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Laurence Station's Best Films of the 1980s

Top 10:

1. Fanny & Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden / West Germany / France, 1982)
A master craftsman’s masterpiece thesis, Bergman skillfully weaves autobiography, fantasy, austere naturalism and riotous comedy into a magical tapestry of cinematic art. Take the highpoints from Berman’s earlier works and blend them together, all the human drama, joy and absurdity, place them in the morbidly whimsical dollhouse of a child's mind and you’d wind up with something fairly close to Fanny & Alexander. Note: This ranking is based on the full, five-and-a-half hour Swedish TV version.
2. Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, USA, 1989)
Lee's masterpiece, and the last truly guerilla film he would ever make. Do the Right Thing may not have reconciled the contrary ideologies of Dr. King and Malcolm X, but by confronting the merits and miscues of each, it helped better explicate the messages of both.
3. Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, USA, 1980)
Scorsese's most artistically impressive film. De Niro's lead performance as self-destructive boxing middleweight Jake La Motta is one of the finest in film history. Michael Chapman's photography captures some of the most beautiful (albeit brutal) images ever framed. A colossal cinematic achievement.
4. Blue Velvet (David Lynch, USA, 1986)
Wonder Bread suburbanite/closeted Peeping Tom beats the Devil, saving WASP America from the dark forces encroaching upon the manicured lawns and tree-shaded elms of pleasant neighborhoods everywhere. Lynch's most scathing, spot-on critique of complacent living. Dennis Hopper's evil-incarnate externalization of Frank Booth is mad genius personified.
5. Amadeus (Milos Forman, USA, 1984)
Historical accuracy? Hardly. Envy and pride, however, have rarely been explored so effectively as through the tale of self-professed "patron of mediocrities" Salieri and his adoration/hatred of the divine genius of Mozart. The deathbed scene, with the faltering Mozart dictating his final notes to the madly scribbling (regrettably character assassinated) Salieri is one of the finest in film history.
6. Ran (Akira Kurosawa, Japan / France, 1985)
Shakespeare's Lear sans the verbosity. Imagery says far more than a thousand flowery soliloquies ever could in this 16th-century war-torn Japanese period piece. Lord Ichimonji's attempt at honorable death, thwarted by a broken sword, is one of the most tragic, astonishing visuals Kurosawa ever conjured.
7. This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, USA, 1984)
One of the funniest films ever made and easily the greatest mockumentary of all time. Following the misadventures of a dinosaur rock band as it plays out the string of a less-than-stellar career is a treat from beginning to end.
8. Brazil (Terry Gilliam, UK, 1985)
Audacious and clumsy, daring and confounding. Gilliam extrapolated his unique vision of a bureaucratic police state gone mad in the most wildly inventive and darkly cynical manner possible. Structural and visual flaws aside, Brazil is a bold, net-free, high-wire cinematic act.
9. Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen, USA, 1986)
Allen's most genuinely heartfelt film, second only to Annie Hall in his distinguished oeuvre. Allen explores marriage, infidelity, mortality and jealously with expert insight into the human comedy as experienced by an interrelated group of New York artistic and professional elite.
10. Das Boot (The Boat) (Wolfgang Petersen, West Germany, 1981)
The geopolitical situation of World War II means nothing for the underwater crew in Das Boot. These men simply strive to overcome boredom and sudden death and it’s cinematically captivating. By minimizing the larger issue of nations at war, Petersen amplifies the tension of submarine life where sailors exits in chilly darkness and must rely on sound for survival. Truly one of the most relentlessly gripping three-and-half hour films ever crafted.
Notable near misses (Alphabetically Listed):
  • Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, Mamoru Oshii, Japan, 1988) Landmark anime epic that raised the bar for feature-length animated works everywhere.
  • Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, USA, 1982) Future dystopia defined. Remains one of the most visually striking films ever made, in spite of a pedestrian detective noir storyline.
  • Blood Simple (The Coen Brothers, USA, 1984) The Coen Brothers' debut contains the thematic blueprint for later works, from its physically and emotionally isolated characters to the petty jealousies that manifest into desperate choices and tragic consequences. The closing cat and mouse sequence between a killer and his intended victim is a peerless example of suspenseful filmmaking.
  • The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, USA, 1980) Best of the first Star Wars trilogy, mainly because it stresses acting over action, story over stormtroopers.
  • E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1982) Spielberg's love of bland suburbia gets a magic realism makeover in this epic childhood fantasy.
  • A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton, USA / UK, 1988) Gleefully over-the-top look at small-time hoods and the animals that vex them. The fish hors d'oeuvre sequence remains one of the funniest ever.
  • Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, USA / UK, 1987) Constricted chaos versus unbridled chaos. A difficult, not wholly satisfactory, but no less fascinating war film.
  • House of Games (David Mamet, USA, 1987) "If you want to win the hand, you've got to stay in the game." Mamet's defining statement of purpose on life, art and human interaction.
  • Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, Italy / USA,1984) Operatic look at a close-knit group of friends whose loyalty to one another falters as they grow older.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1981) Beginning to end, one of the most purely entertaining films ever made. A great homage to the serial adventure series of the 1930s and '40s.
  • Raising Arizona (The Coen Brothers, USA, 1987) The Brothers' funniest, most extreme work. Throw analysis out the window and just sit back and enjoy the Tex Avery-inspired ride.
  • The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, USA, 1983) Fascinating look at the Cold War and the men on the front lines, on the ground and well above, who fought it.
  • The Road Warrior (George Miller, Australia, 1981) A visual wonder, Road Warrior's pedal to the medal approach handily makes its comment on the futility of human aggression while ratcheting up the action quotient to near heart-stopping levels. The spare landscapes and violently artistic car wars sequences elevate this one far above other post-apocalyptic fare.
  • Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, USA / West Germany, 1984) Spare and detached, Jarmusch's first film remains one of his finest. Riffing on the notion of a road trip movie provides the director ample opportunity to explore an outsider's view of America and the lengths people will go to discover what it is that makes them truly happy.
  • The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, USA, 1988) Morris' compelling documentary helped free a wrongly convicted man from prison. An entertaining, important film that shows how subjective the justice system and truth can be.
  • Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson, UK, 1987) Failed thespian but successful screenwriter (The Killing Fields) Bruce Robinson’s directorial debut is a beautifully shot (in a grim, perpetually overcast English sort of way) and flawlessly scripted look at the end of the drugged out, stamped out flower power '60s. Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann, playing two unemployed actors seeking weekend refuge in the country, manage to avoid camp and caricature, bringing a depth of feeling and genuine sense of uncertainty and dread regarding their futures (and the world’s) to their roles.
Outstanding Actors:
Gérard Depardieu - Key films: The Last Metro (1980), The Return of Martin Guerre (1982), Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring (1986), Under the Sun of Satan (1987), Camille Claudel (1988)   Meryl Streep - Key films: The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), Sophie's Choice (1982), Silkwood (1983), Out of Africa (1985), A Cry in the Dark (1988)
Outstanding Director:
Peter Weir - Key films: Gallipoli (1981), The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), Witness (1985), The Mosquito Coast (1986), Dead Poets Society (1989)

Much thanks to for having scans of many of these posters online:

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