For the love of entertainment
The 1980s are a decade that is just begging to be judged, so let’s get to it. The 70s were packed with groundbreaking cinema, but by the 80s studios began to backtrack into a lot of safe choices. This was helped along when studios began packaging movies that were tailor-made to appeal to Academy voters–prestige pics, if you will. The results vary pretty wildly in quality.
I’ll comment on the snubs and ‘should have won’ movies when appropriate, but ultimately it can’t impact the ranking. It would just get too difficult to determine the best movie of the 1980s if I didn’t set some criteria to abide, so only films that actually won an Academy Award for Best Picture will be considered.
The ultimate example of the Academy playing it safe in the 1980s. I previously referred to Crash as “the most embarrassingly overpraised over-simplification of race relations in America since Driving Miss Daisy.” I stand by that. Driving Miss Daisy handles the issue of racism with kid gloves, filtering it through the perspective of a feisty old lady played by Jessica Tandy (who won an Oscar for Best Actress). Miss Daisy is a traditional woman who forms an unlikely friendship with her African American driver (played by Morgan Freeman) over the course of many years. It’s a cute story, but it’s not groundbreaking, and the way it dances around the nastier implications of racism is more than a touch naive. That makes it a safe choice, but not necessarily a good choice.
Should have won in 1989: Do the Right Thing had much more complex, relevant things to say about race in America–and it was rewarded by being almost completely ignored by the Academy.
The lasting legacy of Chariots of Fire is that it gave us the soundtrack to every slo-mo running sequence forevermore. Other than that, it’s been largely forgotten–and I’m willing to bet a lot of people wouldn’t even be able to identify this movie as the origin of that music or the slo-mo running it plays over. Ultimately, that’s the problem with Chariots of Fire: it’s an earnest enough movie that’s also lacking in flavor. It’s also inoffensive enough to be a people pleaser while toying at larger issues to add enough dramatic heft for critical acclaim. It follows two British runners training for the 1924 Olympics under very different circumstances. One is a devout missionary who runs to please God. The other comes from a family of newly rich Jews who runs to prove that he belongs. It’s a good movie. A sweet movie. A totally well-meaning movie. It’s just not a very hefty movie. Chariots warmed audience’s hearts. That got it the win, but it didn’t secure it a place in history.
Should have won in 1981: Between Reds and Chariots, it could go either way. It probably should have been Reds, but that’s with the benefit of hindsight.
Similar to Chariots, The Last Emperor made it to the podium without securing a place in cinematic history. It’s a prestige pic in the truest sense–tailor-made to win critical acclaim and awards. The most lasting legacy of The Last Emperor is actually that it was one of future Academy Award-winner (and future Batman) Christian Bale‘s first movies. I saw The Last Emperor ten years ago and it has faded completely from my memory. I think that says a lot. But it’s also somewhat unfair because Emperor is at least a good movie with a fascinating story about China’s last emperor, who found his country changing as western influences began to take hold. Prestige pictures have a way of lacking any real substance, and that’s not an accusation you can make against The Last Emperor.
Should have won in 1987: Fatal Attraction was a much more memorable, audacious movie in 1987. Moonstruck is one of my all-time favorites and Broadcast News has had surprising staying power in pop culture. I’m going with my heart and saying Moonstruck.
Out of Africa is not all that different from Chariots of Fire or The Last Emperor. It was something of a safe choice for the Academy. It’s a love story told on an epic scale about Karen Blixen (most famous for writing under the pen name Isaac Dinesen), a Danish woman who overcomes countless troubles to establish a coffee plantation in Africa while navigating a romantic triangle with her husband of convenience and the handsome hunter who proves to be her true love. It’s a sweet, complicated story gorgeously filmed. The fact that Meryl Streep plays Blixen and Robert Redford plays the handsome love interest only makes it better.
Should have won in 1985: Again, there were more audacious choices the Academy could have made. The Color Purple was criminally overlooked, although it was the most nominated movie of the year. Out of Africa is great but it continued the Academy’s habit of overlooking controversy in the 1980s. I’d go with The Color Purple.
Gandhi is another prestige pic. It’s a sweeping epic about Gandhi’s journey from young man to wise revolutionary, who dared preach peace, love, and understanding even as he strove for immense social change. Gandhi gets a stellar assist from Ben Kingsley, who brings the leader to startling life. But it’s kind of a movie that gets stuck up its own ass. It’s so enamored of itself that it ends up handling its subject matter with kid gloves. It also somehow manages to make a revolutionary man’s life feel tedious. It’s a well-made movie but a boring one. It handles one of the most complex figures in the 20th century with such reverence that it leeches him of interest. Which makes Gandhi a good but not great film, despite the best of intentions.
Should have won in 1982: Gandhi earned it.
Next to the movies we’ve discussed so far, Rain Man is a huge outlier. It’s not a prestige pic, just a dramatic comedy about a selfish man named Charlie Babbit (Tom Cruise at his self-centered 80s best), who discovers he has an autistic brother that has been hidden from him his whole life. Charlie isn’t much given to care about his new-found brother (especially since autism unnecessarily complicates Charlie’s life). Except that the father put $3 million into a trust for that brother, which makes him interesting to Charlie. It’s essentially the story of a man who embodies the “me me me” greed of the 80s learning to be an actual human being. That’s not a groundbreaking or controversial story by any stretch, but Rain Man is a surprisingly tender movie. The interplay between Cruise’s yuppie and Dustin Hoffman’s autistic savant is well rendered–helped in no small part by Hoffman’s incredible, Academy Award-winning performance. It’s just a good movie.
Should have won in 1988: You could make a case for Dangerous Liaisons, but I’d still go Rain Man.
The ultimate tearjerker. It has flaws but Terms of Endearment does something remarkable: it captures a mother-daughter relationship in all its messy, complicated glory. Aurora Greenway is a larger than life woman with a tendency to think the world revolves around her. Her daughter Emma is quieter but no less tenacious. They fight and lean on each other through the years as Emma gets married, has kids, gets cheated on, and is ultimately diagnosed with terminal cancer. Even though their relationship can only be described as complicated, you never doubt their love for each other. It’s the most honest representation of family in a movie. And the ending? Devastating. I thought I might be safe when I first saw it because I knew what was coming. I cried so hard my nose was running and I was making those awful snuffling, hyperventilating noises. And bear in mind, this was before my mother underwent treatment for breast cancer. I can’t imagine watching Terms of Endearment now that I have a more personal connection to it. It would destroy me. And that just goes to show the power of this movie.
Should have won in 1983: Terms had the right stuff.
Ordinary People gets a bad rap because it beat Raging Bull for Best Picture and Best Director. If you ask me, the right movie won. Ordinary People is one of my all-time favorites. It’s an affecting movie about a family in crisis as they struggle to reconcile the past after losing their all-American god of a son in a boating accident their other son, Calvin survived. Calvin, who never felt he could live up to his brother, is literally dying from guilt. By the time we meet him he’s already attempted suicide and spent time in a mental hospital. His mother is so unable to process her grief that she can barely hide her disdain for Calvin–blaming him for being the one to survive. His father means well but is too paralyzed by his own grief to see what is happening to his family. It’s a powerful movie, and it’s a shame the furor over Raging Bull tarnished its legacy. It also features terrific performances–especially from Mary Tyler Moore, in a drastic departure from her typical sunny persona.
Should have won in 1980: Ordinary People. Haters be damned.
This is the one case in the 1980s where the Academy embraced a controversial movie. Even Platoon‘s tagline takes a harsh stance on war, proclaiming “The first casualty of war is innocence.” By 1986 it wasn’t unheard of to oppose the Vietnam War–both The Deer Hunter and Coming Home won Oscars for it in 1978. So maybe Platoon isn’t as controversial as it seems. But it’s also a movie that is unrelentingly bleak in its view of the horrors of war and the duality of man. Compare that to a lot of other Best Picture winners in the 80s like Driving Miss Daisy, which toyed with unpleasant topics while refusing to actually get their hands dirty. It makes Platoon seem downright revolutionary–and it is. It is widely regarded as one of the great war movies.
Should have won in 1986: Platoon.
Amadeus just so happens to be my favorite movie. By telling the story of Mozart and Salieri, it says so much about talent, hard work, art, life, and religion. You see, Salieri is a talented composer but he isn’t a gifted one. To make up for that, he spends countless hours toiling away to perfect his craft. But then along comes Mozart, a childish and immature composer who doesn’t take anything seriously, yet he appears to have been gifted with unparalleled musical ability. Works of art pour out of him and he barely cares. Salieri is forced to bitterly acknowledge that even with all his drive he will never be as talented as ‘unworthy’ Mozart. So Salieri wages war with God and vows to destroy Mozart. Amadeus is based on a theory that Salieri was responsible for Mozart’s death at a young age. It has never been proven, but by exploiting its possibility Amadeus takes on some meaty themes and nails every single one of them. Cap it off with a delicious performance from F. Murray Abraham. His Salieri is proper, responsible, and slithery–full of hate and bile. It’s a towering performance in a towering movie.
Should have won in 1984: Amadeus all the way.