Two new podcasts – Unspooled and 80s All Over – revisit classic American films
By Brian Stout
Rather than trafficking in nostalgia, these
podcasts are taking a fresh look at the AFI Top 100 Films list and 1980s cinema.
Is Citizen Kane still the best movie ever
made? The current AFI Top 100 Movies List has it in the top slot. One exciting
recent podcast series is taking a critical view of the somewhat sacred ranking,
and another is taking a comprehensive look at the 1980s.
On Unspooled, film critic Amy Nicholson and
comedian/actor Paul Scheer take on the list one film at a time. The pairing
works. Nicholson is a highly respected writer and critic with extensive film
history knowledge and a modern approach, which Scheer is a successful
comedian/actor and lifelong film fan who has admittedly not seen several films
on the list. They provide a potent combination of historical context,
production notes, bad reviews, and 21st century insights,
culminating in a decision about whether or not the film should remain on the
list. The podcast has also spawned a lively Facebook group.
with Citizen Kane and randomly
roaming from film to film after that, Nicholson and Scheer have discussed half
of the list at this point, and their spirited conversations are available
through the usual podcast outlets.
look at the list reveals a collection of mostly white, mostly male, mostly
great films. It’s also very heavy on 1970s films. And white guys fighting The
System. And westerns. And yes, that makes sense to a degree. It was a
remarkable decade and sheer numbers suggests a male-heavy list. Also, what’s
more American than a western?
But where are the women? Where are the directors of color?
Horror movies? Science fiction? LGBTQ films? It’s easy to be highly critical of
the selections and to point to their lack of diversity, and to say the list is
an outcome of a number of factors, and that only adds relevance to the argument
for re-evaluation. The list has already been updated once, and the past 30
years in particular have been marked by an increase in the diversity of voices,
so it’s ripe for revision again. This century has produced many formidable
potential additions, such as There Will
Be Blood, Moonlight, Children of Men, Brokeback Mountain, Zero Dark
Thirty, and Mad Max Fury Road to
name only a few. And I’d still like to see A
League of Their Own make the cut. And that there are zero films directed by women and that Spike Lee and M. Night
Shyamalan are the only directors of color on the list simply must be addressed.
Amy and Paul come in.
notes on three of the most intriguing episodes.
Taxi Driver. The pair discuss the film’s similarities to The Searchers and whether or not Travis is a poser. The characters Robert DeNiro and John Wayne play in their respective films are driven to save young girls who may or may not want saving. They also both harbor tenuous feelings about minorities. Scorsese is an avowed fan of John Ford’s classic, so the connection makes sense on the surface. Even more interestingly, though, is the argument about Travis’ background. On the surface, the film suggests that Travis is a veteran whose psychopathy is likely a result of the war. He wears Army gear, but never mentions a specific branch of service. His knowledge of weapons appears to suggest a civilian. He goes for the .44 Magnum, same as Dirty Harry. But his mental illness may be the most important piece to unraveling his motivation. Nicholson has made no bones about her dislike for Scorsese’s work, and she provides some interesting insights and counterpoints on the master filmmaker and one of his most widely heralded films.
A cursory look at the AFI Top 100 list reveals a collection of mostly white, mostly male, mostly great films.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The
most intriguing aspect of this film is that both Nicholson’s and Scheer’s
sympathies were with Nurse Ratched, who is ranked number five on the AFI Best
Villains list. One of the high points of the “fight the system” movies of the
1970s, the film focuses on Jack Nicholson’s character’s efforts to disrupt the
treatment within an inpatient mental health facility. A closer look shows
Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy’s supposedly heroic efforts to help the other
patients undermining some sincere attempts to treat and care for people who
need care. The movie goes out of its way to show that fighting the system
results in a person being silenced. They decided that the film belongs on the
list, but this is a great example of how even great films have problematic
A Clockwork Orange. Stanley Kubrick’s
controversial classic launched a spirited debate about how the horrific actions
of the lead character are framed in the film and how their portrayal makes the
audience complicit and may be a way of Kubrick freeing himself from judgement
for making his despicable lead character look cool. One of the most intriguing
points that is made is that much of the violence Alex commits is seen at a
distance, but the violence inflicted upon him is seen up close and personal,
manipulating the audience to feel empathy for a criminal. The first blood drawn
in the film is Alex’s. He calls himself the humble narrator throughout, and the
voices of the victims are silenced throughout the film. It is an intriguing set
of observations on a film that’s held court as an esteemed cult classic for decades.
The 80s All Over podcast is an even more
ambitious undertaking: revisiting all the major releases of the 1980s month by
month. As children of the 1980s and noted film writers, Drew McWeeny and Scott
Weinberg bring a combination of personal experience and spirited banter to all
of it, covering the hidden gems, the blockbusters, and the schlock and trash
that graced the screens throughout the decade. It’s a good idea to listen with
a notes app open, regardless of preferences, because no one has seen all of
these films except McWeeny and Weinberg, and you’ll wind up with a list of
titles to track down, and likely have an itch to revisit some of your own
favorites from the era.
place to start is the summer of 1984 episodes, where they reminisce about
watching The Karate Kid, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Sixteen Candles, among others. They dive
into their stories of how these movies affected them then and now, and analyze
and they’re not afraid to call out some of the gauche characterizations of
marginalized groups and the casual attitude about victimization of women in
these films that are often remembered as essentially harmless.
and Weinberg praise The Karate Kid
for its ending, in light of how many contemporary films draw out endings and
run times. Ghostbusters is canon for
virtually every child of the 1980s, and they relay some very interesting
details about the movie’s troubled production. They also talk about how Temple of Doom and Gremlins pushed the limits of the PG rating and provided a
flashpoint for creating the PG-13 rating.
Sixteen Candles is a classic in many
ways, but it also features an appalling characterization of a foreign exchange
student and a plot point where the popular, cool crush object provides the
geeky boy with keys to a Rolls Royce and his drunk girlfriend. These unsettling
elements are at odds with an essentially sweet story about a teenage girl
coming of age.
easy targets. They rarely satisfy and mostly spark conversations about what’s
missing. Rather than just nitpicking choices, Unspooled remains fixed upon evaluating the somewhat sacred AFI Top
100 List, attempting to address the redundancies to make room for more modern
choices. 80s All Over is a more personal
account, a decade-long slice of two lifetimes of moviegoing. Both offer
dynamic, challenging, and entertaining evaluations of American film, which
really is best understood through the convergence of personal taste and cinema