10 – Scarface
I was really debating between this and another De Palma film, Blow Out, for the 10 spot. I actually think that Blow Out is the technically superior film. It contains amazing use of sound, pacing, and plot twists. But, Scarface contains one of the most potent performances in screen history that gets better and better every time I see it. Pacino is spellbinding as Tony Montana and makes the close to 3 hour running time fly by. Its message is simple but powerful: Once you climb to the top, you have nowhere to go but down.
9 – The King of Comedy
One of the most underrated films of all time. It was Scorsese’s follow-up to Raging Bull and was judged too harshly because he was competing against his own brilliance. This film’s plot about media obsession is even more potent today than it was in 1983. Back then, all we had was print magazines, newspaper, TV, and movies. Nowadays, our phones are wired into constant media that is streamed anywhere we go at any time. Stalking was the 2000’s buzz word as psychotic fans did anything and everything to follow the stars that they drew unhealthy obsessions over and this movie displays that psychosis in a real and palpable way. Deniro delivers a unique and memorable performance that is unlike anything else he’s ever done. If you’ve never seen it, rent it now! You will not be disappointed.
8 – Ran
Kurosawa made this masterpiece when he was 75 but he shows he never lost any bit of his film making skills with age. I’ve watched this film several times and get something new out of it every time. Its story is ageless and asks great questions about the leaders of the past. When was it time to give up power? Who can you trust? Is family the most sacred bond? As one of Kurosawa’s few color films, it shows the master could work with any color, any story, and at any time of his life and deliver a film of stunning power and beauty.
7 – Blue Velvet:
David Lynch’s fearless film about the horrible things that go on in the most normal of places. There are definite Hitchcock influences here, particularly Rear Window as a young Kyle MacLachlan hides in a closet and gets a vision of what hell looks like. It leads him on a mystery that will shock viewers as much as it will interest them. It has all the usual Lynchian weirdness but it also has a poignancy about lost innocence. It’s not for everyone. But, then again, you could say that about every David Lynch film.
6 – Raiders of the Lost Ark
What happened when George Lucas and Steven Spielberg teamed up at the peaks of their careers? Well, Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s a stirring tribute to Saturday matinee serials that used to play in theaters in the early 20th century. In them , the hero would drive his car off a cliff in a big action scene and the film would end. You’d be forced to come back next week and see how he would survive. Raiders is just like that except we don’t have to wait until next week and the production values are off the charts. Scene after scene, it’s one great action scene that’s even better than the last. It’s hard to believe this film is over 30 years old. It’s just as fun, fresh, and brilliant as it ever was.
5 – Full Metal Jacket
One of the greatest war films ever made. It’s actually a tale of two stories. The first half is the story of what basic training can do to a tragically innocent soul. The second half is what war does to those that thought they were ready for combat. The second half doesn’t quite live up to the greatness of the first but it’s still engaging. The performances throughout by the then unknown cast helps the viewer focus on the story more than the stars. I also loved the ending because it’s not what you expect as the young soldiers descend into hell.
4 – The Last Temptation of Christ
Yes, I know it’s not based on scripture. Yes, I am aware that the Christian community has disowned it. And, yes, I also know that many refuse to watch it because they’ve been told it’s blasphemous. It’s a shame if you miss this fictional exploration into the human side of Christ. The church has told us that Christ was all man and all God. And yet, few film makers have ever had the guts to explore the human nature of Jesus. Scorsese presents us a Christ that has doubts, fears, and desires, as any man would have. The beauty is the way that it shows how despite all these misgivings, he still gives the ultimate sacrifice. I fail to see what’s blasphemous about that.
3 – The Elephant Man
This is the most emotional pick on my list. I absolutely love this film. It’s one of the most beautiful, sad, and poetic films ever made. The Elephant Man (played by John Hurt) goes through a metamorphosis through this film that you rarely see. First, he’s shown as a freak, then a science experiment, then a friend, an artist, and a friend. Hurt’s performance is one of the greats in the history of cinema and he would have been a shoo-in for an Oscar if he wasn’t competing against the next film on the list……
2 – Raging Bull
The performance I just previously mentioned was by Robert Deniro and it is considered by many to be the greatest ever. It’s hard to argue when this film is routinely brought up as one of the greatest ever and just recently moved up AFI’s top 100 films ever all the way to #4. The black and white cinematography is arguably the best of Scorsese’s career and the way the film is presented entirely from Jake LaMotta’s perspective displays his feeling of anger, jealously, and bitterness perfectly to the audience. We feel everything he feels even if we are repulsed by his actions.
1 – The Empire Strikes Back
Did I just name a science fiction sequel as the greatest film of an entire decade? You bet you ass I did. This isn’t just the best Star Wars movie. It’s arguably the greatest science fiction achievement since Kubrick’s 2001. The entire world that is created is densely populated with some of the most incredible visual imagery that has ever been printed to film. The characters, story, sets, and special effects were so far ahead of their time it feels like this film was made tomorrow. I’d also like to point out Mark Hamill’s performance. I have read over the years that people seem to think his acting was sub-par. He’s the entire dramatic glue and makes it all work. It’s not just an intensely physical performance but he’s communicating with a puppet for a good third of the film and it comes across as not only believable but it draws the viewer in. I know that the audience has been inundated over the years with sequels, prequels, cartoon series, toys, and other things that have nothing to do with how good the original films that inspired it is. I urge you to forget all that crap and re-watch it. It’s better than you even remember and my pick for the best film of the 1980’s.
Honorable mentions (in no particular order) :
E.T.-The Extra Terrestrial
Wings of Desire
Plains, Trains, and Automobiles
Field of Dreams
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure
The Road Warrior
A Night mare on Elm Street
The Thin Blue Line
Fanny and Alexander
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan