The 80s were an era when movies evolved from simply an art form to a form of shameless entertainment. Many classics debuted in this decade spawning countless iconic movie moments that were so plentiful in fact that my shortlist for today’s countdown consisted of 30 potential candidates. Obviously it was hard to narrow things down. Today I look at the movie moments that defined a generation in the post war era when teen angst, popular television shows and the possibilities of society’s future all helped form the basis of some of the most iconic moments in cinema history. Continuing my look at the greatest movie moments of all time let’s count down the Top 10 Movie Moments of the 1980s.
For this list I looked at famous movie moments that premiered on the big screen from 1980 through 1989. During this decade we saw some of the more touching and symbolic moments of cinema as filmmakers started to meld style with substance and give us movies that were both significant and entertaining. More mainstream movies were being injected with human emotion and lasting moments of levity, fun and even a bit of drama. This is part of a series of lists spanning the decades of film which will all culminate to my picks for the Top 20 Movie Moments of All Time at the end of September. The top FOUR moments of every list will be considered for the ultimate list later this month.
For the sake of this series iconic moments are considered any brief or extended moments in a single project that have left a lasting impression on viewers. These can be monologues, one-shots, or several minutes of filming as long as everything is set in one place and takes place in succession before changing to a new setting, idea or perspective.
It’s time to explore an era filled with classics that still hold up decades latter and defined a generation evolving from the impacts of war, civil rights movements and the longing for meaning and the exploration of possibility. There are bound to be some awesome moments from this decade that you may enjoy but didn’t make the cut, so I want to know what is your favorite movie moment from the 1980s? Feel free to tell me in the comments below and be sure to check back all throughout the month of September to see my other lists spanning the decades. Also feel free to go back to my previous lists of Classic Movie Moments, and my Movie Moments of the 50s, 60s and 70s.
10. Spock’s Sacrifice, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”
“Star Trek” had long been a popular television program before it got its first movie in the 1970s. it wasn’t until the sequel in 1982, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”, that the series produced an iconic moment that would transcend the show itself. The second “Star Trek” film features James T. Kirk and his crew taking on a tyrant names Khan. The climactic scenes see Khan activate a destructive device and the crew of the Enterprise is unable to escape due to a damaged warp drive. Spock, one of the series’ most popular characters, repairs the warp drive exposing himself to radiation, locking himself in a glass chamber with Kirk on the outside feeling helpless as he watches his long-time friend perish. The moment culminates is a touching exchange as the two friends place each other’s hands against the glass and Spock urges Kirk not to grieve before saying his final words, the immortal phrase “live long and prosper”. While the quote had been said many times in the “Star Trek” saga never before did it feel so sincere and significant. The loss of Spock remains one of the most iconic deaths in cinema history because of its poignancy and was even called back to in the reboot film series’ second entry “Star Trek: Into Darkness”.
9. The Fist Pump, “The Breakfast Club”
It’s not often a movie’s most imitated and pop culture-relevant moment is its very last scene. That’s the case for the 1985 Brat Pack dramedy “The Breakfast Club” which features a group of high school students from different cliques who bond during a Saturday in detention. Among them is Bender, a school rebel who acts out and disregards authority. As their Saturday draws to a close the students hop into their parents’ cars enlightened by the experience they had and promising each other they will remain friends as “Don’t You Forget About Me” plays in the background. Bender, having won over the prim and proper popular girl Claire and earned and gained respect for his peers, walks home taking a detour across the school’s football field before pumping his fist into the air while the actors all provide voiceovers reading the letter the students left for their supervisor telling him they are more than he sees them to be. This moment ends the film with a typical showing of victory as the young students got one over on a teacher who underestimated their capacity for self-reflection and their maturity. Bender’s victorious fist pump is not only a great character moment for him but also serves as the punctuation closing out the letter. Bender feels like he has accomplished something truly great and we feel like we have witnessed something truly awesome at the same time.
8. Sgt. Elias Dies, “Platoon”
There have been a lot of great Vietnam War movies but in 1986 a veteran of that war, Oliver Stone, took his crack at the first of several films that would make up a thematic trilogy. “Platoon” earned several Oscars, including Best Picture, and earned a nomination for Willem Dafoe in the Best Supporting Actor category which was probably aided by its most iconic scene. Throughout the film we follow a platoon in Vietnam led by two polar opposites, the cynical Sgt. Barnes and the idealistic Sgt. Elias (played by Dafoe). Events in the film lead the two ideals to clash as Elias sees Barnes kill in cold blood. During an attack Barnes shoots and leaves Elias for dead to cover up his previous crimes, leading us to the moment on this list. As the platoon evacuates Elias is seen coming out of the trees only to be shot down from the back by enemy forces. Elias holds his arms out “crucifixion” style in one of the most famous death scenes ever and while “Platoon” and Vietnam War movies are somewhat of an acquired taste this scene continues to stand out even to those who have yet to see this masterpiece in full. Elias’ death is meant to symbolize the death of ideals in a controversial war and while Jesus imagery is often heavy handed it’s perfectly appropriate here and serves as a somber final moment for a soldier who didn’t deserve his fate.
7. “Here’s Johnny”, “The Shining”
Stanley Kubrick has been featured several times already in this series and he appears again here with the most iconic moment from his 1980 Stephen King adaptation “The Shining”. There are many awesome moments scattered throughout this horror classic including the hallway twins, the bloody elevator and the “bash your brains in” exchange but none are as parodied or imitated as “Heeeeeeeere’s Johnny!”. Late in the film Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance has lost his mind and is hunting down his wife and son with an ax. He finds them locked in a bathroom and begins chopping down the door before sticking his head in and uttering those immortal words. The scene reportedly took three days to film and required the props department to build a real wooden door after Nicholson, a former volunteer fireman, proved he was fully capable of destroying the barrier. The famous line from this moment was improvised by Nicholson and borrowed from “The Tonight Show” where it was used to introduce Johnny Carson. It’s inclusion in “The Shining” made it one of the most famous improvised lines in cinema and it is often referenced in television shows and other media to this day to the point where it has become a certified cliché.
6. The Lift, “Dirty Dancing”
The 1987 movie “Dirty Dancing” practically founded an entire new genre becoming a major mainstream success story as a dance film that wasn’t based on a stage play or similar property. It included its own music and choreography which all culminated in an awesome moment in the finale that makes this list today. Throughout the film we watch as Johnny and Baby bond over dancing and form a strong connection, not just as romantic partners but dance partners who know each other’s moves and capabilities. The movie concludes with an end of the season talent show and Johnny crashes the party despite being framed for a crime he didn’t commit. This all leads to the famous “nobody puts baby in a corner” scene which I also considered, but what comes next is even more iconic. Johnny and Baby strut their stuff as they practiced all summer and it all ends with Baby performing the now famous lift where she jumps into Johnny’s waiting arms and is lifted high in an angel pose. In a film about dancing and the sensual style of the art this final move is a great way to cap things off and dancers have been trying, some more successful than others, to replicate the magic of the lift for decades.
5. Pacino’s Little Friend, “Scarface”
Al Pacino is a legendary actor for a lot of reasons, but one BIG reason is his role in the 1983 classic “Scarface”. The most iconic and quotable line of the film makes the top five today as Pacino’s Tony Montana, by this point a powerful drug kingpin in Miami, finds himself in a pickle after having killed his best friend and being targeted by the men of Alberto, a criminal Tony killed before he could detonate a bomb in an attempted assassination. It all sets up this amazing scene where Montana is locked in his office and equips himself with a grenade launcher. At the end of his rope and high on cocaine Montana shouts the movie’s most famous line “Say hello to my little friend!” and fires a grenade at the door, blowing it to pieces and scattering the assailants behind it. It’s a spectacular scene filled with intensity and action with Pacino’s performance capturing the drug fueled rage of Montana perfectly. Here we find a man who has nothing to lose and understands the dire situation he is in but is so high on the drug he used to make his fortune that he just has fun with it. If he’s going to die he’s going down fighting and the result is a scene often quoted and shown in many clip reels as one of the most recognizable moments in 80s cinema.
4. The DeLorean’s First Trip, “Back to the Future”
The “Back to the Future” trilogy is one of the most legendary in all of film, but it all started in 1985 with the original blockbuster that took the world by storm. The story follows Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly who is good friends with a genius scientist played by Christopher Lloyd named Doc Brown who discovers how to time travel. The movie focuses on McFly as he accidentally takes Brown’s time machine back to 1955 but before all the action can happen the viewers get their first look at the machine which turns out to be a converted DeLorean. Of course the idea seems ridiculous to McFly at first, but in one of the most iconic scenes of the entire trilogy McFly and the audience get to see the vehicle work for the first time as Doc Brown puts himself and McFly directly in the path of the car with the intent on filming his first attempts at traveling through time. When the DeLorean reaches 88 miles per hour the car vanishes leaving a pair of flaming streaks behind. Both McFly and Brown are amazed the experiment worked and so begins the epic journey through time that still captures the imagination of movie fans to this day. Every great journey starts somewhere and while this series has a lot of great moments it’s hard to top the moment that showed us and the characters what we were all in store for.
3. The Boulder Chase, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”
Indiana Jones is today a household name. However, it wasn’t always that way. In 1981 the world was introduced to the legendary fictional archeologist and adventurer in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” which contains one of the most epic action adventure sequences ever put to film. The movie begins with a great introduction to Jones and the epic quests he undertakes as the adventurer is seeking out a golden idol in Peru. When he finds his treasure today’s #3 moment officially kicks in. Indy needs to make a smooth exchange in order to avoid setting off traps so he can escape with the idol and attempts to make a swift changeover with a weighted sandbag. However his attempt is futile causing a large bolder to be freed and roll after him forcing him to run for his life in order to escape the temple in one piece. It’s an iconic, often referenced movie action scene that immediately sets up the world of Indiana Jones and the perils he faces for the sake of his obsession. What’s more his composure tells us this isn’t a first for Jones. Hell it doesn’t even seem like it’s something he hasn’t seen before. Of all the great moments contained within this long running adventure franchise this is the moment everyone is familiar with and it’s one of the most exciting cinematic sequences ever.
2. The Moon Flight, “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial”
Considered to be one of the greatest movies of the 1980s it would be unthinkable to leave out the 1982 Steven Spielberg classic “E.T.”. Good thing the movie comes with its own iconic moment that I’m sure everyone remembers. The movie follows a young boy who befriends a lost alien creature and eventually leads the two into the nearby forests in the middle of the night to try and call E.T.’s home planet. E.T. takes control of the bike using his telekinetic abilities and drives it off a cliff side only to cause the bike to float in the air. The pair flies through the sky with a massive moon in the background creating a now iconic image that we all know and love today. It’s not the last time E.T. uses this power either but it’s a cool introduction to the true capabilities of the alien and it’s a great moment between two friends from different worlds as E.T. shows his new found ally the wonder of the world around him. The moment also became notable as the basis for the logo of Spielberg’s production company Amblin Entertainment and the icon still utilizes the imagery today. The moon scene from “E.T.” is one of true imagination and wonder and no matter how old I get seeing the alien and his human friend Elliott fly through the sky always brings on a great sense of nostalgia that I personally can’t get enough of.
1. The Big Twist, “The Empire Strikes Back” aka “Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back”
I wonder how many people were shocked no “Star Wars” moments made my 70s list. Well that’s because I had another moment in store for this countdown, one that you all know, you’ve all seen, and which became known as one of, if not THE greatest twist in cinema history. In the climactic moments of 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back”, the second “Star Wars” movie and the one many consider the best of the series to date, Luke Skywalker comes face to face with Darth Vader which leads Luke to be hanging on for dear life over an air shaft while Vader tries to tempt him to the dark side. Luke refuses and accuses Vader of killing Luke’s father and then we get the moment…the twist moment to end all twist moments. Vader delivers one of the most quoted lines in all of cinema telling Skywalker “I am you’re father”. The revelation devastates Luke, leaves anyone who has been living under a rock for the last few decades in shock, and redefines the relationship between these two characters. For cinemagoers back in the day this moment was completely unexpected. For fans of the series today it’s a moment that changes everything in the most epic way. For everyone else it’s THE moment everyone knows no matter how hard you’ve tried to avoid the “Star Wars” bandwagon. All this combined makes up a legacy deserving of the title of best movie moment of the 1980s.