, often turning a blind eye to the corruption he sees. When a young girl is butchered, Duvall knows that somehow the church is involved and makes it clear to his brother he is going after whoever was responsible. The film is directed with subtle beauty by Ulu Grosbard.  Duvall gives one of his best performances, while De Niro is remarkably muted and effective. So much is said in the film’s silences. The final sequence between the brothers is heartbreaking. One of the year’s best and it is criminal that the two actors were not nominated for their work.

“The Postman Always Rings Twice” brings raw carnality to the screen in the form of Jessica Lange.  “King Kong” was finally forgotten (or at least forgiven). She is extraordinary, giving a performance that blew doors open for her.  She and Nicholson are hot together in this bleak but powerful film, nicely directed by Bob Rafelson and boasting stunning cinematography.

“Blow Out” I covered a couple of weeks ago but it is worth mentioning it again as one of the decade’s best films, one of Brian De Palma’s greatest achievements and certainly one of Travolta’s very best performances.

“Sophie’s Choice” did indeed win Meryl Streep an Oscar and every other award imaginable but sadly the film was ignored elsewhere. Director Alan J. Pakula lovingly adapted the Styron novel (some felt too lovingly) and brought the film to vivid life. Beyond Streep’s acting showcase, Kevin Kline was electrifying as Nathan, her brilliant but quite mad lover and Peter McNeil was wonderful as Stingo, the Southern writer who loves Streep’s Sophie. Superbly shot, Pakula did a perfect job with the film and should have been nominated for Best Director.  The movie is a masterpiece.

“Shoot the Moon” is the best film ever made about divorce, and I include the esteemed “Kramer vs. Kramer” in there.  In Alan Parker’s painful film, Albert Finney and Diane Keaton are the couple who split, leaving their home a site of open wounds and devastation, in particular the eldest daughter, portrayed by the late Dana Hill. Finney was never better as George, angriest at himself for the pain he has caused his family, and Keaton was Oscar-worthy as Fait, his wounded wife. It’s a difficult film to watch, but utterly brilliant.

“Under Fire” is a magnificent political film directed by Roger Spottiswoode that gets under your skin quickly and stays there. The realism is such that you can almost smell the heat of the jungles where this group of journalists moves about looking for the next big news story. Nick Nolte was never better than he is here as a photojournalist, while Gene Hackman is superb as a doomed anchor. Ed Harris gives a jaunty performance as a happy psychopathic mercenary who has lost sight of whose side he is on. The film has stunning cinematography and one of the finest scores I have ever heard. Another masterpiece.

“Once Upon a Time in America” might be Sergio Leone’s great work. A dark and twisted tale of a group of Jewish gangsters spanning three decades between the 1930s and 1960s and the betrayals that impact all of their lives. Much of the film focuses on Noodles (Robert De Niro) and hot head Max (James Woods) and their life-long relationship that turns toxic after a betrayal. De Niro gives one of his finest performances and Woods is terrific. There are loads of great actors in this film including Joe Pesci, Treat Williams and Tuesday Weld. Elizabeth McGovern is miscast but that is a small quibble.  Make sure you see Leone’s four-hour version.

“The Stunt Man” features Peter O’Toole at his best as Eli Cross, a slightly mad movie director in the midst of making a WWI classic when a fugitive stumbles onto his set at the exact time a stunt man dies. Through the magic of the movies the man is seduced into working for Cross, though he is never sure if Cross would kill him for the good of his film. O’Toole is superb in quite possibly the best movie ever made about movies.

“At Close Range” is devastating in its raw power. Based on a true story the film features Christopher Walken in his best performance as a criminal who brings his sons, portrayed by Sean and Christoipher Penn into his world, with terrible consequences. Sean Penn is equally remarkable, as the son who realizes his father is a cold blooded killer and he wants no part of that world. It’s just amazing to see these two actors going toe-to-toe, and of all people Madonna wrote a song and helped score the film’s haunting theme. Walken is truly terrifying as a sociopath who sees his own sons as expendable.

“The Mosquito Coast” failed with audiences because they were not ready to see Harrison Ford in this type of role. Peter Weirs film is a marvelous work, dark and angry, with Ford taking the risks all actors should embrace in their careers. Ford stars as Alley Fox, an inventor sick of consumerism and corporate America who buys an island in the tropics and sets about creating his own Utopia. Of course civilization creeps in and his paradise is destroyed, with horrific costs, driving Fox more insane than he already was. Ford doiminates the film, and Oscar should have noticed.

“Empire of the Sun” is Steven Spielberg’s second best film after “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.  Rave reviews greeted the film upon release.  It won the National Board of Review awards for Best Film and Best Director and then failed to capitalize at the Oscars. I thought in 1987 it was a masterpiece and think the same today. Based on J.G. Ballard’s experiences in a Japanese POW camp, the film stars a young Christian Bale as Jim, who is esparated from his parents as they try to leave Shang-Hai. He is left to grow up and try to survive the war in the camp, and at the end of the film, when he closes his eyes…brilliant.

“Hope and Glory” was another war film released in 1987 based on director John Boorman’s experiences in England during the war. Both intensely dramatic and often quite comic, the film sees war through the eyes of children, who see the destruction of their school as time off, never worrying or thinking about the lives lost inside. With a joyful “Thank you, Adolf,” they get an extended summer vacation. This is Boorman’s best work and a wonderful film experience.

“Bird” won an Oscar for Best Sound and the wrath of critic Pauline Kael, who attacked the film with no mercy, something she often did where director and actor Clint Eastwood was concerned. What she missed, if I dare, was the fact that Eastwood made a film about a jazz legend like a fine piece of jazz itself, non-linear, with a metaphoric symbol flying through the air and a performance from Forest Whitaker that won him the Best Actor prize at Cannes and a Golden Globe nomination, but no attention from the Academy. The film is dark, like the jazz clubs it prowls, seeing the genius of Charlie Parker through the smoky haze of the musical underworld.

“Casualties of War” took 15 years to bring to the screen. Based on a 1969 article in The New York Times, the film explores blatant abuse of power when a platoon of American soldiers kidnap, rape and murder a young Vietnamese woman for no other reason than they can. Fueled by the rage of being denied liberty, the Sargeant, played with menace by Sean Penn, orders the action and is stunned when one member of his platoon, played by Michael J. Fox, refuses to take part.  Penn is frightening and Fox, a surprise casting choice, is very good as the conscience of the film. This is one of De Palma’s best films, and it opened and closed within weeks.

What are some of your favorite under-appreciated gems from the 1980s?  Have your say in the comments section below!

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30 responses so far

  • 1 5-09-2009 at 1:25 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    So glad to find a fellow fan of “Shoot the Moon,” a film that has always resonated with me at a personal level. I think one could argue that Finney and Keaton both do career-best work there.

    I loved “Under Fire” when I saw it at the age of 13, but hadn’t thought about it for years — definitely one to revisit.

    Great list throughout, but I’m not sure I’d call “Once Upon a Time in America” and “Hope and Glory” underrated per se — Leone’s film has kind of found its way into the film-school canon, and Boorman’s is something of a modern classic. But maybe that’s just here in the UK. Wonderful films at any rate.

  • 2 5-09-2009 at 1:52 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I’d also make a case for “Angel Heart,” “Pale Rider,” “Bagdad Cafe,” “Dance With a Stranger” and “Rendez-Vous.” Especially “Angel Heart,” which I fell in love with thanks to a very lateral-minded professor at my university who taught the hell out of that film.

    Also, I suppose you couldn’t really call “Dead Ringers” or “Radio Days” underrated, but they certainly don’t get mentioned enough these days.

  • 3 5-09-2009 at 2:23 am

    Alex C. said...

    I would add “Local Hero” to the list. It’s a smart comedy with few big stars, but a great story that’s still relevant today. I liked that it sort of had a Woody Allen feel to it.

  • 4 5-09-2009 at 7:43 am

    Mike said...

    The Purple Rose of Cairo – one of Woody’s underrated files I think.

  • 5 5-09-2009 at 8:34 am

    Chris said...

    I was going to say the same thing as Mike: “The Purple Rose of Cairo” – what a magnificent film.

  • 6 5-09-2009 at 8:54 am

    Ted M said...

    Weird! I just re-watched PENNIES FROM HEAVEN as a reminder of how overlooked it was. Although I do prefer the British miniseries with Bob Hoskins, the movie version tried to do something that audiences and some critics couldn’t understand.

    My only other quibble with your list is that, for me, Peter McNichol has always been the weak link in SOPHIE’S CHOICE. I don’t think his performance is on par with Streep and Kline.

  • 7 5-09-2009 at 9:03 am

    aaron said...

    as soon as i saw the title of this post i thought of at close range, so props for listing it. brad whitewood, sr. is one of the most chilling and sinister characters ever in a film–you can smell the malevolence every time he’s on screen. i’d definitely say this is walken’s finest hour, yet also one of his most underrated performances. the film itself is underrated, it’s like a familial crime drama by way of terrence malick (all of those beautiful shots of the pennsylvania countryside), but it’s a bit too dark to be exceedingly popular. de niro, who was orginally offered the role of brad sr., turned it down because he thought the character was too fucked up, which sort of says it all, doesn’t it?

  • 8 5-09-2009 at 9:07 am

    Casey Fiore said...

    Love the choices of “Once Upon a Time in America” and “Empire of the Sun” but actually hate “Casualties of War”.
    My picks would probably be:
    “Diner” – great screenplay. full of universally recognizable yet completely honest characters. Kevin Bacon and Mickey Rourke should’ve been showered with awards
    “The King of Comedy” – De Niro’s best performance after Taxi Driver imo
    “Bull Durham” – I know it was popular but I really think this is a gem. Costner’s best work imo

  • 9 5-09-2009 at 9:29 am

    El Rocho said...

    The Monster Squad–loved the combination of Dracula, Wolfman (“Wolfman has nards!!”), etc…I was slighty scary but tons of fun. I’d say it ranks amongst The Goonies and The Gate., which is another underrated 80s film.

    Ran–Kurosawa’s most underrated film, and the only one he got nominated Best Director for–which is still a sin of the Academy. This films is epic on proportion. Brilliant cinematography, haunting visuals and come of Kuroasawa’s clearest direction. A brilliant film in every way.

    Volunteers—a very underrated Tom Hanks movie, this one with the added bonus of featuring John Candy. Watching it now is a jarring experience. We’ve become so accustomed to seeing Hanks playing decent guys, it’s bit odd to see him play a wiseass child of privilege who joins the Peace Corps to escape loan sharks. Even today, it’s hilarious and memorable.

    Salvador–Oliver Stone’s seering look at the massacre in Salvador. This brilliant film, showcasing some of Stone’s best visuals and writing, was completely overshadowed by his other masterpiece Platoon. Still, this one should have been more recognized then it did. And James Woods gives one of his career’s best performances.

    A Soldier’s Story–Norman Jewison’s most underrated film. This one should have been more recognized, too. And gives one of Denzel Washington’s earliest performances as an angry soldier. This is filmmaking at it’s most powerful, and Adolf Caesar giving an equally stunning performance.

    Lasty, most of the films from Cronenberg in the 80s was overlooked and underrated: The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome (not so much now…it seems to be creating quite a following, but it absolutely haunted me–as all Cronenberg films did and do–growing up.) and Dead Ringers. All brilliant films, all underrated, especially The Brood, from the King of Venereal Horror.

  • 10 5-09-2009 at 9:35 am

    El Rocho said...

    And I completely agree with the list too, John. Pennis from Heaven is amazing and Martin giving us one of his best performances. I love that you put on The Stunt Man, Bird and Empire of the Sun. I was also going to mention Purple Rose of Cairo and Local Hero, but they got to it before me! Great choices!

  • 11 5-09-2009 at 9:48 am

    Harmonica said...

    KAGEMUSHA, which was Kurosawa’s return to genius form. A movie, in my opinion, superior than RAN itself. Masterpiece.

    Three Carpenter flicks: ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE THING, and THEY LIVE. All of these are simply genius displays of talent from the director. The best of the bunch is THE THING, which remains a haunting sci-fi/horror to this day.

    CONAN, which today is only remembered by Arnold’s fans. I still believe it is a fantastic piece of cinema, a perfectly made fantasy for the mature audience.

    RUMBLE FISH is one of the most underrated films of the 80’s. A beautiful piece of work by Coppola, and his last truly great movie. Rourke was Oscar-worthy.

    THE UNTOUCHABLES. How this failed to get a BP and BD nod, I’ll never know.

  • 12 5-09-2009 at 9:56 am

    Trevor said...

    King of Comedy

  • 13 5-09-2009 at 10:38 am

    Speaking English said...

    “Pelle the Conqueror.” Yes, it won Best Foreign Language film, but WHY in the WORLD is this film not more praised? It’s beyond my understanding… for me it’s one of my favorite movies of all time, yet it doesn’t seem like it’s very well known of. At all.

    Max von Sydow’s best performance, too.

  • 14 5-09-2009 at 10:53 am

    Gustavo H.R. said...

    At least there is one quality writer in this site who appreciates EMPIRE OF THE SUN, easily Spielberg’s best entry in the 80’s.

  • 15 5-09-2009 at 11:14 am

    colby said...

    i feel you on mosquito coast and empire of the sun. good choices.

  • 16 5-09-2009 at 11:22 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    I love “The Purple Rose of Cairo” too — one of Woody’s five best, I think — but is it really underrated? It won a wad of awards at the time (including a Best Picture BAFTA) and virtually everyone I know loves it today.

  • 17 5-09-2009 at 11:42 am

    Jeremy said...

    I’d also add:

    Blood Simple. The Coen Brothers’ first film, and for me still their best.

    Body Heat: Not sure if this qualifies as underrated, but it still holds up as a sexy, deviously plotted noir thriller.

    Excalibur: The definitive tale of the Knights of the Round Table.

    House of Games: David Mamet was never as brilliant as in his first film.

  • 18 5-09-2009 at 11:56 am

    Jesse said...

    I’ll have to see some of these, especially At Close Range.

    Yeah, Once Upon a Time and Sophie’s Choice are well-regarded films that are still underrated, unfairly.

    I’d include Diner on the list, nominated for only 1 oscar and deserving of more. Great performances and atmosphere, plus killer dialogue.

  • 19 5-09-2009 at 12:36 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    I disagree with the notion that the 80’s sucked for movies. Yes, I’m under 30 and grew up in the decade.

  • 20 5-09-2009 at 12:59 pm

    redcupbluecup said...

    Glad Local Hero got its mention somewhere. What about Housekeeping?

    Anyway, the 1980’s also squeezed in a great overlooked directorial debut at the end there: The Fabulous Baker Boys. It’s a shame Steve Kloves only ended up directing once more.

  • 21 5-09-2009 at 2:31 pm

    Daniel said...


    Written by the guy who did Taxi Driver, this is by far the most interesting and unique biopics I’ve ever seen.

    Honorable mention to The King of Comedy and Wings of Desire

  • 22 5-09-2009 at 3:20 pm

    BurmaShave said...

    Could not agree more on AT CLOSE RANGE, something I’ve always considered to be the total 80s film. Walken really should have been rewarded for it, if only for the scene in the truck.

  • 23 5-09-2009 at 5:14 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    Hey gang I am thrilled there are so many other great films that you have found that could have easily been on my list — for sure “Angel Heart” and “Rumble Fish” and it hurt me not to include them but there is only so much space — sure Kris would not appreciate a book on the site — great choices from many of you, keep them coming — maybe I should do a part II to this OR do one on the nineties for week??? Yep, that’s the topic.

  • 24 5-09-2009 at 5:16 pm

    John H. Foote said...

    And Gustave…while I appreciate the kind words and flattery, all the writers on this site are quality my friend…believe me.

  • 25 5-09-2009 at 5:32 pm

    Joel said...

    I’d say move on to the ’90s, my friend. You did really well with this one and covered a lot. Do the same for the next decade. (And then this one, maybe. :) )

  • 26 5-09-2009 at 7:41 pm

    Patryk said...

    “The Pope of Greenwich Village,” with Mickey Rourke, Eric Roberts and a great supporting cast, with Geraldine Page memorable in 2 scenes.

    Gary Oldman is rightly remembered for his brilliant work in “Sid and Nancy,” but I found his performance in “Prick Up Your Ears” criminally overlooked at Oscar time.

    And my favorite Brian DePalma film, 1980’s “Dressed to Kill.” Angie Dickinson should have grabbed a supporting actress nod.

  • 27 5-09-2009 at 10:29 pm

    Troy said...

    The Pope of Greenwich Village is a ncie choice.

    I’ll say, The Seventh Continent.

  • 28 5-09-2009 at 10:44 pm

    Derek 8-Track said...

    I have always said The Right Stuff deserved best picture over Terms.

  • 29 5-10-2009 at 6:25 am

    John H. Foote said...

    Indeed “The Pope of Greenwich Village” is one of the greats, as is Eric Roberts in ‘Star 80″ if only for the stunning work he did as a pure psycho-path — someone mentioned ‘Dressed to Kill”, but bear in mind it was a huge success at the time, and the article was about films sort of lost at the time or in the shuffle or over time — love it but not sure it belongs with these ones but to each his own —

  • 30 5-11-2009 at 10:06 am

    Matt said...

    Kings of Comedy, Mishima, Blood Simple, Local Hero, Excalibur, House of Games, Angel Heart…all good choices. I would put more Mamet on their…Things Change, especially.