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Films of the '80s--Critics Recall the Best

December 24, 1989|SHEILA BENSON

Let's face a sad fact squarely; this was one of the sorriest decades yet in the annals of film. What good there was was very very good, but there was not a lot of it, and what you had to wade through to reach it was, at times, unspeakable. Just as we begin to turn into the '90s, things are picking up, not across the board, but enough to turn the hearts of critics away from serious consideration of secondary careers as investment bankers, mushroom growers, surfing champions or any of the numbers of jobs that sitting in the dark all day fits one for.

My personal list of the signal films of that period would include:

1. "Fanny and Alexander" Ingmar Bergman's magical finale to his film career seems to tower over anything else on the list. Surveying a matriarchal theater family at the turn of the century, Bergman's viewpoint was generous, ribald, reflective and radiantly life-affirming. What a departing gift.

2. "Blue Velvet" This one may have been the decade's most controversial film as David Lynch looked at the underside of the neat American small town and found horrors here beyond belief. A nice contrast to Reagan-era denial, "Blue Velvet" made its strongest points through Lynch's absolute control and his painterly vision. And in the mounting stories of off-hand corruption that are piling up at the end of this decade, who's to say that Lynch's stylized vision of the rot below wasn't closer to the mark than any of us imagined in 1986.

3. "Once Upon a Time in America" A little explanation is in order here. The decade's end has fascinated nearly every film publication worthy of the name, and in answer to one query, I named Edgar Reitz's monumental 15 hour and 40 minute "Heimat" as my third favorite film of the decade. I am still in awe of its bravura form and its inventive storytelling; however, since it never had a commercial release, I would rather relinquish that spot to another equally haunting and perhaps more accessible film, Sergio Leone's uncut "Once Upon a Time in America."

Leone's vision of the world of the Jewish gangster on the Lower East Side is a pungent and lingering memory piece, and what he achieves in the weaving in and out of three time periods is astonishing. Only the long version can be considered, the short--or desecrated--version is fit only for guitar picks.

4. "Wings of Desire" The poetry of the screen and the camera soared on the wings of Wim Wenders' two Berlin angels, in a film that flew against the temper of the day. The world, it declared passionately, needs trust, love, commitment and wholeness. Strange how prescient that message from Berlin a year ago seems this very Christmastime. At that time it was anachronistic; now it is simply a cheerful reverberation of what we can see for ourselves on television.

5. "Hannah and Her Sisters" Of all the Woody Allen films to spill out so prodigiously during this decade, Hannah and her marvelous sisters seem to inhabit his richest and most mature work. In retrospect, we discover it was a growing warmth that was creeping up on the pride of Flatbush Avenue. Even holding a passion for "Zelig" that almost passeth understanding, I would still lean to the scope and maturity of "Hannah" as the decade's finest Allen.

6. "Little Dorrit" Film form was one of the areas played with to great advantage in this decade, and director/adaptor Christine Edzard's conceit of using two echoing versions of the same Dickens story was brilliant. What she achieved in her six hours was intimate rather than epic and by the time this grand, political story with its parallels to the financial world today reached its soaring conclusion, the faces and voices of Dickens' London, the working poor as well as the drawling rich, had been stamped in our minds forever.

7. "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" In his salute to a "failed" American visionary, Francis Coppola was actually making a tribute to the loners and dreamers of the world, whether they make paper clips, vast flying machines or, perhaps, vast unruly films which do or do not fly, according to your viewpoint. "Tucker" could have used a still darker side, but what remains, sticks--the fluid changes of time and place; the midnight meeting between Tucker and Howard Hughes, unlikely co-conspirators against the grain of American know-how.

8. "Raging Bull" The bull was Jake LaMotta, middleweight champion of America in 1948, the director was Martin Scorsese, the actor was Robert DeNiro, his flesh mortified in a new fashion, the result is at the same time Scorsese's finest and hardest to watch. Following LaMotta as he destroys his life with rage and jealousy isn't pretty; it's horrifying, yet Scorsese draws us back to the screen almost in an act of catharsis. It will be interesting to see this again in re-release early next year. Even though it's in black and white, it's a film for immersion, not video.

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