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Great Scott! Travel back in time this summer with these classic 1980s movies

Whenever my children groan about catching a movie from the Paleolithic era known as the 1980s, I utter my mantra – “I would rather watch a film that’s old and good rather than a movie that’s new and bad.”

There are many great new films but it’s so much fun rewinding the tape from a generation ago and experiencing the films again with my kids. It’s very difficult whittling down a top-10 summer watching list from the ’80s, but here’s my take:

1. ‘Back to the Future’

There is no greater blockbuster script than “Back to the Future.” Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis’ Oscar nominated script about a teenager, Marty McFly, who unwittingly goes back in time, is close to perfect. The early setups in the film come back with huge payoffs. There is tension throughout the film because McFly, who travels back in time, is running out of time. The constant conflicts are compelling. It’s impossible to imagine anyone playing the lead save Michael J. Fox, who was the most likable star of the ’80s. But Fox’s underrated acting chops, his expression and energy, should be lauded. Crispin Glover’s understated work as Marty McFly’s dad, George, helps make the film. “Back to the Future” is simply a magical film.

2. ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’

Apparently Woody Allen is officially canceled. While perusing Rolling Stone’s March edition, the enigmatic writer-director’s greatest film failed to make Rolling Stone’s top 100 of the ’80s. The critically acclaimed film won Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress. Yeah, Rolling Stone, I guess you’re right, there’s no way “Hannah and Her Sisters” could beat out “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” The film is delivered in three main arcs over a 24-month period, beginning and ending at Thanksgiving. The film explores love, religion and ultimately the meaning of life. “Hannah and Her Sisters” is at once Allen’s deepest and funniest film. It’s another of his love letters to his beloved New York. Dianne Wiest is tremendous as the quirky sister Holly.

3. ‘Blue Velvet’

It’s a weird and wild film even by writer-director David Lynch’s standards. A college student, played by Kyle MacLachlan returns home following his father’s stroke and discovers an ear in an empty lot. His curiosity gets the better of him and leads him into a relationship with a police detective’s wholesome daughter – played perfectly by Laura Dern – and into the dark underbelly after following a beautiful lounge singer. It’s a terrifying film largely thanks to a brilliant performance by an unhinged Dennis Hopper. It’s also a beautiful, arty movie. Watching Dern emerge from the darkness in her canary-yellow dress is a reminder of how masterful Lynch is as a filmmaker. Also, the scene in which Dern’s jaw drops when she discovers what MacLachlan has been up to while trying to solve the mystery is one of many unsettling scenes in this masterpiece.

4. ‘Do the Right Thing’

Spike Lee’s brilliant film shows how racial equality has changed and how it has not changed since 1989. The provocative film takes place over 24-hour period on a hot summer day in Brooklyn. The action takes place in and around Sal’s, a pizza joint run for years by a white family in a Black neighborhood. How this film failed to win any Academy Awards is a head scratcher. However, forget about the hardware, the film has led to endless dialogue about the historically devalued lives of Black Americans. Lee was ahead of his time, as usual, and the clever and heartbreaking film is lovely thanks to cinematographer Ernest Dickerson. Martin Lawrence and Rosie Perez made their cinematic debuts and “Do the Right Thing” helped launch Public Enemy, who created the anthem of ’89, “Fight the Power,” for Lee.

5. ‘The King of Comedy’

A satirical Black comedy gem by Martin Scorsese. The film is even more relevant today because the protagonist, Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro at his finest), lacks talent but is desperate for fame. Pupkin kidnaps a late-night host so he can make his debut on a show modeled after “The Tonight Show.” Pupkin was born in the wrong era. He would have been perfect in the reality show era. The performances by DeNiro and Sandra Bernhard are captivating. Both are on their emotional islands. Bernhard was surprised she didn’t score a breakout role with Scorsese after ‘King of Comedy.’ “I never understood why he never used me again,” Bernhard told me during an interview. The incredibly versatile Bernhard never had such a terrific vehicle again.

6. ‘River’s Edge’

The darkest teen film of all time. A teen strangles his girlfriend over something she said. He casually mentions the crime to his friends, who react in such a disturbingly detached manner. The ringleader, played by the aforementioned Crispin Glover, decides to protect his homicidal friend. Glover is absolutely electric. A former New York Times film critic aptly described Glover’s range as “from Brando to weirdo!” The scenes between Glover and Dennis Hopper are reason enough to catch “River’s Edge,” which is based on a true Northern California murder case in 1981. Kudos to director Tim Hunter, who actually makes teen boredom interesting, which is next to impossible. Catch one of Keanu Reeves’ first roles. I never would have guessed stardom was in the cards for him.

7. ‘Heathers’

Another wonderfully dark film. But “Heathers” is also hilarious. If you can deal with Christian Slater as Jack Nicholson Jr., you’ll love “Heathers.” Dan Waters’ dark, subversive script is the antithesis of what John Hughes offered the teen audience through such films as “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty In Pink.” Hughes films seem to scream, “Like me. Please, like me.” And then there’s “Heathers,” which dismantles Westerberg High’s toxic hierarchy through murder masked as teen suicide. Heathers shares some of the same characters from Hughes films, such as mean girls, creepy jocks and obtuse teachers. However, the difference is that the film doesn’t end with a bow on top of a neatly wrapped present.

8. ‘This Is Spinal Tap’

“But this one goes up to eleven,” guitarist Nigel Tufnel explaining how loud his amp is during this cult classic. “This Is Spinal Tap” is still hilarious nearly 40-years after its release. The mockumentary mocks all of the excess from the metal world. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer were never better in any production ranging from “Saturday Night Live,” “Best in Show” or “Laverne & Shirley.”

9. ‘My Bodyguard’

A little gem about bullying with some terrific performances. Matt Dillon was so good playing the creepy punk. “My Bodyguard” is one of those wonderful, feel good films.

10. ‘Heaven Help Us’

A great period piece set in Brooklyn in 1965, “Heaven Help Us” is a well-written film about the brutality of Catholic school a half-century ago. Performances by the underrated John Heard, Donald Sutherland and Kevin Dillon (who is hilarious as the creepy punk) are terrific. Maybe it runs in the family. Yes, Andrew McCarthy, who plays the protagonist is wooden as usual, but it doesn’t matter. “Heaven Help Us” is a charmer.

Ed Condran can be reached at (509) 459-5440 or at

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