I’ll be honest. When I sat down to begin this post, I wasn’t sure I could think of enough really great movies from this decade. After the 1970s, which was one of the best decades ever for American film, it felt to me as if Hollywood took a decade-long breather from movies that were both commercially viable and artistically memorable. But thankfully, after diving into the DVD library, the 1980s turns out to be as solid a decade for film as any in the past century of movies.
The movies I’ve chosen on the American side, in particular, are, for the most part, straight up commercial successes designed to appeal to the broadest possible audiences, while still remaining true to their stories and the craft. All of the films I’ve chosen here are worth watching over and over.
My Favorite American ‘80s Movies
This decade began with what was probably the best movie of the decade and one of the best American films ever made. In Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese took on the story of Jake LaMotta, the angry and brilliant middleweight boxing champion of the 1940s and 1950s. His choice to play LaMotta was Robert De Niro, who turns in the performance of a lifetime. Joe Pesci plays his manager brother, Joey LaMotta.
This movie was shot in black and white and feels like an homage to the great mid-century Italian director Vittorio de Sica, who is known for black and white filming and a brooding sense of impending failure. De Niro’s LaMotta is a prickly character—hard to like, but easy to admire, if you can imagine that. Boxing (and American life) have rarely been more brutally and honestly portrayed.
In my opinion, this is one of the best American comedies ever made. It’s been nearly 40 years since its release and the movie remains as fresh and funny as the day it opened. Written by Harold Ramis, Brian Doyle Murray (Bill’s brother) and National Lampoon founder and Animal House screenwriter Douglas Kinney, this movie just never lets up in its mockery of the false pieties of golf and country club life. Bill Murray is perfect as the touched-in-the-head groundskeeper who once caddied for the Dalai Lama (“so I’ve got that goin’ for me”), with marvelous comic performances from Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight and Chevy Chase. How many times have you seen this movie? Whatever the number, it isn’t enough. Give it another rental.
Stanley Kubrick takes on the Vietnam War. This wasn’t his first war picture. In 1957 he made Paths of Glory, a powerful anti-war film set in World War I. For this film, Kubrick starts at the beginning of a soldier’s experience—boot camp. His portrayal of the cruelty of basic training is unforgettable, and Vincent D’Onofrio is the man-child recruit who is tormented by the drill sergeant (Lee Ermey) into a murderous rage. The story then shifts to Vietnam itself; the insanity and terror of that war have never been more fully portrayed. Matthew Modine is great as the wise-ass young GI who finds himself in a firefight during the Tet Offensive. This protracted battle scene is terrifying and perfectly illustrates the horrible nature of war.
You’re probably wondering why I have a monster movie on this list. Well, the answer is because I think this is the best monster movie ever made. Of course, you might think this is damning with faint praise, but it’s not. I have tremendous admiration for this movie. It seems like it’s going to be just another stupid-but-fun, commando-type action movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Which it is… at first. But right around 30 minutes in, the movie shifts into a movie not about a bunch of derring-do commandos on a secret raid but a terrifying chase movie in which an alien monster begins killing each of the men in the group until we are down to just Schwarzenegger.
The monster, by special effects legend Rick Baker, is perfect—a relentless killing machine that can become invisible. If you’re looking for an action picture without the usual, predictable plot twists, I highly recommend this one.
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that has a perfect screenplay. A screenplay that is watertight and contains the universe of the film completely within itself. Take, for instance, Groundhog Day. There’s a movie with a relatively high concept—a man is stuck reliving the same day over and over again until he redeems himself—and the film executes on that concept perfectly. There’s no leakage from the concept; the entire movie stays within it.
In Midnight Run, screenwriter George Gallo imagines a skip tracer (Robert De Niro) has to bring a bail jumper (Charles Grodin) in to face a court appearance. He is being chased by the FBI and the mafia (whose money Grodin stole). The script works flawlessly. And De Niro and Grodin are incredibly amusing together. The scene on the train where Grodin, as an accountant, advises De Niro not to use the reward money to open a restaurant because restaurants are frequently bad investments is priceless. This movie gets better with each viewing.
Up to this point, all of the movies I’ve mentioned have been a festival of White Dudes on Film. This film, coming at the end of the decade, is a defiant step in the other direction. Spike Lee portrays his home neighborhood in Brooklyn as a predominantly African-American one with a lone Italian-American pizza joint as a holdout against the demographic changes that have swept through the neighborhood. It’s a keenly-drawn portrait of urban life in the late 20th century.
The movie has a frenetic and lively quality. It’s funny, sharp-edged, and humane. Great cast that includes Lee himself, Danny Aiello, John Turturro, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and many more. The film is now thirty years old, but it remains as timely and fresh today as it ever was.
My Favorite Foreign 80s Films
This wonderful film from Francois Truffaut is set in Nazi-occupied Paris, and is a tribute to the enduring power of art in the face of fascism. A small theater company in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris is a refuge for Parisians whose lives have been circumscribed by war and deprivation. The theater becomes a place where the occupied citizens of the great but defeated city can still feel like civilized people. Each performance ends in time for the theatergoers to be able to catch the last metro (subway) home. The film stars two of French cinema’s greatest stars: Gerard Depardieu and an incandescent Catherine Deneuve.
It is near the end of World War II in a German-occupied village in Tuscany. The Americans are moving toward them, liberating other villages as they go. What should the villagers do: wait for the Americans or risk fleeing into the countryside? Some of the townspeople flee and the others stay, hiding in the church on the central square. This is an incredibly beautiful film by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, and is unforgettable in many ways: Franco Di Giacomo’s piercingly brilliant cinematography, the middle-aged love story, the brutal battle scenes in a wheat field. Don’t miss it if you’ve never seen it.
My dad’s side of the family emigrated from Sweden in the 1890s-- at the tail end of a massive migration of Swedes out of an impoverished country. I guess things got fixed up in Sweden after the riff-raff that was my ancestors headed to America. Regardless, this is a moving and deeply affecting film about a widowed father (Max von Sydow) and his young son who leave Sweden hoping for a better life in Denmark. Things don’t work out the way they had hoped. Be sure to have a box of Kleenex available when you watch this film. There’s gonna be crying.
I have a project for you: start watching Hayao Miyazaki movies and see where they take you. Miyazaki is a Japanese animator and storyteller. I started watching his movies sort of by accident. My youngest daughter, who was 4 years old at the time, complained that I only rented movies “for old people” and told me to rent something for her at our local Blockbuster. I looked around and found this movie. It looked harmless enough and I decided to watch it with her. Little did I know that both she and I would soon become obsessed with Miyazaki movies.
This one is a good entry into his world; it’s a tale of two young girls who befriend a woodland sprite. And then it gets stranger and stranger, like all Miyazaki movies. I recommend that after this you try Castle In the Sky (1986), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Princess Mononoke (1997), and, most importantly, Spirited Away (2001). There are no movies you will ever see that are quite like a Miyazaki movie. Take the plunge.
This is a movie about how we love movies and what they mean to us. Set in a village in Sicily beginning during World War II, it tells the story of a fatherless boy who grew up in a movie theater and his adventures, disasters, love affairs, and heartbreaks. The boy eventually leaves the village and becomes a famous film director but avoids the village, until 30 years later when he goes back for the funeral of the blind projectionist who babysat and mentored him through his childhood. This is a sentimental and emotional movie and it has one of the best closing sequences ever in a movie. You’ll just have to watch it to see.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.