It’s kinda crazy that a decade once labeled “the death of cinema” by critics, who accused it of killing the auteur era that produced twenty years of masterpieces by ushering in the age of the big-budget blockbuster, has now become the dominating force in pop culture. It has a stranglehold on nostalgia with no signs of letting go any time soon. While it is admittedly annoying that it’s so pervasive throughout every form of entertainment nowadays, it’s also not hard to see why creators have been obsessed with it for such a long time. Simply put, no other decade has produced as much material for nostalgia than the ’80s. I’m not just talking about the iconic characters, either. Every beloved classic that’s stood the test of time feels like it has at least one thing designed solely to stick with you forever. Whether it’s a catchy theme song, a costume, an iconic prop, or a cool-looking vehicle, the decade just nailed cool merch. That’s really what our nostalgia for that era boils down to: cool stuff we want to own, wear or drive. The ’80s produced a bunch of cool stuff and the vast majority of it came from its insane amount of amazing movies. This list is a collaborative effort to determine the best the decade had to offer. It’s a mix of nostalgia-heavy classics like Gremlins and Ghostbusters, critically acclaimed foreign and independent darlings like El Norte and Dekalog and everything in between. Except documentaries.
These are the 100 Greatest ’80s Movies of All Time.
10. Die Hard (1988)
Die Hard lands on several lists for me — best ’80s movies, best action movies, best cop movies, best Christmas movies. Probably more that I can’t think of at the moment. NYPD cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) arrives in Los Angeles to attend a company Christmas party at Nakatomi Plaza with his estranged wife Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia). He gets caught up in a completely implausible terrorist plot led by Hans Gruber (the inimitable Alan Rickman) to steal bearer bonds. Why? Nobody knows. And that’s not important. What is important is that McClane delivers everything an ’80s action movie star should. He jumps off a building, falls down an elevator shaft, walks barefoot over broken glass, gets beaten to a bloody pulp several times, shoots ALL THE BULLETS, and sardonically delivers the unforgettable one-liner, “Yippee-ki-yay, Motherfucker.”
Covered in blood, dragging one foot behind him, and down to his last two bullets, he inevitably triumphs over his cliched German adversary. He wins the day with a little help from a few well-placed radio pep talks from LA police Sgt. Al Powell (a delightful Reginald VelJohnson), and despite the best efforts to screw it all up by one of the 80s’ favorite jerks, Paul Gleason as Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson. In the end, McClane and his seemingly un-estranged wife ride happily off into the sunset — at least until the sequel.
–R. J. Mathews
9. Back to the Future (1985)
My love for film began the night I first watched Back to the Future. I was at my uncle and aunt’s house. Somehow a VHS tape of Back to the Future was dusted off and inserted into the VCR. I don’t remember much about that night, but the film had a profound impact on my future. Truth be told, I think my biggest takeaway from the 1985 science-fiction classic was how good of an actor Michael J. Fox was. I immediately sought out his films, absorbing everything from Teen Wolf and Family Ties to Spin City and Greedy. Finding a new Fox film on DVD was the highlight of the week.
Fox’s performance as Marty McFly isn’t the only great thing about Back to the Future. The rest of the cast (Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Tom Wilson, and Crispin Glover) are also pitch-perfect as their respective characters, embodying them in ways that make them feel lived-in and real. The Bobs (Gale and Zemeckis) crafted a time travel story that is full of humor and heart, action and adventure, and enough memorable scenes and quotes to keep one entertained for infinite rewatches (it’s a least an annual rewatch for me). Back to the Future is a film all audiences could enjoy, and despite releasing in 1985, it still hasn’t aged. It’s a timeless, quintessential ’80s classic and the reason I so desperately want to own a DeLorean one day.
8. The Breakfast Club (1985)
The Breakfast Club is possibly one of the best-ever demonstrations of a movie that strips away excessive plotting and captivates you with little more than great characters and dialogue. It’s the perfect setup: throw five archetypal characters together in detention and let the audience draw assumptions about each of them the same way the characters are drawing assumptions about each other. Then progressively hash out the hidden depths of the characters through dialogue and shatter those stereotypes to drive home the reality that they, and in turn us, are not as different as they had imagined. The Breakfast Club is loaded with humor and heart and deep humanity that make this an all-time ’80s classic.
7. The Princess Bride (1987)
The 1980s is home to some of the best cinematic action, stories, and characters, it seems safe to say. Then it should likely be safe in asserting it might also be one of the most quotable decades of films. If all is true, then one can easily distinguish The Princess Bride as helping to shoulder such lofty claims.
Adapting his novel of the same name, legendary screenwriter William Goldman, aided immensely by Rob Reiner, delivers what surely was a modern classic of the era that is without a doubt a cinematic classic now and for all time. The story—perfectly set up with bookends and interludes of some charming and novel meta-commentary—centers on Wesley (Cary Elwes), a smitten farmboy, and Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright), the smiter of said farmboy as they navigate the perils of a pseudo-historical fantasy kingdom. To try and further condense the plot into plot beats and set pieces is akin to blasphemy. For one thing, they are numerous and not one is superfluous or unengaging. Always a new character is introduced, and always the new character is indelible, even if he meets his end a scene or two down the road. Always you can find a pace in the exchange of (quotable) dialogue that matches the pace and thrills of the action that pre-or proceeds it. Always will the world open up, even if it takes on the resemblance of a theatrical production rather than a cinematic one, and one won’t question the authenticity.
Few movies—of any decade—can successfully harken back to the Golden Age of Hollywood and arguably do it better. High adventure, enduring romance, a motley crew of heroes and dastardly villains—Errol Flynn would be proud.
6. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
The way Spielberg contorts personal drama into pure escapism with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is masterful. One of the things that sticks with me the most is how the film shows the world through the eyes of a child, with close-to-the-ground shots and no adults other than the mother depicted until the back half of the movie. Spielberg’s career is full of films that could be called quintessential, but E.T. really does fit the bill. Often imitated, never duplicated, E.T. is peerless. Featuring the best kid performances imaginable, truly iconic imagery, and a John Williams score that’ll make your heart soar every time, no list of great ’80s flicks would be complete without it.
–D. N. Williams
5. The Road Warrior (1981)
One of the greatest post-apocalyptic action movies of all time and absolutely the best of the 80s. The sequel to George Miller’s groundbreaking Mad Max went bigger in all the right ways, upping the action, the violence, the scenery, and the pathos. The Road Warrior (known as Mad Max 2 in most non-US places) inspired dozens, if not hundreds, of imitators who managed to copy the domination leather gear and outrageous haircuts but lacked the heart and the furious pace of Miller’s masterpiece. The genre wouldn’t have a better example until Miller’s own Fury Road in 2015.
4. Paris, Texas (1984)
Paris, Texas carries about as much emotional weight as any film you’ll ever lay your eyes on. The steady and measured build to our emotional apex is filled with moments of wonder. Many of the images captured here will leave you in awe of their majesty. However, it’s the combination of jaw-dropping cinematography and soul-piercing storytelling that make this film as special as it is. Some destinations are certainly worth the journey. Paris, Texas is undoubtedly one of those destinations.
3. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Forever and always my favorite Star Wars film, and one of my favorite films of all time, The Empire Strikes Back is everything you could ever want a sequel to be. Brilliantly inverting the things that audiences loved about the first film — a land battle instead of a space battle, an ice plant instead of a sand planet, a giant space city instead of a giant armed and operational battle station, a dank swamp planet instead of a lush forest planet… more of the same, but just different enough.
Then there’s the really new stuff: the movie introduced Yoda, which when you consider the fact that there were no puppet main characters in the first film is absolutely wild! That puppet is easily one of the best characters in the entire saga, as is Lando Calrissian, also introduced in the film. What else? It introduced the Imperial March. That’s right, we had a whole movie with Darth Vader never walking around to the majesty of John Williams’ Imperial March, he was already one of the biggest baddest villains of the silver screen, and then John Williams went you know what, I can make this better! You have new force powers – telekinesis, telepathy with Luke reaching out to Leia, visible force ghosts… the movie just keeps on giving.
Boba Fett! We can’t forget Boba Fett. People like to downplay the role he played in the film, but he’s emblematic of why people get obsessed over Star Wars. He looks cool, sounds cool, he does cool stuff, and he’s mysterious enough that your imagination could run wild dreaming up when he’s doing when not on screen. Separating out the heroes so you have the Han and Leia romance blossoming while Luke focuses on the Jedi side of things was a stroke of genius, not to mention the classic twist and downer ending. The Empire Strikes Back is the film every other Star Wars sequel wishes it could be.
–D. N. Williams
2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Harrison Ford has made no secret of the fact that Indiana Jones is one of his favorite characters to have played. When you consider the number of times the man appears on this list, that says something. Indy is a little more complex than the likes of Han Solo, and a little complexity goes a long way with what is a straightforward adventure film, even if it is the best adventure film of all time. One of the things that make Indy great is his being a hero that isn’t unflappable, or indefatigable. He’s a hero that feels pain, shows fear, and fails tasks. Considering Lucas and Spielberg cooked him up as their answer to Bond, it’s interesting that it’s that extra dimension, that humanity, that makes the character work. Raiders delivers all the thrills and spills you could want from an action-adventure film, while at the same time subverting expectations in all the right ways. Almost every treasure hunt movie wants to be this film and most fail miserably, it’s a high watermark that’s been set that basically nothing else that competes in the same arena has ever begun to meet.
–D. N. Williams
1. Raging Bull (1980)
Martin Scorsese has famously credited Raging Bull with saving his life. After a cocaine-filled latter half of the ‘70s, Scorsese was approached by Bobby DeNiro with the project that would go on to become their greatest collaboration. Scorsese’s relentless exploration of toxic masculinity doubles as one of the greatest boxing movies of all time. DeNiro’s performance as Jake LaMotta remains one of the highlights of his career. His bodily transformations and devastating brutality make it damn near impossible to turn away. As always, Marty is a tour de force behind the camera. From the moment the opening credits start to roll with a slow-mo shot of DeNiro shadowboxing in the ring, you know you’re in for a treat.
20-11 | Be Kind, Rewind
What are some of your favorite ’80s movies? Maybe they’ll show up later in the list!