Nolte: What Should’ve Won the Best Picture Oscar – 1980 to 1989

Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger and Jack Nicholson in a scene from the film 'Terms of Endearment', 1983. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Getty Images)
Paramount Pictures/Getty

In part seven of this series we look at the movies that should have won the Best Picture Oscar between 1980 and 1989.

Like the fifties, because a Republican president very much defined the era, the eighties continue to be unfairly maligned as a terrible decade for movies by foo foo critics. As you will see below this is an outrageous and anti-science lie.

Let’s begin…


  • What Did Win: Ordinary People

Because everyone believes Raging Bull and only Raging Bull should’ve won Best Picture, Robert Redford’s Oscar-winning directorial debut is constantly attacked as something along the lines of a subpar movie of the week.

Well, it’s not. This is a deeply moving story about violence, emotional violence from a mother who cannot forgive her son for surviving the accident that killed her favorite son. A brutal and shocking theme told through subtle, insightful, and brilliant performances, most especially from Mary Tyler Moore.

  • What Should’ve Won: Atlantic City

Director Louis Malle’s tender examination of the destruction of a city and a way of life gets better with each viewing. Burt Lancaster is equal parts dazzling and heartbreaking as an aging, full-time loser who refuses to act like one. Susan Sarandon is his equal as a woman determined to improve her lot in a life weighed down by her own bad choices. They make the unlikeliest of lovers and then comes one of those knock-out endings you should have seen coming from a mile away and didn’t.

See also: Coal Miner’s Daughter, Bronco Billy, Stir Crazy, Dressed to Kill, Blues Brothers, My Bodyguard, Gloria, Out of the Blue, Empire Strikes Back, The Final Countdown, The Shining, Urban Cowboy, Stardust Memories, and The Big Red One.



  • What Did Win: Chariots of Fire

One of those movies I really want to like and can’t.

  • What Should’ve Won: Body Heat

Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan made his debut with this sweaty thriller about an idiot lawyer (William Hurt) who falls for the sexiest woman to ever stroll through his shitty little town (a never more beautiful Kathleen Turner). Kasdan adds all the steamy sex we knew was going on in Double Indemnity without making it sleazy.

A sexy movie for adults that plays as well today as it did 40 years ago.

See also: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Wolfen, Escape from New York, Superman II, For Your Eyes Only, Nighthawks, On Golden Pond, The Road Warrior, An American Werewolf in London, Reds, Sharky’s Machine, Das Boot, Blow Out, and Zorro, the Gay Blade.



  • What Did Win: Gandhi

An obvious piece of Oscar bait that succeeded; Gandhi is a terrific film everyone should see once. Once is quite enough.

  • What Should’ve Won: The Verdict

Paul Newman delivers a performance for the ages as an aging, alcoholic, ambulance-chasing lawyer up against a City Machine that protects the elite at all costs. He’s hand-picked to defend a woman put into a coma by negligent doctors because everyone knows he will take the settlement money and run.

And then he doesn’t…

Look at the titles below. What a year to turn 16, which I did. Man, I thought movies were always going to be this good…

See also: E.T., An Officer and a Gentleman, Start Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Tootsie, Poltergeist, Rocky III, First Blood, Night Shift, Blade Runner, The Grey Fox, Death Wish II, The Thing, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Pink Floyd – The Wall, and My Favorite Year.



  • What Did Win: Terms of Endearment

An eccentric and funny movie about disparate people brought together by terminal cancer.

  • What Should’ve Won: The Right Stuff

In another year filled with cinematic gold, The Right Stuff is an easy choice. This hilarious, moving, perfectly offbeat look at the early days of the American space program does everything right.

See also: Return of the Jedi, The Dead Zone, King of Comedy, Local Hero, Trading Places, D.C. Cab, A Christmas Story, Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, Eddie and the Cruisers, Tender Mercies, WarGames, Scarface, Silkwood, Gorky Park, Zelig, The Big Chill, and Risky Business.



  • What Did Win: Amadeus

Another obvious piece of Oscar bait everyone should see at least once, if only for the performances of its two leads, Tom Hulce and Murray Abraham. The story of Mozart’s undeserved natural talent and early death also delivers a fascinating theme about the sins of envy and ambition at the hands of a man who had everything but just couldn’t be satisfied. Nope, he had to have it all, and it destroyed him.

  • What Should’ve Won: Once Upon a Time in America

Unforgivably butchered by the studio or its American release, director Sergio Leone’s epic gangster tale is one of the first movies to be “saved” by home video and, ever since, its reputation has improved with each passing decade. You’ve never before seen a gangster movie like this one, and you never will again.

See also: Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Karate Kid, Footloose, Splash, Romancing the Stone, Moscow on the Hudson, Sixteen Candles, The Natural, Purple Rain, Red Dawn, A Soldiers Story, All of Me, Garbo Talks, Body Double, Goonies, Paris, Texas; The Terminator, and The Killing Fields.



  • What Did Win: Out of Africa

Director Sydney Pollack won a long overdue Oscar for a lush, beautifully filmed, if somewhat staid romance.

  • What Should’ve Won: Runaway Train

A Cannon film…?

You would award the Best Picture Oscar to a Cannon film?

Well, have you seen it?

A thrilling, suspenseful work of existentialism from director Andrei Konchalovsky about two desperate convicts (a brilliant Jon Voight and Eric Roberts) who escape from an Alaskan prison’s sadistic warden (the great John P. Ryan) and jump aboard a runaway train with no engineer.

A majestic, exciting look at what it means to be truly alive.

See also: Back to the Future, Day of the Dead, Purple Rose of Cairo, Falcon and the Snowman, Silverado, Twice in a Lifetime, Witness, Brazil, Pale Rider, Vision Quest, The Jagged Edge, Mask, Rambo: First Blood Part II, The Color Purple, Prizzi’s Honor, and Code of Silence.   



  • What Did Win: Platoon

Director, write Oliver Stone announced his arrival with one of the best anti-war movies ever made.

  • What Should’ve Won: Blue Velvet

Director David Lynch’s masterpiece about the dark underbelly of small town America lifts what should have been a cliché into a twisty, sexy, dream-like thriller filled with stunning scenes, most of which are delivered by way of a startling and Oscar-worthy Dennis Hopper performance.

See also: Top Gun, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Hannah and Her Sisters, Salvador, At Close Range, Cobra, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Running Scared, Ruthless People, Sid and Nancy, Three Amigos, Hoosiers, the Mosquito Coast, Big Trouble in Little China, Aliens, the Fly, Manhunter, and Stand By Me.



  • What Did Win: Last Emperor

As long as it is forgettable.

  • Full Metal Jacket

Director Stanley Kubrick’s unforgettable look at the Vietnam War is two movies in one. We open with a cold, clinical but oddly comforting basic training sequence anchored by an astonishing performance from R. Lee Ermey. Then we’re shocked out of our comfort after being thrown into the thick of jungle battle where Adam Baldwin (full disclosure: a friend of mine) picks up where Ermey leaves off as Animal, who’s part Papa Bear and part sociopath.

See also: Fatal Attraction, Moonstruck, The Untouchables, Stakeout, Lethal Weapon, The Stepfather, Outrageous Fortune, Radio Days, Angel Heart, Evil Dead II, Hollywood Shuffle, Extreme Prejudice, Three Men and a Baby, Predator, Witches of Eastwick, Roxanne, RoboCop, La Bamba, Monster Squad, Dirty Dancing, The Princess Bride; Planes, Trains, and Automobiles; Wall Street, Eddie Murphy: Raw, and Good Morning, Vietnam.



  • What Did Win: Rain Man

Dustin Hoffman won the Oscar that should have gone to Tom Cruise.

  • What Should’ve Won: Colors

Director Dennis Hopper was years ahead of the curve with his unsparing look at the LAPD and urban gang life. Unfortunately, it has not aged a day.

See also: A Fish Called Wanda, Big, Die Hard, Action Jackson, Shoot to Kill, Stand and Deliver, Biloxi Blues, Beetlejuice, Colors, Shakedown, Bull Durham, Midnight Run, The Blob, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Eight Men Out, Running on Empty, Alien Nation, The Accused, Another Woman, They Live, Mississippi Burning, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Working Girl.   



  • What Did Win: Driving Miss Daisy

One of the most unfairly maligned movies in Oscar history is a perfectly acted and achingly sentimental look at beautiful friendship. If you remember that’s what the movie is actually about, you will forget all the purely political and unfair crybabying over it.

  • What Should’ve Won: Crimes and Misdemeanors

An astonishing year for movies, especially blockbusters, and one I spent at the drive-in…

Anyway, Woody Allen’s examination of a cruel natural world where God removes Himself and injustice reigns is a legitimate work of art; a hilarious, infuriating, suspenseful, and tragic look at the endless complications of the human condition, most especially the conscience. The way in which Allen co-opts you to root for a cold-blooded killer (Martin Landau) to get away with it is only the icing on a mesmerizing and unforgettable cake.

See also: Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon II, Born on the Fourth of July; Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; Parents, Parenthood, Cousins, The ‘burbs, Dead Bang, Dead Calm, Major League, Field of Dreams, Pet Sematary, Road House, License to Kill, The Abyss, Uncle Buck, Casualties of War, The Package, Sea of Love, Black Rain, My Left Foot, Steel Magnolias, Do the Right Thing, Christmas Vacation, Do the Right Thing; Enemies, A Love Story, and Glory.

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