The Best Movies of 1980

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The Best Movies of 1980

Having just climbed out of the 1970s and with the Star Wars machine still powering up, the year 1980 is still mostly calm compared to the rest of the decade that would follow. But for whatever it might have lacked in spectacle, 1980 makes up for in classic, genre-defining classics whose directors would mostly go on (or continue) to make meaningful movies that would help define the decade as a whole. For this list, we’ve tried to include some films beyond the usual suspects. (What fun would it be, otherwise?)

15. Personal Problems (Bill Gunn)

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Bill Gunn’s Personal Problems, a “meta soap opera” that intimately follows the interpersonal relationships of a Black New York family, can be considered a 1980 film in the sense that it was completed that year, yet it only received a few one-off screenings in its own time, remaining largely unseen in full until Kino Lorber’s essential 2018 restoration. The brainchild of writer Ishmael Reed, Personal Problems plays in two episodes, a structural remnant of its origins as a PBS-declined television pilot. Before that, it aired as a six-part radio show. These pre-existing roots of collaboration laid the groundwork for a film that would thrive on improvisation, both in front of and behind the camera.

We first meet Harlem ER nurse Johnnie Mae Brown (Vertamae Grosvenor), originally from the Gullah island Daufuskie off the South Carolina coast, seated against a plain white wall fielding questions from Gunn off-camera. She talks about work, moving North as a child and her poetry. The film is alive with such concerns—quotidian struggles both universal and specific to African Americans, Black migration, art, naturethough these thankfully need not be explained. They exist deeply in the characters, who, lensed on video using 3/4” U-Matic tape, are given space to express and emote in ways at once melodramatic and authentic. Part one mostly covers Johnnie Mae’s affair with a musician, while part two tracks the aftermath of her father-in-law’s death. Her husband and the men of the family head to a bar to tie one on in honor of the departed, and as they stumble around the industrial riverside of early morning, Gunn, as he does throughout, cuts to the elemental (the motion of water, birds flying), suggesting one in tune with the other. The world abounds with simultaneous serenity and sorrow: the drunken camaraderie of male mourning, the movements of people away from and back to cultural roots, the tearful notes from an adulterous paramour’s piano. Personal Problems is a bracingly original film propelled by life’s inertia, its frustrations and respites imprinted on the images via early video ghosting. —Daniel Christian


14. Breaker Morant (Bruce Beresford)

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What pushes men to go against their better character and commit atrocities? Bruce Beresford, one of Australia’s most accomplished veteran directors, sets this question at the center of his historical courtroom drama, which reenacts the arrest, court-martial and execution of three Australian soldiers—Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward), Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown) and George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald)—during the dwindling bloodshed of the Second Boer War. The trio stands accused of murdering prisoners of war and thus breaking the “rules” of combat, and though Beresford never suggests their innocence, he does question profusely the farcical hypocrisy of their trial and punishment. This is a big, brawny film shot with an eye for Beresford’s South Australian locations, convincingly staged as South Africa, and attention to crisp composition. —Andy Crump


13. Coal Miner’s Daughter (Michael Apted)

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Sissy Spacek ages from 14 to 45 in her career-defining role as Loretta Webb Lynn, the dirt-poor kid from Butcher Holler, Kentucky, who would become the First Lady of Country Music. This unapologetic film is almost a drama, almost a biography and almost a musical. Highlights are vocals by Spacek as Lynn and Beverly d’Angelo as Patsy Cline. Rock legend Levon Helm and folk music icon Phyllis Boyens (in her first and only credited film role) simply become Loretta’s parents Tom and Clary Webb. Coal Miner’s Daughter is all about perfection of performance, and set an incredibly high bar for musical biopics to come. —Joan Radell


12. The Gods Must Be Crazy (Jamie Uys)

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Skipping through genres with as much ease as a lack of purpose, The Gods Must Be Crazy has energy and creativity to spare, but isn’t up to the task of interrogating the continent it dreams of encapsulating. Which is fine! Because Jamie Uys’s hybridized documentary/fish-out-of-water romp/rom-com/cheap-o military action film covers a lot of ground and has a lot of affection for its characters, however ignorantly they represent a traumatic legacy of colonialism in Africa. Uys, a white South African filmmaker, brings us to Botswana, where a member of the San, Xixo (N-Xau), embarks on a journey to the unknown borders of his small patch of the Kalahari to take a Coke bottle (dropped from a passing airplane) far away from his people and rid them of its strange, seductive danger. As Xixo ventures past the frontier of what he knows, so does the movie: We meet Andrew Steyn (Marius Weyers), a biologist who has debilitating anxiety around women, so prefers to isolate himself in the desert; M’pudi (Michael Thys), Steyn’s assistant and grizzled mechanic; Kate Thompson (Sandra Prinsloo), a former office drone and new school teacher in the local village; and a small guerilla army led by Sam Boga (Louw Verwey), who will eventually kidnap Kate and her schoolchildren (?!?), bringing all these disparate threads and genres together at the “end of the world,” off the precipice of which Xixo plans to toss the cursed Coke bottle. Though there’s more than enough social and historical subtext to unearth beneath The Gods Must Be Crazy’s zippy farce, Uys seems content in drumming up a lot of extremely delightful physical comedy and mostly making treacly gestures toward Xixo’s people and just how much he respects their purity, or whatever—never condescending to or chastising them, which is about the best case scenario we can hope for here. Right? —Dom Sinacola


11. The Young Master (Jackie Chan)

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Jackie Chan’s second go as director, but first time under the Golden Harvest banner that would vaunt his career, The Young Master is a primordial stew of Hong Kong action-comedy hijinks—unrefined but incredible, an unadulterated early glimpse of an icon beginning to hurl his body through the crucible of his country’s movie industry. Barely supported by a plot, more a series of challenges our innocent martial arts student/orphan, Dragon (Chan), must face to save the soul of his errant brother Tiger (Wei Pai), Chan’s movie offers shenanigans galore, from the opening Lion Dance competition to the concluding some-20-minute battle, during which—pummeled to a pulp by final boss Kam (Hwang In-Shik)—Dragon drinks water from an opium pipe gifted him by a weird old man, giving him super-charged mania that contorts his face into a freakish gurn, his kung fu shrieks the stuff of nightmares. It’s odd and off-putting and exhilarating, and it began a decade of true martial arts movie-making mastery for the young star. —Dom Sinacola


10. Atlantic City (Louis Malle)

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Nestled snugly within its titular setting, Louis Malle’s movie is a quieter affair than modern audiences might expect from a film involving gangsters, drugs and gambling. Maybe that’s because the characters featured—especially Burt Lancaster’s aging Lou and Susan Sarandon’s Sally—are not the characters who inhabit center stage in films like Scorsese’s Casino and Good Fellas. Instead, the hopes and dreams and schemes of Lou, Sally, Dave (Robert Joy) and Grace (Kate Reid) are smaller, somehow. With pasts either mostly unwritten, or purposefully smudged and obscured by their own mediocrity, the characters in Atlantic City seem to be on personal arcs that just don’t make as much noise in their ascent (or descent). Yet, as a result, they feel all the more real and, at least with Lou and Sally, worth cheering on. As Lou, supposedly once a gangster and now a small-time numbers runner, Lancaster brings such quiet dignity and seemingly effortless presence to the role that the potential romance between Lou and Sally seems reasonable enough to perhaps even cheer for? By the end of the movie, things have settled into a new normal for the characters that’s both realistic and, somehow, not disappointing. Atlantic Citymay not offer the caloric energy, melodrama or pathos of the other great films of its year, but that doesn’t mean it was any less nutritious. —Michael Burgin


9. Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme)

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If there’s a definable sub-genre for “the real story likely wasn’t nearly this enjoyable”—and of course, that’s probably like, most Hollywood biopics and “based on” tales—there is, in turn, a smaller category of stories that don’t try to blow things up inordinately, movies that just settle in to the source inspiration and tell tales of the common man, doing common things. Given the real-life events it’s based on, Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard certainly seems like it might have gone in any number of more dramatic directions: Melvin Dummar picks up a disheveled man and gives him a ride to a motel. Years later, a will is found purporting to leave a portion of Howard Hughes’ fortune to Dummar. From here, one might expect intrigue, courtroom drama, or conspiracy; instead, Demme gives us an appealing slice-of-life lower-middle class comedy with an Oscar-winning turn by Mary Steenburgen (as Melvin’s first wife, Lynda). It makes for the most pleasant of expectation confounding. —Michael Burgin


8. Ordinary People (Robert Redford)

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Robert Redford makes his directorial debut and casts three actors known for comedy as leads in this gut-wrenching dissection of a family in crisis. The result proves the adage that comedy is hard: Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland and Judd Hirsch show a depth of talent and technical skill that is unmatched. Young Buck Jarrett has died in a sailing accident, but the aftermath of his death is more tragic for his parents and younger brother Conrad. “You know, I think this can be saved. It’s a nice clean break.” Beth Jarrett is speaking about a serving platter, but this line defines the story told in Ordinary People. Redford’s Jarrett family is brittle as glass, and as we watch it shatter before our eyes, we know intuitively that it cannot be repaired. —Joan Radell


7. The Elephant Man (David Lynch)

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David Lynch melds history and art in the true story of severely disfigured John Merrick, known as “The Elephant Man,” and his physician Frederick Treves. Abandoned by his parents and exhibited as a side-show freak, Treves rescues Merrick from squalor, educates him, and allows him to become the toast of London. Filmed in black and white, the film is a triumph of cinematography as well as prosthetic makeup design. By film’s end, we feel Merrick’s exhaustion and depression as he gently slips away, reminding us that there are many kinds of exploitation. —Joan Radell


6. Airplane! (David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker)

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The writing trio of Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker (ZAZ) defined a genre with their disaster-movie spoof in 1980. The jokes fly fast and furious, from the “Who’s on First” confusion of a crew that includes Roger and Captain Oveur (“Roger, Roger. What’s our vector, Victor?”) to Oveur (Peter Graves) asking a kid in the cockpit, “Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?” to “Stop calling me Shirley!” Ridiculous and ridiculously quotable, it’s the funniest spoof film of all time. —Josh Jackson


5. Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino)

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A magnificent, deeply flawed Western. Michael Cimino’s epic follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter was a colossal financial and critical disaster when first released. Heaven’s Gate’s failure at the box office effectively ended the so-called New Hollywood era of director-controlled movies, and out of the ashes the studios reined in talent and regained their dominance. But what about the movie’s artistic merits, the only real thing that matters? Time has been kinder to Cimino’s ambitious political Western, though it’s hardly the masterpiece it was obviously intended to become. However, it has many masterful elements: Vilmos Zsigmond’s dusky, painterly cinematography; the insanely fetishistic period detail; and a bevy of recognizable character actors (Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston, Geoffrey Lewis) and future stars (Mickey Rourke). The movie focuses on a love triangle between a marshal (Kris Kristofferson), a gunman (Christopher Walken) and a whore (Isabelle Huppert), while a highly charged conflict erupts around them among poor Eastern European immigrants, the rich cattle ranchers who want them dead because of their poaching, and the mercenaries employed to do the killing. Unlike The Deer Hunter, where the balance between intimate and epic storylines meshed together with ease, here the love story lacks the much-needed emotional core and gets broadsided by the bullying scope of the larger political, historical storyline. Also, as with The Deer Hunter, Cimino ends things with a surprising yet inevitable brutalist finale. —Derek Hill


4. Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa)

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The film’s title means “Shadow Warrior,” a truly badass phrase that roughly translates as a decoy for an important leader. This production, mounted with the aid of funding from George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, almost had as much drama behind the scenes as the sweeping Sengoku Jidai war epic that made it onto the celluloid. Lucas and Coppola stepped in when Toho Studios couldn’t come up with the money to finish the picture, and Shintaro Katsu of Zatoichi fame was originally slated as the star, but reportedly angered Kurosawa by bringing his own camera crew in an attempt to document the director’s work. Tatsuya Nakadai would step into the dual role of historical warlord Takeda Shingen and the lowly criminal, rescued from crucifixion by Shingen’s brother, who looks exactly like him. Kagemusha is a massive war epic, but it’s also a study of a man having greatness thrust upon him and choosing to find meaning in a life he’s essentially inherited. When Shingen is mortally wounded in the course of his war for supremacy over Japan, he orders that his decoy take his place and his death be kept secret for three years for the good of the clan. Overwhelmed at first, the decoy soon adopts the slain lord’s mannerisms and even fools his most trusted advisers and some family members. It will end tragically, of course. Shingen’s decoy commits entirely to the task of assuming Takeda Shingen’s mantle. That means accepting his fate, as well. —Kenneth Lowe


3. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick)

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As an aural-visual experience, The Shining is likely the single most distinctive horror film ever made. Its droning soundtrack, innovative Steadicam shots and singular images are instantly recognizable even to people who have never explored horror cinema. Its most famous sequences, such as Danny scrawling “redrum” on the wall or Jack chopping down the bathroom door to get to Wendy, are deeply embedded in pop culture, yet The Shining also still rewards scholarly analysis of its elements that are less known to the casual cinemagoer, such as Kubrick’s unique use of dissolves layered on top of one another to create composite images, or the seemingly purposeful continuity errors that pop up in a handful of scenes. Jack Nicholson is amazing, focusing latent rage and the frustration of a recovering addict into a man who tends to put a smarmy face on all his daily interactions. Shelley Duvall is an unbearably anxious, nervous wreck, sadly reflecting what has often been reported as her actual state at the time, thanks to Kubrick’s tortuous direction and seeming fixation on her. And the film thrives in its mesmerizing bit parts, from suave Lloyd the bartender to the chilling Delbert Grady, who suggests that Torrance’s family needs to be “corrected” … or perhaps, “a bit more.” Each exchange of dialog begs for further analysis. It is telling that The Shining saw few attempts at what you’d call direct imitation in the years that followed. It was too much the product of an auteur mind to be so easily unwrapped and reverse engineered; nor was its initial reaction entirely positive, contrary to what you might now assume. It was and remains an exceptional film of great beauty, coldness, precision, calculation and yes, fright. —Jim Vorel


2. The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner)

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The Empire Strikes Back is Exhibit A in the category of sequels that surpass the original, taking the wondrous world we were granted in A New Hope and deepening its purview in every direction. It gives flesh to the idea of the “Rebel Alliance,” showing us how this ragtag band of freedom fighters operates while slowly winning the ideological battle and drawing more support to their cause. Every character undergoes positive growth. Leia moves from “princess” figurehead to military commander and tireless organizer of a resistance. Han has become a leader of men, completing the transition he began when returning to help Luke destroy the Death Star in A New Hope. And Luke finally starts down the path to becoming a Jedi in earnest. His Dagobah scenes with Yoda are heavy with omens and portents—never in the series have the arcane mysteries of the Force felt so compelling as they do here, as he levitates rocks and digests philosophy. The mysticism and wonder of Star Wars are at their zenith in Empire. The space-piloting scenes have their most goosebump-raising moment, as the Falcon dodges asteroids and T.I.E. Fighters. The petty squabbles of the Imperial Navy and its never-ending parade of dead officers give us a glimpse into the structure of the enemy. A colorful array of bounty hunters is assembled. A classic romance blossoms. And it builds to what is perhaps the biggest “oh my god!” reveal in cinema history, completely redefining the audience’s perception of all the events that led up to it. —Jim Vorel


1. Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese)

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The best film of the 1980s contains one of the all-time-great feats of directing and one of the all-time-great feats of screen acting. The status that Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull has achieved in the years since its release is completely earned. Watching it is a fully felt experience. Over the years, much has been made of the weight Robert De Niro gained while filming Raging Bull to authentically capture the physical transformation of boxer Jake LaMotta. While it’s a great symbol of his commitment, the pounds don’t begin to explain the depths of the character portrait he and Martin Scorsese created. The film looks unforgivingly at a fragile, insecure man who communicates his need for love with jealousy, anger and violence. Scorsese’s shots convey the overly suspicious workings of LaMotta’s head, then back out to coldly observe the horrific violence that ensues. Then there are the boxing scenes. Scorsese deserves endless praise for finding such lively, inventive ways to capture the experience inside the ring. But what’s really amazing is that he goes beyond a great sports scene. Each fight serves as a window into LaMotta’s soul. The camera movement, the quick edits, the sudden shifts in speed all reflect his mental state, his need to damage himself or cause damage to others. Such expressive, visceral filmmaking has rarely been equaled. —Michael Burgin

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