For the love of entertainment
The 1980s are a decade that is just begging to be judged, so let’s get to it. The Best Picture winners from this decade are a curious mix. In the 70s we had some groundbreaking cinema, but by the 80s studios backtracked on that and played it safe with a lot of their choices.
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. Let’s do this.
The ultimate example of the Academy playing it safe in the 1980s. You may remember Driving Miss Daisy from when I referred to Crash as “the most embarrassingly overpraised over-simplification of race relations in America since Driving Miss Daisy.” That sounds very harsh, but I stand by it. Driving Miss Daisy handles the issue of racism in the south 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 very proper, 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 in the slightest. And the way it dances around the nastier implications of racism is more than a touch naive. That makes it a safe choice, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good choice.
Should have won in 1989: Do the Right Thing had much more complex, relevant things to say about race in America in 1989–and it was rewarded by being completely ignored by the Academy. But even among the movies that were selected as Best Picture nominees, Driving Miss Daisy feels like a soft choice. I mean, it beat Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Poet’s Society, and My Left Foot. Any one of those three would have been a better choice, but it has to be acknowledged that the movie that would have been the real deal (Do the Right Thing) was completely snubbed for being too controversial.
The most lasting legacy of Chariots of Fire is that it gave us the soundtrack to every single slo-mo running sequence in all the decades since its release. Other than that it has largely been forgotten–and I’m willing to bet that 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 totally 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. Most people would have expected Reds to win Best Picture that year, but Chariots warmed too many 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 also with the benefit of hindsight.
Similar to Chariots of Fire, The Last Emperor made it to the podium without securing much of 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 about ten years ago and it has since faded completely from my memory. I think that says a lot about the movie. But it’s also somewhat unfair, because Emperor is at least a good movie that told a fascinating story of China’s last emperor, who found his country on the brink of great change as western influences began to take hold. Prestige pictures have a way of lacking any real sort of substance, and that’s not an accusation you can make against The Last Emperor. But if we’re being honest (and we must) Fatal Attraction was a much more memorable, audacious movie in 1987. Moonstruck is one of my all-time favorites. And Broadcast News has proven to have surprising staying power in pop culture. And yet The Last Emperor won?
Should have won in 1987: 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 (mostly 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 complicated romantic triangle with her husband of convenience and the handsome hunter who proves to be her true love. It’s a sweet, complicated story and gorgeously filmed. The fact that Meryl Streep plays Blixen and Robert Redford plays the handsome love interest only serves to make it better. My sisters and I actually used to watch this movie as children, transfixed by something I can’t quite put my finger on. We used to quote Meryl’s opening line–delivered only as Ms. Meryl can–“You see, I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” But again, there were more audacious choices the Academy could have made that would have been smarter. The Color Purple was criminally overlooked, although it was the most nominated movie of the year. Kiss of the Spider Woman told a more complicated story. Out of Africa is a great movie. But it continued the Academy’s habit of overlooking potential controversy in the 1980s.
Should have won in 1985: I’d probably go with The Color Purple.
The Academy was a huge sucker for prestige pictures in the 1980s. Gandhi is yet another of them. 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 picture by any stretch, just a dramatic comedy about a supremely 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 when his estranged father dies. Charlie isn’t much given to care about his new-found brother (especially since his 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 of the imagination, but in the end 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.
This is perhaps the ultimate tearjerker. It’s not perfect. It has its flaws. But Terms of Endearment does something truly remarkable: it captures a relationship between a mother and daughter in all its messy, complicated glory. Aurora Greenway is a larger than life woman with a tendency to think that the world revolves around her. Her daughter Emma is quieter but no less tenacious. They fight, they bicker, and they lean on each other through the years as Emma gets married, has kids, gets cheated on, and ultimately gets diagnosed with terminal cancer. And 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 you can find 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. I was so glad that no one else was home to see me. At the end, Aurora and Emma share one final look just before she passes, and that look has haunted me for years. It never ceases to amaze me that Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger managed to sum up the entire history of a mother and daughter, and all the love they feel for each other, in one quick look. And bear in mind, this was before my mother underwent treatment for breast cancer. I can’t even 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 among Best Picture winners. It sparked a lot of outrage for beating Raging Bull in both the Picture and Director categories, which ultimately led to a silly campaign to give Martin Scorsese an Oscar to make up for this in the 2000s. If you ask me, the right movie and director won. Raging Bull thoroughly irritates me. I give credit to Robert De Niro for his amazing performance and that’s about it. Ordinary People happens to be one of my all-time favorites. It’s a subtle, affecting movie about a family in crisis as they struggle to reconcile the past. Their son Calvin survived a boating accident that killed their other son, who was something of your typical all-American hero right up to the moment he died. 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 terrible shame that the furor over Raging Bull tries to defame its legacy. It also features terrific performances from Mary Tyler Moore, in a drastic departure from her typical sunny persona, as well as Timothy Hutton (who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor) as Calvin and Judd Hirsch as the therapist who saves Calvin’s life.
Should have won in 1980: Ordinary People. Haters be damned.
This is probably the one case in the 1980s where the Academy openly embraced a potentially controversial movie. Even Platoon‘s tagline takes a harsh stance on war, boldly 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 had done it in 1978 and won Oscars for it. So maybe Platoon isn’t as controversial a choice 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 that toyed with unpleasant topics while refusing to actually get their hands dirty. It makes Platoon seem downright revolutionary–and to be fair, it is. It is widely regarded as one of the great all-time war movies in cinema.
Should have won in 1986: Platoon.
This is a fun movie for me to get to talk about, because 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. He has achieved much recognition for it. But then along comes Mozart, a childish and immature composer who doesn’t really take anything seriously. And yet he appears to have been gifted from God with unparalleled musical ability. Towering works of art just come pouring out of him and he barely cares. Salieri is forced to bitterly acknowledge that even with all his drive and hard work, he will never be as talented as Mozart–a man he does not believe deserves the skills he has. So Salieri wages war with God and vows to destroy Mozart. Amadeus is based on a real-life theory that Salieri was responsible for Mozart’s death at a young age. It has never been proven definitively, but by exploiting its possibility Amadeus takes on some meaty themes and nails every single one of them. And while Tom Hulce is great as Mozart, the irreverent, frivolous composer, this is definitely F. Murray Abraham’s finest hour. His Salieri is proper, responsible, and slithery–full of hate and bile and the hope of redemption. It’s a towering performance in a towering movie.
Should have won in 1984: Amadeus all the way.