The 1980s was, at the very least, an interesting decade. It marked the height of the Cold War (and the fall of the Berlin Wall), the birth of cable news, and a time when MTV still played music videos. But our favorite thing about that decade has got to be the movies that came out.
The 80s marked a stratospheric rise of some of our favorite genres (and the sub-genres within them), including big-budget action, science fiction, horror, and more. And while there were plenty of B-movie flops across all ten years, many of the films that came out back then are still amongst the most highly lauded and respected flicks of all time. This was, after all, the decade that greats like George Lucas, John Carpenter, Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron, and Ridley Scott really made names for themselves. It certainly wasn’t easy to boil down, but the following are our picks for the 30 best movies from the 1980s.
A Christmas Story
A Red Ryder B.B. gun, an “Italian” leg lamp, and a pink bunny onesie. Is there any Christmas film quite as comically iconic as A Christmas Story? This tale of Ralphie and his childhood plight during one winter season in the 1940s isn’t just one of the best holiday films – it’s one of the best films of all time for its clever period styling, universal themes of childhood and family disfunction, and somehow not overdone film-long voiceover.
Directed by James Cameron, this follow-up to the 1979 film Alien is one of the few sequels that actually improves upon the original. Starring Sigourney Weaver, Paul Reiser, and Bill Paxton, Aliens is equal parts horror, science fiction, action, and artistic masterpiece. It plays upon our basic human fears – being alone, the dark, and the sense that there’s something else out there watching us – while still delivering enough action and adventure to keep the audience wanting more.
An American Werewolf in London
Arguably the original horror-comedy, An American Werewolf in London follows the story of two college students who are attacked by a werewolf in the dead of night in the English countryside and the events that subsequently unfold. What really makes this movie special, besides the unabashed balance of gore and tongue-in-cheek comedy, is that it features one of the most well-done, gruesome, hard-to-watch transformation scenes in all of movie history. And that includes everything that has come out since. If you like horror flicks and you’ve never seen this one, it’s time to change that.
Back To The Future
Following the time-traveling misadventures of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and his totally legitimate and not creepy elderly mad scientist friend Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), this science fiction film from Robert Zemeckis is littered with impossible technology, paradoxes, and pitfalls. But it is still one of the most entertaining watches of all time. In fact, its so awesome that it got two sequels, a ride at Universal Studios, and has an unofficial national holiday during which fanatics the world-round watch all three of the films in sequence.
Starring Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, and Winona Ryder, this morbid comedy from the king of dread fascination himself, Tim Burton, is kind of like a psychedelic trip into the underworld. You know, if that kind of weirdness was an enjoyable experience. We’re talking shrunken heads, undead weddings, and sandworms on the surface of Saturn-level weirdness. It’s also incredibly funny, clever, and – somehow – heartwarming. And, chances are – if you were a child of the 80s – you learned Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song (Day-o)” from this flick.
Most people probably know the director of this film, Terry Gilliam, better as a member of the British comedy troupe Monty Python. If that’s all you know of him, however, the time has come to watch one of his movies. This one is as good a place to start as any. Certainly one of the strangest movies to grace any “must watch” list, Brazil follows a bureaucrat in a retro-futuristic world who tries to correct an administrative error, only to become an enemy of the state. It’s hard to describe this movie without giving anything away, so we’ll tell you this: it’s kind of like watching the film version of a Salvador Dalí painting.
This action blockbuster follows NYPD officer John McClane (Bruce Willis) as he tries to save his wife and her coworkers from German terrorist Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his henchmen in Nakatomi Plaza in Los Angeles, California. It’s littered with one-liners (Yippee ki-yay, anyone?), gunplay, plenty of explosions, and actually takes place during Christmas time – which is an excellent excuse to watch this movie during the holidays.
Do The Right Thing
Directed by Spike Lee, this flick about the hottest day of the year in Brooklyn, New York is marked by themes of hate, bigotry, and how the right circumstances can bring them both to their boiling point. It stars the director himself, John Turturro, Danny Aiello, and Rosie Perez. And while this Spike Lee Joint certainly deals with some poignant and serious subject matters, it still delivers plenty of laughs along with it all. If you have an appreciation for hip hop culture and you haven’t seen Do The Right Thing, the time has come to change that.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
This heartwarming and, at times, gut-wrenching tale about a young boy trying to help a wayward alien find his way back to his home planet is one of director Steven Spielberg’s greatest films of all time. In fact, it inspired now-legendary director/writer/producer J.J. Abrams to try and recreate some of E.T’s magic in his own film, Super 8. And, although it wasn’t the first thing that she was in, this is also the film that put actress Drew Barrymore (then only 7 years old) in the spotlight.
The Evil Dead
While we can’t say that this Sam Raimi-directed movie invented the “cabin in the woods” horror movie trope, it certainly took things to the next level. The story follows Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) and his friends as they, while on a fun getaway trip, accidentally unleash a horde of horrific demons upon themselves. While it does have touches of comedy sprinkled throughout, this is a blood-and-guts horror movie through and through. So, if you have a weak stomach or scare too easily, you’ll probably want to skip this one.
Fast Times At Ridgemont High
Cameron Crowe has a very interesting movie history. He’s responsible for films such as Jerry Maguire, Vanilla Sky, Say Anything, and – of course – this raucous teen comedy. Strangely enough, it’s actually based on a book that Crowe penned the year prior, after having pretended to be a high-school senior at the age of 22. And that lends a bit more credence to this hilarious tale of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. It also doesn’t hurt that it stars the likes of Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, and Phoebe Cates.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
John Hughes had a pretty incredible career back in the 80s, directing movies such as Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Weird Science. This one, however, is our favorite. It follows the titular character (played by Matthew Broderick) on a series of misadventures throughout the city of Chicago on a day in which he has skipped school. And while that concept sounds a little simplistic, the over-the-top situational comedy more than makes up for it. Besides, who didn’t want to skip a day school and go on a crazy adventure?
As far as action heroes go, few are quite as cool and formidable as Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo. In this first film, the former Green Beret (and Vietnam veteran) is unlawfully pursued by a tyrannical sheriff (played by Brian Dennehy) into the woods of the Pacific Northwest and must use his combat skills to survive. It’s the ultimate and most over-the-top case of wrong place, wrong time, but it makes for a supremely fun and action packed hour and a half.
Full Metal Jacket
Inarguably one of the greatest war movies of all time, this Stanley Kubrick-directed flick is viewed in two parts. First, the story is told of a group of ragtag army draftees as they are put through grueling basic training – led by none other than R. Lee Ermey – in preparation for deployment. And second, it follows one of the draftees – Private “Joker” – during his deployment in Vietnam. Full Metal Jacket is speckled with plenty of humor, but it also does not shy away from the cold, hard, violent, and heart-wrenching parts of war. If you like military drama, this movie will likely end up as one of your all-time favorites.
Penned and starring Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis alongside Bill Murray, Sigourney Weaver, and Rick Moranis, this science fiction comedy movie follows the exploits of a group of former parapsychology professors as they start their own business working as ghost exterminators for hire. And while it sounds exactly as goofy as it is, it’s also masterfully balanced so as to keep it from being too silly or stupid. And the theme song, by Ray Parker Jr, is so infectious that it will stay in your head for hours or longer.
“Goonies never say die” is a quote that we still hear today. It’s also a testament to the staying power and reliability of this childhood adventure story that marked the beginning of the careers of Cory Feldman, Sean Astin, and Josh Brolin – to name a few. The Goonies, a tale about a group of best friends in their search for a legendary pirate’s treasure, is funny, touching, and thrilling in all the right ways. And, once you’ve seen it, you’ll find yourself shouting “Hey you guys” for years to come.
National Lampoon’s Vacation
If you’ve ever had good enough fortune to have gone on a family vacation, you know that things rarely go as planned. Well, in this comedy-of-errors, that concept is taken to the nth degree. Starring Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Randy Quaid, and Anthony Michael Hall, this movie follows the Griswold family as they try to take a cross-country road trip to the Walley World theme park. Whereas Rambo uses the “wrong place wrong time” trope for violence and action, this film uses the same concept to dish out non-stop laughs. And if you like Vacation, you should also check out its sequels: Christmas Vacation and European Vacation.
The Princess Bride
Starring Carey Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Robin Wright, and – of course – André the Giant, this Rob Reiner-directed fantasy-comedy has a name that doesn’t quite do it justice. Sure, it’s definitely a reference to an important part of the film, but it does nothing to tell us of the swashbuckling, swordplay, wordplay, cameos, and tongue-in-cheek comedy that make it such a classic. Get past the name of the movie and the fact that Robin Wright’s character is actually named “Princess Buttercup” and you’ll find that this is one of the most fun flicks of all time.
The Vietnam War was a tremendously tumultuous time in American history. And that probably has a lot to do with why there are so many great movies about it. Platoon is one such movie. Starring Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger, Keith David, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whittaker, and a very young Johnny Depp, this movie explores several of the darker corners of the human experience including the duality of man, the psychological limits of the mind, and how quickly we can turn on one another given the right circumstances. For both film and history buffs, this movie is a must-see.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Being cast as Han Solo in the Star Wars movies opened a lot of doors for Harrison Ford, the biggest of which probably being a shot at another starring role in a different franchise: Indiana Jones. Raiders of the Lost Ark is the first and, arguably, the best of the franchise for its perfect meshing of action, adventure, mythology, and comedy. It has also inspired the creation of dozens of other franchises – some, like Naughty Dog’s series of Uncharted video games, much more obvious than others. And, without spoiling anything, this movie has one of the most satisfying and iconic death scenes in any movie ever.
While many would happily cite Rocky as the greatest boxing movie of all time, we believe that Scorsese’s Raging Bull is just a little bit more refined. Because it isn’t just about boxing – it’s about the toll that a boxer’s dedication can take on his life outside the ring. It’s not the story of an underdog – rather its a tale of a man who is deeply flawed and misguided. This movie tugs on our heartstrings because we know that Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro’s character) is just a little bit too human for his own good.
The Road Warrior
Although it is actually the second in the Mad Max series of action-adventure movies, The Road Warrior is the film that really put the “apocalyptic wasteland” science fiction trope on the map. The story follows Max (Mel Gibson), a drifter wandering through the wastes of civilization, as he is unwillingly embroiled in a fight between a small community and a band of ruthless bandits. This movie is full of haphazardly designed and definitely not street legal vehicles, a rich mythology, and enough heart-pounding action to keep you begging for more. Which is fine, because there are another 3 movies already in existence besides this one – and it looks like they’ll be making more.
Based on a novel penned by the master of horror, Steven King, this is another big-time cult classic from the mind of Stanley Kubrick. It follows the story of a man (Jack Nicholson), his wife (Shelley Duvall), and their son as they move into the Overlook hotel to act as caretakers in the offseason. But things go awry when evil from the hotel’s past begins to influence the father into madness and, eventually, violence. As a side note, Steven King doesn’t appreciate this adaptation of his book, but it is no less a cinematic classic.
Stand By Me
Starring Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell – and with an appearance by Kiefer Sutherland – this is one of the greatest films about friendship, childhood, and coming of age that has ever graced the silver screen. Following the story of a group of boys as they traverse the Oregon countryside to try and find the body of a stranger who was killed near their home, this Rob Reiner-directed flick is to kids from the 80s what The Sandlot was to kids from the 90s – albeit this one deals with some much more serious subjects. Luckily, this isn’t a case of “you had to be there.” It still holds up as a great drama film today.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
The second film in George Lucas’s original science fiction trilogy – this entry into the Star Wars saga is widely considered to be the best of them all (including the most recently released ones). Continuing the story of Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo as they attempt to bring down Darth Vader and the evil Galactic Empire, this movie offers everything from action, to drama, to comedy, and everything in-between. And the special effects, which were literally invented by the people working on the film, still hold up extremely well today. Just be sure that, if you haven’t seen this one, you start with Episode IV: A New Hope, first.
Nearly a decade before he was being taught by John Connor to say “Hasta la vista, baby,” and pulling off heroics, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 Terminator was actually a villain – having been sent from the future to kill John’s mother, Sarah Connor, and prevent him from being able to save humanity. This first entry into the Terminator franchise tells that story. Though it is riddled with science fictional paradoxes, it is no less an action-packed thriller that hinges on a very original idea. Which is no surprise, considering that it came from the mind of master director, James Cameron.
This gruesome and tense movie is a perfect example of why John Carpenter is considered the master of horror films. It stars Kurt Russel, Wiford Brimley, and Keith David (amongst a cast of otherwise unknowns). The story follows a group of workers at a research facility in Antarctica after they discover an vicious unknown creature that can perfectly mimic anything it touches. The Thing features some of the strangest (and perhaps nastiest) monster movie practical effects and will keep you guessing straight on through to the final encounter. But, if you want to watch this creepy crawly horror, make sure you get your hands on the 1982 version and not the more recent (and inferior) remake.
Top Gun is arguably the best Tom Cruise movie of all time. It follows the story of a group of young hotshots as they go through the Navy’s elite flight school – one of whom (Tom Cruise, ‘Maverick’) falls for their female civilian instructor. It also stars Val Kilmer (as ‘Iceman’), Kelly McGillis, and Anthony Edwards (as ‘Goose’), amongst a litany of others. And while it doesn’t offer the same kind of action and drama as other military movies (partly because the bulk of it doesn’t take place at war), there’s still plenty of thrills and chills to be had.
Based on a book of the same name, this film is about the Federal Agents hunting down Al Capone during the Prohibition era in Chicago. It stars Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, and Andy Garcia. And while it is a superb gangster drama on its own, this flick also features one of the most iconic shootouts in movie history. It’s also a superb example of how a cinematic masterpiece doesn’t need to rely on absurd special effects, over-the-top characters and storylines, or intense melodrama.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Even if this wasn’t a fantastic movie (which it is), it is historic in that this is the only feature length film to ever feature both Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse together onscreen. That alone warrants some attention. But, apart from that, this is an incredibly entertaining hard-boiled style detective movie that takes place in a fantasy world in which cartoon characters and real-life humans coexist. It’s hilarious, impressively done, and will have you laughing yourself to death – figuratively speaking, of course.
The Most Anticipated Movies Of 2017
While taking a trip down memory lane is great – keeping an eye on the new and upcoming films hitting the theaters is well worth your time. Take a look at some of the movies we are keeping tabs on for 2017.