You could call this my Best of the 1980s list or my Salute to John Sayles, since he has three films on the list. Again, we could quibble about films on this list being film noir or neo-noir as well as international films, but the list is the list. Hope you enjoy it.
The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) Steve Kloves
MGM DVD (1:54)
Previously discussed here
Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980) John Sayles
John Sayles wrote, directed and edited Return of the Secaucus 7, a film that sounds like either a Western, a movie about revolutionaries, or some type of sequel, but is in fact the story of a reunion of seven friends (roughly at the end of their 20s) after several years. Secaucus sounds an awful lot like The Big Chill (1983), but Secaucus came first, is less flashy, and probably more honest (and a better film), although a lot fewer people saw it. Coming at the dawn of the 80s, Secaucus is very much a film of its time, yet the themes of disenchantment and disappointment in the midst of reminiscing and good times are still relevant now.
Thief (1981) Michael Mann
James Caan (in arguably his finest performance) plays Frank, a professional thief (primarily a safecracker) who decides to plan for his future with a beautiful waitress named Jessie (Tuesday Weld), with whom he wants to adopt a child. There’s a great moment in the film after a meeting for the adoption that doesn’t go as planned. An even better moment occurs early in the film when Frank tells Jessie what he does for a living. It may be Caan’s greatest moment as a film actor. Things get complicated – and deadly – when Frank decides to sign on with a top crime boss in order to make bigger scores. Mann’s first feature film is practically the gold standard for modern-day crime films. Thief has been imitated, copied, and ripped off for years and for good reason. I have a few quibbles with the ending, but overall the film is excellent.
Black Rain (1989) Ridley Scott
DVD – library (2:05)
Yet another movie I missed in the 80s, Black Rain is one of director Ridley Scott’s overlooked films that deserves to be seen. Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia play NYC cops who arrest a Yakuza gangster, extradite him to Osaka, and then lose him. The Osaka officer in charge (Ken Takakura) and the Douglas character have a huge conflict of police procedure philosophy going on, but that’s just one of the themes explored in this film. Most of it is done well, but expect some cop movie/clash of culture cliches.
Night of the Comet (1984) Thom Eberhardt
Library DVD – interlibrary loan (1:35)
Previously discussed here
The Brother from Another Planet (1984) John Sayles
An alien (Joe Morton) escapes the slavery of his planet by crash-landing in Harlem and is mistaken by everyone he meets as a mute, homeless African American man. The brother has some unusual powers which come in handy in several different types of situations. He’s also being chased by two “Men in Black” (director Jon Sayles himself and David Strathairn) who want to recapture the brother. The film is a wonderful commentary on many topics, not the least of which is race, but it also works brilliantly as an outstanding science fiction comedy. I’m sorry it took me this long to see it, but I’m glad I did.
Fitzcarraldo (1982) Werner Herzog
DVD – library (2:37)
Fitzcarraldo is one of the boldest, foolhardiest, and most fascinating films in the history of cinema. The stories behind it are the stuff of legend. I’ll have more to say about this film after a second viewing, but for now, I’ll say that this was one of the films from last year’s Blind Spot series that I didn’t get around to watching until now. I clearly remember Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel discussing and praising the film on Siskel & Ebert (or whatever the show was called at that time). I was 20 years old when the film was released and it sounded like an art film I didn’t really want to see. Well, that’s not entirely true. I wanted to see it but I also wanted to see many other films that I thought were more approachable. I wish I had experienced it upon its first release 35 years ago, but I probably wouldn’t have fully appreciated it.
The insanity of the plot is as follows: Klaus Kinski plays Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (whom the Peruvian locals call Fitzcarraldo), a would-be rubber baron who has an all-consuming desire to build a world-class opera house in the Perivian Amazon. (He also wants to have the world’s most famous tenor, Enrico Caruso, to perform at its opening.) To finance this, Fitzcarraldo must exploit the the only unclaimed area of rubber trees, an area unreachable by any ship, especially the old steamship Fitzcarraldo has purchased for this venture. To avoid dangerous rapids, the 320-ton steamship must be carried over a 40° hillside to the other side of the river. This was done without special effects.
Read those last two sentences again. Yes, they actually did this.
The stories from the film are legion and the Les Blank documentary Burden of Dreams (1982), which I have not yet seen, chronicles the entire adventure. Again, I will write more about this amazing film at a later date. Don’t wait 35 years to see it like I did.
Matewan (1987) John Sayles
AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center (2:12)
More about this film and the comments of Sayles at the AFI Silver here
Miracle Mile (1988*) Steve De Jarnatt
Kino Lorber Blu-ray (1:27)
Previously discussed here
Things Change (1988) David Mamet
Borrowed from a friend (1:40)
Two imposing men walk into a quiet Chicago shoe repair shop. Inside, one of the men (Ricky Jay) approaches an elderly shoe repairman named Gino (Don Ameche, right). The imposing man says, “A friend of ours would like to speak to you this evening,” and hands Gino a card and a $100 bill.
“I just shine shoes,” Gino states, totally confused.
“There’ll be shoes there,” the other man says.
Gino shows up at the address printed on the card and is offered an amazing proposition (which I won’t disclose). To make sure Gino goes through with the deal, the gangsters behind the proposition send along Jerry (Joe Mantegna, left), a man who’ll no longer be “on probation” with the organization if he succeeds in keeping Gino on task. It’s at this point that Things Change moves from what we thought was going to be a mob movie to a delightful comedy with wonderful performances by Ameche and Mantegna. Please don’t miss this often-neglected David Mamet film.
Trim your mullets, the 80s are over, at least for this list. Next time we’ll briefly encounter the 90s.