Best Films of the 1980s (1990)

   River's Edge

Introduction 2023: This list (plus its annotations) was composed for an Australian arts/(pop) culture magazine at the very end of the 1980s. (My original title was “Golden Eighties”; the altered title they gave it in print was so awful that I’m not repeating it here.) It reflects what I (and most cinephiles whom I knew at the time) predominantly watched and adored in that decade: American and French films, with a few forays over to Italy, Canada, Hong Kong or elsewhere. Plus (in my specific case) a single Australian movie! (Due to pre-Internet resources, several of my datings in 1990 were incorrect, so I’ve shuffled them into the correct year here.) The selection, and its accompanying annotations, reflect the ‘stuck Down Under’, not-much-money-in-the-bank, non-cosmopolitan cinephilia I was enduring at the time – in the balmy years of VHS, but not yet DVD, let alone torrents. In the 1990s, I altered my orientation considerably: more geared to international film festivals, I (again, like many in my ‘scene’) was able to travel and open up to the cinemas of Iran, Taiwan and many other places. If I went back now to make a new ‘80s list, it would be quite different, and much longer – to begin with, for some reason that I justified to my editors at the time and can no longer recall, this one enigmatically terminates in 1987 – but plenty of the titles below would still, faithfully, be on it. Postscript: I shall never forget the reaction of one editor when I handed in the manuscript of this piece: he glanced at the front page list for two seconds, looked up at me incredulously, and cried out in despair: “Gremlins?!?” The subsequent 1990 ‘cult film’ sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch may have somewhat redeemed me in his eyes, I hope!

The List


Gloria (John Cassavetes)
Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese)
Murder Psalm (Stan Brakhage)


Four Friends (aka Georgia, Arthur Penn)
Southern Comfort (Walter Hill)


Passion (Jean-Luc Godard)
Victor/Victoria (
Blake Edwards)
The King of Comedy (Scorsese)
Chan is Missing (Wayne Wang)


Breathless (Jim McBride)
L’Argent (Robert Bresson)
City of Pirates (
Raúl Ruiz)
Brainstorm (Douglas Trumbull)
Sunless (Chris Marker)


Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone)
Love Streams (Cassavetes)
In This Life’s Body (Corinne Cantrill)
Unser Nazi (Robert Kramer)
Purple Rain (Albert Magnoli)
Gremlins (Joe Dante)
Mixed Blood (Paul Morrissey)


Soft and Hard (Godard/Anne-Marie Miéville)
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (Tim Burton)
The Legend of Billie Jean (Matthew Robbins)


The Fly (David Cronenberg)
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes)
The Green Ray (aka Summer, Éric Rohmer)
River’s Edge (Tim Hunter)


Evil Dead II (Sam Raimi)
Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders)
The Comedy of Work (Luc Moullet)
RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven)

The Annotations (for films on or near The List)

1. The Best. Judging by the fact that four of my all-time favourite films are on this list, the 1980s must have been a pretty good decade for cinema. I refer to: Love Streams, Gloria, Once Upon a Time in America and Raging Bull. I hold at least some attachment to the category of ‘best films’ – classically, that means the richest, fullest, most complex, most profound. But, to me, best also means something less classical: the most ecstatic. I long for the experience of ecstasy in a cinema: to be completely overwhelmed, taken outside myself, by a film. I find less of these experiences as I get older [Note: I was 31 when I wrote this] – fewer ‘bests’ left to discover? – and as the cinema, globally, is maybe getting weaker and less exploratory (although I crave to be proved wrong). I have excluded films of 1988 and ’89 from my list. In 1989, two of the gods – Cassavetes and Leone – passed away; and Orson Welles is already gone, in ’85.

2. Unreconstructed Modernism. Looking over this list, I realise that I value, almost above everything else, the Modernist Experience: when a film, through its total form, its entirety as a gesture, takes cinema to a higher ground, to a place it has never been before. Films that, through the force of their form/style, lay the ground for the invention of a new language. For me, cinematic form (or ‘pure film’, as some love to say) is a necessarily impure concept, mixing breakthroughss in representational content with the power of a singular treatment. And thus stretching the boundary of what has been hitherto thinkable and showable within a culture – culture defined in its broadest extension (not just ‘popular’ culture). All of the films mentioned in the previous annotation are modernist in this sense, plus (at the very least) Passion, Sunless, City of Pirates, In This Life’s Body, Mixed Blood, The Fly, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Green Ray, Evil Dead II and Wings of Desire.

2b. Foolproof Modernist Test of Critical Fraudulence. Any list of the Films of the ‘80s that does not somehow acknowledge the crucial role of Ruiz, Godard/Miéville, McBride, Sunless, The Green Ray and In This Life’s Body is obviously worthless and should not be consulted for any practical purpose.

3. Unreconstructed Auteurism. I’m attached to directors – not to their personalities so much, but certainly to their practices, their world-views, their unique aesthetic shapes. Cassavetes and Scorsese rate as the auteurs of the decade on this list. Some titles are the best stand-ins for several others by the same auteur: Videodrome (1983) and Scanners (1981) for Cronenberg; Hail Mary (1985) and Scénario du film Passion (1982) for Godard/Miéville; The State of Things (1982) and Paris, Texas (1984) for Wenders. But: in this list of the best and most significant, how can it be that there is not one particular title that would represent the worth which the following directors have had for me in the ‘80s? Chantal Akerman (all her films are near, and dear), Jean-Pierre Gorin (Poto and Cabengo [1980] and Routine Pleasures [1986]), Jonathan Kaplan (Heart Like a Wheel, 1983), Penelope Spheeris (Dudes, 1987), Francis Ford Coppola (Rumble Fish, 1983), Clint Eastwood (Bronco Billy [1980], Honkytonk Man [1982]), John Sayles (Brother from Another Planet, 1984), Brian De Palma (Scarface, 1983), Paul Schrader (Light of Day [1987], Patty Hearst [1988]), Jonathan Demme (Something Wild, 1986), Larry Cohen (Q – The Winged Serpent [1982], Blind Alley [1984]) … and more? Some of the films who made the Films of the ‘70s – Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop, 1971), Terrence Malick (Badlands, 1973), Welles (F for Fake, 1973) – scarcely received the opportunity to make anything further in the ‘80s, and that’s a crime.

4. All Hail the Avant-Garde. I love avant-garde cinema – hardline avant-garde cinema – almost as much as what is called (and about as precisely) ‘Hollywood’ cinema. Beyond In This Life’s Body, which is its own singular hybrid, only two of the greatest experimental achievements that I’ve seen are listed (some Australian practitioners are within hailing distance of the ranking): the Brakhage for monumentality, brilliance, energy, purity; and the Godard/Miéville for quietness, intimacy, goofiness, the possibilities of video. Doing justice to the length and breadth of avant-garde activity in the ‘80s would require a whole separate list.

5. Strangers in the Night. Those films I have seen only once, fleetingly, mainly at film festivals. I think, I sense – I know – they are masterpieces, that they make breakthroughs of the same order as others I’ve seen between 5 and 500 times. Will I have to travel overseas again before I see L’Argent, Unser Nazi, City of Pirates, Murder Psalm, The Comedy of Work, Soft and Hard?

6. Lost, Lost, Lost. Marguerite Duras’ films of the ‘80s never reached Australia, nor much of Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub. There are countless Ruiz films I can only dream about. I missed the once-only’s of certain Maurice Pialat, Sergei Parajanov and others I’ve read about in library copies of Cahiers du cinéma and then privately fetishised ever since – as a good cinephile should.

7. The Popular. Wonderful films that do not carry auteurs, not even close. But on the ground of complex/contradictory collective fantasy (i.e., ‘popular culture’), they articulate some image, some yearning, some material fantasy perfectly, astonishingly. Like Brainstorm. Then there are the films that articulate emergent surfaces – styles, fleeting sensibilities – with equal perfection: Gremlins, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, RoboCop; all breakthrough films in their own, sweet ways. Plus those films that push forward, within more modest formats, into the realm of socially symbolic triumphs – triumphs of a minoritarian representation here, an altered stereotype over there. Like The Legend of Billie Jean. Not far from the list, there’s probably 100 further titles of a somewhat more modest nature: teen movies, horror movies, video-only releases – that contain scenes or moments of enormous significance, toughness or poignancy (or all three things at once): Some Kind of Wonderful (Howard Deutch, 1987), Beat Street (Stan Lathan, 1984), Crazy for You (aka Vision Quest, Harold Becker, 1985), Valley Girl (Martha Coolidge, 1983), several entries in the Wes Craven-inaugurated A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984- ) series … well, don’t get me started …

8. The Classical. I respect convention in cinema. I love movies tha can fulfil conventions – richly, deeply, inventively. Conventions of genre, narrative, character development. With, sometimes at least, a touch of the new, the unfamiliar, the hitherto unspoken tone. Victor/Victoria (pansexual explosion of light-romantic-comedy stereotypes), River’s Edge (Howard Hawks-style teen movie wired into the knottiest zones of modern un/feeling).

9. Lights, Camera, Action. A project: to figure out how to talk about, and value, action movies, among the great and ignored ‘meaningless’ (supposedly) genres. Southern Comfort stands-in also for The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1986), The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984), Aliens (Cameron, 1986), Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986), Cop (James B. Harris, 1988), The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987) – which collectively gave me some of the most exhilarating and exciting cinema experiences of the decade.

10. Energy, and How to Get It. Spectacular embodiments of energy – an energetic aesthetic across image, sound, narrative, performance. Breathless, Purple Rain, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Fabulous invention at the smallest particles of every frame, every beat – a delirious vision of a genuine animation-cinema. Evil Dead II (standing in most of the Raimi/Coen bros work of the decade). Close to this energy-group: Reckless (James Foley, 1984).

11. Slave to Love. Films I love that are not masterpieces, not even close. I love them as one loves a sick child, despite of – because of? – their imperfections, their (at times) mawkishness. Such films are lost causes out in the ‘public sphere’; but they are mine. On the list: Four Friends. Near it: That’s Life! (Blake Edwards, 1986).

12. Purely Logistical Deduction. 1984 was obviously among the most significant years in cinema – in world! – history.

13. New York (and elsewhere) Stories. Chan is Missing stands in for all those low-budget USA ‘new narrative’ features that have played a vital part in my adult education: virtually all of the late ‘70s-to-mid-‘80s work of Mark Rappaport, Wayne Wang, Bette Gordon, Yvonne Rainer, Babette Mangolte, Michael Oblowitz, Jon Jost … and then, less urban/metropolitan, the expanded cinéma-vérité of Les Blank & Maureen Gosling, Joel DeMott & Jeff Kreines …

14. B Cinema. Of all the shocks I got from the messy, manic B/exploitation cinema of the ‘80s (whether the self-consciously arty version, or the real thing), I include only the most enervating, the most instructively amoral: Mixed Blood. Nearby: Street Trash (J. Michael Muro, 1987).

15. Affective Economy of the VCR Watcher. No room on such a list for literally hundreds of weird films, scenes, shots, performances, gestures, low gags, special effects, lines of dialogue, plot premises: all those intensities discovered on the shelves of a dozen large video shops, consumed and half-forgotten (completely forgotten by many), which make up, under it all, the real cinematic texture of my 1980s. Films including Reborn (Bigas Luna, 1981), When Nature Calls (aka The Outdoorsters, Charles Kaufman, 1985), Awesome Lotus (David O’Malley, 1983), Modern Romance (Albert Brooks, 1981), Joy of Sex (Coolidge, 1984), Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (Bruce Pittman, 1987), Three O’Clock High (Phil Joanou, 1987), The Wraith (Mike Marvin, 1986), The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (aka Dr Jekyll and His Women, Walerian Borowczyk, 1981), Girlfriend from Hell (Daniel Peterson, 1989), 3:15 (Larry Gross, 1986), American Drive-In (Krishna Shah, 1985), etc., etc. …


© Adrian Martin January 1990

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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