Best Films of the 80’s

January 17, 2010

Those of you who have been following the previous lists should have foreseen the inevitable arrival of this latest piece. What you may not have foreseen, however, is the overwhelming and ineluctable power of nostalgia that would dominate and shape the list that covers the period of my childhood. The criterion of choosing films based on their wider cultural and cinematic impact is heavily subdued here, mainly because I was too young to make such considerations at the age that I saw most of these films and completely fell in love with them. The choices below have been selected primarily based on my personal enjoyment and, of course, the fact that I have seen them. As an honest and accurate reflection of this, the hardcore sci-fi action movies of the 1980s are massively overrepresented. Some obvious “Cins” will also be on display and that can’t be helped. As a child, I was in no hurry to see Gandhi or Amadeus, I’m afraid.

D Wigfield’s Top 50 Best Films of the 80s

Damn, they just don’t make ’em like they used to. In the end, I had to rein in my own personal sense of nostalgia somewhat before it threatened to do crazy things like fail to include E.T. I’m not a big fan of that movie but to try and say it wasn’t one of the best films of that decade would have been a tough argument. This same flash of discipline led to the exclusion of David Lynch’s Dune and a little-known headfuck of a movie called Society.

The prominence of dark, adult science fiction films in the 1980s suggests a peak in late 20th century pre-millennium tension amongst filmmakers. Future visions of nuclear holocausts, post-apocalyptic dystopian worlds and totalitarian, corporate Americas loomed large over the decade. Whether these were the result of a deep, seething pessimism, or an attempt to send some veiled warnings to a human species perceived as teetering on the brink, is unclear. Perhaps a combination of both.

The choice for #1 should come as no surprise given that it has been prominently alluded to in the very banner heading of this blog. That’s not to say that one will refrain from pulling rank and indulging in the fanwankery of pointing out that the title Blade Runner is properly two words and not one. Considered a box-office failure upon initial release, Ridley Scott‘s seminal, visionary science fiction opus (a loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick‘s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) has gone on to be recognized as one of the most important films of the 20th century. Scott’s sumptuous display of  retrofitted, “neo-noir” visual aesthetics drew on such inspirational resources as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the graphic art of French artist Moebius and images from the director’s own childhood when he gazed out at the industrial landscapes of northern England. As darkly gorgeous as the dystopian vision is to look at, the film is also rich in philosophical themes and religious symbolism. The recurring motif of the eye indicating the deceptive nature of reality, that which is seen, and also acting as a clever homonym, a play on the “I” or self to accompany the exploration of existential doubt and what it means to be human. The use of film noir conventions to tell a science fiction story identifies Blade Runner as a cyberpunk film, perhaps the first example thereof (I believe the term “cyberpunk” was only coined in the early 1980s) and, on a personal level, this sub-genre has held a lifelong fascination for me stemming from early exposure to film’s such as Ridley Scott’s masterpiece here and my #5 choice, Akira. Initially divisive and improperly realized, Blade Runner‘s reputation was maintained and nurtured by an ardent cult of fans and its own massive cultural influence that grew steadily from its release. It found me at an age when the haunting, overwhelming brilliance of it was given easy, unfiltered access to my sense of wonderment and it is therefore almost too easy to call it my choice for best film of the 1980s. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.

NotesThe image used above is from Cinema Paradiso, another highly-acclaimed film that I unfortunately have not yet seen. I thought it would be fun to use images from films of people watching films (but not necessarily images from films on the lists themselves), hence the use of pictures from Donnie Darko and 8mm in the previous posts. If I may be so bold as to take the time to congratulate myself, the one I used here seems particularly fitting for the post; the image of the enthusiastic, wide-eyed child examining the roll of film.

Related post here – Top 10 Screen Villains of the 80’s



  1. Bravo, my friend.

    I believe, though I don’t have evidence to back it up, that the term “cyberpunk” was coined either by, or as a result of, William Gibson’s seminal sci-fi novel, NEUROMANCER.

    With 50 films listed, I’m just gonna jump right in to your Top 20 or so.

    DIE HARD would definitely have made my Top 10, largely because it was both a singular film AND a catalyst for a new type of action hero, an everyman who wasn’t built–or trained–like Stallone or Arnie, who has to be just as smart as he is handy with a gun. I say singular film because there never should have been any sequels. John McClane being unfortunate stumble into a terrorist plot while visiting his estranged wife on Christmas is bad luck enough, but for it to happen twice, thrice or a fourth time just makes it ridiculous. However, the sequels do nothing to diminish the power of the first one. (Which also makes my list of non-traditional Christmas films.) It also has one of my favorite “lines” in cinema history: “Now I have a machine gun. Ho. Ho. Ho.”

    Pretty sure that RAIDERS and BACK TO THE FUTURE would have made my Top 10, but then I’ve never seen BLUE VELVET, and I don’t know what else I would have to lose to make them fit. My friend, Geoff, can wax lyrical about BACK TO THE FUTURE all day long, and would be happy to do so as it’s his favorite film ever, and mayhaps I’ll repost this so he can do so at length.

    I also love RAGING BULL at #2. Where most films–and biopics–like to show their stars’ rise to prominence and an inevitable downfall, RAGING BULL starts with Jake LaMotta already at the bottom. He begins the film as a violent, abusive, paranoid jerk, and the better his boxing career goes, the worse he gets. It’s a downward spiral that starts at ground-level and bores into the earth. But then movies like RAGING BULL just makes me sad when I see shit like MEET THE PARENTS or GENERIC COP/THRILLER film starring DeNiro. (Also contains one of my favorite scenes in film: right after Vicky’s “Yeah, I sucked his cock. I sucked all of their cocks!” The framing of the shot Jake appears at his brother’s door, and then the extended take as he damn-near kicks the door in and proceeds to pummel his brother from the kitchen table into the living room.)

    THE SHINING I hold as the scariest film I’ve ever seen, but that should be taken with a grain of salt because I never watched many of them as a kid. The whole thing isn’t jump-out-of-your-seat scary, nor is it this-could-really-happen scary, but rather scary that begins with unsettling and moves into impending dread, and finally resting on outright terror. Much of this has to do with the superb sound design and sound mixing, which uses everyday sounds in an unnatural context, coupled with a soundtrack that creeps and unnerves with incongruous notes. And often employs a camera that itself creeps through the corridors and rooms of the hotel, most notably when Danny rides his big wheel through the halls–the perfect rhythm of wood floor, carpet, wood floor, carpet…

    At first glance the only surprising omission for me is a film that ranks in my personal all-time Top 10: THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Scorsese presents what I feel is the only Jesus needed in all of film, one who is imperfect and angry and above all, human. From the opening scenes, where he employs his carpentry skills to build crosses to crucify his fellow Jews, to his trial in the desert with the devil (a perfectly-cast voice of Jeremy Irons), to him imploring Judas (Harvey fuckin’ Keitel!) to betray him, it all works. Not as a “Hey, let’s shake up the Jesus story” experiment, but an honest examination by a man who is both a lifelong Catholic (Scorsese, as a youth, wanted to be either a priest or a director) and a filmmaker who understands men out of place with their times (ala Taxi Driver).

    If you’ll allow me the potential cognitive dissonance, my appreciation for THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST is the same thing that makes Frank Miller and David Mazuchelli’s BATMAN: YEAR ONE arguably the most compelling Batman story: it depicts a man who will grow to be a legend, but at present is, at heart, just a man. Not yet untouchable, infallible and unassailable, but prey to the same fears, desires and contradictions as other men.

  2. Missed another.

    Akira Kurosawa’s epic, RAN, a feudal retelling of KING LEAR, featuring an aging, maddening warlord and his three sons. It’s got an epic scope, sumptuous visuals (each son and his legion is represented by a different primary color) and, naturally, heart-aching sadness.

    And another:

    Peter Shaffer’s AMADEUS. It’s notable for me because it’s that rare type of biopic that frames its subject from the perspective of a contemporary (in this case a rival, Antonio Salieri). In fact, Salieri is one of my favorite villains in film history because when he is faced with true genius and finds himself lacking, he employs all the means at his disposal to tear down said genius. Even more impressive is that Shaffer (and director Milos Forman) displays Salieri’s historical obsolescence in the very first scene. (As a side note, this is the direction I was hoping–and was rumored–that Ridley Scott’s upcoming ROBIN HOOD would take. Originally titled NOTTINGHAM, it was Robin Hood from the perspective of the Sheriff.)

    I also want to give a nod to DO THE RIGHT THING, which was only Spike Lee’s third film (not including his thesis film at NYU: JOE’S BED-STUY BARBERSHOP) and, as strong as his debut, SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT was, put him on the map cinematically. A tumultuous day in the life of the residents of a Brooklyn neighborhood, on the hottest day of the year, and as tempers flare it forces everyone to confront those emotions just under the surface.

    And a nod to WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, which, I’ll submit is kind of like THE BIG LEBOWSKI. That is, underneath it all, a detective story with a tendency to get weird and with rules all its own. It’s also one that holds up better than one would expect. I’m just waiting for the inevitable remake when they just CGI everything.

    And… COMING TO AMERICA, the last truly great Eddie Murphy comedy. It also started the trend where he plays a ton of characters, but it retains its charms because (A) none of the characters he plays are in fatsuits, (B) none are women, and (C) Arsenio Hall plays half of them. It’s very smart, very funny and immensely quotable. Lest it get lost among the other notable 80s comedies starring Saturday Night Live alum.

    If you’ll allow me to confess a CIN, while I’ve STILL never seen it, I am surprised to see that THIS IS SPINAL TAP didn’t make your list. Did you feel it’s overrated or, gasp, have you CINNED as well?

    Other omissions–maybe I need to make my own list: SUPERMAN II, THE MISSION, EXCALIBUR, STYLE WARS (documentary), AIRPLANE!

  3. Your list reminds my that the 80s were a time when I watched movies that were inappropriate for my age. It was also when I became fascinated with Prohibition and Vietnam. For those reasons, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, THE UNTOUCHABLES, CASUALTIES OF WAR, and THE KILLING FIELDS would make my top 20; in addition to EMIPRE OF THE SUN, THE LAST EMPEROR, and CINEMA PARADISO – nevermind that I didn’t see the last until 1994.

    Must note that while I love the 1983 film, SCARFACE (1932) holds a special place in my heart.

  4. Young Charles, Wiki sez the following – “The name is a portmanteau of cybernetics and punk and was originally coined by Bruce Bethke as the title of his short story “Cyberpunk”, published in 1983.”

    I too have a friend who is crazy for Back to the Future. He’s a card-carrying member of the Delorean fan club too.

    The Last Temptation of Christ
    is a CIN, so to speak, as is Ran and…ulp…This is Spinal Tap.

    Shit, I very rarely confess that I haven’t seen Spinal Tap.

    The omission of Coming to America was a straight fuck-up but I think I’ll just leave this list as is. Eddie Murphy gets his well-deserved nod in it anyway.

  5. Gah!

    Among your CINs, I recommend that THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST be the first one you move to get absolved. Not that THIS IS SPINAL TAP is less of a Cin, but I’d be very interested to hear/read your take on it. Hope I didn’t spoil too much of it for you.

  6. I’ve actually seen parts of The Last Temptation of Christ a long time ago (I was maybe 14 or 15). I can’t remember why, but I didn’t watch it all and I wasn’t paying proper attention to it. It may have been on the TV when I had friends over or something.

  7. Allowing for ever-evolving, ever-changing tastes and discoveries, I would be interested in seeing folks’ Top 10 lists, decade be damned.

    Two of the films mentioned above are in my Top 10 (The Last Temptation of Christ; Blade Runner), and maybe here (or on the Noughties thread on FB) I’ll post my current Top 10.

  8. Sorry, three of the above mentioned films are in my Top 10. Missed RAGING BULL on there.

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