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10 best 1980s movies ever, ranked

Francis Ford Coppola and Ali MacGraw at the 1979 Academy Awards.

High on a pot cookie while presenting at the 1979 Oscars, Francis Ford Coppola boldly predicted a communications revolution: “The movies of the ‘80s are going to be amazing beyond what any of you can dream.”

Though the ‘70s dream of a Hollywood controlled by the auteurs ultimately fizzled by the early 1980s, cinematic masters still held their own against an encroaching studio superstructure during that ravenously capitalistic decade – a period that more and more seems to resemble our own.

10. Airplane! (1980)

Leslie Nielsen and Robert Hays in Airplane.
Paramount Pictures

Joke for joke one of the funniest movies ever made, Airplane! borrowed from Stanley Kubrick’s Doctor Strangelove the brilliant conceit of remaking an earlier, solemn-minded disaster film with a brazenly satirical eye.

Where 1957’s Zero Hour! took seriously the premise of a battle-scarred airman forced into piloting a passenger jet when the pilots both become ill, Airplane! — made by the comedy collective of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker — uses it as a jumping-off point for a series of sight gags and puns that begin at bonkers and escalate to the breathlessly superb.

9. Paris, Texas (1984)

Harry Dean Stanton and Hunter Carson in Paris, Texas.
Argos Films

Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas operates in a different register than most any other film ever made. In its arsenal of weapons are Wenders’ humanism, screenwriter Sam Shepard’s sense for the American West, and a compact cast of character actors led by the inimitable Harry Dean Stanton.

Stanton’s nomad is led on a winding journey of reconnection with his estranged wife and child, a premise out of melodrama that rises to transcendent heights thanks to Robby Müller’s smeary cinematography and an unbroken chain of masters in front of and behind the camera.

8. The Shining (1980)

Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
Warner Brothers Pictures

Reviled in its time, The Shining has come to be understood as a standout in Stanley Kubrick’s filmography, with its imagery second in the public consciousness only to 2001: A Space Odyssey. A highly (and justly) revisionist adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name, The Shining’s tale of ghost-incited familial breakdown is occasionally as harrowing to watch as it was to film, but its open secret is that it’s frequently sharply funny.

When Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is told that the previous caretaker of the Overlook Hotel “ran amok and killed his family with an ax,” he responds with a genial smile, “Well, you can rest assured… That’s not going to happen with me.”  Anyone with a passing familiarity with the film gets the dramatic irony.

7. Broadcast News (1987)

Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter, and William Hurt in Broadcast News.
20th Century Fox

Simultaneously a cathartic, incisive excavation of TV news and a wistful anti-rom-com, Broadcast News is the cinematic masterpiece of its writer/director, The Simpsons co-creator James L. Brooks. While a laugh-out-loud comedy, Broadcast News is also a morality play that frames the downfall of broadcast journalism around a dysfunctional trio fated from childhood to form a too-close-for-comfort love triangle (William Hurt, Albert Brooks, and Holly Hunter, all never better).

In 2016, James L. Brooks said the greatest work of his career was Albert Brooks’ character’s speech in which he predicts what the devil will be like if he ever arrives: “He will just bit by little bit lower our standards where they’re important.” That seems more spot-on every day.

6. Reds (1981)

Warren Beatty in Reds.
Paramount Pictures

When Warren Beatty set out to write, direct, and star in his own film, Heaven Can Wait, in 1978, he may have seemed like a pretty-boy dilettante. After Heaven Can Wait’s nine Oscar nominations and one win, that misconception had pretty much dissipated – and just in time for Beatty to attempt his almost ludicrously ambitious Reds, which chronicles the life of John Reed, the American journalist and Communist sympathizer whose Ten Days That Shook the World remains the definitive account of the 1917 Russian revolution.

Three-and-a-half hours long, featuring an original score by Stephen Sondheim, and co-starring Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman, Maureen Stapleton (who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work), and George Plimpton, among others, Reds is a film one watches in wonder while realizing its like will never be made again.

5. Die Hard (1988)

Bruce Willis in Die Hard
20th Century Fox

This action classic may be disguised as a shoot-‘em-up blue-collar hero flick, but that’s just on the surface: Die Hard is in fact a “What-if-We’d-Won-Vietnam” movie. Eastern European villains (read: Moscow) are kept from destroying a tower that serves as a symbol of Pacific Rim capitalism and democracy (read: South Vietnam) by John McClane (Bruce Willis), the personification of down-to-earth American know-how.

McClane stumbling through a jungle-like plant installation in the Nakatomi offices amid explosions and tumbling helicopters just drives the point home. Die Hard gets better every time you watch; even though the tension is dialed to 11 throughout, it’s so perfect that it’s almost atmospherically comfortable to watch, like old, snug combat boots.

4. When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally...
Columbia Pictures

The seed from which all contemporary romantic comedy has grown, this Rob Reiner-directed, Nora Ephron-scripted hole-in-one is too often dismissed as a “comfort watch,” probably because its piercing insight and old-Hollywood-meets-Castle Rock aesthetic has been so endlessly imitated in the 35 years since its release.

What can’t be written off so easily are the marvelous lead performances by Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, neither of whom has ever had so much stature or pathos in anything else.

3. My Dinner with André (1981)

Wallace Shawn and André Gregory as themselves in My Dinner with André.
New Yorker Films

There are very few completely unique films. My Dinner with André, in which actor Wallace Shawn and theater director André Gregory, playing themselves, discuss the nature of performance and contemporary alienation over an uninterrupted 111-minute dinner at Café des Artistes in New York, is one such film. (They wrote the screenplay, too, and director Louis Malle is admirably restrained in allowing them to take center stage.)

If you love to hear thoughtful, articulate people speak well and wisely, in dialogue that washes over the screen in rivulets like a waterfall, you couldn’t ask for a better evening’s entertainment. What is it really about? To quote Gregory’s onscreen persona: “It has something to do with living.”

2. Ordinary People (1980)

Timothy Hutton and Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People.
Paramount Pictures

Mary Tyler Moore’s Beth Jarrett is perhaps the best Bad Mom ever committed to celluloid. In Ordinary People, she’s a Lake Forest doyenne whose golden-boy eldest son died in a boating accident that her shrinking-violet younger son survived. She is the epitome of the emotionally repressed WASP, the linchpin of a tragic, but deeply warm film that wears its heart on its crisply pressed sleeve.

Robert Redford’s directorial debut, which won Best Picture and Best Director, also features devastating performances by Donald Sutherland, Judd Hirsch, and the young Timothy Hutton (who won Best Supporting Actor despite being the unequivocal lead).

1. Local Hero (1983)

Peter Capaldi, Burt Lancaster, and Peter Riegert in Local Hero.
20th Century Fox

If you watch Local Hero, the tale of a coastal Scottish village and the oil company rep who wants to buy it away from its residents, and don’t want to live out the rest of your life inside the movie, you may be beyond help. Peter Riegert, the best leading man of the 1980s, and Burt Lancaster co-star in this triumph of atmosphere written and directed by Bill Forsyth.

James Feinberg
James Feinberg is a writer and journalist who has written for the Broadway Journal and NBC's The Blacklist.
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