Enter your number to get our free mobile app

It was a hell of a time for movies in 1981. The year kicked off with exploding heads in Scanners and ended with audiences introduced to a fresh-faced kid named Tom Cruise. In between, there was one of the most iconic action-adventure films of all-time (Raiders of the Lost Ark), a superhero sequel that broke box-office records (Superman II) and a lot of films that largely went ignored until finding a new audience years later.

The year also brought us a lot of fresh faces in Hollywood, even beyond Cruise. This was the first time we saw actors like Sean Penn, Denzel Washington, Ben Affleck, Kevin Costner, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Meg Ryan, Holly Hunter and Demi Moore on the big screen. It also marked our introduction to some guy named James Cameron, who went on to do pretty well for himself.

Looking back at 40 films that shaped 1981 and the decades that followed, it's remarkable how influential the year was for cinema. As you flip through this list, make note of all the sequels, reboots, remakes, adaptations, video games, comic books and cartoons spawned from the films released this year. It really felt like the beginning of a specific commercialization of film that's grown even stronger — today, it's difficult to get a film made without a plan for how it can also be adapted into a Broadway musical or launch a series of action figures.

You'll find a lot of nostalgia looking through this list. And as we fondly remember these films, 40 years ago almost doesn't seem that long ago. These movies have been with us for a long time — but as we continue to think about and revisit them, it feels like they never really left us.

40 Essential Movies That Turn 40 in 2021