Why 1980 Was the Best Year in Movie History

All week long our writers will debate: Which was the greatest film year of the past half century.  Click here for a complete list of our essays.

How to decide in the grand scheme of things which film year stands above all others?  History gives us no clear methodology to unravel this thorny but extremely important question.

Is it the year with the highest average score of movies?  So a year that averages out to a B + might be the winner over a field strewn with B”s, despite a few A +”s.

Or do a few masterpieces lift up a year so far that whatever else happened beyond those three or four films is of no consequence?

Both measures are worthy, and the winner by either of those would certainly be a year not to be sneezed at.

But I contend the only true measure of a year”s greatness is measure the pure quantity of exceptional work there is; to speak of a year”s greatness, the breadth matters at least as much as the depth? How much good can we say for a society after all, that might have had one Van Gogh hidden away in an attic in Arles if the rest of the year is just a bunch of beer commercials?

We are, after all, taking stock of entire years, not individual achievement.  And in doing so I ask: when lived the climate that fostered the widest pool of exceptional work?  I look for the moment when greatness blossomed on every street corner in movieland and the air blew so fertile that on every hillside bloomed a film crew were able to do work like a great Baroque symphony orchestra.

Thus, I have taken measure of the years of our half-century in question.  I have asked of each year: how many A minus or above films did it produce?  And on that score, one clear winner looms above the rest, and that year is 1980.

Now, of course, value science though I do, this measurement is ultimately just slightly subjective. I have attempted to give the benefit of the doubt to films that are widely beloved – even if they are not my personal taste – and films that had a big impact (for better) in the years that followed.

Nonetheless, it is my ranking and there is only so far I can walk with you. Titanic obviously has many adherents, but if you are one of them, all I can see is you and I are on a different page. If you think every Iron Man film stands as a classic, we”re just not going to see eye to eye. Likewise, if you have no eyes for the wonderful poignancy of “Bronco Billy” or think “Friday the 13th” – the first part – is just drivel.

All that said, when we look at my findings below, we see that towards the end of the 1970″s a greatness bubble emerged when top drawer films were being produced at a pace never to be repeated.  So what was in the air at that time that allowed such greatness to flourish?

I hold that the period from 1978 – 1981 was the era in which the artistic and the commercial, the popular and the idiosyncratic came as close to overlapping as they ever could – as they ever would again. It reminds one of the brief period in the late 1930″s when for a moment, jazz music was the most popular genre in America. In that moment, the jazz artists had learned and integrated the tools of popular dance tunes, and both elevated them to something greater, while making jazz the more accessible. It could only last a moment and the soul of jazz would turn away from mere dance music to something more personal and less accessible, but while it lasted it was a golden era.

The remarkable burst of creative energy in film through the early and mid – 1970″s found the tools to discipline itself by the latter part of the decade. The personal visions and intense, direct style remained, but where in the early years, many films became unmoored and drifted into masturbation by their mid-points, the late years would tamed the most self-defeating tendencies.  

When we look at the great films of 1980, the degree of surehandeness is remarkable in films that remain, singular achievements. When we talk about comedy, the one-two punch of Airplane and Caddyshack is nothing short of incredible to behold; what year since has produced not one but two comedies certain to live in the pantheon forever? And while Caddyshack remains unruly and even ramshackle, it veers away from the wholesale trainwreck that befell the second halves of so many almost-great comedies of the era, steering the boat straight for legend.

Raging Bull and Stardust Memories both stand as possible personal bests for two of the greatest directors of the age, and in both the makers reigned some prior self-indulgence to create remarkably taught, near perfect films.

The year just overflowed with terrific dramas, sensitive, powerful and engaging. Atlantic City, Coal Miner”s Daughter, the aforementioned Bronco Billy, Melvin and Howard, The Elephant Man, The Stuntman – to name a few.

A couple vestiges of the overblown 70″s played themselves out in 1980 and we will give the year credit for those. Whatever judgement you hold of Heaven”s Gate it contains some of the most beautiful, haunting sequences ever put to film. And while The Blues Brothers is not a film of great restraint, its exuberance still delights.

35 years later, Fame is still one of the most fun high school films ever made and Friday the 13th still shocks, while Dressed to Kill absolutely terrifies.  Despite the initial controversy it stoked, William Friedkin”s Cruising holds up as a taught and daring thriller.

And did we mention a couple other little films that hit the streets that year?  Possibly the greatest horror film ever made, Stanley Kubrick”s The Shining, and the best installment of the greatest trilogy in film history, a little adventure called The Empire Strikes Back.

It all came together in 1980. As I say, you might look to the years before it for higher scoring individual films, but as a shear mass of great work, no year since has even come close.

My data for all our years is as follows, and you will observe, none comes close to 1980.

1965 (9)
Bunny Lake is Missing, Cat Ballou, Doctor Zhivago,  Flight of the Phoenix, For a Few Dollars More,  Inside Daisy Clover, The Loved One, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Thunderball

1966 (8)
Batman,  Fantastic Voyage, The Fortune Cookie,  A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Group, Seconds, Torn Curtain, Who”s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

1967 (16)
Barefoot in the Park, Bonnie and Clyde, Cool Hand Luke, The Dirty Dozen, Don”t Look Back,  The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Graduate, Guess Who”s Coming to Dinner, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, In Cold Blood, In the Heat of the Night, The Jungle Book, Point Blank, To Sir with Love, Wait Until Dark, You Only Live Twice

1968 (17)
2001, The Boston Strangler,  Bullit, Faces, Funny Girl, Hang ‘Em High, Head, The Legend of Lylah Clare, Night of the Living Dead, The Odd Couple, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Party, Petulia, Planet of the Apes, The Producers, Rosemary”s Baby, The Thomas Crown Affair

1969 (15)
Bob &Carol & Ted & Alice, A Boy Named Charlie Brown, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Downhill Racer, Easy Rider, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Hello Dolly, Last Summer, Medium Cool, Midnight Cowboy, On Her Majesty”s Secret Service, Take the Money and Run, They Shoot Horses Don”t They?, True Grit, The Wild Bunch

1970 (11)
Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Five Easy Pieces, Gimme Shelter, Husbands, Love Story, MASH, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, The Out of Towners, Patton, Start the Revolution Without Me

1971 (13 )
Bananas, French Connection, Dirty Harry, Last Picture Show, Carnal Knowledge, Clockwork Orange, Klute, Straw Dogs, McCabe & Mrs Miller,, A New Leaf, Play Misty For Me, Two Lane Blacktop, Willy Wonka

1972 (10)
Cabaret, The Candidate, Deliverance, Fritz the Cat, The Getaway, The Godfather, Harold and Maude, The Heartbreak Kid, King of Marvin Gardens, Pink Flamingos, Silent Running

1973 (14)
American Graffiti, Badlands, Don't Look Now, Exorcist, High Plains Drifter, Last Detail, Long Goodbye, Mean Streets, Paper Moon, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,  Serpico, Soylent Green, The Sting, Westworld

1974 (14)
Alice Doesn't Live Here, Blazing Saddles, California Split, Chinatown, Conversation, Godfather II, Harry and Tonto, Lenny, Longest Yard,  Murder on the Orient Express, Parallax View, Phantom of the Paradise, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Young Frankenstein

1975 (15)
Barry Lyndon, Day of the Locust, Dog Day Afternoon, Grey Gardens, Hustle, Jaws, Love and Death, Man Who Would be King,  Nashville, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Rollerball,  Shampoo, Smile, Stepford Wives, Three Days of the Condor

1976 (13 )
All The President's Men, Bad News Bears, Bugsy Malone, Carrie, Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Man Who Fell to Earth,  Marathon Man, Network, Omen, Robin and Marian, Rocky, The Ritz, Taxi Driver

1977 (15 )
3 Women, Annie Hall,  Close Encounters, The Duellists, Eraserhead, High Anxiety, The Hills Have Eyes, Kentucky Fried Movie,  Saturday Night Fever, Semi-Tough, Slap Shot, Smokey and the Bandit, Sorcerer, Star Wars, Spy Who Loved Me

1978 (17)
Big Wednesday, Boys From Brazil, Buddy Holly Story,  Coming Home, Dawn of the Dead, Days of Heaven,  Deer Hunter,   Gates of Heaven,  Grease, Hallowen, Heaven Can Wait, Invasion of the Body Snatchers,  Midnight Express, Animal House, Pretty Baby, Superman,  A Wedding

1979 (21)
10, Alien, All That Jazz, Apocalypse Now, Being There, Black Stallion, Breaking Away, China Syndrome, Cuba, Great Santini, The In Laws, The Jerk, Manhattan, Life of Brian, Muppet Movie, Norma Rae, North Dallas Forty, Real Life, The Rose, Tess, Time After Time

1980 (23)
9 to 5, Airplane, Altered States, American Gigalo, Atlantic City, The Big Red One, The Blues Brothers, Bronco Billy, Caddyshack, Coal Miners Daughter, Cruising, Dressed to Kill, The Elephant Man, Fame, Friday the 13th,  Heaven's Gate, Melvin and Howard, Raging Bull,  The Shining, Empire Strikes Back,  Stardust Memories The Stuntman, Urban Cowboy,

1981 (17)
Absence of Malice,  American Werewolf in London, Arthur, Body Heat, Escape from New York, The Evil Dead, Excalibur, The Howling, Prince of the City, Quest for Fire, Ragtime, Raiders of the Lost Arc,  Reds, SOB, Taps, Thief, True Confessions

1982 (16)
48 Hours, Blade Runner, Cat People, Conan, Diner, ET, Fast Times, My Favorite Year, Night Shift, Poltergeist, Shoot the Moon, Star Trek II, Tempest,  The Thing, Tootsie, The Verdict.

1983  (16)
Big Chill, Christine, The Dead Zone, Eureka, King of Comedy, Local Hero, Man with Two Brains, Risky Business, Rumble Fish, Scarface, Star 80,  Tender Mercies, Trading Places,  Videodrome, War Games, Zelig

1984 (14)
Amadeus, Broadway Danny Rose, Cotton Club, Ghostbusters, Killing Fields, Nightmare on Elm Street, Once Upon a Time in America, Paris Texas, Pope of Grenwich Village, Sixteen Candles, Starman, Stranger Than Paradise, This is Spinal Tap, Top Secret

1985 (14)
After Hours, Back to the Future, Better Off Dead, Brazil, Breakfast Club, Lost in America, Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Prizzi's Honor, Purple Rose of Cairo, Room With a View, The Sure Thing, To Live and Die in LA, Witness, Year of the Dragon.

1986 (11)
Aliens, At Close Range, Blue Velvet, Down by Law, The Fly Hannah and Her Sisters, Hoosiers, Manhunter, Platoon,  Sid and Nancy, Star Trek IV

1987 (14)
Adventures in Babysitting, Angel Heart, The Big Easy, Broadcast News, Fatal Attraction, Full Metal Jacket,  The Hidden, Innerspace, Moonstruck, Princess Bride, Raising Arizona, Robocop, The Untouchables, Wall Street

1988 (9)
Beetlejuice, Bull Durham, Dangerous Liasons, Die Hard, Fish Called Wanda, Midnight Run, Naked Gun, They Live, Who Framed Roger Rabbit

1989 (9)
Bill and Ted, Born on the Fourth of July, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Do the Right Thing, Drugstore Cowboy, Heathers,  Say Anything,  Sex Lies and Videotape, When Harry Met Sally

1990 (10)
Edward Scissorhands, Goodfellas, The Grifters, King of New York, Miami Blues, Millers Crossing, Misery, Reversal of Fortune, Tremors, White Hunter Black Heart

1991 (7)
Barton Fink, Boyz n the Hood, Defending Your Life,  New Jack City, Silence of the Lambs, Terminator 2, Thelma and Louise

1992 (6)
Batman Returns, The Player, Reservoir Dogs, Single White Female, Unforgiven, Glengary Glenross

1993 (7)
Alive, Dazed and Confused, Jurassic Park, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Remains of the Day, Ruby in Paradise, Groundhog Day

1994 (8)
Cabin Boy, Ed Wood, Natural Born Killers, Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show, Shawshank Redemption,  Speed, The Professional

1995 (15)
Apollo 13, Babe, Before Sunrise Clueless, Crumb  Dead Presidents, Heat, Kids, Safe, Sense and Sensibility, Se7en, Twelve Monkeys, Toy Story,  The Usual Suspects, Welcome to the Dollhouse

1996 (7)
Big Night, Evita, Fargo, Jerry Maguire, Sling Blade, Walking and Talking, Waiting for Guffman

1997 (7)
Affliction, As Good as It Gets, Boogie Nights,  Face/Off,  Henry Fool, The Ice Storm, In the Company of Men

1998 (8)
Big Lebowski, A Bug's Life, Dark City, Rushmore, Saving Private Ryan, Shakespeare in Love, A Simple Plan, There's Something About Mary

1999 (12)
Being John Malkovitch, Blair Witch Project, Election, Iron Giant, Magnolia, The Matrix, Office Space, The Sixth Sense, Three Kings, Toy Story 2, Sleepy Hollow

2000 (7)
Almost Famous, Before Night Falls, Chuck and Buck, Memento, O Brother Where Art Thou, Requiem for a Dream, Traffic

2001 (8)
Black Hawk Down, Donnie Darko, Ghost World, Gosford Park, Lovely and Amazing, Mulholland Drive, Monsters Inc, Royal Tennebaums,

2002 (6)
Far From Heaven, Good Thief, Minority Report, Spellbound, Spiderman. The Ring

2003 (5)
Capturing the Friedmans, Finding Nemo, Kill Bill I, Master and Commander, Mystic River,

2004 (10)
Anchorman, Before Sunset, Bourne Supremacy, Eternal Sunshine, The Incredibles, Kill Bill 2, Manchurian Candidate, Sideways,  Spiderman 2, Team America

2005 (7)
40 Year Old Virgin, Batman Begins, Brick, Brokeback Mountain, Constant Gardner, The Descent, Munich

2006  (9)
Borat, Bug, Casino Royale, Children of Men, Happy Feet, Idiocracy, Little Miss Sunshine,  Southland Tales, United 93

2007 (11)
Before the Devil Knows You”re Dead, Eastern Promises, Hairspray, Juno, Knocked Up, Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men, Ratatoille, Superbad, There Will be Blood, Zodiac

2008 (7)
Anvil, Dark Knight, Frost/Nixon, Gran Torino. Slumdog Millionaire,  Wall-E, The Wrestler,

2009 (8)
Adventureland, Humpday, The Hurt Locker, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Star Trek,  Up, Up in the Air

2010 (13)
Kick-Ass,  Please Give, Toy Story 3,  The Kids Are Alright, Inception, Scott Pilgrim, Easy A, The Social Network, 127 Hours, Black Swan, True Grit,  Blue Valentine, The Fighter

2011 (16)
Bernie, Bridesmaids, Drive Tree of Life, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Contagion, Moneyball, The Muppets, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Margaret, The Descendants, Hugo, Shame, Young Adult, War Horse, X Men First Class

2012 (12)
Beasts of the Southern Wild,  Dark Knight Rises, Killer Joe, Anna Karenina,  End of Watch, Perks of Being a Wallflower, Pitch Perfect, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi, Killing Them Softly, Zero Dark Thirty,

2013 (18)
American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, All is Lost, Before Midnight, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyer”s Club, Enough Said, Frozen, Gravity, The Great Gatsby, The Heat, The Lifeguard, Lone Survivor, Inside Llewlyn Davis, Pacific Rim, Rush, This is the End,The Way Way Back,

2014 (13)
American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood,  Edge of Tomorrow, Fury, Gone Girl, Grand Budapest Hotel, Guardians of the Galaxy, Interstellar, Lego Movie, Noah, Paddington, Selma

Other pieces in this series:

1973 by Brian Formo

1974 by Daniel Fienberg

1977 by Louis Virtel

1980 by Richard Rushfield

1982 by Alan Sepinwall

1988 by Drew McWeeny

1995 by Jane Hu

1998 by Michael Oates Palmer

1999 by Kris Tapley

2001 by Chris Eggertsen

2012 by Zara Lisbon