You’ve probably noticed the pop culture phenomenon of Baby Yoda and the high demand for merchandise. Years ago, long before Tickle Me Elmo or the Furby craze even, there were Cabbage Patch Kids. Just think: before online pre-order, people were getting socked and mauled outside of Kmarts, hoping to get their hands on those dolls. I suppose it makes sense, too. By this point, the popular “Glo-Worm” had been on the market for a while, and not many wanted an Atari 5200 — and not just because of the two-year “video game crash” that mostly occurred in the US.
If none of that rings a bell, don’t fret. You’ll definitely know some of the movies released in 1983. Including (but certainly not limited to) a chaotic family road trip, a rabid canine, some ill-fated social misfits and one triumphant return, these are the best movies of 1983.
1. Risky Business
Director: Paul Brickman
In its own, unique way, Risky Business is an important piece of cinema history. On the surface, Tom Cruise’s breakout film may seem like a typical coming-of-age story from the perspective of a wealthy, privileged high school boy and nothing more. What Paul Brickman’s script does exceptionally well is capture the decade’s interminable excess of both material and desire that richly defines it. Most won’t relate to the luxuriousness of materialism surrounding Joel, but the sense of liberation and individuality he feels when his parents leave resonates with viewers.
We’ve all been there, we’ve all danced around and got a little weird when our parents left — at least, I did (sorry, mom.) All the madness that ensues for Joel and his friends ultimately teaches him more about life and taking risks than anything he’s read or done in school. Tom Cruise and Rebecca De Mornay’s star power shines, giving weight to Paul Brickman’s cleverly written script and directorial debut. Adding to a terrific soundtrack, Tangerine Dream’s score composition is the icing on the cake.
Director: Lewis Teague
If you’re an animal lover like me or Sarah McLachlan, Cujo is a rather difficult movie to sit through. I read the book in 7th grade and that was equally suspenseful and depressing. At first, the titular St. Bernard is a cute and cuddly furbaby whose hobbies include chasing rabbits into dark and uninviting caves. Suddenly he’s bitten by a rabid bat and everything changes. The first act of the movie is rich in character development, with Dee Wallace portraying Donna Trenton, Daniel Hugh Kelly as Vic and Danny Pintauro as their son Tad.
The setup for Cujo is calm and subtle, like Jaws, but as soon as Donna and Tad are in the car and the alternator dies, it’s an emotionally exhausting and suspense-laden spiral of events. Lauren Currier and Don Carlos Dunaway’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, takes the source material seriously with only one real change. While the acting was decent across the board, Dee Wallace and Danny Pintauro’s performances are incredibly convincing. The action in the third act is handled very well and Lewis Teague directed the hell out of this film. I’m waiting for Stephen King to write a sequel crossover in which Cujo is buried in a “Pet Semetary.”
3. The Outsiders
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Adapted from S.E. Hinton’s 1967 novel, The Outsiders screams 80s with its then up-and-coming cast. The Greasers are lower middle class guys who butt heads with the privileged Socs, and one fateful night, Ponyboy and Johnny find themselves in a scuffle against a few Socs that ends bloody. The film’s depiction of class warfare is still relevant and likely one of the reasons you’ll find it on virtually every school syllabus. Francis Ford Coppola’s uncut version is easily better, and you’re given more character development.
The performances are solid, and this adaptation is well written despite several differences in action and character appearance. If you find the superior “The Complete Novel” version, it plays better and the story doesn’t feel choppy. The theatrical version, which is shown on television and in schools, isn’t bad, but you’re not given as much character development and the score isn’t quite as good. Even though it takes place sometime in the mid 1960s, the angst is very relatable and the acting in either version is outstanding.
4. National Lampoon’s Vacation
Director: Harold Ramis
John Hughes adapted one of his short stories into National Lampoon’s Vacation, a family road trip movie that delivers so many quotable jokes and quirky character moments that you’ll want to watch it time and time again. Chevy Chase plays Clark Griswold, who feels strongly about driving cross country with his family so he could spend more quality time with them. Putting up with his antics is his wife Ellen, played humorously by Beverly D’Angelo. The two remain staples of the franchise, however Russ and Audrey are always portrayed by other actors and actresses.
From the moment luggage gets knocked off the top of the station wagon, to the time they make it to the theme park, their road trip gets gradually worse and worse. The family seems to be so prone to accidents and mishaps, you have to wonder if anything unfortunate happened to them on their way back from vacation.
5. Trading Places
Director: John Landis
Trading Places is essentially a social satire that hilariously comments on both extremes of the financial spectrum. By sheer happenstance, two men fall victim to a bet made by two brothers with conflicting views. Once Dan Aykroyd’s character is fired immediately following his framing, his comfy city job is given to Eddie Murphy’s character, who utilizes his street smarts to be successful. Eventually, both men find out they’re pawns for the company they’ve worked for and seek justice.
John Landis deserves credit for more than just his directing ability, as he’s got an incredible knack for finding actors and actresses and suiting them to their roles. Paul Gleason gives a hilarious performance and Jamie Lee Curtis does a spectacular job supporting Dan’s and Eddie’s characters. Today it’s known as a Christmas movie, but given its June release date, I’m not sure if that was the intention. Regardless of what time of year it is, Trading Places is a remarkably fun movie to watch.
6. Mr. Mom
Director: Stan Dragoti
Michael Keaton plays Jack Butler, who loses his job and struggles to find another. Opting to use her college degree, his wife Caroline, played by Teri Garr, gets an advertising gig that requires her to travel a lot, leaving Jack with the kids. Mr. Mom has a unique comedic appeal that balances both the pros and cons of work and personal life. Jack doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing at first, and Keaton’s portrayal of a father learning his wife’s old routine is funny for a number of reasons.
John Hughes wrote a great script that seems both appealingly honest and realistic. The cast is likeable and the overall plot is relatable. The dialogue and line delivery both seem so natural that the characters and the situations they find themselves in are believable. Mr. Mom doesn’t feel like it’s catering to a specific demographic or striving to change your perception of either parent character, it’s simply telling a fun, lighthearted family story.
7. Psycho II
Director: Richard Franklin
What Psycho II does so brilliantly is discuss criminal rehabilitation and, rather than go the route of allowing the antagonist of the original to escape, he’s given another chance. A killer escaping and being on the loose is a terrifying idea, but a killer being let out of an asylum adds emotional weight. Along with Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles reprises her role as Lila Crane. She’s petitioned and went to court hearings, all to keep her sister’s killer locked away. Psycho II feels less like a slasher film and more of a psychological thriller with some intense kills.
Richard Franklin’s artistic direction is filled with some impressive visual character. The color palette goes from seemingly natural to eerily and effective, especially during the exterior shots of the Bates house. Grounded by a terrific score composition and filled with solid acting turns, Psycho II stands out as a high point for horror sequels. Part of it feels like something you might see on the Turner Classic Movies channel, but it has all the hallmarks and trappings of typical slasher fare, without rendering itself a cliche wrapped in another.
8. Porky’s II: The Next Day
Director: Bob Clark
Hear me out: Throughout the 1980s, quite a few rebellious, anti-authority movies were made and most of them had a fun, youthful, spirited vibe. Just in 1983 alone there was D.C. Cab, Spring Break, and Porky’s II: The Next Day. Although none of the aforementioned were particularly successful theatrically, the sequel to Porky’s stands out. Where the other films feature shady business deals, this film chooses censorship and racism as its primary subjects. Most of the original cast is back, so immediately there’s familiarity and development with the characters.
The teens of Angel Breach High’s drama club try to put on a Shakespeare play that some deem inappropriate, bringing religion into it. Taking it further, the religious group work with the Ku Klux Klan because of an interracial coupling. It’s still a horny, hilarious high school movie, but the fact that it opens a dialogue for heavy subject matter is great and it’s handled fantastically. From the original, you wouldn’t expect any of the ensemble to be in favor of drama or to get involved with something as big as they do, but it makes them all the more likable.
9. A Christmas Story
Director: Bob Clark
A Christmas Story is filled with memorable moments and quotable lines, and you can actually enjoy watching it anytime of the year. Taking place in the 1940s, the story follows Ralphie and his family as they try their damndest to make it through yet another holiday season. Between bullies and discouraging grades, the only thing keeping Ralphie going is the hope that he may wake up Christmas morning to find a Red Ryder BB gun beneath his tree. Author Jean Shepherd’s narration as adult Ralphie suits the story well and somehow makes it more compelling.
It’s no wonder A Christmas Story gets so much play during the holiday season, but beyond that, it does have some terrific performances for a Christmas comedy. More specifically, Ralphie’s parents, played to perfection by Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin, really stand out in this film. The set design and costuming is on point and it doesn’t feel like a movie cheaply channeling another decade, it feels very much like a product of the 1940s.
10. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi
Director: Richard Marquand
Taking place about a year after the events of The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi sees the Galactic Empire working towards creating a new space station. While they’re preparing to attack the Rebel Alliance, and the rebels are planning an attack on the empire for the galaxie’s sake, Luke is still dealing with Darth Vader being his father. Return of the Jedi is the perfect trilogy ending and offers action, drama and comedy. It’s filled with suspense, some sad moments, and scenes where you’ll clap or smile at what’s unfolding on screen.
Richard Maquand did a wonderful job directing the film and leading an already established cast of characters. As always, John Williams’s magnificent score is worthy of the praise it often receives. It’s depressing to think the original theatrical cuts of the trilogy may never be released for future generations to enjoy, so hopefully you’ve held onto your VHS copies. Fun fact: All three original Star Wars films were released in May. A New Hope and Return of the Jedi both on May 25th.
I know, I know, “Where’s Scarface?”, “What about War Games?” The truth is, a lot of terrific films came out in 1983, and while I chose some very well known ones, I decided to leave out a few I felt were overrated. It would’ve been easy to write about underrated movies like 10 to Midnight or All the Right Moves, but the ten that made the list are ones I feel absolutely everyone should see. Of them, how many look appealing to you and how many have you already seen? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
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