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 what 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.
100. Footloose (1984)
Loosely based on the town of Elmore City, Oklahoma, Footloose tells the story of Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon), a teenager from Chicago, who moves to a small town and attempts to overturn the ban on dancing instituted by the efforts of a local minister, played by John Lithgow. The idea that dancing (of all things) could be banned seems absurd, but in Elmore City, dancing has been banned since its founding in 1898 in an attempt to “decrease the amount of heavy drinking.” The more you read up on Elmore City, the more you realize how tied it is to the basic plot of Footloose from the Reverend being an advocate for the dancing ban to the town’s school never having a prom to students going before council requesting the ban be lifted for their prom. Of course, what’s even more impressive is that the students of Elmore City managed to get dancing back without the help of Kevin Bacon, which is a feat unto itself.
Footloose is one of those ’80s films you cannot help but watch every couple of years. Bacon does a great job playing Ren as “a fish out of the water,” who is absolutely boggled by how different things are in the small town than they are in Chicago. Lori Singer is equally good as Reverand Moore’s daughter Ariel, who naturally has been rebelling against both her father and the dancing ban in secret. The two characters have an obvious attraction to one another and it’s clear they’ll end up together, so the film doesn’t feel the need to spend too much time showing what’s apparent. This instead allows Footloose to include some memorable scenes like Ren teaching Chris Penn’s Willard how to dance to the tune of Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.” Despite TikTokers best efforts to ruin it for all of us, dancing will likely remain a timeless activity, which is why Footloose will always be considered a classic for all ages in my eyes. Now, I thought this was a party. LET’S DANCE!
99. Scarface (1983)
A remake of the 1932 film, which was originally adapted from a novel, the 1983 version of Scarface is the quintessential telling of the gangster story. A brutal and captivating tale of the American dream gone wrong, Al Pacino delivers one of the greatest performances of his career. One of the greatest of anyone’s career for that matter. He encapsulates Tony Montana and makes the lead character, and film, impossible to take your eyes off. It always surprises me when I see Scarface has a runtime of nearly three hours, as the time absolutely flies by.
98. Gremlins (1984)
As far as I’m concerned, Gremlins is an absolute Christmas classic. Gizmo is an iconic hero, while the Gremlins are sadistically funny and sometimes downright frightening. The film also makes terrific use of practical effects that still hold up today.
97. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Who the hell thought it was a good idea to take a Roger Corman B-Movie (redundant, I know) about a killer plant and turn it into a big budget musical? Fozzy Bear, that’s who! Well, his alter ego of Frank Oz, anyway. The film is actually based on the stage production by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, which took the dark humor of Corman’s original film (primarily notable for the appearance of a young Jack Nickelson) and turned it into a catchy, horror/comedy/musical that riffed on 50’s monster movies. Nebbishy Seymour (Rick Moranis) pines for sweet coworker Audry (Ellen Greene) while discovering that his new plant purchase has a taste for blood (and murder). Featuring catchy tunes and a bunch of 80’s comedy stars (including Bill Murray and Steve Martin) the film was a surprise hit, particularly when it was released on video. A new ending was shot when the original was deemed “too dark” (Audrey II wins the day and takes over the world in the original), but you can catch the darker ending on the Director’s Cut version, released in 2012. The film is fun, freaky and surprisingly emotional satisfying, with some songs that linger in the brain long after the credits roll.
At one point the film was going to be Executive Produced by Stephen Spielberg and directed by Martin Scorsese (in 3D)! Mix that little nugget in your brain and wonder what kind of film THAT would have been!
96. Big (1988)
One of my all-time favorites, Big is a movie that you definitely want to see when you’re the same age as young Josh Baskin. As a kid, all you want to do is be older. You want to ride all the rides that have height or weight restrictions, you want to drive, you want freedom, you want… well, the list goes on. Big shows why staying young might not be such a bad thing while also showing audiences (and kids) why growing up is actually a sweet deal. Sure, Big glorifies adulthood, but that’s part of the movie’s charm. It’s fun watching Tom Hanks’ Josh Baskin start his adult life scared of being on his own only to grow with confidence as the movie progresses and basically get handed everything on a silver platter. His childlike innocence gets him quickly promoted at his job and he manages to land the hottest woman in the office because he’s not playing any mind games with her like her last boyfriend was. However, Josh begins to realize, as most adults often do at some point in their life, that being a kid wasn’t so bad after all and that he should have treasured being young. A box-office hit, Big cemented Hanks’ status as a leading man status, but more importantly, Big taught us that the quickest way to a job promotion was through playing “Heart and Soul” on a Walking Piano with your boss.
95. Heathers (1989)
Despite being a part of the school’s popular clique, Veronica Sawyer has had it with her friends’ cruelty and gets caught up in the murderous fantasies of the school’s resident bad boy, J.D., which quickly spirals out of control. I was introduced to Heathers during the era of VHS and couldn’t get enough of it. It was a caustic, cynical satire of the genre at the time, shredding the clichés and conventions of every teen movie that had come before it. Homophobia, bullying, suicide…Heathers does more than poke fun at the popularity of trends among teens, it completely eviscerates it. While the movie was a box-office failure, it’s certainly found its place in cinematic history as a beloved cult classic.
94. Atlantic City (1980)
Although it never becomes one in the typical sense, Atlantic City is technically a love story with potentially one of the greatest pairings that have one helluva meet-cute. It’s about an old-timey gangster that helps a lonely waitress live out her fantasies. She has a romanticized idea of how gangsters and the criminal underworld operates and desperately wants to be a part of that world. She’ll even settle for the fantasy because anything is better than her current existence. The waitress (played by Susan Sarandon) works at an oyster bar at a shitty casino. Every night she rubs lemons over her bare flesh while bathing to get the smell out and every night, the gangster watches. It’s an erotic moment that is guaranteed to imprint itself on your brain forever.
After a series of events binds the two, their spark is instant and undeniable. These two have palpable chemistry but the thing is, the gangster is played by Burt Lancaster who, if you’re unaware, is old as shit. So you never really want them to hook up. This is why it’s only technically a love story because the real romance at the center of the film is the life one thinks the other can provide. She’s in love with the fantasy she gets to live out and he gets to not only feel young again by being in her orbit but he actually gets the opportunity to actually be the thing he’s pretended he was his entire life. He’s not an aging has been, he’s an over-the-hill never-was. They’re two broken people using lies to try and make the other one happy, if just for a little while. If it was just another love story, it would still rank amongst the best in the genre but thankfully it’s more than that. It’s a mini-epic that transports you to a place that no longer exists, inhabited by people who’d rather be anywhere else that collide into each other for a brief moment in time. It’s a love story where both parties are fighting for individual happily ever afters and since it’s not a typical love story, you’re more invested than you would’ve been otherwise because either one of them or even both of them together achieving it isn’t a guarantee.
93. The Goonies (1985)
Hey you guuuuuuuuuuys! A magical coming of age adventure from the minds of Steven Spielberg, Chris Columbus and Richard Donnor, The Goonies is Indiana Jones for the younger crowd. A group of misfits is this close to losing their homes to a brand new golf course. When they find a pirate’s treasure map, they decide to set off to search for the fortune in order to save their neighborhood. I’m really a sucker for coming of age films, and The Goonies fits the bill, and then some. Once the action gets going, it never stops. The kids never stop, though that’s probably because hot on their heels is the murderous Fratelli family. The Goonies is a wild ride with fun, entertaining characters and the kind of hi-jinks one could only wish they got to experience as a kid. It’s a movie that I find I can watch anytime, any place and still be as entertained as I was during that very first viewing.
92. The Natural (1984)
An unknown middle-aged batter named Roy Hobbs with a mysterious past appears out of nowhere to take a losing 1930s baseball team to the top of the league. The Natural should not work. It’s a film in which the main character has no conflict to bump up against, has no obstacles to overcome, and doesn’t learn a lesson at the end. He has no narrative arc; he’s amazing from frame one and never stops being amazing until the end. On a purely storytelling level, he’s a terrible main character and the plot itself isn’t that great either. The Kim Basinger subplot isn’t compelling, the mystery at the center of his character isn’t interesting, and the bad guys trying to bribe him lacks any stakes because you never for a second think he’ll take the money.
Nothing about this film works on any fundamental level, and yet, I loved every frame of it. This film isn’t a drama about a mysterious ballplayer and it’s really not about baseball either. It’s a fantasy. Roy Hobbs is both Odysseus and Percival. This is Greek mythology with bats and Arthurian legends set within a baseball diamond. This isn’t supposed to be real life; the characters that inhabit those legends don’t make sense and their journeys are typically clichéd and predictable but it doesn’t matter. They’re legends for a reason. This film is about a legend playing a sport the film is also in love with. Every time he picks up Wonderboy (his bat) the film treats it as an event. So much so, that it contains the single best homerun in film history. There are much better films about baseball out there but few are as deeply in love with the sport as this one is.
91. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
Of all the directors that got their start this decade, Pedro Almodóvar might be the best, or at the very least, the most consistently fascinating. With the exception of Folle… Folle… Fólleme Tim! — his first movie released in 1979 that is nothing but garbage outside of that title — his career has produced nothing but critical darlings. Every single one of the eight films he released in the ’80s is highly rated but none hold a candle to Women on a Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. This is the movie that put him on every cinephile’s radar. Since it’s a farce that is, at times, almost overwhelmingly Spanish, it wasn’t exactly a huge crossover hit like La Cage aux Folles or the Gods Must Be Crazy but it definitely branded him as a potentially amazing new up and comer by those paying attention. Anyone who could maintain the film’s lunacy and energy without it ever feeling like a mad house on crack can clearly do anything. And if you haven’t seen the movie and you’re wondering how accurate that comparison is, I promise you it isn’t hyperbole.
This is one of the most hyper comedies you’ll ever see. After her lover leaves her, Pepa decides to kill herself with some poisoned gazpacho soup but a series of chaotic interruptions keep getting in her way. It’s one of those comedies where each new character that gets introduced adds one new layer of eccentricity as if they’re all competing to be the craziest one with the most convoluted connection to the other characters. They also start getting introduced at a more frequent clip as the film progresses, so not only are you getting barraged by a cavalcade of idiosyncratic kooks, but since they’re coming at you so fast, there’s no time to catch your breath before the next wave rolls out. It’s John Waters minus the gross-out humor mixed with the Looney Tunes-esque rapid-fire humor of a Marx Brothers movie but with an actual plot and characters.
What are some of your favorite ’80s movies? Maybe they’ll show up later in the list!