Best 75 Movies of the 1980's


Jan 21, 2002


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The Bottom Line A superb decade, despite widespread criticism.

***This is a list of movies that I’ve seen, which may account for some possibly glaring omissions including Martin Scorcese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing,” and Joel Coen’s “Blood Simple,” and Roland Joffe’s “The Mission” among others, but not popular favorites such as “Platoon,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” and “Rain Man," which I felt were not of exceptional quality.



1. Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984) – Though few have heard of this film, and even fewer would consider it rightfully placed at the top of such a list, “Paris, Texas” is an absolutely magnificent film. Through Sam Shepard’s sparse, minimal script, Wenders evokes a picture of the changing American West, the raw and pulsing wounds of a broken family, and the power of sacrifice and redemption. Harry Dean Stanton, one of the finest actors, gives a quiet, heartbreaking performance as the lead character Travis. The climactic scene between him and his estranged wife, Nastassja is one of the most harrowing and affecting ever put to film. A truly shattering movie.

2. Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980) – “Ordinary People” was Redford’s first film as a director and he was able to find all the notes and treat the material with touching care and complete compassion. The disintegration of a family – essentially a very melancholy subject – is handled with great tenderness. Redford is also blessed with a flawless cast from Mary Tyler Moore’s pitch-perfect turn as the angry mother, Donald Sutherland’s quieter yet equally affecting father, and above all Timothy’s Hutton as the family’s ravaged son.

3. The Color Purple (Steven Spielberg, 1985) – Spielberg produced his best work during this decade – five of the films in the top twenty-five of this list are his – but it is this 1985 film, his first attempt at a true drama, that remains his best. He transfers the story from the book by Alice Walker to the screen with the care and skill of a great artist, filling it with the vitality and humanity that is characteristic of all his films. Like “Ordinary People,” “The Color Purple” is heralded by a superior cast, especially Whoopi Goldberg in her first and finest performance as the lead character Celie.

4. Raging Bull (Martin Scorcese, 1980) – Two of the centuries’ greatest filmmakers – Robert De Niro and Martin Scorcese – are at the top of their form here. “Raging Bull” is a stunning piece of work from every angle. Like the previous three films, and all other great films, it demonstrates the power that a film can produce when great forces are at work behind and in front of the camera.

5. The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980) – The 1980s saw many of its best films during its first year – five rank in the top twenty-five of the list alone. Though David Lynch’s films are typically far more experimental and labyrinthine than this, he is able to create a truly wrenching and heart-rending portrait of one of histories oddest and saddest figures, John Merrick, without totally abandoning his artistry. It is through restraint, in fact, that “The Elephant Man” really succeeds – it refuses to manipulate the audience; the story itself is strong enough. Yet Lynch’s camera is unrelenting and revelatory at the same time.

6. Peggy Sue Got Married (Francis Ford Coppola, 1986) – Though many considered this too sentimental, they did not understand that the sentiment did not spring from Coppola directing – which is very calm and composed – but from the subject of the film itself. The film conveys a sense of overwhelming nostalgia, which is perfect for a film about traveling into one’s own past. Few films have been so successful in capturing the reflection and yearning of youth, accomplished with the help of Kathleen Turner’s perfect performance.

7. Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahoto, 1988) – Most people consider Japanese animation to be nothing but violence and sex; most people have never seen this diamond of a film. Not only is this the greatest animated film ever made, it is also one of the greatest films about World War II, and about childhood. It is says a lot that the two children in the film, made only of ink and unseen voices, seem more human than most performances by actors. “Grave of the Fireflies” is thoughtful and elegiac, and is sadly unknown to most people.

8. Risky Business (Paul Brickman, 1983) – Teen comedies filled the decade wall-to-wall, but none was able to achieve the level of maturity, intelligence, and even transcendence achieved by “Risky Business.” It was the first to truly peer into the life of a teenage boy and successfully find subtle truths about youth. “Risky Business” never hits a false note, it is observative, and downright entertaining. Featuring Tom Cruise in a wonderful lead performance, and aided immensely by Tangerine Dream’s reflective score.

9. The Accidental Tourist (Lawrence Kasdan, 1988) – Only after reading the novel by Anne Tyler can one truly see what a marvelous and complex job William Hurt did as the lead character. Kasdan brings to the flesh the funny and bittersweet story in this simple and tender drama.

10. E. T., The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982) – Spielberg has an innocence as a director; his stories about children find the beauty of being young like none since Truffaut. One of the most popular movies of the decade – and deservedly so.

11. Raiders of the Lost Ark
12. Amadeus
13. Sophie’s Choice
14. At Close Range
15. Empire of the Sun
16. The Breakfast Club
17. Back to the Future
18. A Room with a View
19. Little Shop of Horrors
20. Terms of Endearment
21. Raising Arizona
22. Moonstruck
23. Melvin & Howard
24. Chariots of Fire
25. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
26. The Last Emperor
27. House of Games
28. Dangerous Liaisons
29. Out of Africa
30. The Shining
31. Blade Runner
32. Airplane!
33. Working Girl
34. The Goonies
35. The Karate Kid
36. A Fish Called Wanda
37. Stand By Me
38. The Great Santini
39. The Empire Strikes Back
40. Tess
41. After Hours
42. Housekeeping
43. The Year My Voice Broke
44. Parenthood
45. Kiss of the Spider Woman
46. Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
47. Poltergeist
48. Akira
49. Runaway Train
50. On Golden Pond
51. Broadcast News
52. Coal Miner’s Daughter
53. Missing
54. Weird Science
55. Big
56. My Left Foot
57. Less Than Zero
58. Children of a Lesser God
59. WarGames
60. Jean De Florette/Manon of the Spring
61. Clue: The Movie
62. Sixteen Candles
63. Legend
64. Splash
65. Ghostbusters
66. Annie
67. The Muppets Take Manhattan
68. Coming To America
69. Pink Floyd The Wall
70. Romancing The Stone
71. Aliens
72. Tron
73. Driving Miss Daisy
74. Private Benjamin
75. Tender Mercies

Special Mention: Though these films span the list and may rank lower than others, I believe they deserve special recognition. “At Close Range” (#14, James Foley, 1986) is a disturbing portrait of crime, and more importantly, its effect on family, featuring Sean Penn and Christopher Walken in two of their greatest performances. “Empire of the Sun” (#15, Steven Spielberg, 1987), though one of Spielberg’s less-revered movies, is beautiful in its un-Spielbergian sadness. Jonathan Demme’s first and oft-forgotten movie, “Melvin & Howard” (#23, 1980) is a quirky and full of life. “Annie” (#66, John Huston, 1982), “The Muppets Take Manhattan” (#67, Frank Oz, 1984) and especially “Little Shop of Horrors” (#19, Frank Oz, 1986) are all wonderful musicals in a sometimes joyless decade. All of John Hughes’ popular movies (Sixteen Candles [#62], Weird Science [#54], and The Breakfast Club [#16]), “Stand By Me” (#37, Ron Howard, 1987) and the Aussie indie “The Year My Voice Broke” (#43, John Duigan, 1986) portray the rites of passage of youth with unmatched truth. Also of note, several films which have been criticized for lack of deep plot or character-development but are viscerally evocative none the less are “Blade Runner” (#31, Ridley Scott, 1982), “Legend” (#63, Ridley Scott, 1986), and “Tron” (#72, 1982).

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