Best Films of the 1980’s


31 January 2015| No Comments on Best Films of the 1980’s     by Sean Chavel


I don’t believe an entire decade can be summed up with ten films. So I’m going with twenty! And after twenty, I wanted to mention another thirty plus fun movies! Some of the fun movies on the bottom are art (worthy of 4 or 5 star ratings), some are just favorite thrills or barrel of laughs of mine. The core selections of the 1980’s do say something about the culture, the information breakthroughs, the fads and represent the artistic pinnacles of the time. And yes, I’m probably the only critic whose top three are “Raging Bull, “E.T.” and “The Shining” in that order. Hey, favorites fall where they fall.

Raging Bull_ Best Films-1980s1. Raging Bull (1980, 128 Minutes, R) – The quintessential Martin Scorsese art film. This biopic has Robert DeNiro as Italian-American Jake LaMotta, a middleweight champion boxer with major self-esteem issues. His faults were so abrasive that he estranged everybody around him. Two minutes of Jake behaving tastefully do not always pardon a third of great tastelessness. Joe Pesci is his brother and trainer. Cathy Moriarty is his Madonna-whore wife, that is, because he touched her virginal essence she must now be a scornful slut. Jake builds grudges for years, then explodes. The film is in impeccable black & white, it’s stark and impromptu. The camera dances around in the ring or pummels into the action hard. I’m not sure there is a redemption to the film other than to express some men cross the line to ever be granted another shot at redemption. DeNiro gained 70 pounds for the later scenes of aged ogre LaMotta. It’s his best performance.

E.T. Favorite Film 1980s2. E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982, 120 Minutes, PG) – Steven Spielberg’s eternal gift to the kid inside me. I feel my innocence restored anytime I watch Spielberg’s ode to friendship, to hearts that soar, and anything else cheesy and sentimental that one can come up with. I was very much a boy like Elliott (Henry Thomas), I was just very good, sweet, considerate, thoughtful… and unjaded. I loved the idea of finding a special alien that had gentle powers, and flying away on a bicycle, and eating Reese’s candy, and getting help with magic towards a first kiss. The John Williams music is triumphant, what else is it? I’m a very, very happy person when I watch “E.T.” It’s kind of an antidote to the rest of my many oh-so-serious picks.

Shining_1980_Best-Horror-Film-of-the-Decade3. The Shining (1980, 143 Minutes, R) – The best horror film ever made and probably the best one there will ever be. Stanley Kubrick’s claustrophobic chiller takes place in the high altitudes of the Colorado Rockies peaking at a rough snowstorm. Inside a hotel closed during the off-season, caretaker Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) gets cabin fever while the wife (Shelley Duvall) and son (Danny Lloyd) cower nervously. Many devotees over the years have revered it for its supernatural elements, its haunted symbolism, its hypnotic camerawork that spells delirium and claustrophobia. I see something else: A parable of the world’s most loveless marriage. This is the one Stanley Kubrick film that scrambles the brain the longest. You can watch it several times over the course of a decade and find you are still working at unlocking its secrets.

Come-and-See-Russia_ Best-Films-1980's4. Come and See (1985, Russia, 136 Minutes, Unrated) – I don’t blame anybody for not wanting to see it. Not for all people, it’s that devastating a war film, circa height of World War II Nazis invading and pillaging the border villages of Russia. The opening scene admittedly makes no sense, perhaps the intent is to depict confusion and desperation in the search for one gun. There will be an organized Resistance, but their lack of power is pitiless. The entire film is seen through the eyes of a 14-year old boy (Florya, played by Aleksey Kravchenko) who is not given the chance of an identity because he simply is just trying to survive. The sound design is cruel and uncompromising early on, you empathize the boy has gone temporarily deaf from the artillery noise. He tries to find a purpose, friends to stick by or join the Resistance. It is said, the survivors in this film must envy the dead. Even if Florya makes it alive the film suggests he will never have a normal life. This is an uncompromising film of horror and despair, of men and women victims attempting to elude genocide, and there is zero relief. You look at a film like this and think, my life has been good.

Testament-1983 Best Films 1980's5. Testament (1983, 90 Minutes, PG) – The best film ever directed by a woman, Lynn Littman, and because of its’ box office failure and her unschmoozy personality in Hollywood she never made another theatrical feature, just TV stuff. On a typical sunny afternoon, an emergency broadcast flashes an announcement on television. Moments later without warning, a blinding white light fills the sky. Carol (Jane Alexander, jaw-droppingly good), the mother, grabs her children and pulls them down to the ground and asks them to cover their eyes. The power goes out. The white light recedes and neighbors gather on the street panic-stricken. The community loses contact with many other cities even within their own State. Days pass with each new one gloomier than the last. The sky gradually grows darker. Vegetation dries out and rots. The local park becomes a landfill for dead bodies to burn on a pyre. This is a film of great anguish and deep despair, but yes, it says something about human resilience. There are moments that tear me up, including a scene of a daughter asking her mother what it’s like to kiss a boy since she will never know. I suppose it’s not a major well-known masterpiece because it’s too anguished for popular acceptance.

do the right thing_1980s masterpiece6. Do the Right Thing (1989, 120 Minutes, R) – Spike Lee permeates hot colors throughout his race and class war social treatise, and the whole thing explodes with memorable characters. This is more than just a classic in film technique, this is a prophecy for some the most significant of all life lessons. The culmination leads to a race riot, with cops present as mediators before they become agitators too. Real life has mirrored this film significantly in recent years. It’s amazingly ridiculous how snubbed it was at the Oscars (Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor Danny Aiello were acknowledged with nominations). This continues to be a roaring, brilliant film, buoyed with street smart humor. With Aiello as the pizzeria owner, John Turturro as his son and co-operator, Spike Lee as delivery boy Mookie, Rosie Perez as the ice-melting girlfriend, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee as the wise elders, Giancarlo Esposito as an angry customer, Samuel L. Jackson as the disc jockey, Bill Nunn as the young man Radio Raheem struggling between the maxims of love and hate.

Blue Velvet - best films 1980s7. Blue Velvet (1986, 121 Minutes, R) – David Lynch’s dirty and kinky thriller, seedy and unclean. Kyle MacLachlan is squeaky clean Jeffrey Beaumont, a barely starting college student who looks into the mystery behind a severed ear which is probably the clue to a murder. He loves the good girl (Laura Dern) but is attracted to the bad girl (Isabella Rossellini), who has become a sex slave to an evil man (Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth, what a perverted weirdo!) and doesn’t run, because, there is a mystery as to why she can’t. This is the kind of film that repulses you, or one that you find powerful because it says something about immaculate Beaumont types finding something sinister and forbidden for the first time in their lives. And that idea that in beautiful towns there are strange undercurrents.

Right-Stuff _best films-1980's8. The Right Stuff (1983, 193 Minutes, PG) – The American myth of the NASA space program brought to life by director Philip Kaufman. Fred Ward as Lt. Col. Gus Grissom; Scott Glenn as RDML Alan Shepard; Dennis Quaid as Col. Gordon Cooper; Ed Harris as Col. John Glenn; and Sam Shepard as the man that broke the sound barrier with a X-1 rocket plane, Maj. Gen. Chuck Yeager. Breathtaking aerial shots zooming through cloudy but blue skies, also awesome depictions of breaking the atmosphere, with its swirly-radiant colors, and circling the Earth. The best drama however are the sequences depicting the concentrated try-outs to select America’s best while the Mercury program weed drop-outs from those incapable of enduring high stress. The famous jingoistic shot of the movie is of course the slow-mo group shot of the astronauts in gear walking bravely through the Kennedy space station ready to make history. Shrewd intelligence is demonstrated in the portrayed follies (and successes) of politics, public relations, and the space-race competition with the Russians.

Tootsie Classic Film_1982 Dustin Hoffman Flick Minute9. Tootsie (1982, 119 Minutes, PG) – The perfect Dustin Hoffman vehicle, the perfect cross-dressing comedy. It’s simply one I have never tired of, and am always endeared by. Hoffman as out-of-work actor Michael Dorsey lands a TV soap gig by putting on a dress and make-up, becoming Dorothy Michaels. He falls in love with his soap’s co-star while pretending to be Dorothy. I’ll just say it: Jessica Lange was one of my first loves in my life. So yes, I find it very funny, and touching, when Hoffman is Dorothy Michaels and ever so delicately says things a man would say to make Lange feel loved. Then there are throwaway bits. “That is one nutty hospital,” said by Michael’s roommate Bill Murray is just hysterical comic timing. Effortlessly written and directed, you are not aware of the filmmaking technique since, at least with me, I’m laughing too hard for the twentieth time.

Amadeus_FlickMinute_Masterpiece10. Amadeus (1984, 160 Minutes, R) – Radical bio of classical music icon Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart versus third-rate composer Salieri who envied him to a drastic fault. Part of the fun is arguing who gives the more genius performance. Tom Hulce as a simpering child with instant gratification whims as music genius Mozart? Or F. Murray Abraham as the spiteful, unforgiving Salieri who wishes his foe’s greatness be removed so he could have a spotlight in 18th century Vienna? When I was younger, I was into the nuances of Oscar winner Abraham. But now that I’m older I think Hulce is too much fun, and audaciously eccentric, and I choose him now. Geniuses like Mozart need not bend to social conventions, and in my new wisdom I see it’s all too fitting that Mozart would be a libertine and rascal with the royals. Director Milos Forman brings enormous vivacity to the symphony and opera scenes. Big-scaled epics on historical icons used to be more common than superhero movies. Here is one of the must-see essentials.

Last Temptation of Christ_ Scorsese-Best-Films-of-the-Decade11. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, 164 Minutes, R) – Director Martin Scorsese respects the Gospels, anybody with intelligence can see that. The final third steers in a controversial new direction, for that’s what offended. If Jesus was more than a deity but a man, then he had to have both wisdom and self-doubt, both strength and fragility. Here’s the touchy part: Scorsese portrays Jesus as a coward and conflicted man before he chooses the right path. This is more compelling to us as not just viewers, but as human beings, to consider Jesus this way instead of as some kind of invincible divinity. Willem Dafoe’s final monologue as Jesus is astounding in his plea for salvation and forgiveness. That it was once so controversial as for its opponents to scream blasphemy at it seems ridiculous now. It is a watershed film, and has changed the way we look at Biblical epics.

Full Metal Jacket 1987_Underrated-Second-Half12. Full Metal Jacket (1987, 117 Minutes, R) – Director Stanley Kubrick’s cruelest war film and his signature theme of dehumanization of man within a harsh social system is at its most apparent here. R. Lee Ermey as the master drill Sergeant Hartman who whips his recruits into obedience and conformity, won the part after Kubrick passed on Robert DeNiro. Matthew Modine and Arliss Howard, as Private Joker and Cowboy, are smarter than their peers but cave into male aggression and unit assimilation. The fantastic Vincent D’Onofrio as Private Leonard Lawrence is too damn pudgy, but instead of Leonard being kicked out of the Corp. he is left enlisted because he is an expert rifleman (this isn’t verbally brought up, it’s an assumption). The first half is tragedy, it’s also Kubrick’s intellectual triumph how much he can cover in six quick shots of montage. Over the years by critics, there has been stupid criticism that the second half of the film is weaker than the first half. It’s as if saying, it shouldn’t be there at all. Whatever. Different from other war movies, the enemy is seen at an indistinct distance. They’re targets, not people. The climactic sniper sequence is expertly staged in slow-motion and troops choreography. One scene’s revelation is that you can be thoroughly trained for combat and be top of your class and still be under the enemy’s rifle scope by one simple thoughtless mistake. How did you deal with a day’s debacle? You sing-along to the Mickey Mouse theme as a group.

falcon and the snowman_best films 1980s13. The Falcon and the Snowman (1985, 131 Minutes, R) – One of the most intelligent screenplays (by Steven Zallian) ever written, but I bet today’s generation wouldn’t know that. One of the best performances ever by an actor and that would be Sean Penn (easily his best), but I bet today’s generation wouldn’t know that. Somehow, this 1985 John Schlesinger film has faded away and isn’t much talked about. In this factual story, the very bright Christopher Boyce (Timothy Hutton) dropped out of school so he could work for the message-routing center for the CIA and got his hands on sensitive material. He became coerced by his hyper-drug friend Daulton Lee (Penn) to sell United States secrets to the Russians at an embassy in Mexico, neither of them liking the CIA for their dirty tricks at influencing elections in Australia. They get blackmailed to trade bigger information, and partake in spy games in which they are the fall guys. No really, Penn was not Oscar nominated.

House of Games_best films 1980s14. House of Games (1987, 101 Minutes, R) – Ultimate con artist movie, highly-stylized by the David Mamet wordsmith dialogue (this film is his director debut too). “It’s called a confidence game,” Joe Mantegna explains, coming clean after he has failed with mark Lindsay Crouse, a psychiatrist. Then the two fall for each other, and the buttoned-up honest person becomes suckered into participating in a big set-up to sting a big-rolling businessman. Every scene, implicit to the con or not, is a brilliant head game with the audience. Money is what we chase after in this life, and Mantegnas’ team are expert charlatans. But take away the money factor, and Mamet’s film is about the power to influence people. Dr. Margaret Ford (Crouse) has written a book called “Driven: Compulsion and Obsession in Everyday Life.” After some time spent participating criminal vices, she comes to know her book subject far too well.

Out-of-Africa 1985_Best Films of the Decade15. Out of Africa (1985, 161 Minutes, PG) – Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, she a colonial coffee plantation owner and he a travelling big-game hunter. One of the lush romantic epics, intelligently told, and watch it over a long wispy afternoon at home with a carafe of tea by you. This is Africa before war and famine, the early 1900’s during the safaris and early experimentations with airplanes. Streep, as Karen Blixen from Denmark, is married to a baron (Klaus Maria Brandauer) who couldn’t be less interested at being home with his wife. Redford, the adventurer, makes flirtatious gestures with the lonely housewife. The colonial Africans are at first feared, then revered in Karen’s life, a long life for awhile until she seizes short torrid romance. You see Sydney Pollack’s film for the grandeur, for the romantic impulses, for the geopolitical overview of times past. And for Streep’s delicately cultured performance. I don’t expect stupid people who have never travelled or had an unusually sexy moment happen in their life to understand my choice here.

Atlantic City_Masterpiece 1980s16. Atlantic City (1981, 104 Minutes, R) – Gripping fiction. Burt Lancaster in perhaps the greatest old man looks back and regrets his life role. Lancaster is Lou Pascal, a small time bookie and numbers runner who used to be a gangster. Lou says he once shared a prison cell with Bugsy Siegel. Lou as habit voyeurs on a bathing beauty Sally (Susan Sarandon, showing breasts). For extra money regularly tends to a bitchin’ old hag (Kate Reid) who has him on her beck and call. To bounce back from cowardice, he stumbles into a lucky cocaine deal that returns the feeling to him of being the Big Shot he once was. For starters, Lou wiggles into a close camaraderie with Sally, his object of desire.

Fly_Best Films 1980s17. The Fly (1986, 95 Minutes, R) – The already bug-eyed and hairy Jeff Goldblum as scientist Seth Brundle, inventor of the teleport machine. His world-changing device could transport goods around the world by teleporting molecules from one launching pod to a destination pod. The horror begins on a drunken night, when jealous of girlfriend Geena Davis’ night on the town, he decides to transport his own human flesh. He is unknowing that a housefly DNA now blends in with his DNA (this story also serves as a metaphor for AIDS). New DNA content begins to mutate his flesh, but on the upside he does develop superhuman gymnastic abilities. Director David Cronenberg shocks us with gore, and (SPOILER WARNING) with horrendous details of how flies intake food by regurgitating their phlegm on desired food. Cronenberg’s horror is creepy, icky, frightening, disgusting. Also terribly sad and brilliant.

born on the 4th of july_1980s masterpiece18. Born on the Fourth of July (1989, 145 Minutes, R) – The unsuccessful foreign policy mistake of America was attempting to bring doctrine to the Vietnamese, except we killed a lot of them by mistake. Ron Kovic was barely in his teens when he killed women and children in Vietnam. In a shroud of guilt, he carelessly went gung ho with gunfire leaving himself bare open to get shot. He was paralyzed from the chest down for life. He was a good-looking kid, but he never had love with a woman nor had he ever had sex with a woman. Tom Cruise goes from handsome and fit Marine to drooling lip paraplegic. This is perhaps the best performance of his career. Oliver Stone catches the denial of callow youth, how impressionable young men were to raise their guns and shoot down Viet Cong as spurious conduit to peace. Later, Kovic became a peace beacon and protestor of the Vietnam War. Kovic applauded the efforts of the late John F. Kennedy and deplored subsequent U.S. Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

War of the Roses_Best Films 1980s19. The War of the Roses (1989, 116 Minutes, R) – Directed by Danny DeVito. Rich people behaving badly, giving each other night sweat. Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner as self-entitled rich people Oliver and Barbara Rose play merciless divorce games inside a grand mansion. Weeks pass with them trying to live under the same roof, but the pranks get uglier and then vicious. This is a milestone black comedy, one that goes after one hilariously dark jab after another. DeVito, who also plays a divorce lawyer, goes after sharper visual inventions and acute angles than most directors ever dare. His work here has been long under-appreciated. Of all movie divorces this one is the most sublimely evil case of the couple who shouldn’t be married. Be thankful that you aren’t one of them. Or are you?


Raiders_of_the_Lost_Ark_best films 1980s20. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, 115 Minutes, PG) – It’s easy to take Harrison Ford for granted, but Indiana Jones wouldn’t be such an endurable screen hero if it weren’t for the graces of the actor. Indiana Jones fights the shameless Nazis, all of them with the hubris that they are going to rule the world. We need to beat the s*** out of them. In many adventure scenes, Indiana does. I love a number of the chase scenes, and the rah-rah John Williams score that goes with it. I wish the dame was somebody I could fantasize about (Karen Allen, she’s just average), so I’m sorry, but I can’t help but say I was never that into her. I do want to add I am one of the few that has liked all the sequels, especially the underrated 1984 entry “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” with its roller coaster chase scene on a mine cart. Steven Spielberg with this series set the standard of the modern action movie. I wish they were all this good.

Fun Movies 1980’s: “Airplane” (1980); “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980); “Superman II” (1980); “The Thing” (1982); “Risky Business” (1983); “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (1983); “Octopussy” (1983); “Return of the Jedi” (1983); “A Christmas Story” (1983); “Top Secret” (1984); “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo” (1984); “The Terminator” (1984); “Romancing the Stone” (1984); “This is Spinal Tap” (1984); “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984); “The Neverending Story” (1984); “The Karate Kid” (1984); “Beverly Hills Cop” (1984); “Back to the Future” (1985); “Re-Animator” (1985); “The Last Dragon” (1985); “Aliens” (1986); “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” (1986); “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986); “Ruthless People” (1986); “Moonstruck” (1987); “Radio Days” (1987); “Raising Arizona” (1987); “The Princess Bride” (1987); “Planes Trains and Automobiles” (1987); “Roxanne” (1987); “Predator” (1987); “The Naked Gun” (1988); “A Fish Called Wanda” (1988); “Big” (1988); “Who Framed Roger Rabbitt” (1988); “Midnight Run” (1988); “Parenthood” (1989); “The Little Mermaid” (1989); “Batman” (1989); “When Harry Met Sally” (1989); “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989); “Lethal Weapon 2” (1989).

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.


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