The 1980s were an interesting time in American cinema. Following the camp and glitter of 1970s but before the introspective, thoughtful films of the 1990s, the great movies of the 1980s were all about spectacle. Steven Spielberg and James Cameron found their fame. Goofy buddy flicks like Ghostbusters leveled up, and the Brat Pack blew up the screen in a series of classic teen dramedies.
The ’80s also featured movies carried by a single big star in a way that the silver screen hadn’t seen since the Golden Age. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson, and Harrison Ford brought throngs of people to the box office. The Cold War was winding down, America was winning, and our cinema reflected this ostentatious feeling.
We tasked about a dozen of our writers with winnowing down the very best of American cinema from the 1980s. We’ve got big stars, big directors, big marshmallow men, and Andre the Giant. Take a peek and see if your favorite flicks made the list!
20. Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
While surely the least of the three Star Wars original trilogy films, Return of the Jedi still managed to pack a whole lot of awesome into two hours. As the culmination of the original trilogy, the film marked the defeat of the Emperor, the redemption of Darth Vader, and the elevation of Luke Skywalker to Jedi. It also introduced us to the true relationship between Luke and Leia, saw the downfall of the Emperor, the advent of the Ewoks, and a whole lot of Lando.
While some fans complained about the lighter, more kid-friendly tone of ROTJ — especially in the wake of its dark-but-brilliant predecessor The Empire Strikes Back — the film still captivated audiences around the world. It remains in the top 20 grossing films of all time (when adjusted for a constant dollar), and the destruction of the second Death Star set the stage for 2015’s The Force Awakens.
1984’s film of the year was an unexpected masterpiece. This very fictionalized biopic (about as historically accurate as Shakespeare in Love or Planet of the Apes) of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had many things working against it: its exploration of a classical music giant during an increasingly electronic age, a “PG” rating for a film which was not aimed at families, and its release in a year where it had to compete for attention with Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, The Karate Kid, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and more.
However, this tale of two composers — one divine, the other simply very talented — captivated audiences and critics. In adapting the Tony-award-winning play for the screen, director Miloš Forman assembled a brilliant cast (both F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce were nominated for Best Actor Oscars, with Abraham winning), beautiful sets, and a breathtaking score. The result was movie magic.
18. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
In 1989, Harrison Ford donned the fedora for what many assumed would be the final time (we have since learned we were very wrong in that assumption). Shooting forward from Temple of Doom’s 1920’s Shanghai and India, Jones finds himself fighting his most hated enemy once again: Nazis. This time, he’s racing them for the Holy Grail, which the occult-loving Nazis believe brings eternal life.
With Ford’s characteristic panache driving the film, it was Sean Connery — playing Ford’s father, the elder Dr. Jones — who stole the show. The duo find themselves fooled by the same woman romantically and professionally, placed in the hands of the Nazis, face-to-face with Hitler, and finally up against the Knights Templar and man’s own vanity. While the film did have its detractors for being less dark than earlier installments, it was a riotously fun film to watch and remains a venerated installment in the Indiana Jones franchise.
17. The Princess Bride
There is perhaps no American comedy movie more quotable than this quirky film from director Rob Reiner. Whether it’s Billy Crystal’s “Have fun storming the castle,” Mandy Patinkin’s “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die,” or star Cary Elwes’ romantic go-to “As you wish,” you’ve certainly heard (and recited) lines from this classic.
Based on book by William Goldman, the movie shines in both its comedic performances and its love story. Reiner assembled a truly fantastic cast for this fantasy — with Andre the Giant, Christopher Guest, Robin Wright, Peter Falk, and Fred Savage joining those already named. It’s a riotous comedy, with enough boisterous action and heartfelt love to make every audience happy.
In his dark and twisted vision of the future, Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys) explores what an inefficient and totalitarian bureaucracy might look like if it was obsessed with finding terrorists. Much like Orwell’s 1984, there is a doomed love story intertwined with a morally corrupt government crushing its citizenry under its own weight.
Brazil is a bizarre and difficult movie, and certainly not everybody’s cup of tea. Roger Ebert, in a review which feels as befuddled as the movie left him, wrote “The movie is very hard to follow. I have seen it twice, and am still not sure exactly who all the characters are, or how they fit.” However, in the more than thirty years since its release, Brazil grown in status as its prescience is revealed by current events, and is now regarded as one of the great political films of all time.
15. Blue Velvet
If 1977’s Eraserhead established David Lynch (Twin Peaks) as a visionary, Blue Velvet established him as a master filmmaker. This dark and disturbing film, propelled by a terrifying performance by Dennis Hopper as the primary antagonist, explores fetishization, violence, and the evils lurking under the surface in small town life.
A very young Kyle MacLachlan plays a college student home to work in his family’s hardware store while his father recovers from an illness. After discovering a severed ear in a park, he tumbles through a rabbit hole into a world of drugs, murder, blackmail, kink, and terror. With a sublime performance from Isabella Rossellini, Blue Velvet will have you examining your neighbors very differently, wondering what evil lurks in the hearts of men.
14. The Breakfast Club
Without a doubt, The Breakfast Club is the teen movie by which all other teen movies are to be judged. Five high school students, each filling a broad stereotype, spend a Saturday in detention together. Tasked with writing an essay about how they see themselves, the group instead spends a day of accidental self-discovery. Through conflict and confinement, the group find commonalities despite the roles in which they find themselves.
One of the core “Brat Pack” movies, The Breakfast Club is considered by most to be John Hughes’ best work. Starring Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson, Emilio Esteves, and Ally Sheedy, it defined a generation not by their differences, but by their similarities.
13. Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn
Part remake and part sequel, Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn is a brilliant horror-comedy written and directed by Sam Raimi (Spider Man). Beginning with a simple retelling of Raimi’s 1981 low-budget cult classic The Evil Dead, it soon ventures into new territory, with some of the goriest and funniest scenes ever committed to film.
Bruce Campbell (The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr) reprises his role as Ash Williams, a fast-talking moron who knows a thing or two about killing zombies (or Deadites, as the Raimi calls them). The film is full of off-hand (get it?) jokes, like Ash catching his possessed and self-amputated hand under a garbage pail held down with a copy of A Farewell to Arms. Some of the greatest one-liners in movie history came out of this, including Ash’s signature “groovy.”
12. Raging Bull
While not a financial success, Martin Scorsese’s biopic of boxer Jake Lamotta was ahead of its time. Fueled by violence, anger, sexual aggression, and a burning performance by Robert DeNiro, the film likely scared audiences away — but not critics. It maintains a near-perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes and Roger Ebert called it “an Othello for our times.”
Following the life of Lamotta, the black and white film tells a brutal story of jealousy and sexual inadequacy which drives the boxer to destroy every relationship in his life. It is unflinchingly honest, and the boxing feels like the least brutal part of the film. Raging Bull is also notable for launching Oscar-winner Joe Pesci’s career, and DeNiro would win a Best Actor Oscar for his work on the movie.
11. Stand By Me
In one of the greatest coming-of-age movies ever made, a trio of teenagers undertake an epic journey to look at a dead body. It sounds gruesome, but in this Rob Reiner adaptation of Stephen King’s short story “The Body,” we are instead treated to a bare, honest, and deeply compelling look at the meaning of masculinity in a changing world.
With excellent performances from Wil Wheaton, Keifer Sutherland, and Jerry O’Connell, it’s Corey Feldman’s raw and emotionally gripping turn as an abused child that steals the show. The film is full of Reiner’s trademark humor, but in this he touches something deeper and more resonant, pulling the sepia-tinted glasses off our 1950s nostalgia while still exploring the endless possibilities that boys on the verge of manhood once had.
10. Full Metal Jacket
If Stand By Me took the sepia glasses off the face of the 1950s, Full Metal Jacket smashed the 1960s version of those glasses under its boot. Stanley Kubrick’s haunting reflection on the Vietnam War follows Matthew Modine’s “Joker” from boot camp through the Tet offensive. In two segments, the film rather shockingly portrays the rapid loss of innocence war brings to its participants.
The first half of the film depicts Marine Corps boot camp, where Joker is instructed to take Vincent D’Onofrio’s (Daredevil) Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence under his wing. Lawrence is not psychologically suited to the military, and Drill Instructor Hartman’s (R. Lee Ermey) violent, angry, and condescending approach to Pyle triggers a severe psychotic break. This breakdown, in a perfect metaphor America’s approach to war, results in two deaths. The second segment, which follows Joker’s reporting on a squad under sniper attack is brutal, emotional, and masterful. It’s a hard to watch film, but one of the greatest war movies ever made.
In one of the greatest comedies of all time, ghosts have invaded Manhattan, and humanity’s only hope is a group of four losers with particle beams. Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis star as the Ghostbusters, but it’s Murray’s show from start to finish. While the special effects left much to be desired even at the time, the performances were comedic gold, including great work by Sigourney Weaver (Aliens) and Rick Moranis (Parenthood).
Of the film, Gene Siskel said “On balance, Ghostbusters is a hoot. It’s Murray’s picture, and in a triumph of mind over matter, he blows away the film’s boring special effects with his one-liners.” It’s perhaps Ghostbusters climactic scene which is most memorable, however — a giant demon-in-the-guise-of-the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man stomping kaiju-like down the streets of New York. With a reboot on the way, should any similar attack occur, three generations will know just who to call: Ghostbusters!
8. The Terminator
This 1984 sci-fi dystopian classic made James Cameron’s career, for better or for worse. It’s a dark and smart film which spawned a franchise of mixed quality movies, TV shows, and video games. It also firmly established Arnold Schwarzenegger as an action hero and influenced generations of techno-thrillers.
In this initial Terminator film, Schwarzenegger plays the titular android, sent back from a future ruled by technology with the goal of killing the boy who would overthrow that rule. It has everything a great action flick needs: explosions, a terrifying and seemingly unstoppable bad guy, famous one-liners, and an ultimate victory for the good-guy. Along the way, it planted the seeds of films like The Matrix and The Hunger Games to thrive in a future inching ever closer to its dire predictions.
7. The Shining
While the ’80s certainly had its share of movies exploring terror from another world, perhaps its most frightening film explored the terror that sleeps next to you at night. In an adaptation of Stephen King’s work, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining dives into the madness that isolation, alcohol, failure and a haunted hotel for one unlucky family.
King famously hated this adaptation, and Kubrick’s ferocious directorial style almost sent Shelley Duvall to the madhouse and nearly saw leading man Jack Nicholson quit the picture. With daily rewrites, the cast worked exceedingly long days, shooting scenes over and over again. The result, however, is a masterpiece of both psychological and supernatural terror. Nicholson’s scene breaking down the bathroom door to get to his wife remains one of the most iconic shots of all time, and The Shining sits high atop the post-Hammer horror pantheon.
As the tagline says for this follow-up to its 1977 predecessor, “There are some places in the universe you don’t go alone.” Like anywhere that is showing this terrifying movie. Similar to Empire Strikes Back, Aliens is the exception that proves the “sequels are never as good as the original” rule. The second James Cameron film on our list, it’s also the second to feature Sigourney Weaver, this time reprising her leading role as Ripley, the unluckiest woman in space.
Where Alien was terrifying for the unknown, Aliens was terrifying because we know just what is coming. Cameron masterfully builds tension without skimping on the action along the way. It’s brutal, bloody, and sparse. Contrasting the vastness of space with the inescapability of the comparatively small craft on which Ripley is trapped, Aliens feels simultaneously claustrophobic and infinite, and both are terrifying.
5. Die Hard
In the greatest Christmas movie ever made, a lonely man reunites with his estranged family over the holiday. Oh, and along the way he kills a whole lot of terrorists, jumps out of an exploding building on a firehose, and makes a new friend.
Shockingly, Frank Sinatra was originally offered the part of John McClane. Die Hard was based on a book which was a sequel to the source material for Sinatra’s R-rated film The Detective. Contractually, the studio was obligated to offer him the role. Luckily, Ol’ Blue-Eyes was 73 at the time and turned the role down. Instead we were treated to Bruce Willis’ greatest role, an excellent German terrorist ably played by the late Alan Rickman, and one of the best one-liners of all time!
4. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Steven Spielberg’s brilliant 1982 alien buddy flick was a near-unanimous choice among our voters, and for good reason. The movie hit all of what Spielberg does well: it’s a grand-scale film that feels like an event when you are watching it. It’s a film that more than survives the test of time, allowing viewers two generations later to look past the early 1980s styles and cars to the heart of the film – and that film’s heart lights right up.
E.T. is at its heart Old Yeller. It’s a story about a boy and his dog, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a scathing indictment of humanity’s inability to avoid destroying that which it doesn’t understand. It’s an examination of changing family dynamics of the time told from the perspective of the kids impacted by that story. And, more than anything, it’s a story of love transcending everything set in its way. It’s a remarkable film, and worthy of its ranking among the all-time greats.
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark
If there’s one classic 1980s adventure film which can top E.T., it’s Spielberg’s 1981 masterpiece Raiders of the Lost Ark. Like E.T., Raiders is a movie which stands the test of time. Told in the 1980s about the 1930s, it’s a throwback to the great adventure serials of the ’30s and ’40s, but with smarter writing, better direction, and an incredibly compelling lead character.
Originally slated to be played by the mustachioed Tom Selleck, Indiana Jones could have been a very different character indeed. However, the producers of Magnum, P.I. were not willing to let their lead actor out of his contract, and so we got Harrison Ford. Ford, whose sardonic smile and burning charisma came to define the role, is now preparing to don the fedora and bullwhip for a fifth installment in the venerable franchise.
2. Back to the Future
In yet another film that sets itself out of the time it was filmed, 1984’s Back to the Future takes the bad hair and fashion of the 1980s and mashes it up with the bad politics and fashion of the 1950s. Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly captured hearts and audiences with his too-cool slacker who shoots back in time and is nearly killed by incest.
After inadvertently wooing his own mother in the past, McFly must spend the rest of the film convincing her to fall for his super-nerdy father. Along the way, he has to repair his time machine with the help of Doc Brown, who is hilariously portrayed by Christopher Lloyd in both time frames. He also inadvertently spawns Chuck Berry’s career in a guitar-solo paradox, and gives us a movie in which Crispin Glover doesn’t entirely freak us out. While none of its sequels lived up to the original, Back to the Future stands high atop the most fun films of its day.
1. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
In the true Star Wars fan pantheon, there is Empire, and then there is everything else (and then there are root canals, pet funerals, Battlefield Earth, accidentally licking a public toilet, and then Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones). The film had it all: great acting, grandiose themes, a shocking revelation, an expansion of the force, and Lando Calrissian.
In fact, the film was so good it became not only the best of the Star Wars films for our panel, but the best film of the 1980s. Of the film’s 1997 theatrical re-release, Roger Ebert wrote “Watching these movies, we’re in a receptive state like that of a child–our eyes and ears are open, we’re paying attention, and we are amazed.” And we were – from the moment Lucasfilm first appeared on the screen, to the final echoes of John Williams’ brilliant score. Empire is the father of all of the films of the 1980s, destined to rule the galaxy.
Did some of your favorites miss the cut? Here are all the other films which received votes from our panel, with the most points on top to the fewest on bottom. Let us know what you think in the comments!
The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986)
A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983)
Beetlejuice (Tim Burton, 1988)
Heathers (Daniel Waters, 1988)
This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1988)
Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen, 1986)
Batman (Tim Burton, 1989)
Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989)
The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1982)
The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980)
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, 1984)
Big (Penny Marshall, 1988)
Crimes and Misdemeanors (Woody Allen, 1989)
Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983)
Airplane! (David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abraham, 1980)
Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984)
RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)
Superman II (Richard Lester, 1980)
Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989)
Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987)
Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982)
Raising Arizona (Joel Coen, 1987)
Say Anything… (Cameron Crowe, 1989)
Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986)
Gandhi (Richard Attenborough, 1982)
Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980)
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (Tim Burton, 1985)
Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987)
Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984)
Midnight Run (Martin Brest, 1988)
The Little Mermaid (Ron Clements and John Musker, 1989)
The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981)
National Lampoon’s Vacation (Harold Ramis, 1983)
Planes, Trains and Automobiles (John Hughes, 1987)
Bill Durham (Ron Shelton, 1988)
The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, 1983)
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982)
Glory (Edward Zwick, 1989)
My Neighbor Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)
Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986)
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Terry Gilliam, 1988)
Parenthood (Ron Howard, 1989)
The Purple Rose Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985)
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