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!
70. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
Peter Greenaway’s highly stylized approach and “clever” touches can sometimes work against him, creating works that are as much curious artifacts as they are complete films. Not so in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. Through a sustained juxtaposition of the ugly and crass (embodied by Michael Gambon’s vile Thief) with the beautiful and sophisticated (Helen Mirren’s Wife), Greenaway has created an experience that rewards the determined viewer. If you make it past the opening scene—and many didn’t when it was first released—what comes after is worth it. —M.B.
69. A Room With a View
In the 1980s and 1990s, the phrase “A Merchant & Ivory” film was as much a genre as a reference to the actual films directed by James Ivory and produced by Ismail Merchant. A Room With a View embodies the best of what their virtually templated approach has to offer—a story of the mostly British upper crust, often set in a romantic or exotic setting, unfolded in a measured fashion and accompanied by much repressed feeling. That said, A Room With a View is at heart a hilarious comedy of manners that gets funnier with each subsequent viewing. —M.B.
68. Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn
Sam Raimi’s sequel/reboot to Evil Dead is a slice of gory, slapstick Heaven (via the titular forces of Hell). Lead by Raimi’s own Toshiro Mifune, Bruce Campbell, there are few films which better demonstrate the principle of “art through adversity.” Who needs an even moderate budget when you have Campbell’s knack for physical comedy and crack timing, Raimi and Spiegel’s script piled impossibly high with memorable bluster, and a sackfull of clever visual tricks and inventive set pieces? All signs point to Cult Status = Justified. —S.W.
67. Monsieur Hire
Based on a novel by Belgian writer George Simenon, director Patrice Leconte blends cold, cool visuals, superb performances and a haunting score by composer Michael Nyman (The Piano, Gattaca, pretty much every Peter Greenaway film) in this too-often-overlooked French thriller/love story. Whether you get caught up in the whodunnit, the off-kilter romance or just the fascinating character portrait of the title character, Monsieur Hire will leave a lasting impression. —M.B.
66. Say Anything
In his directorial debut, Cameron Crowe places one of the all-time charming film courtships within that strangely insular time, mid-transition, between high school and college (or career or family). In Lloyd Dobler, the defining role of John Cusack’s career, Crowe presents an appealing, convincing everyman whose pursuit of a girl (Ione Skye), supposedly out of his league, reveals how foolish such handicapping can be in the first place. Though Crowe would go on to create a number of career-launching roles for women (Renee Zellweger and Kate Hudson should thank him, daily), in Say Anything, Dobler rules. —M.B.
65. The Natural
Among the most beloved sports films of all time, this glowing fable of America’s Pastime has lost little of its luster for those so fable-y inclined. Like most fables, The Natural is built to be consumed again and again. Superb performances by Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger and the entire cast help it all go down easy. The soaring, instantly recognizable score by Randy Newman doesn’t hurt, either. —M.B.
64. Au Revoir, les Enfants
Au Revoir, les Enfants portrays one French schoolboy’s limited view of the Holocaust in a manner that is reserved yet devastating. Set in a Catholic boarding school in France, it follows a pampered rich boy (Gaspard Manesse) who befriends a new classmate who is secretly a harbored Jew (Raphaël Fejtö). Louis Malle based the film on his own childhood and imbued it with a quiet simplicity that makes its saddest moments gut-wrenchingly real. By merely letting the camera linger on an empty passageway, Malle beautifully emphasizes a terrible moment that his main character—and his audience—will never forget. —J.M.
63. Blood Simple
Blood Simple introduced the world to the cinema of Joel and Ethan Coen, and the world has been a better place ever since. The brothers, of course, went on to bigger budgets, Oscar victories and a variety of genres, but their writing and directing were already in top form when they made this stylish noir thriller. John Getz, Frances McDormand and Dan Hedaya are all excellent in the story of an increasingly bloody romantic entanglement, and M. Emmet Walsh steels the show as a sleazy private detective. But the real stars are the Coens, as they build on a nightmare scenario with taut suspense and a cheeky sense of humor. —J.M.
62. The Little Mermaid
Bolstered by lush animation, a lively story and a great score, The Little Mermaid signaled what would be a decade-long resurgence in Disney animation. Though Ariel has since become another soldier in the Princess Brigade, at the time, she showed more spunk, initiative and personality than the Disney heroines who had gone before. As with most of the true Disney (Pixar) classics, parents could do worse than getting stuck watching The Little Mermaid for the hundredth time with their children. —M.B.
61. She’s Gotta Have It
A glorious mess. Some of the dialogue is forced, none of the performances are outstanding, some of the cinematography is ill-advised. But you can see Spike Lee feeling his way here, making daring choices, exploring the space of the film’s world. Even as a historical document tracing the early steps of one of the cinema’s great directors, it would be fascinating. But it’s not a museum piece, at all. The script is smart and funny and audacious. The camera work, for every ill-advised chance taken, produces just as many moments of excitement. The film pulses with an enormous kinetic energy, a fierce creativity bursting out at the seams. It’s as if Lee’s talent and his ambitions are a pair of horses pulling a cart, and he can’t quite harness them yet. That creates an immensely watchable film, while also setting the stage for the next step. Because when he learns to use those reins even a bit … watch out. —M.D.