December 2, 2023

Activate the flux capacitor and set your time circuits for the ’80s. Carl’s taking a look back at the Top Ten Of 1981

It’s time for a flashback to the Top Ten of 1981. Some of what happened during that year seem like it only happened a few days ago. Many of the movies that hit the screens during the year are still shown regularly on TV. Or are regularly re-released into theatres. Why? Because the year contained many films that are held up as classics today. And are still almost as fresh as they were when they first opened.


Look at some of the films that didn’t crack the top ten of the year. Yes, these didn’t make it into the highest-grossing films of 1981. ‘Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior)‘. ‘Escape From New York‘. ‘Halloween II‘. ‘History Of The World Part I (a personal favorite of mine)’. ‘Time Bandits‘. ‘Excalibur‘. ‘The Fox And The Hound‘. ‘Clash Of The Titans‘, and the Oscar-winning ‘Reds‘. All failed to take enough box office cash to enter what is a quite formidable set of movies. There are a few surprises along the way. But when it comes to the top three films, you can’t help but nod as they are revealed.

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We start in reverse order, at number ten. And we feel the need to break the 55mph speed limit as we attempt to win:

(10) The Cannonball Run

A year after Burt Reynolds and director Hal Needham collaborated again on ‘Smokey And The Bandit II‘. This car race movie managed to break into the chart of the year with box office takings of $58million. An all-star cast joined Reynolds in what was a hilarious and often enjoyable stunt spectacular. Roger Moore, Dom DeLouise, Farrah Fawcett Majors, Sammy Davis Jr, and Dean Martin all joined in the fun. Alongside a very young Jackie Chan. Critics slated the movie but film fans lapped it up.

Today, some of the humor is in danger of being removed due to being a little out of date. And may even offend. But at the time, at least one of the lines made the audience, and me in particular, roar with laughter.  And DeLouise dressed up as Captain Chaos was inspired.

Cannonball Run II

(9) Chariots Of Fire

“The British Are Coming!”, shouted by writer Colin Welland a year later at the Academy Awards after the film stole the show and four Oscars. The film is a British historical drama, based on the true story of two British athletes in the 1924 Olympic Games. Eric Liddell was a devout Scottish Christian who ran for the glory of God, and Harold Abrahams was Jewish and ran to combat prejudice. Ian Charleson and Ben Cross played Liddell and Abrahams respectfully. And some of Britain’s finest actors including Ian Holm and John Gielgud took on supporting roles.

The film took home Best Original Score for Vangelis‘ masterful music, Best Costume Design for Milena Canonero, Best Original Screenplay for Colin Welland, and Best Picture which was collected by Lord David Puttnam. The film took just under $62million at the worldwide box office and is regarded as one of the greatest films of all time.

Chariots Of Fire

(8) An American Werewolf In London

Now, here we have what has got to be one of the best and unexpectedly funny horror movies of the past forty years. John Landis’ creation has a unique blend of scares, blood, and black comedy in equal measure and is possibly his finest film. David Naughton (who I met at London and Film Comic-Con back in 2019) and Griffin Dunne play the hapless David and Jack, two American backpackers who make the mistake of ignoring the patrons of a remote Yorkshire village pub and walk across the Moors after dark where they are attacked by a Werewolf. Jack is killed but David survives, only to begin his ominous turn into a Werewolf himself.

Along the way, the corpse of Jack appears to him several times, telling him to kill himself and end the bloodline and David starts a romance with a British nurse, Alex played by Jenny Agutter. The film is famous for its extended transformation sequence, a scene that to this day has never been bettered, helping the film to earn $62million worldwide.

(7) Fort Apache, The Bronx

Now, this is a surprise entry into the top ten of the year. But it is a deserving one in my opinion. Despite gaining mixed reviews from critics, this Crime drama leaves the viewer debating its moral questions by the time the end credits roll. Paul Newman plays a hard-drinking, divorced NYPD officer who is assigned a young partner, Corelli (Ken Wahl) in the 41st precinct, nicknamed ‘Fort Apache’ due to the feeling of being in an old Army outpost in foreign territory. The streets around the 41st are controlled by vicious gangs of drug dealers, gangs, and criminals. Despite this, Murphy strikes up a romantic relationship with a young nurse, Isabella (Rachel Ticotin) while the officers are all on the lookout for the killer of two NYPD officers at the start of the film.

Before the end, we have to make our own choices about what we would have done if we were in Murphy’s shoes, after witnessing some of the events that happen during the film’s running time. Newman has never been better and the film as a whole holds the viewer’s interest from the start. And it doesn’t feature a fairytale ending either. That’s possibly why the film went on to gross just over $65million worldwide.

(6) Arthur

Would you like me to wash your d**k for you now, you little s**t?“. That one line alone managed to earn acting legend Sir John Gielgud an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Although never quite as good or as funny as it thinks it is, this Dudley Moore comedy managed to strike a chord with audiences around the world. The story of a drunken billionaire who is on the brink of an arranged marriage but ends up falling for a working girl (Liza Minnelli), the film sees Arthur being forced to grow up as he watches his long-time valet Hobson (Gielgud) die before his eyes and resisting the pressure from his family to marry the daughter of a family business acquaintance to inherit a vast fortune.

Throughout the film, we see the hapless Arthur slowly realize who he really is and gains the courage to stand up to his family, even if it means living penniless for the rest of his life. With an Oscar-winning song by Christopher Cross, the film went on to gross almost $82million.

(5) Stripes

One of my all-time favorite comedies. This hilarious movie starring Bill Murray and Harold Ramis can easily be put on late at night and enjoyed to the full. Murray stars as John Winger, a New York cab driver who in the space of a few short hours, manages to lose his job, his car, his apartment, and his girlfriend. After talking things over with his best friend Russell (Ramis), both decide that they have no prospects and decide to join the army. Both are sent off to basic training where they meet their Drill Sergeant, Hulka (a terrific Warren Oates), and their fellow recruits, among them Dewey ‘Ox’ Oxberger (John Candy).

The film follows the pair as they get into scrapes during training, their romancing of two female MP’s (P.J Soles and Sean Young), and their completion of basic training by themselves after Hulka is injured. Ramis wrote the screenplay for the film alongside Dan Goldberg while Ivan Reitman produced and directed the film. Murray and Ramis would re-team with Reitman again for ‘Ghostbusters‘ but here, they have come together to create a comedy that has stood the test of time and managed to garner over $85million in box office receipts. A truly hilarious addition to the top ten movies of 1981.

(4) On Golden Pond

The film that finally earned legendary actor Henry Fonda his Oscar for Best Actor. It also featured Fonda’s final screen appearance before his death. With Oscar-winning support from Katharine Hepburn alongside an Oscar-winning Best Adapted Screenplay by Ernest Thompson from his play of the same name, this family drama struck a chord with audiences. The film concerns an aging couple Norman and Ethel who make their traditional summer trip to their cottage on a lake named Golden Pond. While there, Norman starts to suffer memory problems and speaks of growing old and death.

When his estranged daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda) arrives with her fiance Bill (Dabney Coleman) and his 13-year old son Billy, old family issues arise once again. Billy is left in the care of Norman and Ethel and while, at first, he despises having to stay with old people and without any friends, he and Norman eventually start to bond and grow close to each other. The film is a bit of a tear-jerker but seeing Henry Fonda and his daughter Jane onscreen together is delightful. That alone helped the film to gain over $119million in ticket sales.

(3) Superman II

One of those rare sequels that are actually better than the original film, the second and best ‘Superman‘ film of them all flew in, despite all of its behind-the-scenes problems. Director Richard Donner had signed on to direct the first and second films and had shot over 70% of the sequel before, during a production hiatus, he was fired after clashed with the producers, resulting in Richard Lester coming in and reshooting almost all of the film. Marlon Brando refused to return to complete his scenes as did Gene Hackman while composer John Williams walked away after arguments with Lester.

Despite all the drama, the film managed to hit theatres around the world and blew the roofs off them. The classic DC character returns in a story where three villains from Krypton are released from their prison in space after a nuclear explosion shatters their jail. The villains make their way to Earth to take over the planet. All the while Lois Lane has discovered Clark Kent’s true identity and she and the man of steel begin a love affair. Leading to Superman giving up his powers to have a normal life before being forced to gain them once more to defeat the villainous plans of General Zod and his followers.


The film had a slightly more light-hearted approach than Donner’s original, much to its credit but while it suited this sequel quite well, it ruined the follow-up, ‘Superman III’. But fans lapped up the second outing for the man of steel to the tune of $190million.

Superman II - top ten movies of 1981
(2) For Your Eyes Only

Roger Moore’s fifth time playing James Bond 007 saw a slightly more grounded film than previous adventures. Moore played Bond as an aging spy. One who knew he was getting on in years and made the film that much more realistic. Moore dispensed with the usual quips for the main part and played the character straight. Leading him to show that he was a worthy successor to Sean Connery’s 007. This also showed Bond at his most ruthless. With a terrific scene showing our hero showing an assassin no mercy by kicking his car over the edge of a cliff to his death. The line from Bond that followed was amusing but also chilling. The main story followed Bond’s attempts to recover an ATAC device (Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator) from a sunken British Spy Ship in Greece.


Along the way, he must battle against the villainous Aristotle Kristatos (Julian Glover) who is in league with the Russians in an attempt to gain possession of the device. Aided by Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet) and the smuggler Milos Columbo (Topol), Bond races against time to prevent the device from falling into the wrong hands. Despite some outlandish and cartoonish sequences, for the most part, the film is a top-notch action/spy thriller. With an opening sequence that seemingly ends for good the threat of Blofeld, the film doesn’t rush things. Instead deciding to go at a slower pace and building the tension. The few action sequences that the film does contain are handled brilliantly and Moore has never been better as 007. All things combined led the film to a tidy $195million finish and a deserved placing in the top ten movies of 1981.

For Your Eyes Only - top ten movies of 1981

Those nine films alone managed to make the box office a rich and rewarding one for 1981. Anyone of them, in a different year, could easily have taken the top honor as box office champion. But one film beat them all to it. One film that brought back the daring-do of serials and movies from days gone past. A film that introduced us to a legendary character. One who is due for his fifth and final adventure in 2022. And that film is:

(1) Raiders Of The Lost Ark

The film introduced the world to Indiana Jones and his exciting exploits around the world.  This was the film that led the box office home. Harrison Ford stars as the intrepid archaeologist/adventurer in a call back to those Saturday morning serials that were shown back in the 1930s and 1940s. And were transmitted on TVs across the world later on.

Those cliffhanger moments were brought back to life in this undeniably classic movie by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Tom Selleck was approached to play the character, then named Indiana Smith. But due to his commitments on the ‘Magnum P.I.’ show, had to decline. Up stepped Ford. Hot off of his second time playing Han Solo in ‘The Empire Strikes Back‘ into the role that to this day, is probably the one he is most famous for. And the one the viewing public considers to be his best.

Raiders Of The Lost Ark - top ten movies of 1981

PERU 1936

Starting with an opening that takes us through Peru in 1936. In the search for a golden idol, Jones must overcome various booby-traps and double-crossing members of his own team. All of whom get their just desserts. After this incredible opening, we are thrust into the search for the Lost Ark of the Covenant. This is said to give invincibility to those who carry it before them into battle. Jones must recover the artifact before the Nazis get their hands on it at the behest of Adolf Hitler. With old flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) at his side. And aided by old friend Sallah (John Rhys-Davies), Jones takes on the Nazis in a battle to the finish line.

Raiders Of The Lost Ark

Throughout the film, the character of Jones undergoes scrapes with various villains. And he is left in perilous situations such as being entombed in a chamber full of poisonous snakes. A fight to the death with a large Nazi brute in front of a cargo plane while fuel spills out all over the tarmac. And of course, the final opening of the Ark itself where the secrets are finally revealed.


Classic sequences such as the truck chase through the desert give the audience a great sense of excitement. Alongside what is one of the most hilarious moments in cinema history where a brutish swordsman demonstrates his prowess in front of Jones, ready for a fight. Jones just looks at him exasperated, slowly pulls his gun, and simply shoots him! All because on the day of the shooting Harrison Ford had a bad case of diarrhea. And he suggested it would be better to change the scene to what it became. Inspired!

Raiders Of The Lost Ark - top ten movies of 1981

The film captivated the world to the tune of over $367million but opened the doors to three sequels (so far). Each good in its own way but inferior to the original film. And the obligatory rip-offs that were filmed in an attempt to cash in on the film and its content. None of which came even close to ‘Raiders’. But in the summer of 1981, Indiana Jones may have been cheated out of his prize at the end of the movie. But he didn’t cheat the audience, giving the world a new hero to cheer for.


And there we have it. The official top ten movies of 1981. A mixed bag to be sure. But one that is looked at with fondness and great memories. It brought us laughs, tears, breathtaking moments, and ultimately, massive cheers. This was a golden year for cinematic content and one that we can look back on with great satisfaction.

What are your top ten movies of 1981? Share your top picks in the comments section. We love hearing from you.


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