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.
50. Predator (1987)
I’m willing to put money on this being the most quotable sci-fi movie of all time: “I ain’t got time to bleed,” “Stick around,” “Something’s got Billy spooked,” “If it bleeds, we can kill it,” and, of course, the immortal “Runnnn, get to da chopper!!”
Predator also boasts intelligent direction from the underrated John McTiernan. The fact that there is a claustrophobic feel to a film set outside in the jungle is amazing. A memorable score courtesy of composer Alan Silvestri, and universally strong performances from its cast of muscle-bound 1980s actor stars led by Arnie himself.
Lastly, there is the title character itself, a massive extra-terrestrial with dreadlocks and an arsenal of hi-tech weapons and cloaking devices. Designed by FX wizard Stan Winston, the predator remains a genuinely menacing presence all these years later, despite the endless slew of sub-par sequels and lazy spin-offs.
49. Conan the Barbarian (1982)
“What is best in life?” A question. A philosophy. And now, thanks to vapid internet culture, a meme. It is a question, from the 1982 John Millius epic Conan the Barbarian, which produces an answer that echoes well beyond the roll of the credits of the prehistoric-set film and into our modern age. I need not repeat the oft-recited quote as I’m sure you know it by heart already, but I will reiterate the function of both the question and the beating philosophic pulse of the movie from which it originates.
The film opens with a Nietzsche quote regarding the oppression of life and the strength produced in those who do not so readily submit to it, and that savage ethos pulsates throughout the rest of the film. Conan of Cimmeria, a boy in his cold mountains at the start, suffers the brutality of an invading world, is enslaved in epic fashion, enough to shape the young boy into the Austrian Oak, and comes to know well the Riddle of Steel, the film’s own reinterpretation of the Nietzsche quote.
It would be a grave sin to view the film as pure pulp (though one familiar with Robert E. Howard’s original pulp works may be somewhat forgiven in that thinking), a graver sin would be to lump this classic with the Sword & Sorcery that would later come aping Conan (even a direct sequel in Conan the Destroyer is guilty). Beyond the thick philosophical overtones and subtextual disdain for the hippie culture, Conan the Barbarian soars in its filmmaking where few other fantasy films manage. It is not, in my opinion, until two decades later when Peter Jackson masterfully executes The Lord of the Rings do we see a world as realized, a savage display of action (there are no foam swords thrust through the armpit or cardboard armor obscuring a Party City costume here), and a journey worth immortalizing on film.
What is best in life? Answer: Very few things when Hollywood actually manages to give a shit about showing audiences a world beyond their own. (P.S. Basil Poledouris. That’s it.)
48. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
If I could only watch one werewolf movie for the rest of my life it would be this one. An American Werewolf in London is the definitive werewolf movie mainly due to the stellar makeup effects by Rick Baker (who won an Academy Award for his work on the film) and the fact it is the most entertaining werewolf film in existence. Director John Landis masterfully blended horror, comedy, and tragedy while borrowing elements from previous werewolf films but managed to deliver something original and memorable.
I will forever talk about what impact the transformation sequence had on me as a kid. I had seen many horror movies before An American Werewolf in London and I just always knew it was a guy in a mask and the blood wasn’t real but here was different. This wasn’t some cool transition or cutting and showing the next phase each time. This looked so real that I remember inching closer to the tv to see what was happening. This looked like it hurt, and you could feel David’s pain. The suffering culminates in a brief yet awe-inspiring rampage through the streets of London that harkens back to classic monster movies like King Kong.
47. Back to the Future Part II (1989)
After the success (and cliffhanger ending) of Back to the Future, Universal was keen on getting a sequel quickly into development. Co-creator Bob Gale initial sequel treatment, titled Paradox, was so long that it was eventually split into two separate films turning Back to the Future into a proposed trilogy. While Back to the Future has always remained in my top spot when ranking this time-travel series, Part II and Part III have flip-flopped between second and third place. I love the Western aspect of Part III and exploring Doc Brown’s live life. The whole sequence involving hijacking the train and time-traveling back to 1985 is great. However, despite my love for Part III, I will far more often tell people who ask that Part II is the second-best Back to the Future film.
Back to the Future Part II takes what I love about the first film and cranks it to an 11. The plot holes may grow larger, but so does the fun you’ll have watching Doc and Brown travel to 2015 then 1985A then 1955, and finally… well, I guess that’s for another film to answer. I was actually surprised to learn that this film was given the cold shoulder by critics and audiences when it first opened in theaters. Thankfully, the tides have changed and this is considered by many to be one of Robert Zemeckis’ best films, and with good reason. Part II features some of the best scenes in the Back to the Future trilogy. Whether it’s showing off an ’80s-inspired future (the Bobs were pretty damn close on some future technology and miles away on others), a new perspective on the original film, or a wild dystopian Hill Valley where Biff is in charge and Marty is out of his element, Part II ups the stakes and keeps the audience invested as our favorite time-traveling duo races to undo their wrongs. And while Part II will never eclipse my love for the original 1985 film, I have no problem saying that the 1989 sequel has the best ending of the entire trilogy. To this day, I still get goosebumps watching Marty tell Doc that he’s “back from the future.” Bravo to all involved for giving us one of the best sequels of all time.
46. Thief (1981)
Michael Mann’s filmography is probably best described as an obsession with men who are obsessive about their work. His first feature, Thief, is no exception to that rule. James Caan stars as Frank, our beloved thief. He brings a certain rugged charm to the role that’s alarmingly absent from the movie stars of today. Mann’s passionate attention to detail results in one of the coolest movies of the decade. The streets are covered in rain and the city’s neon lights majestically bounce off them. The score absolutely rips and Jim Belushi sports kick-ass sideburns. What’s not to love?
45. When Harry Met Sally… (1989)
While When Harry Met Sally had its fair share of critics when it premiered in 1989, it has since become a classic in the romantic comedy genre, and arguably the one movie all other rom-coms are to be measured against. While When Harry Met Sally was just another gold star in an already successful directing career for Reiner, the film launched Nora Ephron’s career, who later went on to help write and direct other rom-com classics like Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan’s on-screen chemistry has only been rivaled by Ryan’s chemistry with Tom Hanks.
It combined so many rom-com tropes, executing them to perfection while bringing both a male and female perspective to the table. Harry and Sally were both fully fleshed out people, flawed and quirky but never crossing the line into pretentious or unlikable. When I watch this movie, I find myself sorely missing Nora Ephron and what she brought to the genre. She seemed to truly understand romance and how to get into the minds of both men and women. Simply put, despite the influx of rom-coms since, there has not been another to reach the same plateau as When Harry Met Sally. And for that, it remains a timeless classic.
44. The Karate Kid (1984)
One of the great underdog movies of the 1980’s, The Karate Kid made karate cool, made Ralph Macchio a teen heartthrob, and turned Pat Morita from the goofy owner of Arnold’s on Happy Days to a beloved (and kickass) father figure for America. It’s one of my favorite zero-to-hero films, right up there with Rocky (which was also directed by John G. Avidsen). The film spawned two more movies, a cartoon (which I remember enjoying) and a recent TV series (which I understand is pretty good). I remember liking the second film, nothing about the third and the only one I ever re-watch is this one. “Wax on, wax off,” and “sweep the leg!” Does it deserve to be on a list of the greatest 80’s movies? Insert Mr. Miyagi sage nod gif here.
43. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Most people consider Spirited Away the crown jewel of Studio Ghibli films, but My Neighbor Totoro may be the most accessible to Western audiences. It’s a simple story with fantastic imagination and visuals with a strong heart. It brings to life the feeling of being a kid in a world full of wonder while navigating the more harsh realities of life.
42. Tootsie (1982)
Back in the day, I hated this movie when it came on HBO. I just didn’t understand the humor in it one bit. Like why was this dude dressing like a woman? I refused to watch it. Jump to years later and I gave it another chance since I got the premise now. God damn, this movie is funny. It’s a great story intertwined with great moments and it has one of Bill Murray’s finest performances.
Seriously it’s comedy at its finest throughout.
41. Arthur (1981)
Arthur spends his time with booze and whores. His dad has a wife lined up for him that he keeps rejecting – until it’s her or being cut off from $750,000,000. Then he goes shopping and falls in love with a shoplifter. A film so great, my only complaint I have with it, isn’t even the film’s fault. This thing was nominated for damn near every goddamn Oscar in the book but they couldn’t throw one to Liza fucking Minnelli? Dudley Moore and John Gielgud are fantastic in their respective roles (especially Gielgud who steals every scene in the film. Seriously, he should be arrested for straight-up taking the film away from every other actor) but, and maybe I’m in the minority here but I don’t think their roles were that difficult to pull off.
One’s a comedic drunk and the other is a sardonic butler. Now, the actors do everything in their power to keep them from becoming one-note and cliche but the heavy lifting was already done for them. There are plenty of performances they could’ve pulled from to help craft their characters. Minnelli on the other hand has to create her character from the bottom up and has to make you fall in love with her with considerably less screen time than either of them. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say she’s the glue that keeps the film together but she is definitely its secret weapon. She’s funny, she’s sassy and she’s immediately lovable. She was robbed of an Oscar nom, goddamn it! Oh, and the rest of the film is pretty great too.
What are some of your favorite ’80s movies? Maybe they’ll show up later in the list!