The 20 Best Movies of the 1980s
In the 1970s, Hollywood studios gave bold young directors free rein, resulting in a new golden age of movies (and a lot of ulcers for studio execs). In the 1980s, burned by the excesses and high-profile disasters of the '70s, the studios took charge again and started churning out safe, reliable, assembly-line product. But you can't keep creative minds down. Despite the limitations and studio-mandated box office expectations, a number of excellent movies managed to get made, including some that achieved greatness by reinventing old genres and tropes.
1. Raging Bull (1980)
Martin Scorsese, one of those mavericks from the '70s, kicked off the new decade with what many consider the best film of his career, a black-and-white, fact-based story of a volatile boxer (Robert De Niro, who won an Oscar for it). Though it wasn't a box office success (which caused Scorsese no small amount of anxiety), it was hailed by critics and awards-giving bodies, and is now regarded as one of the best boxing movies of all time.
2. Airplane! (1980)
Brothers David and Jerry Zucker and their friend Jim Abrahams didn't invent the spoof genre, but they perfected it with Airplane!. Forty years later, this lightning-fast cavalcade of slapstick, wordplay, and everything in between is still hilarious, still the standard by which other spoofs are measured (though see the same crew's 1984 entry Top Secret! for a close runner-up).
3. The Shining (1980)
Stephen King famously didn't like Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of his horror novel, but cinephiles—especially devotees of Kubrick—found much to love in the ominous, idiosyncratic, ultimately terrifying story of a man going stir-crazy at an isolated hotel. The methods to Kubrick's madness are a story in themselves (see the fun documentary Room 237), and The Shining remains one of the more unnerving studies of a damaged mind.
4. Ordinary People (1980)
Robert Reford's directorial debut, a searing story about a family in crisis after the death of a son, earned him the only competitive Oscar of his career (so far) and established him as the latest well-liked actor who was perhaps even better behind the camera. Sitcom stars Mary Tyler Moore and Judd Hirsch also proved their mettle as serious actors, making Ordinary People a surprise on several counts.
5. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were two of the other '70s mavericks, and their fond homage to the serialized movie adventures of their childhoods is one of the best examples ever of making a high-quality movie while staying inside the lines. With an A-list star (Harrison Ford) and those two A-list directors involved (Lucas as producer), they could have coasted and made a hit. Instead they proved that popcorn entertainment can also be ingeniously crafted.
6. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Spielberg had a pretty great decade (even more so if you believe he's the true director of Poltergeist), and followed up Raiders of the Lost Ark with this instant sentimental classic about a boy and his alien friend. Spielberg's sappiness would get the better of him in duds like Always, but here he found the right blend of emotion and nostalgia by giving it a bitter undercurrent (Elliott's parents' divorce, the inevitable farewell) to remind us that even the sweetest memories often have tinges of sorrow.
7. Tootsie (1982)
Cross-dressing has been a staple of movies since the earliest days of film, but it's rarely been done with such precise satirical purpose and sharp wit as this Sydney Pollack-directed comedy in which struggling actor Dustin Hoffman gets a part on a soap opera by pretending to be a woman. Shifting gender politics would make this a very different film today, but its basic points about sexism (not to mention its humor) are timeless.
8. Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Italian "spaghetti Western" director Sergio Leone's final film was this epic gangster story starring Robert De Niro (of course) and James Woods, which unfortunately got chopped up for its initial release and flopped. The full 229-minute version is the one that eventually earned critics' attention for its sweeping, violent story of greed, told with a sense of the poetic.
9. Amadeus (1984)
F. Murray Abraham won an Oscar for playing the jealous Salieri in this triumphant, intelligent account of the composer's relationship with Mozart (played by an also-nominated Tom Hulce). The film won Best Picture and remains one of the finest portrayals of artistic genius, and is a grandly entertaining music appreciation lesson to boot.
10. Ran (1985)
Another epic from a legendary director nearing the end of his career, Akira Kurosawa's magnificently dark take on King Lear is one of his masterpieces. Full of tragedy, brutality, and spectacle, it's a visually compelling (and timely) commentary on war and greed. The battle scenes are some of the most striking ever filmed, enhanced by some 1400 handmade costumes and Kurosawa's unnerving eye.
11. Brazil (1985)
Terry Gilliam's bleak, hilarious vision of a dystopian future is full of unforgettable images and situations, few of them crazier than the behind-the-scenes story of the film's release. The struggle was worth it, though, and over time Brazil evolved from a cult favorite into a legitimate classic. Political satire has rarely been so imaginative.
12. Back to the Future (1985)
Here is another movie made within the confines of the studio system that managed to transcend the cookie-cutter mentality by being just about a perfect piece of entertainment. The concept is irresistible, the execution spirited, the performances uniformly appealing. The word "masterpiece" doesn't need to be reserved for long, serious movie.
13. Platoon (1986)
There was a cycle of intense Vietnam films around this time, including Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, which could just as easily have made this list. But Oliver Stone's stands out for being semi-autobiographical and capturing the harrowing, dehumanizing details of war. It also features Charlie Sheen's best performance (a low bar) and great work by Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger.
14. Blue Velvet (1986)
This glimmering nightmare about the seedy underbelly of suburbia is director David Lynch at his David Lynch-iest, a mesmerizing horror-noir about a naive young man (Kyle MacLachlan) who gets involved with a nightclub singer (Isabella Rossellini) being tormented by a maniacal drug dealer (Dennis Hopper). Hopper’s performance makes for one of the most terrifying villains (non-supernatural division) in all of film.
15. The Untouchables (1987)
To tell the explosive story of Eliot Ness pursuing gangster Al Capone, you need a director as brash as Brian De Palma and a screenwriter as percussive as David Mamet. Like Scorsese, De Palma brought his facility with balletic violence with him from the ‘70s, in the service of a story that affords Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro, and Sean Connery the opportunity to do stellar, testosterone-fueled work.
16. The Last Emperor (1987)
Italian master Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris) earned a Best Director Oscar for this sumptuous biography of China’s last emperor, much of it shot on location in Beijing’s awe-inspiring Forbidden City. That fact alone is impressive, as are the 19,000 extras used over the course of the film. But more important is Bertolucci’s marvelous ability to help us understand an entire nation of people through the eyes of one venerated figure.
17. Wings of Desire (1987)
A romantic fantasy about angels and mortals falling in love, also featuring Peter Falk as himself: a former angel who got bored with immortality and became human. Wim Wenders’ rich, enchanting masterpiece was remade in 1998 as City of Angels, but the original stands as a lovely, imaginative, and affectionate look at humanity, with an air of bittersweetness to the black-and-white way angels see the world.
18. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Ever interested in the pursuit of new technology, Robert Zemeckis pulled off several miracles with this detective noir story that shares some DNA with Chinatown. The interaction between live-action humans and animated characters was groundbreaking, and in many ways still unsurpassed. Getting cooperation from the many competing rights-holders to include their characters—and we’re talking big-time characters, all the way up to Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse—was a feat in itself. It’s also a deliriously loony comedy teeming with meta-references and in-jokes.
19. Field of Dreams (1989)
Hardly anyone knows who wrote and directed this sentimental favorite (Phil Alden Robinson; he also made Sneakers), but everyone can tell you the catchphrase: “If you build it, he will come.” “It” is a baseball field; “he” is for the viewer to discover as Kevin Costner brings tears to your eyes with a story of fathers, sons, and America’s favorite pastime.
20. Do the Right Thing (1989)
Few things are as universally agreed upon as the notion that Spike Lee was robbed of his Oscar the year that this incendiary story about race relations on a hot day in Brooklyn competed with the anodyne Driving Miss Daisy. From the explosive opening sequence of Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy to the final moments, this is a personal, angry, funny film full of righteous fury and cinematic energy.