The 1980s were anything but boring. It seemed like everything was, for better or worse, constantly changing.
The 1980s was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the acceleration of the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and Iran hostages and Nicaraguan freedom fighters and arms for hostages. It was Margaret Thatcher and the Falkland Islands. It was Atari and Nintendo. It was the AIDS epidemic. It was the middle class beginning to erode, it was a “service economy” and supply side economics, it was two income households, it was millionaires and homeless people. It was the decade of mass culture merging with big business. It was Michael Jordan and Nike. It was yuppies and nerds. It was MTV and music video bands and techno pop and non conformity, it was Duran Duran and Flock of Seagulls and Cyndi Lauper, it was Michael Jackson and Prince and Madonna, it was Bruce Springsteen and U2, it was REM and The Smiths, it was Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Pixies, it was Run DMC and the Beastie Boys. It was “Monkey Gone to Heaven” and apocalyptic be-bop. It was “Thriller” and “Born in the USA” and “Graceland.” It was “Mash” and “Cheers,” it was “Dallas” and “Dynasty”, it was “The Day After”, it was “Hill Street Blues” and “Saint Elsewhere.”
Personally, it was the decade I went back to school, met and married my wife, started my career in I.T., bought a house, fathered two sons, and lost my hair. I began the decade a 21 year old single man in peak physical condition with a full head of lush and thick brown hair; I ended it a 31 year old bald married man with a mortgage and a pot belly and a cheesy moustache. And it all went by too fast.
In film, the trend of big special effects blockbusters that began in the 70s with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind continued, with the studios getting more and more conservative on how they spent their money. If a movie was a box office success, not only was a sequel likely, so too were imitations likely to be made. An example was Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, which not only spun off several sequels, but other attempts to cash in on the formula like Romancing the Stone and its sequel Jewel of the Nile, and the inept King Solomon’s Mines as well as others.
The result of all of this is that fewer movies were being made, and more and more, those that were made were becoming increasingly formulaic. The personal and independent movies that were so prevalent in the late 60s and early 70s were becoming rarer and rarer.
Advances in technology and special effects were having a major impact in how movies were made. The visual wizardry of Spielberg and George Lucas bred a whole new generation of filmmakers (like Ron Howard and Robert Zemeckis and Lawrence Kasdan) for whom visual style and gimmicks were paramount, often times at the expense of character development and depth of story telling. The result was often visually stunning but ultimately inane blockbusters like Top Gun.
Teen movies, previously most popular in the 50s, experienced a revival in the 80s, primarily in the films of director-producer John Hughes. Films like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink found huge audiences; these films tended to be formulaic and light, but they seemed to resonate with their audiences.
The 1980s were a terrible decade for westerns. There was Lawrence Kasdan’s sad attempt to revive the genre, the terrible Silverado, and the Young Guns films, which became a mediocre franchise for many of the “brat pack” stars of the Hughes films. Probably the best western of the decade was Walter Hill’s homage to Sam Peckinpah, 1980’s The Long Riders.
It was a big decade for blockbuster comedies, with talented casts dumbing down their skills for the masses in films like Ghostbusters and Caddyshack. The puns and sight gags of Airplane and the one-joke (Dustin Hoffman in drag) comedy Tootsie were also enormously popular.
As bad as most of this was, there were still a number of great directors making fascinating movies, and the emergence of some new and unique talents. The 1980s saw Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese and Spielberg at the peak of their powers, while David Lynch and Tim Burton and David Cronenberg made fascinating movies that looked and behaved like nothing that had preceded them.
Here’s my list of favorite movies from the 80s:
22. The Fly (1986), directed by David Cronenberg
21. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), Steven Spielberg
20. Zelig (1983), Woody Allen
19. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Tim Burton
18. Do the Right Thing (1989), Spike Lee
17. The Emerald Forest (1985), John Boorman
16. Atlantic City (1980), Louis Malle
15. Raging Bull (1981), Martin Scorsese
14. King of Comedy (1983), Scorsese
13. Out of Africa (1986), Sydney Pollack
12. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Spielberg
11. Radio Days (1986), Allen
10. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Allen
9. Hannah and her Sisters (1986), Allen
8. Platoon (1987), Oliver Stone
7. The Elephant Man (1980), David Lynch
6. Edward Scissorhands (1988), Burton
5. Something Wild (1986), Jonathan Demme
4. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Spielberg
3. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1984), Allen
2. Hope and Glory (1987), Boorman
1. Blue Velvet (1986), Lynch