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.
40. The Verdict (1982)
A down-on-his-luck lawyer, reduced to drinking and ambulance-chasing, is handed a golden goose of a case: a malpractice suit where everyone wants to settle. An easy slam dunk that would keep him in whiskey money for at least two years but as he starts to investigate the case, he suddenly realizes that the case should go to court. Will he be able to punish the guilty, get a decent settlement for his clients, and restore his standing as a lawyer, or will his sudden conscience be too little, too late?
This film is so great, that you can pick any individual element of it at random, compare it to the best examples of whatever category that thing belongs to and I guarantee it would be just as good or better than whatever it is you’re judging it against. For example: if you were to judge Paul Newman’s performance against any other male performance of the 1980s, it’s easily as good. The same can be said about the courtroom scenes, the supporting cast, the script, the direction, the character drama, the final shot, the list goes on and on. It’s as perfectly constructed a film as you’re ever going to find. It’s so good, that I don’t even think you could teach it in film schools, because there’s no way you’re going to be able to make anything this good; it would literally dissuade students from even trying. Because what’s the point?
39. Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Once upon a time Eddie Murphy was the biggest star in the world, with a stint on Saturday Night Live, two fantastic standup films (Delirious and Raw) and the highest grossing R-rated film of all time (well, until 2003 and Matrix: Reloaded anyway). That was Beverly Hills Cop, a fish-out-of-water action-comedy film featuring Murphy as a Detroit detective trying to sole a crime in Beverly Hills. Axel Foley was pure Murphy, faster, smarter and funnier than any ten other guys, he was a smartass, but the most charming smartass you ever met. Murphy managed comedy and action with drive and skill making Foley one of the standout characters of the 80’s, even if the sequels were never quite as fun or funny as the original.
38. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Remember when Freddy Kreuger was freakin’ scary? Wes Craven took the slasher paradigm of the early 80’s – randy teens getting hacked up by freaky killers until a final girl takes them down – and threw a reality bending twist into the mix and in the process created one of the greatest horror icons of all time. Though the series would eventually turn Freddy into more of a freakish clown, more adept adept at one-liners than murderous menacing, the first film was a lean, mean scare machine – throwing blood and freaky visuals at the screen at a rapid pace. The plot of a killer boogeyman killing teens in their dreams would inspire a ton of “rubber reality” imitators, but nobody ever came close to replicating Nightmare on Elm Street’s success. Wes Craven would reinvent the slasher again with Scream in the 1990’s, but of all his creations I’m still most fond of Freddy, raggedy sweater, knife-hands and all.
37. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Considered a groundbreaking film upon release, Who Framed Roger Rabbit works for one reason: Bob Hoskins’ performance as private investigator Eddie Valiant. Hoskins completely sells every interaction he has with an animated character, which is no small feat considering he’s basically the only human in this film. In 2022, CGI is mainstream and actors are constantly talking to tennis balls and placement markers that will be animated into Optimus Prime or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but in 1988, there was nothing. Robert Zemeckis surely directed Hoskins on where to look, but he’s still interacting and having a back-and-forth with nobody on set. Yet, never once do you feel like he’s talking to negative space. In a film brimming with a who’s who of animated characters (including the long-awaited Looney Tunes/Mickey Mouse crossover), it’s a human who manages to make Who Framed Roger Rabbit work. Now, where’s that sequel you’ve been promising us, Disney?
36. The Fly (1986)
If there ever was an argument that the use of CGI is superior to practical effects, then The Fly is one of the best examples to show there is no argument at all. As Jeff Goldblum transitions into Brundlefly some of the body horror and visuals are stomach-churning. In a good way. You really feel for him as things spiral out of control, and a big part of that is down to the frighteningly realistic visual display. It’s sci, it’s horror. It’s creepy, it’s funny. Above all else, it’s a tragedy that will make you feel sympathy for a disgusting bugman.
35. Sixteen Candles (1984)
Sixteen Candles has aged horribly, let’s get that out of the way. If you’ve seen the movie recently, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Now however problematic some may view Sixteen Candles, the film is still an all-time classic from the decade. John Hughes knew how to speak to teenagers. Sixteen Candles means a lot to multiple generations and resonates in a way that similar films simply don’t. Simply put, Sixteen Candles has a weight to it. It may not be as memorable as Ferris Bueller or iconic as The Breakfast Club, but out of all of Hughes’ films, Sixteen Candles is the one that could have very easily changed someone’s life because everyone had at least one birthday (or day) like Molly Ringwald’s Samantha Baker. Hughes was the master at relatability and Sixteen Candles is about as relatable as his films get.
34. Blue Velvet (1986)
You know you’ve made it big time as a director when your name is used to describe a vibe distinctive to your own works. In that regard, nobody has hit it bigger than David Lynch and his 1986 classic, Blue Velvet is about as Lynchian as things get. This suburban fever dream crawls under your skin to simultaneously disturb and entertain. At times I was unsure between giggling and wincing as a reaction to what I was witnessing. Despite the confusion, it’s impossible to mistake this as anything other than master in full control of his craft. Lynch is a one of a kind voice and Blue Velvet is one of the strongest examples of why it’s such an important cinematic voice.
33. Come and See (1985)
I was apprehensive at first about watching Come and See. I had consistently heard how it was extremely difficult to view due to the subject material. A war film like no other, when I was watching it at first I didn’t understand the hype. It came across more like an arthouse film with the war in the background. Then things started to happen, and before I knew it I was completely sucked into the movie and felt like I was right alongside the lead character. Which is not a good place to be, as he witnesses the horrific events going on all around him. It’s a film that stuck with me for weeks, if not months, after watching. Highly recommended, but not for the faint of heart.
32. The Shining (1980)
A movie that tends to split hardcore Stephen King fans into two categories: those who love it and those who abhor it (much like King himself). Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece strays quite a bit from its source material, but it doesn’t diminish the sense of dread and terror that King managed to invoke in his novel. The Torrance family takes up in the Overlook Hotel for the winter as its caretakers, soon falling victim to the hotel’s claustrophobic isolation. Jack Nicholson gives an unhinged performance as Jack Torrance, a writer and former alcoholic slowly losing his mind, but it’s The Overlook Hotel that is truly the most fascinating character in The Shining and Kubrick at least seems to understand that much. The director all but perfects the idea of elevated horror with this film, giving audiences an artsy, ambiguous horror movie that depends on the reliability of its main character’s sanity. The Shining is the perfect example of a film that was poorly received during its initial release, but over time has grown to become considered one of the best films ever made.
31. Ran (1985)
Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece feels like a culmination of his life’s work. He was 75 years old when he made Ran and it’s clear he still had every bit of hunger and ambition that he had 40 years prior when starting out. A retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear, it’s an epic tale. The scope and scale of Ran is mesmerizing. From political infighting to large-scale battles, everything just looks stunning. There is no doubt the visuals and technical showpieces are the standout features, but they only work because all the other elements of the film are perfectly put together.
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What are some of your favorite ’80s movies? Maybe they’ll show up later in the list!