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The 100 Best Movies of the 1980s (part 5)

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#25 – Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Director: Giuseppe Tornatore

Actors: Philippe Noiret, Salvatore Cascio

Plot Summary: An Italian film about a film director who recounts his childhood memories of growing up in a small Sicilian village, where he discovered the magic of cinema through his friendship with the local projectionist.

Why This Movie Made The List

Cinema Paradiso is, in my humble opinion, the best foreign film of the decade (and maybe of all time). While it doesn’t have a strong connection to the 80s, it is an extremely poignant tale that makes the watcher nostalgic for everything that they left in the past. It also has a world class soundtrack composed by Ennio Morricone.

#24 – The Princess Bride (1987)

Director: Rob Reiner

Actors: Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Mandy Patinkin, Andre the Giant, Wallace Shawn

Plot Summary: A romantic-comedy about a young woman who is rescued from an evil prince by her true love and their journey filled with adventure, battles, wit and romance.

Why This Movie Made The List

This movie could aptly be described as a fairy tale, but not just one for kids. The writing on the screenplay is so good that there are least a half dozen quotes that entered the popular lexicon and remain relevant today – 30 years later. And there’s also the quirky casting choices like Andre the Giant.

#23 – Fatal Attraction (1987)

Director: Adrian Lyne

Actors: Michael Douglas, Glenn Close

Plot Summary:A psychological thriller film about a married man who has a one-night stand with a mysterious woman, only to find his life spiraling out of control as she becomes increasingly obsessed and dangerous.

Why This Movie Made The List

Fatal Attraction had every man (and teenage boy) crossing their legs in fear. In the movie, Alex Forrest (Glenn Close’s character), becomes so obsessed with her married lover that she, not only threatens to divulge their relationship, but breaks into their home and kills the family’s pet.

#22 – Dead Poets Society (1989)

Director: Peter Weir

Actors: Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke

Plot Summary: A coming-of-age movie about an English teacher who inspires his students to break free from the strict rules of their prestigious school and live life to the fullest through poetry and self-expression.

Why This Movie Made The List

This movie might be the best boarding school drama ever. It has an ensemble cast of 8 private school students who are being taught by Robin William’s character. It perfectly captures the conservatism of the upper class in 1950s New England but still manages to harness the comic genius and frenetic energy of Williams.

#21 – Ghostbusters (1984)

Director: Ivan Reitman

Actors: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis

Plot Summary: A supernatural comedy about three eccentric parapsychologists who start a ghost-catching business in New York City and must save the city from an invasion of ghosts and spirits released by a rogue demonologist.

Why This Movie Made The List

This might the corniest movie to make it to the top 25 but I’ll fight to the death that it deserves this honor. Ghostbusters helped to issue in a new type of comedy – one that combined silliness with novel story lines. In many ways it reminds me of the radio serials of the 1940s and 1950s.

#20 – Good Morning Vietnam (1987)

Director: Barry Levinson

Actors: Robin Williams, Forest Whitaker

Plot Summary: A comedy about an irreverent DJ named Adrian Cronauer, who is sent to Saigon to bring some humor and rock ‘n’ roll to the troops during the Vietnam War, and finds himself struggling to reconcile his personal beliefs with the realities of the war.

Why This Movie Made The List

In the late 1980s and early 1990s Robin Williams proved that he was an acting powerhouse with 4 Oscar nominations and 1 win. Despite the fact that he didn’t win for Good Morning Vietnam, I believe it’s his best performance because, unlike Dead Poets Society, this movie relies almost exclusively on Robin Williams’ improv skills.

#19 – The Breakfast Club (1985)

Director: John Hughes

Actors: Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Anthony Michael Hall

Plot Summary: A coming-of-age comedy film about five high school students from different cliques who spend a Saturday together in detention and come to understand and respect each other.

Why This Movie Made The List

The Breakfast Club is definitely one of the best coming of age movies of the 1980s. Every teenager could (and probably still can) relate to one of the stereotypes in the movie: the nerd, the loner, the princess, the jock or the criminal. This movie also featured 5 out of the 8 members of the brat pack. The only real downside is that the movie is all dialog and no action.

#18 – Top Gun (1986)

Director: Tony Scott

Actors: Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Anthony Edwards, Val Kilmer

Plot Summary: A military action film about a talented, but cocky, fighter pilot who trains at the Navy’s Fighter Weapons School and battles his personal demons, both in the air and on the ground.

Why This Movie Made The List

If Risky Business put Tom Cruise on the star map, then Top Gun made his place permanent. This movie had it all: a handsome protagonist (Cruise), a sidekick (Edwards), a nemesis (Kilmer), a pretty girl (McGillis) and an amazing soundtrack which featured Danger Zone by Kenny Loggins.

#17 – Chariots of Fire (1981)

Director: Hugh Hudson

Actors: Ben Cross, Ian Charleson

Plot Summary: A sports film about two runners who compete in the 1924 Paris Olympics, inspired by different motivations and facing different challenges, but both determined to succeed and make their mark on history.

Why This Movie Made The List

The only movie that I can think of that shines a light on the (relatively) early Olympic Games. The acting is superb (and British). There’s the broader social message of fighting against anti-semetism. And there is one of the most iconic title in the history of cinema. If only this film were set in the 1980s.

#16 – Batman (1989)

Director: Tim Burton

Actors: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl

Plot Summary: A superhero film about the vigilante crime-fighter Batman, who emerges from the shadows of Gotham City to stop the evil plans of the Joker and restore justice to the city.

Why This Movie Made The List

Batman was early in the pantheon of superhero movies. Unlike the Superman movie, which was cotton candy bright, this movie was dark and gritty. Tim Burton was criticized for casting Michael Keaton as Batman but most will agree that he was really good. Of course, Jack Nicholson as the Joker was the real standout.

#15 – When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Director: Rob Reiner

Actors: Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby

Plot Summary: A rom-com which follows the story of two friends who navigate the ups and downs of their relationship over the course of several years.

Why This Movie Made The List

If asked to name a romantic-comedy, 7 out of 10 people (over the age of 40) will say When Harry Met Sally. It is the the original rom-com with fantastic acting by both Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. In fact it started Meg Ryan on a rom-com spree that would span almost a decade.

#14 – Dirty Dancing (1987)

Director: Emile Ardolino

Actors: Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, Jerry Orbach, Cynthia Rhodes

Plot Summary: A romantic drama about a young woman who falls in love with a dance instructor at a family resort in the 1960s, despite the disapproval of her father and the social constraints of the time.

Why This Movie Made The List

Despite Dirty Dancing being set in the 1950s, it is a quintessentially 1980s movie. A strong soundtrack combined with great acting by both Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze and solid set of supporting actors move this film from “great” to “iconic” status.

#13 – Amadeus (1984)

Director: Milos Forman

Actors: Tom Hulce, F. Murray Abraham

Plot Summary: A biographical film about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as told through the eyes of his rival, Antonio Salieri, who becomes jealous of Mozart’s genius and devises a scheme to destroy his reputation and career.

Why This Movie Made The List

From an acting and set perspective, Amadeus is undoubtedly one of the top 5 movies of the decade. It doesn’t have a connection to the 1980s, but it’s just too good not to hold a spot near the top of our list.

#12 – The Color Purple (1985)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Actors: Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Margaret Avery, Oprah Winfrey

Plot Summary: A drama that follows the story of a young black woman as she overcomes discrimination and abuse to find her voice and independence.

Why This Movie Made The List

The 70s had the blaxsploitation movies and the 90s had a burgeoning hip-hop film scene, but the 80s weren’t a great decade for movies about people of color. That is, except for this one. The Color Purple had it all – great actors, a great director and a great story.

#11 – Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983)

Director: Richard Marquand

Actors: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams

Plot Summary: The third movie in the Star Wars series that features the Rebel Alliance’s final showdown against the Galactic Empire and Darth Vader.

Why This Movie Made The List

True Star Wars fans may criticize us for not putting Return of the Jedi in the top 10. It was a great movie, but suffers a little when compared to the first two films in the franchise. And detractors will point out that, while Ford and Fisher shined, Mark Hamill lost a little bit of his luster in this third installment.

#10 – The Karate Kid (1984)

Director: John G. Avildsen

Actors: Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, Elisabeth Shue

Plot Summary: A coming-of-age movie about the journey of a young boy who, with the help of a wise karate master, learns karate and faces his rival in the All-Valley Karate Championship.

Why This Movie Made The List

We’re finally here – the top 10. And what a great movie to start with. I truly believe that this is the best coming of age film of the decade. It has a (flawed) hero, a couple of villains, and a beautiful girl. And, it spawned a retro comeback series – Cobra Kai – perhaps you’ve heard of it? Wax on, wax off – Daniel-san.

#9 – Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

Director: Martin Brest

Actors: Eddie Murphy, Judge Reinhold

Plot Summary: A comedy where Detroit cop Axel Foley investigates the murder of his best friend with the help and interference of the Beverly Hills Police Department.

Why This Movie Made The List

Beverly Hills Cop is unique in that it is a slight variant of the buddy cop trope. The major difference is that Eddie Murphy (the buddy) is also a cop, but one who’s on vacation. IMHO, this is Eddie Murphy’s crowing achievement. It’s funny and also has bits of dramatic flair as well as a kick-ass theme song – Axel F.

#8 – Children of a Lesser God (1986)

Director: Randa Haines

Actors: William Hurt, Marlee Matlin

Plot Summary: A romance about a teacher who falls in love with a deaf custodian at a school for the deaf and tries to help her find her voice.

Why This Movie Made The List

Children of a Lesser God has both one of the best actors of the 80s (William Hurt) and a total unknown (Marlee Matlin). The combination of these two makes for one of the best movies of the decade. It’s also worth noting that Marlee Matlin is the only deaf person ever to win and Oscar.

#7 – Gandhi (1982)

Director: Richard Attenborough

Actors: Ben Kingsley

Plot Summary: A biopic about the life and legacy of Mohandas Gandhi, the nonviolent civil rights leader who led India to independence from British rule through his philosophy of nonviolent resistance.

Why This Movie Made The List

Gandhi is one of the most influential world leaders of the 20th century. And this movie is the definitive video biography of his life. Gandhi is expertly played by Ben Kingsley. While the movie doesn’t have a tie to the 1980s, it has one of the best scripts of the decade.

#6 – My Left Foot (1989)

Director: Jim Sheridan

Actors: Daniel Day-Lewis, Ray McAnally, Brenda Fricker

Plot Summary: A biopic about the life of Christy Brown, an Irish painter and writer with cerebral palsy who learned to paint and write with his only controllable limb, his left foot.

Why This Movie Made The List

Daniel Day Lewis is an absolute beast of an actor. In 30 years of being an actor, he has only been in 23 films – so he chooses his projects carefully. And, he’s been nominated for an Oscar 6 times with 3 wins. A 50% win ratio is unheard of. By comparison, Jack Nicholson’s win rate is only 25% and Al Pacino’s is 11%.

#5 – The Shining (1980)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Actors: Jack Nicholson, Shelly Duvall

Plot Summary: A psychological horror film about a writer who takes a job as a winter caretaker of an isolated hotel, where he descends into madness, terrorizing his family, as supernatural forces haunting the hotel manipulate and torment him.

Why This Movie Made The List

I have probably seen 5,000 movies in my life and this is the single scariest one. I think it’s so frightening because it’s not supernatural. There are no monsters involved. It could actually happen. And, Jack Nicholson is at his finest in this movie.

#4 – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Actors: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Jonathan Rhys-Davies

Plot Summary: The first movie in the Indiana Jones series about a rogue archaeologist, on a perilous quest to find the Ark of the Covenant before it falls into the hands of the Nazis.

Why This Movie Made The List

Raiders of the Lost Ark redefined what an action could be. The combined skills of George Lucas as writer, Steven Spielberg as director, and Harrison Ford as lead actor put this movie in a league of its own.

#3 – E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Actors: Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore

Plot Summary:A classic science fiction movie about a young boy who befriends a homesick alien, and helps it find its way back home, while eluding government agents who seek to capture and study it

Why This Movie Made The List

E.T. was a kids movie that wasn’t just for kids. It was one of the first time that aliens were humanized by the cinema. This movie was such a huge deal in 1982. I waited in line 4 separate times to see this movie and each time the theater was so crowded that people were sitting in the floor.

#2 – Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Director: Irvin Kershner

Actors: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher

Plot Summary: The second film in the “Star Wars” trilogy, where the heroes of the Rebellion continue their struggle against the Galactic Empire, while Luke Skywalker trains with Jedi Master Yoda to hone his skills and confront Darth Vader.

Why This Movie Made The List

The Star Wars fandom is split. About half think that A New Hope is best movie in the franchise and the other half think it’s The Empire Strikes Back. Fortunately, we didn’t have to make that call as only The Empire Strikes Back was released in the 80s. But what an adventure movie it was.

#1 – Back to the Future (1985)

Director: Robert Zemekis

Actors: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd

Plot Summary: A science fiction comedy about a teenager who travels back in time from the 1980s to the 1950s in a time-machine created by a wacky inventor, where he must ensure his parents fall in love and make his trip back to the future possible.

Why This Movie Made The List

Drum roll, please. Our number 1 movie of the 1980s is Back to the Future. This movie literally has it all: one of the biggest TV and movie stars of the decade, a rockin soundtrack, great supporting actors and a cool sci-fi story line. I watched this movie multiple times in the theater and dozens of times since then and it never gets old.

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