Top 100 Favorite Films of the 1980s

From time to time, my friends (several of the editors of this blog included) like to take on tasks, like assembling our top 100 favorite (or best, depending on the person) films of a certain decade list. This kicked off several years back when the aughts came to a close, and without the benefit of much hindsight, my list came together with relative ease, an occurrence that would become more and more impossible with each passing year. Time will forever be the ultimate judge of a movie’s worth, so I would be interested in revisiting that particular manifest at some point down the road.

From there we began to work our way backwards, tackling the 90s, a decade that proved more problematic since that 10 years was when my love for film really took off. As herculean as that task was, it didn’t come close to preparing me for the challenge I had in creating my 80s list. I foolishly thought this was going to be a cinch, an idiotic result of a thought process that would have been considered nebulous at best*. I had failed to think about three important factors that would influence my list of favorite 80s films:

1.       Most of my favorite films from childhood are from the decade because I came of age. While some of them aren’t what one would call a typical “kids” film, my family was cool enough to raise me right and get me started on the works of Carpenter and Hooper early on, so kudos to them.

2.       I love action films more than any other genre; they are criminally underrated and, generally speaking, not treated with the reverence they deserve by casual film fans and cineastes alike. I will resist the urge to rant and rave on this topic and just leave it alone, but suffice to say that the genre is well represented here.

3.       Over the past decade, I’ve become a considerable fan of horror, sci-fi, and, in a general sense, the low budget, totally insane films that could have only come out in the 80s. Just like the action genre, these genres hit a high water mark that, for my money, hasn’t been equaled sense.

In an effort to make an accurate list, I re-watched 80% (this guesstimate seems right, I suppose) of the movies that make an appearance below, plus a whole lot more that fell out of contention at one point or another during this highly scientific process. The last 5 cut from the list are always the hardest, so in the interest of full disclosure, I decided to list them here:

1.       Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

2.       After Hours

3.       Zelig

4.       This is Spinal Tap

5.       Unbearable Lightness of Being

Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or the willpower to write up something about each movie, so this humble preamble will have to do. I have written up full reviews of some of the films on this list for the blog, so those titles will offer a hyperlink to the previous post. If you’ve never heard of or seen any film on this list, I strongly urge you to track it down and enjoy a night in. As always, voicing one’s opinions and objections to my list is welcomed.

100. Year of the Dragon (1985)

99. Road Games (1981)

98. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

97. Razorback (1984)

96. Breathless (1983)

95. Missing (1982)

94. The Hit (1985)

93. Night of the Comet (1984)

92. Mystery Train (1989)

91. Turkey Shoot (1983)

90. Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)

89. Death Wish 3 (1985)

88. Akira (1988)

87. Say Anything… (1989)

86. Secret Honor (1985)

85. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

84. The Blob (1988)

83. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)

82. Do the Right Thing (1989)

81. Evil Dead II (1987)

80. They Live (1988)

79. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

78. Police Story 2 (1988)

77. As Tears Go By (1988)

76. Re-Animator (1985)

75. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

74. Big (1988)

73. Dead Ringers (1988)

72. Broadcast News (1987)

71. Mona Lisa (1986)

70. The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

69. Fitzcarraldo (1982)

68. Near Dark (1987)

67. Police Story (1985)

66. The Mission (1986)

65. Something Wild (1986)

64. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

63. Lost in America (1985)

62. Witness (1985)

61. Paris, Texas (1984)

60. Blue Velvet (1986)

59. Better off Dead… (1985)

58. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

57. Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

56. The King of Comedy (1983)

55. Top Secret! (1984)

54. Body Heat (1981)

53. Thief (1981)

52. 48 Hrs. (1982)

51. Knightriders (1981)

50. Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

49. Gremlins (1984)

48. To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

47. RoboCop (1987)

46. Commando (1985)

45. ¡Three Amigos! (1986)

44. The Fly (1986)

43. Platoon (1986)

42. Back to the Future (1985)

41. The Terminator (1984)

40. Blood Simple (1984)

39. Project A (1983)

38. Southern Comfort (1981)

37. Hopscotch (1980)

36. Pennies from Heaven (1981)

35. Prince of the City (1981)

34. Tampopo (1985)

33. Blade Runner (1982)

32. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

31. Bloodsport (1988)

30. Coming to America (1988)

29. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

28. Used Cars (1980)

27. Videodrome (1983)

26. The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984)

25. Escape from New York (1981)

24. Repo Man ( 1984)

23. The Untouchables (1987)

22. Blow Out (1981)

21. Withnail & I (1987)

20. The Goonies (1985)

19. Aliens (1986)

18. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

17. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

16. Poltergeist (1982)

15. From Beyond (1986)

14. A Christmas Story (1983)

13. Road House (1989)

12. Beetlejuice (1988)

11. Clue (1985)

10. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

9. Die Hard (1988)

8. The Long Good Friday (1980)

7. Ghostbusters (1984)

6. Predator (1987)

5. Ran (1985)

4. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

3. Brazil (1985)

2. The Thing (1982)

1. Raging Bull (1980)

-David

*Just to put the difficultly of this is perspective, I was supposed to get my list out roughly two months back.

Vernon, Florida (1981)

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I’ve been a bit of a “movie shark” recently, consistently moving from one new film to the next, knocking out both classics that have been on my must-see list for forever and a day and also consuming the cinema offered up to us in 2012 to finish off the best of list I posted last week. Hopefully, I will get out of this mode soon as there are piles of movies that I want to revisit and also show to people for the first time, which, incidentally, is one of my all-time favorite things to do. Since it is obviously impossible to watch a film again for the first time, the next best thing is showing a film you truly love to one of your friends or family for the first time, hopefully being able to live vicariously through them for an hour or so.

One of the plus sides of going through the “movie shark” phase like this is I get to see a lot of film in a short amount of time, and most of it is offbeat and picked up for extra cheap. Now that the DVD medium has become so damn inexpensive, I pick up most anything that catches my fancy if it’s under 5 bucks. If I don’t like it, I can trade it in at a couple of my regular movie-buying haunts for another movie, getting my wallet caught up in a particularly vicious cycle of commerce that only film buffs fully comprehend. Truly, it is a sickness; I know it, but I embrace it. One of my favorite places to pick up cheap flicks is Big Lots, where I can find long forgotten gems and an abundance of movies that I now wish I could forget. Luckily, Vernon, Florida, the second directorial effort by the legendary documentarian Errol Morris, turned out to be one of the best pickups I’ve made in quite sometime, and the fact that it was only $1.88 didn’t hurt either.

Up until I purchased the film, I had never heard of Vernon, Florida. Even my girlfriend, who spent most of her life in that particular state, didn’t know the town existed. Suspicious. Since everyone who shows up in the film ranges somewhere between charming in a mentally challenged way to full-on wackadoodle, and just to make sure Morris wasn’t trying to pull one over on me (yes, me specifically, 20+ years after he released the film. Diabolical, isn’t it?) by creating an entirely fictional town, I consulted Wikipedia and, yes, Vernon, Florida, does exist. I will provide you with these maps as evidence:

Vernon_FL

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Vernon is still a tiny town, just like it was when Morris pointed his lens at it all those years ago. According to the 2004 census the population clocked in at 757, up just 14 people from the one performed in 2000. Clearly, nobody moves to Vernon, but it appears nobody leaves either; the town seemingly exists as some type of muggy, critter-infested Florida limbo for anyone (un)lucky enough to be born there. Then there is the small matter of limb dismemberment. In the 1950s and ‘60s, this quiet, unassuming hamlet rose to prominence in the national consciousness due to the improbably high percentage of citizens who placed insurance claims on lost limbs, causing speculation that residents of the town were, in fact, dismembering themselves to collect some extra cash at an insurance company’s expense. During this stretch of time, the residents of Vernon accounted for as much as two-thirds of lost limb claims nationally, which is quite an impressive feat when your population is somewhere between 500 and 800 folks at the time, thus earning the nickname “Nub City*.”

As you could imagine, the citizens are a colorful bunch, which helps in transforming Morris’s documentary feature into a strange and utterly captivating piece of work, chronicling their obsessions with a deadpan, slight-of-hand style that doesn’t get in the way of the film becoming an involved record of the town’s colorful characters. Vernon’s memorable residents include a wildly enthusiastic group of turkey (the smartest birds in America, he enthuses!) hunters, one of whom who can recall each of his hunting achievements in such detail that could only be described as epic; the solitary local cop who seems to have learned the ins and outs of his trade by viewing cop shows, who is equipped with outdated equipment including a two-way radio that, since he has no counterparts, is used only to talk with his wife; and an elderly couple whose prize possession is a jar of sand collected from White Sands, NM, that they insist, thanks to radiation, had begun to multiply.

As with the rest of his filmography, Morris takes the simple approach of placing his subjects in their environment and only listening to the stories they wish to regale him with. This allows the residents to talk of their dreams, philosophies, superstitions, and fantasies in a surprisingly candor-filled fashion. In one of the film’s best scenes, you see and hear an old man pontificate on what a turtle he keeps in his backyard must be thinking about, and begin to realize you just got the Cliff Notes version of his life’s philosophy. This probably goes without saying, but the movie is often very funny. The aforementioned cop uses a bewildering array of law-enforcement jargon that makes it impossible to tell if he is joking or not, and in my personal favorite scene, we get to see Sunday morning church service with the local preacher, a man who appears to be in over his head (but enthusiastically so), giving an entire sermon on the significance of the word “therefore.”

Upon its release, Vernon, Florida received a fair amount of criticism, including allegations of making fun of its subjects, a charge I don’t exactly agree with as the film seems to have too much in the way of affection for the residents for that. Instead, I think Morris saw them as true American originals that’ve let their enthusiasms for wild, rabies-infested animals, worm farming, idioms, and Jesus run away with them. In truth, all they are trying to find in their eccentric obsessions is a way to make sense of their lives and the universe they find themselves in. All they want is to find a pattern in life that makes their existence worthwhile and worth living. In that way, the residents of Vernon are no different from the rest of us, it’s just the system they chose is skewed from the norm.

-David

*This was the original title chosen by Morris until several death threats from the townsfolk changed his mind.