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The 10 Best Classic 80s Films You May Not Know About

Updated on April 18, 2019
Jon Carthy profile image

Films express life and are as diverse as the characters we meet along the way. Nathan has a BA (Hons) Literature degree and lives in the UK.

10. Society (1989)

Right at the end of the decade came this oddity which brilliantly satirizes the decade of greed and consumption with a hideous secret lurking in an affluent area. Crossing genres it first seems a teen-angst film but there's much more going on here, including horror, humor and heartfelt outrage. Brilliantly designed it leaves a taste not soon forgotten, so why should I join it's group?

  • Special effects. The effects are done by Screaming Mad George who worked on films like Predator and Big Trouble In Little China, and whose work on this film is integral to its success.
  • It's such an odd film and has a cult following, but it is also quite a thoughtful work which crosses multiple genres to serve up something completely unusual and memorable.


9. No Way Out (1987)

Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman and Sean Young star in this neatly plotted thriller concerning the murder investigation of a young woman and the naval men it implicates. Finely paced this thriller draws you in from the very start and just when you think you know what's happening it changes gear. Full of great twists and grown up intrigue this is well worth seeing. So why should I sign up?

  • Despite such an illustrious cast I think the key role and one played to perfection is that of the assistant to Hackman's character by Will Patton. An uncomfortable squirming role in many ways, it retains a freshness and desperation which is at first puzzling and then understandable the more the film progresses. Such a nuanced role.
  • Rather than rely on action or set pieces, this film ratchet's up the tension with skilled plotting and involving dialogue. The cast work really well together and it's one of those rare examples where everything clicks into place.


8. Raising Arizona (1987)

A young Nic Cage stars alongside Holly Hunter in the Coen's outrageous comedy about desperate acts committed by desperate parents. Fresh, very funny and witty, with great set pieces and dialogue, this film is an early Coen and combines all of the traits they are now so famous for. So why should I be so desperate to see this?

  • The comic timing by Nic Cage and Holly Hunter in particular is a joy to behold and they are ably supported by a strong script and ensemble cast including John Goodman. In places it resembles a live action cartoon similar to Kung Fu Hustle.
  • There's more going on than meets the eye. As well as great comedy it combines pathos and symbolism with a biblical edge to give a parable like quality to the film which adds depth and texture. Only the Coens are skilled enough to join all theses qualities in one film and it feel seamless.


Two Man Crimewave in 'Raising Arizona'

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“We released ourselves on our own recognizance.” – Evelle

“What Evelle here is trying to say is that we felt that the institution no longer had anything to offer us.” – Gale

— Raising Arizona

7. Kiss Of The Spider Woman (1985)

An unusual independent film it follows the lives of two prisoners in a Brazilian jail, one part of a subversive political group and one a man who identifies as a woman. The story follows their initial mistrust into friendship and the consequences of that friendship. So why should I lock up this classic?

  • William Hurt won an Academy Award for his role and the film was the first independent film to be nominated for Best Picture. Given its subject matter it's all the more surprising.
  • Raul Julia, Gomez from the Addams' Family, provides excellent support in the other main role and the film's fantastical elements combine powerfully to give this a feel of an old Hollywood classic.


6. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

A Disney film, but one that is as strange and macabre as any adult film and shows how daring Disney used to be in the films it made. Centered around the arrival of a travelling circus in a small town where people's desires seem to come true but at what cost? So why should I buy a ticket and roll up, roll up?

  • Stars Jason Robards and Jonathan Pryce bring a gravitas of performance and freshness to the key adult roles, one as the older townsman suspicious of the younger ring leader.
  • This breaks free the boundaries of a Disney film being based on a Ray Bradbury story to become a cautionary tale which transcends genres, all the while maintaining its desire to entertain, amuse and scare in equal measure.


5. Willow (1988)

Val Kilmer stars in this high fantasy action adventure which is sorely overlooked yet a classic of the genre. Produced by George Lucas and directed by Ron Howard this film has pedigree written all over it and boy does it deliver. Legend has it that Lucas wanted to make a film adaptation of the Hobbit but couldn't secure the rights so wrote this film instead. So why should I let it cast a spell over me?

  • Young Val Kilmer plays the rogueish lead, but in a neat twist the 'dashing' hero is anything but and plays second fiddle to Willow the diminutive star played by Warwick Davis.
  • It combines great elements and is kid friendly whilst still managing to be a hoot for adults, and the special effects are great.



Warwick Davis as 'Willow'

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Did You Know....?

There's talk of George Lucas making a sequel to Willow. Unfortunately it doesn't appear Ron Howard will be involved although he's been instrumental in pushing for the sequel to happen.

4. The Hit (1984)

A British crime thriller which relies on great character actors rather than action. An impressive cast including Tim Roth, Terence Stamp and John Hurt signal you're in for a treat with this sure-footed crime noir. By turns brutal, it quietly ratchets up the tension and rewards patience.

Terrence Stamp Playing Things Cool In 'The Hit'

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From the very first movie I ever made to the current time, there have been times between action and cut when I've sensed some kind of new dimension that I haven't been familiar with before.

— Terrence Stamp

3. The Manhattan Project

An unusual premise for a film which tapped into the Cold War paranoia and combined it with atomic bomb fear and wraps it all up in the guise of a teen movie. Similar in tone in places to D.A.R.Y.L released the previous year, this film goes out of its way to show the possible dangers, and incompetence, of government agencies' tinkering. So why should I suit up and carefully watch this?

  • The great John Lithgow stars and brings just the right amount of credulity to a plot which is at times deadly serious and then comic. He's ably supported by Christopher Collet who plays the central role of the gifted teenager who uncovers what secret lies on a mysterious base and literally runs with it!
  • Just the right amount of tension and thought-provoking action make this film suitable for the whole family to watch and entertaining for everyone.


2. Melvin and Howard

A film by Jonathan Demme who made Silence Of The Lambs, this follows the jaw-dropping real-life story of Melvin Dummar a Utah service station owner, a contested will and a famous person called Howard. The genius of the film lies in its title taking Melvin to be worthy of top billing, as opposed to the more famous Howard. So why should I consult with a lawyer before signing up?

  • The story goes that when they met Melvin they realized his life offered a more fascinating exploration of contemporary society than they had at first figured by concentrating on Howard. It's rich with pathos, pain and puns as this shambolic Melvin comes to exemplify an everyman battling a tide of misfortune and trying to stay afloat in the great sea of capitalism.
  • Jason Robards has a commanding effect on the film with limited screen time and was even nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of one of the most famous men of the century. Mary Steenburgen plays an equally important role in the film, one even closer to Melvin, and went on to win Best Supporting Actress at that year's Academy Awards.

A Dusty Looking Jason Robards in 'Melvin And Howard'

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The Top Spot...

1. How To Get Ahead In Advertising (1989)

Directed by Bruce Robinson who made 'Withnail & I,' this 80s satire stars the irrepressible Richard E Grant as an advertising executive who may be having a breakdown, or an epiphany, whilst struggling to come up with copy for a pimple cream. So why should I lance the boil on this one?

  • Robinson's damning criticism of 80s greed and 'culture' can be somewhat overwhelming, but in a good way, as he takes no prisoners and its held together by Grant's eye-popping central performance.
  • The special effects are suitably jaw-dropping as the main character spends a lot of his time arguing with an unwanted guest they had to be spot on. I would also urge you to look out for Robinson's other works including 'Withnail & I,' a hilarious depiction of 'swinging 60s' Britain in all its shabby drunken glory, all the more surprising given Grant is teetotal.

Richard E Grant Feeling Boxed In 'How To Get Ahead In Advertising'

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