The 20 Best Movies of the 1980s

Brenda Chase, Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Brenda Chase, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the 1970s, Hollywood studios gave bold young directors free rein, resulting in a new golden age of movies (and a lot of ulcers for studio execs). In the 1980s, burned by the excesses and high-profile disasters of the '70s, the studios took charge again and started churning out safe, reliable, assembly-line product. But you can't keep creative minds down. Despite the limitations and studio-mandated box office expectations, a number of excellent movies managed to get made, including some that achieved greatness by reinventing old genres and tropes.

1. Raging Bull (1980)

Martin Scorsese, one of those mavericks from the '70s, kicked off the new decade with what many consider the best film of his career, a black-and-white, fact-based story of a volatile boxer (Robert De Niro, who won an Oscar for it). Though it wasn't a box office success (which caused Scorsese no small amount of anxiety), it was hailed by critics and awards-giving bodies, and is now regarded as one of the best boxing movies of all time.

2. Airplane! (1980)

Brothers David and Jerry Zucker and their friend Jim Abrahams didn't invent the spoof genre, but they perfected it with Airplane!. Forty years later, this lightning-fast cavalcade of slapstick, wordplay, and everything in between is still hilarious, still the standard by which other spoofs are measured (though see the same crew's 1984 entry Top Secret! for a close runner-up).

3. The Shining (1980)

Stephen King famously didn't like Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of his horror novel, but cinephiles—especially devotees of Kubrick—found much to love in the ominous, idiosyncratic, ultimately terrifying story of a man going stir-crazy at an isolated hotel. The methods to Kubrick's madness are a story in themselves (see the fun documentary Room 237), and The Shining remains one of the more unnerving studies of a damaged mind.

4. Ordinary People (1980)

Robert Reford's directorial debut, a searing story about a family in crisis after the death of a son, earned him the only competitive Oscar of his career (so far) and established him as the latest well-liked actor who was perhaps even better behind the camera. Sitcom stars Mary Tyler Moore and Judd Hirsch also proved their mettle as serious actors, making Ordinary People a surprise on several counts.

5. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were two of the other '70s mavericks, and their fond homage to the serialized movie adventures of their childhoods is one of the best examples ever of making a high-quality movie while staying inside the lines. With an A-list star (Harrison Ford) and those two A-list directors involved (Lucas as producer), they could have coasted and made a hit. Instead they proved that popcorn entertainment can also be ingeniously crafted.

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

Spielberg had a pretty great decade (even more so if you believe he's the true director of Poltergeist), and followed up Raiders of the Lost Ark with this instant sentimental classic about a boy and his alien friend. Spielberg's sappiness would get the better of him in duds like Always, but here he found the right blend of emotion and nostalgia by giving it a bitter undercurrent (Elliott's parents' divorce, the inevitable farewell) to remind us that even the sweetest memories often have tinges of sorrow.

7. Tootsie (1982)

Cross-dressing has been a staple of movies since the earliest days of film, but it's rarely been done with such precise satirical purpose and sharp wit as this Sydney Pollack-directed comedy in which struggling actor Dustin Hoffman gets a part on a soap opera by pretending to be a woman. Shifting gender politics would make this a very different film today, but its basic points about sexism (not to mention its humor) are timeless.

8. Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Italian "spaghetti Western" director Sergio Leone's final film was this epic gangster story starring Robert De Niro (of course) and James Woods, which unfortunately got chopped up for its initial release and flopped. The full 229-minute version is the one that eventually earned critics' attention for its sweeping, violent story of greed, told with a sense of the poetic.

9. Amadeus (1984)

F. Murray Abraham won an Oscar for playing the jealous Salieri in this triumphant, intelligent account of the composer's relationship with Mozart (played by an also-nominated Tom Hulce). The film won Best Picture and remains one of the finest portrayals of artistic genius, and is a grandly entertaining music appreciation lesson to boot.

10. Ran (1985)

Another epic from a legendary director nearing the end of his career, Akira Kurosawa's magnificently dark take on King Lear is one of his masterpieces. Full of tragedy, brutality, and spectacle, it's a visually compelling (and timely) commentary on war and greed. The battle scenes are some of the most striking ever filmed, enhanced by some 1400 handmade costumes and Kurosawa's unnerving eye.

11. Brazil (1985)

Terry Gilliam's bleak, hilarious vision of a dystopian future is full of unforgettable images and situations, few of them crazier than the behind-the-scenes story of the film's release. The struggle was worth it, though, and over time Brazil evolved from a cult favorite into a legitimate classic. Political satire has rarely been so imaginative.

12. Back to the Future (1985)

Here is another movie made within the confines of the studio system that managed to transcend the cookie-cutter mentality by being just about a perfect piece of entertainment. The concept is irresistible, the execution spirited, the performances uniformly appealing. The word "masterpiece" doesn't need to be reserved for long, serious movie.

13. Platoon (1986)

There was a cycle of intense Vietnam films around this time, including Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, which could just as easily have made this list. But Oliver Stone's stands out for being semi-autobiographical and capturing the harrowing, dehumanizing details of war. It also features Charlie Sheen's best performance (a low bar) and great work by Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger.

14. Blue Velvet (1986)

This glimmering nightmare about the seedy underbelly of suburbia is director David Lynch at his David Lynch-iest, a mesmerizing horror-noir about a naive young man (Kyle MacLachlan) who gets involved with a nightclub singer (Isabella Rossellini) being tormented by a maniacal drug dealer (Dennis Hopper). Hopper’s performance makes for one of the most terrifying villains (non-supernatural division) in all of film.

15. The Untouchables (1987)

To tell the explosive story of Eliot Ness pursuing gangster Al Capone, you need a director as brash as Brian De Palma and a screenwriter as percussive as David Mamet. Like Scorsese, De Palma brought his facility with balletic violence with him from the ‘70s, in the service of a story that affords Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro, and Sean Connery the opportunity to do stellar, testosterone-fueled work.

16. The Last Emperor (1987)

Italian master Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris) earned a Best Director Oscar for this sumptuous biography of China’s last emperor, much of it shot on location in Beijing’s awe-inspiring Forbidden City. That fact alone is impressive, as are the 19,000 extras used over the course of the film. But more important is Bertolucci’s marvelous ability to help us understand an entire nation of people through the eyes of one venerated figure.

17. Wings of Desire (1987)

A romantic fantasy about angels and mortals falling in love, also featuring Peter Falk as himself: a former angel who got bored with immortality and became human. Wim Wenders’ rich, enchanting masterpiece was remade in 1998 as City of Angels, but the original stands as a lovely, imaginative, and affectionate look at humanity, with an air of bittersweetness to the black-and-white way angels see the world.

18. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Ever interested in the pursuit of new technology, Robert Zemeckis pulled off several miracles with this detective noir story that shares some DNA with Chinatown. The interaction between live-action humans and animated characters was groundbreaking, and in many ways still unsurpassed. Getting cooperation from the many competing rights-holders to include their characters—and we’re talking big-time characters, all the way up to Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse—was a feat in itself. It’s also a deliriously loony comedy teeming with meta-references and in-jokes.

19. Field of Dreams (1989)

Hardly anyone knows who wrote and directed this sentimental favorite (Phil Alden Robinson; he also made Sneakers), but everyone can tell you the catchphrase: “If you build it, he will come.” “It” is a baseball field; “he” is for the viewer to discover as Kevin Costner brings tears to your eyes with a story of fathers, sons, and America’s favorite pastime.

20. Do the Right Thing (1989)

Few things are as universally agreed upon as the notion that Spike Lee was robbed of his Oscar the year that this incendiary story about race relations on a hot day in Brooklyn competed with the anodyne Driving Miss Daisy. From the explosive opening sequence of Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy to the final moments, this is a personal, angry, funny film full of righteous fury and cinematic energy.

The First Full Trailer for The Crown Season 3 Is Here

Des Willie, Netflix
Des Willie, Netflix

Star Wars obsessives aren't the only people in for a trailer treat today: Nearly two years after the second season of The Crown debuted, the award-winning series about the early days of Queen Elizabeth II's reign is just weeks away from its return. And on Monday morning, Netflix released the first full trailer for The Crown's new season.

While we've known some of the basic details about the new season—like the time frame in which it takes place and that Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies would be taking over the roles of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip—this is the first in-depth glimpse we've gotten at what's in store for season 3.

The role duty plays in the lives of the British royal family appears to be an overarching theme, with the trailer showing the country in distress but each of the characters putting on a smiling face for the public. While Elizabeth and Philip's relationship will continue to take center stage in the pricey period drama, Princess Margaret (now played by Helena Bonham Carter) will struggle with her role of being the Queen's sister. And Prince Charles (Josh O'Connor) will have to choose between his love for Camilla Parker Bowles (played by Killing Eve writer Emerald Fennell) and his duty as the heir apparent to the throne.

Netflix will debut The Crown season 3 on November 17, 2019.

10 Facts About the Beastie Boys's 'Sabotage' Video

Beastie Boys via YouTube
Beastie Boys via YouTube

With their raucous mix of rock and hip-hop, the Beastie Boys were a band everyone could love. They also made killer music videos, and their 1994 video for “Sabotage” is arguably one of the greatest in the history of the medium. Directed by Spike Jonze and inspired by ‘70s cop shows, “Sabotage” finds the Beasties in cheesy suits, wigs, and mustaches, cavorting around L.A. like a bunch of bootleg Starskys and Hutches. If you were alive in the ‘90s, you’ve seen “Sabotage” a million times, but there’s a lot you might not know about this iconic video.

1. It all began with a photo shoot.

Spike Jonze met the Beastie Boys when he photographed them for Dirt magazine in the early 1990s. The band showed up with its own concept. “For years, Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz had been talking about doing a photo session as undercover cops—wearing ties and fake mustaches and sitting in a car like we were on a stakeout,” Adam “MCA” Yauch told New York Magazine. Jonze loved the idea so much he tagged along when the Beasties went wig shopping. “Then, while he was taking the pictures, he was wearing this blond wig and mustache the whole time,” Yauch said. “For no apparent reason.” So was born a friendship that begat “Sabotage.”

2. Spike Jonze filmed “Sabotage” without permits.

The Beasties weren’t big fans of high-budget music videos with tons of people on the set. So they asked Jonze to hire a couple of assistants and run the whole production out of a van. “Then we just ran around L.A. without any permits and made everything up as we went along,” MCA told New York. They’re lucky the real cops never showed up.

3. The Beastie Boys did all their own stunt driving.

After binge-watching VHS tapes of The Streets of San Francisco and other ‘70s cop shows, the Beasties knew they needed some sweet chase scenes. “We bought a car that was about to die,” Mike D told Vanity Fair. “We just drove the car ourselves. We almost killed the car a couple of times, but we definitely didn’t come close to killing ourselves.”

4. “Sabotage” inspired the opening sequence of Trainspotting.

Danny Boyle's 1996 film Trainspotting famously opens with Ewan McGregor and his buddies running through the streets of Edinburgh to the tune of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life.” In the DVD commentary, Boyle revealed that the scene was inspired by “Sabotage.”

5. Two cameras were harmed in the making of “Sabotage.”

“Sabotage” was supposed to be a low-budget affair—and it would’ve been, had Jonze been a little more careful with his rented cameras. He destroyed a Canon Scoopic when the Ziploc bag he used to protect the camera during an underwater shot proved less than airtight. He apparently told the rental agency the camera stopped working on its own, but he wasn’t as lucky when an Arriflex SR3 fell out of a van window. That cost $84,000, effectively tripling the cost of the video.

6. MCA crashed the stage of the MTV Video Music Awards to protest “Sabotage” being shut out.

At the 1994 MTV VMAs, “Sabotage” was nominated for five awards, including Video of the Year. In one of the great injustices of all time, it lost in all five categories. When R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” won Best Direction, MCA invaded the stage dressed as Nathanial Hörnblowér, his Swiss uncle/filmmaker alter-ego. “Since I was a small boy, I had dreamed that Spike would win this,” MCA said as a confused Michael Stipe looked on. “Now this has happened, and I want to tell everyone this is a farce, and I had the ideas for Star Wars and everything.”

7. There’s a “Sabotage” comic book you can download for free.

After MCA’s death in 2012, artist Derek Langille created a seven-page “Sabotage” comic book in tribute to the fallen musician and filmmaker. You can download it for free here.

8. There’s also a “Sabotage” novel.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of “Sabotage,” Oakland-based author and Beasties super-fan Jeff Gomez wrote a five-act novel inspired by the video. He spent months researching cop movies and real-life police lingo, and he watched “Sabotage” about 100 times, keeping a detailed spreadsheet of all the action unfolding onscreen. “They created a really great universe, and I just wanted to play around in it for a little bit,” Gomez told PBS.

9. There’s a “Sabotage”/Sesame Street mashup on YouTube.

In 2017, YouTuber Is This How You Go Viral, a.k.a. Adam Schleichkorn, created the video “Sesametage,” a reimagining of “Sabotage” made with edited bits of Sesame Street. It stars Big Bird as himself, The Count as Cochese, and Oscar the Grouch as Bobby, “The Rookie.” Super Grover, Telly, Cookie Monster, and Bert and Ernie also turn up in this hilarious spoof of a spoof.

10. “Sabotage” nearly became a movie—kind of.

Jonze and the Beasties had such a blast making “Sabotage” that they wrote a script for a feature film called We Can Do This. The movie, which they later abandoned, was set to feature MCA in two roles: Sir Stuart Wallace, one of his “Sabotage” characters, and Nathaniel Hörnblowér (whom he portrayed during that 1994 VMAs protest). Jonze told IndieWire the film would’ve been “ridiculous and fun,” which sounds like the understatement of the century. “There were no 1970s cops in it, but it was definitely in the same spirit,” he said.

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