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!
More than a decade in the making, Claude Lanzmann’s harrowing eight-hour-plus documentary shows how powerful the direct interview can be. Mostly eschewing other tools of the doc trade (reenactments, historical documents), Lanzmann instead focuses on interviewing, sometimes clandestinely, people with firsthand experience of the Holocaust—victims, guards, train drivers, villagers, etc. As time passes and the last survivors perish, Shoah may prove as important a vehicle for memory as photos, footage and written accounts from the war itself. —M.B.
29. sex, lies & videotape
It’s hard to say what’s more impressive about Steven Soderbergh’s low-budget arrival as a film director: Basically a low-key indie talkie, sex, lies & videotape is as riveting as many thrillers, and filled with little world-building continuity touches that charm and convince. Also, the viewer comes away from the film totally believing Andie McDowell can act. In a time when some paths to indie cred are so well established, it’s easy to forget how important a role Soderbergh and his film had in blazing that path. —M.B.
28. Fanny and Alexander
The culmination of the career of one of cinema’s true masters, Fanny and Alexander glides through childhood memories with a keen sense of feelings—be they joyous, mystical, tragic or astonishing. When it came out, Ingmar Bergman viewed the film as a sort of finale to his life’s work. Of course, he couldn’t flat-out stop, and continued to write screenplays and direct for Swedish television for another two decades, but Fanny and Alexander has a grandiosity suited to cap such a storied career. Bergman studies three generations of a family and visits settings ornate and austere, effortlessly moving from one virtuoso scene to the next while creating an engulfing sense of mystery and awe. (After the three-hour theatrical version came out, Bergman split his preferred five-hour cut into a four-part TV mini-series. Both are available from Criterion.) —J.M.
27. Field of Dreams
A uniquely American fantasy, Field of Dreams solidified Kevin Costner’s status as a rugged Everyman, A-list actor, and perhaps the only man allowed to star in baseball films that make money. And though “If you build it, he will come” quickly raced up the charts of “Most Clichéd Phrasing,” it’s also true that the film’s ending is among the best opportunities to see grown men cry. —M.B.
26. The Untouchables
Al Capone and Eliot Ness—the quintessential gangster and the original G-Man—lock horns during Prohibition in one of the greatest American cop movies ever made. The all-star cast is great, but it’s Sean Connery as Ness’s sidekick, Jim Malone, who elevates this film from standard shoot-em-up to high drama. Director Brian DePalma juxtaposes the stylized and slick with the violent and vulgar, and the contrast serves to heighten our awareness of each. The costumes are rich, the dialog is a pulp-writer’s dream, and the fact that Capone is brought down by the office nerd makes everyone feel great. —J.R.
How do you make a sequel as good or better than (another director’s) acclaimed predecessor? Change sub-genre and follow its rules. Would James Cameron have been able to match the sci-fi horror of Ridley Scott’s Alien? Maybe. But in switching gears to sci-fi action, instead, Cameron set a standard by which all future efforts in the franchise would fall glaringly short (joining The Empire Strikes Back in the “Maybe You Should Have Stopped There” club). Along the way, Cameron presented audiences with what remains the definitive on-screen version of space marines and transformed Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from capable scream queen to a grenade-launching, flame-throwing Mama Grizzly. Game over, man. —M.B.
24. Sophie’s Choice
William Styron’s soul-shattering story of an ethereally beautiful concentration camp survivor is brought to life on screen by Meryl Streep. Streep learned to speak French with a Polish accent in order to preserve the integrity of one of the most important literary characters of the modern age. Alan Pakula allows Streep to do what she does best: She dons the character like a perfectly fitted coat. The result is one of the greatest film performances of all time. Sophie’s Choice is the embodiment of the horror of war and its aftermath. —J.R.
23. Blue Velvet
Arguably the Lynchiest of David Lynch’s oeuvre, Blue Velvet is a wallop of a beautiful corpse—incorporating characters ranging from quirky to deeply mentally scarred; a seedy, deranged underbelly to an otherwise “normal” American town; and a mystery that grows only more mysterious, all injected here and there with his unmistakable surrealistic composite shots that linger long in the subconscious. Dennis Hopper is likewise unforgettable as the unhinged crime boss, Frank Black. —S.W.
22. Das Boot
The Germans weigh in on World War II in a positively claustrophobic film set inside a submarine. Wolfgang Petersen’s genius was filming over the course of a year, in sequence. The strain of the production schedule shows on the actors’ faces as the film progresses. By movie’s end, we’re not quite sure who we should be cheering for, which reminds us that on human terms, no one wins a war. —J.R.
21. The Big Chill
Seven thirty-somethings gather for a funeral and spend a weekend trying to make their counter-culture dreams come true in Lawrence Kasdan’s tightly written, emotionally charged tribute to Baby Boomers. Kasdan transforms his all-star ensemble cast into a single living thing, dynamic, ever changing, and infinitely fascinating. Set to a finger-popping Motown soundtrack, The Big Chill’s tight dialogue, smart humor and almost uncomfortable intimacy made the post-counterculture set realize that it’s okay to grow up. —J.R.