At this point in his career, Steven Spielberg is regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest director of all time. Since his start in the 1970s, he’s directed so many amazing films that it’s hard to keep count, with multiple incredible showings in each decade, for many differing genres. The 70s had Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The 90s had Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in the same year! The 2000s had Catch Me If You Can and Munich. The 2010s came out swinging with War Horse and Lincoln.
Already, the 2020s are off to a great start with his brilliant take on West Side Story. However, many believe one decade stands out as Spielberg’s true shining years. Here are Steven Spielberg’s best movies of the 1980s, ranked.
8 Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
In this sci-fi horror anthology remake film of several episodes of The Twilight ZoneSteven Spielberg both produced and directed the “Kick the Can” segment. In Spielberg’s segment, an old man named Mr. Bloom (Scatman Crothers) visits a retirement home and convinces the tenants to join him later that night for a game of Kick the Can. When they join him, they are magically transformed into the child versions of themselves, and have the chance to choose between staying young forever, or going back to their current ages. Though this segment in Twilight Zone: The Movie feels more in line with Spielberg’s Hook, it’s seen as one of the weaker segments in the film. Spielberg has gone on record saying that his heart was not into creating his segment after the helicopter accident that took place during the first segment, which resulted in actor Vic Morrow’s death, due to negligence of director John Landis.
7 Always (1989)
In the third collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Richard Dreyfus (Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind being the others), Always is about a jet fighter pilot that loses his life, and returns as a spirit to mentor his best friend, who also happens to be falling in love with the girlfriend he left behind. The film has a fantastic cast that includes Holly Hunter, John Goodman, Audrey Hepburn, and Keith David, and was written by Jerry Belson (The Odd Couple) and Dalton Trumbo. Always was one of Spielberg’s few fantasy films, and was seen as one of his weaker entries from both critics and audiences alike. Some thought the film was much too close in theme to other similar films of the 1980s, like Ghost and Starman.
6 Empire of the Sun (1987)
Empire of the Sun, starring a young Christian Bale, followed the journey of young boy trying to survive through the Japanese occupation of China during World War II. Bale was chosen from a pool of 4,000 children that auditioned for a chance to be in a Spielberg flick. Aside from Bale, the film boasted a great cast of John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, Joe Pantoliano, and Ben Stiller. The film was not universally loved among audiences as many major actor roles were cut to the length of small cameos, but critics were impressed. Empire of the Sun was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Cinematography and Best Score for John Williams, but unfortunately it did not take home any gold.
5 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Ranking the Indiana Jones movies is nearly impossible, but if it has to be done, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade would have to be third. Whereas there is some fantastic character development for Indy, showing things from his childhood and the complicated relationship with his father (played by Sean Connery), a little too much focus goes into the historical aspect of the storyline rather than upping the adventure, as the previous two films had done. Last Crusade did have some fantastic villain performances from both Alison Doody and Julian Glover, and young Indy was played by River Phoenix. The film was nominated for three Oscars, taking home the win for Best Sound.
4 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Many people do not know that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is actually a prequel to the other two Indiana Jones films, even though it released second. The story actually takes place one year prior to the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark. This film brought Indy (Harrison Ford) to India to investigate mythical stones, but finds a secret cult has taken over a palace and enslaved children. Temple of Doom raised the bar for adventure from Raiders and added new memorable characters like Willie (Kate Capshaw), Short-Round (Ke Huy Quan), and the villains Mola Ram (Amrish Puri). Few scenes in 80s cinema are burned into the brains of audiences as the iconic moment where Mola Ram pulls the still-beating heart out of a man and watches it catch on fire. Temple of Doom would end up being nominated for two Oscars, winning for Best Effects.
3 The Color Purple (1985)
Based on the 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Alice Walker, The Color Purple follows the story of a southern woman struggling to find her identity after a lifetime of taking abuse from her father and other loved ones. The acting was studded with award nominations, with amazing performances from Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Margaret Avery, and Danny Glover. The film absolutely smashed the box office, bringing in $ 142 million against it’s $ 15 million budget, becoming the 4th highest-grossing film of 1985. The Color Purple was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, but unfortunately did not win any, making it one of the biggest Oscar-winning snubs of all time. The film was and still is debated among viewers, as some see the adaptation as a highlight of the Black struggle in America during the time of the story, while others believe the film is problematic.
ET the Extra-Terrestrial is not only Spielberg’s best family film, but it’s one of the best coming-of-age films of all time. The alien wasn’t just the focus of the film, but a vehicle to carry the story’s themes of familial single-parent struggles and friendlessness throughout. Elliot (Henry Thomas) and ET mirrored one another’s pain both physically and emotionally, and both were lost until finding each other. Accompanied by standout roles from Dee Wallace, a young Drew Barrymore and Peter Coyote, ET was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning four, including for Best Effects and Best Score from John Williams. This is not just one of Spielberg’s best-made films of the 80s, it’s one of the best of his entire career.
1 Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Spielberg kicked off the 1980s with one of the best (if not the best) adventure films of all time. Basing it on a story written by George Lucas (Star Wars), he cast Harrison Ford as the stunningly handsome and gruff Indiana Jones, an archeologist with a knack for getting himself into tense situations in the name of historical discovery. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark brought in beloved characters like Marion (Karen Allen) and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), as well as memorable villains like Toht (Ronald Lacey) and Belloq (Paul Freeman). Not only were there amazing set pieces that were interactive and never really seen before in cinema, but some practical gore effects toward the film’s finale were right in line with the best horror effects of the 80s. Raiders would go on to be nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, but only took home four in different technical categories. Raiders belongs in the top five films of Spielberg’s entire career, and that’s why it sits above the rest for best of his 80s work.
The Best Coming-Of-Age Films of the ’80s
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