Retropolis: My 80s in Film: My Favorite Movies of 1980

Yes I know its been longer than it should’ve been to get back here and open up the gates to the most Regretful Land on Earth, Retropolis, but to tell the truth we have been snowed in. Zeke spent all the money we had allocated for road salt and bought himself some absinthe and Little Debbie snack cakes so God only knows where he ended up.

Anyway to help pass the time until we can dig our way out of this snow fort we are trapped in, I thought I’d play a little game.I’m going to list my 8 favorite movies from each of the years of that most gnarly and radical of decades, the 80s and explain why each of these films in some way made it into my personal cultural pantheon. Some of these picks will be obvious, some of them will be a little esoteric, but not only is it going to give me a chance to work my way through 80 of my favorite movies but it will also act as a companion piece to the more elaborate thought experiment we are doing among the affiliates of the HHWLOD Podcast Network ( All of our on-air hosts (culled from twelve different podcasts) submitted a list of their top 20 movies of all time. Not the movies they felt were most important to cinema, not the movies they thought advanced the art, but just our 20 personal favorite movies. We then collated that data into a master list of 20. You can check out the results in our podcasts coming out in February, and compare and contrast your tastes to our hosts. This overall listing exercise got me enthused enough to try to at least do my yearly faves from my favorite decade for film the 1980s

BTW these movies are not in any particular order. It was tough enough just winnowing down the list to a manageable state let alone trying quantify everything too..

So whattaya say, let’s get started with… 1980!

The Blues Brothers – This movie is incredible on several levels. John Belushi teamed not only with John Landis (hot on the heels of the success of their other comedy classic together, Animal House) but also his SNL writing partner Dan Aykroyd  This was pre-Ghostbusters Aykroyd and he and Belushi while wildly popular from their exposure on SNL,were still somewhat unknown properties. Belushi and Aykroyd’s last film together, the mostly-forgettable 1941, had lost a lot of money (one of Spielberg’s few flops) and the budget for The Blues Brothers was astronomic at the time. I remember the press declaring this movie a failure before it was even released. Luckily every penny is on the screen.

Giant car chases through malls? Check. Ex-girlfriends with rocket launchers? Absolutely. (The scene of the Belushi and Aykroyd waking up in a pile of bricks and dust is unforgettable to me.) Huge location shoots? Hell yes. And a sampling of performances by some of the greatest musicians of all time? Sure let’s do that too.Talk about ostentatious.

And its hilarious on top of all that. Beyond the shorthand history of the blues (music the Brothers learn from their orphanage’s janitor played like a hepcat Obi-Wan by jazz legend Cab Calloway) the script is full of chances for John Belushi to flex his chaotic comedic muscles and for Aykroyd to showcase his quirky contrasting deadpan weirdness. The musicians in this movie are legendary (have I used the word legend enough?) but the comedic cast is almost just as strong including John Candy, Henry Gibson and Frank Oz. Rewatching this for maybe the hundredth time for this list was like visiting an old friend who told outrageous stories. It holds up on so many levels.

Empire Strikes Back – I couldn’t talk about the films of 1980 without addressing the bantha in the room:TESB. It was kind of amazing how little we knew about The Empire Strikes Back when it came out that summer. There had been comics by Marvel continuing the story of the first film but we all knew they had no bearing on what the movie would be, and a few novels such as Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and Han Solo at Star’s End but again, not having any true bearing on the sequel to the movie that had changed so much for my generation of kids.. A stark contrast to how much we know about movies before they are released now.

I do have one slightly amusing anecdote. We were living in Florida and I would walk to the Mini Mart every Friday to buy comics and stuff. On the rack, a full week before the release of the movie, was the Marvel comics adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back. I grabbed it, almost ran all the way home and read it cover to cover. I knew it was somehow forbidden, a mistake that this had ended up in my hands before the movie’s release. I took the comic my few friends and tried to explain that this indeed was an adaptation of the upcoming movie but my friends knew Marvel put out Star Wars comics and thought it was just another one of those. It was my first experience with spoilers.

I was and still am in many ways a Star Wars kid. Empire was a mind-blower, even knowing going in Vader’s big reveal and the way it ends. Its my favorite installment of my favorite franchise of films. I don’t have the hate a lot of SW fans have for Return of the Jedi but I have to agree with the consensus that Empire is the superior sequel.

The Shining – I got into horror movies and novels way younger than I probably should have, and I was devouring every Stephen King novel I could get my hands on at that time (I once got sent to the principal for reading The Stand in class) so I had read The Shining before seeing Kubrick’s film. I was also young and nit-picky enough to keep saying to myself, ”That wasn’t in the book.” in the most Comic Book Guy-way possible as I started watching it but about halfway through I realized that this movie was something all onto itself outside of it being an adaptation of King’s book. No wonder Stephen King in interviews has said how much he hates it.

This movie was the first time I experienced what I later learned is called “existential dread”.That trademark Kubrick glacial pacing and camera-aware pov shots worked on my brain so when the violence did erupt on screen it was almost a relief. The outstanding cast (not only Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall but also the smaller but crucial part played by Scatman Crothers). the cavernous almost oppressing sets, the almost immediate attachment the viewer feels toward the character of Danny Torrance that is built into that script; its a master of the form turning his eye to the nature of fear itself and how the scariest monsters we create are within ourselves. Jump scares and creep scares I was used to in my horror films before seeing The Shining. That deep-seated dread that this movie instilled in me was something I had never experienced before up to that point and only experienced in a handful of movies since.

Popeye – Everyone seems to forget that Popeye is a Robert Altman movie but if any of Altman’s films have that atmospheric feel or sense of place that are always attributed to his work it would be this one. I know its not a great work of cinema, but the giant set of Sweethaven, (actually built off the coast of Spain) is a wonder unto itself, the musical numbers by Harry Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks are memorable and have their place in the narrative, and the cast starting with Robin Williams (at the height of his cocaine induced power) and Shelly Duvall (she’s in two of these movies!) as Olive Oyl, is pitch perfect. Its got this great sense of timelessness, like Sweethaven is a world all its own. I should by all rights hate this movie. I am not generally a fan of musicals and I was never really a Popeye cartoon fan but this movie has always been a favorite of mine.

Where the Buffalo Roam – Bill Murray as Hunter S Thompson and Peter Boyle as his lawyer Laszlo. If that doesn’t interest you just by reading that then just move along to the next entry.

Not as manic or nearly as surreal as Terry Gilliam’s HST movie, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Where the Buffalo Roam begins with Murray as a drunken Thompson in his mountain retreat looking back over some of his biggest stories, which allows the screenwriter to take a sampling of Thompson’s work from across his career in the 60s and 70s and stitch those anecdotes together into a film.

Its certainly a candy-coated view of Thompson, keeping in all the anarchic goofiness but leaving out the philosophic underpinnings that elevated HST’s writing above just drunken blather. As a kid I had no idea who Hunter S Thompson really was but seeing him in this “PG-rated” version was the impetus for me to seek out his books, so for that favor alone this movie earns a place on this list. Plus this movie cemented my admiration for Bill Murray, who at this time, before Stripes and Ghostbusters, was still somewhat of an unknown quantity in films having only his goofy camp counselor role in Meatballs to his credit on the big screen.

Friday the 13th – In the great Michael Myers/Jason Voorhees debate I will always come down on the Michael Myers side. I saw Halloween first, it set the template not only for the flood of slasher movies to follow (some good some not-so-much all pretty much on my VHS rental list) but also showed how an indie director with a shoestring budget could create something classic, which at the time was still a relative rarity. Remember, this was before Sundance and IFC and indie films were not the genre that they are now.

Having said all that, I really do like the original Friday the 13th. As much as Halloween was the prototype for a lot of the slasher flicks to follow, Friday the 13th was carving out (pun firmly intended) its own niche. I remember seeing the trailer where the victims are counted up to 13, the deep voice of the narrator that became so iconic in that kind of trailer that Eli Roth lampooned it with his trailer for Thanksgiving in Grindhouse. The kind of twisted morality of Jason Voorhees (or actually in this picture, his mom), the POV shots gleaned from the opening of Halloween, the jump scares and cut scares and the close-up scares; if any movie directly inspired Cabin in the Woods it would have to be either this or 1981’s Evil Dead. Still my favorite of the entire Friday the 13th franchise.

The Apple – Envision a future where disco never died, the music industry is run by Satan (literally) and a young innocent folk duo chase fame only to find the corruption of what made them special to begin with. This movie is a trainwreck in so many ways its hard to look away from. The story is both kooky and cliched at the same time.  Alphie and Bibi (yes those really are the characters names) come to the big city in the future year 1994 with stars in their eyes but find that fame has a price; like insane costume and set design and interminable musical numbers. They are signed to Mr. Boogolow’s record label BIM and immediately begin their downward spiral in the most crazy redux of Balzac’s Lost Illusions ever, with an ending that consists of a disco armageddon culminating in the cast all walking up a staircase of light into the sun. No I did not just make that up.

In capturing the cultural zeitgeist of the late 70s even Can’t Stop the Music and Thank God Its Friday pale in comparison to the excesses of this film. Catherine Mary Stewart of Last Starfighter and Night of the Comet fame is the biggest star of this Golan Globus production and that should also partially explain its relative obscurity. It was important going forward into a new decade to close the door on the old one, to know what to rebel against and what to avoid, and this movie pictures the bloated self-important hubris of the disco generation like no other.

Superman 2 – Superman 2 is still my favorite Superman movie. Allow me to clarify, the Richard Donner cut of Superman 2 is still my favorite Superman movie.If you don’t know why that clarification is so important Google it and I will wait here for you. Start here.  All done? Okay.

No other actor in my mind put his imprimatur on the character of Superman like Christopher Reeve did. All the character traits I imagined Superman to have, the sincere charm, the forthright sense of morality the humility, Reeve embodied. Moreover, he was just as convincing as Clark Kent and played the two characters so differently that with one glance he could switch from one to the other with only the audience the wiser. Margot Kidder may have not been the best Lois Lane (I’d give that honor to Dana Delany) but she played well off of Reeve and the script merely skirted the edges of camp rather than going whole hog goofy. We’d have to wait for Superman 3 for that.

This is also the first movie I ever saw Terence Stamp in and it immediately made me a huge fan of his and I have ever since sought out any movie he was in. His Zod was like a psychopathic David Bowie with all of the powers of Superman and even with his sometimes silly dialogue he was able to bring a true feeling of menace to the role. In a world where we didn’t get three or four superhero movies every year like we do now Superman 2 was a standout and a well-crafted (for the most part) sequel to the movie that set the template for superhero movies for decades. The 82 percent of this movie done by Donner makes up for the hastily put-together Richard Lester ending.


Honorable Mentions : Flash Gordon (which I wrote about here:  ) ,The Fog, Altered States, Maniac! and Roger Corman’s glorious Star Wars ripoff by way of the Seven Samurai, Battle Beyond the Stars


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