100 Favorite Films To Recommend Part 7: The 1980s
Thanks to a perfect storm of newfound challenges, creative control shifts, and artistic pioneering, Hollywood had survived a rough post-“Golden Age” in the seventies. But by the mid to late seventies, the industry had seen the birth of “the blockbuster”, a film that somehow catches lightning in a bottle and becomes an event that draws all kinds of audiences to their local cinemas again and again for that one movie. The result is a movie that makes tons of money, something that has become commonplace today with event film after event film coming out every summer and Christmastime and even one or two of them in the spring. But back then these movies were more of a rare breed and thus their success led to the franchising of various movies that have become part of our lives.
While the changes brought over by the French New Wave and the discovered love for smaller and more intimate, independent films were still there, the concept of having big action-packed movies or fun thrill-rides or journeys to different worlds led studios to find new spectacles to draw moviegoers back to the theaters. Furthermore, some up-and-comers that had grown up with less artsy and more fun nostalgic films were coming into the fold and wanted to make going to the movies fun again. As I stated in the previous part to this series, one of the reasons I’m not very fond of the seventies when it comes to cinema is that there’s very little fun to be found from the decade’s movies. The eighties are the complete opposite of that, and why I like to refer to it as the decade when Hollywood learned to have fun again.
That’s not to say that there aren’t good smaller and more intimate, artistic cinematic visions from this decade; there are plenty from Ordinary People to Gandhi to The Color Purple and Out Of Africa. But you’ll note this is the first time I’ve run down a list of my favorite films from each year in a decade and none of them won the Oscar for Best Picture (though two of them were nominated for that prize). I think that speaks to what kind of movies attracted me from this decade the most, and honestly, this ended up a list that was hard to form because almost every year had a plethora of personal favorites to offer, leaving me with a tinge of heartbreak when certain films I love couldn’t be featured.
The twenties attracted me to morality tales, the thirties attracted me to horror, the forties attracted me to feel-good stories, the fifties attracted me to human dramas, the sixties attracted me to epics with big casts and long running times, and the seventies attracted me to award-winning dramas. The eighties? This decade’s films attracted me with over-the-top adventure and bone-chilling horror with some comedy mixed in and one drama. A Stephen King adaptation still referenced to this day, a fun adventure film that ended up at the Academy Awards, a horror remake that has overshadowed the original, two Eddie Murphy classics, a “who done it”, a cult classic adaptation of a board game of all things, a comedic coming of age tale, a horror film that even the most hardcore horror fans might have trouble getting through, and the first Superhero-inspired film to make it on one of these lists. (It won’t be the last.) Here’s my favorite movie from each year in the 1980s.
1980: “The Shining”
This adaptation of Stephen King’s third novel is today a horror classic and is mentioned among some of Director Stanley Kubrick’s best work. And yet when this movie came out it was slow to pickup steam with audiences, got mixed critical reviews, and even got nominated for Golden Raspberries. On top of that, the source material’s author, King, to this day despises Kubrick’s take on his story and wrote his own television miniseries version in the nineties and even takes a shot at the adaptation in a note he wrote accompanying the sequel novel, Doctor Sleep. I’ve read the book as well and while I personally like the source material a little better, the movie remains one of the best psychological and creepy disturbing tales I’ve seen in cinema. One last note: there’s a documentary titled Room 237 that I’d recommend you give a watch after seeing this film; it covers all the various ways this movie has been interpreted from simple theories on film presentation to even one theory Kubrick used the movie as a veiled confession for helping fake the moon landing.
1981: “Raiders Of The Lost Ark”
The first of the Indiana Jones movies, this might arguably be the best example of the 1980s over-the-top fun style that many movies tried out. This is a good old fashioned adventure film with temples, traps, Nazis, and even supernatural forces. Amazingly, the film seemed to strike a chord even with the arguably snobby Academy and ended up getting various Oscar nominations including Best Picture. With all due respect to Chariots Of Fire I think in hindsight the Academy should’ve given the prize to this one.
1982: “The Thing”
This is a remake of an old fifties classic, The Thing From Another World, yet this is the film that is more remembered of the two. This Carpenter masterpiece featuring incredible and chill-inducing visual effects, coupled with a very real feeling of paranoia and claustrophobia, was a box office bomb in its original release and was slammed as garbage by critics. But through home media the movie became a horror classic and for good reason. It’s like taking a fifties creature feature and cranking the level up to eleven. The ending still has me hoping it’ll turn out well for our protagonists but knowing perhaps that’s unlikely.
1983: “Trading Places”
A modern-day Prince and the Pauper, this hilarious Eddie Murphy classic pairs him with Dan Aykroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis. But the real stars might be the antagonists of the tale, the shady Duke brothers Randolph and Mortimer, played by Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche respectively, who are perfect caricatures of devious, old, rich snobs. The movie touches on issues of class and race but make no mistake, it mainly exists to make you laugh. This movie actually made some big awards shows, even getting nominated for Best Picture at the Golden Globes and getting a nomination for its scoring at the Academy Awards.
1984: “A Soldier’s Story”
Imagine a “who done it” set during World War II involving a segregated company of black soldiers and their murdered master sergeant who just so happens to be one of the biggest you-know-whats to have walked this planet. Now imagine a black Captain is sent to sort out what happened and must balance racial tensions on both sides. Plenty of suspects and plenty of motives, and as the film goes along you start to think it could have been anybody. But I’ll never forget my jaw dropping when the reveal came of who did it and why.
You’d think it would be impossible to make a board game adaptation for film but somehow Clue pulled it off. Featuring a large and hilarious cast who all seem to be having so much fun playing their parts and memorable quote after memorable quote, this dark comedic mystery was considered a box office disappointment with mixed reviews when it was first released. Thankfully, the movie grew a cult following on home media, and I am a proud member of said following. The movie’s decision to have three endings which were all randomized during its theatrical run was quite the interesting experiment as well.
1986: “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”
So I know that it’s going to be a bit controversial to pick this over the excellent Aliens, but this is actually one of the few John Hughes movies I really enjoy. A simple tale about a young man skipping out on a day of school that evolves into one of the wildest days one could have, with side characters along for the ride whether they want to be or not, I remember finally getting around to this movie about a decade ago and being pleasantly surprised with how fun it was to watch Ferris Bueller somehow get away with scheme after scheme.
To this day, Hellraiser is one of the toughest horror movies for me to watch, and yet to this day I watch it two or three times each Halloween season, including the day of. It’s an incredibly unnerving film that touches on themes like sex, mortality, and heavenly and hellish realms. The visual effects are still good enough to make you want to look away and the antagonists, the Cenobites, are one of cinema’s most horrifying villains. I even had trouble looking for a scene to place with this article, given how many horrific shots come with this movie. This is not a horror film for the weak at heart, so take that into consideration if you haven’t seen this one yet.
1988: “Coming To America”
This is hands down my favorite Eddie Murphy film of all time. Coming To America is a hilarious film about an African prince who seeks love undercover (in Queens, New York of all places). The movie’s cast is large and somehow never feels overbearing with side-plots and side characters that only make the world around our protagonist feel real, whether he’s in his home country or in a horribly kept apartment in the states, or even in a cheap McDonald’s rip-off. There’s even a funny cameo involving two Trading Places characters. After over thirty years the movie has a sequel coming out later this year.
It may be difficult today to see the caped crusader as anything but a dark detective tale, but before this film adaptation the 1960s Adam West kid-friendly presentation was what many had been used to. Tim Burton, however, wanted the character to return to the darker roots of the old Batman pre the Comics Code, and his rival the Joker was to become just as menacing. I know Nolan’s epic trilogy has become the measuring stick when it comes to telling Batman’s story (and for good reason), but this classic set a lot of precedents for future adaptations of the character, whether it be live-action or animated. This film’s major success (coupled with Superman: The Movie the previous decade) were the seeds to today’s highly acclaimed and billion-dollar-making superhero flicks.
And thus ends the list of my favorite movies from the 1980s. If you haven’t yet please do read my similar lists for the 1920s, the 1930s, the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1960s. and the 1970s. The goal of this series is to hopefully help others discover some great films they might want to try out while most of us are stuck at home, and as always I do enjoy others’ recommendations in the comments. Next time, I look at a decade that will probably have the most nostalgic value to me as a child of it – the 1990s.
Here is what I did not like (at the time!) about Clue having 3 different endings.
I knew that the three different endings were not all of equal quality. One of them was the “bad” one, one was the “good” one, and one was the one in the middle of those.
What if I saw the one with the bad ending?
Couldn’t risk it.
(I liked how the video dealt with this. Just give them all three endings! “You might think it happened like this… or you might think it happened like that… but it really happened like this other thing!”)
Even now, when I think about giving a movie three different endings, randomly, I recoil.
Before 1989, we had two good superhero movies. That’s it. Just two of them. Superman and Superman 2. Batman, in 1989, made it 3.
And everyone complained about how dark and violent it was. They interviewed Cesar Romero and he complained about how violent the Joker was. It’s almost comic now, thinking back. Makes you wonder what they’d think about the Nolan version in 1989.Report
Throwing acid in a woman’s face was shocking then and is still shocking today. The scene with the anchors is still pretty shocking too. But unlike a lot of the violence that is in movies today, it had a purpose to it and a reason for it, which both makes it more justified and also less of a “just for shock value” thing.
I prefer 1989 Batman to the Nolan ones.Report
Trading Places and Coming to America are both very underrated.
I can’t let a mention of Ferris Bueller go by without plugging my “sequel” to Ferris in which he gets his comeuppance, finally https://ordinary-times.com/2017/11/10/ferris-bueller-day-of-retribution/Report
One of the really interesting things about Trading Places is how it turns into a heist movie, but they do not explain the heist to the audience at all. Like, “okay, the bad guys thought the price was gonna go up but it didn’t, but…why does that mean they lost all their money? How did the heroes get all those contracts to sell in the first place?” And then your father, who works in investments, gets to spend a happy forty-five minutes explaining how futures trading works and pointing out that this movie was actually responsible for getting SEC regulations created so people couldn’t do what the guys in the movie did.
Also, I think this movie was chiefly responsible for the onset of my puberty, because Jamie Lee Curtis takes off her shirt twice and her tits are phenomenal.Report
Excellent list! Well, I would cut Ferris Buller and put Blue Velvet in, but that is just me. One movie I would add would be A Passage to India. Sadly forgotten in this post David Lean era, but well worth picking up sometime.Report
I didn’t even know there was a film version. The only Forster movies that come to mind are Howard’s End and A Room with a View.Report
I have to admit that in Clue I was distracted by the engineering aspects of the question of how Leslie Ann Warren’s dress top stayed up.Report
1980 – Caddyshack: one of the most quotable films ever made. Bill Murray’s greatest role.
1981 – Agree with OP. Just an all around fun movie
1982 – Diner: Great ensemble cast in an excellent period piece.
1983 – The Big Chill: I was 20 and got to see what a mid-life crisis looks like. Unbelievable soundtrack.
1984 – This Is Spinal Tap: ’nuff said.
1985 – Brazil: Terry Gilliam’s prescient vision of 2020.
1986 – Big Trouble in Little China: I’m a huge Kurt Russell fan, and this is the highlight of his career (except for, maybe, Escape from New York).
1987 – Full Metal Jacket: Kubrik’s take on the absurdity of Vietnam.
1988 – Bull Durham: Kevin Costner is very believable as an aging minor leaguer. Tim Robbins steals the show.
1989: Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure: how could I not? It was the first date with the woman who would become my wife. Plus, it’s really funny.Report
Spinal Tap was probably the second best movie of the decade, but Amadeus was released the same year, so it can’t make my list.Report
It was a tough choice for sure.Report
They’re both stories of the tension between musical genius and flawed humanity. It doesn’t seem possible that Big Bottom or the Overture to The Magic Flute could be created by mortals, and yet the conflict between the eternal and the…oh, never mind. Spinal Tap is great but I don’t think it’d make sense to kids today. That guitar solo, though. I’ve never heard a theater crowd laugh that hard. It literally drowned out the movie.Report
I was really hoping Mozart’s Overture and Tufnel’s Lick My Love Pump were both written in the same key, but, alas…
Tufnel ripping off Page in The Song Remains the Same is comic genius.Report
Honestly, I thought that “Used Cars” was some of the best Kurt Russell. It’s the same “romantic heel who does a face turn at the beginning of the third act”, which is a role he’s actually really good in, but without the suuuuper creepy setup of “Overboard”.Report
Weirdly enough, just happened to watch Clue two nights ago because it came up on Amazon prime recommended. They had all three endings, with a silent movie style title card between them.
I can see why it didn’t get big play at the time – the front half is a lot less over the top than the back half and so muddles thru a bit before everyone really starts chewing the scenery.Report
There’s a 10 minute video on YouTube “The Shining, Spatial Awareness and Set Design”. It goes a long way towards explaining what Kubrick did to make his film so uncomfortable to watch.Report
I was just reading about this film. King disliked it and wrote the miniseries adaptation to ignore Kubrick’s changes and be faithful to the book. King’s sequel novel (Doctor Sleep) also contradicts the movie.
Then the poor guy who wrote the Doctor Sleep screenplay had to adapt the book to be consistent with the film version of The Shining (*) without pissing off King too badly.
* Because that’s what the average moviegoer would see it as a sequel to.Report
I can see why you left Ghostbusters off, because honestly, everybody has seen Ghostbusters.
Which gives me an excuse to repost more Kontextmaschine…
You know what my favorite piece of reactionary media is?
Hear me out, I’ve mentioned this before, but forever ago. It’s a movie about a bunch of guys who, in the go-go ’80s, give up on academia to found a startup based on cutting-edge technology. They settle in gritty New York City, specifically taking on the burden of rehabilitating decaying public-safety infrastructure, and their job description is literally “drive around town with the siren on, protecting once-glorious locations by imprisoning vandalous spooks”.
They clean the city up and create jobs for black- and white-ethnic working class, but face resistance from pointy-headed bureaucrats. (The dickless EPA guy manages to represent both “overregulation” and “safety-threatening prisoner releases” with admirable efficiency.) Ultimately though, the meddlers have to relent in the face of our heroes’ success at making the city safe for innocents, represented here by yuppie singles in their 30s.
(Ghostbusters II is about the guys making the city a safe place for those yuppies to raise kids by cleansing cultural institutions of evil European influence using the power of American patriotism, while the judiciary and mayor come to accept that whatever the law or political elites might say, these guys are both necessary and popular.)
Meanwhile, it’s fucking Ghostbusters.
What’s even better about Ghostbusters is that you can write something similarly convincing about how progressive Ghostbusters is. When Ray, Pete, and Egon stand before Gozer the Gozerian they are scientists of no discernible religious disposition standing against a god (Winston is a Black Baptist Christian but he’s also just an employee) and they’ve come to defeat that god with science. Ghostbusters, fundamentally, stripped to its core, is a movie about science versus superstition – the ascendant technological ingenuity of man (and not even “special” ingenuity that only genius scientists can use, the Ghostbusters have already refined their tech into a democratized user-friendly form; Venkman isn’t especially technologically gifted, and there’s a bit where Winston, a working-class meathead, is shown that operating the stuff is a matter of plugging it into the wall and pushing a button) versus the ancient powers of literal gods. And since nearly all modern stories about humanity’s struggles with ancient or fictional gods are subtextually “about” the relation of said story’s society of origin to its own currently-dominant spiritual belief systems…yeah, you see where this going: Ghostbusters is a science-vs-religion story where religion gets its ass handed to it.
Yeah. That vision of intellectual progress and that vision of reactionary restoration ARE perfectly compatible, aren’t they?Report
This needs to be a full piece.Report
It’s just a repost from someone’s Tumblr, I think me retelling it here in the comments is sufficient. The guy’s blog is quite good though!Report
The dickless EPA guy
I think of him whenever I see a computer described as “diskless”.Report
Yes, it’s true. This computer has no disk.Report
I noticed the other day that so long as you don’t care about price, you can now buy SSDs in standard physical sizes that have much more storage than actual disks. I’ve been a “what can you do with small computers” guy for as long as there have been small computers, but even the small computers have outpaced anything I might need. The hard disks on my Mac total a terabyte; despite dumping movies, music, the archive for most of a lifetime of tech work, and now large image databases for studying computer vision, I’ve only used up 500 GB. The world has passed me by…Report
It’s interesting to me that you picked two of my top ten horror movies, and arguably the #1 on my least-favorite list.
To me, horror has three elements. I could probably call them three stages, because they usually occur in sequence, but not always. Sometimes all three don’t appear at all. Dread is the first, that sense that there’s something unexplainable wrong. Stephen King is a master at this, or to put it another way, he doesn’t know how to write an ending. The Shining really is a Stephen King movie, even though he wouldn’t recognize it as such. Every frame tells you that something horrible is happening.
Once we get some understanding of the situation, we get to suspense. Some specific bad thing is about to happen. I don’t think The Blair Witch Project ever gets to this point, but that doesn’t make it any less scary. The Thing is a classic in terms of suspense. The paranoia in that one scene – everyone knows which one – is as thick as in any movie ever made. The movie also nails the third element, which is the violence.
I find the violence so cruel in Hellraiser that I can’t enjoy anything about the movie. The violence in The Thing is mind-boggling, both technically and in sheer insanity. Hellraiser was just genuinely shocking without being compelling. You mentioned Aliens, which I’m not really a fan of, but if you’re looking for violence without suspense, the most famous example is in the first movie in the series. There’s something odd happening, but it’s gone now, so let’s all relax OH MY GOD.Report