The ‘80s was a pioneering decade for so much: music; technology; er, fashion. But ‘80s cinema was a true golden period
After the groundbreaking cinema of the ‘70s, the ‘80s were often seen as a bit of a disappointment.
Compared with the serious, gritty films of the previous decade, it’s easy to see why. But then the ‘80s were about something else. While the blockbuster only really took shape in the late ‘70s, the ‘80s saw it in its prime, delivering hit after hit, commercially and critically.
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So here’s our list of the 25 best films of the 1980s.
Interested in another decade?
Best 80s movies
1. Back to the Future
Encapsulating everything that we love about ‘80s blockbusters, Robert Zemeckis’ flawless franchise-starter assembled a list of all the right ingredients.
Likable young lead? Check. Eccentric mentor? Check. Iconic soundtrack? Check. Groundbreaking special effects? Check. Damn, it had everything and it even spawned one of the greatest theme park rides ever.
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark
After George Lucas introduced the world of Star Wars to audiences, he decided to give his good friend Steven Spielberg a small gift. The character of Indiana Jones (originally Smith) came to life as an attempt to resurrect the adventure serials of the ‘30s.
In his first outing, he did this and more, turning an $18 million budget risk into a huge, franchise-starting, Oscar-winning blockbuster. Re-watching it now, it’s still hair-raisingly perfect stuff.
3. Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Yet another high school movie that became a classic in the ‘80s, this comedy subverted the genre by positioning most of the action outside of the high school. Matthew Broderick’s laid-back man of mischief was an enviable classmate, even if he never actually turned up to class.
The film showcased the reckless fun of pulling a sickie, even if we did worry somewhat for Ferris’s future in the workplace…
The ‘80s saw the beginning of a heckload of franchises and Ivan Reitman’s pitch perfect combination of comedy and horror was among the very best. In fact, it became the most commercially successful comedy of the decade while giving us one of the era’s most quotable, and yes eventually rather annoying, slogans. Who ya gonna call?
5. The Terminator
Although audiences had already seen Austrian bodybuiler Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan The Barbarian, it was James Cameron’s low-budget sci-fi thriller which truly launched his career.
It was also the first major movie for Cameron and the innovative use of cyborgs had a huge influence on the genre from then on. It also led to one of the finest sequels man has ever witnessed. Back slaps all round.
6. Die Hard
The inarguable action movie highlight of the ‘80s saw Bruce Willis fighting bad guys and spouting one-liners in his soon-to-be trademark grubby vest. Keeping things simple, we had a maverick cop on one side and a bunch of terrorists on the other.
For brutal efficiency and sheer entertainment, it’s still hard to beat while the formula became endlessly copied by various action movie clones.
7. The Empire Strikes Back
While Star Wars introduced a thrilling new world with unique style and assurance, its first sequel took all the things we loved and somehow managed to improve upon them.
Although it’s now commonly seen as one of the few superior sequels ever made, The Empire Strikes Back received a surprisingly lukewarm response at the time from critics. Since then it’s been rediscovered as a darker, more complex offering than Star Wars.
In creating a follow-up to Ridley Scott’s flawless sci-fi classic, James Cameron did the smartest thing. He went for something completely different. While Alien was about slow-build suspense, Aliens was about heart-thumping terror. Sigourney Weaver cemented her place as cinema’s most bad-ass heroine while the Alien universe opened itself up for numerous revisits.
9. The Breakfast Club
Pretty much everything you know about the teen movie genre was created in one foul swoop in this seminal John Hughes classic. The jock, the geek, the princess, the goth and the drifter were all humanised and Hughes boasted an uncanny knack of getting into the minds of teenagers.
It influenced dozens of movies in its wake, including The Faculty, which was created as a direct homage.
10. Blade Runner
One of the many entries on the list which didn’t receive the reaction it deserved on release, it took many years for audiences to finally appreciate Ridley Scott’s bleak sci-fi masterpiece.
Years later, various cuts and restorations turned it into a deserved cult hit. It was a big decade for the genre but Scott’s dystopian thriller was arguably the darkest and most daring of the lot.
Continuing what would be another banner decade, Steven Spielberg’s iconic sci-fi adventure was a perfect antitode to the post-Alien horrors that suggested all extra terrestrials would be thirsty for blood.
At the time, it surpassed Star Wars to become the highest-grossing movie ever released. A sequel called E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears was originally in the pipeline but Spielberg canned it, believing that it would affect our collective memory of the original. Good move.
12. Full Metal Jacket
Stanley Kubrick’s second entry on the list was another film that showed the darker side of the Vietnam War. Like Platoon, it didn’t glorify the soldiers involved and was a harrowing watch. It further showed the incredibly versatility of Kubrick as a director as he went from a horror to war seamlessly.
We were also given one of the most fearsome bad guys in cinema history in R Lee Ermey’s brutal Gunnery Sergeant.
13. Raging Bull
Martin Scorsese’s searing portrait of a troubled boxer helped to begin another decade in style for De Niro, who was arguable the most acclaimed performer of the 70s. As Jake LaMotta, he gave a blistering turn, full of rage and jealousy and it earned him his second Oscar.
Sadly the film lost out to family drama Ordinary People for the Best Picture Oscar, a move that is still recognised as one of the biggest Academy Award travesties ever.
14. Stand By Me
The first Stephen King adaptation that didn’t focus on horror, Rob Reiner’s sweet, but not saccharine, coming-of-age film became one of the defining films of the era. Focusing on four boys in search of a dead body, it tapped into what kids talk about when they’re by themselves.
You know, like cherry Pez. It also featured early appearances from John Cusack, Kiefer Sutherland and River Phoenix.
Brian De Palma’s wildly stylised gangster epic gave Al Pacino one of his most memorable performances as cocaine kingpin Tony Montana and shocked audiences at the time with its graphic violence and drug use.
In fact, during the film’s initial screening, there were numerous walkouts while Dustin Hoffman reportedly fell asleep. The film still has the power to shock even to this day. Quite a tough one to sleep through though…
The funniest film of the decade was also one of the very first. The 70s were full of increasingly overwrought disaster movies, ripe for ridicule and the team of Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker decided that a spoof was well overdue.
It emerged as Shirley the greatest example of the genre still to this day, with an endlessly quotable stream of killer lines. It’s also one of the few films that can actually pull off an exclamation mark in the title.
17. The Shining
Although it deviated quite dramatically from Stephen King’s original novel, Stanley Kubrick’s chilling tale of a haunted hotel is often referred to as the scariest film ever made.
It’s easy to see why with Jack Nicholson’s unhinged performance and Kubrick’s masterful direction combining to create something that still creates discussion to this day. Weird to think that at the time, it was nominated for two Razzie awards.
18. The Thing
John Carpenter’s gruesome update of the ‘50s sci-fi horror was yet another ‘80s movie that failed to make an impression on its initial release. After the friendliness of E.T., the shocking violence of The Thing was not what audiences wanted.
In the years since, it’s been regarded as one of the scariest and most effective horror films ever made. The special effects hold up to this day while the bleak tone distinguishes it from its peers.
Oliver Stone’s harrowing war epic helped to define him as one of the decade’s most important directors and the film deservedly picked up Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, among others.
Based loosely on Stone’s first-hand experience of the Vietnam war, the film was a deliberate antidote to John Wayne’s The Green Berets, which many thought glorified the conflict.
20. Wall Street
Near the end of the ‘80s, Oliver Stone’s financial drama worked as both a massively entertaining thriller and also as a sort of historical bookmark. Typifying the excesses of the era with the focus on what you earn rather than what you do, it’s one of the most “eighties” films on the list.
In the same year as his role in Fatal Attraction, it was his iconic performance as Gordon Gekko that won Michael Douglas the Best Actor Oscar.
21. Fatal Attraction
One of the scariest films of the decade didn’t focus on a monster or an alien but rather on a spurned lover. With fears of HIV spreading, the story of an affair that comes back to haunt a married man was timely and rather terrifying.
In just under two hours, Glenn Close managed to convince most of the audience to avoid indulging in extra-marital relations. The film also scored six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress.
22. Once Upon a Time in America
Sergio Leone’s first and last (partly) English language film paired him with Robert De Niro, someone who knows a thing or two about the gangster genre. The sprawling epic spanned almost fifty years in the lives of New York’s underworld of crime and its running time has been a cause of controversy ever since its premiere at Cannes.
Originally 4 hours and 29 minutes, it was severely cut for American release, much to Leone’s distaste, but a restored version is now available.
23. Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Kicking off what would become the greatest decade for teen movies we’ve ever seen, Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe’s comedy was based on Crowe’s undercover findings of what goes on in high schools.
As well as being seen as a well-observed and funny look at teenage life, it was also a hotbed for talent featuring Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Forest Whitaker and Nicolas Cage in early appearances.
24. Blue Velvet
While David Lynch had already made his mark as one of cinema’s most offbeat directors with Eraserhead, The Elephant Man and Dune, it wasn’t until Blue Velvet that we finally saw what he was truly capable of.
One of the decade’s most experimental and daring films, it showed us suburban America in a way we’d never seen it before. Lynch’s film also became the topic of endless discussion for its mysterious themes and various interpretations.
25. Do the Right Thing
Spike Lee’s controversial take on racial tension in Brooklyn gave the writer/director/actor a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. It’s worth nothing that, as of 2018, only four black writers have ever been nominated in this category.
On a small budget, the film was a surprise hit and helped to establish Lee as one of the leading talents of the independent sphere going into the next decade…