The 1980s are often slagged off as a dud of a decade for cinema, and the reasoning usually goes something like this: Drawing inspiration from the new waves in Europe and Japan and the avant-garde and direct cinema of the 1960s, a cadre of young directors revived the moribund American film industry in the ’70s with politically charged personal visions that connected with younger audiences. This New Hollywood would be snuffed out by the advent of the blockbuster, and the national conversation about movies segued from art to commerce. Debates about violence, corruption, and evolving sexual mores sparked by such films as Bonnie and Clyde and Chinatown gave way to talk of box-office returns and the franchises spawned by Rocky, Rambo, Star Wars, and Ghostbusters.
Since 2014, director Richard Linklater, who cofounded the Austin Film Society in 1985, has been programming a counterargument with his series Jewels in the Wasteland. “There’s never a total washout for cinema,” he told the Austin Chronicle’s Richard Whittaker in 2017. “There’s too many great artists worldwide making films.” The idea behind the series is to select, introduce, screen, and then discuss one great movie from the maligned decade every few days, and this year’s edition opens tomorrow with Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero (1983). One of that film’s great champions over the years has been British critic Mark Kermode, who calls this portrayal of what happens when a giant oil company sets its sights on a small town in Scotland “one of the greatest films ever made.”
Other films in the series include Vagabond (1985), which many consider to be the late Agnès Varda’s masterpiece; Lost in America (1985), a fitting selection, given Albert Brooks’s hilarious commentary in the film on what had become of the ideals embodied by Easy Rider, one of the harbingers of the New Hollywood; and Chan Is Missing (1982), which, as Nelson Kim pointed out at Hammer to Nail in 2008, launched Wayne Wang “on a long, varied, and still-evolving career, and attained landmark status as the first theatrically distributed feature film directed by and starring Asian Americans. That it’s still arguably the best Asian American film testifies not only to Wang’s talent, but also his timing.” The series wraps at the end of the month with Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980), John Sayles’s directorial debut, and Choose Me (1984), Alan Rudolph’s blend of Altmanesque flow and neon noir.