With movie theaters closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, this is a most difficult time for film lovers. Every night, I lie in bed dreaming of the glorious day when the Megaplex opens again — ahh, the mental picture makes it feel so close while the actual event is (likely) so far away. While there is no shortage of newer content to stream at home in the interim, it’s also a perfect time to engage oneself with classic cinema.
An ardent admirer of ‘80s culture, I often find myself preferring movies from that era over modern offerings. Don’t get me wrong, there have been a lot of good films lately — but something about ‘80s movies is truly exceptional. In that spirit, I’ve compiled (after narrowing it down from a list of over 100) a three-part list of the movies that truly stand out to me from the era of Reaganomics and hair metal.
I have taken care to not include the obvious ones like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Die Hard. Some of these films were released to critical acclaim, others not so much — regardless, it is my contention that each of these has something special and are worth a viewing. Without further adieu, and in no particular order:
1. The Trip to Bountiful
Carrie Watts (Geraldine Page) is an oldster who lives in 1940s Houston with her extremely protective son (John Heard) and nag of a daughter-in-law (Carlin Glynn). Both forbid her to travel solo to her childhood home in Bountiful (a fictional town near the Texas Gulf Coast between Houston and Corpus Christi) one more time before dying. Undeterred, Carrie journeys anyway.
Geraldine Page, who received an Academy Award for Best Actress for this role, truly shines in every scene. The story, a member of an older generation grappling with an ever-changing world that seems to be passing them by, is just as relevant today as it was in 1985.
2. Seems Like Old Times
Nick Gardenia (Chevy Chase) is a writer who has moved to a cabin in the California mountains to work on a new novel. He is subsequently kidnapped by a pair of criminals and forced into robbing a bank. Now on the run, Nick seeks out from his ex-wife, Glenda (Goldie Hawn), a lawyer who tries to prove his innocence. She lets him stay at her house even though her husband, Ira (Charles Grodin), the Los Angeles County District Attorney, is prepping a run for Attorney General of California. Chaos ensues.
This is a delightful comedy from Neil Simon, and it was such a pleasure to see Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase work together again after 1978’s Foul Play, another favorite of mine. I also particularly loved the film score, which was composed by the great Marvin Hamlisch.
While searching for new video games to play, Seattle high school student David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) accidentally hacks into the War Operation Plan Response (WOPR), a military supercomputer that’s programmed to predict possible outcomes of nuclear war. He begins a game of Global Thermonuclear War and, in so doing, causes the WOPR to activate the United States’ nuclear arsenal in response to his simulated threat as the Soviet Union. Lightman, with assistance from his girlfriend, Jennifer (Ally Sheedy), set out to alert the authorities before the world is plunged into World War III.
Next to The ‘Burbs and Jumpin’ Jack Flash, this is probably my most-loved movie. Not only is WarGames a thrill a minute, but it also shined an important light on computers and their potential dangers.
4. Secret Admirer
Michael Ryan (C. Thomas Howell) has been in love with Deborah Ann Fimple (Kelly Preston) for as long as he can remember, oblivious to the fact that his female best friend, Toni Williams (Lori Loughlin), is secretly pining for him. With Toni’s help, Michael leaves Deborah Ann an anonymous love letter, and soon after the two begin a relationship. Meanwhile, the letter is discovered by Deborah Ann’s parents and causes accusations of philandering to be leveled among them and their neighbors – a fun little subplot.
In my opinion, Secret Admirer is right up there with other teen films of the day like The Breakfast Club. Also, the original music score was by Jan Hammer and the song that plays at the end, “Finale,” is so majestic and beautiful.
5. The ‘Burbs
Settling in for a one-week vacation from work in his seemingly ideal suburban community, Ray Peterson’s (Tom Hanks) time off becomes a horror when the Klopeks, an eccentric family, move in next door. With the help of his paranoid friend, Art (Rick Ducommun), and military man neighbor, Rumsfield (Bruce Dern), he probes the Klopeks’ activities. When a neighbor, Walter (Gale Gordon), disappears, Ray sends his son and wife (Carrie Fisher) away on a trip while Ray and his cohorts risk their lives to get to the bottom of things and save their cul-de-sac, Mayfield Place.
When I first discovered The ‘Burbs as a teenager, I was utterly fascinated — viewing it every night for several months. It has the perfect combination of comedy and mystery, as well as an extremely well-written script.
6. Jumpin ’ Jack Flash
Terry Doolittle (Whoopi Goldberg) works with computers in a Manhattan bank office. She routinely talks with others via her computer, and one day connects with a mysterious user by the name of Jumpin’ Jack Flash (Jonathan Pryce). Jack gives her a message to decode, which she does. Terry figures out that Jack is an MI6 agent trapped behind enemy lines. Terry agrees to help him, but her efforts soon attract the attention of the KGB, who want to know Jack’s real identity.
The directorial debut of Penny Marshall and one of Whoopi Goldberg’s first films, this movie hasn’t gotten nearly the amount of love it deserves. Whoopi turned in an amazingly hilarious performance, which saves the sometimes convoluted plot.
7. Runaway Train
Based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, the film follows two escaped prisoners named Oscar “Manny” Manheim (Jon Voight) and Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts). After boarding a train, the railroad engineer suffers a fatal heart attack and the train perilously races out of control through the icy Alaskan wilderness. With the signalmen unable to stop it and a ruthless prison warden (John P. Ryan) pursuing them by helicopter, the passengers face a grim ending unless they can stop it.
What an adventure! Raw and overdosing on manic energy, Runaway Train doesn’t miss a single track. Jon Voight‘s performance was one of the finest of his career.
8. Ruthless People
Millionaire Sam Stone (Danny DeVito) hates his wife, Barbara (Bette Midler), so much that he wants her dead. He’s beyond thrilled when she’s held ransom for $500,000. Sam ignores all of the kidnappers’ demands in the hope that they kill her for him. The kidnappers (Judge Reinhold, Helen Slater), quite confused by the situation, are stuck trying to figure out how they’re going to get their money and what they’re going to do with the overbearing, unlikeable Barbara once it’s all over.
Ruthless People is so much fun! From the opening titles to the set design, the film is so ‘80s that it’s an absolute treasure for this reason alone. The jokes are often crude, but the script works and is consistently delightful throughout.