Ranking Every Best Picture Oscar Winner of the 1980s

Best Picture Winning Movies of the 1980s

The 1980s are a decade that is just begging to be judged, so let’s get to it. The 1970s were packed with groundbreaking cinema but by the 80s studios began to backtrack into safer choices, and the Academy followed suit, tending to select prestige pics (movies that were tailor-made to appeal to Academy voters) over anything else. The results vary pretty wildly in quality.

I’ll comment on the snubs and movies that should have won in each year but ultimately whether or not a movie deserved to win can’t impact its place in the ranking.

Driving Miss Daisy Movie10. Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

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 racism with kid gloves by filtering it through the perspective of feisty old Miss Daisy, played by Jessica Tandy (who won an Oscar for Best Actress), who forms an unlikely friendship with her African American driver (played by Morgan Freeman). It’s a cute story but the way it dances around the nastier implications of racism is more than a touch naive. It probably wouldn’t be so bad if the Academy hadn’t blatantly rejected Do the Right Thing the same year. Given that, Miss Daisy starts to feel like an attempt to placate people with a vastly inferior substitution.

Should have won in 1989: Do the Right Thing had much more complex, relevant things to say about race in America (it remains relevant today)–and it was rewarded by being almost completely ignored by the Academy.

The Last Emperor Movie9. The Last Emperor (1987)

The Last Emperor is a prestige pic in the truest sense–tailor-made to win critical acclaim and awards. Like most prestige winners, it fails to leave a lasting impression. I saw The Last Emperor ten years ago and it has faded completely from my memory. I think that says a lot. Emperor is at least a good movie with a fascinating story about China’s last emperor, a mere boy born to wield great power who instead lives a life with no purpose or influence as his country changes drastically around him. There’s real substance to The Last Emperor, even if, like its protagonist, it has no real power.

Should have won in 1987: Fatal Attraction was more memorable and Broadcast News proved to be very prescient, but Moonstruck is one of my all-time favorites and one of the best romantic comedies ever made. Moonstruck it is.

Out of Africa Movie8. Out of Africa (1985)

Out of Africa is another prestige choice. 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. It’s a good movie, but not the best from this year.

Should have won in 1985: The Color Purple was criminally overlooked. It was the most nominated movie of the year, yet it went home without a single award.

Chariots of Fire Movie7. Chariots of Fire (1981)

Chariots of Fire‘s legacy is that it gave us the soundtrack to every slo-mo running sequence forevermore. Other than that, it’s been largely forgotten, which is a shame because Chariots is actually a great, humane, and emotional movie following 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 difficult to watch Chariots without getting swept away. It may not have secured everlasting fame, but it did win over hearts–which counts for a lot.

Should have won in 1981: This year was a heated showdown between Reds and Chariots, but Reds is too flawed to compete for me. The real challenger should have been another crowdpleaser: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Genre movies famously have a hard go of it at the Oscars, but Raiders deserved the win.

Rain Man Movie6. Rain Man (1988)

Rain Man captured the zeitgeist of the 80s remarkably well. It’s about Charlie Babbit (Tom Cruise at his self-centered best), who discovers he has an autistic brother hidden in a home. Charlie isn’t much given to care about his newfound brother–except that Charlie’s inheritance was put into a trust for the brother, making him necessary. It’s the story of a man who embodies the greed of the 80s learning to be an actual human being. Rain Man is also surprisingly tender. 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: It’s tempting to say Mississippi Burning or just let Rain Man have it, but genre movies have a notoriously tough time at the Oscars and 1988 had a pair of goodies: Working Girl and Die Hard. Like Rain ManWorking Girl also captured the zeitgeist of the 80s with the added relevance of women in the workplace–a topic that is unfortunately still newsworthy. I’d go with Working Girl. Judge if you must.

Ordinary People Movie5. Ordinary People (1980)

Ordinary People gets a bad rap because it beat Raging Bull for Picture and Director. If you ask me, Ordinary People is one of my all-time favorites. It’s an affecting movie about a family struggling to right themselves 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 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.

Gandhi Movie4. Gandhi (1982)

Gandhi is another prestige pic, but at least it’s a solid, deserving one: 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. To me, it can also be a bit tedious. I do, however, think it was wise to portray Gandhi, a man of quiet dignity and revolutionary convictions, in a movie with an understated approach that nevertheless feels like an epic in the spirit of Lawrence of Arabia.

Should have won in 1982: ET and Tootsie competed hard (and the not-nominated Poltergeist and Blade Runner became classics), but Gandhi earned it.

Terms of Endearment Movie3. Terms of Endearment (1983)

The ultimate tearjerker. It has flaws but Terms does something remarkable: it captures a mother-daughter relationship in all its messy, complicated glory. Aurora Greenway is a larger-than-life woman who tends 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. And the ending? Devastating.

Should have won in 1983: Terms had the right stuff.

Platoon Movie2. Platoon (1986)

Platoon‘s takes a harsh stance on war down to the tagline on its poster: “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 Movie1. Amadeus (1984)

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 toils away to perfect his craft. But then along comes Mozart, a childish and immature composer who doesn’t take anything seriously, yet appears to have been gifted with unparalleled musical ability. Works of art pour out of him and he barely cares. 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 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.

Should have won in 1984: Amadeus all the way.

For more, check out my Academy Awards page. Up next: Best Supporting Actress of the 80s.

Now let’s look at how the list would look if all those movies that should have won took Oscar home instead:

10. Working Girl (1988)

9. Ordinary People (1980)

8. Moonstruck (1987)

7. The Color Purple (1985)

6. Gandhi (1982)

5. Terms of Endearment (1983)

4. Platoon (1986)

3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

2. Do the Right Thing (1989)

2. Amadeus (1984)


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