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.
20. Do the Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee’s magnum opus. Few films from the decade feel as seminal as Do the Right Thing. While the film’s social consciousness, unfortunately, echoes through today, the film’s timelessness is borne out of Lee’s sublime mastery of his craft. Lee has such a sound understanding of the language of film that he’s able to constantly deconstruct, break, and rearrange the rules of filmmaking with dazzling results. Do the Right Thing will never fail to leave its viewer(s) in awe of its sheer brilliance. Likewise, it will never fail to leave them with the burning question of whether Mookie did indeed do the right thing.
19. Escape from New York (1981)
“You flew the Gullfire over Leningrad, didn’t you?”
Neuromancer writer William Gibson noted that this bit of dialogue from John Carpenter’s Escape from New York is just a “throwaway line, but for a moment it worked like the best SF where a casual reference can imply a lot.” I agree with Gibson, but I would go a bit further. I think Escape from New York lives and dies by what it’s able to imply. And the world of Escape—one in which New York City has been walled off and turned into a prison colony—is pretty ambitious.
Like other science fiction and fantasy movies from the time period, however, Escape was constrained by the special effects of the time. And with a budget of $6 million, Carpenter could only do so much to realize this fictional, dystopian version of a future Manhattan. This means that Escape doesn’t get distracted by whiz-bang special effects shots. It sticks to what’s important: story and character.
And what we end up with is a razor-sharp film with great action scenes, great dialogue, pitch-perfect acting, and a perfect score to fit the tone of the film. Because this is pre-CGI, no time is wasted on gratuitous computer-generated shots of the city. Ironically enough, though, Carpenter wanted to use computer animation for the wireframe map shots of Manhattan, but he didn’t have the budget. So his effects team solved the problem by shooting their miniature model of the city under black light and using reflective tape to wrap all of the corners and edges of the buildings. The effect worked beautifully in the film: the shot looks just like a computer wireframe model. (Which only bolsters my long-held belief that the movies we remember are often the product of the limitations and struggles the filmmakers had to endure while making them.)
The rest of Carpenter’s futuristic world is realized through clever location scouting, matte paintings (some done by James Cameron), wonderfully crafted sets, and great shot selection. Just simple filmmaking. But it’s all done so deftly that it draws you in, and you believe that it is a fully realized world you are seeing. And even after the credits roll, the world seems to grow bigger and bigger in the mind. By implying the world depicted in Escape from New York, the filmmakers have allowed the audience to fill in the blanks, to participate in its creation, and that makes it more real, fuller, and more organic.
And as Gibson said, it makes it some of the best sci-fi.
18. 48 Hrs. (1982)
The Buddy Cop movie didn’t start with 48 Hours, but it sure wouldn’t look anything like it does now without it. This was the first of what Roger Ebert ended up calling “wunza” movies – as in “one’s a hard-nosed cop, the other’s a wise-cracking con,” a pairing of two distinctly different and often diametrically opposed personalities in the pursuit of solving a crime. It’s a formula that became so ubiquitous in the ’80s that 1993’s Last Action Hero made it part of the satire, showing the ‘movie reality’ cops as all being paired with a conflicting partner – including a cartoon cat.
Walter Hill’s film is a bit more grounded than the genre would become, trading explosions and car chases for character interaction, comedy, and the occasional good ol’ fist fight. This was really the film that made Eddie Murphy a viable movie star and pairing him with the gravelly-voiced, lantern-jawed Nolte created instant chemistry. You believe in their relationship – punches to the face and all – as it develops, anchoring the drug-deal/kidnap plot.
Walter Hill isn’t known for his hand at comedy, but he knows when to let Murphy run and when to reign him in. Nolte proves to be no slouch at the funny stuff either and the duo works great together. At a lean 96 minutes running time, 48 Hours never overstays its welcome and is just plain fun to watch. Despite movie execs’ apprehension, the film did great box office and even spawned a sequel. That success meant it got copied by every other studio that could get their hands on two (or more) leads with opposing personalities. Without 48 Hours you don’t get Beverly Hills Cop, you don’t get Lethal Weapon, you don’t get Bad Boys. Hey, Murphy and Nolte are still kicking around… where’s my One Last 48 Hours?
17. Das Boot (1981)
I have to admit it’s been a minute since I’ve re-watched Das Boot – at over 200 minutes, it’s a definite time investment – so mostly what I have is impressions and vague memories. Oh, but what impressions and memories. The claustrophobia, the terror, the camaraderie, and the feeling like you’re watching a documentary, not a film. Jurgen Prochnow was the standout, but every character feels like a real person. A masterclass in building and relieving tension, Das Boot is one of the greatest war movies ever made. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a love of submarine movies and while I know I watched them before Das Boot I must admit every submarine film I’ve watched since has been compared to it. And found wanting.
16. First Blood (1982)
First Blood, the first film of the Rambo franchise, is based on the 1972 anti-war novel of the same name by bestselling author David Morell. The film, like the book, tells the story of Rambo, a veteran of the Vietnam War, who runs afoul of a local, small town lawman and winds up waging a one-man war against the police force and local national guard unit.
As a kid, the action and Rambo’s seemingly invincible nature brought me back to First Blood again and again. As an adult, the melancholy tone director Ted Kocheff establishes from the beginning, Andrew Laszlo’s sweeping cinematography, and the pathos Stallone brings to what could easily have been a one-note character make First Blood a yearly rewatch for me.
The first Rambo movie may have been a violent action film for its time, but it’s one of the best examples in the genre that is not only perfectly paced but also underpins its action with real human drama. First Blood avoids simple caricatures and succeeds in saying something important and timely about the post-Vietnam War era. It’s one of the best movies to come out of the 1980s, and it’s one of my favorite films of all time.
15. The Thing (1982)
An absolute legend of a filmmaker, John Carpenter is known for his contributions to the horror genre, and for making a whole bunch of cult classics. You could pick any number of his movies and hold them up as your favorite — but if you’re not picking The Thing, what are you doing? Some really fun, quirky, gruesome effects work is just the tip of the iceberg with this movie, which has only grown in appreciation and estimation since finding its audience in the ’80s. A career-best performance from Kurt Russell, doing something very different from his other Carpenter collaborations, Escape From New York and Big Trouble In Little China, he really sells the intense paranoia. Keith David is no slouch either, and the image of the pair staring at each other in the icy wasteland is burned onto the brain of anyone who has ever seen the film.
Also, probably a strong contender for the best poster art of all time? Just putting it out there.
–D. N. Williams
14. Amadeus (1984)
A fictionalized take on Mozart’s life, Amadeus mainly focuses on his rivalry with fellow composer Antonio Salieri. Mozart may be the main character but it’s F Murray Abraham’s portrayal of Salieri that steals the show. The ways he portrays the jealousy and scorn he had for Mozart’s work is phenomenal. The ups and downs of Mozart’s life are enthralling and heartbreaking, with the film just flowing perfectly. Add in a fantastic soundtrack, and you have one of the best biographical dramas ever made.
13. Akira (1988)
Akira remains one of the great achievements in animated cinema. This 1988 classic was ahead of its time in so many regards. The cyberpunk landscapes of Neo Tokyo are infinitely slick. The elements of grotesque body are eternally evocative. The political undercurrents seem to remain relevant. All of these ideas and themes are brought to evergreen life by the brilliant images that can’t help but be seared into your brain from your first viewing. It’s not fair to simply label Akira as one of the best-animated films of all time, or as one of the best Japanese films of all time. It’s one of the greatest films of all time. Period. Full stop.
12. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
The ’80s saw a number of classic comedies and spoof movies, but This Is Spinal Tap is the best of the bunch for me. Some films just connect directly to my sense of humor and I knew within the first five minutes that this was an all-time classic. A mockumentary following the aging (and declining) Spinal Tap, it satirizes everything from the rock music scene at that time. Dozens of hours of film were shot as the script was mostly improvised, and that technique seemed to work perfectly. The humor is silly but intelligent at the same time, and every time I rewatch it, I pick up on something new to laugh at.
11. The Elephant Man (1980)
This was the first David Lynch movie I ever saw, though I had heard much about Eraserhead. I went in expecting something odd and horrific and I did get that, in a way, but not the way I thought I would. Inspired by the life of Joseph Merrick, a man with severe physical deformities who was born in 1862. John Hurt gives a masterful performance as Merrick (called John in the film), imbuing the tortured character with loving, intelligent humanity that transcends the deformities, the bag, and even the black and white film. You care for John and weep for him. Though it was panned as being too straightforward and maudlin at the time the film has outlasted its critics and remains one of Lynch’s most accessible and emotional films. That it didn’t win a single one of its eight Oscar nominations is a damn shame.
What are some of your favorite ’80s movies that haven’t shown up on the list yet? Do you think they’ll be in the Top 10?