I love movies, especially old movies. I think movies from different decades tend to be of different flavors. I’d break them down 1930s-1940s, 1950s-1970s, and, while maybe maybe should be another break in here, 1980s on.
So I went to see The Legend of Tarazn in the theaters and I was just blown away. It’s an amazing movie that actually nails the Tarzan character — AND nobody has ever nailed the Tarzan character on screen. Plus Jane isn’t a simp like in the books, but is amazing. I try to hold off until the second time I see a movie so I’m not writing a review today, but it got me thinking about movies. It really isn’t fair to compare movies to previous decades’s movies, so here is my list of my favorite movies from 1980 on. They might not be the best movies and I certainly haven’t seen every movie, but this is my list of movies I could watch again and again.
The list is not in any particular order, but as I thought of them. I’ll probably do the other decades another time. This is specifically focused on theatrical releases, no TV series, TV movies, miniseries, or straight to video releases were considered. I’m not giving full reviews of the movies, I’m just tossing out why they made my list. I started for 10, realized I had to have 20, finally got to 30 and then two more. What movies would be on your list?
Most Favorite Movies from 1980s On
- The Legend of Tarzan (2016) – Seriously why is this not the top movie in the country right now? Other Tarzans are fun, but this is the first one that truly nails the character. Then it elevates Jane to awesome. Plus the cinematography blew me away all on its own. Go see it or buy it. I think there’s a good chance this will follow The Princess Bride in building itself into a classic after a sort of disappointing theater run. Speaking of which….
- The Princess Bride (1987) – The best adaption of a book bar none. It follows the book closely except for making the supporting characters’s long “thinks” monologues into discussions. Then it changed over the reading the book interludes to the Grandfather and the Boy. While that muted the life isn’t always fair theme of the book, I think it greatly improved the overall story. The only part I’m sorry they cut was Inigo remembering the Scottish sword master who taught him to fight even if someone else cheated, the worst possible thing happened, and someone threw dirt in your eyes. I often think of that when I need to buck up. The Princess Bride also has the best behind the scenes book about it I’ve ever read As You Wish.
- Hunt for Red October (1990) – I think it’s the second best adaption of the book into a movie. I love Tom Clancy, but I really think a good editor that made him cut 100 pages out of each book would have made him great. This movie cuts those 100 pages (did they really have to search for the sub twice in the same way? Apparently not.) This is the only one of the Jack Ryan films that made my list. Alec Baldwin was exactly right for Jack. Part of the Jack character is that he’s in over his head, but rises to the occasion. Harrison Ford, who starred in the rest of the series, just reads too dang competent for the role. Did I believe for even a second that Harrison Ford ever didn’t know what to do in any emergency in any movie I’ve ever seen him in? In a word – no.
- Return of the Jedi (1983) – I truly think this is the best of the first three Star Wars films. I love Star Wars, although I’ve seen enough truly dedicated people that I don’t think I can fairly claim to be a fan. With Return of the Jedi you have a lovely bit at the beginning of the three friends working together on a clever plot and at the end you have a very emotional showdown. All sorts of lovely beats are included along the way from how amazing Luke looks in his black Jedi outfit, the cuteness of the Ewoks beating high technology, and where that little spark of the man he used to be brought Anakin back to life. I think there’s lots of people who would love to see that last bit in real life, the good flaring back to life in someone who shut the door to it long ago. I know I would and so it’s a powerful punch. Feel the force urging you to watch this movie.
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – Like Return of the Jedi, the Last Crusade is the third in the series and the best one. Part of it is that it focuses on Indy’s father and their relationship just crackles, but seems completely plausible. Add that the romance takes a secondary role in this one and frankly it’s not something that fits that well with the character and you have a strong basis for a movie just with those two points. Then the locations are wonderful. The final puzzle makes sense that someone would have set it up which is something sorely lacking in most “treasure map” type films, although I find it funny that it copies the puzzles almost exactly out of the the Doctor Who episode The Five Doctors (1983) and that no one much I’ve seen seems to talk about that. Check it out. And since it was a big deal to me at the time, what I wanted to know from all the publicity build up to the film was Indy’s real name, his name is Henry and the dog is Indiana – so was Steilberg’s dog.
- National Treasure (2004) – Since we’re talking about treasure maps and treasure hunts, let’s tip the hat to one of the most glorious and history soaked treasure hunts ever, National Treasure. The bad guy they are racing to stop just adds great fun as we figure out clues that use things like Wall Street being built by a real wall back when it was in New Amsterdam and that the Liberty Bell is no longer hanging in the belfry of Independence Hall. For cleverness and adventure you can’t beat it. (Never mind the fact that in all the times the country was in dire financial straights that they could have taken just a little out and sold the gold rather than going into debt so this would never of happened.) The sequel has just as good if not better puzzles and character interactions, but the set up is a lot weaker so consider it an also ran.
- Galaxy Quest (1999) – This was the movie that made my brother announce he was never going to watch a comedy with me in the theater again because I was laughing so hard. I told him it wasn’t my fault that I got all the jokes and the other people didn’t. It’s just a lovely little love note and gentle satire, particularly of Star Trek but really of all sci fi while managing to be a good sci fi on its own. On top of that you’ve got great character growth from all the characters as they finally become a true team and a nice exploration of former child stars and the fan experience from the opposite side of the cameras. By Grabthar’s hammer, you have to watch this movie!
- Dave (1993) – Dave is a political comedy. You could see it as a comedy lite version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with almost as much heart. I can’t really explain why Dave is so wonderful, it just is. It also gets a shout out that it’s one of the few fictional stories with a duplicate taking someone’s place where the people closest to them can’t be fooled for long. They should have been vaguer about the jobs bill though because it doesn’t make any sense. “Everybody works on Tuesday.”
- Annie (1982) – This is the best movie musical of this time period. I had kind of forgotten just how amazing it was until my niece and nephew wanted me to watch Annie (2014) and I saw how terrible it was in comparison because it clearly didn’t understand the Annie story. It’s really a shame because if the 2014 movie had stopped trying to follow the Annie story and music and just organically gone on its own I think it would have been wonderful. The cast was excellent, the characterizations well done, they just weren’t the Annie characters and trying to make them act like the Annie characters from time to time just didn’t go. In short Annie (2014) was just hogtied. Annie (1982) is one of the movies I specifically remember going to see in the theater and coming back out singing the songs at the top of my lungs as we walked to the car (my mom doesn’t much enjoy going with me to movies anymore either). I loved Annie so much I used to carry a tape player and cassette of the songs around with me. I got an Annie dress from the two pages of Annie clothes available that Christmas Wishbook that year. I had to buy a copy of the DVD so I could show the niece and nephew what they had been missing. The songs are wonderful, the sets are marvelous, and you really feel there are connections between these characters. Watching it again for the first time, it had been years, I was amazed all over again.
- Back to the Future (1985) – I was excited to see this film from the previews. I greedily watched each new commercial or entertainment news story about it looking for scenes I hadn’t seen yet. It’s a great film on its own between the idea of taking control of your life and standing up for yourself making your life better. The relationship between Marty and Doc is a great one. But it’s the time travel details that are so beyond belief. My favorite blink and you miss it detail is that in the beginning the mall is the Twin Pine Mall, but after Marty plowed down one of the pines when he went back in time it’s now Lone Pine Mall when he comes back to the present. It’s full of that kind of detail. Truly all three movies in the series should be considered one because by watching how they both continue the story and build up the layers referring back and forth to the other movies between the scenes is what makes the trilogy great and you don’t get that from any single film. I don’t think three movies have ever worked together so well.
- Undercover Blues (1993) – If they had set out to make a film similar to The Thin Man with the form of a movie in the 1990s, this would be it. Two spies fell in love and worked like a well oiled machine on all kinds of adventures. Now they’ve married and had a a baby and are on maternity leave, but they can’t help being who they are and whether they’re foiling a robbery just for fun or taking on a case for a bonus, they are clever, witty, and have plenty of action. In addition both villains provide comic relief, especially Morte. There’s a lovely pair of audience identification characters in the police detectives trying to figure out what’s going on. You’ve got to love all the pop culture references too. How can you NOT love a movie that references The Front Page? I’m willing to bet you haven’t seen this movie, but look for it.
- Overboard (1987) – This is a great comedy with a heart of gold. Johanna is terrible rich witch who takes advantage of a local carpenter when he does a job on her yacht not only refusing to pay for his time or materials, but also throwing his tools overboard. Johanna later falls off the yacht and the carpenter, widowed father Dean Profitt, realizes she has amnesia and no one knows who she. Dean claims her as his wife to let her work off what she owes him through child care. They become a family with them all becoming better people. Johanna gets her memory back…which life will she choose? In the background there is a lovely romantic legend and a brilliant plan for a miniature golf course that I’d love to play on.
- The Man From Uncle (2015) – I must admit I enjoyed this one better the first time than when I rewatched it so the sparkle of surprise was gone, but it still deserves to be on the list. I truly think this is one of the best period films ever. It totally nails the 1960s from the technology to the clothes to the everyday way you did things. I haven’t watched very much of the show it was based on, but it was a nice blend of personalities. One of my favorite things is it had those sequences were someone does something clever like stealing a bracelet, but normally they just pretend they did it and then pull the bracelet out at the end. They actually show them pulling the stuff the first time through before they show it in slow motion so keep your eyes out and you just might see what they’re up to before they point it out in slow-mo. They also manage to drop in a female lead without disrupting the charm and the story of the original. Plus Hugh Grant plays a jerk. I’ve never thought he was right for the characters he played (still grumbling about how it wasn’t Hugh Laurie instead of him in The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain) but he WAS perfect for this. So now I have a movie I like him in. I kept thinking Henry Cavill should really play Superman he looks just like Superman should look. The laugh is on me, he already had.
- The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain (1995)- is just a delightful movie. It’s more about the character of a rural British town in time of World War I (remember that’s just 100 years ago now when you watch it). It focuses on relationships and what’s right and the importance of pride in your town. It’s just a lovely little movie and is the most perfectly cast movie I have every seen. Every single person is completely right – except Hugh Grant whose character should TOTALLY have been played by Hugh Laurie. I used to dream of some future technology that would allow us to overlay Grant with Laurie, oh well. See the movie anyway.
- National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) – Here is one more in that third movie in the series sweet spot. This is a Christmas classic in our family that we watch at least once, normally twice during the Christmas season. It’s a lot more loving with a lot less adolescent locker room type humor than the others in the series. You really want Clark – who is a much better guy than in the other films, actually all the characters are even Eddie – to succeed in giving his family a great Christmas even if it wasn’t in the way he intended it was. Then they connect all the heart warming stuff with flat on funny stuff – SQUIRREL! – Eddie’s expression thinking about getting Clark what he wants for Christmas – Digging the tree out of the ground because they forgot the saw – Sliding down the hill on a sled polished with non-nutritive cereal varnish. All funny stuff. Even the opening and closing credits are a mix of funny and sweet. It also features one of my grandmother’s favorite Christmas songs “Mele Kalikimaka.” The next day – when they had to fix all the stuff they broke – might be horrible, but they at least DID have a great Christmas. The Grunwalds has become slang for incredibly overboard Christmas light shows. You have to see it for yourself.
- The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) – This is our second modern Christmas film on the list and it’s by far my favorite version of The Christmas Carol. Of all the versions from both movies or TV shows, this is the one that made me want to read the book. Michael Caine’s performance as Scrooge is amazing of course, but the true thing that sets it apart is that it includes the narrator. Charles Dickens always gives himself all the best lines so when you pull the narrator (which most movies do) you lose all of them. On top of that there are some just amazing music, especially “The Love is Gone” which remarkably is not included in the DVD releases because it’s thought of as too complicated and too sad for children. This is utterly ridiculous. Sign the petition to put it in the next DVD release or contact Disney and let them know this is a problem.
- The Little Mermaid (1989)- I decided to include a Disney Princess movie from this era of Disney animation — even though my all time favorite is Snow White. Thinking about it I decided I liked The Little Mermaid best. I think it has some of the best character development. We’re focusing on the events of a couple of days not sweeps of time so we spend intense time with both Ariel and Eric. They are just nice, fun people and you want them to win. Ariel is fun and spunky and determined to go after what she wants. Plus she’s a collector. How can you not love a fellow collector? Then Eric’s willingness to sacrifice his life for her even though he just learned that she was a mermaid without even a beat to process it, how can you NOT love Eric? Plus they have great musical numbers my two favorites being “Kiss the Girl” I mean just take a look at that 1940s studio musical inspired magic and Ursula the Sea Witch’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” which is frankly the most fun torch song type Disney song in decades since 101 Dalmation‘s “Cruella DeVille” and Lady and Tramp‘s “He’s a Tramp.” It’s just super fun to sing and watch.
- Frozen (2013) – At their best Disney movies take already good source material, here a story by Hans Christian Anderson (one of the greatest children’s writers in history), and make it better. Disney took a cautionary tale about a heartless queen and turned it into a magical tale about love. It is a counter point to a lot of the Disney Princess movies in that they say family love can be at least as, if not more, important than romantic love and that love at first sight is usually garbage next to a relationship where you spent time getting to know each other and that a girl doesn’t need a boy to be a hero. With all the hype I was expecting to be disappointed. Instead I was impressed – favorite song “He’s a Bit of a Fixer Upper.” How is that not included in the Frozen singalong at Hollywood Studios? It’s the most fun to sing.
- Black Cauldron (1985) – There was a behind the scenes drama going on with behind the scenes and it didn’t do too well in the theaters, but it’s a very solid little movie. I went to see it in the movie theater and I’ve always felt protective it mostly because it didn’t do so well in theaters and I liked it. It was based on an excellent book series by Lloyd Alexander so the story is really good. Plus there’s this bit about a mystic pig nose…how can you resist a movie with a mystic pig nose?
- The Mask of Zorro (1998) – Zorro is one of my favorite screen characters from silent movies to Guy Williams and even the sitcom Zorro and Son (1983). So it would take a lot to make me not like a Zorro movie. Let’s face it no one is going to beat the Disney Guy Williams series, but this one has as good try at it. The plot is pretty stupid but the interaction and sword play sequences are beyond compare and the witty banter is wonderful. It’s just an enjoyable movie (it’s no Guy Williams though, have I mentioned how much I simply adore Guy Williams?). Fun fact Zorro and Son used some of the exteriors used on the previous Zorro TV show – with Guy Williams – 20 years before. Sadly this section of studio was torn down soon after.
- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) – Much more like an episode of the original series than the other Star Trek movies it had a fun first hand contrast between what we knew about their century and ours. A great bit is that the crew is broken up into teams. In a lot of the TV episodes the characters beyond Bones-Kirk-Spock had less to do, in this everybody gets a fair share of attention and interest. It’s a lovely story and includes the memorial exchange: “Are you from outer space?” – “No, I’m from Iowa. I just work in outer space.” That line launched Riverside. It also has the guy who accidentally wandered into shot honestly telling the Russian where to find the “nuclear wessels.”
- Star Trek (2009) – This isn’t really a Star Trek movie. In a Star Trek movie they’d have found a way to correct the timeline and save both Vulcan and Spock’s mother. This is simply the most beautiful, most mainstream big of visual fanfic ever! It’s lovely and such an open adoption of the Many Worlds theory of physics that underlies all fanfic. It’s just so lovely. See it in 3D IMAX if you ever get the chance. It was clearly shot to take full advantage of that format, but I was surprised how much of the 3D effect showed up on a normal TV screen.
- Lake House (2006) – A romantic comedy with a time travel element, it’s lovely and romantic. I know a lot of people make fun of it, but I don’t know why. It’s a lovely sweet film. Sandra Bullock was in a string of romantic comedies, all of which are watchable, but this and Miss Congeniality (2000) are the good stuff.
- Cars (2006) – This is just a glorious movie. The setting is beyond belief, every time you watch it you catch another detail. The characters have personality and throughlines and the plot depends on their relationships. Most importantly, and this is underlined by the lovely documentary about it that comes on the DVD, is ignore the small town neighborhood in favor of the empty Interstate at your peril. And save Route 66.
- The Incredibles (2004) – is a fun look at the other side of being a superhero dealing with keeping your secret identity. It’s an interesting cast of characters and gives the good advice “NO CAPES!” Most importantly they look at the issues behind “if everyone’s special nobody is.”
- Maverick (1994) – Most movies made after TV shows don’t turn out well. They usually make a movie that appeals to what TPTB THINK people liked about the original and normally they guess wrong. Probably the worst example of this is The Dukes of Hazzard (2005). Feel free to shudder. However, Maverick was made by fans who understood what people liked about the original series and played all the beats, even including original star James Garner in a major role. This movie is such a wonderful example of what happens when it’s fans making something new out of what they loved. (See also nuDoctor Who and Sherlock TV episodes).
- Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998) – This is another film that deserved more attention than it got mostly due to the absolutely horrible commercials. I honestly thought Drew Barrymore’s character was supposed to be a butterfly, that’s how bad the commercials were. It’s a telling of the Cinderella story with more fleshed out characters and a small supporting role by Leonardo da Vinci. It’s a charming take on the classic story with Drew Barrymore as the female lead in a rom-com which she excels at.
- Ghost Busters (1984) – A group of theoretical paranormal experts suddenly discover that not only are ghosts real, but they can fight them. The humorous rag tag group end up having to save the world. Whether it was the library ghost at the beginning to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, it’s a great little bit of world building that has spread far beyond this original movie, but what a great start. After all – who you gonna call? Oh, and did you know Dan Aykroyd’s family really investigates ghosts? Read the book A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Séances, Mediums, Ghosts, and Ghostbusters.
- Nancy Drew (2007) – It made an interesting choice to take the classic version of Nancy Drew that would be perfectly at home in the 1960s yellowback version and put her in today’s world. Nancy is too utterly perfect, but in all the right ways. It’s a great watch and I MAY or may not have bought a pair of moccasin slippers just because this version of Nancy had a pair.
- Mannequin (1987) – It’s a fun comedy set a couple of decades late for the department store windows to actually make that much of a difference, but it’s a nice twist on the Pygmalion story. The music is really fun. The montages are great. As a big plus you get to see Golden Girls‘s Sophia, Estelle Getty, as a character her real age.
- The Mummy (1999) – I hesitated to add this one to the list because I really hate the gross stuff in the middle. Also, there’s a bunch of terrible, selfish Americans, but the rest of the characters are cool people, doing cool things, and saying cool things. The first sequel is good too, but they really should have stopped with that. “I am a LIBRARIAN.”
- The Pirate Movie (1982) is both a parody and tribute to both Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance and pirate movies in general. It has great 80s style pop rock and fun adaptions of the real songs.
Mabel: You poor thing. Pirates! You mean like walking the plank? Buried treasure? Hack, slash, off with his head, and the Jolly Richard, and everything?
Mabel: Oh, Roger I love it.
Frederic: No, Frederic without a “k.”
Mabel: Mabel, also without a “k.” God, we have so much in common.
Honorable Mentions and Why
- Tootsie (1982)- Despite the great soap opera stuff, Tootsie as a whole is not my cup of tea. Too many people get hurt including Teri Garr’s character. I always like Teri Garr’s characters and I don’t like to see them get hurt. But it gets an honorable mention because we came out of the theater talking about “the Roomate” of Dustin Hoffman’s character. We just couldn’t get over with all the guy was expressing with facial expressions alone. Not being SNL people we’d never heard of or seen Bill Murray before, but he blew us away with his performance in this.
- Tom Hanks – I want to put a Tom Hanks movie on the list because Tom Hanks is amazing. I’ve loved him since he was on the TV show Bosum Buddies. I enjoy his performances, but I can’t think of a movie I’ve seen that I haven’t enjoyed Hanks’s performances in spite of the rest of the movie instead of enjoying it more because of it. I haven’t seen all of them, but that’s my general impression.
- The Last Unicorn (1982) – theme song – This is a truly sad movie, complete with a sad ending. “She is the only unicorn who knows regret.” But it’s got a beautifully perfect theme song. Plus the excellent advice “Never run away from anything immortal” which I define as including fate.
- Trading Places (1983) – Edited version – I first watched Trading Places on network TV. They used to take movies and edit them for length and content and play them on the three major networks. It’s too bad they don’t anymore because frankly a lot of times this more drastic editing made it a better movie. None of the stuff the network took out actually contributed to the story in this one and it was a much tighter movie without it. Also watch for the shout out to this movie in Coming to America (1988) where Eddie Murphy’s character – determined not to reveal he’s a prince – gives away a stack of money to a bum. The bum and his partner are the brothers they get payback on in Trading Places.
- The Wild, Wild West (1990) – Artemus Gordon – The biggest problem with this movie, despite issues with its plot and some of its humor, is that Will Smith was playing the Will Smith persona instead of James West. James West is a brand like James Bond you can’t just revamp it to suit yourself and have it work. What you have to watch it for is Kevin Klein’s Artemis Ward. He does a brilliant job. The character isn’t quite the same as the TV show because his relationship with Jim is different, but it’s truly a magnificent performance of the character.
- Brewster’s Millions (1985) – This remake starring Eddie Murphy doesn’t live up to the previous attempts, but I love the 1935 and 1945 versions so much I want to like this one so I can’t quite give up on it. Previous versions were made in 1914 and 1921 with a gender switch version coming out in 1926. If you haven’t heard of the farcical premise a distant relative leaves a young man a large amount of money which he can either accept outright and settle for that OR he can spend it all according to certain rules within a certain amount of time and without telling anyone what he’s doing and get the rest of the vast fortune.
- Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) – This reworks the entire Jack Ryan timeline and storyline and the substituted storyline isn’t too hot, but the characterizations are spot on. It’s much better than any of the Harrison Ford films and that earned it a spot here.
- Annie (2014) – I explained this one under Annie in the list above.
- Never Been Kissed (1999) and Fifty First Dates (2004) both make my near miss list. Drew Barrymore is my favorite rom-com star and I enjoy both these movies, but NBK involves a teacher falling in love with someone who he thinks is his minor student (which as a teacher is something I have ethical issues with) and FFD in the best role of Adam Sandler’s career so far, still had too much of his junior high brand of humor left in. Still they are both definitely worth one focused watch and leaving them on if you happen across them on TV.
There You Have It
And there you have it. There’s my list of the best movies from 1980-the present. What films would be on yours?
UPDATED March 11, 2017: I discovered the TCM movie directory and decided those pages would be worth linking to for this list. For some reason The Last Unicorn didn’t have one so I linked to IMDB instead. I made some slight edits and added a couple of more facts I thought of later.
Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales striving to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation. Uthoff is a nationally known Laura Ingalls Wilder authority and has presented at five of the Wilder homesites, many conferences and numerous libraries, museums, and events around the Midwest. Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her onFacebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and Academia.edu. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.