Moviefied’s Top Five New York City Movies from the ʹ80s

MoviefiedNYC Celebrates One Year! 
As a continuation of our best New York City movies from the ʹ70s, we move to the next decade where sequels became the norm (along with big shoulder pads)—the 1980s.   The decade began with NYC still broke and dangerous, yet anything but black and white.  As the Bronx burned, graffiti artists sprayed subway cars, break dancers did windmills, and DJs scratched LPs to the beat of funk; the city was alive as young No Wave-post punk-graffiti-hip-hop squatters freely expressed themselves (without Kickstarter, or a job).  

     As the ʹ80s progressed, the decaying city slowly pulled itself out of bankruptcy and transitioned from steaming grit to pink neon. The East Village artists of late ʹ70s and early ʹ80s began to find commercial success as their very own Blondie and Jean-Michel Basquiat skyrocketed to the top of their fields.  NYC movies took a similar trajectory: raw, gritty films with disenfranchised characters as found in FameDowntown 81, and Ft. Apache the Bronx, gave way to sleeker, funnier films with upwardly mobile, loft-seeking, yuppies.  The subject of financial success and corporate greed prevailed in movies like Wall StreetThe Secret of my SuccessBig Business, and Working Girl. Greed-seeking economics majors had a new idol, Gordon Gekko.  The economy was better; there was more money; more to laugh about: ʹ80s NYC didn’t need a Taxi Driver to clean up the streets, it had Ghostbusters.

     The only rules for selecting our movies were that the films had to be shot and set in New York City, and we could only select one film per director. So please sport your Members Only jacket and or the biggest shoulder pads you have and enjoy our trip down ʹ80’s lane.

Myrna’s Top Five 80s NYC Movies 

1. Big (1988) –  “I wish I were big, Tom Hank’s finest hour. This is a sweet, funny and poignant film. Director Penny Marshall shows us New York in its amazing glittering wonder through the eyes of a child.  Our guide on this journey is Tom Hanks; in a star-making performance, he oozes charm as Josh, the twelve-year-old, whose wish to be big comes true. Big is a wink to the inner child in all of us.

(1986) – Woody Allen’s Manhattan collage of love, life and family in an artist community might be, in my opinion, the best acted in his incredible catalog of work. We experience neurotic, competitive New York as only Allen can show us. Claustrophobic New York living—actually filmed in Mia Farrow’s apartment—apartments overstuffed with feelings and things. Thanksgiving anyone?  

3. Ghostbusters (1984) – Evil’s finest manifestation—the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man—threatens to destroy Manhattan.  Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson star as this charming foursome, who, armed with their ghost-busting paraphernalia, rid New York of the many ghouls that abound and steal our hearts while they are at it. Bill Murray is the runaway star with his deadpan delivery, which only he could make us laugh at.
Let’s not forget the song and video that played everywhere you turned—Ghostbusters by Ray Parker Jr. “I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghost!”

4. Escape from New York (1981)  – An ʹ80s sci-fi action classic, this film about a dystopian future is set in 1997 Manhattan, now a heavily guarded maximum-security prison. Air Force One goes down, and one-eyed mercenary Snake Plissken, an iconic sci-fi character, immortalized by Kurt Russell, is coerced into rescuing him. With Adrienne Barbeau and Ernest Borgnine, not always 100% willingly by his side, Snake sets off on his quest, guided by director John Carpenter through a city irreparably split by race and class divide.

5. Liquid Sky (1982)  – New York’s early ʹ80s downtown new wave scene: sci-fi elements, considerable humor, cool music, and a gorgeous production design. This is really a film about desperation and ugliness. The characters all loathe themselves and treat each other horribly. Most of their sexual activity involves rape, and when they die, each seems better off. Perhaps the bitter aftertaste of this film explains why it never really caught on as a midnight movie, but it is a dark gem and well worth seeing.

David’s Top Five ʹ80s NYC Movies

New York City in the ʹ80s decorated the 1970’s realism with neon green and blasted it with the sounds of hip-hop and new wave while Reaganomics arose and racism simmered.  Ambitious multi-ethnic high school students, a cross-dressing actor, an office worker lost in SOHO, pizza-tossing angry whites, boom-box blasting angry blacks, and, of course NYC neurotics form—not a melting-pot but rather—a big mixed salad that shaped my Top Five NYC Movies from the ‘80s.  

     A few movies that didn’t make my list serve as excellent time capsules for the look and sound of early ʹ80s NYC:  Downtown 81, plays like a travelogue for the dilapidated, pre-gentrified East Village. Liquid Sky displays ultra-bazaar, new wave, sci-fi, fashion, chic. And Bronx-filmed Beat Street features early NYC hip-hop artist and break dancers.

1. Do the Right Thing (1989)              

Sal: “You do what you have to.” 

          “The summer is a motherfucker in New York,” says Julian Schnabel.  It’s so true. The hotter it gets the angrier New Yorkers get.  Searing reds, rhythmic dialogue, sharp humor, and a rich, ass-kicking score capture a single day in Bedford-Stuyvesant with its heat, rage and the racial tensions of 1989 America.  Spike Lee colorfully brings to life a group of characters on a Bed-Stuy street as tensions boil to the surface. During the course of the film, we live with and care about these people equally: Asian, Latino, black, and white. When the film is over, we miss them.

2. After Hours (1985) 
          Griffin Dunne stars as an uptight office worker who finds himself lost and broke in the dark, empty, late-night streets of SOHO.  It’s incredible to imagine that south of Houston was ever so vacant and yet inhabited with such fantastically weird people.  Lurking among the barren streets are wild women: a sadomasochistic sculptor, a beehived waitress, and a Mr. Softy truck driver; then there are leather gays (making out in a Scorcese film!), mohawked punks, oh, and Cheech and Chong collecting art, and other items.  Losing a $20 bill thrusts Dunne from his cold yuppie fluorescent corporate world into a manic, screwball SOHO nightmare that is both funny and disturbing. Well, actually disturbingly funny.

     Woody Allen’s seamless film Hannah and her Sisters is more than just a good ʹ80s movie; it’s a timeless New York City classic.  Hannah’s sister, Lee, is having an affair with Hannah’s husband, Elliot—a disturbing entanglement, and yet we feel for Elliot and Lee, and Hannah. They are involved in interpersonal relationships that border on intellectual incest; yet, what we remember is a delicate line of poetry, “nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.”  Like the song that plays in the background as Barbara Hershey reads the poem by E. E. Cummings, I am “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” by Hannah and her Sisters; it’s a solid old brownstone that will last through the ever-changing New York City decades.

4. Fame (1980)  “Et vous, Coco! Et vous.” 
           This musical is not all about wanting to “live forever,” stopping traffic to dance on top of cars near Times Square; it is about grungy classroom walls with chipped paint, students sans Hollywood sheen (they’re sweaty and real), rough language, and a quest for fame that’s tough.  There’s no happy, music-video montage showing someone’s rise to stardom; instead, we see a naïve, yet highly ambitious Coco (played by Irene Cara) in an on-camera audition that turns out to be a sexually exploitative video (it happens). These multi-ethnic, New York-centric, hyper-talented kids come from all the boroughs: untouchable Park Avenue to the burned down South Bronx ghettos. Fame captured raw, youthful ambition, and set it among the leftover grit of the the ʹ70s.

5. Tootsie (1982) 

Julie: “Don’t you find being a woman in the ʹ80s complicated?”
Dorthy Michaels: “Extremely.” 

          In the 1980s, New York City was home to about six soap operas; thirty years later there are none. Dustin Hoffman stars as Michael Dorsey, an unemployed (or unemployable) actor who impulsively decides to pose as an actress to land a role in a soap; it works, he (she) becomes a daytime star (complete with a happy-music video montage showing Dorothy’s rise to fame). The film explores the complicated challenges that many New York actors experience (unemployment, not being right for the part, insecurity) and simultaneously examines the complications of being a woman in the ʹ80s: pretty and objectified, ugly and ignored. Tootsie is subtly feminist and serious(ly) funny. 

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