40(ish)Years Later: The Best Movies of 1980

As is now my tradition (after failing to get under the wire last year) the first post of 2021 will be something that was meant to be posted in the last calendar year. Several things caused me to fall behind. Obviously the pandemic and its anxiety-producing effects on this author contributed. The fact that I also recently returned to grad school in the fall meant that this blog fell (and will fall) low in my writing priorities. But the chief reason I think this post failed to get under the wire is that this is the first “best-of-the-year” retrospective I have done of a a year before I was actually born meaning that a large majority of the movies that made this list were first-time watches for me (including well as at least a dozen that didn’t make the list). Don’t get me wrong, checking out all these movies was a pleasure but it just took a lot longer than I thought.

1980 was in many ways a transitional year in the movies. 1960s and 70s Hollywood was the age of auteur-driven movies spearheaded by United Artists, a major Hollywood studio owned by directors and actors, and culminating in the late 70s with the emergence of the “Movie Brats” – Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, and George Lucas among others. Those “movie brats”, operating as auteurs but enamored by the Golden age of Hollywood, were responsible for the emergence of the modern blockbuster with Spielberg’s Jaws and Lucas’ Star Wars arguably being the most influential in shaping the Hollywood we know today. 1980 seems to be symbolically the year in which Hollywood began to shift away from the auteurs and the seeds for franchisable blockbusters were born.

BOX OFFICE (in millions USD)

1. The Empire Strikes Back ($209.4)
2. Nine to Five ($103.3)
3. Stir Crazy ($101.3)
4. Airplane! ($83.5)
5. Any Which Way You Can ($70.7)
6. Private Benjamin ($69.8)
7. Coal Miner’s Daughter ($67.2)
8. Smokey and the Bandit II ($66.1)
9. The Blue Lagoon ($58.9)
10. The Blues Brothers ($57.2)

This box office list seems almost alien to any of us familiar with what the modern box office looks like (2020 notwithstanding). Dominating the list is a bunch of comedies, highlighting that 1980 may just be the high-point for big-studio comedy. Meanwhile Coal Miner’s Daughter in the top-10 remind us that there used to be a time in which the Academy and the Box Office were much more closely correlated (all five of the Best Picture Nominees were in the top-35 of the year).

But it is the movie sitting at number one that is the most significant for this list. Sequels before The Empire Strikes Back stood in two different categories: on the one hand there was the tradition of horror franchise sequels which were done for cheap and cynically made to churn out revenue (even if a few rose to the level of being good) and then there was the rarer instance of critically acclaimed sequels of which Godfather Part II is the chief example. The Empire Strikes Back introduced the concept of a sequel made at the highest production-level possible but meant to maximize profits and franchisability. Once The Empire Strikes Back succeeded at the box-office, Pandora’s box was opened; there was no way Hollywood would go back.

Oscar Best Picture Nominees: Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Elephant Man, Ordinary People (WINNER), Raging Bull, Tess.

While I am tempted to place the decision to snub Raging Bull, one of the great works of American cinema, as one of the most egregious mistakes the Academy has made I am hesitant. First of all, this is such a strong slate of movies and four of these movies make it on my list (Tess does not because it technically was released in 1979 and so is ineligible) so without the power of hindsight it is hard to fault the Academy for overlooking Raging Bull, a movie that admittedly takes multiple watches to fully appreciate. But secondly, Ordinary People is a quietly powerful work on its own merits and in most other years would be a truly worthy winner, something that cannot be said of many Best Picture Winners.



25. CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD dir. Lucio Fulci

While I could not bring myself to put Friday the 13th onto this list (because, as you can see, I think there are four Friday movies that are better than the original), this list would be incomplete if it did not include at least one iconic horror movie that spurred on the “video nasty” scare of the 1980s. As with most Fulci movies, the violence in City of the Living Dead is truly horrific with the special effects quite amazingly gory for its time and the question of whether all of this is in poor taste always being a valid question. However if – and I realize it’s a big if – you can get past this, Fulci absolutely delivers on the promise of his ridiculous premise, whereby a priest’s suicide opens a gateway to hell that our protagonists have to close up before it’s too late.


24. NINE TO FIVE dir. Colin Higgins

Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton team up to take down their misogynistic boss and do not disappoint; this alone is enough to vault them onto the list. But what the premise fails to show is how weird Nine to Five is as the movie frequently ventures from being too frivolous to too dark; this doesn’t diminish how undeniably fun it is to see this trio, and especially Tomlin, command the stage. Of course, it it sad that the concept of an abusive, sexist, and misogynistic boss still remains as timeless and prescient as ever forty years later, depressingly reminding us how little has changed.


23. FLASH GORDON dir. Mike Hodges

Flash Gordon’s pleasures are not to be found in supreme craft, awe-inducing special effects, or stupendous acting for in all of these things it spectacularly fails. And yet, that is entirely the movie’s charm. Skirting that very thin line between being incredibly earnest or entirely in-on-the-joke, Flash Gordon teeters towards (knowing?) disaster as director Mike Hodges brings to screen a big-budget homage to a property that from its offset was meant to be cheap and disposal. During a time when science-fiction was increasingly becoming a serious endeavor with a growing lore and religious fanbase with the emergence of Star Wars and Star TrekFlash Gordon emerges as an antithesis: a silly throwback to a time when science-fiction was too much fun to take seriously.

Long Riders, The

22. THE LONG RIDERS dir. Walter Hill

Of all the movies on this list, this is the only one whose reputation gets diminished simply because a much better version of this movie showed up later. The Long Riders is a serviceable retelling of Jesse James and the infamous James-Younger gang with the ingenious decision to cast all four sets of brothers in this movie with four sets of real-life brothers (the Keaches, the Carradines, the Quaids, and the Guests) giving the movie an added verisimilitude. Unfortunately the movie simply cannot hold a candle to perhaps the best Western of the last twenty years, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Fog, The

21. THE FOG dir. John Carpenter

Look, there is just no way to make the concept of “ghost sailors” seem anything but goofy but John Carpenter comes awfully close. Eschewing the more visceral scares of Halloween Carpenter opts instead for a slow-building atmosphere of dread and the results are chilling. Though the film is ostensibly set in a coastal town in California, Carpenter imbues such a fairy-tale atmosphere that it feels like it could take place anywhere. Meanwhile the titular fog gives the whole movie an unexpectedly cosy making this paradoxically the scariest movie to snuggle up to with a mug of hot cocoa.


20. CADDYSHACK dir. Harold Ramis

As with most comedies of this era, it is hard to tell in this movie where the comedy ends and the cocaine begins. Caddyshack, like most cocaine-fueled comedies of its age, is less of a story and more like a loose narrative thread for the comedians to perform extended riffs and bits. Fortunately the comedians assembled are a legendary crew, blending both seasoned veterans like Ted Knight and the mercurial Rodney Dangerfield as well as the new guard of future 80s comedy hall-of-famers like Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and director Harold Ramis. The resultant movie is chaotic and often sophomoric, but it is hard to deny that it also isn’t frequently side-splittingly hilarious.

Altered States

19. ALTERED STATES dir. Ken Russell 

Altered States is a strange conundrum of a movie that perhaps perfectly represents the transitional period that 1980 was: it was a science-fiction horror movie that was riding the wave of the rising interest in the genre thanks to the blockbuster Star Wars yet was also a highly experimental art film commissioned by a major studio reflecting the auteur driven status of the industry in the 70s. It’s central premise of using sensory deprivation as a means to access unconscious states betrays the pop psychobabble that permeated culture at the time, but that hardly matters because William Hurt in his debut proves to be absolutely magnetic and elevates this B-movie premise into an art film.


18. USED CARS dir. Robert Zemeckis

With Caddyshack and Nine to Five landing in lower spots on this list and (minor spoiler) a few more to come, this seems like the perfect time to note that 1980 might just be one of the best years in studio comedy ever. Robert Zemeckis’ sophomore feature, a raunchy comedy about a shady used car dealership led by Kurt Russell, seems out of place when looking at the rest of Zemeckis’ feature but fits in just fine with the anarchic energy of the comedies of 1980. While Used Cars may be stuffed with too many ideas for its own good, its pitch black satire on American capitalism tends to hit home more often than not while its screwball energy means that the jokes fly in your face too fast to wonder if any of them make any sense at all.

Melvin & Howard

17. MELVIN & HOWARD dir. Jonathan Demme

The story is so ridiculous if it weren’t purportedly true: One night Melvin Dummar, a profoundly ordinary person, finds a disheveled hitchhiker and gives him a ride to Vegas; the hitchhiker turns out to be Howard Hughes who is so taken by Dummar that Hughes bequeaths 150 million dollars to him in his will. Jonathan Demme, in his first breakout studio feature after cutting his teeth with Roger Corman, shows the humanistic streak that would be his calling card in his career by wisely focusing on the ordinary Dummar and his up and down life, his loves won and lost, and the enterprising spirit that drives him to the minor successes in his life before the unexpected windfall lands on his feet. “Sweet” is usually a pejorative and dismissive way to describe a movie, but that is exactly what this movie is in the best possible way.


16. THE BLUES BROTHERS dir. John Landis

As the first ever movie based on a Saturday Night Live sketch, we have The Blues Brothers’ success to blame for the unwatchable disasters that followed in its wake. Of course, that is an entirely unfair statement to make about this great comedy, the only SNL comedy to honor the legendary original cast (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) in their prime. While the movie is perhaps a tad too long, it is such a great hangout movie that it hardly matters. Belushi and Aykroyd play Jake and Elwood with such naturalistic ease while the rousing musical numbers and multiple car chases keep the movie chugging along at a steady pace that it would be enjoyable even if it had remained an anonymous movie. However the fact that it also contains so many scenes ingrained into our cultural consciousness is an added bonus.

Changeling, The

15. THE CHANGELING dir. Peter Medak

The Changeling manages to accomplish a very unique thing in that it is a ghost movie that simultaneously leaves me heartbroken for the ghost and also absolutely terrified whenever it makes an appearance (leaving to an irrational fear of balls and old-timey wheelchairs in this writer). Part of that has to do with the performance of George C. Scott who manages to imbue those dual aspects of empathy and terror simultaneously as he tries to get to the bottom of what is causing his rented home to be haunted. The Changeling is a perfectly calibrated dance between rationalistic calm and visceral terror as Scott’s procedural investigation allows for a cerebral reprieve to lull us into a false sense of security before the hauntings terrify us.


14. MON ONCLE D’AMERIQUE dir. Alan Resnais

As was recently pointed out to me, the key to understanding why this quirky and weird comedy is such a scandalous satire is that it is a French movie explicating the behaviorist psychotherapy as expressed by Henri Laborit in a country whose whole idea of the mind and the unconscious is derived primarily from psychoanalytic and Freudian schools of thought. In following three children through adulthood (portrayed by Gerald Depardieu, Nicole Garcia, and Roger Pierre) the movie presents their actions and life course initially through a lens of free will only to have it be undercut by Laborit who shows them to be something akin to lab rats in an experiment acting according to their preset behaviors. Undeniably strange, but darkly funny.


13. COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER dir. Michael Apted

Even though Coal Miner’s Daughter could come across as derivative thanks to the dozens of music biopics that came in its wake, it still manages to stand out thanks an absolutely iconic performance from Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn, thoroughly deserving in the Best Actress Oscar she snagged as a result. Somehow she manages to portray being a 15-year old so convincingly that it is unnerving for her to be falling in love and marrying Doo Lynn as played by Tommy Lee Jones, who even in this early role looks a couple decades older than he is. But equally Spacek is more than convincing in the latter half of the movie where she plays Lynn several decades older than Spacek was at the time. Between Spacek’s electric performance and great turns by Jones and Beverly D’Angelo as Patsy Cline, Coal Miner’s Daughter does more than enough to rise above most other music biopics to come before or follow in its wake.

Heaven's Gate

12. HEAVEN’S GATE dir. Michael Cimino

Maligned as one of the “worst movie’s of all time”, Heaven’s Gate is a classic case of a movie’s production prejudicing its reception with the fallout of its failure effectively killing a studio (United Artists) and ending the age of auteur driven cinema. This is doubly tragic because much of the criticism is wholly unfair. Yes, the movie went far above its budget and was mired in production hell but I dare anyone watching this forty years later to say that the money doesn’t show up on the screen. It is a late western that is neither revisionist nor wholly crowd-pleasing which makes it out of step for its time but that uneasy tension is exactly what makes the movie compelling. Each of the three main leads (Kris Kristofferson, Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Walken) are absolutely superb and the story is a study in contrasts as its pleasing first half leaves you open to the harrowing gut punch that is its conclusion.


11. THE LAST METRO dir. Francois Truffaut

Francois Truffaut’s The Last Metro tries to strike a balance between being at once a behind-the-scenes backstage drama and a movie about the Nazi occupation of France. Truffaut succeeds wholeheartedly in the former task, as he portrays the ins and outs of a Parisian theater owned by a German Jew who is publicly supposed to have fled to South America but is in fact hiding in the basement leaving his wife (Catherine Deneuve) to handle operations and save the theater from bankruptcy. The backstage drama is delightfully complicated by a new lead (Gerard Depardieu) who is both romantically drawn to Deneuve and is politically volatile while the supporting cast of characters contribute in-numerous joys and heartaches. The only downside is that rather than being an examination of Vichy France, The Last Metro ends up treating the Nazi occupation as a mere plot point amongst many.


10. AIRPLANE! dirs. Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker, & David Zucker

Perhaps the greatest compliment one can give Airplane! is the fact that most people probably won’t recognize that this movie is a spoof of the Airport movies of the 1970s. Casting then non-comedy actors like Leslie Nielsen, Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges, and Robert Stack meant that the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams could go incredibly sophomoric with the humor without letting the movie descend into cheap farce. With its eminently quotable script and iconic gags, Airplane! is easily the most re-watchable movie on this list. It is the rare comedy that still remains hilarious even decades after the punchlines are still known; in a year of hall-of-fame comedies, it still manages to soar high above the rest.

Ordinary People

9. ORDINARY PEOPLE dir. Robert Redford

Yes, this movie gets lambasted for being the Oscar bait movie that beat Raging Bull to the Oscar and rightly so, but don’t let that distract you because when taken on its own terms, this is a quietly devastating movie in its own right that is the most accurate major studio exploration of grief. Mary Tyler Moore is revelatory in her against-type performance as the stoic and repressed matriarch of a family coming to terms with the accidental death of her oldest son and the attempted suicide of her youngest son Conrad (Timothy Hutton) who survived the boating accident. This phenomenally acted movie is rounded out by Donald Sutherland as the father desperately trying to keep the pieces of his family together while Judd Hirsch is arguably perhaps the best depiction of a psychiatrist ever put on screen (which I realize, as a counseling psychologist in training places my views as being slightly biased). On a side note, Hutton winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor is perhaps the greatest act of category fraud I have ever seen.


8. BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder

If Cahiers du Cinema can name Twin Peaks: The Return, a TV series that dropped weekly episodes on a cable channel, the best movie of the decade, then Berlin Alexanderplatz, a 930 minute behemoth that Fassbinder dropped onto German television, certainly qualifies for this list. Decades before American TV normalized sad-sack male antiheroes for protagonists (ala Messrs Soprano, White, and Draper), this haunting portrait of Franz Biberkopf, a despicable petty criminal living in a tumultous 1930s Germany, tests the limits of empathy but the relentless intensity that Fassbinder brings to this epic means that it is always compelling.


7. GLORIA dir. John Cassavetes

After a career of making quietly devastating and intensely personal art films, John Cassavetes finally got his chance to sink his teeth into a rollicking thriller with the budget and production values to back it up, and it is an absolute joy to see him let loose. Casting his wife and muse Gena Rowlands as a woman with mob ties who is unexpectedly thrust back into the crime world when a young Puerto Rican boy who is wanted by the mob falls into her protection puts the perfect amount of spin on what is a tried-and-true formula. It is a perfect reminder that sometimes all you need to make something old seem new again is simply to give it a subtle gender-swapped makeover, a lesson that Hollywood seems to learn all too rarely.


6. THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY dir. John Mackenzie

British crime movies always seem like an underrated sub-genre, despite numerous great examples hitting our shores at a fairly consistent basis. The Long Good Friday belongs in the conversation as one of the best. The movie follows Bob Hoskins as a London gangster at a crossroads as he tries to control his underworld empire against the advances of an unseen rival while also attempting to go legitimate by attracting some American partners for a real estate venture.As a child of the 90s seeing this movie finally helped me understand why people thought it strange for Bob Hoskins to be in children’s movies such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Super Mario Bros. because Hoskins fits so naturally here as a smarmy British mobster. This movie is also notable for a star-making performance from Helen Mirren as Hoskins’ wife.

Elephant Man, The

5. THE ELEPHANT MAN dir. David Lynch

Though there are certainly better films in David Lynch’s career none may have been more important than The Elephant Man. As his follow-up to the revolutionary, mind-bending, and decidedly uncommercial Eraserhead, The Elephant Man was Lynch’s moment to prove that he could work within a more conventional film while still maintaining the oddness that makes his such a singular auteur. He succeeded primarily because Lynch wisely chose not to focus on the obvious physical deformities of his subject, the real life Joseph Merrick (performed masterfully by John Hurt), but rather to expose the darker and more monstrous aspects of society that would wickedly try and turn Merrick into a monstrous freak show.


4. KAGEMUSHA dir. Akira Kurosawa

While most directors usually reach their peak somewhere in the middle of their career before winding down with some lesser works, there is a strong argument to be made that late Kurosawa might just represent his high-water mark (something especially astounding when you consider the exceptional calibre of Akira Kurosawa’s entire body of work). Kagemusha, about a thief who is spared from execution due to his resemblance to the local daimyo and becomes an unwilling decoy when the daimyo unexpectedly is killed, is an epic tale that is on the shortlist of Kurosawa’s best films and cements his place as the undisputed master of the samurai movie.

Shining, THe

3. THE SHINING dir. Stanley Kubrick

Nowadays I usually get sad when a promising new director has to step away from their ambitious work to get saddled with some genre work. Stanley Kubrick and The Shining is a reminder that this need not be a step backwards. Famously, and much to Stephen King’s chagrinKubrick took the basic bones of the novel and changed it from being about a haunted hotel to being a psychological horror instead. The end result is a movie whose meaning will be debated and reinterpreted for eternity, simple enough for any viewer to catch its basic horrifying gist but opaque enough to leave its deepest mysteries frustratingly out of reach.


Star Wars 5 Empire Strikes Back

2. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK dir. Irvin Keshner

Just like the emergence of Star Wars and Jaws in the 1970s, The Empire Strikes Back is both undeniably amazing and might be one of the worst things to happen to the film industry. Its success, both from a commercial and critical standpoint, ensured that Hollywood would try and pursue franchises that could be easily replicated and marketed endlessly, increasingly at the expense of auteur-driven passion projects that had made the 1970s such a high-point for American cinema. But of course, The Empire Strikes Back only did this because it was very, very good. George Lucas wisely decided that he’d rather put the first Star Wars sequels in the hands of character-driven directors (a wisdom he strangely abandoned two decades later) and the result is an emotionally complex and darker episode that turned Luke, Leia, Han, Darth, and the like from being archetypal cutouts in the original movie to characters whose legacy endures.

Raging Bull

1. RAGING BULL dir. Martin Scorsese

There is an argument to be made that Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro represent the greatest director-actor pairing and Raging Bull is in my estimation the high water mark of their collaboration. Unlike most boxing movies Scorsese has no time for romanticism, owing perhaps to Scorsese’s own admitted dislike of sports. His depiction of Jake LaMotta is brutish, cruel, and unflinching in its exploration of toxic masculinity decades before it became a buzzword with De Niro suitably igniting whatever fuel Scorsese throws his way (earning De Niro what is criminally his first and only Best Actor Oscar). Together they create a boxing movie that is simultaneously so compelling that you cannot help but watch every second of its absolute raw brutality and yet so oft-putting that you never want to see another boxing match ever again.

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