The 20 Best Movies of the 1980s

Brenda Chase, Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Brenda Chase, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

21 Fun Facts About Elf

Warner Home Video
Warner Home Video

Everyone knows the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear! But the second best way is to enjoy Elf. Revel in the giddy glow of this modern holiday classic with a slew of secrets from behind the scenes.

1. Jim Carrey was initially eyed to play Buddy the elf.

When David Berenbaum's spec script first emerged in 1993, Carrey was pre-Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and attached to front the Christmas film. However, it took another 10 years to get the project in motion, at which time Saturday Night Live star Will Ferrell was signed to star. Carrey would go on to headline his own Christmas offerings—the live-action How The Grinch Stole Christmas and the CGI animated A Christmas Carol.

2. Will Ferrell worked as a mall Santa.


Warner Bros.

And his A Night at the Roxbury co-star Chris Kattan was his elf. This was back when the pair were pre-Saturday Night Live, and part of the comedy troupe The Groundlings. Ferrell recollected to Spliced Wire, "I have some experience playing Santa Claus … Chris Kattan was my elf at this outdoor mall in Pasadena for five weeks, passing out candy canes. It was hilarious because little kids could care less about the elf. They just come right to Santa Claus. So by the second weekend, Kattan had dropped the whole affectation he was doing and was like (Ferrell makes a face of bitter boredom), 'Santa's over there, kid.'"

3. Director Jon Favreau favored practical effects.

Inspired by the Christmas specials he grew up with, Favreau explained in the film's commentary track that he employed “old techniques” instead of CGI whenever possible. This included stop-motion animation, and using forced perspective to make Buddy look like a giant among his elf peers. For North Pole scenes, two sets were built—one larger scale for the actors playing elves, the other smaller to make Buddy and Santa look big. These elements where then carefully overlaid in camera, using lighting to blend the seams.

4. Snow was often computer-generated.


Warner Home Video

Some effects just couldn't be practical. These included the snowflakes that drift over the opening credits, and many of the snowballs in Buddy's pivotal fight scene. It's probably not much of a shocker that much of these were added in post, considering Buddy's perfect aim. But to further underscore the drama that is a snowball fight in frosty New York, Favreau asked composer John Debney to give this section a Western vibe that would recall The Magnificent Seven.

5. Elf's production design was heavily influenced by Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The classic stop-motion Christmas special from 1964 gave a memorable presentation of Santa's winter wonderland to which Favreau wanted to pay tribute. The elves' costumes in Elf were inspired by those worn by Hermey and his peers in the animated film. And Elf's workshops were modeled after the Rankin/Bass designs, as were the stop-motion animals of the area. The production did secure permission for these allusions, and was even granted the privilege of using the company's signature snowman.

6. There's a Christmas Story cameo.

Peter Billingsley, who memorably played the Red Ryder-wanting Ralphie in the 1983 holiday classic, popped in to play Ming the elf. It's an uncredited role, but between the glasses and those bright baby blue eyes, Billingsley stands out as an A Christmas Story Easter egg. This marks just one of many Billingsley and Favreau's collaborations. Billingsley has been a producer on several of Favreau's film and television projects.

7. Jon Favreau played multiple parts in Elf.

Jon Favreau directs Will Ferrell in 'Elf' (2003)
Alan Markfield, New Line Productions

As a writer/director/actor, Favreau has often appeared in his own films. He fronted Made with friend Vince Vaughn, and later found a sweet supporting role for himself in Iron Man. You may have picked him out as the doctor in Elf, but on the DVD commentary, Favreau revealed he also tapped in to his inner narwhal and provided the voices for some of the stop-animation critters who see Buddy off from the North Pole. He also voiced the rabid raccoon Buddy encounters.

8. Baby buddy was fired.

To play the bubbly baby version of the titular elf, Favreau had initially cast twin boys whose blonde curly hair made them great little doubles for the mop-topped Ferrell. However, the production ran into a problem when the boys couldn't perform. Instead of smiling and crawling as needed, they cried relentlessly. To replace them, brunette triplet girls were brought in, who were far perkier and more playful, and thereby ready for their close-ups.

9. Buddy was bullied in an early version.

In first drafts of Berenbaum's Elf script, Buddy's decision to seek out his dad was in part because he was being hassled by the actual elves for being different. Favreau pushed to take out this element. He preferred to keep the North Pole characters warm, even when Buddy bugs them. In the DVD commentary, Favreau offers, “It explained why Buddy was doing all these good things in New York if he grew up in a world where everybody was so sweet even when he’s obviously screwing everything up and doesn’t fit in at all.”

10. Elf hockey hit the cutting room floor.

Poor Buddy accidentally wreaks all kinds of havoc on his elf community because of his ungainly size. One such scene of his well-meaning mayhem featured Buddy playing hockey on a frozen pond. The friendly game becomes unintentionally violent when the too-big Buddy takes to the ice. Though it was shot, it ended up being chopped from the finished film.

11. Elf was shot on location in New York when it counted.

Like many productions, this one took advantage of the financial benefits of filming in Canada, and much of Elf was shot in sound stages in Vancouver. However, when Buddy comes to New York, it was important to Favreau to shoot on location whenever possible. This includes all the Manhattan exteriors, as well as scenes shot at Rockefeller Center, Central Park, and Central Park West, where Buddy's dad lives.

12. Some of Elf’s sets were built in a horror factory.

Okay, technically it was an abandoned mental hospital, where the production team constructed the interior sets for Walter's Central Park West apartment, Gimbels's lavish toy department, and that grim prison cell. The facility is called Riverview Hospital, and it has played host to a long list of film and television productions, including The X-Files, Final Destination 2, Jennifer's Body, and See No Evil 2.

13. Macy's stood in for Gimbels.

The sprawling department store that takes up a whole block in Manhattan was digitally altered to transform into Elf's Gimbels. A bit awkward: Gimbels was once a real department store, and a noted rival of Macy's. Though immortalized here and in the 1947 classic Miracle on 34th Street, the department store closed its doors in 1987, its 100th year of operation.

14. Will Ferrell broke James Caan.


Warner Home Video

The Academy Award-nominated star of The Godfather was hired to play Walter in part because Favreau wanted a stern persona to play against Ferrell's giddy Buddy, and Caan took the comedy of Elf seriously. He knew it was crucial for Walter to be annoyed—never amused—by his supposed son's antics. But when it came to the blood test scene where Buddy bellows when pricked by a needle, Caan cracked. Watch closely and you'll see he turns away from the camera so as not to ruin the take.

15. The studio didn't get a joke from the mailroom sequence.

This was the last set piece shot for Elf, and one that filmmakers were wavering on from its conception late in production. Grizzled Mark Acheson's casting as Buddy's drinking buddy concerned execs because of the line, "I'm 26 years old." The studio noted the actor does not look 26, to which Favreau—who had previously cast Acheson in a small role that had been cut before production—responded that this disconnect was part of the joke.

16. Will Ferrell went method with those jack-in-the-boxes.

In the scene where Buddy suffers as a toy tester, he's subjected to popping open an endless stream of menacing jack-in-the-boxes. The anxiety etched on Ferrell's face in these scenes is real. Rather than standard jack-in-the-boxes that would pop at the song's end, these were remote controlled by Favreau, who purposely manipulated their timing to toy with his star and get authentic reactions.

17. Will Ferrell frolicked all over New York City in character.

The final day of Elf's New York shooting was pared down from a massive crew to just three people: its star, its director, and one cameraman. Together, this trio traveled around the city, looking for mischief for Buddy to get into with random passersby turned background extras. This included him leapfrogging across a pedestrian walk, happily accepting flyers, and getting his shoes shined, all of which made it into the movie's cheerful montage.

18. That epic burp was real, but overdubbed.

Though uncredited, that lengthy belch came not from Ferrell, but from noted voice actor Maurice LaMarche, who might be best known for Brain of Pinky and the Brain. LaMarche shared his secret to such an impressive burp with The A.V. Club, saying, "I’ve always been able to do this weird effect, where I turn my tongue, not inside out, but almost. I create a huge echo chamber with my tongue and my cheeks, and by doing a deep, almost Tuvan rasp in my throat, and bouncing it around off this echo chamber, I create something that sounds very much like a sustained deep burp."

19. Elf made its star stick.

In the movie, Buddy is happy to gobble down an endless supply of sweets, including maple syrup-coated spaghetti and cotton balls made of cotton candy. But this sugary diet played havoc on Ferrell, who told About Entertainment, "That was tough. I ingested a lot of sugar in this movie and I didn't get a lot of sleep. I constantly stayed up. But anything for the movie, I'm there. If it takes eating a lot of maple syrup, then I will—if that's what the job calls for."

20. Will Ferrell refuses to make Elf 2.

Though the comedian reprised the role of Ron Burgundy for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues and returned as Mugatu in Zoolander 2, he flat out rejected the possibility of bringing back Buddy, even after being offered a reported $29 million. In December of 2013, he told USA TODAY, "I just think it would look slightly pathetic if I tried to squeeze back in the elf tights: Buddy the middle-aged elf."

21. Elf became a hit Broadway musical.

From November 2010 to January 2011, Elf the musical ran on Broadway, boasting songs like "World's Greatest Dad," "Nobody Cares About Santa," and "The Story of Buddy The Elf." This run was a huge success, taking in more than $1.4 million in one week, a record for the Al Hirschfield Theater where it debuted. Plus, The New York Times called it, "A splashy, peppy, sugar-sprinkled holiday entertainment." A revival hit in time for Christmas 2012, and national tours have been recurring.

Can You Guess J.K. Rowling's Fantastic Beast From Its Magical Power?

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER