There’s something about the 1980s that’s strangely intoxicating to people, even those – or maybe especially those – who didn’t actually live through it. The fashion, garish neon colors, and synth-heavy pop music are all key reasons why the 80s are looked back in with particularly rosy rose-tinted glasses, sure. But it’s also the vast quantity of great movies released during the decade that makes it one people like to look back on fondly.
This has meant the 1980s have often been revisited by modern-day films and TV shows, whether that’s by adopting the aesthetics of 80s film/music, or setting things in the decade itself (or even all of the above). Yet you can’t beat the real thing: watching classics that were made within the decade itself. It ended more than 30 years ago, meaning it’s possible to look back on all the films released during that period and rank the best ones. That’s what the following intends to do, while also simply celebrating the decade’s contributions to cinema in general.
25 ‘Fanny and Alexander’ (1982)
Ingmar Bergman was a Swedish filmmaker who was most prolific in the decades preceding the 1980s. Not all, but many of his classics were released during the 1950s and 1960s, though there’s an argument to be made that Fanny and Alexander – his final theatrical release – represents his peak as a filmmaker.
It’s a family drama with some light fantastical/supernatural elements, centering on two children who go through many hardships after their father suddenly passes away and their mother remarries. It was originally intended to be a miniseries, though was edited into a 188-minute-long film (a miniseries version – equally good – was released in 1984 and ran for five hours).
24 ‘The Terminator’ (1984)
Though it wasn’t his debut film, The Terminator was what first got James Cameron attention, establishing him overnight as a highly-skilled filmmaker and visual storyteller. Similarly, it was not the very first film Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in, by any means, but it was similarly significant for his career, helping to make him one of the biggest stars of the next decade or so.
It’s a time-travel action/thriller/romance movie made on a moderate budget, following a futuristic cyborg who’ll stop at nothing to kill a young woman who’s destined to give birth to a boy who’ll grow up to defeat the machine forces in an A.I. uprising. Similarly, a soldier is sent back to the same point in time, with his goal being to protect the woman. It started a long-running franchise, but the original remains the most direct, self-contained, and perhaps narratively compelling of the lot.
23 ‘Dead Poets Society’ (1989)
A movie that helped end the 1980s on a high note, Dead Poets Society is one of the best films that starred Robin Williams. Here, he plays a non-traditional English teacher who inspires his pupils at a stuffy boarding school, getting them passionate about learning and imbuing them with a rebellious spirit.
The premise of “unusual teacher changing the lives of his students” might be considered a cliché one now, but Dead Poets Society is an example of how best to execute that type of story. It’s an emotional and possibly inspiring movie, and stands as one of the films that proves Williams could do so much more than just comedy.
Given the size of his filmography, there are numerous Steven Spielberg movies that are under-appreciated. However, he’s also one of the most popular and acclaimed American directors of all time, which means that plenty of his movies have received the sort of adoration they deserve, with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial belonging to that club.
It’s one of the greatest family movies of all time, with its story about a young boy befriending an alien lost on Earth being one that’s enjoyable whether you’re a kid, or you’re an adult who remembers what it was like to be a kid. There’s a warmth and a sense of wonder to it that’s essentially unparalleled, ensuring it ranks among Spielberg’s all-time greatest works.
21 ‘Stand by Me’ (1986)
One of the greatest coming-of-age movies of all time – and one of 1986’s best films – Stand by Me is a remarkably powerful film. It’s also wonderfully simple, given the main premise is that four boys go on a morbid adventure; they hear about a death that occurred some distance from where they live, and decide they want to go and see the victim’s dead body.
The four leads here all give great performances (with the late River Phoenix probably standing out the most), with the characters – and their story – being simple without every feeling simplistic or shallow. It’s a perfectly balanced and expertly crafted movie, earning its status as one of the best Stephen King film adaptations.
20 ‘The Breakfast Club’ (1985)
It’s hard to talk about iconic 1980s movies without mentioning John Hughes at least once. He wrote and directed some of the best comedies (and sometimes dramedies) of the decade, with the style of his work largely defining the idea of what a teen movie is.
Within his filmography, it’s hard to pick a favorite, but The Breakfast Club is a contender for that top spot. It’s not without its comedic moments, but feels a little more dramatic than most of Hughes’ films, following five very different high schoolers who attend weekend detention, and learn a great deal about themselves and each other in the process. It generally avoids feeling cheesy or dated, and is instead a straightforward, satisfying, and very well-written film, and up there with the best of its kind.
19 ‘Airplane!’ (1980)
Airplane! is easily one of the greatest spoof movies of all time, and there’s a good chance many people would call it the best (surely they can’t be serious!). It throws all sorts of jokes toward the viewer at a near-constant rate, essentially being a film that’s overflowing with sight gags, puns, and moments of hilarious absurdity.
It’s an effective disaster movie parody, given how closely it follows the formula of the kinds that were popular throughout the 1970s (particularly the Airport series) while taking every opportunity it can to make a joke. It’s perhaps a quantity over quality approach to comedy, but luckily for viewers, it also gets the quality side of things right. By some miracle, there are far more hits than misses.
18 ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ (1988)
Rightly regarded as one of the greatest Japanese animated films of all time, Grave of the Fireflies also stands as one of the most heartbreaking anti-war movies in history. It takes place near the end of World War Two, following a brother and his younger sister trying to survive after their mother is killed in an air raid.
Rarely has the human cost of war been conveyed in such a brutally effective manner, making Grave of the Fireflies universally regarded as one of the saddest movies of all time. It’s a difficult watch, but the experience it provides – and its ultimate message – makes it one of the decade’s most important films.
17 ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (1981)
Just one year before directing one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial), Steven Spielberg directed one of the greatest action/adventure films of all time. That would be the original Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. While it’s been followed by some good (or at least interesting) sequels, none have topped this first one.
As a throwback/big-budget update of classic adventure serials, it satisfies in spades, with all the large-scale action sequences in the film still holding up beautifully. It’s also a perfectly cast movie, with Harrison Ford’s role as the lead character (along with his role as Han Solo) cementing him as a screen icon, with things being aided further by a great script and John Williams bringing his A-game when it comes to music. It’s great stuff, overall (but you already knew that).
16 ‘Come and See’ (1985)
Perhaps the only anti-war film from the 1980s that could be deemed more harrowing than Grave of the Fireflies would be Come and See. It also takes place during World War Two and centers on a young main character, though here, it’s set in Soviet Russia, and shows how a young boy’s life is forever changed after he joins a group of resistance fighters striking back at German forces.
It’s a notoriously hard film to watch, running for almost 2.5 hours and being consistently tense, disturbing, and despairing. It all serves a purpose though, and if you believe that a war film should be praised for accurately presenting the horrors of conflict, then there’s an argument to be made that Come and See is one of the very best of all time (not just the 80s).
15 ‘RoboCop’ (1987)
A dystopian movie with a dark sense of humor, RoboCop is a skillful blend of satisfying sci-fi action and uncompromising satire. It follows a police officer who’s brought back to life as a part-human/part-cyborg killing machine, sent out on the streets to respond to violent crime with even greater levels of violence.
It’s the kind of movie that only Paul Verhoeven – while in his Hollywood phase – could make, and perfectly showcases his strengths as a filmmaker. RoboCop’s now a series that’s grown well beyond the original movie from 1987, but like many franchises that managed to hit the ground running, nothing’s been able to top that excellent first film.
14 ‘Scarface’ (1983)
Scarface isn’t just a great film that was released in the 1980s. It feels like a particularly strong example of a great 1980s movie because it reflects the decade (and its various excesses; many of them tacky by today’s standards) in all its ridiculous glory, depicting a heightened version of Miami that’s 100% 80s in feel, look, and sound.
The story is a classic rise-and-fall gangster movie plot, but it’s the style and the excessiveness of it all which makes Scarface an iconic crime movie. The soundtrack’s great, it’s paced well, and there are too many memorable scenes to count. Also, while it might not contain Al Pacino’s best performance (and potentially is one of his least restrained), it certainly contains one of Al Pacino’s most memorable performances in a career full of them.
13 ‘Do the Right Thing’ (1989)
One of Spike Lee’s earliest movies – Do the Right Thing – remains one of his very best, with all the pieces combining perfectly to make one of the decade’s boldest wide-release films. It takes place on a scorchingly hot summer day, and explores instances of prejudice and conflict in a New York City neighborhood that rise in intensity as the film goes on.
It’s expertly paced, and builds to a perfect conclusion which ends the film in a way that’s both powerful and sadly inevitable. Few films have tackled the issue of racism quite as effectively as Do the Right Thing, and watching 30+ years on from release and seeing how well it’s aged makes it feel like it was truly ahead of its time and then some.
12 ‘Back to the Future’ (1985)
Even though Back to the Future wasn’t the only 1980s movie to effectively combine sci-fi and comedy, it does stand as the most fitting marriage of those two genres released in the decade. It’s an essential time-travel movie, following a teenager who accidentally gets sent back to the 1950s and has to ensure his parents meet the way they’re supposed to, or else he’ll cease to exist in the future.
It’s an immensely likable movie, and one of those rare 1980s movies where you’d probably struggle to find a single person who genuinely hated it. It was followed by two solid sequels in 1989 and 1990 respectively, though neither could match the charm, wit, and creativity of the original Back to the Future.
11 ‘The Princess Bride’ (1987)
The Princess Bride begins with a grandfather reading a fantasy story to his grandson while the latter is sick at home. Viewers get to see this story play out visually, with cuts back to the characters in the “real” world offering additional commentary on the story and ensuring it chugs along at a fast pace.
The framing device is cute, and the story within the story offers a little of everything, genre-wise. It’s a film with action, romance, comedy, and fantasy, of course, blending everything perfectly. Few films have so effectively walked the line between parody and sincerity for an entire runtime, though that balancing act performed by The Princess Bride throughout is the primary thing that makes it such a beloved classic.
10 ‘The Thing’ (1982)
One of many great science-fiction movies released in 1982, The Thing holds up brilliantly as one of its decade’s most effective horror movies. It takes place in Antarctica, following a group of scientists who get attacked by a bizarre alien life form, leading to a vicious and tense fight for survival while in one of the most remote places on Earth.
The greatest thing about The Thing is the way its central antagonist can shapeshift and perfectly mimic other life forms, leading to all the scientists not knowing who to trust, because any one of them could be the alien. Paranoia abounds, and the effects used to bring the alien to life still look pretty much perfect. Sci-fi/horror movies don’t get a great deal better than this.
9 ‘Ran’ (1985)
Akira Kurosawa’s career trajectory isn’t all that different from Ingmar Bergman’s. They started making films in the 1940s, released many of their classics in the 1950s/1960s, fell on hard times during the 1970s, and then released masterpieces in the 1980s. With Bergman, his masterpiece was Fanny and Alexander, and with Kurosawa, his late-career masterpiece was Ran.
It feels like a movie that much of his career was building to, combining tragedy, large-scale action, and visually stunning spectacle to sublime effect while telling a story loosely inspired by a combination of historical events and Shakespeare’s King Lear. Whether Ran’s Kurosawa’s very best film is up for debate, but most would agree it’s right up there as a contender.
8 ‘Aliens’ (1986)
Viewers in 1986 would’ve been forgiven for thinking Aliens could live up to the 1979 original, though any doubters will have been proven wrong upon its release. James Cameron directed this sci-fi/action film two years after The Terminator, with both films showing his capacity to make satisfying and popular movies that would stand the test of time.
Ripley returns as the sole survivor from the first movie, and is joined by a new group of well-armed characters who still aren’t fully equipped to deal with the hordes of aliens this time around. It emphasizes action instead of horror, with this ensuring it doesn’t feel like a retread. It believably takes place in the same world as Alien, but has a very different pace, and provides another type of experience to great success.
7 ‘Cinema Paradiso’ (1988)
Cinema Paradiso is one of the greatest Italian movies of all time, and perhaps the most passionate love letter to cinema as an art form ever put on screen. It’s a coming-of-age film about a young boy who dreams of becoming a filmmaker, and the direction his life takes once he does finally achieve that dream as an adult.
A traditional romance (you know, between two people) is present in the film, but if anything, Cinema Paradiso ends up being more of a romance about one man and his love of cinema. It’s perfectly bittersweet, nostalgic, and touching throughout, with it also being beautifully shot and elevated considerably by one of the best scores Ennio Morricone ever composed.
6 ‘Die Hard’ (1988)
To call Die Hard one of the best action movies of the 1980s would be underselling it, as in all sincerity, it’s really one of the best action movies of all time. It introduced audiences to the continually unlucky John McClane, an off-duty cop in Los Angeles who becomes the only obstacle standing between a group of well-organized thieves and their target of $640 million in bonds, located in a safe within the high-rise building McClane’s visiting for a Christmas function.
Once it gets moving, it never slows down, and feels like one of those rare 2+ hour movies that stays exciting for every second of its runtime. The sequels may be a mixed bag, but the original is still a classic, and will likely continue to be considered one for as long as the human race keeps on watching movies.