Overlooked Films of the '80s

By Ash Wakeman

October 26, 2004

We have no idea why we went with the Def Leppard hair.

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Lists like these tend to generate a lot of, well, hate is probably too strong a word… let's say "dislike mail". However, one thing I hope was made clear by the introduction is that this in no way is being presented as a definitive "best of" list. Instead, these are our favorite films of the decade as picked and voted for by the BOP staff. If your favorite film isn't on the list, please don't get upset and start yelling at us. It's cool that different people like different films. If everyone liked the same films, cinema would be pretty boring. That said, ARE WE CRAZY? HOW COULD SUMMER SCHOOL NOT BE NUMBER #1????!!!???

Whew! Now I've got that off my chest, here are five more films I think should have been on the list but weren't in my own miniature '80s countdown.

5) The Sure Thing

Midway through what was a busy decade for John Cusack (he was in 15 films through the '80s) came The Sure Thing, another coming-of-age comedy where the disarmingly charming Cusack gets the girl (in this case Melrose Place's Daphne Zuniga) despite being not quite her image of the perfect man. As such, it's got a similar message to our poll topper Say Anything…

Better off Dead is a better slapstick comedy. Say Anything… is a better dramatic comedy. The Sure Thing falls somewhere between the two and to an extent, probably loses out because of that fact. It's a nice little movie, though, and one of my favorites.

4) The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

Buckaroo Banzai defies description. The titular character, a rock musician / brain surgeon / inventor / daredevil / presidential advisor and all-around hero and his band of heroic followers face off against a race of evil aliens led by a wonderfully over-the-top John Lithgow.

A completely ludicrous plot is played totally straight and at times it's hard to see whether the laughs are intentional or accidental. Buckaroo Banzai was intended to serve as the launching point of a franchise. Like Raiders of the Lost Ark, it introduced a bunch of characters in the middle of their continuing adventures and didn't waste too much time on back story. But ultimately, it was just a bit too out there for any kind of mainstream success.

Although if it had been a success, we wouldn't have had my next pick…

3) Big Trouble in Little China

Big Trouble in Little China started life as a script for a Buckaroo Banzai sequel, but the failure of that film an the box office meant that a follow-up was never to be. Instead, it was adapted as a stand-alone film featuring Kurt Russell as the slightly less heroic Jack Burton.

It really is a fantastic film as an all-American truck driver battles all manner of martial artists and demons straight out of Chinese folklore and cinema. Dennis Dun is great as Jack's much more talented and heroic side-kick and the always wonderful and sadly missed Victor Wong plays their mystical mentor and Chinatown tour bus driver.

Again, John Carpenter's genre-defying action comedy failed to find much of a mainstream audience, but it remains a TV favorite and a minor cult classic. Both Big Trouble and Buckaroo Banzai have had the DVD special edition treatment recently and both are well worth picking up.

2) Escape From New York

Here's director John Carpenter again in a film I was quite surprised didn't make the cut. It's a brilliant anarchic and apocalyptic science fiction romp with Kurt Russell in a breakout roll as one of cinema's great anti-heroes. One reason I suspect it was neglected is that despite being released in '81, it had a very '70s feel to it.

The tone and subject matter, the special effects and music, even the presence of '70s (and earlier) icons Donald Pleasance, Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, and Lee Van Cleef added to the atmosphere. It just has a certain grittiness and self-awareness that didn't seem to fit with the '80s as a decade.

1) Withnail and I

I just have to apologize for this one. Withnail and I is probably in my top ten films of all time. In any comprehensive list of my favorite films of the '80s, it should be in my top three, but in this one I simply forgot all about it and it didn't even get a look in. I wouldn't have remembered it now if not for the fact that I watched it last week and noticed that it was released in 89 in the credits.

I felt shamed. I know I'm not the only one who forgot all about it as well. In my defense, it is not a film that would usually be associated with the '80s. It is set in 1969 and like Escape form New York, has a very '70s feel to it in look and tone. It tells the story of two out of work actors (played by Richard E Grant and Paul McGann) living in squalor at the end of "the greatest decade in the history of mankind" and surviving on a diet of drugs and drink. To get away from it all, they go on a holiday to the country, something that was perhaps not a great idea. It's both a hilarious comedy and a touching drama (the final scene never fails to move me close to tears) and I'm so sorry I forgot to vote for it.

I did remember to vote for Summer School, though.



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