Top Fifty Films of the 80s — An Introduction

Yes, I’m really going to do this.

When I tracked through my selections for the fifty best films of the the ten year span that began with January 1, 2000, the timing made sense. It aligned with the pending spin of the third digit on the calendar’s odometer and everyone was cooking up lists intended to summarize the entertainment of “the aughts.” When I repeated the exercise with the films of the 1990s, it had its own warped logic (or so I convinced myself) as I was honoring and making a sort of effort to preserve the prior bout of film analysis that inspired the list I’d just posted. Besides, I was still in full flush of the intellectual energy I’d stirred up by punching out the last five lengthy entries in four days time. It was understandable (or so I convinced myself) that I’d want to continue with the endeavor and tracking back was the most suitable way to fulfill that desire.

But it may be approaching the ridiculous now. Just wait til the introductory post next January. And the January after that, and the January after that.

With that unnecessary self-flagellation and preemptive apology out of the way, I should note that coming up with this list has been especially tricky, powerfully nostalgic and endlessly fascinating. I grew up during these years, starting the 80s as a nine-year-old whose primary cinematic ambition was cajoling adults to taking him to see Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (And Don’t Come Back!!) in the theater, and closing 1989 as a twenty-year-old college kid subsisting on 39-cent tacos to make sure I could afford a ticket to see Danny DeVito’s The War of the Roses. Inevitably, the resulting list summarizing the fifty finest films of those years, arranged and delineated through an indefinable mix of favoritism and studied evaluation of quality, reflects that journey.

For one thing, it’s woefully short on independent releases and foreign films. Even though I’ve made some efforts to catch-up on those seminal offerings that I missed, they don’t tug at my sleeve with the same urgency as the films that have marinated in my memories for twenty years or more. One of my rules in shaping these lists is to give extra credit to those films that have a special hold on me, those that I celebrate not just because of their storytelling acumen, visual splendor or icy daring, but because they stir something inside of me. That factor is going to be stronger when considering the movies of the 80s than any other time, as some of these titles nearly achieve the potency of sense memory when I think of them, the lingering feeling of discovery enhancing my view of their accomplishment as films. It’s irredeemably sentimental and yet undeniably true to say that these are the movies that made me fall in love with movies.

So there are a lot more Hollywood gloss, big budget successes and general crowd pleasers on this list. That has to do with who I was during the 80s, but I think it’s also an accurate measure of where American film was at. To the degree that these things can be compartmentalized to broad swatches of time and reduced to their defining movements, the 70s were a time when auteuristic ambition exploded behind the studios’ capabilities to reign it in and made significant money in the process, and the 90s were a time when the Sundance Film Festival influence and the mogul showmanship of the Weinstein brothers at Miramax helped redraw where art resided on the movie-making map just as the major studios started figuring out how to hone the building of self-perpetuating hit franchises down to a coldly calculated science. The 80s, then, can be viewed as this unique limbo in between. The exciting command and sly reshaping of film language from the decade before was applied freely to popcorn fare, elevating it to a gratifying degree. It would take years before the process of dumbing it dumb and blithely ignoring the useful conventions of narrative would take hold. There was still an overall desire, it seemed, to make good movies. While I can’t imagine the boldest movies of the 1970s being made today, it’s the smart, sharp multiplex gems of the 1980s strike me as largely outside the interest of anyone authorized to greenlight a picture nowadays.

So we’ll begin tomorrow with my usual cheat on the film in position fifty. However, this time it’s a little different. Previously, I’ve allowed a higher ranking for films that should rightfully have been lower. This time, it’s a film that I should arguably set higher on the list. This isn’t because it’s a consensus critical favorite that I’m lukewarm about. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a movie that I think is wonderful despite a flurry of brickbats heaved against it. Were I typing up this introduction in early January of 1990, it would undoubtedly have a more generous placement. In this instance, I have such a difficult time distinguishing between my distance, echoing emotional response to the film and my honest evaluation of its merits that I can where it should land on my list. So nestling it at the bottom and placing a fifty beside it is my way of admitting defeat.

Anyway, that’s tomorrow.