President Ronald Reagan took his second oath of office in 1985, the same year Coke changed its formula and Bruce Springsteen sang, “Born in the U.S.A.”
The year also delivered an embarrassment of pop-culture riches.
Hit after hit. Franchise starter after franchise starter. And the movie that turned a “Saturday Night Live” alum into Hollywood’s most bankable comedian.
Here, in no particular order, are the top movies from 1985.
Back to the Future
Few films flirt with pop culture perfection quite like this time-travel romp. Marty McFly’s trip to his parent’s teen years inspired a hugely popular trilogy, made Michael J. Fox a superstar and remains a film no sane soul seriously wants to reboot.
Director Robert Zemeckis recalled in 2013 that “everybody rejected” the original film’s screenplay, but he instinctively knew how special it was at the time.
“Every line of dialogue, every beat, every cut, every shot is doing what movies are supposed to do, which is propelling the plot or establishing character.”
This tender tale often gets overlooked in our chronic ‘80s nostalgia. That’s a mistake given the work of both Cher and Eric Stolz as the lad with the curious “mask.”
Stolz stars as “Rocky,” a teen suffering from a rare, disfiguring disorder that can’t camouflage his lust for life. Cher plays his intense Mama, a woman surrounded by gruff but caring bikers (including Sam Elliott).
It’s a beautiful story that demands a delicate touch, something director Peter Bogdanovich said happened despite his leading lady.
“She can’t act … she won Best Actress at Cannes because I shot her very well. And she can’t sustain a scene. She couldn’t do what Tatum [O’Neal] did in Paper Moon. She’d start off in the right direction, but she’d go off wrong somehow, very quickly. So I shot a lot of close-ups of her because she’s very good in close-ups. Her eyes have the sadness of the world.”
Lost in America
That’s all you need to hear and suddenly you’re on the road with Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty in this comedy classic. They play a couple eager to live off the grid when Hagerty’s character blows their life savings in one ill-advised gambling jaunt.
Brooks’s subsequent meltdown, like the film itself, remains a classic movie moment. The comedy giant said 1968’s “Easy Rider” inadvertently inspired his comedy. He wanted to show the pragmatic side of checking out of society and living on your own terms.
“I thought it would be funny to have a story about dropping out and dropping in two weeks later,” he said in grand spoiler-alert fashion.
He’s Chevy Chase, and we’re not.
And there’s no comedy that captured Chase’s confidence than this Michael Ritchie romp. The first screen iteration of Gregory Mcdonald’s “Fletch” book series hit the bullseye, and it proved darn near impossible to replicate.
The 1990 sequel “Fletch Lives” is now “problematic” to the core, but even then it lacked the spark of the source material. Jon Hamm’s take on Irwin Fletcher proved better than anyone expected, and it took a box office swan dive in 2022.
Chase jokingly admitted the character proved the closest to the real actor, and there’s some truth to it given his deadpan interviews and inscrutable off-screen image.
The fourth “Rocky” film may be the most unabashedly patriotic movie of the decade, and that includes 1984’s “Red Dawn.” Sylvester Stallone wrote, directed and starred as the Italian Stallion, this time taking on the pride of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.
Would any star attempt anything like that today? Cue the neon light screaming, “that’s rhetorical.”
Stallone’s love for his country remains pure, but in this 1985 sequel he proved he could marry it with yet another underdog saga. How could anyone stand up to Ivan Drago, who was both mountain and machine as played by Dolph Lundgren?
One particularly brutal fight sequence sent Stallone to the hospital, and he spent four days in intensive care before he resumed filming.
The Sure Thing
Rob Reiner’s directorial hot streak may never be duplicated. “This Is Spinal Tap.” “Stand By Me.” “The Princess Bride.” “When Harry Met Sally…” “Misery.” “A Few Good Men.” Few people talk about his 1985 comedy starring John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga as the unlikeliest couple around.
This sweet rom-com pairs the squabbling pair on a road trip to California where Cusack’s Walter “Gib” Gibson hopes to meet a sexual “sure thing,” played by Nicollette Sheridan.
It’s bittersweet, funny and brimming with memorable moments. The film’s finale, set in an English classroom, is perfection.
Cusack later praised Reiner’s intimate direction, but it came with a well-meaning caveat about their “Sure Thing” collaboration.
“The great thing about Rob was that he was an actor. So he knew exactly what actors need — they need momentum, they need to concentrate, they need to feel safe. He zealously guards actors. So as a 17-year-old kid, I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is how it’s going to be on all movies.’ Rob ruined me for other directors.”
Better Off Dead
“I want my two dollars…”
This black comedy follows a hapless teen (Cusack, again) dead set on suicide after his vapid girlfriend ditches him for a skiing champion. “Savage” Steve Holland’s blend of ‘80s schmaltz, irreverent animation and wacky side characters is as infectious today as it was in 1985.
Holland said he was told the movie tested through the roof, but the film’s box office returns were modest at best.
No matter. Time has only been kind to the film, with its iconic scenes and catch phrases cemented in pop culture lore.
The love director Tom Holland shows for vampire movies, from the film itself to the films within a film starring the great Peter Vincent, is all you need to know about this ‘80s gem.
A solid William Ragsdale plays Charlie, an Everyteen who suspects his new neighbor is a bloodsucker. Good instincts. The horror-comedy elixir is near-perfect, as are Roddy McDowall as the washed-up movie star and Chris Sarandon’s fiendish neighbor.
The practical effects can be clunky, but everything else runs like clockwork.
Holland’s success writing the shockingly good sequel to “Psycho” gave him the industry clout to get “Fright Night” made.
The writer/director says the personal approach he brought to the material made all the difference.
“I was writing about the movies that I loved when I was 15, 16, 17, and they were the AIP and Hammer Horror films, which starred Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Vincent Price… that’s how you get Peter Vincent, the horror movie host.”
The Breakfast Club
John Hughes didn’t own the ‘80s. He just made the decade better, funnier and wiser.
This ode to high school detention gathered five “types” for an afternoon they’d never forget. What works? Well, everything:
- Perfect casting
- Timeless teen angst
- Killer put downs – “Does Barry Manilow know that you raid his wardrobe?”
- The very best song to match the melancholy mood – Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” opens and closes the film
The story behind the song’s inclusion in the film could make a movie unto itself. Just know Chrissie Hynde, then married to Simple Minds’ singer Jim Kerr, convinced him to tackle the song after multiple musicians passed on it.
Who knew the Fountain of Youth was near a Florida retirement home?
OK, the film follows an alien race attempting to retrieve their old friends who were left on Earth for thousands of years. They supercharge a swimming pool with restorative energy, which a trio of senior citizens discover to their shock and delight.
The sweet sci-fi comedy gave director Ron Howard yet another career boost, while proving you’re never too old to swipe a movie from your younger co-stars.
Wilford Brimley, one-third of the elderly trio, was actually 49 when he was cast in the film and turned 50 during the production.
Harrison Ford proved he’s more than a swashbuckling hero with his Oscar-nominated turn as a lawman lurking within Amish country.
The actor’s unlikely bond with a local mother (Kelly McGillis) proved a box office hit, earning multiple Oscar nominations in the process. For some, “Witness” offered a first look at a community rarely showcased on the big screen.
For Ford, it opened up his career in ways he quickly took full advantage of via “The Mosquito Coast,” a complicated tale dropped the following year. Other meaty dramas, like “Frantic,” completed Ford’s transformation into a nuanced leading man, but he repeatedly returned to the action genre for good measure.
McGillis said during the film’s promotional push that she likely snagged director Peter Weir’s attention with her work in 1983’s “Reuben, Reuben.” She also confessed to doing a screen test for “Witness” while suffering from “a terrible cold sore,” something she could laugh about long after landing the part.
It might be the most unlikely Martin Scorsese film in his canon, made while the auteur waited to get “The Last Temptation of Christ” off the cinematic ground. Griffin Dunne plays an Everyman caught in the worst day of his life in this bleak, biting and darkly comic tale.
The film’s deep cast (Teri Garr! Catherine O’Hara! John Heard!) is just part of the fun.
Scorsese had a rule for his leading man that likely wouldn’t fly today. He told Dunne to abstain from sex during the production, presumably to capture his character’s increasing angst during the night from hell. The actor couldn’t, well, fully commit to his director but the film’s cult status speaks for itself.
Matthew Modine plays a determined wrestler whose dreams get distracted by a beautiful stranger (Linda Fiorentino). It’s hardly your typical coming-of-age story, thanks to Modine’s intense performance and a sturdy musical soundtrack.
A rising star with a single name, Madonna, appears in the film singing her ‘80s smash, “Crazy For You.” The sly fusion of dramatics and au courant music also helped the film stand out in the crowded ’80s pack.
Modine later recalled how the singer’s fame outstripped both his own and the film in question. He was in Rome to explore a potential movie role when he saw a giant poster with the Material Girl’s face on it. Below it read, “Crazy For You” in Italian.
“I thought, ‘Oh, she must be doing a concert here.’ But then I looked at the poster a little bit closer and at the bottom I saw myself [in a scene from the film] with my arms in the air. The movie had gone from being a Matthew Modine movie that Madonna was in to a Madonna movie that Matthew Modine was in! That’s how fate would have it.”
“Gonzo” barely describes this unhinged horror fest featuring a love that defied this mortal coil. Jeffrey Combs stars as an impassioned med student who concocts a serum that brings the dead back to life.
What could go wrong? How about, “Everything?”
That’s part of the fun in this well-orchestrated blast of mayhem, based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story.
Barbara Crampton, the horror film fave who plays a significant role in the tale, says she landed the part after the original actress’ mom forced her to quit the project. Why? The script proved problematic for the matriarch, apparently.
And a scream horror legend was born.
The Return of the Living Dead
Zom-coms come and go, but this genre treat refuses to die.
It’s one of the most re-watchable zombie films ever made, a perfect blend of silliness and seriously creepy kills. The trouble begins in an all too familiar way, but the sense of dread starts early and never lets up.
The story has its share of humanity, too. We watch the two fools who unleashed the undead terror slowly succumb to their disease. That tragic subplot connects the various storylines and offers real pathos.
Sure, they stuck their noses where they didn’t belong, but no one deserves their fate.
Dan O’Bannon, making his directorial debut, had a hand in some of the late 20th century’s most iconic films. He wrote “Alien” (1979), helped director John Carpenter with his film debut, 1974’s “Dark Star,” co-wrote 1990’s “Total Recall” and helped create special effects for 1977’s “Star Wars.”
The Color Purple
Steven Spielberg’s reign as Mr. Blockbuster could have convinced him to stay in his lane until the box office receipts slowed down. That’s assuming they ever did.
Instead, he connected with Alice Walker’s celebrated tome about a young black woman who survived a harrowing life through her guile, friends and indefatigable spirit.
Whoopi Goldberg’s work as Celie earned her an Oscar nomination and, almost immediately, a motion picture career. Roger Ebert was an early fan, calling her work in the film, “One of the best screen performances I’ve ever seen.”
Goldberg took a very unwoke perspective on the character during her chat with Ebert connected to the film’s release.
“One guy asked me about this movie and the black experience,”’ she said, “and I told him I thought ‘Agnes Of God’ was a great exploration of the white experience. Or ‘The Big Chill.’ You know, ‘The Big Chill’ was more my story than ‘The Color Purple.’ But this movie is so much a deeper movie, a movie about the awakening of the human spirit.”
The Purple Rose of Cairo
Woody Allen gave himself a break and delivered this sweet, soulful romance without stepping in front of the camera. Allen regular Mia Farrow plays a sad housewife named Cecilia who escapes her humdrum world at, where else, the movies. She sees one particular film so often the story’s romantic lead (Jeff Daniels) breaks the fourth wall to spend time with Cecilia.
What follows bears Allen’s wit and sense of dramatic timing, but it’s certainly one of his freshest stories to date. Allen scored an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.
Daniels later admitted he would consider working with Allen again despite sexual abuse allegations lodged against Allen by his daughter, Dylan Farrow. Daniels told the press he believed the daughter’s accusations but loved making the film that much.
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure
Paul Reubens found the perfect conduit to bring his man-child character to the big screen. Director Tim Burton’s first full-length film captured everything we loved about Monsieur Herman. That goofy laugh, irrepressible spirit and ability to channel our inner child.
Burton, a visual maestro, connected to Reubens’ forever young sentiment. That combination gave Burton the first of many box office hits and proved difficult to replicate. Later Pee-Wee films like “Big Top Pee-Wee” and “Pee Wee’s Big Holiday” couldn’t corral what Reubens and Burton concocted the first time around.
Burton credits Reubens for starting his directorial career. The improv comic had Burton’s back, and that made all the difference.
“I’d only done two short films, and at that time, that was unheard of – to go from doing two short films that nobody saw to doing a feature film. So even I knew that this was very special and amazing. If he hadn’t been supportive, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Turns out 1985 was a pretty solid year for black comedy. Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner teamed for John Huston’s bleak look at assassins in each other’s crosshairs.
The Academy showered eight Oscar nominations on the film, which earned co-star Angelica Huston a Best Supporting Actress honor.
Roger Ebert gave the film a curious compliment, saying it’s “a movie so dark, so cynical and so funny that perhaps only Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner could have kept straight faces during the love scenes.”
Huston, who was dating Nicholson at the time, lived apart from him during the production. She didn’t want to disturb the character or share her doubts and questions with a colleague after a long, hard day on the set.