My Top Ten Movies of the Late '80s ('85-'89)

Aug 26, 2009

The Bottom Line The late '80s are littered with lots of childhood classics.

The late 1980s were some of the most formative years of my life, as I headed off to school for the first time and experienced some major milestones, including gaining a brother and losing a grandfather.  The movies that I saw during these years really stuck with me.  Here are some of my favorites.

Back to the Future (1985) / Back to the Future II (1989) - For some reason, I saw the second installment of this classic Robert Zemeckis trilogy first, so that when I saw the first movie several years later, a lot of the jokes made a lot more sense. Each is much funnier in tandem with the other, but as stand-alones, they're great, too. Michael J. Fox is irresistible as Marty, the teenager who gets propelled backward then forward through time courtesy of Doc Brown, who is played to the eccentric hilt by Christopher Lloyd. Since LOST became preoccupied with time travel, I've been especially getting the urge to go back and watch these two movies, which so humorously examine all of the problems that might arise from such a feat. Extra kudos to Crispin Glover, who is a bundle of neuroses as Marty's wimpy dad, George, and Thomas F. Wilson, who perfectly portrays the brutish, dim-witted Biff Tannen and has forever lodged in my mind the phrase "Why don't you make like a tree and get outta here?"

Anne of Green Gables (1985) / Anne of Avonlea (1987) - These gorgeously filmed adaptations of the first few books in L. M. Montgomery's classic series are two of the first videos we ever owned - or I should say four, as both run well over three hours in length and require two cassettes each. We used to pop them in whenever we had my cousins over for a sleepover, as they made a very comforting backdrop, and if we were still up when the second movie was over, we could really consider ourselves champion night owls. Megan Follows is spectacular in the title role, especially the first time around when she gets to play Anne in her early teenage years to the over-dramatic hilt. But then every character is perfectly cast, from Colleen Dewhurst as stern but kind Marilla and Patricia Hamilton as busybody Rachel to Richard Farnsworth as incurable softie Matthew and Jonathan Crombie as the incredibly patient Gilbert. The first film is extremely faithful to the first book, while the second takes considerable liberties as it combines elements of the second, third and fourth novels. Both make for excellent, high-quality, wholesome viewing, not to mention some of the best advertising Prince Edward Island has ever gotten.

An American Tail (1986) / Land Before Time (1988) - I always think of these two Don Bluth films in association with each other. They came out within a couple of years of each other, and they both concern a young animal who is separated from his family making new friends as he undertakes a dangerous journey in hopes of an eventual reunion. The first features Fievel the mouse and his close-knit family, who happen to be Russian Jews, and it is a full-blown musical, with the earnest duet Somewhere Out There a particular highlight. While American Tail introduces kids to the immigrant experience, Land Before Time gives some background on dinosaurs while presenting a powerful tale of faith and friendship. Too many shoddy sequels followed both of these movies, but the originals remain outstanding.

Flight of the Navigator (1986) - Another time travel movie, this one about a boy who finds himself the navigator of a snarky ship carting dozens of aliens across the universe. Young David only jumps ahead eight years, but he's surprised to discover how many things have changed. There's an element of poking fun at the decade in this fun fantasy that is mostly about the unlikely bond that develops between the boy and the sentient spaceship voiced by Paul Reubens. It's been too long since I've seen it, but when I was a kid, I absolutely loved it.

Great Mouse Detective (1986) / The Little Mermaid (1989) - The former was the first movie I remember seeing in the theater. It's a little dark for Disney, focusing on a kidnapped inventor and a plot against the queen of England by a diabolical villain by the name of Ratigan. But I love this very English tale of about Basil, an arrogant detective, and Dawson, his faithful assistant, doing their best to avert a disaster for the sake of sweet young Olivia, the inventor's daughter. Most of the characters in this are rodents or other scuttling creatures, while The Little Mermaid features an array of aquatic characters and some incredibly catchy songs. Disney's twist on the Hans Christian Andersen tale is more upbeat and includes plenty of amusing sidekicks, most notably the world-weary Caribbean crab Sebastian, advisor to the quick-tempered but affectionate King Triton. I wasn't sure how much I'd like this one when it came out, but once I saw it I quickly became obsessed with it. Both are great examples of the magic of Disney in some of its most exceptional years.

Karate Kid II (1986) - When we were growing up, my brothers and I all took karate at one point, as did my dad. I suspect that a lot of folks did that in the '80s after cheering on Daniel, the east coast teen who moves to California with his mom and gets over his fish-out-of-water blues by striking up a friendship with his elderly neighbor, karate expert Mr. Miyagi. I love the movies, particularly because of Mr. Miyagi, who is such a wise and funny character. The second film is my favorite of the trilogy because it focuses primarily on him, delving into his past and using his example to teach Daniel and the audience a powerful lesson on the value of mercy and redemption. It also includes my favorite of Daniel's three girlfriends, whose relationship with him unfolds on screen with some help from a montage backed by The Glory of Love, perhaps the ultimate '80s power ballad.

Short Circuit (1986) - I've always had a soft spot for robots, whether it's Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation or R2-D2 and C-3PO in Star Wars, but Johnny Five may just be may favorite robot of all. The first time my family watched this movie, I was in the other room reading, and the sounds of laughter drew me to the television within minutes. It wasn't long before I was laughing too: at the malapropisms spewed by Fisher Stevens' perpetually befuddled foreigner Ben; at the lovable robot's inappropriate behavior as he insatiably seeks more input; at the incredulity of adorable Steve Gutenberg's Newton Crosby as he comes to accept that his creation has actually come to life. This incredibly quotable movie is one of the most hilarious I've ever seen, and it has moments of real tenderness as well. It introduced me to several terrific actors, and may it well have even sparked my fondness for Dr Pepper, which has long been my beverage of choice.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) - Easily the most accessible of the Star Trek movies, this fourth installment is also by far the funniest, though the stakes are higher here than in any other. The fate of the entire planet is at stake, so it's up to the crew of the Enterprise to save world by going back in time and fetching a couple of humpback whales. Like Back to the Future, this movie toys around with the absurdity of time travel, but it saves most of its energy to skewer '80s culture while making our heroes look like a bunch of buffoons as they try to navigate it. Among the highlights are Kirk and Spock's disastrous trip to the aquarium and the conversation in the car that follows it; Scotty's attempt to interact with a primitive computer; and a hospital escapade that involves high speed, heaps of deception and an instant kidney. All that, plus a lesson in environmental consciousness makes this the only original Trek film that rivals The Wrath of Khan.

The Princess Bride (1987) - Every year at Christmas, we watch this with my dad's side of the family, laughing late into the night over jokes we've all heard dozens of times before, dialogue we've had memorized for a couple of decades. This movie has everything: fantasy, adventure, romance... Most of all, it has humor. Every other line is a quotable classic, impeccably delivered by a top-notch cast. Burly, lovable Fezzik (Andre the Giant), Spanish, revenge-driven Inigo (Mandy Patinkin) and short, demeaning Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) are particularly memorable among a host of entertaining characters. The decision to frame the story with scenes of a grandfather reading the book to his cynical grandson is the icing on the cake in this film that perfectly blends so many elements to create a masterpiece I will never get tired of watching.

Dead Poets' Society (1989) - I remember hearing about this movie when it came out, but it's the only one of the bunch I didn't see until many years later. We watched this in my eleventh grade English class, which was led by an unconventional teacher not so different from the man Robin Williams portrays. This film has a darker tone to it than anything else on this list, but it is inspirational in many ways, demonstrating the power that literature and an involved teacher can have in one's life. It also shows the danger of trying to exert too much control over one's children as they reach adulthood. One of Williams' finest performances, and my introduction to the terrific Robert Sean Leonard.

Other Late-'80s Movies I've Reviewed: The Black Cauldron * Follow That Bird * Crocodile Dundee * Ferris Bueller's Day Off * Labyrinth * Little Shop of Horrors * Adventures of Milo and Otis * The Brave Little Toaster * Foxfire * A Hobo's Christmas * The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking * Oliver and Company * All Dogs Go to Heaven

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