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12 Greatest Movie Moments of 1981

It’s 1981. In the United States, new President Ronald Reagan is shot by a man trying to get actress Jodie Foster’s attention. The first IBM-PC computer is introduced and Voyager 2 encounters Saturn. While electronic technology continues to make impressive gains, Billie Jean King becomes the first prominent sportsperson to come out as openly gay. Times are changing. At the movies, big special-effects adventures become the rage and a now iconic fedora-wearing hero makes his debut. Here are the 12 Greatest Movie Moments of 1981.


12) Riding the Dragon

12 Greatest Movie Moments of 1981
Peter MacNicol (Dragonslayer, 1981)
FILM: Dragonslayer

Sword and Sorcery films were trending this year, and dragons were, as they still are, a fascination. In this epic tale, a 400-year-old dragon named Vermithrax Pejorative (Best. Name. Ever.) holds power over the Kingdom of Urland, who sacrifice virgin girls twice a year to appease the beast. To free them of this terrible reign of fire, it falls upon the courage of a young wizard’s apprentice named Galen Bradwarden (Peter MacNicol) who in this moment enters the cave of the monster and leaps upon its back with a special dragon slaying spear. Sort of. Giddy-up.

11) Recording a Murder

12 Greatest Movie Moments of 1981
John Travolta (Blow Out, 1981)
FILM: Blow Out

Master of suspense, Brian De Palma has built a career out of using creative camera motion and specialized sound effects to help tell his stories, and with Blow Out, he outdoes himself. Sound technician Jack Terry (John Travolta) works on low-budget exploitation movies and one evening in a park while recording potential sound effects, he trains his highly-sensitive microphone on an approaching car. He witnesses and audio records a tire blowout and then a car careening off a bridge and into the water. Or did he? Listening later, he thinks he hears something more. This dialog-free moment in a pulse-pounding masterpiece of tension. Sadly, there is no disco dancing.

10) Blow His Mind

12 Greatest Movie Moments of 1981
Scanners, 1981
FILM: Scanners

Have you ever wanted to get inside someone’s mind and know what they are thinking? Well maybe you won’t after watching this sci-fi horror movie. When a small group of ‘scanners’ use their powers of telepathy and mind control to kill those who don’t join them, a private security firmed called ConSec teaches a man to control his powers to infiltrate and fight back. In the movie’s jarring opening scene, a scanner working for ConSec at a conference asks for a volunteer to demonstrate the ability, not realizing that the volunteer is actually Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), the leader of the evil organization. When the two engage in a mental battle, it’s lights out for the good guy. Well, eyes out, nose out, hair out. Pretty much everything out.

9) Doing It On The Table

12 Greatest Movie Moments of 1981
Jessica Lange, Jack Nicholson (The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1981)
FILM: The Postman Always Rings Twice

In this remake of the 1941 classic, things get a little more seedy, a little more shifty, and a lot more sexy. The story of a pair of lovers who fall madly in lust with each other brings drifter Frank Chambers (Jack Nicholson) and married Cora Smith (Jessica Lange) together. She works at the diner her husband owns and they hire Chambers to work at the place after he stops in for a meal. Bad idea. Not long after, Chambers and Smith are at each other like rabbits and conspire to do in her husband. The most notorious and controversial scene is the dinner table sex where audiences were convinced what they were seeing was real. Sure looks it, we say blushing. It was Lange’s first sex scene and boy did she go for it.

8) Widow Tweed Says Goodbye

12 Greatest Movie Moments of 1981
The Fox and the Hound, 1981
FILM: The Fox and the Hound

This Disney animated children’s movie follows the friendship of an unlikely pair. As pups, the fox and the hound make for fun playmates, but as they become adults, things change. Living with Window Tweed (Jeanette Nolan), Tod the fox (Mickey Rooney), doesn’t really understand how he is the natural enemy of his hound friend Cooper (Kurt Russell) until he inadvertently causes Copper’s mentor to fall from a bridge in a chase. Vowing revenge, Copper blames his former friend for the injury, as does his owner. Fearing for his life, Tweed packs up her companion and drives him out to a game preserve, singing a song of memories as she goes. Along the way, Tod catches on to what is happening. Don’t lie and say you weren’t bawling like a baby.

7) Ned Meets Matty

12 Greatest Movie Moments of 1981
Kathleen Turner, William Hurt (Body Heat, 1981)
FILM: Body Heat

In the movie that launched the career of Kathleen Turner, instantly making her one of the sexist screen stars in the history of film, this story of lust and betrayal was all the buzz on release. Ned (William Hurt) is a careless lawyer looking for sex, and finds it in an affair with sultry, married Matty (Turner). Things get complicated from there as the two engage in some of the steamiest love scenes ever put to a mainstream film. However, it is their first meeting, seeing Turner in her film debut utterly melting the screen that is most memorable. She spills her iced cherry shavings on her front. He offers to wipe it off, but she has a better idea. Lick it. Subtle.

6) Bond Goes Bobsledding

12 Greatest Movie Moments of 1981
For Your Eyes Only, 1981
FILM: For Your Eyes Only

In Roger Moore‘s fifth turn as the intrepid British secret agent, Bond tries to locate a missile command system while getting romantically entangled with a beautiful Greek woman seeking revenge. At one point, as is typical of our hero, he ends up in a chase, this time on skis (an old favorite of 007). In what might arguably be considered one of the best (if not longest) chases in the franchise, Bond out-skies henchmen on machine-gun-fitted dirt bikes and takes to a bobsled run during a race. Gold Medal! Sadly, a stunt man was killed while filming the sled portion.

5) Winger Rallies the Troops

12 Greatest Movie Moments of 1981
Bill Murray (Stripes, 1981)
FILM: Stripes

When John Winger (Bill Murray) loses his job, car, apartment, and girlfriend all in one afternoon, he decides to give the Army a chance, dragging his best friend Russell Ziskey (Harold Ramis) with him. A couple of misfits who aren’t exactly solider material, they get on the wrong side of their Sergeant (Warren Oates), right from the start. When they accidentally blow him up during a training exercise (don’t worry, he survives), the platoon is left without a leader to get them ready for the big graduation ceremony. Disorganized, downtrodden and disheveled, Winger gathers the group and gives an inspiring speech to motivate the soldiers, claiming they are all mutants and mutts. Huh? Kind of like his speech in Meatballs, he rouses the men and they line up and follow their new leader straight to the best graduation show of the day. “That’s the fact, Jack.”

4) Arthur Gets Knighted

12 Greatest Movie Moments of 1981
Nigel Terry, Keith Buckley (Excalibur, 1981)
FILM: Excalibur

Hooray! Another sword and sorcery movie. This one tells the story of King Arthur and his knights of the round table in glorious, epic 80s excess. In this pivotal moment, Arthur (Nigel Terry) has already pulled the fabled sword from the stone, marking him as the one true king of England, but not all are willing to believe the young man is fit. One is a courageous warrior named Sir Uryens (Keith Buckley), who is a sworn enemy and is holding siege of a castle of one of Arthur’s trusted followers. In a battle, when Arthur could best the knight, he instead surprisingly offers the sword of Excalibur to Uryens. Either kill him or properly knight him and in so doing, join him. Temped to whack off his head, Uryen is moved by the gesture and falls to his knees after knighting the King. There ain’t nobody better than Terry as Arthur.

3) Perseus fights Medusa

12 Greatest Movie Moments of 1981
Medusa (Clash of the Titans, 1981)
FILM: Clash of the Titans

Hey! More swords and sorcery. Sort of. Greek mythology has always been a source for Hollywood adventures and it gets the stop-motion animated treatment here with some groundbreaking special effects that had audiences and critics alike cheering. The story follows Perseus (Harry Hamlin), the son of Zeus (Laurence Olivier), who seeks to break a curse over the beautiful Princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker). At one point, the angry sea goddess Thetis (Maggie Smith) unleashes the monstrous Kraken to kill Andromeda. To stop the beast, Perseus needs the power of Medusa, a creature with snakes for hair that turns people to stone upon a single gaze at her face. The battle for her head is easily the film’s highlight and still has influence to this day. What kind of conditioner do you use on snake hair?

2) The Transformation

12 Greatest Movie Moments of 1981
An American Werewolf in London, 1981
FILM: An American Werewolf in London

In the decade before computers would wholly transform how movies would be made, visual effects artists were creating some of the most amazing sequences in movie history. So it was for make-up special effects wizard Rick Baker, who’s work on this film established and then won the first ever Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup. In this now iconic moment, our hero David Kessler (David Naughton) is bitten by a werewolf on Moors and on the first full moon following, transforms into the beast. It remains the greatest ever in the genre and because it’s practical and not CGI, feels frighteningly authentic. Poor David. Howl he ever get out of this situation?

1) The Escape

12 Greatest Movie Moments of 1981
Harrison Ford (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981)
FILM: Raiders of the Lost Ark

While epic space adventures and big-budget fantasy films dominated the box office, there was one movie that proved all your really needed was a likable hero . . . and two of the greatest living writers and directors in the history of cinema . . . to have success. Okay, so not an easy combination. But the first film in the Indiana Jones franchise is a landmark in movies, with a superior script (by Lawrence Kasdan) and excellent direction, not to mention a leading man (Harrison Ford) that charmed his way into everyone’s favor. While the film is packed with iconic moments, it is the opening sequence as Jones loots a South American temple and barely escapes the traps within that is the greatest movie moment of the year. Thank you, Doctor Jones.

What are your favorite moments of 1981?

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  1. movierob July 1, 2016