Great films come on the horizon and then get lost in time. Thankfully with all the platforms, retrospectives, and digital media, we are able to see these films. Some were acclaimed upon release, and others barely played in cinemas. Regardless, here are 10 independent films from the 1980s you might not know.
1. Parting Glances (1986, Bill Sherwood)
A rare accurate film about gay life dealing with the AIDS crisis in New York in the 1980s and surprisingly upbeat. Sherwood, who who die of AIDS complications several years later, focuses on the relationship between two men and their eccentric, normal, artsy, and everything in-between homosexual friends.
The real standout is the man dying of AIDS, Steve Buscemi, who doesn’t play a false note or display one emotion that would be expected of a man in his situation. Sherwood shines a light on his community and definitely brings a real grace and human nature to it instead of the downbeat Hollywood films that followed.
Lastly, the film is unpredictable in style and never loses its aesthetic of 1980s New York, though at the time, it was just an accurate representation. Now, it’s a time capsule for a bygone era, even if the grim subject matter is never fully exposed due to the wonderful characters.
2. Choose Me (1984, Alan Rudolph)
Continuing the Rudolph and Keith Carradine collaboration, this romantic comedy, with a flair of fantasy but grounded in the realism that Rudolph would explore his whole career, is at a high point here.
From the opening of neon spotted lights along a dark street and a killer soundtrack beginning with Teddy Pendergrass, it’s a hard film to resist. Rudolph employs the minimalist location and people ‘talking in rooms’ about love, relationship, careers, and everyday routine; we relate to it and are elevated from the realism due to the cinematic realism.
Rudolph would continue making independent films, some larger than others, for his entire career, but this little indie captures the true spirit of his filmography and definitely his films in the 1980s.
3. Desert Hearts (1985, Donna Deitch)
A landmark film of independent and particularly lesbian filmmaking, Deitch’s film explores the forming romance between a recently divorced professor searching for a new life played by Helen Shaver, and the free spirited, bonafide confident young woman played by Patricia Charbonneau in Reno in 1959.
Featuring beautiful cinematography by Roger Elswit, costumes, and soundtrack, the film holds merit as a technically well-crafted film, but it’s a pure, accurate, raw, and atypical queer film of its generation. It has honest characters and a story without exploiting what Hollywood has always done. The performances are note perfect and the story is nothing short of beauty and honesty.
Considered now a hallmark for lesbian film and independent cinema in America due to the channels of financing Deitch pursued to get the film made, it’s a film not to be missed for its cultural prominence and its raw, honest story.
4. One Day Pina Asked (1983, Chantal Akerman)
Always working and creating around the clock, this film or documentary that comes in a little under an hour is pure love for film, theater, and of course, dance. The film documents Pina Bausch and her dance company throughout some of her creations.
The film rigorously goes from interviews and dancing pieces to behind-the-scenes action. Despite the collapse of so much going on, it never loses a sense of freedom or structure. For example, take the male dance motif of conducting sign language to George Gershwin “The Man I Loved” from interview to performance; so much is said and done with so little, much like Akerman’s filmography.
Of course, Pina is in the beginning and end and sprinkled throughout, but it’s her dancing and her dances that are first and foremost, which tells us a lot more of her from another great female artist.
5. Border Radio (1987, Allison Anders, Dean Lent & Kurt Voss)
Probably the most indie film on this list that screams the do-it-yourself mentality and against the system out of UCLA film school, Anders, Lent, and Voss created this film of the lost 1980s.
Utilizing real locations and actors they knew, it didn’t hold them back from making a highly unique and visualized film of the post-rock scene of 1980s Los Angeles. As the black-and-white film unfolds amidst sound problems and scratchy footage, we get a glimpse of life on the road. From the glamorous free spirit and killer soundtrack to mundane givings to poetic beauty such as lighting fire to materials on the beach.
Despite its no-budget approach, it launched Anders and Voss’s careers that would dive even deeper into the movie brat VHS world of the 1990s American independent cinema landscape.