A chance encounter with a friend this week and a subsequent discussion of certain films got me thinking about 1980s movies. While most of my generation adores Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, I… don’t. I think those particular films are ones you need to watch when you’re a kid to really fall in love with them. I managed to not see either one of them until I was in college and… Yeah. Didn’t really care for them. As much as I like David Bowie, I just don’t see the appeal of the fright wig and the weird tights.
My siblings are both several years older than I am, and because a little kid thinks their older siblings are SO COOL!, I ended up watching the same movies they did which was, on reflection, maybe not for the best. I mean, there’s a reason Alien isn’t rated G.
So I was thinking about which 1980s movies I like the best, and came up with a list. Now, I’ll have to disqualify a few, namely The Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (does anyone really like Temple of Doom?). These are too obvious. Everyone likes them.
So in no particular order, here are five of my favorite 1980s films:
- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan– 1982, directed by Nicholas Meyer. The second Star Trek film picks up the story from the original series episode, Space Seed, in which the crew of the Enterprise encountered a ship of cryogenically frozen, genetically enhanced super soldiers from the 1990s. They were led by Khan and ultimately exiled to a nice planet with no chance of escape. In Wrath of Khan, the USS Reliant comes across what they think is the lifeless planet they need for Project: Genesis (a terraforming project that could be used as a horrific weapon in the wrong hands, but is a wonder when used by good people). Turns out the planet is inhabited, and by Khan and his people, no less. What follows is a revenge plot worthy of Shakespeare (Khan keeps quoting the bard), and what is one of Star Trek’s more philosophical storylines. It’s also the source of one of Star Trek’s most quoted lines.
- Clue – 1985, Directed by Jonathan Lynn – Though it didn’t get a lot of attention while it was in theaters, the advent of VHS and home theater systems allowed Clue to experience a second, far more successful life. It’s probably Hollywood’s best film based on a board game (I mean, what else is there? Battleship?), and features some of the greatest comedic actors from the 1980s. How can you beat a comedy starring people like Madeline Khan, Christopher Lloyd, Lesley Ann Warren, and Tim Curry? I nearly wore out my public library’s copy of the VHS when I was a kid, and then my best college friend and I nearly wore out her copy, and now I’ve watched my DVD copy… many, many times. Because no matter how often I watch it, it’s always a delight to see the visual gags, and hear some of the cleverest jokes I’ve ever seen in a movie. It’s also one of those films that ages along with you, because the sexy jokes will go right over a kid’s head and land perfectly when you’re a grown-up.
- Legend – 1985, Directed by Ridley Scott – Like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, I didn’t see Legend until I was in college. But unlike those other two, Legend was the perfect film for me. Where Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal have that deadly 80s feeling to them (I’m not a big fan of 80s hair and aesthetics, okay?), Legend feels timeless. It features a young Tom Cruise as a forest-dwelling boy named Jack who falls for a rather manipulative Princess Lily, played by an even younger Mia Sara. One day, Jack takes Lily to see the unicorns and she, being a spoiled princess, insists on touching one of them. Since the unicorns put their guard down when they approach the princess, they are caught unaware by the goblins stalking them. When one of the unicorns is killed and its horn brought to the demon, Darkness, eternal wintry darkness falls across the land, and Jack must find a way to defeat Darkness (with the help of fairies, an elf, and some dwarves), while Lily must confront her own darkness and find a way to set things right again. I think it’s a credit to Ridley Scott’s storytelling that I fell in love with this 1980s fantasy film, when I’ve found the others to be “meh”.
Most people have probably seen the choppy American version with the Tangerine Dream soundtrack, but I prefer the European version which has much smoother editing, an orchestral score, and a better opening. You can find both versions on the Ultimate Edition. Which I own two copies of.
- Amadeus – 1984, Directed by Milos Forman – I watched this alongside my sister, a musician with a taste for historical dramas (and people wonder where I get it?), who played Mozart’s music with ease on piano and flute. Given the amazing costumes and the familiar (even when I was ten or so) music, and the ridiculous laugh from Tom Hulce’s Mozart and the understated but still hilarious one from Jeffrey Jones’s Emperor Joseph II, even a littler me found the movie to be wonderful. While much of the story went right over my head when I was a kid, I liked the music and the costumes and the staging of the operas that are part of the story. As an adult, I appreciate the story much more now, and though I know the supposed jealous rivalry between Mozart and Salieri was entirely fictional, I still appreciate the story of how a solid but somewhat staid musician deals with encountering a prodigious talent like Mozart’s.
And did I mention how gorgeous this film is? It’s beautiful. You can turn the volume down and just watch it for the costumes and cinematography. There’s a reason it won all the awards.
- The Princess Bride- 1987, Directed by Rob Reiner – Does anyone not like this movie? If someone said they didn’t, I would shout “Inconceivable!” at them. And if they replied, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means,” I would know they were lying about not liking it. When preparing for the release of this film, Hollywood didn’t know how to market it (they were as clueless about films that don’t conform to a specific genre in the 1980s as they are now), and so the film came and went without much fanfare. But like Clue, it got a second chance at life thanks to the advent of VHS and home theater. The tale of beautifulest ladies, pirates, fencing, giants, and True Love found a new audience among children in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the rest is history. It’s one of the most quoted (and quotable) movie in film history, and is so charming and ridiculous it’s almost impossible not to like at least part of it. I can quote most of it by now, but I’m still happy to watch it over and over again.
Personal bonus? The movie poster echoes the fairytale aesthetic of American artist and Art Nouveau master, Maxfield Parrish.