1989 ended up being a very significant year for blockbuster films. It closed out trilogies, brought comic book properties back into the spotlight, marked the start of a creative renaissance, and more.
As unbelievable as it is, that’s 30 years in the past, so let’s take a look back on some of the biggest and most influential films of that year.
Dead Poets Society
It’s kind of remarkable that one of the biggest movies of 1989 is a period piece drama about boys at a boarding school being taught poetry by Robin Williams, but that description significantly undersells the final film. This was one of Robin Williams’ first attempts at “serious” acting, and he nailed it, along with performances from young Ethan Hawke and Kurtwood Smith (only two years after he killed Murphy in Robocop).
Look, we all know that the first Ghostbusters is a better movie, but that doesn’t mean Ghostbusters II is a bad movie either. Its attempts to be “bigger and better” than the original undermine it, but there are still so many good goddamn scenes in here that I can’t ignore it (Egon’s new tests are fucking hilarious).
I also think that Ghostbusters II gets a bad reputation because it was far from the only sequel to come out in 1989, and those sequels were just… Better. For example:
Back to the Future Part II
Against all odds, Back to the Future Part II is fucking great. Legitimately expanding on the concepts (and the humor) of the original, its the rare sequel that genuinely improves on its predecessor, and it’s still a time travel movie, a genre notorious for being full of horrible movies.
Only thing I really dislike about it is the whole “Michael J. Fox plays all of his future relatives” thing, but that’s a personal thing.
Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade
Now, as much praise as I just put onto Back to the Future Part II, I’d put even more onto Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. I LOVE this movie. Sean Connery does some of his best work in this film as Indy’s father, and the prologue with River Phoenix is one of those things that should have been cheesy and awful on paper that’s perfectly executed, down to the final shot of young Jones receiving the hat.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is still my favorite film of the series, but this is a ridiculously close second place.
The Little Mermaid
This is one of the most significant Disney films ever released, not because it was their biggest success, but because it marked the beginning of a new era for the studio.
From The Little Mermaid to Tarzan (or Fantasia 2000, depending on who you ask) is a period referred to as “The Disney Renaissance.” Disney brutally struggled through the 1980s, but The Little Mermaid established a creative team that took Disney from being a dubious financial disaster to one of the biggest companies in the world.
They utterly dominated animation for a decade, and The Little Mermaid is essentially the beginning of that.
Licence to Kill
Arguably one of the most divisive entries in the franchise (despite having a young Benicio del Toro), this film marked the end of Timothy Dalton’s run as James Bond after two movies. Dalton’s entries were much darker than the Roger Moore movies that had preceded them, and that seemed to kill interest at the time (but in retrospect, Dalton’s movies where kind of the forerunner for what Daniel Craig’s entries have become, so maybe we shouldn’t be so harsh 30 years later?).
Born on the Fourth of July
Man, remember when contemplative dramas actually made a shitload of money at the box office? I miss those days, and that might be the best thing the 1980s ever did for movies in a roundabout sort of way (fun fact, the highest grossing film of 1988 was Rain Man, beating out Who Framed Roger Rabbit).
And Born on the Fourth of July deserved that money, representing some of Tom Cruise and Oliver Stone’s finest work.
Honey I Shrunk the Kids
It might not be the best or most influential movie out there, but this was the 5th biggest movie of 1989, so we’re going to talk about it. While “shrinking” effects have become much more complicated in a post-CGI world, this film had to use models, old-school compositing, and every trick in the book to try and make the film work. What it manages to pull off under those limitations is damn impressive.
Plus, Rick Moranis is always a joy to watch.
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Oh look, a perfect movie.
I’m not even sure if I’m kidding when I say that. Besides helping to put Keanu Reeves on the map permanently, the film features incredible cameos (Rest in Peace George Carlin, you were one of the greatest comedians of all time) and just a hilarious premise. When it comes to late 80s goofiness, this might have been the peak.
It’s funny how The Abyss was actually a bit of a bomb back in its day. The director’s cut, despite being nearly three hours long, is incredibly well regarded these days, and I’m a sucker for Ed Harris.
But this film’s contribution to the history of visual effects is the reason it has become wildly significant. The “water tentacle” scene was so ambitious that James Cameron wrote the scene in such a way that no characters referenced it later in the movie, just in case they needed to drop it from the final film if the effects team couldn’t deliver.
They delivered, and the software they used ended up being the foundation of Photoshop as a software.
If you asked anyone who had any knowledge of the 1980s “What was the biggest movie of 1989?” there isn’t a single answer they’d give you besides Tim Burton’s Batman. Not just because it was the highest grossing film at the box office that year, but because it relaunched comic book movies into the mainstream.
Drawing visually from the darker comics that had emerged during the timeframe (and from Tim Burton’s own bizarre mind), Batman is so much bigger than being just a movie. Its influence and importance is felt to this day, and while most people would point to Heath Ledger as the best Joker, I’ve met plenty of people who’d point to Jack Nicholson instead.
I could go on for a lot longer, but I don’t need to. This film’s reputation precedes itself, and its presence in pop culture is going to last well into the future, even 30 years after its release.