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Porky's? Friday the 13th?

If you were a decade, is that how you'd want to be remembered?

Ask most people about the benchmark films of the 1980s, and that's what they'll come up with. Those, and a lot of John Hughes movies.

Todd Hitchcock, 36, knows the era's cinematic landscape isn't rife with masterworks. But having come of age during that decade, he doesn't buy into the perception of the 1980s as a cinematic black hole, devoid of the boundary-pushing of the 1970s or even the big-budget grandeur of the 1990s.

And as a programmer for the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, he's in an ideal position to help rehabilitate that era's reputation.

Beginning today, the AFI will present "Totally Awesome! Films of the 1980s." In choosing the series' 17 films, Hitchcock says he found plenty that not only entertained, but also created the templates for two of today's dominant genres: superhero action flicks and teen sex comedies. And many of today's most popular directors, he notes, got their starts in the '80s, including Spider-Man director Sam Raimi, whose Evil Dead II is included in the series.

"This series results from a genuine affection on my part, and on the part of some of my other programming colleagues, for films from this era," he says. "There's also some history there and a through-line to the films of today."

True, the '80s may not have produced movies as distinctive as such earlier decades as the '40s, with its lasting legacy of film noir, or the '70s, when maverick directors such as Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg began refashioning Hollywood in their image.

"The '80s seem all over the map, don't they?" says Time film critic Richard Schickel, noting films of the period "don't seem to be driven by any particular controlling sensibility."

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But in a summer where two Hollywood blockbusters - Live Free or Die Hard and Transformers - continue franchises that had their start in the '80s, perhaps the time is right to get reacquainted with the decade's cinematic charms. With children who grew up during the '80s beginning to call the shots - both going to the movies and making them - it could be time for films such as Valley Girl and Coming to America to enjoy the benefits of nostalgia.

"Maybe it's just simply the '80s' turn, because we've already been through [revivals of] the '60s and the '70s," says Laura Grindstaff, a professor of sociology who teaches popular culture at the University of California, Davis. "When people hit their 30s and they become professionally involved ... they're aiming toward what stimulated them in their early years."

Hitchcock points to two films in the series, The Terminator and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, as springboards for genres that are hugely popular a quarter-century later.

James Cameron's The Terminator (1984), stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a near-indestructible cyborg sent from the despotic future to eliminate a threat: He must assassinate the mother of a resistance leader and thus prevent the leader's birth.

The smart, powerful and briskly paced film helped give rise to the big-budget superhero genre that has produced some of Hollywood's best and most profitable films, including the Spider-Man and X-Men series.

Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) was one of the first teen sex comedies and possibly still the best. Fast Times, with a soon-to-be-all-star cast that included Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nicolas Cage, Phoebe Cates, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz and Anthony Edwards, treated its subject with humor and unexpected grace. That treatment of the genre has disappeared; what persists are the raunchy, cookie-cutter farces that trace their ancestry to another '80s film: the determinedly juvenile Porky's.

Curiously, some of the decade's most honored films - noble dramas such as Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields (1984), Richard Attenborough's Gandhi (1982) and Hugh Hudson's Chariots of Fire (1981) - have not aged that well, Hitchcock says.

"The Killing Fields is an important film on an important subject that needs to be heard about," he says of the drama set during dictator Pol Pot's bloody reign over Cambodia. "But I'm not sure I could sit through it again."

Those three movies are not included in the AFI's series. But the '80s produced several timeless classics that are, including:

Rob Reiner's This Is Spinal Tap (1984), one of the funniest rock mockumentaries and most perceptive dissections of the heavy-metal mentality ever committed to film.

Cameron Crowe's Say Anything (1989), a romantic comedy. The iconic image of John Cusack holding his boombox aloft, playing Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" for his girlfriend, set the bar high for every would-be Romeo.

Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985), a bizarre and terrifying look at a totalitarian future.

David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), one of the director's first and most vivid examinations of the soft white underbelly of rural America.

Hughes, whose perceptive screen comedies proved teenage angst could make for good box office, is represented by two films: the shallow and irritating Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), which nonetheless was his biggest hit until Home Alone came along four years later; and the sublimely empathetic Pretty in Pink (also 1986), with the matchless Molly Ringwald as an outsider longing to be accepted on her own terms.

There are also such oddities - films ahead of their time - as:

Albert Magnoli's Purple Rain (1984), in which the artist once-and-forever known as Prince set a musical standard even he would have trouble matching.

Alex Cox's Repo Man (1984), a film that seethed with urban punk before most people knew there was such a thing.

John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China (1986), a cross-cultural adrenalized romp without which Quentin Tarantino might never have existed.

Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise (1984), an exercise in calculated cool that has been inspiring independent filmmakers since the day it was released.

Even Porky's (1982) and Friday the 13th (1980) are here, although Hitchcock sounds guilty about including them. The latter, he notes, is playing on Friday, July 13, and so perhaps its presence can be excused. As for the festering raunch that is Porky's, he notes the film was directed by Bob Clark, who was also responsible for the sublime A Christmas Story (1983), a long-standing AFI favorite that still plays the theater every Christmas season.

"We have a genuine affection for Bob Clark," Hitchcock says of the director, who died in an automobile accident this year. "He had a strange, all-over-the-map career. If there was ever a time to do Porky's, this is it."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

SCHEDULE

"Totally Awesome: Films of the 1980s" play at the Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. Go to www.afi.com/silver or call 301-495-6720.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High:

9:15 p.m. today, 10:30 p.m. tomorrow, 9:30 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Thursday.

Valley Girl:

1 p.m. Sunday, 9 p.m. Thursday.

Friday the 13th:

10 p.m. and midnight July 13.

Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn:

midnight July 20 and 21.

Purple Rain:

9:10 p.m. July 27 and 31, 7 p.m. Aug. 2.

This Is Spinal Tap:

11:30 p.m. July 27 and 28, 10:20 p.m. Aug. 1 and 2.

Say Anything:

8:30 p.m. Aug. 3 and 4, 7 p.m. Aug. 9.

Repo Man:

10:45 p.m. Aug. 3 and 4, 9:10 p.m. Aug. 9.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off:

9:25 p.m. Aug. 10, 7:45 p.m. Aug. 11, 7 p.m. Aug. 16.

The Terminator:

11:30 p.m. Aug. 10, 10 p.m. Aug. 11.

Pretty in Pink:

3:05 p.m. Aug. 12, 9:10 p.m. Aug. 16.

Brazil:

5:45 p.m. Aug. 18, 6:45 p.m. Aug. 21 and 23.

Big Trouble in Little China:

8:40 p.m. Aug. 18, 12:40 p.m. Aug. 19, 9:30 p.m. Aug. 23.

Coming to America:

4 p.m. Aug. 24, 12:30 p.m. Aug. 25, 4:20 p.m. and 7 p.m. Aug. 27, 4:20 p.m. Aug. 28, 4:20 p.m. and 9:20 p.m. Aug. 29, 4:20 p.m. Aug. 30.

Stranger Than Paradise:

10 p.m. Aug. 24, 5:20 p.m. Aug. 26, 9:45 p.m. Aug. 30.

Blue Velvet:

7:15 p.m. Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, 9 p.m. Sept. 3, 8:45 p.m. Sept. 4 and 6.

Porky's:

9:45 p.m. Aug. 31 and Sept. 1.

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