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!
20. A Fish Called Wanda
This ensemble piece shows what can happen when four skilled comic actors (John Cleese, fellow Monty Python alum Michael Palin, Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis) are given a script (written by Cleese) that puts them all on equal footing. The result is a tour-de-force of crisply delivered, character-driven comedy that, while tough on old ladies, fish and terriers, continues to reward new and returning viewers. (The film also broke through the Academy’s normal bias against comedies, winning Kevin Kline a richly deserved Best Supporting Actor for his role as Otto.) —M.B.
19. Chariots of Fire
Director Hugh Hudson demonstrates that great sports films are not about sports: They’re about athletes. The film chronicles Harold Abramson and Eric Liddell, British runners who competed in the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. Liddell became famous for refusing to compete on Sunday, in accordance with his religious beliefs. Not only does the film follow the training and competition of both athletes, it explores the beauty of athleticism for its own sake. Liddell explains, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” Ben Cross and Ian Charleson star as Abramson and Liddell; Sir Laurence Olivier lends weight to the cast as legendary trainer Sam Mussabini. South African beauty Alice Krige makes her screen debut, and the score by Vangelis is instantly recognized to this day. —J.R.
For many, the answer to the question, “What is the only film you’ve heard of by Akira Kurosawa?”, Ran is a multi-layered epic the likes of which are rarely encountered in modern cinema. (The recent string of wuxia-flavored, battle-rich movies coming out of China have the pageantry and blood-letting, but lack the depth.) Whether you come for the rich themes of power, betrayal and the angst of living in a nuclear age, or you just want to see King Lear through the lens of a Japanese master, Ran deserves more than cocktail-party lip service. —M.B.
17. Dangerous Liaisons
The source material is excellent, of course—Christopher Hampton’s acclaimed play Les Liasions Dangereuses. Glenn Close is a wonder, delighting in every twist of the plot (until the heartbreaking ending, of course). Michelle Pfeiffer is the picture of Christian virtue corrupted, Uma Thurman a convincingly eager young sexual explorer, and Keanu Reeves is perfectly cast, with that goofy, earnest schoolboy charm he had in his younger days. But the star of the show, of course, is John Malkovich as Valmont—the best role of his distinguished career. His line readings are delicious—he’s clearly enjoying himself as much as Valmont is—but what really surprises is perhaps the most fascinating physical performance of the decade from an actor not known for his physicality. His Valmont slithers; there’s no other word for it. Despite the achingly empty core at the center of the character’s lives, Dangerous Liaisonsnever fails to please. —M.D.
16. The Killing Fields
Like most stories set against of a backdrop of unimaginable horror, The Killing Fields owes much of its lasting effect on the compelling human drama it uses to reveal the genocidal atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. As journalists Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran, Sam Waterston and Haing S. Ngor (himself a survivor of the Killing Fields) give stirring, memorable performances that greatly increased awareness of one the lesser-publicized horrors of modern times. —M.B.
The fine line between genius and insanity is the subject of this big-budget costume drama that proved just how hip classical musicians can be. Milos Foreman tickles the vulgar underbelly of the sublime and the result is Thomas Hulce’s braying, chittering laugh as the wild-child prodigy, Wolfgang Mozart. F. Murray Abraham’s portrayal of Antonio Salieri’s descent into madness fueled by jealousy is the perfect foil. Lust, envy, greed—all of the deadly sins are here, set to some of the greatest music ever written. —J.R.
14. Die Hard
Die Hard may be the “stickiest” film of its decade—how many best-laid plans have been derailed by running across John McTiernan’s masterful actioner on cable? As Officer John McClane and Hans Gruber, respectively, Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman steal the show in career-defining roles, but even Henchman #10 (Asian man who eats candy bar, or Uli, to his friends) comes across more realized than most lead roles in today’s run-of-the-mill action flicks. Tightly plotted with clever to spare, Die Hard welcomes the scrutiny of multiple viewings without losing its humor or heart. Yippie ki-yay, indeed. —M.B.
13. The Mission
An unforgettable setting, powerful performances, and a soaring soundtrack by Ennio Morricone all help make The Mission much more than an involving, historically based drama. Instead, Roland Joffé’s film serves as a “choose your own path” morality tale as viewers can’t help but identify with Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) or Mendzoa (Robert De Niro) as the two are caught between faith and a hard place. If anything, since its release The Mission’s moral relevance has only increased as a meditation on the distinction between what is truly inevitable and what, instead, we merely make so. —M.B.
12. Blade Runner
Just as The Road Warrior set the look and tone for countless post-apocalyptic cinema-scapes to follow, so, too, did the world of Ridley Scott’s dingy, wet and overcrowded Blade Runner set the standard for the depiction of pre-apocalyptic dystopias. But he also had Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer and a cast of actors who all bring this Philip K. Dick-inspired tale of a replicant-retiring policeman to gritty, believable life. Beneath the film’s impressive set design and inspired performances lies a compelling meditation on the lurking loneliness of the human (and, perhaps, inhuman) condition that resonates to this day. —M.B.
Taking place in a dystopic future a little goofier than the classic Orwellian version (though no less sinister), the world of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film is the lovechild that results when bureaucratic nightmare meets escapist fantasy. The result is lyrical and beautiful, as well as horrific and haunting. Though decades of ill-fated and tumultuous productions lay ahead for the Monty Python alum, Brazil remains one of the purest and most palatable expressions of Gilliam’s unique vision. —M.B.