The 1980s as a whole seemed like a good time to be a movie fan. There was a nice mix of mass-appeal blockbusters and more niche films, a new wave of filmmakers as well as established pros who were only getting better with age, and technology only being advanced to a point where practical effects still shone through in genre movies, and large-scale movies weren’t yet susceptible to over-using computer-generated imagery.
To focus on one specific year within the 1980s, 1986 was a great one. It stands out for being a remarkably consistent year, and one with very few disappointments. Those movies you can expect to be good – based on who worked behind the camera and who starred in them – generally were very good. It’s safe to say that the following films in particular are well-liked (or even loved) by almost all who’ve watched them, and remain iconic, classic movies even now, close to 40 years on from release.
10 ‘Big Trouble in Little China’
John Carpenter’s output in the 1970s and 1980s was generally very good (and consistent), with Big Trouble in Little China easily ranking among his most creative and entertaining films. It stars Kurt Russell playing against type as someone who’s a bit of a loser and, despite what the poster tries to make you believe, ends up kind of being a supporting character.
It’s a movie that combines action, fantasy, and comedy to great effect, with a plot that involves a trucker getting wrapped up in a supernatural conflict that could have dramatic consequences for the world. It never stops once it gets going, and will undeniably scratch an itch for any action movie fans who are particularly fond of 1980s cinema.
9 ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’
With Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, you get exactly what the title says you will. It’s a movie about a teenager called Ferris Bueller, and he fakes being sick, getting the day off from school. What might surprise you is how much he gets done on his day off, the way he suffers no consequences for his behavior, and the way the movie gets a little heavier in its second half, particularly with the character of Cameron, Ferris’ friend.
Yet there’s an effortless charm to it all which makes this comedy work surprisingly well, and it stands as one of the very best movies – if not the best – John Hughes ever made. There might well be a decent number of 80s comedies that don’t quite hold up today, but thankfully, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off certainly isn’t one of them.
8 ‘The Fly’
1986 saw aforementioned great directors like Carpenter and Hughes put out movies that are up there with their best, and the same can easily be said for horror auteur David Cronenberg. His 1986 movie The Fly is perhaps his most well-known and debatably his best, with the film effectively perfecting the body horror sub-genre through its story about a scientist gradually changing physically after an experiment gone wrong.
Cronenberg has certainly made stranger, perhaps more daring films since 1986, but few prove to be as gripping or instantaneously unnerving as The Fly. The 1958 film of the same name is also good for its time, but if 1986’s The Fly can be called a remake (there are similarities and differences, so it’s up for debate), then it would count among the greatest remakes of all time.
7 ‘Castle in the Sky’
Even though Castle in the Sky isn’t quite as famous as later Hayao Miyazaki movies like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, it still stands as one of the filmmaker’s best. It’s a movie about a young boy and girl searching for a legendary castle that’s said to float high up in the sky, and the way they avoid others (including sky pirates) who are looking for the same thing.
It’s simple but satisfying and plays out like an old-fashioned fantasy/adventure movie with consistently dazzling visuals. Like all Miyazaki films, it’s wonderfully imaginative, and it has a good heart to go along with the easy-to-enjoy narrative and beautiful animation.
6 ‘Blue Velvet’
Blue Velvet might be a fairly strange mystery/thriller, but when compared to David Lynch’s other films, it’s actually one of his more down-to-earth. It follows a young man who discovers a human ear in a field, and while trying to investigate why it ended up there, he clashes with a terrifying gangster and uncovers a complex web of intrigue and a dark underbelly looming beneath his otherwise (seemingly) idyllic suburban lifestyle.
It’s one of the greatest thrillers of the 1980s, and maybe even of all time, with a slow-build narrative that hits all the right beats and gets more intense as it goes along. Though it has some very disturbing scenes, it could stand as a good introduction into the dark, twisted, yet entrancing world of Lynch’s filmography, and the terrifying Dennis Hopper performance at the film’s center is worth the price of admission alone.
5 ‘Stand by Me’
A heartfelt coming-of-age movie about the struggles of being young and the painful nature of nostalgia, Stand by Me is a classic in every sense of the word. It’s also another film that goes to show how reliable the work of Stephen King is when it comes to adapting novels/short stories to the big screen.
The actual story here is very simple, focusing on four young friends who set out to find the dead body of a man who’s presumably been accidentally killed not far from where they live. Along the way, they learn about each other and themselves, and it’s the character interactions – and the relatability of the things the young boys feel – that ensures Stand by Me holds up as well as it does.
4 ‘Little Shop of Horrors’
An excellent musical that also serves as one of the best horror-comedies of all time, Little Shop of Horrors is unique, fun, and even strangely heartwarming. It also has a gleefully wild premise, centering on a man who cares for a plant with an unusual appetite for human blood, and the consequences that come from it growing unusually large.
It’s one of those musicals that may well convert the kind of person who says they don’t like musicals, because Little Shop of Horrors is hard to resist. It also might have some of the best cameos of all time, including Bill Murray and Steve Martin (the latter of whom might qualify as a little more than a cameo, though his screen time is limited yet hard to forget).
Oliver Stone’s most critically-acclaimed film might also be his best. That film in question is Platoon, which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1986, and tells a disturbing and devastating story about a group of American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War, and the physical and psychological toll it takes on them.
As far as anti-war movies go, it’s one of the heaviest and hardest to watch, but since it tackles a divisive and particularly messy conflict, such an approach is more than warranted. It feels a little more melodramatic and over-the-top in some places than perhaps intended when watched today, but in the end, it is heartbreaking and soul-shattering, and largely effective in presenting the horrors of war.
2 ‘The Mission’
The Mission stars Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons, and centers on a Jesuit mission built in the South American wilderness during the 18th century. The mission’s existence ends up becoming an issue for certain military forces in the area, which leads to a dramatic, explosive, and tragic conflict that plays out in the film’s back half.
Its story unpacks faith and redemption in ways that are moving, thought-provoking, and accessible to all, regardless of their personal religious beliefs. It also boasts what might be the greatest score of composer Ennio Morricone’s long and fruitful career, and when his music is paired with the film’s gorgeous visuals, it can honestly feel overwhelmingly powerful.
Make no mistake: the first Alien from 1979, directed by Ridley Scott, is a great sci-fi/horror movie. It’s the kind of lightning-in-a-bottle movie that makes the idea of crafting a sequel seem daunting, if not impossible. Yet in 1986, James Cameron made Aliens, and it’s at least as good as its 1979 predecessor, if not even better.
As the title implies, there are far more aliens here than before, and with it, the film transitions from being horror-focused to action-focused. The approach worked magnificently, because as an exciting, non-stop action/sci-fi movie, Aliens is hard to fault. Next to nothing about it feels dated, and for building on the first movie while feeling very different, it ranks among the best sequels of all time.
NEXT: Iconic Villains From Science-Fiction Movies Who Aren’t Monsters or Aliens