Greatest Films of the 1980s
Greatest Films of the 1980s

Greatest Films of the 1980s
1980 | 1981 | 1982 | 1983 | 1984 | 1985 | 1986 | 1987 | 1988 | 1989


Title Screen Film Genre(s), Title, Year, (Country), Length, Director, Description

The Abyss (1989), 140 minutes, D: James Cameron

Batman (1989), 126 minutes, D: Tim Burton
See Batman film series.
Tim Burton's noirish, live-action comic-book superhero film is a more dark and menacing version of the campy and humorous 1966-68 Batman TV series and feature film Batman (1966). The ambitious blockbuster hit, the highest-grossing film of the year, features Michael Keaton as the brooding Caped Crusader/Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), a winged vigilante battling crime after his parents' murder. Mobster henchman Jack Napier (the murderer of Bruce Wayne's parents many years earlier) is also transformed after falling into a vat of acidic chemicals, to become the insane and outlandish Joker (a scene-stealing, over-the-top, clownish Jack Nicholson, top-billed). With a grotesque visage on a pure white face (with an impossibly-wide, hideous, perma-grin on his blood-red lips), he personified extreme avarice, anarchy, cruelty, and sick humor. Calling himself the maniacal, insane and clownish Joker and using gadgets as weapons, he vowed to spread a reign of terror over Gotham City against his masked nemesis. [Note: In tribute to Nicholson's inimitable, over-the-top portrayal of the Joker, Heath Ledger reprised the character in The Dark Knight (2008).]

Born on the Fourth of July (1989), 145 minutes, D: Oliver Stone
The second of director Oliver Stone's Vietnam War-era trilogy of films, including Platoon (1986) and Heaven & Earth (1993). It was a biography of real-life veteran Ron Kovic (portrayed by Tom Cruise) - according to its tagline "a story of innocence lost and courage found." Kovic had been paralyzed during the war from a spinal injury, and he barely survived. In his youth, he was a physically fit athlete who had pride in his country, but that disappeared with his debilitating injury. His disillusionment was heightened by time spent in a Bronx veterans' hospital and his troubling reintroduction to society. He became a staunch anti-war and pro-human rights political activist. Still highly relevant material for today.

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989, UK/Fr.), 124/98 minutes, D: Peter Greenaway

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), 107 minutes, D: Woody Allen
Perhaps Woody Allen's darkest, most somber movie, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) took a long, provocative, and ultimately downbeat look at morality with its ensemble cast. The tragi-comedy is impressive for its literate and provocative questioning about God's existence and life's meaning. Dual, multi-layered stories about Manhattanites, each composing about one-half of the film, were interwoven together, and interconnected by the character of a mutual friend - a lone holy man and rabbi named Ben (Sam Waterston) who was going blind. The first story dealt with Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), a wealthy, law-abiding, married (to Claire Bloom, as Miriam), well-respected, middle-aged ophthalmologist who was successful in nearly every way. However, an enraged and obsessed flight attendant and ex-lover Dolores Paley (Anjelica Huston), with whom he had been cheating on his wife, threatened to divulge the scandal and ruin his life. With this dilemma facing him, Judah was forced to take extreme measures - the contemplation of murder of his mistress by contacting his seldom-seen brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) with Mafia connections. His guilt forced him to revisit his past and ask basic questions about his own values, the unfairness of life, virtue, 'the eyes of God,' a god-less universe, justice for evil-doing, and unequal punishment of the wicked. Meanwhile, in the lighter-spirited other half of the movie, Cliff Stern (Woody Allen), a dedicated but struggling, serious documentary filmmaker (who was married but in the process of separating from wife Wendy (Joanna Gleason)), was reluctantly forced to direct a film of his despised rival - his superficial, vain but extremely successful brother-in-law and TV sit-com producer Lester (Alan Alda). Complicating matters, Stern had to compete with Lester over the object of his impossibly-romantic affections - the documentary's attractive production associate named Halley Reed (Mia Farrow).

Dead Poets Society (1989), 128 minutes, D: Peter Weir

The Decalogue (1989-1990, Pol.) (aka Dekalog: The Ten Commandments), 584 minutes, D: Krzysztof Kieslowski

Do the Right Thing (1989), 120 minutes, D: Spike Lee
This was the third (and breakout) feature film for African-American writer/director Spike Lee (who also starred as the pizzeria's delivery boy Mookie), whose resume already included: She's Gotta Have It (1986), and School Daze (1988). It was an even-handed, complex, unapologetic and disturbing social protest work about racism, racial pride, class struggle, intolerance, oppression and violence (based on real-life events), this controversial thought-provoking film provided a raw portrait of explosive conflict and relations between Italian- and African-Americans, Koreans and white law-enforcement in a multi-ethnic Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood block (in Brooklyn) during a stifling hot summer day. During the opening credits, hip-hop group Public Enemy performed the film's hard-edged anthem and title rap song, "Fight the Power." The multi-ethnic cast of the film provided three-dimensional characters, and featured the early career work of Samuel L. Jackson (as local black DJ Mister Senor Love Daddy providing commentary) and Rosie Perez. The tension began to escalate in this slice-of-life film because of a complaint by a militant patron named Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) that there were no pictures of 'brothers' on the "Wall of Fame" in a white-operated, Italian pizza restaurant owned by Sal (Danny Aiello). A boiling point is eventually reached in this street-wise landmark film. Film critics wrongly feared Lee's film was a call to revolution and would cause and incite similar responses from black urban-dwellers.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989), 99 minutes, D: Bruce Beresford

Drugstore Cowboy (1989), 100 minutes, D: Gus Van Sant, Jr.
Director Gus Van Sant's penetrating, post-modern second film is a risky piece of work - under-appreciated and overlooked, yet his breakthrough film. It follows the aimless lives of four resourceful dropouts cruising in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1970s to steal prescription drugs from various pharmacies and hospitals, while living a dreary communal life. Matt Dillon provides a powerful performance as the junkie leader of the pack of dysfunctional teens, who become increasingly desperate when faced with the consequences of drug addiction (a lethal overdose by teen junkie Nadine (Heather Graham)) and pressure from authorities.

Enemies, A Love Story (1989), 119 minutes, D: Paul Mazursky

Field of Dreams (1989), 107 minutes, D: Phil Alden Robinson
Just one year after playing catcher "Crash" Davis in Bull Durham (1988), Kevin Costner appeared in this - another baseball-themed film coupled with the religious themes of faith and redemption. This sentimental, modern fantasy classic became a smash hit in its unique depiction of Americana. Idealistic Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), a transplanted city boy-turned-Iowa corn farmer, hears a ghostly Voice telling him to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his corn field, to "ease his pain". His wife Annie (Amy Madigan) is semi-supportive but worried about their finances. No one but those who believe can see the ghostly ballplayers who begin to appear. This Capra-esque film recalls Harvey (1950), a film in which its main character believes he is befriended by a giant rabbit that no one can see. (Ray's daughter Karen (Gaby Hoffmann) is watching Harvey on T.V. at one point in the film, to emphasize the connection.) Adapted from W. P. Kinsella's novel Shoeless Joe, the film is almost dreamlike (aided by the mystical score by James Horner), as Ray meets with various sad and wistful icons, including the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) who was banned from baseball for life after the 1919 Black Sox scandal, a disillusioned, reclusive J.D. Salinger-like writer in Boston named Terence Mann (James Earl Jones), and a small-town doctor named Doc "Moonlight" Graham (Burt Lancaster) - a rookie player who years earlier yearned to make it into the major leagues. The film reaches its climax with Jones' famous monologue on the place of baseball in American history: "The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. Oh people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come."

Glory (1989), 122 minutes, D: Edward Zwick
One of the very best, fact-based Civil war films, and based upon the historical novels Lay This Laurel by Lincoln Kirstein and One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard. It depicted the overlooked but brave and distinguished participation of all-volunteer, African-American soldiers on the side of the Union in the first all-black 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (composed of runaway slaves and northern "freemen"). The fact-based film was based on the letters of the 600-man regiment's idealistic, 25-year old white commander, Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) from a privileged, abolitionistic family in Boston. The film focused on the hard training and the troops' battle to earn credibility with prejudiced military authorities to actually demonstrate their courage, bravery, sacrifice and determination during combat. The movie climaxed with their final, suicidal assault in 1863 on the impregnable Fort Wagner near Charleston, South Carolina - it failed but ultimately turned the tide of the war. The film also featured strong performances by Denzel Washington (in a star-making role) as bitter, ex-slave recruit Pvt. Trip, Morgan Freeman (who transcended typical Hollywood stereotypes about African-Americans with his distinctive performance) as born leader Sgt. Major John Rawlins, and Cary Elwes (as Major Cabot Forbes), as well as a Grammy-winning, powerful score by James Horner accompanied by The Harlem Boys Choir.

Henry V (1989, UK), 138 minutes, D: Kenneth Branagh
An adaptation of William Shakespeare's timeless, epic play Henry V - about young, 15th century British King Henry's invasion of France, and his victory at the crucial Battle of Agincourt against a larger French force. The story was told by powerful actor/director Kenneth Branagh (with his debut as both screenwriter and director). Branagh's revisionistic film was dramatic, grandiose, passionate and darkly serious. His wife Emma Thompson starred as French princess Catherine of Valois, whom Henry took as his bride. A play chiefly about royal responsibility, war and its effects, the nature of the film was deeply affected by the historical context in which it was created -- Branagh's film debuted during a post-Vietnam era when there was great cynicism about war. The film's highlights were -- Henry V's pre-battle speech to his troops at the siege of Harfleur, from Act III, Scene 1, beginning with the stirring line: "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; or close the wall up with our English dead," and his St. Crispin's Day address to his battle-weary men, from Act IV, Scene 3, "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother."

The Killer (1989, HK) (aka Die Xuet Shuang Xiong), 111 minutes, D: John Woo

The Little Mermaid (1989), 83 minutes, D: Disney Studio

Music Box (1989), 124 minutes, D: Costa-Gavras
This dramatic courtroom thriller was taglined: "As a lawyer all she wanted was the truth. As a daughter all she wanted was his innocence. How well do you really know your father?" Hungarian-American immigrant Michael J. Laszlo (Armin Mueller-Stahl), an anti-Communist, was threatened with having his US citizenship revoked, and being deported to Hungary to stand trial for war crimes. Laszlo insisted that it was a case of mistaken identity. His daughter Ann Talbot (Jessica Lange), a tough Chicago defense attorney, unwisely decided to defend her father in the case. One of her motivations was her son Mikey's (Luke Haas) deep love for his grandfather. Talbot's prepared defense was that the communist Budapest government (and its AVO secret police) had fabricated the allegations due to Laszlo's fanatical anti-Communist feelings. The US federal government's position, argued by prosecutor Jack Burke (Frederic Forrest), was that Laszlo had falsified his original citizenship application by failing to disclose his name "Mishka" - and his leadership and association with the terrorist organization, political party and death squad known as Arrow Cross that had brutally persecuted and murdered scores of Hungarian Jews. The presiding judge was Judge Irwin Silver (James Zagel), a Jew.
During the denaturalization trial in a Chicago federal court, evidence was presented showing a copy of young Laszlo's Arrow Cross ID card with his name "Laszlo Miklos." The picture matched his visa application. Talbot argued that any evidence was forged or inauthentic. However, there were surviving witnesses who testified to 'Mishka's' atrocities. During cross-examination, Ann was able to cast some doubt on some of the prosecution's charges. During the trial, the judge and opposing lawyers traveled to Budapest, where Ann planned to speak to a witness who couldn't travel, and was handed some documents by a member of the secret police. During the witness' testimony, Ann discredited him - she dismissed the accusations and documents by claiming that the witness had identified three completely different individuals as 'Mishka.' Judge Silver promptly dismissed the government's case. Before leaving Europe, Ann visited Melinda Zoldan (Elżbieta Czyżewska), the sister of Tibor Zoldan, one of Laszlo's fellow Hungarians (and a member of the Arrow Cross organization!) to whom he had written numerous checks. In Zoldan's wallet was a ticket to a pawn shop for a music box. When she redeemed the pawn ticket in Chicago, she found proof of her father's guilt. The pretty music box contained B/W photographs of her father involved in atrocities and war crimes. Ann denounced her deceitful father - threatening to never have Mikey or herself see him again. She sent the damning photographs to prosecutor Burke, who publicized them in the press.

My Left Foot (1989, UK), 98 minutes, D: Jim Sheridan

Roger & Me (1989), 91 minutes, D: Michael Moore
One of director/star Michael Moore's earliest interview-documentaries is this sleeper hit - a satirical and hilarious take on the fate of Flint, Michigan (Moore's hometown!). Policies of the GM chairman Roger Smith, judged as a symbol of corporate wealth and greed, have resulted in numerous plant closures, unemployment, unrest, and urban crime and blight. Although Moore's quest to track down and speak directly to the CEO is unsuccessful, his wanderings bring him into enlightening contact with displaced autoworkers, local law enforcement and political officials, celebrities (Pat Boone and Anita Bryant), and even President Reagan.

Say Anything... (1989), 100 minutes, D: Cameron Crowe
Cameron Crowe's fresh and sweet HS teen love story (his directorial debut film) is far and away one of the best of its type, with added intelligent resonance about coming-of-age, facing difficult challenges, and making choices. Realistic empathic performances abound: John Cusack stars as a charming yet average, recently-graduated jock-teen determinedly interested in a brainy and beautiful biochemistry student (Ione Skye), overprotected by her single father (John Mahoney) who must contend with troubling allegations of IRS tax violations. This one contains the iconic image of a 'boom-box' hoisted over-head to play Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes."

sex, lies and videotape (1989), 101 minutes, D: Steven Soderbergh
26 year-old writer/director Steven Soderbergh's independent film (his first feature film) - a low-budget, minimalist, character-driven debut film was the kinky, sharply-acted, and provocative, with suggestive discussions of sexual topics but without nudity or sex scenes. It was written in eight days and filmed over five weeks on a budget of $1.2 million, and became a huge hit at the Sundance Film Festival. The compelling effort also won the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, becoming a catalyst for the 'independent' (non-Hollywood) film movement. There was explicit dialogue in videotaped discussions and revelatory confessions of women in New Orleans talking about their complex sexual experiences. Reclusive drifter Graham Walton (James Spader) called the voyeuristic videotaping a "personal project," serving as a substitute for his own emotion-less, impotent and dispassionate life. Infidelity was revealed between his college-buddy turned yuppie lawyer John Mullany (Peter Gallagher), and the sexually-adventurous bartender sister Cynthia Patrice Bishop (Laura San Giacomo) of his own sexually-repressed, frigid and neglected wife Ann Bishop Mullany (Andie MacDowell). In one of the film's memorable scenes, Ann reversed roles and turned the camcorder on Graham to help him with his "problem."

When Harry Met Sally... (1989), 96 minutes, D: Rob Reiner
This witty and likeable, lightweight, old-fashioned romantic comedy was intended to answer the sexual politics question, "Can two friends sleep together and still love each other in the morning?" The main timely premise was whether a man and woman can be friends without sex interfering. Director Rob Reiner directed this smart, modern-day 'screwball comedy' (his fifth film) of the semi-autobiographical tale - it was compiled from the shared recollections of actual romances, and sometimes resembled a sitcom. The engaging, episodic film keenly observed romance, relationships between males and females, friendship and sex. Two long-time acquaintances, often pessimistic, fast-talking and controlling Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and bubbly Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) grappled with this question over a 12-year period (beginning in the spring of 1977 as students when they shared a drive to New York from Chicago), as their relationship grew and matured. Their love was not "at first sight" but took years to develop as the reluctant two often bumped into each other and reconnected. The leads' best friends, Marie (Carrie Fisher) and Jess (Bruno Kirby), helped Harry's and Sally's friendship to evolve, and actually fell in love and got married themselves. The summer of 1989's 'sleeper' film had a number of startling resemblances to Woody Allen's witty, urban romance Annie Hall (1977): the black and white titles and the film's title song "It Had to Be You" (sung by Diane Keaton in Allen's film), direct camera interviews-testimonials, split-screen techniques, the Manhattan backdrop, evocative George Gershwin tunes, obsessive talk about sex and death, and Harry and Sally's first meeting in 1977 - the year the similar film was released. The film's ending paralleled Allen's Manhattan (1979). However, the two films also differed: When Harry Met Sally... illustrated how friends can ultimately realize that they're better as lovers, while Annie Hall showed how lovers may end up better as friends. Its most unforgettable scene was Sally's noisy orgasm in a deli, causing the director's mother (one of the witnessing customers) to order: "I'll have what she's having."

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