10 Best Movies of 1981 You Should Watch

“Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”

Escape From New York

1981 is easily one of the most talked about years of that decade. The MTV network debuted in August of that year, commencing with the music video for “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. Ronald Reagan became the 40th U.S. president, popular General Hospital couple Luke and Laura tied the knot, and so did Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. TV shows aside, 1981 was a fantastic year for music and movies.

Here are just ten of the movies that made 1981 an awesome year.

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1. Raiders of the Lost Ark

Director: Steven Spielberg

Go ahead, try naming another fantasy action adventure flick that is half as good as this. Henry Jones, Jr. is an archaeologist professor who travels in search of artifacts and relics, which proves to be a rather dangerous job. He finds himself dealing with Nazis, as well as a former flame played by Karen Allen.

Raiders is a strong beginning to a franchise of adventures, so if you haven’t seen it, you have to check it out. If the satchel, fedora, leather coat and bullwhip aren’t enough for anyone to recall the character, Harrison Ford’s performance as an intelligent, ballsy character who fears snakes will certainly ring a bell. Just to warn you, John Williams’s score will definitely get stuck in your head.


2. Arthur

Director: Steve Gordon

Dudley Moore’s performance as a rich, inebriated playboy is incredibly funny, to say the least. Admittedly, the first time my parents showed me the movie, I judged it based on the DVD artwork: a guy wearing a top hat in a bubble bath. However, within minutes of it starting, I was already laughing. The character has an infectious laugh and, despite being drunk, is likable.

Arthur’s supposed to marry into another rich family, which he’s not okay with. Before any of that happens, he and his sarcastic butler, Hobson, meet Linda, played by Liza Minnelli. The characters are wonderfully played, and the film’s pacing and comedic timing are on point.


3. Porky’s


Director: Bob Clark

Before American Pie, writer/director Bob Clark gave us Porky’s. The movie takes place somewhere in Florida in the 1950s and works as a raunchy, male-centered coming-of-age story. The characters are practical jokers who, not unlike the characters in American Pie, fully intend to lose their virginity.

Along the way, the guys find some trouble and they decide to fight back. Don Monahan, Wyatt Knight, Kaki Hunter and Tony Ganios are just a few of the cast members whose performances stand out. The friendship is believable and the story is actually entertaining.


4. An American Werewolf in London

Director: John Landis

Hands down the best werewolf flick of 1981, An American Werewolf in London is truly one of very few werewolf movies that are unforgettable, as it’s still widely praised for Rick Barker’s equally gory and hairy make-up effects. David Naughton and Griffin Dunne play two friends who decide to backpack through England and, unfortunately, meet a rather gruesome fate.

The soundtrack cleverly features songs that reference the moon, adding to John Landis’s unique brand of comedy. I wouldn’t say An American Werewolf in London is actually scary as it’s mostly funny, but it does have its moments.


5. Escape from New York

Director: John Carpenter

Starring Kurt Russell in arguably his greatest role, Escape from New York never fails to be suspenseful and entertaining. Snake is given 24 hours to rescue the president, who was dropped somewhere in New York City, before either one of them end up dead. To make matters worse, the city has been turned into a maximum security prison.

Nick Castle co-wrote the script with John Carpenter, who also directed and co-scored the film with Alan Howarth. Debra Hill was one of the film’s producers and several familiar faces from John Carpenter’s film can be found in the movie.


6. Halloween II

Director: Rick Rosenthal

Horror movie sequels, especially of the slasher variety, were still relatively fresh in 1981. For slasher films in general, ‘81 proved to be its peak year. What makes Halloween 2 a stand-out sequel is the decision to pick up immediately where the original left off. Donald Pleasence and Jamie Lee Curtis reprise their roles as Dr. Samuel Loomis and Laurie Strode.

The setting is a quiet, practically empty hospital wherein Michael Myers stalks Laurie. Rick Rosenthal directed it from a script written by John Carpenter and Debra Hill. Laurie’s wig aside, nothing feels out of place in Halloween 2. It’s one of the better sequels, not just in the franchise, but in the horror genre altogether.


7. The Evil Dead

Director: Sam Raimi

A for effort! The Evil Dead showcased Sam Raimi’s ability to creatively craft an intense horror film with a limited budget. Bruce Campbell stars as Ash, the protagonist who, along with his girlfriend, sister and friends, decides to make a trip up to an old, creepy cabin.

Soon enough, the suspense builds and the tension rises. The script is well-written, and not only is The Evil Dead an entertaining piece of horror cinema, the story of its production is fascinating as well.


8. Friday the 13th Part 2

Director: Steve Miner

One of the better entries in the franchise, Friday the 13th Part 2 is the first to feature adult Jason Voorhees, who presumably had been living off the land for quite some time. The main story takes place 5 years after the events of its predecessor. Amy Steel is one of the franchise’s best final girls. She’s strong, smart and has one of the better chase scenes.

Jason’s appearance with the pillowcase on his head is arguably more frightening than the hockey mask, although both are effective. Steve Miner directed and produced the movie, and Harry Manfredini composed the eerie, shrieking score.


9. The Cannonball Run

Director: Hal Needham

Okay, hear me out: The Cannonball Run is actually pretty fun and stars a list of talented actors and actresses. Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Farrah Fawcett, Adrienne Barbeau, and that’s just to name a few. Maybe it’s the cast or the way it’s written, but something about The Cannonball Run feels like a strange piece of 1970s cinema.

It’s a quirky, comedic movie about several teams competitively facing off in a cross-country race. Much like their vehicles, each character has a different personality. The Cannonball Run is certainly not Oscar winning material, but it’s certainly entertaining nonetheless.


10. Nighthawks


Director: Bruce Malmuth

Nighthawks is an intense and violent action thriller that, in all honesty, I’m surprised has yet to be remade. Rutger Hauer’s performance as the film’s antagonist, Wulfgar, is absolutely praiseworthy. He’s menacing, weird and incredibly dark. Sylvester Stallone stars as Deke DaSilva, a detective that’s pretty good at his job, until he seems to meet his match with Wulfgar.

Billy Dee Williams and Lindsay Wagner costar, giving some weight to the supporting roles. Nighthawks is filled with action and suspense, and if you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out.

Without a doubt, 1981 was a culturally significant year. Of those listed, how many have you seen and how many would you like to watch?

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