The 20 Best Films of the 1980s

Editor’s Note: This is an expansion of Kyle Smith’s list of the 10 best films of the 1980s published here in June. I’ve asked Kyle to expand his series as PJ Lifestyle begins offering more lists, articles, essays, and blog posts exploring culture, art, technology, and history by decade. Do you disagree with Kyle’s choices? Do you have your own ideas for lists of movies or other cultural subjects? Which years and what subjects would you most like to see covered at PJ Lifestyle? Email: DaveSwindlePJM [@] Also check out Kyle’s top 10 movie picks for the 30s ’40s, ’50s’60s, ‘70s,  ’90s, and the ’00s before he expands them to top 20s.

20. Arthur (1981)

A throwback to ’30s screwball comedies, this light confection about a drunken playboy (Dudley Moore, in his prime) and the caustic butler (Oscar-winner John Gielgud) who serves as his counselor, nanny and father figure showcased Moore’s comic gifts but was also an oddly endearing buddy movie.

19. The Big Chill (1983)

A movie that begins with a suicide is colored by an autumnal spirit of nostalgia, but an appealing cast of characters stumbles toward renewal and a rueful ability to  appreciate the hand life deals you. Without being mawkish about it, the film made the case for maintaining a base of friendships as one of the greatest satisfactions.

18. The Stunt Man (1980)

A diabolically clever film about a diabolically clever filmmaker, this twisty, insider film about the duplicitousness of Hollywood gave Peter O’Toole his greatest opportunity since The Lion in Winter to brandish his arch wit as the sly director Eli Cross. Fun, sharp, unpredictable and layered, this Richard Rush movie was nominated for three major Oscars but has been unfairly forgotten.

17. Urban Cowboy (1980)

Sold to audiences as a soapy chick flick with a honky-tonk party vibe, this deceptively engrossing and nuanced drama captured blue-collar Texas life with surprising sensitivity and understanding, and it was deeply grounded in its time and place. Instead of being snarky or satirical about its often childish and dull-witted lead characters, Bud (John Travolta) and Sissy (Debra Winger), the film transcended its soapy elements to become an incisive sociological study of a subculture.

16. The World According to Garp (1982)

Meaning-of-life films don’t come along often; confronting major questions isn’t what Hollywood does best. Rarely, though, did it do so better than in this picaresque tale of a happy-go-lucky writer (a warm and restrained Robin Williams) rambling through a bizarre life shadowed by the pursuit of a murderous cabal of self-mutilating feminists.

15. Amadeus (1984)

The unsolvable riddle of where genius comes from and the seeming randomness of its distribution provides the underpinning for a devastating study of jealousy. Telling the story of the goofy, immature but masterly Mozart (Tom Hulce) from the viewpoint of his embittered rival Salieri (Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham) was a brilliantly contrarian choice. 

14. Back to the Future (1985)

One of the most craftily plotted blockbusters ever, this Robert Zemeckis time-travel yarn was a beginning-to-end delight, with Michael J. Fox proving the ideal choice to play an ordinary teen who travels back to the time when his parents were about to meet and discovers that they aren’t what he expected.

13. Always (1989)

The most underrated Steven Spielberg film was a commercial flop because nobody wanted to see a romantic tearjerker in which Richard Dreyfuss was the male lead, as a pilot who dies early in the film but manages to carry on his love affair with his girlfriend (Holly Hunter) anyway. Six months later, virtually the same story was told in a meretricious and hokey film called Ghost, proving beyond a doubt that more women ticket buyers wanted to sleep with Patrick Swayze than with Richard Dreyfuss. Spielberg’s tender, soaring take was reminiscent of Golden Age Hollywood and its appreciation for the courage of pilots who put out forest fires was equally engaging.

12. When Harry Met Sally (1989)

The mismatched-couple formula is old but durable, but it’s the witty, observational Seinfeld-ish script, the feel for New York neuroticism, the hilarious set pieces like the deli scene and the warm, completely believable friendship of Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal that made the film a standout.

11. The Untouchables (1987)

The taut, sinewy script by David Mamet must be the reason director Brian De Palma was able to tame his wild-man frenzy and deliver the most explosive and thrilling crime drama of the era. The train-station scene (above) modeled after Sergei Eisenstein’s famed “Odessa Steps” sequence (below) from the 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin may be derivative, but it’s also one of the most breathlessly-edited shootouts in the history of film.

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.