The 10 Best Films of the 1980s

10. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Possibly the greatest film about childhood ever made, Steven Spielberg’s fairy tale is a little too sweet and simple to withstand lots of viewings, but the feel for the pangs and yearnings of youth is deep and generous, and the scene in which Elliott kisses a girl in school is among the best Spielberg ever shot.


9. The Shining (1980)

Razzed by many as slow and ponderous when it came out, the movie eventually caught on as exactly what Stanley Kubrick envisioned it being: a horror film like no other. Despite its 140-minute run time, the film rips by, with its dozens of classic motifs and Jungian images providing a nightmare hold on the imagination.–2U

8. Broadcast News (1987)

James L. Brooks came up with the wittiest script of the decade in this mature look at male-female friendships and what does and doesn’t turn them into love affairs. Brooks’ sharp, prescient dissection of the television news business gives the film an unusually solid grounding in reality. It’s one of the most vivid portrayals of an industry ever captured in a dramatic Hollywood film.

7. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Woody Allen’s update of Anna Karenina showed neurotic New Yorkers indulging in drugs and adultery but eventually finding contentment in bourgeois traditions. Allen unloaded some of the most cutting satire of his career on the angry, thundering artist played by Max von Sydow and the crazed cocaine-sniffing would-be punk played by Dianne Wiest, who won an Oscar in the role. 

6. Ordinary People (1980)

The Robert Redford film that beat Raging Bull for Best Picture in the Oscar race that year has everything the Scorsese film lacked — humanity, depth of emotion, understanding, tragedy. With Redford’s quiet, elegant, painterly compositions and powerful performances by Timothy Hutton, Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland the film strips away the surface and shows how suffering and spite can eat away at even the most well-meaning and well-shod people.


5. Dead Poets Society (1989)

Peter Weir’s magically autumnal coming-of-age tale is the finest prep-school movie ever, a timeless paean to the power of teaching for that understood fierce, driven, dreamy youth and the intoxication of nurturing or discovering a budding artistic sensibility. The ending feels a bit overdone and yet in the emotions of the moment, anything seems possible.

4. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Superbly plotted and hugely entertaining, the second film in the space-opera series is among the most reflective and sober fantasy films, with John Williams’ magnificent score making it rounded and fulfilling.

3. Reds (1981)

Warren Beatty’s audacious channeling of David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia is also one of Hollywood’s rare moments of exacting honesty. The first half treats Bolshevism as a glorious dream come true, while the second half, in which Beatty’s American journalist Jack Reed becomes a prisoner of communism and witnesses its rot from inside, paints in devastating close-up detail just how closed and sinister the Soviet Union and all its evil apparatus became immediately after the Revolution. Rarely has a film showed the failure of grand leftist ideals with such harsh clarity.

2. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Woody Allen’s deepest and most haunting film has its funny moments, but it’s mostly a terrible modern parable about how sin is not always punished and virtue is not always rewarded. The imagery about vision and blindness woven throughout was profound and unforgettable. 


1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Possibly the most delightful film ever made, Steven Spielberg’s salute to cliffhanger cinema was witty, shrewd and self-aware as the director kept the story moving with locomotive force and a dancer’s panache. The scene in which Indy shoots the guy with the sword was just a throwaway, and yet such was Spielberg’s touch that it wound up being perhaps the funniest moment of the 1980s.

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