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12 ’80s-Era Indie Films to Swap Out for Your Old School Favorites

12 '80s-Era Indie Films to Swap Out for Your Old School Favorites

READ MORE: BAMcinématek Reveals Plans for ‘Indie 80s’ Screening Series

The eighties: A magical time filled with mainstream cinema that championed such off-the-wall ideas as the possibility that skateboarding could help fight crime, that high school-aged kids are worthy of the epic adventure treatment and even that aliens are our friends (or, at the very least, relatable beings that relish the opportunity to chow down on classic junk food). That era might be over, but it hasn’t been forgotten, especially at Brooklyn’s own BAMcinématek, which is kicking off a massive new screening series — appropriately called “Indie ’80s” — that seeks to “[spotlight] the independent films of the neglected decade between the golden age of 70’s New Hollywood and the indie boom of the 90s.”

The series, which features over sixty films and runs from July 17 until August 27, is rife with familiar names, including “sex, lies, and videotape,” “Blue Velvet,” “This Is Spinal Tap” and “The Evil Dead,” but it also boasts a number of lesser known features that should appeal to film fans who have tapped out their ’80s-era reserves. If you’ve worn out your VHS copies of “The Breakfast Club,” “Blade Runner” and “Back to the Future,” we’ve got some ideas what you can watch next.

If you like “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” try “Hollywood Shuffle.”

Robert Townsend pulled quadruple duty on his razor-sharp-witted 1987 satire, writing, directing, producing and starring in the feature, which became an unexpected hit at the box office. Made for a rumored $100,000, the film pulled in over $5 million, eventually becoming one of the year’s top-ten best limited release performers. The semi-autobiographical tale, told by way of Townsend’s trademark humor, poked fun at Hollywood’s treatment of black talent in a way that was both amusing and important. Tempering his insights with hilarity allowed Townsend to deliver a scathing look inside the industry that had plenty to offer simply by way of entertainment. One year later, co-writer Keenan Ivory Wayans made his “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” which gave the same sort of treatment to blaxploitation films. An all-star cast made that film the more recognizable one, but “Hollywood Shuffle” is the real winner here.

If you like “Twins,” try “Poto and Cabengo.”

You’ll never look at twins (or, even “Twins”) the same way after watching Jean-Pierre Gorin’s “Poto and Cabengo,” an intimate look inside the unique relationship between Grace and Virginia Kennedy. Seemingly normal at birth, the twins — who eventually took to calling each other by “Poto” and “Cabengo” — fascinated and confounded both their family and medical professionals when they started speaking in their own language. It’s a very personal and deeply riveting look at a special relationship that, from the outside, is impossible to understand. 

If you like “Norma Rae,” try “Wildrose.”

Five years after “Norma Rae” (and, yes, it’s out of the ’80s realm, but just close enough that we have to include it), John Hanson’s wondrously naturalistic “Wildrose” emerged. Lisa Eichhorn stars in the hardscrabble drama as a machinery offering who is perilously balancing between the personal and the professional — both areas of her life seemingly insurmountably dominated by men and their needs and desires — as she seeks to battle sexism at work while also dealing with an abusive ex who cannot seem to leave her alone. The film isn’t a documentary, but it frequently feels like one, resulting in a startlingly personal look inside a fictional world that is hard to escape, either as an inhabitant or an observer.

If you like “Blade Runner,” try “Trouble in Mind.”


Alan Rudolph’s Rain City isn’t nearly as menacing as Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles, but it’s still kitted out with a eerily weird criminal underbelly and the lingering feeling that all is not what it seems to be — especially when it comes to the neo-noir city’s inhabitants. The casting of “Trouble in Mind” is spectacular and worth the price of admission alone, including Kris Kristofferson, Keith Carradine and Divine (appearing out of drag, a rarity and a unique treat). The dystopia that Rudolph puts to the screen isn’t as obviously nefarious as the one we observe in “Blade Runner,” but you’d certainly only want to swing by it for a short visit. 

If you like “When Harry Met Sally…,” try “True Love.”

Most romantic comedies gleefully leave off after joining their leads in couple-y bliss, but Nancy Savoca’s 1989 entry into the genre isn’t content to rest on the kind of happy endings we’ve come to expect from big screen romances. Instead of sealing things up with kiss, Savoca tells a story about what happens after everything seemingly works out, setting up her stars (Annabella Sciorra and Ron Eldard) for some real drama: Planning their wedding.

If you like “The Breakfast Club,” try “Seventeen.”

Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines’ achingly real documentary, “Seventeen,” takes the kind of considered and fresh approach to teen life that is often lacking in otherwise glossy and glamorous teen comedies of the same era. “Seventeen” is refreshingly concerned with all sorts of demographics — age, sex, class, race — though it still manages to give insight and equal time to its wide range of topics. It’s brutally honest, and its rewards are very real. 

If you like “Death Wish II,” try “Vigilante.”

William Lustig’s pulpy, violent and perfectly over the top grindhouse offering is a natural fit for fans of the “Death Wish” series, cinephiles eager to watch revenge play out in all its forms. With an eye for location and atmosphere, Lustig’s film transports viewers back to ‘80s-era Queens and Brooklyn with style and substance. Bolstered by performances by Robert Forster and Fred Williamson, it’s the kind of thriller that packs more than just bloodshed and terror, there’s real bite here.

If you like “Koyaanisqatsi,” try “A Flash of Green.”

The rare ‘80s feature to use “nefarious land developers” to tell a truly timely story (sorry, “The Forbidden Dance”), Victor Nunez’s drama weaves together familiar elements — the threat of land expansion, a hardened newspaper reporter, encroaching big business — to tell a forward-thinking story about environmentalism and ecology that’s much more de rigueur in the modern era. Despite growing awareness of environmental issues, the ’80s doesn’t offer better a dramatic features about those topics than this one, bolstered by a severely underappreciated turn by Ed Harris.

If you like “Stand By Me,” try “River’s Edge.”


The Keanu Reeves-starring “River’s Edge” has often been dinged for its occasionally lackluster acting, but the Tim Hunter feature is still packed with searing, mostly uncomfortable insights about the nature of crime and the unexpected reactions of seemingly normal people. If “Stand By Me” is a movie about the way in which children face down death and discover their morality (and mortality) in the process, “River’s Edge” is about that same idea, transferred to an older set of teens, ones who react extremely different than their younger counterparts. A curiosity laden with exploding star power, few films will make you feel as complicit and weird as “River’s Edge.”

If you like “Sid and Nancy,” try “My Degeneration.”

Meaty in ways both literal and figurative, Jon Moritsugu’s “My Degeneration” puts a decidedly different spin on the concept of selling out and what it really means to be rock n’ roll. Sleazy and skeezy, the underground hit catapults punk thinking — and action — onto some very weird (and very bright) new levels.

If you like “Scarface,” try “Alphabet City.”

Sick of profiteering drug lords? “Alphabet City” offers up a way out of the seedy life — with consequences. Lots of them.

If you like “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” try “Matewan.”


The star power behind John Sayles’ “Matewan” cannot be oversold, as the fact-based historical drama boasts turns from Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones and Mary McDonnell, all lensed by the beloved Haskell Wexler. A slice of Americana — the bitter kind — that pulls from real world events and the kind of authenticity you just can’t fake, “Matewan” is a modern classic that is all but gasping for some sort of resurrection, or at least a canary willing to chirp out its charms to a wider audience.

BAM’s Indie 80s series takes place from July 17 until August 27. Check out more about it here.

READ MORE: 15 Must-See Films From BAMCinemaFest 2015

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Comments

Serena

Part of the reason why I haven’t seen MATEWAN is because whenever I see it in the video store, it looks so much like Woody Allen’s MANHATTAN. They’re probably right next to each other, I wonder how many people have rented one on accident.

Daniella Isaacs

I grew up on indie cinema, but, with a couple of exceptions (RIVER’S EDGE), these aren’t at all the cream of the 80s crop. I was at Sundance when TRUE LOVE won the jury prize over SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE. We were all appalled. We knew it would be quickly forgotten and, deservedly, it was.

Jonathan Dana

Very cool that you included ALPHABET CITY on this list. Amos Poe did an amazing job with no money. Vinnie Spano is charismatic, Kate Vernon and Jami Gertz are fun and sexy, Zohra Lampert is, of course, mysterious, and there is a great track by Nile Rogers. I can’t begin to tell you how tough it was to shoot on those streets at night during that era!

Brian Boyle

I would love to suggest another alternative to "The Breakfast Club," the delightful "Gregory’s Girl." The tone is lighter, and the delivery of the film’s message is not as heavy-handed, but writer/ director Bill Forsythe still has PLENTY to say about what it means to be a teen at that awkward age in which one is on the cusp of adulthood, possessing the full measure of inner emotional complexity, but is not yet an adult.

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