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The Best Movies of 1981 

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Originally by Ranker Community
Updated June 14, 2019 9.8k votes 683 voters 14.8k views

List Rules Only films that played in theaters in 1981

A list of the best movies of 1981, from action films like "Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark" to comedies like "The Great Muppet Caper." The '80s were a decade where Hollywood thrived. In were new stars and big blockbusters and 1981 was no exception. Some the best movies of this year are some of the best teen, coming of age, adventure, comedies, and dramas in history. The films on here are very memorable and had audiences on the edges of their seats, and still pack a punch so many years after they were first released. You shouldn't be too surprised by the movies listed on this list of top 1981 films.
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1
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Harrison Ford, Alfred Molina, Karen Allen

Released: 1981

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a 1981 American adventure film directed by Steven Spielberg. The screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan was from a story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman. It was produced by ...more

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12 Stories That Prove The Making Of 'Raiders Of The Lost Ark' Was An Adventure Behind The Scenes Too #4 of 349 'Old' Movies Every Young Person Needs To Watch In Their Lifetimelisted on Every Oscar Winning Film Ever

2
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Bill Murray, John Candy, Dennis Quaid

Released: 1981

Directed by: Ivan Reitman

Stripes is a 1981 American comedy film directed by Ivan Reitman, starring Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Warren Oates, P. J. Soles, and John Candy. It also featured several actors in their first ...more

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#131 of 375 The 50+ Best War Movies Ever Made, Ranked #70 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Ranked #20 of 439 The Funniest '80s Movies

3
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Jenny Agutter, Frank Oz, Rik Mayall

Released: 1981

Directed by: John Landis

An American Werewolf in London is a 1981 horror comedy film written and directed by John Landis, and starring David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, and Griffin Dunne. The film starts with two young ...more

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#129 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Ranked #152 of 439 The Funniest '80s Movieslisted on Every Oscar Winning Film Ever

4
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Jamie Lee Curtis, Kurt Russell, Ernest Borgnine

Released: 1981

Directed by: John Carpenter

Escape from New York is a 1981 American science fiction action film co-written, co-scored, and directed by John Carpenter. The film is set in a then near-future 1997 in a distopian United States ...more

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#86 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Ranked #37 of 163 The Best Science Fiction Action Movies #71 of 92 The Most Rewatchable Action Movies

5
On Golden Pond is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list The Best Movies of 1981
Jane Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda

Released: 1981

Directed by: Mark Rydell

On Golden Pond is a 1981 American drama film directed by Mark Rydell. The screenplay by Ernest Thompson was adapted from his 1979 play of the same title. Henry Fonda won the Academy Award for ...more

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#257 of 349 'Old' Movies Every Young Person Needs To Watch In Their Lifetime #234 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Rankedlisted on Every Oscar Winning Film Ever

6
Das Boot is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list The Best Movies of 1981
Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, Uwe Ochsenknecht

Released: 1981

Directed by: Wolfgang Petersen

Das Boot is a 1981 German epic film written and directed by Wolfgang Petersen, produced by Günter Rohrbach, and starring Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer, and Klaus Wennemann. ...more

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#13 of 375 The 50+ Best War Movies Ever Made, Ranked #328 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Ranked #136 of 599 The Greatest Epic Movies Ever Made

7
Chariots of Fire is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list The Best Movies of 1981
Stephen Fry, Kenneth Branagh, Ian Holm

Released: 1981

Directed by: Hugh Hudson

Chariots of Fire is a 1981 British historical drama film. It tells the fact-based story of two athletes in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of ...more

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#363 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Ranked #125 of 710 The Best Movies Roger Ebert Gave Four Starslisted on Every Oscar Winning Film Ever

8
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Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Vernon Wells

Released: 1981

Directed by: George Miller

Mad Max 2 is a 1981 Australian post-apocalyptic action film directed by George Miller. The film is the second installment in the Mad Max film series, with Mel Gibson starring as Max Rockatansky. ...more

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#80 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Ranked #301 of 599 The Greatest Epic Movies Ever Made #348 of 1,699 The Most Rewatchable Movies

9
The Fox and the Hound is listed (or ranked) 9 on the list The Best Movies of 1981
Kurt Russell, Mickey Rooney, Corey Feldman

Released: 1981

Directed by: Richard Rich, Art Stevens, Ted Berman

he Fox and the Hound is a 1981 American animated drama film based on the Daniel P. Mannix novel of the same name, produced by Walt Disney Productions and released in the United States on July ...more

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#107 of 377 The Best Musical Movies of All Time #19 of 601 The Best Animated Films Ever #101 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Ranked

10
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Bruce Campbell, Sam Raimi, Ted Raimi

Released: 1981

Directed by: Sam Raimi

This film is a 1981 American horror film written and directed by Sam Raimi and executive produced by Raimi and Bruce Campbell, who also stars alongside Ellen Sandweiss and Betsy Baker. This film ...more

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#151 of 349 'Old' Movies Every Young Person Needs To Watch In Their Lifetime #148 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Ranked #15 of 847 The Best Horror Movies Of All Time

11
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Farrah Fawcett, Terry Bradshaw, Burt Reynolds

Released: 1981

Directed by: Hal Needham

The Cannonball Run is a 1981 comedy film starring Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Dom DeLuise, Farrah Fawcett, and an all-star supporting cast. It was directed by Hal Needham, produced by Hong ...more

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#140 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Ranked #55 of 439 The Funniest '80s Movies #209 of 1,208 The Absolute Funniest Movies Of All Time

12
Excalibur is listed (or ranked) 12 on the list The Best Movies of 1981
Liam Neeson, Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart

Released: 1981

Directed by: John Boorman

Excalibur is a 1981 dramatic fantasy film directed, produced and co-written by John Boorman that retells the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. Based solely on the 15th ...more

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#162 of 375 The 50+ Best War Movies Ever Made, Ranked #206 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Ranked #139 of 599 The Greatest Epic Movies Ever Made

13
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Liza Minnelli, Dudley Moore, John Gielgud

Released: 1981

Directed by: Steve Gordon

Arthur is a 1981 comedy film written and directed by Steve Gordon. The film stars Dudley Moore as the eponymous Arthur Bach, a drunken New York City millionaire who is on the brink of an ...more

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#166 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Ranked #101 of 439 The Funniest '80s Movieslisted on Every Oscar Winning Film Ever

14
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Sean Connery, John Cleese, Ian Holm

Released: 1981

Directed by: Terry Gilliam

Time Bandits is a 1981 British fantasy film co-written, produced, and directed by Terry Gilliam, and starring Sean Connery, John Cleese, Shelley Duvall, Ralph Richardson, Katherine Helmond, Ian ...more

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#244 of 349 'Old' Movies Every Young Person Needs To Watch In Their Lifetime #227 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Ranked #257 of 439 The Funniest '80s Movies

15
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Mickey Rourke, Kathleen Turner, William Hurt

Released: 1981

Directed by: Lawrence Kasdan

Body Heat is a 1981 American neo-noir thriller film written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan. It stars William Hurt, Kathleen Turner and Richard Crenna, and features Ted Danson, J.A. Preston, and ...more

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#300 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Ranked #1,474 of 1,699 The Most Rewatchable Movies #282 of 710 The Best Movies Roger Ebert Gave Four Stars

16
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Jamie Lee Curtis, Dana Carvey, Kyle Richards

Released: 1981

Directed by: Rick Rosenthal

Halloween II is a 1981 slasher horror film directed by Rick Rosenthal, and written and produced by John Carpenter and Debra Hill. It is the second installment in the Halloween series and is a ...more

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#171 of 349 'Old' Movies Every Young Person Needs To Watch In Their Lifetime #193 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Ranked #42 of 847 The Best Horror Movies Of All Time

17
Porky's is listed (or ranked) 17 on the list The Best Movies of 1981
Kim Cattrall, Alex Karras, Art Hindle

Released: 1982

Directed by: Bob Clark

Porky's is a 1981 Canadian-American comedy film about the escapades of teenagers at the fictional Angel Beach High School in Florida in 1954. Released in the United States in 1982 with an R ...more

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#115 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Ranked #56 of 439 The Funniest '80s Movies #146 of 1,208 The Absolute Funniest Movies Of All Time

18
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Roger Moore, Sheena Easton, Charles Dance

Released: 1981

Directed by: John Glen

For Your Eyes Only is the twelfth spy film in the James Bond series, and the fifth to star Roger Moore as the fictional MI6 agent James Bond. It marked the directorial debut of John Glen, who ...more

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#212 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Ranked #179 of 624 The Greatest Guilty Pleasure Movies #284 of 366 The Best Movies Based On Books

19
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John Cleese, Diana Rigg, Jim Henson

Released: 1981

Directed by: Jim Henson

The Great Muppet Caper is a 1981 mystery musical comedy film directed by Jim Henson. It is the second of a series of live-action musical feature films, starring Jim Henson's Muppets. This film ...more

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#147 of 377 The Best Musical Movies of All Time #243 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Ranked #112 of 439 The Funniest '80s Movies

20
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Mel Brooks, Orson Welles, Hugh Hefner

Released: 1981

Directed by: Mel Brooks

History of the World, Part I is a 1981 comedy film written, produced, and directed by Mel Brooks. Brooks also stars in the film, playing five roles: Moses, Comicus the stand-up philosopher, ...more

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#234 of 349 'Old' Movies Every Young Person Needs To Watch In Their Lifetime #192 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Ranked #225 of 599 The Greatest Epic Movies Ever Made

21
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Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, George C. Scott

Released: 1981

Directed by: Harold Becker

Taps is a 1981 drama film starring George C. Scott and Timothy Hutton, with Ronny Cox, Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, and Evan Handler in supporting roles. Hutton was nominated for a Golden Globe award ...more

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#298 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Ranked #80 of 153 The Most Utterly Depressing Movies Ever Made #34 of 42 The All-Time Best Tom Cruise Movies

22
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John Travolta, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz

Released: 1981

Directed by: Brian De Palma

Blow Out is a 1981 thriller film, written and directed by Brian De Palma. The film stars John Travolta as Jack Terry, a movie sound effects technician from Philadelphia who, while recording ...more

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#195 of 250 The Best Psychological Thrillers of All Time #333 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Ranked #1,011 of 1,699 The Most Rewatchable Movies

23
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Ursula Andress, Maggie Smith, Laurence Olivier

Released: 1981

Directed by: Desmond Davis

Clash of the Titans is an 1981 British-American fantasy adventure film involving the Greek hero Perseus, and features the final work of stop motion visual effects artist, Ray Harryhausen. It was ...more

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#169 of 349 'Old' Movies Every Young Person Needs To Watch In Their Lifetime #160 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Ranked #141 of 599 The Greatest Epic Movies Ever Made

24
The Howling is listed (or ranked) 24 on the list The Best Movies of 1981
Dee Wallace, John Sayles, Slim Pickens

Released: 1981

Directed by: Joe Dante

The Howling is a 1981 werewolf-themed horror film directed by Joe Dante. Based on the novel of the same name by Gary Brandner, the screenplay is written by John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless. ...more

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#290 of 571 The Greatest Movies Of The 1980s, Ranked #88 of 847 The Best Horror Movies Of All Time #358 of 624 The Greatest Guilty Pleasure Movies

25
Thief is listed (or ranked) 25 on the list The Best Movies of 1981
Willie Nelson, James Caan, Tuesday Weld

Released: 1981

Directed by: Michael Mann

This film is a 1981 neo-noir film written and directed by Michael Mann and based on the 1975 novel by "Frank Hohimer". The film stars James Caan as the titular thief and Tuesday Weld ...more