The 1980’s was seen as an unusual decade for movies. There were a lot of “popcorn” movies released that decade (popcorn movies were seen to have been started with “Jaws” in 1975), but independents and art house films were seen as being on the upswing.
There was a true division in audiences also. The 16 to 24 year old crowd heading to the big Cineplex’s, while older audiences were rediscovering the small neighborhood theaters in the cities and the art houses, which started to show the better independent releases. Still, there were enough great films to justify this list. Here are the top 30 films that should have been nominated for Best Picture, but for whatever reason, weren’t.
30. Breaker Morant (1980) dir. Bruce Beresford
During the Second Boer War (1899-1902), Three Australian officers are being court martialed for murder. Lieutenants Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward), Peter Hancock (Bryan Brown), and George Witten (Lewis Fitz-Gerald) are charged with the murder of seven Boer prisoners.
Their defense Counsel has only had one day to prepare, and complains about charging for war crimes while the war is still going on. Lord Kitchener has brought the trial and wants an end to the war, and is using the trial as a way to negotiate the end of the war. The men are found guilty.
This is an excellent anti-war film. Well directed by Beresford, with intense, grounded portrayals all around. The film was very successful and brought many of the names involved to the attention of American audiences. A strong courtroom drama, it is different in that you pretty well know early on what is happening and how it must end.
29. An American Werewolf in London (1981) dir. John Landis
David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) are students on a walking tour of England. They decide as darkness falls to stop at a pub, “The Slaughtered Lamb”. They ask about a five pointed star to find everyone’s demeanor change. They decide to leave and are warned to stay on the road. They talk about the pub as they walk and miss the road. They were lost on the Yorkshire Moors, when they noticed a full moon.
They are attacked by a giant werewolf. Jack is killed and David is mauled before the animal is shot and killed by pub goers. David is rushed to hospital in a coma. When he comes to, the police question him. He tells them a wolf mauled him, but the police say it was a man. Jack appears to David as a reanimated corpse and tells him it WAS a werewolf and at the next full moon, David will become a werewolf. Jack urges David to kill himself. When the full moon does come, David discovers what happens.
A horror film with a bracing dollop of black humor, this film is a delight. The makeup effects are astonishing for the time, especially David turning into a werewolf, and Jack’s rapidly degenerating body, which are also some of the funniest scenes in the film. Definitely a cult film, but so much fun. Rick Baker won the first ever Academy Award for Make Up. Because this was seen as a horror comedy, neither genre favored by the Academy, it was not nominated for Best Picture.
28. Steel Magnolias (1989) dir. Herbert Ross
A group of women celebrate the life of one of their daughters, as she lives the last three years of her life.
Several women are in Truvy’s Beauty Shoppe as M’Lynn and Shelby Eatenton are getting their hair done for Shelby’s wedding to Jackson, a lawyer. Shelby has a diabetic reaction which the women help pull her out of. The wedding goes off okay, but we learn Shelby should not have children because of her health. She does anyway to try to hold onto her husband but her kidneys fail and M’Lynn gives her a kidney. They are supported by Truvy, Anelle, Ouiser, and Claree, their friends from the beauty shop. The transplant leads to a tragic ending.
This was a very funny film that yet has some sadness to it. It had a great cast, having Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, Shirley McLaine, and Olympia Dukakis in starring roles. Everyone got their moment to shine in this winning film. Julia Roberts was the only actress nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Due to it being labeled a “woman’s film) which has gone out of fashion, it was not nominated for Best Picture.
27. 84 Charing Cross Road (1987) dir. David Jones
Helene Hanff (Anne Bancroft) is a poor writer with a taste for English literature. She cannot find what she wants in New York. Reading The Saturday Review of Literature she finds an ad for a bookshop at the titular address. She writes to it, looking for some books she loves. The letter is received by Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins) the manager who fills most of her wish list. Thus begins a twenty year correspondence between the two, and the other employees of the shop.
The years are 1949 to 1968 and you see how both London and New York change during that time. She sends the food parcels, due to rationing and other gifts are exchanged. Helene keeps meaning to go to London and meet everyone but one financial crisis after another prevents it. She never meets Frank, but after his death publishes the letters and finally gets to England in the summer of 1971.
This is a quiet, beautiful film with a stunning cast including 4 Oscar winners past and future. Besides Bancroft and Hopkins, Judi Dench and Mercedes Reuhl also star. This was actually produced by Mel Brooks especially for his wife. Just let this film wash over you. It is extremely well written, and well-acted by the entire cast.
This was definitely a small art house type picture and grossed little at the box office, but it is one beautiful film that cried out for Oscar nominations unfortunately not getting any, but Bancroft did win the BAFTA award for Best Actress that year.
26. Aliens (1986) dir. James Cameron
Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) has been drifting in space in status for 57 years, when she is finally rescued. She tells her employers how the ship was destroyed, but they do not believe her. She finds the planet LV-426, the planet where she found the alien eggs, has become a human colony. She is sent there with Space Marines after communication was lost with the colony.
They get to the planet to find that a young girl, Newt is the only survivor. The aliens have been using the other human bodies as incubators for their babies. The mission then becomes a fight for survival against the aliens.
Due to a different writer and director than the first Alien, this film takes on a darker more action. Adventure tone and less Sci-Fi. Weaver is even better in this film than the original. As a whole, the film is more exciting and entertaining, more of a thrill ride than the original.
It was a huge box office success, and was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, winning two, for Best Sound Effects editing, and Best Visual Effects. It was also nominated for Best Actress for Weaver, Best Art Direction Set Decoration, Best Sound Best Editing and Best Original Score. Despite all of this, it was not nominated for Best Picture.
25. The King of Comedy (1982) dir. Martin Scorsese
Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is an aspiring stand-up comedian. When he meets Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), a successful comedian and talk show host, he believes that his time has come and he can use Jerry to his advantage. He keeps trying to get on the talk show, but the talent coordinator, and Jerry himself, rebuffs him. To what lengths will Rupert go to realize his dream?
It seems unusual to see Scorsese direct an out and out comedy, but it works. Robert De Niro is extremely funny as Pupkin, and Jerry Lewis gives a very funny portrayal based on his old films combined with a typical late night host. Sandra Bernhard is good as Pupkin’s cohort in his scheme. This became a cult film as the audience at first was unsure of it, but subsequent viewings revealed its heart. Probably because of its poor reception at the box office, it was not nominated for any Academy Awards.
24. The Evil Dead (1981) dir. Sam Raimi
Five students from Michigan State University, Ash Williams. His girlfriend Linda, his sister, and friends Scotty and Shelly decide to go to the hills of Tennessee for spring break. They have a couple of scary moments along the way. They almost get into a car accident and when they try and cross the bridge that will lead them to the cabin they are to stay in, the bridge starts to collapse. They make it to the cabin, and that night, as Cheryl is drawing, she becomes possessed and draws a demonic face, she shakes it off.
The cellar door flies open and the two guys go down to investigate. They find a Sumerian book of the dead and a tape that when they play it, releases demons, leading to several gory deaths before Ash figures out how to end it.
Made on a very low budget of $345,000. The film was a big hit eventually grossing about 80 times its budget. The reviews were very good, and the movie is a fun ride, those a bit gory for some with sensitive stomachs. This is a film for you to watch with all your friends on a big TV with plenty of snacks handy! Being such a small budget film, and a horror film, it was not nominated for any Academy Awards, but did play at Cannes out of competition, where Stephen King gave it a rave.
23. A Fish Called Wanda (1988) dir. Charles Crichton and John Cleese (uncredited)
Gangster George Thomason (Tom Georgeson). And his right hand, Ken Pile (Michael Palin) plan a diamond heist. They bring in Americans Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis), and her weapons guy Otto West (Kevin Kline) who hates the English and tries to be an intellectual. The crime goes well, they get a large amount of diamonds and hide them. Wanda and Otto then call the police and turn George in. Wanda also plans to cut Otto out of the deal.
With George in jail, Wanda goes back to the hiding place to find the diamonds have been moved. She goes to Archie Leach (John Cleese), George’s lawyer to help her. She plans to seduce him to get George to take the rap. None of the robbers were aware that an old lady, walking her three dogs saw them with the loot. George tells Ken to kill her, but he only manages to kill the dogs one by one. Otto tries to find where the diamonds are by going to Ken’s flat and eating Ken’s goldfish one by one. Ken, an animal lover is appalled. The diamonds are finally found, but who will get away with them.
A sidesplittingly funny film, the entire cast is great, but Kevin Kline really steals the show as the bumbling Otto. Many of the situations are just absurd, as you would expect a film co-written by John Cleese to be.
The film did extremely well at the box office and was nominated for three Academy Awards. Kevin Kline won for Best Supporting Actor, it was also nominated for Best Director Charles Crichton, and Best Original Screenplay by John Cleese and Charles Crichton. But because it was a comedy, the conservative nominating committee did not give it a Best Picture Nomination.
22. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) dir. Irvin Kershner
Three years after the destruction of the Death Star, The rebels are forced off the planet Yavin IV by the Galactic Empire. Leia leads them to a new colony on planet Hoth. Luke discovers a drone sent by Vader to spy on them and almost freezes to death but Han saves him.
Luke goes off to train to be a Jedi knight with Yoda, while Leia and Han Try to escape from Vader. They head to Cloud City, run by Lando Calrissian, an old friend of Han’s. Lando meets them and turns them over to Vader and Fett. Lando does not realize he is being used as a pawn. What harm will our intrepid heroes face, and what will Luke learn about Vader?
Very much a thrill ride, as was the previous Star Wars film. This film has deeper cast development and a stronger storyline. It is quite a bit darker than the previous film as well. It still has time for scenes of dark comedy, especially the scenes with Yoda.
This was the highest grossing film of 1980. Because of its identification as a popcorn film, it was nominated for 3 Academy Awards in minor categories. It won for Best Sound and scored a special award for Visual effects, as well as nominations for Art Direction Set Decoration and Best Score.
21. The Princess Bride (1987) dir. Rob Reiner
In a framing device, a grandfather (Peter Falk) is reading a story to his grandson (Fred Savage). This story will interrupt the narrative occasionally. A farm maiden, Buttercup (Robin Wright) finds that whenever her farmhand Westley, (Cary Elwes) says “as you wish” he is really saying “I love you”. She loves him too, and is willing to wait while he goes off to make his fortune. Five years later, Buttercup is being pressured to marry Prince Humperdinck, heir to the throne.
One week before the wedding she is kidnapped by three men. She is unaware that the Prince hired the men to kidnap her and kill her and leave her body on the border of the neighboring country so the Prince can start a war. She is also being chased by a man in black. Claiming to be the Dread Pirate Roberts, Buttercup throws him down a slope. As he goes over he says “As you wish” and she realizes it is Wesley. With the help of the two men, Wesley defeats The Price and he kisses Buttercup.
This is a very funny film. The framing device works very well, with some good banter between the Grandfather and Grandson. The cast looks as if they are having great fun with their roles. There are some great one-liners in the script. The film did well at the box office and is still exceedingly popular. It is too bad the Academy Awards has never preferred comic films. The only Oscar nomination it received was for Best Song for “Storybook Love” by Willy DeVille.