A Century of Cinema: 1980-1989

Welcome back to our bi-weekly series where your favorite (and not-so-favorite) Filmsmiths writers will be discussing our favorite films of the last 100 years (give or take). In order to bring a little bit of order to such a monumental task, we’ve decided to tackle these films decade-by-decade, starting with the 1910s and moving chronologically to present-day. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the previous list: A Century of Cinema: 1970-1979.

Without further ado, here are the Filmsmiths’ Favorites for 1980-1989:


Beetlejuice (1988) – Eliza McGowan-Stinski


If you want some more quirk and creepiness in your life, say “beetlejuice” three times and you’re in for a treat! Only if you’re a recently married and even more recently deceased ghost couple whose new house was sold and inhabited by an obnoxious family, that is. From the minds (and pen) of Michael McDowell and Lary Wilson, and the direction of Tim Burton, Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, and pre-Batman Michael Keaton bring this bizarre story to life in the 1988 film Beetlejuice.

Whether his name is actually spelled “Beetlejuice” or “Betlegeuse” as it is on his grave (just like the star of Orion that astronomers predict will explode soon and become a supernova), Michael Keaton NAILS this performance. He’s gross and creepy but also charming and, this might be a stretch, a little bit endearing. The whole concept is quite fun and imaginative – we’ve seen ghosts before, but we don’t often see a whole town of sorts set inside a house rather than the house set in a town – and the film embodies the true spirit of any Tim Burton film with it’s kid-friendly-caution-sign vibe. You might not learn anything from Beetlejuice, but it’s a fun ride. Some may even say it’s a timeless film…


Blade Runner (1982) – Nick Potter

Blade Runner

Sometimes it feels almost like cheating when what I choose as my favorite film of the decade also happens to be one of the most influential sci-fi films ever made, but there’s no way around it. Just like the past few editions of this series, I tried for a while to pick a different film, but I just knew deep down that no other film meant what Blade Runner meant to me (other than The Empire Strikes Back, but I let Dylan have it).

Based loosely on the Philip K. Dick novel, ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?’, Blade Runner takes place in the year 2019 (yikes) and follows Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). Deckard is a blade runner, a cop who tracks down replicants in hiding and “retires” them. He is tasked with tracking down four replicants who escaped from a mining colony and are on the planet illegally and taking them out. He tracks these highly intelligent beings throughout Los Angeles as they search for a cure for their preprogrammed short lifespan. Led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the replicants seek knowledge and justice, but their violent crimes can not be ignored by Deckard. Meanwhile, Deckard also meets Rachael (Sean Young), a woman whose very presence forces him to rethink much of his life.

Just three years after unleashing Alien on the masses, Ridley Scott returned with another genre masterpiece that continues to inspire. The production design and use of miniature sets for establishing shots has been frequently borrowed, and Jordan Cronenweth’s vibrant cinematography only enhances that physical work. Many people of course shine a lot of light on the electronic Vangelis score, iconic in it’s own right due to the dark melodic synthesizers that populate the whole film.

There are many different versions of Blade Runner out there due to studio intervention (just go with The Final Cut, trust me), but the film has never fully left the cinematic limelight. Its influence persists, and it even finally spawned a sequel, the brilliant Blade Runner 2049 from Denis Villeneuve which you should ALSO seek out immediately. Ridley Scott may be a director who feels like more of a coin flip nowadays, but it’s impossible to deny his early masterpieces.


When Harry Met Sally (1989) – Patty Williamson

When Harry Met Sally

Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back. That is the well-known formula for romantic comedies, and has been since 1934, a year that ushered in this the first four rom-coms to be produced by Hollywood. The genre took a bit of a hit during the 1970s and early 1980s, but the release of When Harry Met Sally in 1989 sparked a renewed interest in so-called “chick flicks.” Directed by Rob Reiner and written by Nora Ephron, this film epitomizes what every rom-com should strive to be, and that’s why it’s my favorite film from the 1980s.

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. The term “chick flicks” is a bogus term many try to use in a derogatory manner to signify a lack of depth in a film that involves a romantic relationship as its central plot point. These films generally attract a largely female audience. While it’s true that women are drawn to rom-coms, it’s not due to a lack of depth. It’s because in rom-coms, there will always be at least one woman as a co-protagonist, and as has been brought to the public’s attention more forcefully of late, that’s an uncommon occurrence in most mainstream Hollywood film. But, I digress.

When Harry Met Sally stars Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as the title characters. They meet on a cross-country drive together as they leave college to live in New York City. They part ways at the end of the trip, but continue to run into each other over the years until they decide to be friends. Over time, their close friendship turns into something more, but as in life, it’s difficult to make the transition from friendship to romantic love. Crystal is near-perfect as the generally self-absorbed and neurotic single man, while Meg Ryan is at her peak as an independent and fastidious woman, who rarely lets people see her vulnerable side. The late Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby play the best friends to the protagonists, and their relationship is played for comedic gold.

Ephron’s script is a modernized version of the back and forth dialogue common in 1940s Hawksian slapstick comedies. The late writer’s ability to bring to life well-rounded characters and truthful relationships is on full display in this film. And Reiner deftly directs the picture, with very little flourish, keeping the attention on the interplay between characters on screen. Sure, the fashion is very 1980s, but the dialogue is still funny today. The intercutting of interviews of elderly couples was a bold move at the time, and they serve as an effective transitional device throughout the film.

This film left a lasting impression on my view of relationships, as this is the first “Century of Cinema” film I actually saw in the theater when it was originally released. It is also the reason why I yell “Baby fish mouth” as my opening guess anytime I play charades or Pictionary at a party. Everyone says it’s a film about whether or not men and women can be friends. But don’t let that dated notion distract you from the truly funny story and emotional realism that this film exudes. If you haven’t watched this classic, do so immediately. If you’ve already seen it, watch it again. It’s that good.


Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – Roger ‘Buddy’ Allman

Raiders of the Lost Ark

A chance meeting in Hawaii over a sand castle; that’s where it came from.

Just before his new film Star Wars opened in theaters in 1977, George Lucas took a trip to the Aloha State to relax from the grueling production of a movie he wasn’t sure would be successful (of course, we know now what happened…). On the beach, he ran into his good friend Steven Spielberg, who had just finished Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They began making a sand castle together and discussing ideas for future films. Spielberg mentioned that he always wanted to make a James Bond movie, to which Lucas replied, “I can go one better.” What if they took the basic idea for Star Wars, i.e. combine the old 1930s sci-fi serials they used to love as kids with modern filmmaking and a bit of mythology, and do the same thing with the 1950s swashbuckling action-adventure Republic serials they also used to adore? Spielberg loved the idea, so when they returned from vacation, they contacted scriptwriter Lawrence Kasdan and got to work on a screenplay together.

The result was Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), a modern, wide-screen, big-budget version of an action-adventure cliffhanger. In this brilliant action film, we are first introduced to Dr. Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford, a rough-and- tumble, two-fisted archaeologist and perhaps one of the most iconic film heroes in cinema history. We are dropped in media res as Dr. Jones tries to acquire a Hovitos fertility idol pre-WWII by overcoming obstacles such as poison dart traps, angry natives, a huge rolling boulder, and eventually his arch-rival Belloq (played by Paul Freeman), who takes away everything Jones accomplishes. Later we learn that the Third Reich has discovered the last resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, the chest the ancient Hebrews used to carry the tablets containing the Ten Commandments into battle, and Indy is hired by the US government to poach it before the Nazis do. What follows is a rollicking adventure filled with tense action and phenomenal stunts as Indy and his friends face evil Nazis, a pit full of poisonous snakes, government corruption, ancient traps, exploding planes, and even the wrath of God in what is likely the most perfectly-paced action film ever produced, with an ending that filmgoers are still talking about. Not to mention it launched two great sequels and a new film franchise second only to the Star Wars narrative. It’s Lucas and Spielberg together; what else would one expect?

This is undoubtedly one of my favorite films. In addition to its mythic tribute to those schlocky cliffhangers that are still so much fun, Raiders has a great story, awesome characters, a terrific (and controversial) ending, and one of the best film scores ever written, by the incomparable John Williams, whose Indiana Jones march is just as loved and recognizable as his main Star Wars theme. The scene in the Tannis map room, where Jones uses the Staff of Ra to discover where the Ark is hiding, is one of the single best-scored scenes in all of movie-dom, in my opinion, and this dialogue-free scene, with its haunting “Ark of the Covenant” theme and its woodwinds and choir featured, is perhaps the primary reason I decided to become a film composer myself. All in all, Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the most entertaining and brilliantly-made films you’ll ever see. It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.


Real Genius (1985) – Abi Haggart

Real Genius

Picture this: In-His-Prime Val Kilmer, wearing a t-shirt that says “I Heart Toxic Waste” with a pair of antenna boppers on his head. Dreamy, weird, and hilarious. Ask and Real Genius shall provide. But I’m getting ahead of myself, how about a little summary:

Real Genius (1985) follows 15-year-old Mitch Taylor (Gabe Jarret) as he traverses University life as a young genius. Raised to be modest, a bit uptight, and to do whatever an adult says – he finds his world turned upside down when he becomes roommates with the legendary, and supremely quirky, Chris Knight (Val Kilmer). Chris takes Gabe under his wing and shows him that there’s more to life than keeping your nose in a book and the importance of being young while you’re young and that sometimes you have to follow the man who lives in your closet just to – WAIT wait, I don’t want to spoil anything.

So let’s take a step back…no wait, I’m sorry, a step forward…and now a step back…and then forward – and back and now we’re cha-cha-ing!

But genuinely – if you’re looking for a good time with a lot of humor and heart – look no further than Real Genius. Chris Knight will cha-cha his way into your heart and I highly recommend it (besides, how else are you going to find out why Kent was naked with that bowl of jello?)


Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – Dylan Clauson

Empire Strikes Back

That’s right, another Harrison Ford movie. Let’s be honest, you’ve most likely seen this movie before, at least on accident. The Empire Strikes Back is the second, and best, of the nine-films-and-counting Star Wars franchise. I won’t bother doing the usual plot summary for this movie because you’ve probably already seen it, and if you haven’t it was a likely conscious decision. Empire, directed by Irvin Kershner, takes the lighthearted and hopeful story of heroism from the original Star Wars and turns it on its head. A much darker and more dramatic rendition of the space opera, Empire is still renowned as one of the greatest sequels and sci-fi films of all time in large part due to its sinister tone and world-shaking plot twist.

When I was a little kid, my grandma gave me a VHS recording of a showing of Empire and its sequel Return of the Jedi that she had recorded off of HBO or some other cable channel, one of my first film memories was popping in that yellow-labeled VHS and sitting on the floor in front of the TV to watch Luke Skywalker learn what it is to be a Jedi and face off against the towering Darth Vader, and yes my first ever movie-crush was the beautiful and strong Princess Leia. When the credits finally rolled as Luke and Leia stood arm-in-arm, full of hope but also dread, I would hit rewind and watch it all over again. Empire Strikes Back is not only one of my favorite films of all time, it is also one of the best and most important sci-fi movies of all time.


Honorable mentions for the 1980s, in no particular order:

  • The Breakfast Club (1985)
  • Stand By Me (1986)
  • The Princess Bride (1987)
  • Broadcast News (1987)
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987)
  • Blue Velvet (1986)
  • The Natural (1984)
  • The Thing (1982)
  • This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
  • Raging Bull (1980)

What are some your favorite films of the 1980s? Let us know in the comments below or on social media, and be on the lookout for our Century of Cinema: 1990-1999 coming up in two weeks.

Dylan Clauson

A good, good beard boy that studied broadcasting and film at Central Michigan University, where I learned how to pretend that I know what I'm talking about.

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Robert Mercieca

Amadeus was in my top 10 80’s film….starred Tom Hulce … Plymouth High School ’72.