Once Upon a Time in America

An all star cast, 3 hours of gangster drama, and amazing soundtrack by the late Ennio Morricone make Once Upon a Time in America a must see for any true fan of 80s cinema.

Any fan of spaghetti Westerns will immediately recognize Sergio Corbucci’s name on this Scorcese-eqsue, 3 hour long masterpiece. When you then discover that the score was done by none other than Ennio Morricone himself, you’ll come to the same conclusion I did and realize that you are in for a treat. Marathon length films weren’t popular back in the 80s where most movies made nearly all of their money in the theater, not post-release. Due to its length, editing of scenes to maintain an “R” rating, and a mistake in the sequence of events for its theater release, OUTA was a box office flop. This is most likely why the film has at most a cult following to this day.

Once Upon a Time in America tracks the full life cycle of a gang of Jewish hoodlums in New York city, beginning in the early 1900s. It has parallels to Goodfellas in the sense that you get to see the “origin story”, tracking the gangsters throughout their career: the ups, the downs and a variety of plot twists along the way. On that note, fans of Casino will recognize several familiar faces in Once Upon a Time in America: Pesci, DeNiro and James Woods.

It’s a great film to watch on a long plane ride, or if you have 3 hours to kill. As a final thought, and without giving away anything, OUTA has a very interesting ending. After 30 years plus, the final scene is still the subject of much debate as it really leaves the interpretation up to the viewer, making it all the more reason to check out this relatively unknown classic.

To Live and Die in L.A.

The sign of an excellent movie is a musical score to accompany it, which is one of the reasons To Live and Die in L.A. made my list. After all, how could you go wrong when Wang Chung performs the entire musical score? At it’s core, To Live and Die in L.A. is a revenge story where the so called “good guys” bend the rules to justify their actions, creating a moral quandary as to how far one should go to avenge a fallen friend and colleague.

I’ve always felt that William Peterson was one of the most underrated actors of the ‘80s, To Live and Die in L.A. being an excellent example. His character is a complex blend of bucking against authority while ostensibly defending the law, forcing him to make a variety of questionable, and often fatal decisions. William DeFoe, ever the versatile actor, pulls off the role of an excellent villain. Soundtrack aside, the plot twists, constant action, and array of characters make To Live and Die in LA a film that has truly stood the test of time. 

Star 80

Based on the true story of a small town girl who quickly rises to Playboy notoriety, Star 80 chronicles the life of a naive woman, more or less forced into stardom by her jealous and mentally unstable boyfriend. 

Eric Roberts plays Paul, whose character is more or less a pimp. He begins courting the naive Dorothy, played by Mariel Hemingway, planning out a future she could only imagine. With a combination of coercion and mental support, he helps her become the overnight legend that fictitious movies are usually made of. As Dorothy adjusts to her new found stardom, she soon sees Paul for what he truly was, making her climb to fame not without some rather sever penalties.

Man Hunter

Those who’ve seen Silence of the Lambs wrongly assume it was the film debut of Hannibal Lectur’s character, which is incorrect. The first actor to play Hannibal Lectur was Brian Cox who has a small, yet vital role in Man Hunter. Fans of the Hannibal Lectur series often assume that the 2002 film Red Dragon is an original, not realizing it was a remake of Man Hunter. If you haven’t seen either, skip Red Dragon and go with the original which is a far better film.

Man Hunter is yet another William Petersen film that made my list, but trust me, this is for good reason 🙂 In Man Hunter, Petersen stars as Will Graham, a detective unique in his ability to sniff out serial killers, some say because he thinks just like them. Graham, who is semi retired, becomes persuaded to work on one last case in order to stop a predator who has an uncanny knowledge of his prey before attacking them. Tom Noonan (Cain in Robocop II and Kelso the hipster before there were hipsters in Heat that sells the bank score) plays our predator, the infamous Francis Dollarhyde. Finally, the late Dennis Farina of Snatch notoriety has a small role as an assistant FBI director. Man Hunter sets a great pace for its time, has a decent soundtrack to boot and kept me on the edge of my seat throughout the film. 

Red Dawn

This film holds special significance as my Latin teacher showed it to us on one of the last days of class. Red Dawn has an amazing premise: what would have happened if the Cold War turned hot in the middle of school, and what would you have done? Although I wasn’t a teenager during the Cold War, I can only imagine that many a bored student must have had this fantasy during a boring math or history lecture. It’s a shame the 2012 remake was such a flop as I could easily think of several ways to make a much more compelling reboot or a series for that matter.  

Starring both Charlie Sheen and Patrick Swayze, Red Dawn chronicles the underground resistance to the fictious Red occupation of America by a group of students. The appeal of the story is the quintessential David v Goliath motif: a handful of students up against the Soviet Union. Borrowing from their school mascot, the Wolverines, this small band of freedom fighters take incredible risks to fend back the occupation of their country. The film was an excellent premise for its time and as I’ve already mentioned, with the right direction I think a remake could do a far better job of capturing the film’s spirit.  

Blow Out

I’m surprised as to why so few people know of this film which I personally didn’t watch for the first time until a few years ago. Fans of conspiracy theories will enjoy the premise, which is about a man who sees something he shouldn’t; a case of simply being at the wrong place, at the wrong time.

John Travolta stars as Jack, the protagonist who does an excellent job of playing the “average guy turned hero.” As he begins to put the pieces together, he comes to the realization that he’s stumbled upon something far deeper than he ever imagined. The film also stars John Lithgow who was quite popular in the 80s, in this case playing Burke, the evil man behind the scenes.


Brubaker is essentially a film commentary on inhumane prison conditions that were prevalent in many parts of America throughout the last century. The movie places a difficult moral question to the viewers: what is the minimum level of treatment convicts should expect to receive? How much money should a county or town invest in a prison when it has plenty of problems on the outside. Finally, should criminals who knowingly broke the law be subject to manual labor as a form of punishment?

Starring Robert Redford as the shaggy Brubaker himself, his unkempt hair relects the changes he brings about as the new warden, causing a stir throughout the small town he relocated to. The film also has a small appearance by Morgan Freeman. Fans will appreciate one of the rare occasions in which he plays neither God nor a saintly character, rather an inmate gone off the deep end.

Ms .45

Another film I only recently discovered, apparently Ms .45 was quite controversial when it was initially released in theaters due to the quite graphic nature of film’s opening scenes. I won’t describe them here but if you are looking for a pick me up movie to brighten your day, then I’d encourage you to check out latest Wil Smith or Eddie Murphy movie over Ms 45.. (Notice how I used 2 periods there, that’s actually not a typo but grammatically correct).

Fans of Death Wish will enjoy the many parallels found in Ms. 45. Both films, for example, take place in the gritty New York City of the early 80s. It’s also a revenge film but in this case the protagonist is female which in my opinion makes for a more interesting concept since her motives are often completely hidden from her victims. Unlike modern films, which turn women into unrealistic ninjas who always recover from pain or rarely make any mistakes, the plotline of Ms 45 toes the line of believably for it to be an excellent, albeit disturbing movie.