If you love 80s movies as I do, you're probably thinking of your favorite titles from the decade right now, and you're probably looking to track down a few of them for a trip down memory lane. If you're having trouble coming up with ideas for 80s movies to watch, this is the first in a series of articles where I, Johnny Caps, will give you some ideas for 80s movies to enjoy.
From films for kids to films for adults, from comedies and dramas to action movies and horror films, from big titles to films off the beaten path, each article will highlight anywhere from 15 to 20 movies, listed alphabetically, that I think you'll enjoy the next time you're looking for an 80s movie to watch. Many of these recommendations will include personal memories of connections between the films and my own life.
Going alphanumerically, more or less, this article will list 17 movies spanning from numbers through the letter A, and we'll start off with Eddie Murphy's screen debut, the action-dramedy 48 HRS. 48 HRS tells the story of police officer Jack Cates (Nick Nolte), who has to take prisoner Reggie Hammond (Murphy) out of prison for 48 HRS to track down criminals Ganz (James Remar), a former associate of Hammond's who's escaped from prison.
What makes this movie such a standout is Eddie Murphy's work as Reggie Hammond. Having helped save Saturday Night Live from the brink of cancellation in the early 80s, Murphy came on screen as a dynamo of great acting talent, capable of both great comedy and intense dramatic acting. The best scene that illustrates both of those qualities is a scene where Hammond borrows Cates' badge and an empty gun to get information at a redneck bar. Seeing that scene makes me wish Eddie had gotten an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
If you're looking for a great example of the buddy cop action movie, 48 HRS is the film for you.
Moving along alphanumerically, we come to 1986's 52 Pick-Up, a delightfully depraved thriller from the Cannon Group, directed by John Frankenheimer and based on a story by Elmore Leonard.
52 Pick-Up is the tale of an architect (Roy Scheider) whose life, and that of his wife (Ann-Margret), threatens to end up in shambles if he doesn't pay a trio of extortionists, played by John Glover, Clarence Williams III and Robert Trebor, to prevent them from framing him for the murder of his mistress (Kelly Preston).
I'll admit that I never read Elmore Leonard's book, or really any fiction after I graduated from high school, so I can't compare the novel to the film, but the film on its' own captures both the glamour and the grime of Los Angeles in the mid-80s. From a party with appearances by several noted adult film stars of the 80s to a climax that takes place on a pier, 52 Pick-Up is a unique look at California in the 80s.
A lot of people give The Cannon Group justifiable grief for their business practices and the way they treated many creatives, but their movies were made with passion, if not always a budget, and when they were on, they were ON! This movie is a great example of how they could do wonders with the right creative personnel and materials. Believe it or not, this wasn't Cannon's first time tackling this material, but that's coming up later in the article.
Another 1986 Californian thriller with a number in the title and a unique vision of both glamour and grime is our next movie, 8 Million Ways To Die. 8 Million Ways To Die tells the story of alcoholic ex-detective Matt Scudder (Jeff Bridges) and his efforts to redeem himself by solving the murder of a prostitute named Sunny (Alexandra Paul), in part to clear his name after a relapse made him talk like he was part of it.
8 Million Ways To Die is a movie that's not exactly looked upon favorably, but it struck me when I first purchased a used VHS copy of it on eBay's now-defunct Half website. From the opening credits sequence where a helicopter's view of an L.A freeway makes the cars look like they're heading straight upwards to the memorable dialogue spoken by the characters, especially Sarah (Rosanna Arquette), a friend and coworker of Sunny's who becomes Matt's love interest and has some delightfully profane dialogue that unfortunately can't be repeated on this website, the movie is an interesting look at how substance abuse can harm you, and how the effort to get over it is a task that, as many recovering addicts say, happens one day at a time.
Rosanna Arquette and Alexandra Paul will both show up again on this journey through 80s cinema, but for the next movie in our 80s film sampler, we're going to the East Coast, New York, more specifically, for the scorching erotic drama 9 1/2 Weeks.
Written by Sarah Kernochan, whom I've had the great pleasure of interviewing for Pop Geeks, the other website I write for, 9 1/2 Weeks tells the story of Elizabeth (Kim Basinger) and John (Mickey Rourke), two New Yorkers who move in sophisticated circles and become enmeshed with each other, engaging in sexual adventures that push their emotions to the brink of destruction.
I found the movie to be erotic, but very fascinating as well. I've had a fear of New York City ever since my dad died of a heart attack there in 1995, but movies like 9 1/2 Weeks balanced my fear with a sense of intrigue about what it would be like to visit the city as an adult, adult being the key word for this movie.
Interestingly, even though my mom didn't know as much about 80s pop culture as I did, she did know of this movie, was reluctant to let me see the movie until December 31st, 2001, a few days after I turned 19. My brother was out with friends, and so was my mom, so as I was home alone, she allowed me to rent the movie. I'm glad she did. I thought it was a very thought-provoking movie.
For more about 9 1/2 Weeks, here's a link to the interview I did for Pop Geeks in 2019 with Sarah Kernochan. Warning: Some NSFW content: https://popgeeks.com/the-flashback-interview-sarah-kernochan/
Moving from numbers to letters, our trip through the A titles begins with 1986's ...About Last Night, a romantic dramedy based on David Mamet's play Sexual Perversity In Chicago.
The movie tells the tale of Danny (Rob Lowe) and Debbie (Demi Moore), two Chicago twentysomethings who enter a relationship in a manner that's perhaps a bit too hurried, with the big question being: Will their relationship will work or not?
I first tried watching ...About Last Night on demand in 2004, but for various reasons, I wasn't able to watch it all the way through. About seven or eight years later, I watched it all the way through, and I liked what I saw. As a man on the autism spectrum, for years I sought out what I thought was a "normal life", and I though that part of that "normal life" was being in a relationship.
Movies like ...About Last Night taught me that if you're going to be in a relationship, you need to be in it for the right reasons. Love takes time and effort. Although I now identify as aromantic, in other words, lacking romantic interest in anybody, this movie still teaches a great lesson, and that's to do things, whatever those things may be, for the right reasons.
On a side note, ...About Last Night has an amazing soundtrack, and Sheena Easton's "So Far, So Good" is an underrated classic of 80s dance-pop. The whole soundtrack is fantastic, but "So Far, So Good" steals the show. There's a great sense of hope and promise to the lyrics that reminds me of why I love 80s dance-pop music so much.
From romantic dramedy to straightforward drama, we now come to 1988's The Accused, the legal drama that tells the story of rape victim Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster in her first Best Actress Oscar-winning performance) who, after feeling initially betrayed by lawyer Kathryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis) allowing Sarah's rapists to plea to a lesser charge, teams up with Kathryn to indict the onlookers who encourage the attack.
Jodie Foster has been acting since childhood, but with her work in The Accused, she scaled new heights with her acting skills. With every scene, you feel Sarah's hurt, her anger, her hope for justice and her fear that justice won't come. The movie raises some interesting questions, the most intriguing of which is: Can one bear responsibility for a crime if they didn't commit the crimes themselves?
I don't have any legal knowledge at all, but The Accused certainly made me think of what I would do in a similar situation, which happened in 2002. I had an experience in my early years at my retail job where one worker was sexually harassing another. I didn't cheer it on. I was disgusted, and brought up my concerns to management. Despite that, though, the worker wasn't fired, and is still employed with the company almost two decades later, while practically everybody in my life, even my family and my closest friends, felt I was in the wrong for voicing my objections to what I saw. When I said that perhaps I shouldn't bother trying to help anybody, I was told I was being melodramatic. I just don't understand how come I was seen as the bad guy for objecting to the sexual harassment, while the sexual harasser was thought of as just an old guy joking around. How did I end up wearing the black hat?
Let's jump back from the 00s into the 80s again, this time for the 1988 movie with action in its' scenes and in its' name, Action Jackson. Carl Weathers plays Sgt. Jericho Jackson who attempts to uncover the crimes of automaker Peter Dellaplane (Craig T. Nelson) and ends up framed for the murder of Peter's wife Patrice (Sharon Stone), leading him to work to defeat Dellaplane and clear his name.
I purchased this movie on DVD in the early 00s after having read about it in several books about 80s pop culture, and although the DVD was a bare-bones pan-and-scan affair, I still delighted in the action scenes and pre-mortem one-liners the film had. Seeing Weathers as Jackson doing things like setting one of Dellaplane's thugs on fire or driving a car upstairs into Peter's bedroom reminded me of why I came to love 80s action movies so much.
80s action movies, and you'll be seeing plenty of them in this project, are fun to watch because they exist in a world where rules don't apply, and small groups of people can take on larger elements and win. It's as much a fantasy as any of a half-dozen or more actual fantasy films I'll be covering in this project, but that's what I love about 80s cinema. It was committed to all sorts of ideas, some normal, some unusual, and played them sincerely.
Next on the list is 1985's After Hours, one of Martin Scorsese's best films. This movie is about office worker Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), a yuppie dullard who has adventures that are anything but dull when his attempt to reach out to a woman named Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) for a good time leads to very bad times.
Earlier I mentioned how 9 1/2 Weeks had tempered my fears of New York City, but After Hours brought those fears back. I can be rather meek at times, much like Dunne's Hackett, and New York City is not a town for the meek. Hackett ends up in some very bad situations, at one point witnessing someone else committing a murder and saying, "I'll probably get blamed for that" as he's angered that many people.
It's a very funny movie, but the humor is very dark, which is par for the course with the comedy in Scorsese's movies as you'll see again when we get to the Ks. It's also a unique portrait of New York City nightlife, with settings from clubs to all-night diners being captured amazingly. I actually interviewed Valli O'Reilly, this movie's makeup designer, for Pop Geeks last year, and she has some very cool stories to share about the movie. Check out the interview when you have a chance: https://popgeeks.com/the-flashback-interview-valli-oreilly/
Moving along alphabetically, we come to 1984's Against All Odds, a remake of the 1947 film noir classic Out Of The Past. This movie tells the tale of former-and-possible-future football player Terry Brogan (Jeff Bridges) who, hard up for money, is sent to find a young woman named Jessie Wyler (Rachel Ward), who is sought by both her boyfriend Jake Wise (James Woods) and her mother (Jane Greer), leading to a complex game of changing allegiances and gambling matters.
My first exposure to this movie actually came via Phil Collins' theme song "Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)", which I heard on a greatest hits album of his. I thought it was an incredible song with a sense of intensity and passion to it. The song and the movie matched up perfectly when I finally got the DVD of it in the early 00s. It's a sterling thriller with some great production design that capture all sorts of settings from a Mexican temple to a fantastic nightclub.
We now come to the stone classic comedy Airplane!, the 1980 spoof of not just disaster movies, but dozens of other things as well. Based on a straightforward 50s disaster movie called Zero Hour!, Airplane tells the story of traumatized pilot Ted Striker (Robert Hays) who, in abandoning his job as a taxi driver to try and win back his stewardess girlfriend Elaine (Julie Hagerty), ends up having to prevent the flight they're both on from crashing.
The plot may sound serious, yet the movie is anything but serious. You can watch Airplane! at any age and find something new to enjoy. As a child, you notice the slapstick. As a teenager, you notice the double entendres and the one instance of out-of-nowhere nudity. As an adult, you noticed the wordplay and the spoofs of everything, starting with disaster movie tropes and then references to everything from sports to show tunes.
The movie is unique in that, although it came out in 1980, all the references are to 70s-and-earlier material, yet with so many, many jokes happening in the dialogue and on the screen, the movie becomes timeless. Yes, there are some politically incorrect jokes that couldn't be made today, but that's true of almost every comedy as the decades progress. Surely I'm joking about that, right? No, I'm not, and don't call me Shirley.
From high comedy to high intensity, we now come to another stone classic of 80s cinema, 1986's Aliens, the sequel to Alien that takes the franchise in a more action-oriented direction. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is the only survivor of the first film's events, and after coming out of hypersleep for more than half-a-century, she's drafted by the Weyland-Yutani corporation to head back to the moon where she first encountered the aliens. Accompanying a gaggle of space Marines, she finds that the mission is not what it seems.
This movie is a total blast of action cinema. As Ripley, Sigourney Weaver is one of the greatest action heroes of the 80s. When she discovers how Weyland-Yutani planned to betray the citizens of the colony where the aliens once were, she fights back against that system to help rescue a young girl named Newt (Carrie Henn) and prevent the alien menace from going any further.
Watching this made me wish I had a mother who would fight for me like that. Unfortunately, due to my autism spectrum disorder, my mom and I were fighting each other more often than not, and as to the famous line from Aliens, "Get away from her, you b*tch!", my mom's friends would call her the B-word, and I didn't like that at all. When I told my mom I was going to tell her friends I didn't like it when they called her that, she threatened me with homelessness if I were to do so. Ripley knew that word was hurtful, and used it to help hurt the alien queen. My mom thought it was a compliment. Again, how did I end up wearing the black hat when it came to that situation?
From 1986, we go into 1987 and the movie The Allnighter. This movie tells the tale of three college students (Susanna Hoffs, Joan Cusack and Dedee Pfeiffer) on the brink of graduation who decide to have one last wild time before moving into the real world of adulthood.
My brief time in college was not a good one as my autism spectrum disorder, the foolish pride it brought me, my unwillingness to take my medicine, and being away from all I knew and loved on 9/11 all came together to impact my last bit of schooling in a very negative way. I purchased The Allnighter on DVD shortly before I dropped out of college, but I wouldn't really watch it until a few years later.
The Allnighter was a fun, lighthearted comedy that made me wish I had a better time in college. The main trio of students played by Hoffs, Cusack and Pfeiffer were all good at their studies, had big dreams that they knew they could achieve, and loved having fun. I, on the other hand, wasn't able to find much fun in the 00s. I was a disaster when it came to studying serious matters as opposed to fun stuff. As for dreams, I had attended college hoping to learn to work in film. While the dream of working in film didn't come true directly, I do have a foot in the world of show business via the interviews I do, and if I ever have the chance to interview Hoffs, Cusack and/or Pfeiffer, I'll thank them for The Allnighter, which helped inspire me, albeit on a ten-year-or-so delay, to try and approach adulthood in a more hopeful manner.
The Allnighter didn't exactly get a good response from either audiences or critics, but the next movie on my list certainly did. It's Amadeus, the winner of the Oscar for Best Picture of 1984.
Directed by Milos Forman and written by Peter Shaffer from his hit play, this movie tells the tale of Salieri (F. Murray Abraham in his Best Actor Oscar-winning role), a gifted but technical composer, and his rivarly with Mozart (Tom Hulce), a gifted and artistic composer. What made this movie appeal to me as a young 80s fan was how Hulce's portrayal of Mozart turned him into a 19th century version of the 80s pop-rockers whose music I was seeking out as a way to escape the grunge and 90s alternative rock that was popular among my peers.
Mozart partied hard, but created memorable music that delighted people, much like bands like Van Halen were doing in the 80s. To drive that point home, there was a memorable trailer that aired on MTV in the mid-80s, introduced by David Lee Roth of Van Halen, which intercut scenes from Amadeus and the music of Mozart with clips from popular music videos. That video was fantastic.
Interestingly, there's a scene near the end where the dying Mozart is laughing at a work that makes fun of his material. The 80s pop-rockers whose work I sought out would eventually be laughing at their 80s material as well, but that was difficult for me. Bands like Van Halen and Poison created soundscapes that made me think of good times with good friends. Their behavior was not good offstage compared to the behavior of grunge and 90s alternative rock musicians, but while the 90s alternative rockers were better people offstage and in their interviews, I would much rather listen to a song like "Jump" or "Nothin' But A Good Time" than a song like Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or Pearl Jam's "Jeremy".
Moving along alphabetically, we now come to the 1987 comedy anthology movie Amazon Women On The Moon, a film where a spoof of 50s sci-fi movies running on a late-night broadcast station is interrupted by a variety of sketches, spoofs and fake commercials that an unseen viewer is watching while channel-surfing.
I first saw this movie when I rented it from a video store in 1996 on a visit to my Uncle Eddie's house. It was a few weeks after I'd gotten out of a mental hospital and been diagnosed with my autism spectrum disorder, and I was looking for something to make me laugh. I rented this movie sight unseen, me and my brother took it to my Uncle Eddie's house, and we both found it funny, although I got more laughs out of it than he did.
There are many hilarious scenes in Amazon Women On The Moon, with highlights including "Two I.Ds", a sketch where Rosanna Arquette uses computer technology to get information Steve Guttenberg, a potential date, "Pethouse Video", a memorable spoof of 80s skin magazine videos with a gorgeous model, played by Monique Gabrielle, who goes everywhere naked, and Roast Your Loved One, where a man's funeral is turned into a comedy roast with memorable jokes by, as themselves, talents like Steven Allen, Slappy White and Rip Taylor.
I interviewed both Belinda Balaski and Rip Taylor for Pop Geeks, and I asked them about this movie. They had some interesting stories to share, so check them out when you have a moment:
The Belinda Balaski interview: https://popgeeks.com/pop-geeks-flashback-interview-belinda-balaski/
The Rip Taylor interview: https://popgeeks.com/the-flashback-interview-rip-taylor/
Moving along, remember when I mentioned that 52 Pick-Up wasn't the first time that Elmore Leonard adaptation was filmed by Cannon? The next movie on the list, 1984's The Ambassador, was the first adaptation of the book.
Although blackmail still figures in the plot, the stakes are much higher in this film. A diplomat (Robert Mitchum) who seeks a way to find peace in the Middle East finds that peace at risk when his cheating wife (Ellen Burstyn) is caught on film, and that film could potentially be used against him. With the assistance of a fellow diplomat (Rock Hudson), he works to attain peace not only in the Middle East, but also in his personal life.
The Ambassador has the blood and the boobs that you expect from a Cannon film, but the message of wanting to achieve peace is an intriguing one. I have no opinion on the Middle East peace process as I've lived in the United States all my life, but the idea that someone could fight for a noble idea, and have that fight put his life in jeopardy, is a very intriguing concept. We all have some sense of nobility to ourselves, but what would we risk to achieve that nobility? This movie raises some interesting questions. If you're looking for a thriller that also makes you think, seek out The Ambassador.
One more note: One of the things that Cannon did well was hire older actors for their movies and give them interesting roles. Robert Mitchum, Ellen Burstyn and Rock Hudson were all older performers, and Hudson was only a few years away from death, but the way these three actors applied themselves to the story was fantastic. You could really feel the emotions the characters were experiencing in this movie. Excellent work.
Moving to a lighter project, we now come to 1982's Annie, John Huston's adaptation of the classic 70s Broadway musical, based on the comic strip Little Orphan Annie, here played by Aileen Quinn.
As with many 80s movies, I first saw this in the 90s as a young person, but then revisited it as an adult. The adult me found it to be a very enjoyable movie. Quinn's work as Annie was very inspiring. From her rendition of the immortal Broadway standard "Tomorrow" to the way she brightens the lives of Daddy Warbucks (Albert Finney) and his retinue, the movie is a very cheerful film. I like cheerful films. That's not to say I don't like dark material. As this list shows, there's plenty of dark 80s movies I love, but sometimes I just want to be cheered up, and Annie does that.
I actually met Aileen Quinn at the Chiller Theatre convention in Parsippany, NJ in April of 2019, and I told her how much I liked her work in the movie. I even tried asking her to sign a picture with the personalization, "Johnny, don't trust the 2014 version", but in a kind-hearted manner, she said she couldn't do that as she had friends who worked on the 2014 Annie. I understood, but I still think the 1982 Annie is the best. It sincerely wanted to be itself, while the 2014 Annie was heavy on the snark about the material and almost seemed ashamed of its' origins.
Speaking of 80s movies remade in the New 10s, we wrap up this list with 1981's Arthur, the romantic dramedy about Arthur Bach (Dudley Moore), a rich playboy with an alcohol problem who is scheduled to be married to Susan, a rich girl he doesn't love (Jill Eikenberry), but finds himself falling in love with Linda, a working-class girl (Liza Minnelli), instead.
I first saw clips from this movie in the 90s documentary Here's Looking At You, Warner Brothers!, and I heard Christopher Cross' Oscar-winning song "Arthur's Theme (The Best That You Can Do)" on a multi-disc compilation of music Warner Brothers put out on CD in 1998 to celebrate their 75th anniversary, but I wouldn't see the movie in full until 2001.
I saw something of myself in Arthur. While I've never had an alcohol problem as I rarely drink, and I usually only have one glass of Kahlua mixed into something else in the afternoon on the occasions when I do drink, I did have something of a maturity problem in my late teens and through the bulk of my 20s. Because of my autism spectrum disorder, I had an unusual way of looking at the world, and in many ways, that view was a black-and-white one that didn't understand nuances and degrees.
Similarly, Arthur is something of an overgrown child himself who has to learn the importance of growing up. It takes two movies as there was a sequel, Arthur 2: On The Rocks, but Arthur eventually matures. Maturity is a wonderful thing. That doesn't mean you have to lose your youthful spirit, but it does mean taking responsibility and looking at the world and seeing its' many varying shades.
That does it for my first 80s Movie Sampler, but we've only just begun. Within a matter of weeks, I'll be taking on the letter B, and a wide variety of 80s movies that begin with that letter. Stay tuned, and thank you as always for reading.