12 Best Movies of 1981

1981 was a wonderful year for cinema. The year witnessed new and innovative concepts while engaging their souls with the past in glorious classics. While John Carpenter leaped forth time, Wolfgang Petersen dialled back in time to poke the sentiments of the German war. While Steven Spielberg crafted a brilliant action flick, Lawrence Kasdan created a stimulating sensual plot.

For the year 1981, I have taken in account the themes, representation and acting which foil the movie itself. While some innovated the art of filmmaking, others reinvented dying genres. So, here’s the list of top movies of 1981.


12. An American Werewolf in London (1981)

A horror comedy, ‘An American Werewolf in London’ is about two American college students, David Kessler essayed by David Naughton and Jack Goodman essayed by Griffin Dunne, who on a backpacking holiday in England are attacked by a werewolf. Things turn worryingly murky when none of the locals admit the existence of the creature. A cult classic among horror enthusiasts, this 1981 flick employed commendable special effects which interwove the comedy and horror genre.  A part of the high profile horror films of 1981, the expectations were quite high. One of the most innovative flicks of this genre, ‘An American Werewolf in London’ brilliantly portrayed the gut-pulling horror with rib-tickling comedy, and has since become one of the most endeared horror-comedies.

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11. Escape from New York (1981)

A Dystopian science-fiction action film, ‘Escape from New York’ is set in 1997 in the crime-ridden region of United States. Amongst the rising crime and humongous change, Manhattan Island in New York City is converted into the country’s maximum security prison. When Air Force One hijacked by terrorists crashes into New York City, an ex-soldier and a federal prisoner are given 24 hours to rescue the President of the United States. The film is a classic John Carpenter saga where the director deftly amalgamates crafty science with adrenaline-rushing action.  Knitting the astute direction are the performances of Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, who showcase Carpenter’s ideas with brilliance. A commercial and critical success, the film was one of the most innovative films of 1981.

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10. Body Heat (1981)

Directed by Lawrence Kasdan, ‘Body Heat’ is a neo-noir erotic thriller. The film is centred in the sweltering Florida heat wave, where a woman tries to manipulate her lover to murder her rich husband. Starring William Hurt and debutant Kathleen Turner, the film revolves around their sensual relationship. Cinematographer Richard H. Kline adroitly uses the camera movement to personify the heat wave and place it as a character in the story. However, perhaps the most important and best aspect of this 1981 flick is the narrative. With Kasdan’s experience as a screenwriter, ‘Body Heat’ dexterously overcomes the narrative barriers of an erotic thriller. The film, upon its release, received critical acclaim for the screenplay. Film critics praised Kasdan’s innovate take on applying the allegory of the heat wave, and many felt that it was one of the best neo-noir thrillers to be ever made.

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9. Arthur (1981)

One of the top grossers of 1981, this Steve Gordon directed flick chronicles the life of Arthur Bach, who is a drunken New York City millionaire. Essayed by Dudley Moore, Bach is spoilt and “over-whiningly” unambitious, and most of the comedy is spurt from this annoying quality. Holding a 90% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the film is a comic powerhouse. Among its many comical moments, ‘Arthur’ has been known for its intensely quotable lines. The film is cerebrally funny and hilarious, where the actors perfectly use language, body function and speech to deliver nail-striking comedy. Gordon directs the flick with incisive understating, where he is careful of not crossing the lines with slapstick comedy. The film is completely based on the intellect of the human mind, where even the most stupid moments are knit with intelligent parable.

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8. The Evil Dead (1981)

Evolving as one of greatest cult films of all time, ‘The Evil Dead’ set the bar-mark for the horror genre. Directed by Sam Raimi, the supernatural horror film is about five friends, who on an expedition come across a cabin in the woods. Little do they know that they unintentionally release murderous and satanic demons. Among its many applauds, ‘The Evil Dead’ held high esteem in veteran horror-fiction writer Stephen King, who called it as one of his favourite horror-slasher films to be ever made. The film unsettlingly employs a surrealistic aura which creates a scratchy experience for the viewers. With grisly grotesqueness and eye-popping violence, the film has spawned off one of the largest movie franchises and has since become a beloved classic.

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7. Blow Out (1981)

A quintessential Brian De Palma project, ‘Blow Out’ is a neo-noir political thriller which revolves around a sound effects technician, who while recording for a film, accidentally captures an audio of a murky assassination coup of a presidential candidate. Director De Palma dexterously adapts the components of movie making to craft a nifty thriller, while maintaining thematic illusions of guilt, film mechanics and historical events. The film boasts of an adroit cinematography, where cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond collaborates with the director to keep the clock ticking. John Travolta is the real show stopper though; who entangled in a steeping career-dip gives out an impressive performance as the jumbled man who just witnessed a murder conspiracy. The film’s suspense is elevated by De Palma’s observing mind. He employs scenic shots by exploiting shadows, silhouettes and rotating camera to churn out the thriller.

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6. Mad Max 2 (1981)

The second instalment of the distinguished ‘Mad Max’ film series, this sequel is set in a post-apocalyptic Australian wasteland, where the titular character agrees to help a small gasoline rich community to escape a band of bandits.  Reprising the tale of the drifter is Mel Gibson, whose performance was unanimously praised by critics for his take on the hardened rebellious depth of “Mad” Max Rockatansky. A typical western, the film exploited the elements of geography and dialogues with brilliance. Cinematographer Dean Semler captured the vast Australian desert landscapes, and the costume designer Norma Moriceau’s presented the leather bondage gear-wearing bikers who pumped the adrenaline with violent battle chase scenes.  Director George Miller masterfully grasped the essence of the post-apocalyptic world and maintained the coolness that a biker gang should possess. The genius adaptation of visual effects helped it receive critical acclaim from the “Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films” and the “Australian Film Institute”, where it won the awards for best direction, costume design, editing, production design and sound.

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5. Thief (1981)

Directed by the master of neo-noir Michael Mann, ‘Thief’ is packed with his classic slick suspense. The film stars James Caan as professional safecracker Frank, who on the verge of fulfilling his dream of leading a normal life agrees to do one last job for the Mafia. Things seem merry until we find out that the Mafia has other precarious plans for him. ‘Thief’ is a nimble infusion of a fast-paced thriller and an intricate character observation. The foundation of the heist and the theft provided the film a speedy stride which pumped the adrenaline and the elaborate character sketch helped it gain a certain depth. Mann is often been praised for his cerebral take on the psychological functionality of a criminal, which has been quite evident in films like ‘Heat’ (1995), ‘Collateral’ (2004) and ‘Public Enemies’ (2009), and this 1981 flick is a conclusive proof. Although ‘Thief’ was one of first ventures of the articulate director, this 1981 flick carries a certain maturity and ripeness.

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4. Reds (1981)

Written and directed by Warren Beatty, ‘Reds’ chronicles the life of radical American journalist John Silas Jack Reed, who embroils himself in the Communist revolution in Russia, and endeavours to bring the Communist spirit and idealism to the United States. Awarded with the “Academy Award for Best Director”, this 1981 flick is a prime example of Beatty’s impressive knowledge of history. With an in-depth character analysis with a strong frame of history, the film garnered the attention of critics and viewers, and became one of the highest grossers of 1981. The film’s intrinsic take on the political climate helped it win 9 Academy nominations and 3 Academy Awards.

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3. Chariots of Fire (1981)

Based on the story of two athletes – Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew, who in the 1924 Olympics broke all odds to put their name into the history books, the film is teeming with soul and heart. Directed by Hugh Hudson, the film brilliantly holds the themes of religion, discrimination and handwork, and establishes a solid framework with a competitive sports drama.

The delicate interplay of thematic recreations with a sporty suspense makes ‘Chariots of Fire’ an invigorating salesman. While the direction, writing and acting are extraordinary, the soundtrack is innovative to its core.  The electronic theme tune by Vangelis provided a hunting experience which helped the viewers connect to the characters. Conserved as one of the greatest British films, the film won four Academy Awards and was a commercial success.

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2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Kicking off one of the most celebrated franchises is this Steven Spielberg directed flick. The first instalment of the ‘Indiana Jones’ franchise, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark introduced us the legendary professor of archaeology and bull whip wielding adventurer Indiana Jones. Set around Nazi ideology, the film pits him against a group of Nazis who are searching for the Ark of the Covenant, which Adolf Hitler believes will make his army invincible. Spreading their reach over different continents to knit the most remarkable adventure, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ turned out to be one of the top grossers of 1981.  The film is teeming with quotable dialogues, memorable scene and visually dazzling action. With Harrison Ford helming the reigns of Indiana Jones and Spielberg taking the spot of creation, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ is a classic in every means and is one of the best flicks of 1981.

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1. Das Boot (1981)

A German war film written and directed by Wolfgang Petersen, ‘Das Boot’ chronicles the tumultuous World War II through the fictional story of U-96 and its crew. Personifying fear, exhilaration, sadness and power, Peterson masterfully portrays a sense of claustrophobia and time liquidity. Brimming with technical brilliance, the movie is completely enmeshed in the ideology of war, destruction and melancholy. The World War background allows the horrific reality to creep in the veins of the viewers and the fictitious story helps the director mould their emotional moral foundation. While the film wasn’t an instant financial success, it went on to gain critical claps and earned six Academy Award nominations, a BAFTA Award and DGA Award. Though the passage of time, Petersen’s nifty work seasoned as one of the greatest of all German films.

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