As groundbreaking and classic as just about every Best Picture Oscar winner from the 70s may have been, the decade that followed was much more of a mixed bag. Grand epics and small intimate films shared the stage all throughout the 1980s; some were great, others have soured significantly.
Now let’s arbitrarily rank them…
Chariots of Fire (1981)
Easily the most confounding win of the decade, Chariots of Fire is remembered for one single moment: the race on the beach and the iconic music accompanying it. Tell me one more ting about the film, describe one scene. I dare you. The story, about Jewish and Christian track stars competing against one another in the 1924 Olympics, is almost entirely forgettable, besting On Golden Pond, Reds, and Raiders of the Los Ark (!) that year.
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Another movie that’s slipped out of our collective unconscious, the best thing about Driving Miss Daisy on Oscar night was Jessica Tandy winning her first Academy Award. The film itself, about a spry elderly woman and her African-American chauffeur (#problematic) and their blossoming relationship over the years is, for lack of a better term, a tedious bore. There are some funny moments and some saccharine, soft lighting in Bruce Beresford’s film; but the impact of the picture is minimal to say the least.
Ordinary People (1980)
I really try to keep my own frustrations at bay when it comes to judging Ordinary People on its own merits. You see, this was the film that beat Martin Scorsese’s tremendous boxing classic, Raging Bull, on Oscar night. It makes little to no sense. Sure, Robert Redford’s film is decent, in a network TV movie-of-the-week sort of way. The family drama is well acted from everyone involved (including the recently deceased Mary Tyler Moore). But when you make a list of classic, prestigious 80s films, how often does Ordinary People make that list?
Out of Africa (1985)
The 80s Best Picture winners have to own the record for longest cumulative runtime. So many of these movies stretch well beyond two hours, and a few top three. Out of Africa, Sydney Pollack’s sweeping romantic epic, checks in at 2 hours 41 minutes. And sometimes it certainly feels like it. But it’s often rescued by the strong performances of Meryl Streep and Robert Redford at the heart of the romance.
The Last Emperor (1987)
Speaking of vast epics with hefty runtimes… Bernardo Bertolucci’s Best Picture winning story focusing on the final emperor of China is a testament as to just how weird and uneven the 80s were for Oscar. Not that the film isn’t deserving, it is a great and engaging epic slice of history. But like so many BP winners in this decade it’s sort of fallen out of our memory.
Terms of Endearment (1983)
If Ordinary People was a miserable slog through a made-for-TV melodrama, then what makes Terms of Endearment any better? More than anything else, the performance of Shirley MacLaine. Add to her fantastic work as Aurora Greenway the performances from Debra Winger as her daughter and Jack Nicholson as her roguish, washed up astronaut neighbor, and James L. Brooks’s Terminal Illness Drama sings where Ordinary People wallows in its own self pity.
This is where the true separation occurs in the list. Everything here on out is, hands down, a great film. Sir Richard Attenborough’s extensive, wonderfully detailed exploration of the pacifist leader of India as they fight for independence from Great Britain is one of the best, most comprehensive looks at a historical figure in all of cinema. And Sir Ben Kinglsey’s chameleonic performance as Mahatma Gandhi is incredible to take in as he transforms himself into this iconic figure of love and compassion.
Rain Man (1988)
Over the years, Barry Levinson’s road dramedy has fallen out of favor, mostly for its portrayal of autism. That’s because these days people cannot engage with a film on its own accord and must measure its woke credentials. Maybe Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of autism isn’t precise, but its nevertheless compelling and it fits into he story the way it does for a specific reason. And what’s often overlooked is the transformative performance from Tom Cruise, who grows as a human being as he learns to shed his selfish motivations and love his long lot brother. Rain Man is still, and will always be, a balanced and brilliant film.
Oliver Stone’s crowning achievement is also his most personal. Platoon was a story taken from Stone’s personal experiences in Vietnam, and that personal, emotional connection to the drama unfolding in South Asia is what propels the film. There are almost too many great performances to single out one – Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger are on equal footing as far as I’m concerned.
Milos Forman’s biopic (a term loosely applied here) of Mozart, the child savant who soon became the greatest composer of all time, touches that three-hour length depending on which version you see. But never has a three-hour picture breezed along with such energy and verve as this. Amadeus is the best film of the 80s, and one of the most captivating and electrifying epics of all time. Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham deliver impassioned performances as the genius and his adversary, a man consumed with jealous rage.