The 1980s were an incredible time for teen movies. That’s because it was the decade where Hollywood studios figured out that teenagers had a lot of disposable income that they were willing to spend on various forms of entertainment. By making movies specifically targeted toward dating adolescents and/or groups of friends hanging out together, they were able to generate some serious revenue. It helped that most malls — the social hubs of the era — had cinemas, making it convenient for kids to plunk their money down at the box office. Certainly, there were some unimaginative duds tossed into theaters in an effort to capitalize on all of this, but there were some bonafide classics, too.
What follows is a ranking of the best teen pictures of the era. We know it will be controversial. There were so many great movies aimed at the teen crowd during the ’80s that we had to leave some pretty awesome titles out. How did we narrow this list down? For starters, we looked at enduring appeal. The films that follow are still relevant and enjoyable today. What their stories had to say and how they said it was also a major factor. Since young people are often influenced by entertainment, it only made sense to consider the messages these works delivered.
Some of the entries are pretty obvious, while others are “buried treasures” that deserve to be rediscovered. We’ve got genre films mixed in with high school tales. So put on your leg warmers, crank up your Duran Duran CDs, and prepare to go back in time.
Here are the 15 Best ’80s Teen Movies, Ranked.
15. The Lost Boys
The Lost Boys is a perfect representation of how Hollywood tried to appeal to teens in the 1980s. It had a cast of actors who were, at the time, red-hot up-and-comers, including Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Patric, Jami Gertz, and both Coreys (Haim and Feldman). There was also a soundtrack album full of songs from some of the top artists of the day (INXS, Echo and the Bunnymen, Lou Gramm, etc). The story concerns two brothers who move to a new town, only to discover that the local cool kids are really a pack of vampires.
Everything about The Lost Boys — from its cast, to its music, to its fashions, to its filmmaking style — is quintessentially ’80s. The movie feels like a horror movie made in MTV music video style. While it may seem a little dated now for that very reason, the picture still stands as a prime example of how slick entertainment was packaged for teen audiences during the era. And the entertainment value remains. Any horror flick where a guy is forced to hallucinate that a takeout container of rice is actually full of maggots can never completely lose its punch.
14. Better Off Dead
“Savage Steve” Holland wasn’t the household name that John Hughes was, but he was similarly a filmmaker with a particular interest in teen life. His film Better Off Dead stars John Cusack as Lane Meyer, an adolescent who makes several humorously unsuccessful suicide attempts after his girlfriend dumps him for the captain of the ski team. (Hey, it was the ’80s. People played suicidal ideation for laughs back then.) In an effort to win her back, he challenges the boyfriend to a ski race, despite not knowing how to ski.
Politically incorrect subject matter aside, Better Off Dead is notable for its comically skewed world. Lane is repeatedly dogged by a paperboy demanding the two dollars he is owed. He keeps encountering a pair of Japanese drag racers, one of whom speaks in the voice of legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell. And who could forget the animated sequence in which Lane imagines one of the hamburgers he’s flipping coming to life and playing guitar to Van Halen’s “Everybody Wants Some”? Better Off Dead captures the way the teen years can feel deeply weird, while also maintaining a sense of sweetness. Holland’s follow-up, One Crazy Summer, became a cult favorite, too.
13. Can’t Buy Me Love
Taking its name from the classic Beatles song, Can’t Buy Me Love is the story of Ronald Miller (Patrick Dempsey), a high school outcast desperate to climb his school’s social ladder. To accomplish this, he decides to pay the most popular girl in school, Cindy Mancini (Amanda Peterson), a thousand bucks to pretend to be his girlfriend for a month. Ronald does indeed become suddenly popular, but he also creates a bunch of new problems for himself.
Can’t Buy Me Love has much of value to say about the arbitrary nature of popularity. Especially in high school years, being popular is often about wearing the “right” clothes or having the “right” friends, as opposed to being a fundamentally likable person. The movie is frequently funny, especially during a scene where Ronald accidentally creates a dance craze after mimicking an African anteater ritual he sees on television. It’s the message about the importance of being true to yourself and not giving in to other people’s standards that gives it long-lasting impact, though.
12. Sixteen Candles
Adolescence is a time of great drama. Even the little things can feel earth-shaking when you’re a teen. In John Hughes’ debut film Sixteen Candles, Samantha Baker (played by Molly Ringwald, in her breakout role) suffers an existential crisis when her entire family forgets that it’s her 16th birthday. In fact, the only person who totally pays attention to her is the lovestruck school geek, “Farmer Ted” (Anthony Michael Hall). But the guy she really wants to notice her is Jake Ryan (Michael Schoffling), the classmate she’s big-time smitten with.
If we’re being honest, parts of Sixteen Candles don’t play so well today. An exchange student character named Long Duc Dong is a pretty offensive Asian stereotype, and there’s that whole thing with Ted basically date-raping a drunk popular girl. Nevertheless, Hughes had a knack for writing realistic teen dialogue and crafting scenarios that are relatable. If you’ve ever had an unrequited crush on someone, or if you’ve ever felt invisible to your family and peers, Sixteen Candles understands your pain. The movie also helped turn the great Molly Ringwald into America’s reigning cinematic teen queen.
The subject of popularity is infused within many of the films on this list, but Heathers puts an insanely dark spin on the subject. In this subversive comedy, Winona Ryder plays Veronica, one member of her high school’s clique of popular girls (the others are all named Heather). She grows tired of their snobby, elitist ways and the manner in which they treat the less popular kids. She decides to leave the group and, together with the class bad boy (Christian Slater), get some vengeance for all the kids the Heathers have mistreated. Things end up becoming quite deadly.
This is one of those movies where you laugh hysterically, then feel guilty for laughing, then laugh some more. Heathers pushes the envelope in mining comedy from teens murdering other teens. It is, however, a marvelous example of satire. Despite the surface-level gruesomeness, Michael Lehmann’s movie understands that high school is sometimes a dog-eat-dog world when it comes to popularity. Kids can be cruel to each other, killing with words and actions, if not with literal weapons. That quality gives the film real sting, marking it as one of the most provocative and (yes) deep-digging of the ’80s teen flicks.
10. My Bodyguard
Released in 1980, My Bodyguard stars Chris Makepeace as Clifford Peache, the new kid at a Chicago high school. Because he is new and mild-mannered, it doesn’t take long for bully Melvin Moody (Matt Dillon) and his buddies to target him. The fact that Clifford arrives for his first day in a limousine belonging to the hotel his father manages doesn’t endear him to his classmates. To protect himself, he asks Ricky Linderman (Adam Baldwin), the large, troubled, and rumored-to-be-dangerous class outcast to act as his bodyguard.
These days, it’s not uncommon for teen movies to address bullying in some way, but back then, it was a much less frequently explored topic. Making My Bodyguard especially poignant is the way it explores the friendship that develops between Clifford and Ricky, the latter of whom is more sensitive than anyone gives him credit for. The two form a bond that changes both of their lives. This is a smart, funny exploration of teenagers learning to overcome their problems, stand up to their tormentors, and find self-confidence in life.
9. Rumble Fish
The Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola made two movies in 1983 that were based on young adult novels by S.E. Hinton. The Outsiders was the more conventional of the two. Rumble Fish, on the other hand, is artier, moodier, and more experimental. Matt Dillon plays Rusty James, a young street thug romancing a high school girl (Diane Lane), taking care of an alcohol father (Dennis Hopper), and coming to terms with the fact that he may never live up to the reputation of his much-feared tough-guy older brother, Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke).
Coppola intentionally makes Rumble Fish feel like it’s taking place in a dream. It’s shot in black-and-white, with the only splashes of color provided by the titular fish Rusty James likes to observe at a pet store. The acting and dialogue are heightened in a very theatrical way. The musical score, by the Police drummer Stewart Copeland, is intensely percussive, serving in many ways like a clock that reminds Rusty James that his time in this world may be limited if he keeps brawling. All of this — plus Nicolas Cage in an early role — adds up to a stylish, hypnotic tale about a wayward youth learning to rethink his delinquent ways.
8. Pretty in Pink
Pretty in Pink is the movie that made going to prom feel like the biggest, most consequence-laden decision a teenager could ever have to make. Molly Ringwald plays Andie, a girl from an economically disadvantaged home. Her best friend is Duckie (Jon Cryer), a geek who not-so-secretly adores her. Andie is asked to the prom by her crush, rich kid Blane (Andrew McCarthy), but his snooty best friend (James Spader) convinces him to rescind the invitation because she isn’t good enough for their clique.
Written by John Hughes and directed by Howard Deutsch, Pretty in Pink isn’t really about the prom, it’s about money; specifically, the way economic barriers can divide teenagers. The burgeoning romance between well-to-do Blane and working-class Andie puts both of their friendships to the test. Focus group audiences hated the original ending, where a broken-hearted Andie ended up with Duckie, so it was reshot to put her in Blane’s arms. In some ways, that ending is better, though, because it sends the message that no one should be judged by how much money their family has.
Incidentally, Hughes and Deutsch got to make their original point with Some Kind of Wonderful, a gender-flipped version of the same story in which the blue-collar hero decides the popular girl isn’t really his kind of thing after all.
7. Permanent Record
See, there used to be a thing called an “Afterschool Special.” They were television dramas designed to tackle heavy issues that kids and teenagers deal with, and they always had some sort of moral at the end. They were also pretty heavy-handed and occasionally cheesy. Permanent Record, on the surface, sounds like an Afterschool Special, but thankfully, it handles some very difficult subject matter in a smart and profoundly meaningful way.
Keanu Reeves plays Chris, a high schooler whose best friend David commits suicide. He feels guilty for having failed to recognize the signs that his pal was so desperately unhappy. He additionally experiences a measure of anger for being left with so much confusion over the reasons for David’s actions. Together with their mutual friends, Chris makes plans to eulogize him during a school production. Permanent Record, which veteran critic Roger Ebert dubbed one of 1988’s best films, deals honestly with the issue of teen suicide and the impact it has on those closest to the deceased. It avoids the trap of being maudlin by tackling the issue in an emotionally honest manner. While not as well-known as other titles on this list, the movie is an absolute must-see.
6. The Karate Kid
Nobody expected much from The Karate Kid when it came out in 1984. Its biggest star was Pat Morita, best known for playing restaurant owner Arnold on the sitcom Happy Days. He was not exactly a major box office draw. Once audiences got a look at the movie, though, phenomenal word-of-mouth began to spread. It went on to become not only one of that year’s biggest hits, but also an all-time teen classic.
This is a basic feel-good story about Daniel (Ralph Macchio), a bullied adolescent who is instructed in the martial arts by his apartment building’s maintenance man, Mr. Miyagi. He then faces off against his rival in a karate championship. The plot is pure formula, but the execution is magnificent. Morita and Macchio develop wonderful chemistry, and the training scenes are as funny as they are convincing. (Miyagi teaches proper hand movement by having Daniel wax his car.) William Zabka, meanwhile, plays such a thoroughly detestable bully that when Daniel delivers the winning crane-kick to his face during their climactic karate match, it’s a literal stand-up-and-cheer moment. The Karate Kid is nothing less than a wholly satisfying experience from beginning to end.
5. Risky Business
Risky Business was not Tom Cruise’s first film, but it was definitely the one that made the world sit up and take notice of this amazingly talented star. He plays Joel, a Chicago teen excited to have the house to himself when his parents go away on a trip. After raiding the liquor cabinet and dancing around the living room in his underwear, Joel hires a call girl named Lana (Rebecca DeMornay). This act kicks off a crazy adventure during which he gets a gun pulled on him by a pimp, drives his dad’s Porsche into a lake, and has sex with Lana on a train car to the sounds of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.”
Aside from being funny as heck, Risky Business works because it’s a razor-sharp satire of sheltered suburban teens. Through his ordeal, Joel learns that there are people in the world with the kinds of problems he’ll never have to face, thanks to his affluent upbringing. He also develops a healthy dose of cynicism that, the story implies, will benefit him later in life. Writer/director Paul Brickman’s dialogue is fast and funny, but Cruise seals the deal, giving a performance of such magnetism that you literally can’t take your eyes off him.
4. Fast Times at Ridgemont High
A young reporter named Cameron Crowe went undercover in an American high school as research for a book that later became the 1982 movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The film introduced the public to a host of talented future stars, including Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nicolas Cage, Forrest Whittaker, and — in one unforgettable scene — Phoebe Cates. (You know what we’re talking about.) The story follows a group of high school students as they navigate homework, jobs at the mall, dating, drug use, and more.
The early ’80s were full of teen sex comedies, with titles like Losin’ It and Going All the Way. Most of them were broad comedies about horny dudes doing everything they could to see naked girls or, even better, get laid. Fast Times was notable because it showed teenagers having sex and sometimes feeling ambivalent about it. (Leigh’s character, for instance, experiences an unplanned pregnancy and opts to have an abortion.) By taking these and other sorts of teen problems seriously, Amy Heckerling’s film immediately set itself apart. Even now, thirty-five years after its release, Fast Times remains a landmark motion picture, showing how valuable true-to-life stories about adolescents can be.
3. Say Anything…
Speaking of Cameron Crowe, he made his directorial debut with the acclaimed teen romance Say Anything… Actually, it’s not just one of the best teen romantic-comedies of the 1980s, it’s one of the best romantic-comedies of that decade, period. John Cusack plays Lloyd Dobler, a slacker whose only real interests are kickboxing and Diane Court (Ione Skye), the class valedictorian. After getting an unlikely chance to date her, Lloyd finds that her father (John Mahoney) doesn’t approve of his ambitious daughter dating a guy who seems so aimless. Mr. Court is definitely an obstacle in the relationship, but when it turns out that he’s done something illegal, Diane realizes that Lloyd may be the only guy she can truly count on.
Say Anything… contains one of the most iconic scenes in ’80s cinema: Lloyd tries to win back Diane after a breakup by standing outside her house, blasting Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” from a boombox hoisted above his head. More than that, though, the story addresses themes related to sacrifice and self-confidence. Lloyd may not know what he wants to do with his life, but he knows that Diane has her stuff all figured out, so he’s strong enough to support her in following her dreams. Say Anything… is a really smart picture, with sensitive performances from Cusack and Skye that make it enjoyable for viewers of any age.
2. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Most of the great ’80s teen movies deal with serious issues, as this list has already shown. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off has a much lighter message: have fun! Or, as the lead character puts it, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Matthew Broderick oozes charisma as Ferris, a fun-loving guy who decides to play hooky from school. He convinces his uptight best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) to join him and girlfriend Sloane (Mia Sara) in a day full of activities that include dining at a fancy restaurant, attending/starring in a parade, and taking Cameron’s dad’s sports car for a spin. The whole time, he has to outsmart the curmudgeonly principal (Jeffrey Jones), who is determined to bust him.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is ridiculously funny. No matter how many times you watch it, the jokes still have the power to generate serious belly laughs. This is also a movie that people relate to in a very deep way. Most of us are, at some level, Camerons who wish we could be Ferrises. Although fairly simple, the story’s message about the importance of stopping to savor life is a worthy one. The way John Hughes directs the picture makes us feel as though we’re tagging along with our hero on his day of play, which means it’s a delight to watch. Comedies just don’t get much funnier than this.
1. The Breakfast Club
There’s a reason John Hughes was the king of ’80s teen movies. He directed and/or wrote four of the films on this list. By far, his crowning achievement is also the best teen movie of the era, The Breakfast Club. Good luck finding a high schooler who hasn’t seen this one. Watching it has become a virtual rite of passage.
The story is straightforward. Five kids — a jock (Emilio Estevez), a princess (Molly Ringwald), a brain (Anthony Michael Hall), an outcast (Ally Sheedy), and a rebel (Judd Nelson) — are forced to spend a Saturday in detention together. At first, they stay firmly in their roles. As the day wears on, though, they get to know one another outside the labels, realizing that they have more in common than they thought.
The Breakfast Club was the first movie to really dive deep into the idea of high school cliques. Anyone watching the movie can easily identify themselves as one of these characters. Hughes precisely captures the way kids in different groups see and stereotype one another. Then, in the second half, he expertly dismantles those same stereotypes, showing how teenagers are far more complex than they give each other credit for. Of course, you can (and should) debate whether the Breakfast Club members really stay friends come Monday morning. Either way, there’s no doubt that this is the definitive movie on the subject, one that helps the viewer see those painful adolescent years in a whole new light.
Which of these teen classics is your favorite? What are you angry that we left off? (Come on, we know we didn’t include some of your favorites!) Hit us up with your thoughts in the comments.
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