Most Influential Films in American Cinema

Most Influential, Significant
and Important Films in American Cinema


The 1980s


Most Influential, Significant and Important Films in American Cinema
(chronological by time period and film title)
Introduction | Silent Era | 1930s | 1940s | 1950s | 1960s
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Most Influential, Significant and Important Films in American Cinema
(chronological by time period and film title)
Title Screen
Film Title/Year/Director/Length/Studio, Descriptions of Influence/Significance
Poster

Airplane! (1980)
d. Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker, 88 minutes, Paramount Pictures

  • A trend-setting, zany, hilarious comedy - using the airplane disaster film, such as Zero Hour! (1957), The Crowded Sky (1960), and the "Airport" series of films (especially Airport 1975 (1974)), as a spoof stepping stone, from the comedy writing/directing team of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker (known colloquially as ZAZ and their brand of "ZAZ humor").
  • The comedy aggressively spoofed (like Mel Brooks' films) the entire disaster film genre of the 70s with its fast-paced jokes, sight gags, and sexual double entendres. It reinforced the idea that one could pack a movie-length feature with dozens of wall-to-wall jokes (similar to early TV comics Sid Caesar and Carol Burnett) and succeed - even if all the quips weren't funny.
  • This film, one of the greatest comedies ever made, was preceded by the directors' screenwriting for John Landis' The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) (the ZAZ trio of comedy writers were known as The Kentucky Fried Theater when they performed as a Wisconsin comedy troupe), and later followed up with Top Secret! (1984), and Ruthless People (1986).
  • Airplane's joke-filled plot was an excuse for a frantic, slapstick parody filled with visual-sight gags, puns, verbal literalism ("Surely you can't be serious." "I am serious, and don't call me Shirley"), rapid-fire satirical wisecracks, irreverent references to From Here to Eternity (1953) and Saturday Night Fever (1977) disco dancing, and visual non-sequiturs. The simple plot was about shell-shocked ex-military flyer Ted Striker (Robert Hays) who pursued girlfriend Elaine (Julie Hagerty) - a stewardess on an ill-fated flight with stricken pilots.
  • It began with the opening credits sequence set to the familiar music of Jaws with the plane's fin appearing through the clouds.
  • This movie revitalized the acting careers of Peter Graves, Lloyd Bridges, and Robert Stack, and launched the comedy career of Leslie Nielsen as the straight-faced, dead-panning doctor, who up to that time was known mostly for B-movie dramatic roles, in films like Forbidden Planet (1956) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972). He went on with the ZAZ comedy team to originate the character of police Lt. Frank Drebin in their Police Squad! TV series - and recreated the role in the many The Naked Gun films.
  • Followed by a less funny ZAZ-less Airplane II: The Sequel (1982) by director Ken Finkleman.

Heaven's Gate (1980)
d. Michael Cimino, 149/219 minutes, Partisan Productions/United Artists

  • This notorious, big-budget epic film was a major financial disaster for its studio (United Artists, the studio of Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks) - it also was a disaster for the western film genre for the remainder of the 80s, and it ended the reign of the New Wave of 1970's 'auteurs' or independent film-makers.
  • The film became the biggest flop in film history at the time (US box-office was only about $1.5 million), and since then has become synonymous for any film judged to be a monumental 'turkey' that faced major financial disaster.
  • Its self-indulgent, financially-irresponsible and excessive writer/director who had been praised for his Best Picture and Best Director-winning The Deer Hunter (1978), took the brunt of much of the film's criticism, for its ballooning budget that was almost six times above-budget to produce (from $7.5 million to about $44 million), for its overlong incomprehensible plot (originally a 5-hour version that was cut down to 219 minutes), for its miscasting and slow pacing, for its expensive on-location shooting and fastidious over-attention to detail and historical accuracy, and for allegations of animal abuse - all for a film without major stars.
  • Following its initial release in late 1980, the film was pulled from theatres, edited down by over an hour in length, and re-released a few months later, although it still failed miserably. UA's corporate parent, Transamerica, was forced to sell the bankrupted studio to MGM for only $350 million as a result.
  • Michael Cimino's expensive 'boondoggle' film and revisionistic Western told about the Johnson County Wars between starving Eastern European immigrant farmers and mercenaries hired by the cattlemen.
  • Heaven's Gate was one of the first films to be prejudged by a critic. The infamous review of New York Times critic Vincent Canby ("It fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter and the Devil has just come around to collect") built negative press until Cimino's film was doomed to have an un-profitable theatrical release.
  • The film received numerous Razzie Award nominations including a Worst Director prize for Cimino, although it received generally positive reviews after release to video, and fairly good results from its international box-office. It was critically re-evaluated by the LA-based Z Channel when it premiered on cable TV in its uncut version in 1982, but it was already too late.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
d. Steven Spielberg, 115 minutes, Paramount Pictures/Lucasfilm

  • A spectacular, cliff-hanger, breathlessly-paced, non-stop action/adventure film of the early 1980s - it was an immensely successful summer box-office hit. This was the first full collaboration between two legendary American film-makers: producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg. Raiders remains a thoroughly entertaining work, with some of the greatest gee-whiz technical effects (created at Lucasfilms' Industrial Light and Magic), kinetic stunts, larger-than-life characters, and continuously chained-together action sequences ever filmed.
  • This exciting adventure-fantasy film introduced the character of bullwhip-carrying, fedora-wearing Indy Jones (Harrison Ford). Its tale was about the search for the Bible's Ark of the Covenant involving sadistic Nazis, a duplicitous Frenchman, snakes, exciting chase sequences, and the blinding-zapping climax followed by an ending scene deliberately reminiscent of one of the final scenes in Citizen Kane (1941). From Nepal to Cairo, the self-effacing hero was aided by tough, hard-drinking, spunky and feisty ex-girlfriend Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), as he escaped one life-threatening situation, fight, scrape, and chase after another - especially venomous snakes and the mysterious wrath of God in its finale.
  • The film received eight Academy Awards nominations, and came away with four Oscars, mostly for technical categories: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, and Best Visual Effects, plus a Special Achievement Award for Sound Effects Editing.
  • Harrison Ford, who had starred in Lucas' Star Wars (1977), took the role of the globe-trotting, adventurous, comic-book hero/academic archaeologist with a leather jacket and bullwhip. The swaggering, two-fisted character with a fear of snakes was designed to be flawed yet cocky, with frequent boasts: "Trust me."
  • This was the first of three Indiana Jones movies (and then a fourth film almost twenty years later) - created as a tribute (by Lucas) in wide-eyed homage to the episodic Saturday matinee, cliff-hanging thrillers, westerns, and adventure serials of yesteryear in the 1930s and 40s, with their strong-jawed heroes. The film had two classic chase scenes: (1) the opening sequence with an escape from a trap-laden ancient South American temple, including a rolling gigantic spherical boulder, and Indy's subsequent getaway from Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman) and the Hovitos tribe by running to an awaiting airplane, and (2) the desert chase scene in which Indy raced after a speeding truck by mounting a horse and overtaking the vehicle.
  • The musical score by accomplished composer John Williams (famous for work on Jaws (1975) , Star Wars (1977), and The Empire Strikes Back (1980)) added an air of excitement. Spielberg's phenomenally successful film, that cost only $23 million grossed $242 million (domestic) and $384 million (worldwide) - contributed to the demand for bigger blockbusters.
  • Influences on the film came from the many permutations of the Zorro legend, John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) with its amazing stuntwork by Yakima Canutt, Gunga Din (1939), Casablanca (1942), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), King Solomon's Mines (1950), and the Disney Ducks adventure comics by Carl Barks.
  • Unforgettable scenes included the thrilling opening, the underground Egyptian temple filled with snakes, the tense chase scenes, and the retribution visited upon the rival, religious artifact-obsessed French archaeologist and his Third Reich Nazi cohorts in the fiery finale when the Ark of the Covenant was opened.
  • Numerous other films have been influenced by the trilogy of Raiders films: King Solomon's Mines (1985) with Richard Chamberlain, Romancing the Stone (1984) and Jewel of the Nile (1985), the Spielberg-produced The Goonies (1985), and more recently The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001), and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001).

Blade Runner (1982)
d. Ridley Scott, 117 minutes, The Ladd Company/Shaw Brothers/Warner Bros.

  • Rising director Ridley Scott's follow-up to his sci-fi horror hit Alien (1979), was one of the most popular and influential science-fiction films of all time - and it has become an enduring cult classic favorite. The evocative, inventive, stylistic film has improved with age and warrants repeated viewings. The dense, puzzling, detailed plot of the film was backed by a mesmerizing, melancholy musical soundtrack from Greek composer Vangelis - undeservedly overlooked for an Oscar nomination. It received only two Academy Award nominations without Oscars: Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, and Best Visual Effects.
  • The enthralling film was originally a box-office financial failure, and it received negative reviews from film critics who called it muddled and baffling. It also wasn't encouraging that it faced Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) during its opening release.
  • The ambitious, enigmatic, visually-complex film was a futuristic film noir detective thriller about a hard-boiled, jaded, semi-retired, Philip Marlowe-style ex-cop detective (Harrison Ford), known as a "blade runner." He had been forced out of retirement to hunt down and eliminate four near-human "replicants" (including Daryl Hannah, Rutger Hauer, Joanna Cassidy) - genetically engineered super-humanoid robots with a built-in, shortened life span of only four years. It contained all the requisite parts of a detective, film noirish thriller - an alienated hero of questionable morality, an android femme fatale (Sean Young), airborne police vehicles called "Spinners," dark sets and locations in a dystopic Los Angeles of 2019, and a downbeat voice-over narration. The film mixed in some western genre elements as well, and was thematically similar to the story in High Noon (1952) of a lone marshal facing four western outlaws.
  • The film's theme, the difficult quest for immortality, was supplemented by an ever-present eye motif - there were various VK eye tests, an Eye Works factory, and other symbolic references to eyes as being the window to the soul. Scott's masterpiece also asked the veritable question: what does it mean to be truly human? One of its main posters advertised the tagline: "MAN HAS MADE HIS MATCH - NOW IT'S HIS PROBLEM."
  • Stylistically, the film was arresting with fantastic, imaginative visual effects of a futuristic Los Angeles conceived by futurist design artist Syd Mead, and influenced by the vision of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). One of the most awe-inspiring visuals in film history was the powerful vision of the Los Angeles cityscape at night, circa 2019, with giant, fire-belching towers, floating advertisements, giant television screens, and police "spinners" (flying cars). Many films have attempted to duplicate the bleak, dystopic, cyberpunkish look of Blade Runner, including Batman (1989), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Strange Days (1995), The Fifth Element (1997), Dark City (1998), The Matrix (1999), and I, Robot (2004).
  • The film has become one of the most tampered-with products, with many different variations. It was originally filmed without a monotone, explanatory voice-over in a somber, Raymond Chandler-like manner. After the studio held disastrous preview test screenings, a noirish, somber, flat-voiced narration (by lead character Harrison Ford) was added to make the plot more accessible, and a tacked-on, positive, upbeat ending (using out-takes from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980)), was also added. On the film's 10th anniversary, a revised 'Director's Cut' (of 117 minutes) was released with a new digital soundtrack, and a number of changes (for example, it dropped Harrison Ford's mostly redundant voice-over and restored the film's original darker and contemplative vision). And then for the film's 25th anniversary in 2007, a more definitive version contained never-before-seen added/extended scenes. It also added lines of dialogue, corrected several technical flaws, and included new and improved special effects.

TRON (1982)
d. Steven Lisberger, 96 minutes, Walt Disney Productions and Lisberger/Kushner

  • Walt Disney Studios' visually-pioneering, state of the art (at its time) landmark film was the first true CGI-animated film. It was released as both a feature film (with more state-of-the-art computer-generated animation than any other film) and an arcade video game.
  • Writer/director Steven Lisberger used cutting-edge computer graphics combined with live action (featuring human stars Jeff Bridges and David Warner) in a tale set within a gladiatorial computer game. The fantasy inside-a-computer-video-game adventure/science-fiction film was one of the first films to be derived from the video-game craze.
  • This ground-breaking, escapist film was heralded as the first live action film with over 20 minutes of full 3D graphics and computer animation. Its most innovative sequence (with extensive use of 3-D CGI) was the famed racing bike or Lightcycle sequence depicting computerized lightcycles in a high-speed race. The Lightcycle sequence used the artwork and vision of legendary artists Syd Mead and Jean 'Moebius' Giraud, and visual effects done with a combined effort by Triple I, MAGI/Synthavision, Robert Abel & Associates, and Digital Effects.
  • Another FX technique used was backlight animation, in which light was shown through a specialized filter through each frame to create extraordinarily vibrant colored light effects, in this case, through the inventive Oscar-nominated costumes worn by the actors.
  • The greatest testament to this film's unique visual effects, soundtrack, costuming, art direction and set decoration is that none of it has ever been duplicated, and remains unique to this day. The film also featured a unique soundtrack by Wendy (nee Walter) Carlos that melded synthesized music with the London Philharmonic's orchestral music.
  • However, the film's failure at the box-office held up greater development of computer animation.
  • With two Academy Award nominations for Best Sound and Best Costume Design, TRON was disqualified for a Best Visual Effects award because the Academy believed that it "cheated" by using a computer - the concept of using computers to craft environments, rather than drawing them by hand, was considered inauthentic in these early years. In reality, the process was an extremely arduous one for animators. Seven years later, James Cameron's The Abyss (1989) won the Best Visual Effects Oscar for the same kind of technology.
     

Flashdance (1983)
d. Adrian Lyne, 95 minutes, Paramount Pictures/PolyGram Pictures

  • This R-rated sleeper film hit from director Adrian Lyne included energetic, glossy music-video style dance sequences. It was generally regarded as a formulaic, implausible Cinderella story of 18 year-old Alexandra "Alex" Owens (Jennifer Beals), a blue-collar Pittsburgh steel mill welder (and exotic bar dancer at night at Mawby's Bar) who became a success as a more legitimate ballet dancer. The most memorable dance scene was when she performed supine on a chair as water splashed down on her.
  • Adrian Lyne's slick film was immensely popular with its highly kinetic, music-video style - and an Oscar-winning original title song (Flashdance...What a Feeling) sung by Irene Cara.
  • It was a major box-office success and cultural touchstone (the torn/cut off-the-shoulder baggy sweatshirt, break dancing, ankle warmers, etc.).
  • MTV, a cutting-edge music video channel on cable, was launched 24/7 in August, 1981. As a result, its style of fast-moving montage, circumventing conventional narratives with visual storytelling, was influential on this film and many films that followed with pop-infused soundtracks (such as Tony Scott's Top Gun (1986), particularly the sequence filmed to the tune of "Take My Breath Away").
  • Lyne had previously been a TV commercial director, so his style was characterized by fast-edited clips accompanied by 80s hit songs in some of the film's sequences, similar to the style of television advertisements. There were lots of closeups, fast cuts and blurred action typical of the MTV style.
  • The filming style was derided by some critics as being only a "series of rock videos" and the entire film was viewed as a 93-minute, youth-oriented music video.

Fatal Attraction (1987)
d. Adrian Lyne, 119 minutes, Paramount Pictures

  • This was a suspenseful, melodramatic, erotic thriller about one-night stands, sexual games, and obsessive love. Director Adrian Lyne's blockbuster was a cautionary horror tale about sexual carelessness, perfect for the AIDS-epidemic era. Its explicit sexuality, besieged white male protagonist after infidelity, and popcorn-slasher/horror elements were perfect for the era. [Note: Savvy director Lyne had already had a string of big commercial hits during this decade, including Flashdance (1983), and the sexy 9 1/2 Weeks (1986).]
  • Director Adrian Lyne's R-rated hit and popular cultural phenomenon was a wake-up warning about the consequences of careless cheating, with its mix of slasher violence and sex. However, it was also criticized as being misogynistic for treating the philandering husband as a victim and excusing his callous behavior, while demonizing his tempting, discarded mistress. One tabloid at the time demonized her and downplayed the legitimate reason for her resentful anger, calling her "THE MOST HATED WOMAN IN AMERICA."
  • The film's title became a well-known buzz-word: "fatal attraction" - meaning a lethally dangerous romantic relationship.
  • The milestone thriller film garnered six Oscar nominations (including Best Picture). It was the second highest-grossing (domestic) film of the year, at $156.6 million (domestic) and $320.1 million (worldwide).
  • It told about conflicted, unfaithful married man Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), a successful Manhattan attorney. The errant philandering husband cheated with career woman and femme fatale Alexandra "Alex" Forrest (Glenn Close), a book editor who turned into a murderous, predatory psycho when scorned and jilted - and who subsequently threatened and terrorized his family.
  • The most memorable scene in the psychological thriller was the 'bunny boiler' scene when Alex took predatory revenge on his daughter Ellen's (Ellen Hamilton Latzen) pet rabbit (named Whitly) by making 'hare stew' (filmed with suspenseful cut-aways of the child running to the empty rabbit hutch). Her drastic, psychotic transformation undercut her strong, businesswoman character as a liberated, single career woman with a free spirit.
  • In the original ending, Alex killed herself, leaving Dan to be framed for her murder. The scorned pregnant Alex had committed suicide with a knife (with Dan's fingerprints on it) while dressed in white, to the tune of "Madame Butterfly." When preview audiences demanded a more satisfying and catharctic ending, a new ending (the current theatrical ending) was filmed. Its crowd-pleasing new ending was determined by focus groups and preview audiences and substituted for the original version found in the script and filmed earlier - demonstrating how test audiences can have a profound effect on the movies.
  • In the shocking and violent finale in the final version, Dan (seen struggling in closeup) held the hysterical woman under the water in his home's second floor bathtub after she had attacked his wife Beth (Anne Archer) with a large kitchen knife and also attacked him -- he apparently drowned her when she went limp under the water. But then she suddenly and explosively emerged still alive to repeatedly slash at him with a knife, until Beth shot her dead in the chest to finally end her terroristic advances, and restore their family. The killing was depicted as justified punishment for her seductive transgressions.
  • This 'return from the dead' scene paid homage to a similar bathtub scene in the French film Les Diaboliques (1955, Fr.).

Wall Street (1987)
d. Oliver Stone, 126 minutes, 20th Century Fox/American Entertainment Partners

  • Writer/director Oliver Stone's thoughtful cautionary 'Faustian' treatise on the Me-Decade of stock trading was loosely based on the junk bond and unethical insider trading scandals of the mid-1980s. The popular film, although it wasn't a major box-office hit or critical success, provided a perfect portrait of the WASP-ish capitalistic, corporate-run culture and its power-mongering, money-hungry financial traders who were often corrupted by wealth.
  • The tale of greed, excess and corruption was famous for its notorious "Greed is...good" monologue ("Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms."). The speech was delivered by predatory, slithery and ruthless, money-mad, multimillionaire corporate financial trader/raider Gordon Gekko (Oscar-winning Michael Douglas) to the annual shareholders' meeting of Teldar Paper.
  • Gekko's speech in the film was similar in theme to corrupt Wall Street trader Ivan Boesky's commencement speech at UC Berkeley's School of Business in 1986, who said: "Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself." Just a few months after the speech, Boesky was investigated by the SEC for illegal trading and insider dealing scams, and ultimately received jail time and stiff fines.
  • During the many decades after its release, Stone's defining film of the era had the opposite effect that the director wanted. It hypnotized or seduced scores of would-be bankers and traders to acquire business school degrees and become financial social-climbers and stockbrokers. It also popularized so-called tough-guy Gekko-isms, such as "Lunch is for wimps," "If you need a friend, get a dog," "What's worth doing is worth doing for money," and "If you're not inside you're outside." Its cultural impact was also evidenced on trading floors - slavish imitation of Gekko's style of dress (slicked hair and suspenders), and copies of Gekko's favorite book, military general Sun Tzu's The Art of War ("If your enemy is superior, evade him. If angry, irritate him. If equally matched, fight, and if not split and reevaluate").
  • The film was released only a few months after the massive stock market crash of October 1987 - reinforcing the idea that there was an ugly and excessive side to trading as well - also evidenced by the major economic downturn in 2008. However, on the flip side, it served as a parable of the get-rich-quick American dream - that anyone could transform themselves and succeed (and have the high-flying perks of life: private jets, flashy clothes, luxurious apartments, and trophy females) if they made it as an insider.
  • The character of Gordon Gekko became an enduring symbol of greed. Fortune magazine featured a cover story in June 2005 with a picture of Michael Douglas (as Gekko), asking the question: "Is Greed Still Good?" for a story spotlighting the new greed of Wall Street.
  • It was influential in inspiring other Wall Street-related films, including Stone's own sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), and Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).

Die Hard (1988)
d. John McTiernan, 131 minutes, 20th Century Fox

  • This highly-acclaimed, big-budget action film (and quintessential guy film) was the first in a series of profitable franchise films stretching over a period of 20 years (from 1988 to 2013). It was one of the greatest action films ever made. It was the 7th highest-grossing film of the year, at $83 million.
  • This film of a single macho hero pitted in combat against impossible odds in a single location redefined action cinema and has been copy-catted numerous times in various scenarios, such as "Die Hard on a Cliff!" (Cliffhanger (1993)), "Die Hard on a Bus!" (Speed (1994)), or "Die Hard on a Plane!" (Air Force One (1997)).
  • After a decade of action cinema defined by a number of self-parodying, un-real, beefcake muscle-bound actors: Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sylvester Stallone (in the Rambo films in 1982, 1985, 1988, and 2008) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (starring in Conan the Barbarian (1982), The Terminator (1984), Commando (1985), Predator (1987), and The Running Man (1987), and soon after Total Recall (1990) - and famous for one-line deliveries), a new action adventure hero was born.
  • This film was originally planned to be a sequel to Schwarzenegger's Commando (1985) - but when Schwarzenegger turned down the lead role, it was filled with comedy and TV-actor Bruce Willis, known for his popular TV show Moonlighting (1985-1989) and his appearance in Blake Edwards' romantic comedy Blind Date (1987). He completely repositioned himself as a thrilling action hero - which soon became his signature role.
  • The character-driven Everyman hero, John McClane (Bruce Willis), appeared as the protagonist in all of the films. As a wise-cracking, tough-guy NYC police cop with real human vulnerabilities, he was reluctantly recruited to ingeniously fight against the bad guys during a heist in a 40-story LA high-rise building, led by archetypal European villain Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). The film (and its many sequels) were known for white-T-shirted, wise-ass McClane's oft-censored line of dialogue: "Yippee-kai-yay, motherf--ker."
  • The action was set on Christmas Eve in 1988, with off-duty NY cop John McClane in Los Angeles at the high-rise Nakatomi Corporation Building (on the Avenue of the Stars in Century City) for his estranged wife Holly's (Bonnie Bedalia) office party.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
d. Robert Zemeckis, 104 minutes, Touchstone Pictures/Amblin Entertainment/Silver Screen Partners III/Walt Disney

  • A technically-marvelous film blending animated, ink-and-paint cartoon characters and flesh-and-blood live actors, in a convincing comedy/mystery noir thriller, set in Los Angeles in 1947. Earlier efforts to combine humans and ink-and-paint cartoon characters side-by-side in a film, such as Disney's Song of the South (1946) and Mary Poppins (1964), can be considered primitive next to this film.
  • The story was a delightful spoof of the hard-boiled Sam Spade films and reminiscent of the recent Chinatown (1974), (complete with a sultry, femme fatale humanoid Toon named Jessica Rabbit (Jessica Turner, uncredited, with singing voice by Amy Irving, executive producer Steven Spielberg's wife at the time), and a case involving alleged marital infidelity ("pattycake"), murder, a missing will, blackmail, and a conspiracy hatched by evil, Toon-hating Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) (of Cloverleaf Industries).
  • The film was a milestone in animation history, one of the top-grossing films of its year, and it received four Academy Awards, one of which was a Special Achievement Award for Animation Direction (Richard Williams). Director Robert Zemeckis must be credited for piecing together the production that involved hundreds of animators, and the special visual effects of George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), Amblin Entertainment, Walt Disney and other studios. As a result, it was the most expensive film of its decade, at $70 million.
  • It was filmed as a tribute to the entire pantheon of cartoon characters from Disney, Warner Bros., and MGM, and other studios in the 1940s. Famous cartoon voices were used (Mel Blanc for Daffy Duck, Tweety Bird, Bugs Bunny, Sylvester, and Porky Pig and Charles Fleischer for Roger, Greasy, Psycho, and Benny the Cab), and the live-action characters were coordinated with cartoon characters - the animations were drawn and inserted after the live photography was shot.
  • In this landmark film, the Toons included appearances and cameos by Donald and Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Tweety Bird and Sylvester, Woody Woodpecker, the Weasels - from Disney's The Wind in the Willows (1949), Mickey Mouse, three hummingbirds from Disney's Song of the South (1946), the Road Runner and the Coyote, the black Crows and Dumbo from Disney's Dumbo (1941), Betty Boop, Droopy Dog, and many more. Unprecedented cooperation from Warner Brothers and Disney allowed for classic cartoon characters to be seen together for the first time, such as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny parachuting together, having both Tinkerbell and Porky Pig end the movie, and, of course, the famous piano duel between Daffy and Donald Duck in a Cotton Club-style nightclub, the Ink & Paint Club.
  • Its revolutionary animation: (1) used light and shadows in new ways to produce remarkably realistic, 3-D effects; (2) extensively panned and moved the camera to reduce a static look; and (3) had the car'toon' characters interact flawlessly with real-world objects and flesh-and-blood people as much as possible.
  • Other animated and live-action mixed films would be released soon after with the same technically-sophisticated human/cartoon interaction, including Joe Pytka's Space Jam (1996), Des McAnuff's The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle (2000), Henry Selick's Monkeybone (2001), and Joe Dante's Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), but none of them could recapture the same sense of awe or feature the same level of acting and writing.

Batman (1989)
d. Tim Burton, 126 minutes, Warner Bros./Guber-Peters Co./PolyGram Pictures

  • Tim Burton's ambitious, hyped and over-marketed production of a dark-shaded superhero character, the Caped Crusader, was a Warners' mega-hit. The visionary, idosyncratic film inaugurated a wave of more mature superhero films, following in the footsteps of another simpler DC comics hero Superman (1978), that hasn't let up to this day. It was promoted with lucrative merchandising that became the blockbuster hit of the last year of the decade, with an over-the-top performance by Jack Nicholson as the villainous Joker ("Where does he get those wonderful toys?").
  • As an example of non-traditional, off-beat casting, comedian Michael Keaton took on the serious, dual role as the comic book hero - Bruce Wayne and the shadowed, dark avenger of Gotham City (similar in design to the city in Fritz Lang's expressionistic Metropolis (1927, Germ.)), although his selection as the lead character was considered controversial at the time.
  • Batman became a critical and financial success (although its budget skyrocketed to almost $50 million), earning $411 million in box office totals (worldwide). It was the highest-grossing (domestic) film of 1989, and remains in the top 100 highest-grossing films of all time. It was also the first Batman movie to win an Academy Award (Best Art Direction/Set Decoration).
  • The film's poster was simply composed of the Bat Symbol (although some interpreted it as an open mouth with buck teeth). The corporate marketing campaign frenzy (dubbed "Batmania") rose to new heights as a media and cultural sensation (with $750 million in merchandise sales), with the ubiquitous Batman-Bat-Signal insignia visible on numerous products (hats, T-shirts, toys, lunchboxes, buttons, billboards etc.), and two hit soundtracks (Danny Elfman's dramatic score, and pop singer Prince's songs from the film). It was amazing that it did so well, considering that it was competing against three other massive franchises: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Ghostbusters II (1989), and Lethal Weapon 2 (1989).
  • Its early summer opening weekend grossed $43.6 million, a new record. This fact accelerated the trend to focus on opening weekend box-office receipts for these kinds of blockbusters. Batman was notable as the first film to earn $100 million in its first ten days of release. It also set a precedent as the highest-grossing Batman movie, and the highest-grossing film based on a DC comic book (both surpassed by The Dark Knight (2008)).
  • The film was the first to promote cheaper, more affordable VHS tapes (rather than rentals) and it also reduced the time gap between the theatrical showing and the date of release to home video. Warner Bros. decided to release the film to video just 4 months after its theatrical release. The early release on November 15th was considered unprecedented at the time. Smaller theatre chain operators, fearing their demise or loss of revenue, were not happy with Warner's decision, but the studio wanted to position the film for the Christmas holiday gift-shopping season.
  • Burton's vision created a more modern, superhero pulp figure for the cinema - his film was the first dark comic book movie with a tormented, stoic and brooding superhero, reflecting the cynicism and angst of the generation, and influencing every other subsequent superhero film (i.e., Spider-Man, Daredevil, X-Men, etc.)

Do the Right Thing (1989)
d. Spike Lee, 120 minutes, 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks/Universal Pictures

  • African-American writer/director Spike Lee's third (and breakout) feature film was this complex, angry and unapologetic social protest film about racism, racial pride, intolerance and oppression, class struggle and violence. After director Lee's first-directed feature film She's Gotta Have It (1986), he negotiated a deal with Universal to direct a studio film about racial conflict in the US.
  • This controversial and incendiary independent film, receiving a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award nomination for Lee, was about racial tensions that eventually erupted into a fiery riot on a sweltering summer day in the multi-ethnic Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Although it was feared by film critics that this would cause and incite similar responses from black urban-dwellers, this proved to be a misrepresentation of the facts by the film's detractors, that dubbed the film "irresponsible." Two contradictory quotations ended the film, one from Martin Luther King, Jr. advocating non-violence, and the other from Malcolm X advocating violent self-defense in response to oppression.
  • It was told with vibrantly bright colors, realistic and goofily-named characters and dialogue, a supplementary "Greek chorus" of black men on the corner commenting on the day's events, and energetic editing and quasi-documentary, cocked camera angles.
  • During the opening credits, Public Enemy performed the film's hard-edged anthem and title song, Fight the Power - foreshadowing the coming emergence of rap and hip-hop music into the mainstream culture.
  • The multi-ethnic cast of the film provided three-dimensional characters and day-in-the-life stories, and featured the early career work of Samuel L. Jackson (as DJ Mister Senor Love Daddy) and Rosie Perez (as demanding single mother and girlfriend Tina).
  • Following the film's success, Lee went on to make the big-budget studio film Malcolm X (1992), starring Denzel Washington as the controversial, assassinated civil rights leader - a role for which he received his first Best Actor nomination. Later, for Training Day (2001), Denzel Washington won Best Actor and became the second African-American in Oscar history to do so.
  • Lee's landmark black-oriented films inspired a new generation of African-American film-makers, including John Singleton (Boyz 'N the Hood (1991)).

Field of Dreams (1989)
d. Phil Alden Robinson, 107 minutes, Gordon Company/Universal Pictures

  • This sentimental, intensely-popular modern fantasy-drama classic became a smash hit in its unique depiction of Americana and the power of dreams. The inspiring, tearjerking story, an unexpected success, was an uplifting fairy tale that celebrated the love of the game of baseball - adapted by screenwriter/director Phil Alden Robinson from W. P. Kinsella's 1982 novel Shoeless Joe.
  • It was an almost dreamlike, mythic heroic quest by the main character (aided by the mystical score by James Horner) about how baseball was a metaphor for a second redemptive chance at love, and a way to reestablish family connections (especially between father and son).
  • The film received three Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (Phil Alden Robinson), and Best Original Score. It grossed $64.4 million (domestic) at the box-office after a long theatrical run.
  • Just one year after playing catcher "Crash" Davis in Bull Durham (1988), Kevin Costner appeared in this second sports film - another baseball-themed film coupled with the religious themes of faith and redemption. This film was both nostalgic for earlier, more idyllic times, and a celebration of life in the 1980s (following the Reagan Presidency), after so much hardship in the decades that had come before (marred by the Watergate affair, the many assassinations in the 1960s, and the drawn-out Vietnam War).
  • Idealistic Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), a transplanted city boy-turned-Iowa corn farmer, heard a whispered, ghostly disembodied Voice telling him to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his corn field ("If you build it, he will come"), to "ease his pain." His wife Annie (Amy Madigan) was semi-supportive but worried about their finances if they plowed down their field.
  • Ray met with various sad and wistful icons, including the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) (his father's favorite player) and other disgraced team players who were banned from baseball for life after the 1919 Chicago "Black" Sox World Series scandal. No one but those who believed could see the ghostly ballplayers who began to appear from the adjacent cornfield. This Capra-esque film recalled Harvey (1950), a film in which its main character believed he was befriended by a giant rabbit that no one could see. Ray's daughter Karen (Gaby Hoffmann) was watching Harvey on TV at one point in the film, to emphasize the connection.
  • He also met a disillusioned, former 1960s, reclusive J.D. Salinger-like, radical 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 reached its climax with Mann's 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."
  • In the final scene at sunset, Ray realized that the New York Yankees catcher removing his equipment at home plate was his dead and estranged father John Kinsella (Dwier Brown): "It's my father-- ease his pain." In their final exchange together in the twilight, the two reconciled and wondered if they were in heaven - a place where dreams came true. The film ended with a long shot of the two playing catch together on the ball diamond with the lights turned on, and an overhead shot of a stream of car headlights approaching from the distance.

sex, lies, and videotape (1989)
d. Steven Soderbergh, 100 minutes, Outlaw Productions/Virgin

  • This was versatile and cerebral independent film-maker/writer-director Steven Soderbergh's low-budget, minimalist, and provocative character-driven debut film, with great naturalistic, spontaneous performances.
  • The sexually-suggestive film featured four Baton Rouge, Louisiana characters, but without obvious or overt scenes of sexual activity or nudity: a childless married couple - egotistical yuppie lawyer John and his neglected, frigid, sexually-squeamish, repressed and frustrated wife Ann Mullany (Peter Gallagher and Andie MacDowell in her first major screen appearance), the wife's sexually-adventurous, promiscuous bartender sister Cynthia Bishop (Laura San Giacomo), and a reclusive high-school friend Graham Dalton (James Spader) of the husband. His "personal project" was to 'voyeuristically' videotape the women talking about their complex sex lives.
  • The film featured explicit dialogue within the videotaped discussions and revelatory confessions. The conversations included candid observations about masturbation, penises and orgasms. Videotaping was a substitute for his own emotion-less, impotent and dispassionate life ("I'm impotent - I can't get an erection in the presence of another person") as he admitted openly that he ‘got off' on taping women talking about their sexual experiences ("Why do these tapes all have women's names on them?").
  • Its premiere at Robert Redford's 1989 Sundance Film Festival (then named the US Film Festival) captured everyone's attention and helped to encourage the production of other thought-provoking indies. It was the winner of the top prize (Palme d'Or) at the Cannes Film Festival (and 26 year-old Soderbergh was the youngest director to ever receive the prestigious prize). It also won at the Independent Spirit Awards, and received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay - a sure-fire commercial and critical success.
  • It became a box-office hit for its fledgling distributor Miramax at the time (with co-founder Harvey Weinstein), which would soon become the leading and most aggressive distributor - to niche markets - of risky and popular independent films.
  • This marked a turning point in American independent cinema - the introduction of a new era of indie blockbusters, almost evaluated on a similar scale as the major, high-concept event pictures of the big studios. The gap between independents and mainstream films was not as large as it once appeared, and the label of 'art-house' film was no longer a death knell.
  • Comparing cost-earning ratios in the same year, Batman (1989) had a budget of $50 million and box-office revenue of $250 million (domestic). Even more impressively, sex, lies, and videotape, made on a budget of $1.1 million, grossed $25 million in domestic box office revenue. The film set a new benchmark for an 'art-house' hit - indies were now seen as commercially viable products (although for some of the smaller indies, they were now faced with impossible and unrealistic benchmarks).
  • Although Soderbergh would continue making various films in the next decade, his breakthrough came with more mainstream films: Out of Sight (1998), Erin Brockovich (2000), Traffic (2000), Ocean's Eleven (2001) (and its sequels), The Good German (2006), and Magic Mike (2012). However, he was still experimenting with less commercial, more experimental titles such as Kafka (1991), Gray's Anatomy (1996), Schizopolis (1996), Full Frontal (2002), and Bubble (2005).



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