1981 was a pretty great year for cinema. Looking back a full 40 years later, it’s fascinating to note how many of that year’s hits are movies we still know and love today; at the same time, there may be a few you’d forgotten all about. Sometimes nostalgia gives us rose-tinted spectacles, tricking us into thinking something mediocre was truly great – but we’re certain that the films we’ve listed here have truly stood the test of time. Would these films make your top ten for 1981?
10. Clash of the Titans
80s cinema had a distinctive personality all of its own, but Clash of the Titans is a movie that, in spirit, belongs to another era entirely. The last film made by legendary stop-motion animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen, this take on the classic Greek myth of Perseus and Medusa boasts special effects which may have already looked dated even in 1981, but which convey a certain magic that subsequent forms of SFX have lacked.
On top of its charming old school monsters, Clash of the Titans boasts an awe-inspiring cast including Maggie Smith, Burgess Meredith, and of course the legendary Sir Laurence Olivier as Zeus, who memorably gives the order, “Release the Kraken!” (No offence to Liam Neeson, but neither his delivery of that line nor anything else in the 2010 remake can hold a candle to the original.)
9. Body Heat
Whenever the great erotic thrillers are discussed, 9½ Weeks and Basic Instinct tend to dominate the conversation. Too frequently forgotten is Body Heat, a superb update of the classic film noir, which stars William Hurt as a Florida lawyer who embarks on a torrid affair with Kathleen Turner, the trophy wife of an aging millionaire (Richard Crenna). As their passion takes over, the duo embark on an ill-advised plot to kill the husband and run off with his money.
Expertly plotted, brilliantly acted and sexually charged without ever being exploitative, Body Heat is made all the more impressive by the inexperience of everyone involved. It was writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s first time calling the shots, as well as being Kathleen Turner’s very first time acting on film, and only the third film of William Hurt.
8. Das Boot
There haven’t been too many instances of German cinema enjoying mainstream success worldwide in the last four decades, but 1981’s Das Boot is one of those illustrious few, and with good reason. The intense war drama is adapted from a novel based on the real-life experiences of author Lothar-Günther Buchheim from his time serving aboard a U-boat during World War II.
Director Wolfgang Petersen’s film gained global acclaim for its powerful, realistic depiction of conditions aboard a submarine during wartime. Running 149 minutes long in its theatrical cut, the film has since been re-issued in various extended cuts including a 300-minute TV mini-series version. In any form, Das Boot makes for demanding but rewarding viewing.
7. Time Bandits
Former Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam came into his own as a director with this wildly inventive comedic fantasy, in which bored and lonely eleven-year-old Kevin (Craig Warnock) is mystically whisked away on an adventure with a band of dwarves who’ve stolen a map enabling them to traverse time and space.
Thanks in part to the presence of John Cleese and Michael Palin (who also co-writes with Gilliam), Time Bandits has a distinctly Pythonesque flavour. That said, the film has a madcap sensibility all of its own. As well as being riotously funny and loaded with swashbuckling thrills, it’s also quietly dark and subversive in a way we rarely see in family-friendly films.
6. Superman II
Technically made in 1980 but not widely released until 1981, this direct follow-up to 1978’s Superman is arguably the iconic DC Comics character’s best film made to date. Christopher Reeve‘s Man of Steel is really put through his paces when he reveals his true identity to Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), and gives up his powers so they can have a normal life. But no sooner has he done so before Earth comes under attack by a trio of Kryptonian criminals, commanded by the menacing General Zod (Terence Stamp).
Superman II’s production proved controversial due to the underhanded business practices of its producers and the firing of original director Richard Donner for Richard Lester. However, none of this behind-the-scenes turmoil comes across on screen. A rip-roaring good-vs-evil spectacular, Superman II set a high bar for superhero movies that (with the exception of Batman) no other comic book adaptations could match until the modern age.
5. The Evil Dead
Made on a shoestring budget by a bunch of college-age kids who’d never made a full-length movie before, The Evil Dead was famously declared 1981’s “most ferociously original” horror film by legendary author Stephen King. 40 years later, the film still holds up as one of the most inventive and unhinged horror films of all time, thanks to a deceptively simple premise (bunch of kids visit a cabin in the woods, get possessed and die horribly) which is still being imitated today.
The plot and characterisation may be minimal, but The Evil Dead really works its magic via director Sam Raimi’s energetic camerawork and editing, which immerses the viewer in the horrific spectacle. The film remains controversial for its excessive violence and gore, but today audiences tend to be more receptive to the underlying humour, which came to the forefront in sequels Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness.
4. Gregory’s Girl
The 1980s saw no shortage of films about teenagers dealing with their strange new feelings. The best-known of such films tend to be American (and most of them have the name John Hughes attached somewhere), but Scottish production Gregory’s Girl is one of, if not the best 80s teen comedy of them all. John Gordon Sinclair takes the lead as awkward high schooler Gregory, who develops an awkward high school crush on aspiring footballer Dorothy (Dee Hepburn).
There are hints of the prevailing sexism that sours a lot of 80s teen films (it opens on a group of boys spying on a woman getting undressed, after all), but at heart director Bill Forsyth’s film is a sweet and sensitive affair that brilliantly evokes the adolescent experience and the difficulties of fledgling romance. More to the point, it’s truly hilarious, boasting an anarchic sensibility with occasionally surreal overtones.
3. An American Werewolf in London
Having already proven his comedy chops with Animal House and The Blues Brothers, director John Landis boldly went in another direction with An American Werewolf in London. David Naughton and Griffin Dunne star as a pair of American backpackers exploring the UK who come under attack by a ferocious, unseen animal. Naughton survives, but soon finds he’s not only haunted by a zombified version of his dead friend, but is also transforming into a monstrous wolf when the full moon rises.
Noted for its groundbreaking special effects which saw Rick Baker awarded the first ever Oscar for achievement in make-up, An American Werewolf in London remains a cinematic benchmark for its rare balance of horror and humour, proving every bit as hilarious as it is terrifying. It’s lost none of its power in the four decades since, and stands proud as one of the finest horror films of the 80s.
2. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
1979’s Mad Max introduced Mel Gibson as a cop on the edge, but the 1981 sequel pushes him all the way over it. Set in a dystopian near-future where every day is a fight to survive, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is a western on wheels which kick-started the post-apocalyptic genre as we know it today. On a comparatively low budget, Australian writer-director George Miller delivers an exhilarating thrill ride with an epic, mythic feel, in a desert wasteland where society has fallen and the only real currency is gasoline.
Gibson is at his best as the taciturn, leather-clad loner who begrudgingly helps a peaceful band of survivors escape the clutches of a marauding horde led by the Lord Humungus. Mad Max 2 has inspired scores of imitators throughout the past 40 years, but none have managed to capture that same level of power – except, that is, for Miller’s own 2015 sequel Mad Max: Fury Road.
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark
There was never any question as to what film would top our list of 1981’s finest. The biggest box office hit of the year, Raiders of the Lost Ark blew the collective minds of a generation by giving Harrison Ford (already everyone’s hero thank to Star Wars) his second iconic role as rogue archaeologist Indiana Jones. Set in the run-up to World War II, Indy is enlisted by the US military to locate and retrieve Biblical artefact the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis find it.
Raiders of the Lost Ark may have been inspired by the pulp adventure yarns and serials which creators George Lucas and Steven Spielberg grew up on, but it came to define the adventure genre for the 80s and beyond. Ford has returned as Indy for three more big-screen adventures (and the fourth sequel is on the way), but the original 1981 movie that started it all remains the pinnacle.