The 80 Best Movies of the 1980s
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Welcome to Paste’s 80 Best Movies of the 1980s. This list takes into account what the critics and audiences of the time could not—the lasting ripple effects of iconic performances, influential direction and pop-culture sweet spots, as well as some simply overlooked gems. That said, a great performance or popular endearment isn’t necessarily enough. The films on this list must be good, solid examples of their respective genre (and in some cases, the template for said genre).
This list is not meant to be just another rehashing of critical favorites nor a popularity contest. Instead, it’s a bit of both, with a few other considerations thrown in to boot. The result is a list that compares apples and oranges—and lima beans and lamps—with the ultimate goal of providing the Paste reader a list of movies that are worth checking out.
Are there 20 films by masters missing from this list? At least. Twenty films beloved by the masses absent and worth inclusion? Without a doubt. With that in mind, consider this the only thing such a list can be—a good start. We invite you to share your own suggestions in the comment section. Keep the tone collegial, and make the case for that movie you feel has been overlooked. Your fellow Paste readers will only stand to benefit!
40. House of Games
David Mamet’s directorial debut is definitely a sign of Mamet to come. Like most grifter pics, House of Games loses a little of its tension once the plot is a known quantity. Nonetheless, the screenplay rewards the Mamet-phile every single time. —M.B.
39. When Harry Met Sally
Easily the most beloved romantic comedy of the decade, the story of Harry (Billy Crystal), Sally (Meg Ryan) and their 12-year journey to couple-hood boasts a solid script by Nora Ephron that feeds and feeds off of the unexpected chemistry between its leads. (And with each new generation of lovers watching the diner scene for the first time, another woman laughs and another man sits silently, wondering what’s so funny.) —M.B.
38. Crimes and Misdemeanors
“Is there a God? And if so, is He watching?” Woody Allen’s somber meditation on this variant of the Big Question centers on two, vaguely interrelated stories: a successful ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) takes drastic measures to deal with an increasingly threatening mistress (Anjelica Huston) while a married filmmaker (Allen) finds himself attracted to the assistant (Mia Farrow) of his egotistical brother-in-law (Alan Alda). The events that follow leave the viewer uncomfortably aware of just how unanswerable some questions can be. —M.B.
37. Gates of Heaven
The words in Gates of Heaven all come directly from the documentary’s subjects, yet they contain such a poetry that you wonder how they got there. Director Errol Morris simply lets them talk, but it’s unthinkable that any other filmmaker could have found these people and conducted such engaging interviews. What starts out as the story of two pet cemeteries quickly reveals itself as a fascinating exploration of mortality and the puzzles of life. With a great ear for the poetry of everyday speech and supreme confidence in his material, Morris allows us to be mesmerized. —J.M.
36. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
John Hughes’ zeitgeist-y, fourth wall-busting ode to rich, entitled suburban youth vs. killjoy authority announced Matthew Broderick as a bona fide star, and gave us a chillingly prescient glimpse at Charlie Sheen’s future in an admittedly funny bit role. Breakfast Club aside, out of all Hughes’ decade of teen-centric movies set in the Chicago area, Bueller has almost certainly endured the best, and without all that tortured pretentiousness. —S.W.
35. Wings of Desire
Wim Wenders’ depiction of a couple of angels and the humans they observe has a dream-like quality, no doubt aided by shooting most of the scenes in a sepia-toned black-and-white. A romance at heart, Wings of Desire also represents a recognition of and exercise in the power of the narrative perspective to shape the audience’s experience. Angels Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) spend so much time observing and pondering what it means to be human—viewers of the film can’t help but do the same. —M.B.
34. The Shining
Though famously hated by author Stephen King—totaling the grand number of haters at approximately one—Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of King’s chilling ghost story is still among the visually richest, best-paced chillers of the past three decades. Its iconic moments are among the most stolen and parodied in earnest, and Jack Nicholson’s method approach ensured nobody would ever approach him again without first checking to see if he was brandishing an axe. —S.W.
33. Full Metal Jacket
Before filling out, rather unfortunately, before our eyes on Law & Order: Criminal Minds, Vincent D’Onofrio piled on 70 lbs. for his role as Pvt. “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence before demonstrating exactly what was his Major Malfunction was to R. Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sgt. Hartman. Stanley Kubrick’s film is a meat grinder of a reflection on the myriad horrible choices confronted in war. Along with providing an apex for Matthew Modine’s career, it also makes its case for being one of the best war movies ever made. —S.W.
32. The King of Comedy
If Taxi Driver had been intentionally funnier, even the Scorsese faithful might remember The King of Comedy as every bit as enervating an experience. Travis Bickle’s recitations in front of the mirror ain’t got nothin’ on psycho Rupert Pupkin’s imagined triumphs and justifications. As Jerry Langford, Jerry Lewis plays an old showbiz sawhorse so conceivably close to his real professional life, the line is further blurred between reality and fantasy in ways that unsettle long after the cheers subside. —S.W.
31. Cinema Paradiso
Giuseppe Tornatore’s ode to film and love provided a shot in the arm to Italy’s film industry, as well as that rarest of films—the “great subtitled date film”—for the American film-goer. It also took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. (The extended cut of the film reveals a more complicated take on nostalgia and the film’s father figure.) —M.B.