My Take: Top 10 Overlooked 1980s Films for a Break from Scrolling

February 29, 2024 by Sandy Lerebours

Your bestie Senior Director of Film, Jim Carl, gives his top 10 recommendations of overlooked 1980s films to give a try when you are at a loss for what to watch on a night in. 


First off, I’m not claiming any of the movies on this list are overlooked classics. A lot, in fact, were doomed to oblivion before a single frame of footage was ever shot. That doesn’t mean they’re bad films; they’re just not obliged to please everyone.

Let’s face it: there are lots of pictures that have largely been forgotten by their original audiences and have never been rediscovered by new ones. They metaphorically exist nowadays in Blockbuster stores in Hell, mostly popping up on Tubi, and hoping someone will take pity and give them a shot. None of these films below were huge hits or won Academy Awards. But if you scroll past one of these thumbnails on a streaming site, seriously consider hitting the play button. You’ve got nothing to lower except your opinion of me.

With that said, here are 10 pictures from the 1980s – in alphabetical order – that I’d recommend to you, because we’re besties, of course.

 

APARTMENT ZERO (1989) If you like slow-burning psychological thrillers that are pitch-black in darkness and drenched in evil, this rarely seen shocker is a perfect cup of poisoned tea. Colin Firth plays a gay British man living in Argentina whose mother has recently died, leaving him in the precarious position of finding a new roommate to make the rent. Enter Hart Bochner, all piranha teeth and looking like he arrived straight from a porn shoot, ready to take that spare bedroom. He’s also a narcissistic serial killer who has no problem taking advantage of Firth’s sexual insecurities.

 

THE AVIATOR (1985) Here we have one of the worst-marketed pictures of the 1980s, a film whose ridiculous poster does it no favors, whatsoever. “Superman” aside, Christopher Reeve has never been much of an actor, if you ask me, but he’s shockingly strong here. This is his show all the way.  Those expecting a frothy romantic caper will be blindsided when this wilderness adventure morphs into frigging “First Blood” meets “The Grey.” Of all the forgotten 80s films I’ve seen in the past few years, this is the one that – hands down – most beat my expectations.

 

THE BEST OF TIMES (1986) This is “Peggy Sue Got Married” for guys. Twenty years ago, Robin Williams failed to catch the ball during his high school football team’s match-up against their biggest rival, and no one in his small town has forgotten it since. Now, he’s got a chance to make things right during an unlikely rematch in this fantasy sports-comedy written by Ron Shelton, still learning the groove that would later suit him in “Bull Durham” and “White Men Can’t Jump.” Kurt Russell is the grumpy quarterback with bad knees who unwillingly gets sucked back into duty.  If you like your comedy-dramas with a whiff of masculine sentimentality, this one is worth catching.

 

THE COMPETITION (1980) If you’re hankering for an old-fashioned romance set in the high-stress world of piano competitions, this one is a doozy, filmed almost like a brutal sports event. Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving star as rivals for a $20,000 scholarship and a debut at Carnegie Hall. This is heavy stuff, filled with long passages involving concertos by Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms. It’s also an examination of the changing values of male-female relationships at the end of the 1970s.  There is, of course, a lot of classical music, in addition to all the scenes of rising passion, backstage butterflies, and self-examination. And it does an extraordinary job of making us believe that the actors are really playing their own pianos. They’re not, but it helps to heighten the film’s realism and makes watching the concert footage, which gets amazingly drawn out, quite riveting.  It’s called “The Competition” for a reason, and when it needs to be, it gets quite nasty and cutthroat, as in real life, and treats losing like the devastating downer that it can be.

 

THE EMERALD FOREST (1985) For me, this is one of director John Boorman’s greatest works, ranking up there with “Deliverance” and “Excalibur.”  Yes, it’s often an exercise in self-indulgence, like “Zardoz,” but at least it’s an interesting one. Powers Boothe plays an American engineer whose son is kidnapped by an aboriginal tribe on the edge of an Amazonian rainforest. Dedicating the next 10 years to finding him, he discovers things are not what he expected. I have no idea why this film has mostly faded from most movie-goers’ memories. It’s a wilderness adventure infused with touches of magic realism and has some of the best cinematography seen in the 1980s. Unlike the wretched symbolism of “The Mission,” released one-year later, this one has endured for me.

 

HOW TO BEAT THE HIGH COST OF LIVING (1980) 44 years ago, Hollywood decided it was a good idea to make movies about inflation. Yes, inflation. Here we are, all these decades later, and this comedy seems more relevant today than it did back then. It’s also funnier and more politically incorrect than anything that would get made in modern times, and, like “Blazing Saddles,” that’s the best reason to see it. Jane Curtin, Susan St. James, and Jessica Lange star as a trio of frustrated wives who decide to beat inflation by robbing thousands of dollars from their local mall. Fortunately, the screenplay takes the curse off the plot’s essential corniness by getting in some nice, mean digs at greed, corporate politics, adultery, 70s feminism, the US government in general, and dentists in particular.

 

KISS ME GOODBYE (1982) For most of her career, Sally Field has been your go-to actress for playing characters with pluck and common sense, and here she plays a widower who decides to move back into her Manhattan brownstone three years after the death of her first husband, a famous Broadway choreographer, played by James Caan. All at once, her common sense goes out the window. She’s flabbergasted to find his tap-dancing ghost is still living there. Worse, she’s about to marry a stuffy Egyptologist, played by Jeff Bridges. It’s a classic romantic-comedy, with all the tropes planted and all of them visible, peopled with a large and expensive collection of stars. Still, it’s fun, silly entertainment, nonetheless, and perfect for a rainy Saturday.

 

MASQUERADE (1988) Along with 1982’s “Deathtrap,” this is probably the best 80s mystery-thriller not based on a book by Agatha Christie or written by David Mamet. A rich Hamptons heiress, played here by Meg Tilly, falls in love with a lowly yacht captain and hustler, played by Rob Lowe, who appears not to be interested in her money. There are big technical problems here: Dozens of clues must be planted yet kept unrecognized, a very complicated plot must be unraveled, and everything must take place among the claustrophobia of the filthy rich. “Masquerade” overcomes these difficulties with great energy, and you’re never for a moment confused, except when you’re supposed to be, which is for most of the movie. If you like pictures like “Knives Out,” films that turn the tables so often you’d swear they were on wheels, this one will keep you second-guessing to the end.

 

MAXIE (1985) This is hot trash that I adore because it’s so unlikely, so out-of-left-field, and so bewildering that I can’t believe this comedy got made in the first place. It is my duty to remind others that it exists. Glenn Close and Mandy Patinkin play a couple who rent an old New York apartment that happens to be haunted by the spirit of a dead 1920s flapper who was destined to become a great star but was killed in a tragic car accident. After “Kiss Me Goodbye,” you’d think I’d have enough of movies about ghosts haunting expensive, trendy brownstones in Soho, but no. Ruth Gordon steals the show as an old neighbor who was once friends with the dead woman. It’s 100% guaranteed that they’ll zip right past this picture during Close’s inevitable AFI Tribute.

 

THE SEVENTH SIGN (1988) Armageddon is never boring in this movie. Demi Moore plays an expectant mother who discovers that her unborn child is destined to play a part in the end of the world. Imagine if “Rosemary’s Baby” had no time to waste on character, situation, dialogue, and nuance. If its dramatic scenes were holding actions between “Omen”-style deaths, you’ll get an idea of what to expect in this picture. As a bloated spectacle about the wrath of God, however, “The Seventh Sign” is impressive. It’s about as skillfully constructed as a religious horror movie can be, and if that’s what you want to see, you will see it done here better about as well as it can be done.


JIM CARL is Senior Director of Film at the Carolina Theatre.  He has been in charge of its film program since 1995. For all his talk about the 80s, his favorite decade of film is actually the 1970s, but this hasn’t stopped him from reminding everyone on the planet that he’s a part of Generation X, which is the best generation in the history of history, if you ask him. He is obsessed to a fault with 70s disaster films like “The Towering Inferno” and “Airport ‘77” as well as the countless rip-offs that followed in the wake of “Jaws,” like “Monster Shark” and “Tentacles.” He is a firm believer in the presentation of pictures that are fun and entertaining (and sometimes silly) and will book any movie he suspects will make money, even if he hates it, except for “The Babadook.”