Top 10 Modern Period Piece Films & Television Shows

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When you think of the term “period piece,” what usually comes to mind is Jane Austen, powdered wigs, and petticoats.  Many films depict these distant eras with a beloved sort of detachment– these eras only remembered otherwise in written documents and various memoirs.

But what of the eras that many, to this day, can recall vividly (or perhaps with just a slight haziness)?  Eras fully worth revisiting and depicting if not for memories sake, for the benefit and amusement of those who’ve never been in person?  Luckily, several films and movies have taken a vested interest in the latter half of the 20th century, making themselves out to be much more modern period pieces.  Here are ten shining examples which recall the various zeitgeists, aesthetics, and pop-culture instances of the decades depicted.

10.  That 70s Show (Era depicted: 1976-1979, Aired: 1998-2006)

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That 70s Show was a comically well-written sitcom that happened to take place in the 70s.  That was the central gimmick, but it wasn’t what the show was about.  The show was about youth culture, and how little it changes from decade to decade; teenagers still get into trouble and date each other and want to do little else besides hang out with their friends.  The teenagers in this case–Eric Foreman, Steven Hyde, Michael Kelso, Donna Pinciotti, Jackie Burhart, and Fez–all have distinct, relatable personalities (the source of a lot of comic material), which speaks volumes of their individual character development.

As for the distinctly Seventies-ness of the show, all the bell bottoms, Led Zeppelin posters, and drug references you could stomach were accounted for.  And then, of course, you’d have episodes centered around the Star Wars premiere, or the “Disco Sucks” movement, or a Ted Nugent concert.  Bonus points to the theme song being performed by Cheap Trick (a seventies-tastic cover of Big Star’s In The Street).

9.  Mad Men (Era Depicted: mid-late sixties, Aired: 2007-present)

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This show nails the sixties, right down to the minutest of nuances.  Every prop is a genuine product of the sixties (e.g. fresh packs of Lucky Strike cigarettes), the costumes are flawless, and the dialogue is dripping with colloquialisms, yet never for its own sake.  A handful of shows tried to imitate the success of such a vivid flashback–for instance, The Playboy Club and Pan Am–but they only boasted style at the expense of substance.  Mad Men is outfitted with both.  The sixties overcoat is only a veneer for much deeper themes and glimpses at the dark natures of business and humanity (and the inherently parasitic relationship between the two).

8.  Pirate Radio (Era Depicted: 1966, Released: 2009)

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Setting this movie in the sixties was just an excuse to fill a movie with the best of the British Invasion, and assorted other influential music of the day.  About a group of rock n’ roll enthusiasts who take their passions to open waters to broadcast, in spite of the government’s ban on rock music being played on the radio, this movie is steeped in a spirit of rebellion, not to mention sex and drugs and everything else rock and roll stands for.  The villain of this movie is most definitely the British government, which comes off unilaterally as a stiff killjoy.  Based very loosely on a true story, the movie is an utmost feel-good flick, and is as stimulating for the ears as it is for the eyes.

7.  The Wedding Singer (Era Depicted: 1985, Released: 1998)

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This movie makes a comedy out of everything topical about the eighties.  And the eighties were a topical place: music was cloyingly emotional, clothing was boldly chromatic, and hairstyles were through the roof (almost literally).  All that is played up for comic effect (Adam Sandler’s bandmate is a Boy George look-alike, and his friend owns a replica of Michael Jackson’s jacket from the Beat It video), all the while a love story unfolds and a slice of humanity is offered without feeling too corny (and that’s hard to do).

Greater still is the soundtrack, replete with The Cure, Wham, Nena (99 Luftballons), Huey Lewis and the News–as well as the decade’s greatest hits, as sung by Sandler’s eponymous wedding singer character.

6.  Almost Famous (Era Depicted: 1973, Released: 2000)

Almost-Famous

This semi-autobiographical tale of filmmaker and former music journalist Cameron Crowe’s early days at Rolling Stone shows him covering a band called Stillwater (although Crowe toured with and interviewed the Allman Brothers in actuality).  The film offers a backstage pass, with an extensive look at all the drugs, groupies, and internal conflict that seemed to come naturally to classic rock bands (now recounted as clichés).  The movie is told from a vantage point of experience, and is filled with all the fashion and music that defined the era, as well as a peek at the early days of a music publication that is nowhere near as revolutionary today as it was (although circulation has never been higher, which doesn’t seem to matter).

5.  Back To The Future (Era Depicted: 1955, Released: 1985)

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This movie offers a vintage look at the fifties only because the plot revolves around it–being about a time machine and all.  But the funny thing is, in attempting to capture a journey to thirty years in the past, the movie itself ends up being a journey to thirty years in the past whenever Marty and Doc Brown exist in present day (i.e. 1985).  In that trip through time, however, Van Halen and Huey Lewis are replaced with Chuck Berry and that song about Mr. Sandman giving me a treat.

Every piece of fifties culture is accounted for, from jock-bully archetypes in Letterman jackets, to the diners and classic cars.  The movie accounts for every necessary visual and cultural detail which makes the trip back a-years so enjoyable and convincing, as Marty and Doc sort through the practical implications of time travel (paradoxes, parallel dimensions of the space-time continuum, etc.).

4.  Donnie Darko (Era Depicted: 1988, Released: 2001)

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This movie visits the eighties, without feeling insincere.  In fact, it dresses a great of existential hurt in a decade very embracive of such.  With the soundtrack full of such great slices of the decade’s darker and deeply romantic regions–e.g. Tears for Fears, Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division, INXS–we witness an angst far more potent than ever portrayed in a John Hughes movie (angst over mortality, dejection, and the existence of God, rather than over “the cute boy who doesn’t even know I exist”).  The result?  The truth.

3.  Full Metal Jacket (Era Depicted: 1967, Released: 1987)

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If you didn’t know any better, from watching this movie alone you’d swear it was filmed in the sixties; that’s a testament to auteur Stanley Kubrick’s ability to paint a convincing picture onscreen (he is also responsible for A Clockwork Orange and The Shining).  Centering around a platoon in the depraved heart of the Vietnam-era (namely for all the prostitutes and death-desensitization), dialogue, music, and a frayed gold visual filter really makes the film pop, making it look and feel as though we were watching a documentary, and not a movie based on a semi-autobiographical book called The Short-Timers.

2.  Forrest Gump (Eras Depicted: 1960s-70s, Released: 1994)

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As we follow the fictional tale of Forrest Gump through time, so too does time follow him, and to exaggerated ends.  Gump’s character, if fact, seems to continually find himself at the center of every major cultural ongoing (Vietnam War, the hippie movement, political activism and peace demonstrations, the Kennedy Assassination, etc.).  He even meets a young Elvis (actor portrayal), as well as JFK (archive footage).  As his story moves him from college, to the napalm-engulfed jungles of ‘Nam, to a giant shrimping boat, his heart is set on his childhood sweetheart–the perpetually mixed-up Jenny.  His motive seems to be much greater than all the cultural significance he seems to unwittingly stumble through, the soundtrack steadily cranking out calling cards to the era at hand.

1.  Goodfellas (Era Depicted: 1955-80, Released: 1990)

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Few movies succeed at imbedding themselves so deeply in such an ethnocentric look at New York in its golden era of fine dining, entertainment (Henny Youngman performs stand-up in one particular nightclub) and, of course, Italian mob life.  Centering around Henry Hill, who kicks the story off in media res with the line, “Ever since I could remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” we see the ups and downs of dreaming so big back in the good ol’ days of organized crime.

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As Henry ages and becomes more paranoid with time–scaling from the early fifties and sixties to the seventies and eighties–the music suits the mania, as do the visuals, which ultimately start to corrode and become significantly less glamorous.  Only through the thick black frames of Martin Scorsese’s bifocals, could we vicariously experience such compelling visual-storytelling.


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10 Comments

  1. Two Things, I am a bit surprised that the movie “Dazed and Confused” didn’t make the list and also No.3, “Full Metal Jacket” and the actor R. Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, the Drill Instructor in the first part of the movie, and he not winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor is the biggest travesty and mistake that the Academy Awards has ever made !!

  2. Raging Bull, A Man Called Horse, Gone With The Wind, Old Yeller….These movies seem to have period correct/specific dialogue and morals, unlike Titanic and The Patriot……good list!! There are many others.

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