Slant's The 100 Best Films of the 1980s

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In 2019, Billboard teamed up with SiriusXM to determine the 500 best songs of the 1980s, with Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 pop hit “Physical” topping the list. It’s an apt choice for many reasons, foremost among them that the ‘80s, if mainstream American filmmaking from the era is any indication, might be called the decade of the body—of turning away from the more cerebral, auteurist cinema of the New Hollywood and toward star-driven genre vehicles, featuring the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise, and Melanie Griffith, who in Brian De Palma’s delirious Body Double plays a porn star named—wait for it—Holly Body.

Conventional historical accounts of the decade see this transformation through the lens of box office, as studio practices tended toward market saturation, and stardom became dependent on the potential to make viewers feel rather than think. But that narrative overlooks the plethora of small, seedy gems made by Hollywood filmmakers starring well-known actors still vying to challenge audiences with daring visions of the modern world. Such as William Friedkin’s Cruising, Michael Mann’s Thief, and Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, whose nocturnal animals discover new, and often unwanted, shades of themselves while moving through city streets.

If the neon-lit cityscape is an essential image in ‘80s films for the way it expresses the allure and danger of living by night, it also points up how a fear of AIDS—and its association with city life—leapt into the collective consciousness. Maybe that’s partly why Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner seems to epitomize ‘80s aesthetics for many: The replicant, whose body often looks like an ideal and healthy human, is actually a machine. The city, though, need not be essential for the metaphor to work. In fact, author John Kenneth Muir argues that, in a film like John Carpenter’s The Thing, which is set in Antarctica, the necessity of a blood test to determine “what is really going on inside the human body” could be understood as a direct reference to the AIDS epidemic.

If that potentially sounds like a grim diagnosis of the decade’s films, it actually points to the vitality of the decade’s cinematic artistry, as filmmakers from across the globe emerged to share their haunted visions of sex, music, and voyeurism. In France, Jean-Jacques Beineix, Leos Carax, and Luc Besson each helped create cinéma du look as a hybrid strain of popular and art cinema with a lush visual style. Meanwhile, aging master Robert Bresson was making his last (and arguably finest) film. In Canada, David Cronenberg showed us how exploding heads, penetrative home video, and wayward twin gynecologists could encapsulate various maladies of the times. And in Taiwan, Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien were at the forefront of New Taiwanese Cinema, diagnosing the twin poles of urbanization and globalization as they started to define contemporary life.

The number of singular filmmakers who emerged in the decade is extensive. Auteurs such as Abbas Kiarostami and Souleymane Cissé created works that helped further introduce the realities of their respective countries to audiences around the globe, while, back in the U.S., Lizzie Borden and Donna Deitch were making their first feature films, each of which has endured as a classic of queer cinema. The decade’s films help us understand that, in order to see all titles of consequence, one needs to remain open to movies playing at the multiplex, the arthouse, and the grindhouse. The latter includes numerous slasher films, itself a subgenre enamored with the dangers and pleasures of the flesh. We must remember that, sometimes, wisdom comes from unlikely places, so consider this seemingly throwaway line from 1982’s The Slumber Party Massacre as words to live by: “It’s not the size of your mouth; it’s what’s in it that counts.” Clayton Dillard

Published on April 23, 2020
By Staff

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  1. 1 new

    L'argent

    1983 — a.k.a. L'Argent, in 8 top lists Check
  2. 2 new

    Do the Right Thing

    1989, in 25 top lists Check
  3. 3 new

    Blue Velvet

    1986, in 27 top lists Check
  4. 4 new

    The Shining

    1980, in 28 top lists Check
  5. 5 new

    Raging Bull

    1980, in 34 top lists Check
  6. 6 new

    Fanny och Alexander

    1982 — a.k.a. Fanny and Alexander, in 25 top lists Check
  7. 7 new

    Videodrome

    1983, in 18 top lists Check
  8. 8 new

    Idi i smotri

    1985 — a.k.a. Come and See, in 26 top lists Check
  9. 9 new

    Fitzcarraldo

    1982, in 14 top lists Check
  10. 10 new

    Sans soleil

    1983 — a.k.a. Sans Soleil, in 16 top lists Check
  11. 11 new

    RoboCop

    1987, in 15 top lists Check
  12. 12 new

    Dekalog

    1989, in 11 top lists Check
  13. 13 new

    The King of Comedy

    1982, in 15 top lists Check
  14. 14 new

    The Fly

    1986, in 11 top lists Check
  15. 15 new

    Blow Out

    1981, in 8 top lists Check
  16. 16 new

    The Thing

    1982, in 20 top lists Check
  17. 17 new

    Khane-ye doust kodjast?

    1987 — a.k.a. Where Is the Friend's House?, in 15 top lists Check
  18. 18 new

    Possession

    1981, in 7 top lists Check
  19. 19 new

    Love Streams

    1984, in 8 top lists Check
  20. 20 new

    Distant Voices, Still Lives

    1988, in 11 top lists Check
  21. 21 new

    Paris, Texas

    1984, in 21 top lists Check
  22. 22 new

    Mauvais sang

    1986 — a.k.a. Mauvais Sang, in 5 top lists Check
  23. 23 new

    Dead Ringers

    1988, in 12 top lists Check
  24. 24 new

    Berlin Alexanderplatz

    1980, in 7 top lists Check
  25. 25 new

    Blade Runner

    1982, in 36 top lists Check
  26. 26 new

    Something Wild

    1986, in 5 top lists Check
  27. 27 new

    Le rayon vert

    1986 — a.k.a. The Green Ray, in 9 top lists Check
  28. 28 new

    E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

    1982, in 30 top lists Check
  29. 29 new

    Sans toit ni loi

    1985 — a.k.a. Vagabond, in 10 top lists Check
  30. 30 new

    Ran

    1985, in 25 top lists Check
  31. 31 new

    Shoah

    1985, in 18 top lists Check
  32. 32 new

    Hannah and Her Sisters

    1986, in 9 top lists Check
  33. 33 new

    Nostalghia

    1983 — a.k.a. Nostalgia, in 9 top lists Check
  34. 34 new

    Modern Romance

    1981, in 3 top lists Check
  35. 35 new

    Dip huet seung hung

    1989 — a.k.a. The Killer, in 16 top lists Check
  36. 36 new

    À nos amours

    1983 — a.k.a. À Nos Amours, in 10 top lists Check
  37. 37 new

    Body Double

    1984, in 2 top lists Check
  38. 38 new

    The Thin Blue Line

    1988, in 12 top lists Check
  39. 39 new

    Sex, Lies, and Videotape

    1989, in 11 top lists Check
  40. 40 new

    The Elephant Man

    1980, in 16 top lists Check
  41. 41 new

    They Live

    1988, in 7 top lists Check
  42. 42 new

    Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

    1985, in 6 top lists Check
  43. 43 new

    Stop Making Sense

    1984, in 9 top lists Check
  44. 44 new

    Sherman's March

    1985, in 10 top lists Check
  45. 45 new

    Ms .45

    1981, in 5 top lists Check
  46. 46 new

    Chocolat

    1988, in 3 top lists Check
  47. 47 new

    Thief

    1981, in 6 top lists Check
  48. 48 new

    Qing mei zhu ma

    1985 — a.k.a. Taipei Story, in 8 top lists Check
  49. 49 new

    Dressed to Kill

    1980, in 6 top lists Check
  50. 50 new

    Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

    1987, in 4 top lists Check
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Last updated on Apr 25, 2020; source