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.
60. Police Story (1985)
Jackie Chan’s commitment to entertain might be unparalleled. There’s no better example of that than his work on Police Story. As director and star, Chan delivers what is quite possibly the single greatest showcase in stunt coordination and choreography. His dazzling display effortlessly shifts between laugh-out-loud funny and exhilarating action. At one point Chan’s character steps in cow poo and subsequently moonwalks in order to wipe it off of his shoes – the range of his physical genius knows no bounds. The climatic mall sequence will leave your mouth agape and endlessly grateful for the madness you’ve witnessed.
59. Beetlejuice (1988)
It would be very easy for Beetlejuice not to work. Michael Keaton delivers a performance that is right on the line of making you hate Beetlejuice, but instead, you love him. Winona Ryder helps keep the story from going off the rails and we get some of the wackiest afterlife visuals ever put on screen.
58. Stand by Me (1986)
Could you make a list like this and not include Stand By Me? The Shawshank Redemption is widely considered the best adaptation of King’s works and some believe it to be the best film of all time. I’m going against the crowd now to say that I find Stand By Me to be the superior film and far more faithful to King’s short story. Based on King’s novella, The Body, four boys embark on a journey to find the dead body of a boy rumored to have been hit by a train. Starring Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, and the late River Phoenix, Rob Reiner’s coming-of-age film manages to capture the pain of adolescence, especially when the adults in your life continually fail you. If you’re a fan of Stephen King, this is a must-watch.
57. Au revoir les enfants (1987)
Based on the childhood of director Louis Malle, Au revoir les enfants is set against the backdrop of World War II and follows a pampered rich boy (Gaspard Manesse) who befriends a new classmate who is secretly a harbored Jew (Raphaël Fejtö). If this plot sounds similar, it’s because you’ve more than likely seen a variation of it a hundred times in everything from The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to Jojo Rabbit and while they’re similar, none of them pack the same emotional punch as this one does. It’s a premise with so many avenues for emotional assassination, that you just know it’s going not going to have a happy ending, you just don’t know where it’s going to land on the unhappy to depressed to utterly wrecked scale. The film is imbued with a quiet simplicity that makes its saddest moments gut-wrenchingly real. By merely letting the camera linger on an empty passageway, Malle beautifully emphasizes a terrible moment that his main character—and his audience—will never forget. It’s the type of film that crawls up inside your emotions and forces you to confront what it’s about to do to them and I assure you, you’re not ready for the last twenty minutes.
56. RoboCop (1987)
A brief anecdote: Stoner comedian and film junkie Doug Benson would often provide MST3K commentary live at independent theaters. During one such event I attended, the movie he selected happened to be RoboCop, a movie I have seen countless times and was eager to see on the big screen, riffing or not. Credits rolled, he got out an Irish “Rob O’Cop” jab and that was pretty much it. Silence, more or less, from there on out. The man set himself up to fail. How does one riff on a razor-sharp satire that also holds up a banner in sci-fi action? One does not, it turns out.
Paul Verhoeven’s ultraviolent satire of corporate and over-policed America sits firmly in 1987, and yet endures to 2022 and undoubtedly beyond. It has all the hallmarks of a classic film: an indelible score, a punchy script, deft filmmaking, and special effects, and a criminally overlooked performance in Peter Weller as the titular cybernetic officer.
At the heart of RoboCop sits Alex Murphy, a freshly transferred Detroit police officer who, as cinematic luck would have it, gets blasted to bits practically his first day at the new precinct. At the head of the movie, we have OCP (Omni Consumer Products, a majestic name for an evil corporation if you ask me), a greedy firm of white-collar scumbags eager to milk the city’s floundering law enforcement for all its worth. Already with a robotic policing program in development, OCP jumps at the opportunity to integrate a ‘mostly dead’ Murphy into their program, thus birthing RoboCop, the new face of law enforcement and the birth of their eventual reckoning. Armed with a tricked-out Beretta that has become iconic among film props, RoboCop hits the streets and lets fly bloody 80s justice. Never has a bloodpack found a more menacing squib than in RoboCop. Cartoonish villains are dispatched in cartoonishly graphic fashion (crotches of would-be rapists ought never to meet a better end), but at the end of the day, the film succeeds thanks to its heart. Satire or not, Murphy is a character with a dilemma: a man stuck between life and death, mourned for who he was while also loved (and hated) for what he has been forced to become.
You want satire? RoboCop.
You want action? RoboCop.
You want a study in body horror and psychological dysphoria? RoboCop 3. I’m joking. Don’t watch RoboCop 3…
55. Broadcast News (1987)
The career of James L. Brooks confounds me. He started in television and successfully made the jump to film but after a literal handful of films, he went right back to television. His debut film Terms of Endearment was nominated for six Oscars and won five. His follow-up Broadcast News was nominated for seven and As Good as It Gets was nominated for five and won two. So half of his movies were nominated for a combined 25 Oscars. That’s an insane track record. Obviously, the colossal bomb that is How Do You Know probably killed his career dead but that was almost twenty years after his first movie. I don’t know why he had such large gaps in his career before then. Based on his ’80s output, he seemed poised to be the next Woody Allen or Albert Brooks but I’m guessing his true love was the ol’ boob tube. I’m not complaining mind you, he co-created The Simpsons for god sake. I just lament all the masterpieces he could’ve made. I guess I’m greedy and I just want more of the wit and humor and intelligence of scripts like Broadcast News. A love triangle set against the stressful world of broadcast news, the film explores the lives of three people—a dimwitted anchorman (William Hurt), an envious reporter (Albert Brooks), and a perfectionist producer (Holly Hunter)—as they each try and juggle their personal, professional and romantic lives. It’s a romantic dramedy that dodges clichés like Neo dodges bullets. Watching the film work within the genre without ever pandering to the audience that lives that genre, is pretty spectacular. We need more films like this. We need more films made by James L. Brooks. Just don’t give him $120 million to make one because, oof.
54. Time Bandits (1981)
Written by Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin, of Monty Python fame, Time Bandits follows the story of British boy Kevin (Craig Warnock), who is as obsessed with history and adventure as his parents are with their TV and kitchen gadgets. One night, he gets sucked into the shenanigans of a troupe of time-jumping dwarfs (David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, Malcolm Dixon, Mike Edmonds, Jack Purvis, and Tiny Ross), who are on the run with a magical map stolen from their boss, the Supreme Being.
With Kevin reluctantly along for the ride, they hop through time and space to meet (and swindle) a who’s who list of historic and mythical figures. Ian Holm kicks the adventure off as a petulant Napoleon Bonaparte who ends up robbed of all but his underwear. A dashing young Sean Connery dazzles as Agamemnon, and another favorite Python John Cleese pops up as a happily oblivious Robin Hood — among many others. Scene after scene delivers a charming look at history and great literature, and all the while this young boy tries to sway his companions toward a more honest path.
Eventually, the group stumbles into the hands of Evil (David Warner), who has been scheming to steal the map so he can remake the universe and do a better job of it — starting with lasers, and leaving out slugs. While watching him chastise his minions and occasionally zap them into dogs (or oblivion) makes for a good chuckle, Evil’s obsession with increasing technology’s hold on the world eventually delivers a cautionary tale that is even more relevant today than it was in 1981.
–R. J. Mathews
53. Evil Dead II (1987)
One of the most unabashedly fun horror movies of all time. Director Sam Raimi took everything he learned while making the first Evil Dead and, with some money and time on his side, cranked it all to an 11. It’s essentially a remake of the first film with more of all the things that made Evil Dead work. More gore, more funny, and more Bruce Campbell – finally revealed as a gifted and charismatic physical comedian. It’s not a perfect film – some of the effects are a little dodgy, the acting is a little (or a lot in some cases) wooden and things get a little sloppy around the edges (you can see light fixtures in the beams of the cabin roof at one point and that Henrietta costume apparently ripped in the crotch during the filming and they didn’t fix it). None of that matters, because it’s 150 lbs of fun in a 5lb bag. There is just SO MUCH good stuff crammed in there that you never have to wait for more than a minute or two before getting another, more awesome round of gags and gore.
52. El Norte (1983)
El Norte is about two young Guatemalans, a brother and sister named Rosa and Enrique, and their long trek up through Mexico to el Norte — the United States. Their journey begins in a small village and ends in Los Angeles, and their dream is the American Dream. The film was released almost forty years ago and the immigration conversation hasn’t really gotten very far since then. The New Colossus cries out for all who seek refuge or a home to call their home but it’s a lie. We don’t want to share the American Dream and we certainly don’t want to make it easy for others to get it. The film isn’t political. It isn’t trying to preach at you and it never turns the main characters into symbols. It just depicts the very real reality of those trying to find a better life for themselves. It shows the dangers of trying to get in and how they survive once they do. It’s a profoundly moving experience that feels so authentically observed, that you’ll forget you’re not watching a documentary.
51. The Horse Thief (1986)
On a special “Best of the ’90s” episode of Siskel and Ebert, Ebert had Scorsese on as his co-host and he picked The Horse Thief as his number one film of the decade. Although it was released in 1986, it didn’t make its way stateside till 1990 but I have a feeling it could’ve hit the first day of 1980 and it still would’ve made his list. Because it’s that good. A loose remake of The Bicycle Thief, the film is set in the barren landscape of Tibet, where a pious Norbu (Cexiang Rigzin) is forced to steal horses in order to support his wife, Dolma (Dan Zhiji), and their young son. Though Norbu shares his ill-gotten earnings with his fellow Buddhists, they banish him for his misdeeds. Later, Norbu’s child falls ill and dies, and the thief believes that his amorality caused the boy’s death. Norbu decides to swear off stealing, but when Dolma gives birth to another baby, his financial desperation leads him astray.
The conflict at the heart of this film might seem too alien for some westerners to have any sympathy for but set aside the foreign politics and cultural differences and focus on the main character’s desperation. It’s not exactly a scenario we all relate to but everyone can imagine that desperation. The world he lives in isn’t exactly relatable but his plight is. The Horse Thief is a gorgeously shot movie with some of the best cinematography of that or any decade. You can pick any frame at random, compare it to any A-lister’s best work and I bet you hard money The Horse Thief would win. It’s stunningly gorgeous with a compelling moral quagmire at its core. But if you’re still not sold, let me reiterate: Scorsese saw this at the beginning of that decade and it stayed with him for so long that he put it at number 1. That’s saying something.
What are some of your favorite ’80s movies? Maybe they’ll show up later in the list!