Movies by the decade

Clockwise from top left: Georgy Girl, The Warriors, White Nights, Cloverfield, and Class Act

For this somewhat anthropological round-up, I looked for movies that could represent some social or political aspect of an entire decade. I looked for movies that were popular at the time they were made, and reflected contemporary issues. If you were to curate your own “movies by the decade” round-up, it would probably differ greatly from mine based on your age, where you grew up, and many other factors. I’d love to see readers’ lists using similar criteria.

GEORGY GIRL (1966)

Georgy (Lynn Redgrave, in an Oscar-nominated role) is a modern young woman with an extravagant personality whom some consider too loud, even sloppy. Redgrave is just one of the almost-famous actors in this midcentury take on love, sex, and fidelity. In the movie’s somewhat convoluted set-up, Georgy teaches children’s theater classes in the house where her parents work as servants for Mr. James Leamington ( James Mason, who was also nominated for an Oscar). She shares an apartment with the temperamental Meredith (Charlotte Rampling) and has a jovial relationship with Meredith’s wisecracking, hipster boyfriend, Jos (Alan Bates). Based on a 1965 novel by Margaret Forster, Georgy Girl weaves a complex geometry of love affairs in this pre-women’s-liberation story about sexual autonomy that flirts with but dismisses feminist self-determination.

Mr. Leamington is hot for Georgy. Georgy and Jos have undeniable heat. Meredith is leery of being trapped into marriage. And Georgy isn’t as innocent or unconventional as she believes herself to be. Meredith’s determination to put career before motherhood doesn’t seem unusual in 2021, but Georgy Girl presents her as a vicious ice queen and Georgy as simultaneously manipulative and admirable. It seems a matter of course for the mid-1960s that Jos and Leamington get everything they think they want without a hint of sacrifice. Comedy/drama/romance, not rated, 99 minutes, Amazon Prime Video

THE WARRIORS (1979)

Although The Warriors takes place in what might as well be an alternative universe inspired by international opera stages, the plot is pretty straightforward: A Coney Island street gang, the Warriors, is framed for the murder of a powerful warlord at an all-city gang conference in the Bronx. Our plucky heroes must traverse the turf of many rival gangs in order to get home safely to the far reaches of Brooklyn. Based on a graphic novel, The Warriors is so campy that it’s hard to tell if it glamorizes or humiliates the New York City street gang subculture. The movie’s 21 fictional gangs don’t wear colors; they wear costumes. The Warriors walk around bare-chested, in brown leather vests that indicate a Native American inspiration. Other gangs include the Riffs, who wear Asian-style robes, and The Boppers, in purple vests and fedoras. For all its theatrical silliness, The Warriors is violent and gritty by turns, showing a decaying 1970s New York that’s so authentic you can almost feel the sway of the ubiquitous subway cars. It introduces — even if it doesn’t really tackle — a few genuine social issues that were coming to the fore at the time, including a subplot about sexual consent. Action/crime, rated R, 92 minutes, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube

WHITE NIGHTS (1985)

This time capsule of Cold War paranoia combines an only slightly believable action-adventure plot with a moving story about art and repression. Mikhail Baryshnikov is Nikolai Rodchenko, a Russian ballet star who became an American citizen after defecting. But when his airplane makes an emergency landing in the U.S.S.R., Nikolai is captured and sent to stay with Raymond Greenwood (Gregory Hines), an American tap dancer who defected to the U.S.S.R. as a protest against racism in the United States. White Nights’ sustained tension comes from Nikolai and Raymond’s differing political perspectives, as well as their divergent dance styles, which are showcased in extended sequences set to some of the most archetypal ‘80s funk-rock imaginable.

The movie is overly focused on governmental intrigue, which makes it feel like a war games thriller instead of a story about artistic passion. Baryshnikov’s acting is surprisingly understated, while Hines chews the scenery during Greenwood’s still relevant monologues about American injustice. Isabella Rossellini is effective enough as Greenwood’s wife, but the movie might have been better served by the casting of a Russian actress who understood life in that country in a more physically compelling way. White Nights never had the chance to live up to its potential, and it cries out for a remake that more evocatively foregrounds the daily, mundane oppression of life in the U.S.S.R. Drama, rated PG-13, 136 minutes, Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, YouTube

CLASS ACT (1992)

Critics didn’t think much of Class Act, but this semi-Shakespearean take on mistaken identity was an instant classic to teens at the dawn hip-hop movie era. It stars the hip-hop duo Kid ’n Play as the brainiac Duncan (Christopher “Kid” Reid) and the criminal Blade (Christopher “Play” Martin). Duncan must pass P.E. to graduate and go on to the Ivy League, while a judge lets Blade choose high school over prison. When their files get mixed up in the attendance office, Duncan is sent to the bad kids’ class, and Blade lands on the honors track.

For a slapstick comedy whose climax is a chase scene in a wax museum, Class Act takes on a number of forward-thinking social themes that were being discussed far more obliquely than they are now. The mistaken identity plotline wrestles with the perils of toxic masculinity in the form of swagger, showing that confidence and posturing aren’t the same thing. The romantic plotlines are anchored by the enthusiastic sexual consent of Blade’s love interest, Ellen (Karyn Parsons), and in the downright badassery of Duncan’s admirer, Damita (Alysia Rogers), who was previously attached to the school bully. Class Act is also an interesting peek at gun culture in the early ’90s, when the idea of using a firearm at school was still a joke, even to a demographic of teens that society considered criminals. Comedy, rated PG-13, 98 minutes, Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, YouTube

CLOVERFIELD (2008)

During a party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who is moving to Japan for work, a sudden blast rocks New York City. Rob’s friend, Hud (T.J. Miller), is shooting video of the party, and he continues to film as their group of friends risks their lives to save another pal in a city that is quickly being destroyed by an unknown force. The movie, then, is the handheld footage Hud captures, unearthed in the future and filed by the government under the case moniker “Cloverfield.” This is the first in a loosely connected trio of films produced by JJ Abrams: 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) and The Cloverfield Paradox (2018), which was panned.

Although the threat in Cloverfield is a Godzilla-like monster that’s ultimately the least scary part of the movie, its many obvious visual and sonic allusions to 9/11 make it a sort of cultural trauma trigger that enhances its potential to unsettle viewers. It’s set in real time in what would turn out to be the early days of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it’s possible that what’s happening is an act of war. People run toward our intrepid heroes and their video camera as dusty gray smoke billows in their wake. It’s a loud movie that is sometimes genuinely emotionally affecting. But it struck me (maybe unintentionally) as hilarious that the reason Rob, Hud, and the gang must put themselves in ever-increasing danger is connected to hurt feelings over a Millennial-generation-tinged, friends-with-benefits hook-up, which is about as aughts as it gets. Action/horror/sci-fi, rated PG-13, 85 minutes, Amazon Prime Video

(2) comments

Thomas Franks

Forgot to say, CLOVERFIELD was an inspired choice for the 2000's. I don't know any film that embodies the '90's for some reason. Never heard of the one you picked, sorry!

Thomas Franks

For me the 60's would be EASY RIDER, the 70's would be SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, the 80's would be WALL STREET. My choices are probably more conventional, but yours are quite interesting. There are so many ways to go.

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