Here’s an extremely rough decade for film, not helped by the fact that I grew up in the 80s and watched a whole lot of really bad movies. For the decade there are more Movies Of Seen than any thus far (though that number’s about to be dwarfed by the 1990s) , but the total number of films I’d consider great is probably even lower than the 70s. It’s just that I watched so many as a kid that there’s an appearance of depth to these years that the 70s was lacking. The quality at the top is there, the top 20 films from this decade are probably as good as most other decades, but it tends to be a lot more focused on Hollywood films and comedies than it is for any other. Part of that is circumstantial, I think that since the heyday of the screwball genre, comedies have become much more generationally focused: the ones from the 60s and 70s, for the most part, don’t make a whole lot of sense to me, but I still love the classics from the 80s and 90s. I imagine a baby boomer would have the opposite experience. As for the Hollywood bias, I think that’s an institutional problem: the foreign film market in the US seemed to die-off in the blockbuster boom of the 80s, while the kinds of critics who worked as a corrective to those market forces remain focused on the foreign films they grew up admiring in the 50s and 60s. Thus a company like Criterion (an essential educational force for those of us who came of age in smaller towns after the art theatre gold rush) releases innumerable classics from the post-WW2-pre-Watergate years, but leaves the Reagan-era relatively untapped.
As always, the years are ranked by peak (how good the best films are) and depth (how many great films there are). Of course, all of this is limited to what I’ve seen.
1983 – The weakest peak of the decade, with only a fair amount of depth, the year is led by a couple of truly great films: Chris Marker’s Sans soleil and Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, along with one of Woody Allen’s more underrated gems, the great Zelig. After that there isn’t much. Trading Places is a fine comedy, Return Of The Jedi marks the beginning of the end for George Lucas, Scarface and The King Of Comedy have their defenders, though I’m not one of them, and Strange Brew is Canadian. Best: Sans soleil. Most Underrated: The Right Stuff. Most Overrated: Scarface.
1986 – Another pretty weak peak, though with slightly better depth, 1986 features what is probably my least favorite #1 Movie Of The Year for the decade, Roland Joffe’s The Mission, a great film, just not as great as the competition. Also this year is one of Woody Allen’s best, Hannah And Her Sisters, a pair of great Oliver Stone films (Platoon and Salvador) and James Cameron’s great sci-fi action film Aliens. Otherwise, this year features campy 80s classics like Top Gun, The Karate Kid Part II, and The Name Of the Rose, a fine Jim Jarmusch film (Down By Law), John Woo’s breakthrough A Better Tomorrow, and the best basketball movie ever, Daavid Anspaugh’s Hoosiers. Many will argue that David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is one of, if not the #1 best film of the decade. I’m not one of them. Best: The Mission. Most Underrated: The Mission. Most Overrated: Blue Velvet.
1985 – The peak isn’t much of an improvement, but there’s more depth here than any year thus far. Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, my pick as the second-best film of the decade helps a lot, as does the second place film, Woody Allen’s classic The Purple Rose Of Cairo, but the rest of the best films aren’t as good as the next years on this list. Sydney Pollack’s Out Of Africa isn’t an especially cool film to like, but I’ve always loved it and Jackie Chan’s Police Story and Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado are terrific genre films. After Hours, Fletch, Clue, The Breakfast Club, The Goonies and Back To The Future are classic 80s comedies, Brazil and Come And See have a lot of fans and there are a few films I might feel a bit guilty about liking, if I felt guilty about liking films: Ladyhawke, A Room With A View and Rocky IV. Best: Ran. Most Underrated: Silverado. Most Overrated: Witness.
1988 – Slightly better peak-wise is this year, topped by Stephen Frears’s Dangerous Liaisons and also featuring two of the best baseball movies ever, Bull Durham and Eight Men Out. There’s also Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ, John McTiernan’s Die Hard, Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, Robert Zemekis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Wong Kar-wai’s debut film, As Tears Go By. On the comedy front, we have The Naked Gun, A Fish Called Wanda and The Milagro Beanfield War. There are also a couple of very good, genre-defining films that other people like a lot more than I do: Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line and Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. Best: Dangerous Liaisons. Most Underrated: The Last Temptation Of Christ. Most Overrated: Rain Man.
1987 – Very comparable to the previous year on the list, with a decent, but unspectacular peak and decent, but unspectacular depth. Comedies top the lis his year, with Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride, James L. Brooks’s Broadcast News and the Coen Brothers’s Raising Arizona. There are some very good dramas as well: Steven Spielberg’s Empire Of The Sun, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, Wim Wenders’s Wings Of Desire and Stanley Kubrick’s unrelenting Full Metal Jacket. There are good action films like Evil Dead II, Predator, Lethal Weapon, and RoboCop, and a film that few people who aren’t related to me actually like, Elaine May’s much-maligned Ishtar. Best: the Princess Bride. Most Underrated: Ishtar. Most Overrated: The Untouchables.
1982 – The peak is close, but this year isn’t quite as deep a year as the next year on the list. Werner Herzog’s lunatic epic Fiztcarraldo leads off the year, followed by the only post-Maoism Jean-Luc Godard I’ve seen, Passion. Great films from this year also include The Verdict, Blade Runner, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, Conan The Barbarian and one of my favorite animated films ever, The Secret Of NIMH. There’s a fine documentary on the making of the #1 film from this year, Les Blank’s Burden Of Dreams, decent prestige films like Gandhi, Sophie’s Choice and An Officer And A Gentleman and some very good comedies: Tootsie, Airplane II: The Sequel and Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Best: Fitzcarraldo. Most Underrated: The Secret Of NIMH. Most Overrated: Tootsie.
1984 – The highest peak and most depth thus far, this year is led by Jim Jarmusch’s second film, the minimalist comedy Stranger Than Paradise, followed by Milos Forman’s multi-Oscar winning biopic Amadeus. Next are two of the most perfect comedies ever: Ghostbusters and This Is Spinal Tap, along with Sergio Leone’s final epic Once Upon A Time In America, the Coens’s debut Blood Simple, the baseball-as-myth classic The Natural and underrated 80s standouts The Karate Kid, Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, Footloose, and Sixteen Candles. Best: Stranger Than Paradise. Most Underrated: Temple Of Doom. Most Overrated: Splash.
1980 – This year has the fewest Films I’ve Seen of the decade, and not-unrelated, its case rests almost entirely on it’s tremendous peak as the depth is merely decent. The Empire Strikes Back heads the list, followed by The Shining, The Big Red One, Heaven’s Gate, Raging Bull, Stardust Memories and Kagemusha. There’s also a trio of comedy masterpieces: Airplane!, Caddyshack and The Blues Brothers and a few campy favorites in Flash Gordon, The Gods Must Be Crazy and Superman II. With nine films I consider truly great, 1980 has the second-best extended peak of any year of the decade. Best: The Empire Strikes Back. Most Underrated: Heaven’s Gate. Most Overrated: Raging Bull.
1981 – Close behind 1980 on peak, but with a few more good films rounding out the depth is this year, led by three of the greatest action films of all-time: Steven Spielberg’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark, George Miller’s The Road Warrior, and Wolfgang Peterson’s Das Boot. Warren Beatty’s great epic Reds, Herbert Ross’s near-forgotten Pennies From Heaven, John Carpenter’s classic Escape From New York and Peter Weir’s very fine Gallipoli round out a great collection of dramas, while Stripes, The Evil Dead, An American Werewolf In London and Time Bandits add some great comedies to the mix. There’s even some historical fun of varying degrees of campiness with John Boorman’s Excalibur, John Huston’s Victory and Desmond Davis and Ray Harryhausen’s Clash Of The Titans. Best: Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Most Underrated: Pennies From Heaven. Most Overrated: Chariots Of Fire.
1989 – The best year of the decade is led by the best film of the decade, Spike Lee’s classic Do The Right Thing. There are nine other great films this year (Henry V, Crimes And Misdemeanors, The Killer, The Decalogue, Heathers, When Harry Met Sally, Glory, Mystery Train, Drugstore Cowboy) easily giving it the best peak. Solid depth is provided by the likes of Field Of Dreams, The Abyss, Batman, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, Lonesome Dove and The Fabulous Baker Boys. I’ve seen more films from 1989 than any other year of the decade (a whopping 57), more great films and more good films. It’s an easy #1 choice. Best: Do The Right Thing. Most Underrated: Glory. Most Overrated: Cinema Paradiso.
Every director with at least two films in my Top Tens for each year of the 1980s.
Steven Spielberg: 4
Martin Scorsese: 4
Woody Allen: 4
Rob Reiner: 3
Jim Jarmusch: 3
John Landis: 3
Oliver Stone: 2
Robert Zemeckis: 2
James Cameron: 2
John G. Avildsen: 2
The Coen Brothers: 2
Tony Scott: 2
Sam Raimi: 2
Terry Gilliam: 2
Ivan Reitman: 2
Akira Kurosawa: 2
Harold Ramis: 2
David Zucker: 2
Stanley Kubrick: 2