10 must-see films from 1981
#10 – Stripes
Directed by Ivan Reitman. Starring Bill Murray, Harold Ramis & Warren Oates.
Before there was Ghostbusters, Bill Murray was already making his mark as one of the funniest names in Hollywood.
Stripes follows a cab driver (Murray) who joins the army when his life falls apart and he loses his job, his apartment, his car and his girlfriend. The result is a misfit story of epic proportions with some of the 1980s’ best funnymen.
This film is a celebration of the silliness, recklessness and irreverence that Murray has become known for, and it’s a whole lot of fun. There are some gut-splitting gags and a whole lot of beautiful but ludicrous satire on the US Army.
Director Ivan Reitman supposedly thought of the idea for this film on his way to the premiere of Meatballs: “Cheech and Chong join the army.”
#9 – Blow Out
Directed by Brian de Palma. Starring John Travolta, Nancy Allen & John Lithgow.
Apparently, this is one of the three films that Quentin Tarantino would take to a deserted island.
Blow Out follows a movie technician who accidentally captures audio evidence of an assassination while recording sounds for a low-budget slasher film. It combines the post-Watergate suspicion of corruption with a twisted and typical De Palma film.
This film left viewers absolutely ecstatic, and critics maintained that De Palma had sprung to become one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century with this masterpiece. It’s raw, it’s political and it’s a salute to film itself. It’s beautiful.
This film was shot all in the course of a few nights, but then two of the film reels were stolen, and part of the film had to be reshot with insurance money and a backup cinematographer.
#8 – Escape from New York
Directed by John Carpenter. Starring Kurt Russell, Lee van Cleef & Ernest Borgnine.
This is one of those action films that defined both the genre and the 1980s.
Escape from New York is set in the near-future world of 1997 in the crime-ridden United States, which has converted Manhattan Island into a maximum-security prison. A federal prisoner is given 24 hours to save the President of the United States after Air Force One is hijacked and deliberately crashed into Manhattan.
It’s a bit jumbled, like a lot of action films, but it’s thrilling and atmospheric, and Kurt Russell is absolutely outstanding. It’s interesting to see a dystopian depiction of a near-future from what is now a past perspective as well. Carpenter clearly didn’t hold a lot of hope for the late 20th century.
This is another Watergate film. Carpenter wrote the screenplay immediately after the scandal, saying he saw the whole nation feeling a real cynicism about the President.
#7 – The Fox and the Hound
Directed by Ted Berman, Richard Rich & Art Stevens. Starring Mickey Rooney, Kurt Russell & Pearl Bailey.
I’m comfortable enough with my emotions to admit I cry about this film every time. It’s some of Disney’s most gorgeous and touching animation.
The Fox and the Hound tells the story of two unlikely friends, a fox and a hound, who struggle to remain friends despite their instincts and pressures to be natural enemies. The story is an emotionally touching roller-coaster ride that I guarantee will bring tears to your eyes over and over again.
Critics initially criticised the story for playing it a bit too safe, but in retrospect, it has been acknowledged as some of Disney’s finest animation of the late 20th century and a story that is as charming as it is beloved by kids of all ages.
Kurt Russell has made it on this list with both a live-action and an animated performance – what a feat!
#6 – For Your Eyes Only
Directed by John Glen. Starring Roger Moore, Carole Bouquet & Topol.
James Bond films tend to be rather hit-or-miss. But this one is one of Roger Moore’s definite hits.
For Your Eyes Only puts 007 up against a tangled web of deception involving rival businessmen and a missile command system. It’s a return to the classic Bond style after the science-fiction Moonraker was a critical flop.
It’s certainly not the best Bond film of all time, but in retrospect, it is viewed among the strongest. It’s a good old-fashioned espionage story and one of the truest Bond flicks you can possibly see.
For Your Eyes Only is another film that was adapted into a comic by Marvel Comics later in 1981.
#5 – Mad Max 2
Directed by George Miller. Starring Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence & Mike Preston.
Another Australian classic. And we can be proud to say that we’ve produced one of the finest sequels in history.
Mad Max 2 is the sequel to the original George Miller film, with Mel Gibson reprising his role as “Mad” Max Rockatansky. It’s become a cult classic, with whole clubs dedicated to its following.
It is considered one of the greatest action movies ever made and was subsequently followed by Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in 1985. It retains the use of the Australian bush as a supposed wasteland, which is a little jarring for us Australians, but it’s a good film nonetheless.
The sequel came about because Miller rejected a bunch of offers from Hollywood to work on his own script, which was eventually shelved, prompting his return to the world of Mad Max.
#4 – Excalibur
Directed by John Boorman. Starring Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren & Nicholas Clay.
From the directorial mind behind Deliverance comes one of the finest King Arthur tales put to film.
Excalibur retells the legend of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, the film being named after the legendary sword that Arthur wields. It was shot entirely on location in Ireland, launching the careers of a number of British and Irish actors such as Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart and Ciaran Hinds.
Critic Roger Ebert referred to the film as both a “wondrous vision” and “a mess” – it’s chaotic at times and a little bit loud, but it’s certainly one of the finest adaptations of the legend. The cinematography was nominated for an Academy Award.
In a strange twist of fate, United Artists originally rejected Boorman’s request to the rights for King Arthur, saying they were too expensive, and offered a compromise: JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. What might have been…
#3 – Chariots of Fire
Directed by Hugh Hudson. Starring Ben Cross, Ian Charleson & Nigel Havers.
Admit it. That title sequence gives you the chills every single time.
Chariots of Fire is based on the true story of two British athletes who competed at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. Considered one of the finest sports films in history, its score is also an icon of cinema.
Vangelis’ score would go on to win the Academy Award (seemingly obviously, although there was controversy over another film’s exclusion that we will mention next). Not only that, but the film would win Best Picture, being hailed as one of the most beautiful pieces in history with a combination of magnificent cinematography and magical music.
The film was revived in preparation for the 2012 Olympics in London, with a stage adaptation and cinematic re-release part of the promotions for the Games.
#2 – Raiders of the Lost Ark
Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Harrison Ford, Karen Allen & Paul Freeman.
Steven Spielberg continued his domination of the world of blockbuster films with the birth of Indiana Jones.
Raiders of the Lost Ark follows the famous archaeologist as he battles a group of Nazis searching for the famed Ark of the Covenant. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, it remains one of Spielberg’s best and the beginning of one of history’s most renowned franchises.
The film’s legacy is considered among the greatest of all time, spawning a prequel, two sequels and one of the greatest franchise leviathans in Hollywood cinema. It’s listed by Empire magazine as number two on the 500 Greatest Movies of All Time.
There was a hilarious mystery in 2012 when a replica of Indy’s diary from the film fell out of its packaging in shipping and was shipped by mistake to the fictional address at the University of Chicago instead of its proper location. Imagine their surprise finding a package for one Dr Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones Jr.
#1 – Das Boot
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Starring Jurgen Prochnow, Herbert Gronemeyer & Klaus Wennemann.
Sorry Spielberg, but it’s the Germans who have taken away the title for best film of 1981.
Das Boot is set during World War II and follows a German U-boat and its crew as they set out on a hazardous patrol in the Battle of the Atlantic. One of the few iconic stories told purely from the perspective of Nazi Germany, it is regarded as one of the greatest war films ever made.
It was one of the most expensive films ever made in Germany but still managed to be a commercial and critical success, earning $85 million at the international box office and being nominated for six Academy Awards.
The film is based off an actual memoir from a war correspondent who joined the U-96 U-boat for a single patrol during the Battle of the Atlantic.