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!
10. Raising Arizona
Understated dramatic performances are all well and good, but it takes pinpoint control on behalf of both directors and cast to deliver the sustained overstated performances found throughout Raising Arizona. From its opening courtship sequence to the struggles of H.I. (Nicholas Cage) and Ed (Holly Hunter) to form a family by borrowing an “extra” from another to the final battle with the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse, the Coen brothers’ film remains an immensely beguiling and quotable farcical fable. —M.B.
9. The Right Stuff
“They were called test pilots, and no one knew their names.” So ends the prologue narration to The Right Stuff, Philip Kaufman’s examination of the test pilots who became NASA’s first astronauts and, soon after, national celebrities. Nearly 30 years after its release, the film remains refreshingly frank in its portrayal of men who are still largely mythologized in U.S. history. Based on Tom Wolfe’s book, the film provides great insight into the personalities and politics that drove NASA. (A recurring shot of feet scurrying to report the Russians’ latest move is one of the film’s most clever motifs.) The actors give real personalities, fears and senses of humor to the astronauts, as well as Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), the great test pilot who didn’t join the program. Few characters in film history can match the level of badass that Yeager reaches as he exits the screen. —J.M.
8. Ordinary People
Robert Redford makes his directorial debut and casts three actors known for comedy as leads in this gut-wrenching dissection of a family in crisis. The result proves the adage that comedy is hard: Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland and Judd Hirsch show a depth of talent and technical skill that is unmatched. Young Buck Jarrett has died in a sailing accident, but the aftermath of his death is more tragic for his parents and younger brother Conrad. “You know, I think this can be saved. It’s a nice clean break.” Beth Jarrett is speaking about a serving platter, but this line defines the story told in Ordinary People. Redford’s Jarrett family is brittle as glass, and as we watch it shatter before our eyes, we know intuitively that it cannot be repaired. —J.R.
7. The Empire Strikes Back
From the ice planet of Hoth to the swamps of Dagoba to the Cloud City of Bespin, The Empire Strikes Back proves just how powerful a sweeping space opera can be when anchored by careful attention to the characters who populate it. (For the latter, thank you, Irwin Kushner.) Also, a reminder of all the hopes for the future of the series that would be quashed by the prequels. (Thank you, George Lucas.) —M.B.
6. Raiders of the Lost Ark
A near-perfect distillation of the excitement and fun of the radio and pulp serials of yesteryear, Raiders of the Lost Ark established Harrison Ford’s wookie-free leading man credentials once and for all (with an assist from Blade Runner). The film also raises the question: Has anyone had a more impressive, more industry-transformative five-year run than Spielberg & Lucas did from 1977-1982? —M.B.
5. The Thin Blue Line
Errol Morris’ riveting 1988 documentary on the conviction of Texas inmate Randall Dale Adams not only exonerated Adams, it also introduced a host of techniques that are now ubiquitous to true-crime drama (both fictional and non) and documentaries in general. —M.B.
4. The Princess Bride
Quite possibly the most perfectly executed transformation of a beloved book to a beloved film in the history of the sport. A family-friendly fable with pitch-perfect performances by the entire cast—from main character to bit player—The Princess Bride is easily the most relentlessly quotable film anywhere this side of Monty Python and their Holy Grail. Though regarded warmly enough by critics, its status as comedic fable ensures it is criminally underrated on most lists. Inconceivable? Alas, no. But unfair, nonetheless. —M.B.
3. Do the Right Thing
Not only the film that earned Spike Lee his first Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, it’s also the one that perhaps best shows that, despite the decades of racially incendiary interviews since (and heckling at Madison Square Garden), Lee is a bit of glass-half-full guy deep down. The violence of Right Thing erupts as an extension of literal and metaphorical long-simmering neighborhood temperatures, and finally boils over as something of a catharsis while never coming off as mawkish, or giving audiences the ability to escape conversation after the credits roll. A remarkable cast sells the complicated relationship with their Brooklyn neighborhood flawlessly.—S.W.
2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Steven Spielberg’s classic is many things: an ode to friendship that resonates with child and adult alike, one of the top-grossing films of all time, and the moment his career, on a scale of 1-10, reached 11. Though the Academy would not award Spielberg the Best Director trophy until there were more Nazis involved, E.T. remains perhaps the most deft expression of his directorial hand. —M.B.
1. Raging Bull
The best film of the 1980s contains one of the all-time-great feats of directing and one of the all-time-great feats of screen acting. The status that Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull has achieved in the years since its release is completely earned. Watching it is a fully felt experience. Over the years, much has been made of the weight Robert De Niro gained while filming Raging Bull to authentically capture the physical transformation of boxer Jake LaMotta. While it’s a great symbol of his commitment, the pounds don’t begin to explain the depths of the character portrait he and Martin Scorsese created. The film looks unforgivingly at a fragile, insecure man who communicates his need for love with jealousy, anger and violence. Scorsese’s shots convey the overly suspicious workings of LaMotta’s head, then back out to coldly observe the horrific violence that ensues. Then there are the boxing scenes. Scorsese deserves endless praise for finding such lively, inventive ways to capture the experience inside the ring. But what’s really amazing is that he goes beyond a great sports scene. Each fight serves as a window into LaMotta’s soul. The camera movement, the quick edits, the sudden shifts in speed all reflect his mental state, his need to damage himself or cause damage to others. Such expressive, visceral filmmaking has rarely been equaled.