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.
70. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Few directors had as good a run in the ’80s as Woody Allen did. He released ten films in ten years, an output far less impressive than two other workhorses from that same time — Neil Simon and Francis Veber — but since most of their movies sucked and every single one of Allen’s could’ve made the cut, I’m giving him the edge. It was actually hard deciding which one of his films to include. The Purple Rose of Cairo has the most interesting premise, Zelig is the most technologically impressive (Forrest Gump would not exist without it), Radio Days and Stardust Memories feel the most personal, Another Woman is arguably the best acted, Crimes and Misdemeanors has the best writing, and Broadway Danny Rose and A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy are just plain ol’ funny. They all have their strengths and weaknesses but the one I think does the best job at balancing the scales between comedic and dramatic is Hannah and Her Sisters.
Woody Allen’s warmest, most life-affirming film, Hannah and Her Sisters has a deserved place in the canon of ‘80s cinema as a masterpiece of human interaction and nuanced emotion, woven intricately through several overlapping storylines, each centered on a member of an extended New York family. Buoyed by Carlo Di Palma’s gorgeous deep-focus cinematography and an array of marvelous performances (both Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine won Oscars for their roles), the screenplay (another Oscar winner) is truly masterful in the way it balances tone, thematic weight, and the time spent with its central characters. Each scene is more riveting than the next, but the true beauty of Allen’s film is found not in its undeniable technical prowess but in the pure emotional resonance and universal beauty of the screenplay and how it is delivered. Each actor knocks it out of the park. With the exception of Allen himself, each one feels real and their subplot could be fleshed out and turned into a movie itself. I could’ve watched another hour of all of them. He deliberately leaves us wanting more and by doing so, their stories stick with us far longer. Manhattan and Annie Hall might fight for the title of his best film but I think there’s no debating which one is his best ’80s movie.
69. Possession (1981)
Not a single person who’s seen Possession didn’t immediately figure out that it’s built out of the director Andrzej Żuławski’s real-life divorce from Małgorzata Braunek because the emotions are too real to fake. There are parts of this that feel like a therapy session and others that feel like a spiritual exorcism. Like Żuławski had to purge every single feeling and emotion he had during the divorce in order to move on but since those feelings are primarily all hatred, rage, and confusion, the result is a horrific open wound of nastiness and pain. The film is about a spy (played by Sam Neill) coming home after a mysterious mission abroad to find out that his wife (Isabelle Adjani) is having an affair.
Since the film isn’t as plot-heavy as it is character-driven, to give away any more would be criminal but go in knowing two things: 1) it gets incredibly dark and 2) special effects wizard Carlo Rambaldi worked on it. It’s an odd mixture of genres held together by Adjani’s phenomenal performance. The Academy has a long history of ignoring genre work. Horror and Sci-Fi are pretty much nonexistent at the Oscars, so Adjani never had a chance at a nomination but I don’t think there’s a more fearless performance captured on screen. What she puts herself through is nothing short of mesmerizing and awe-inspiring. For years I actually forgot this was a horror film. I completely forgot about the horror elements because all I could remember was Adjani’s performance. Adjani made me forget about a tentacle monster. That’s how good she is.
68. The Right Stuff (1983)
When I was a kid I had a plan for my future career(s). I was going to be a scientist by day, a country-western singer by night. Now, neither of those things happened – and you’re all welcome for me not becoming a country singer – but I had already settled for my second choice when I chose scientist. Because what I really wanted to be was an astronaut. Unfortunately, even as a kid I knew that being a “four eyes” meant I was never going to pilot a spaceship and growing up after the 70’s meant I’d probably never set foot on the moon either. Still, I was fascinated by anything and everything to do with the space program and The Right Stuff was the kind of epic mythmaking in film that I really wanted. It maybe had a little more Chuck Yeager than I strictly needed, but I loved seeing John Glenn, Gus Grissom and Alan Shepherd on the big screen. And what a cast! Sam Shepard, the late Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Lance Henriksen, Barbara Hershey, and Veronica Cartwright among others. It’s big-budget, big story film-making of a kind they just don’t do anymore. Man, it’s been a while since I’ve watched it – might be time to rekindle those childhood dreams when I too thought I might have the right stuff.
67. 9 to 5 (1980)
As great as Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are in this, Dolly Parton (and to a lesser extent Dabney Coleman) should get the lion’s share of credit for making 9 to 5 a hit. In addition to doing the catchy as fuck theme song that was omnipresent that year, she provides the film with the biggest belly laughs and became a feminist icon by trying to topple the patriarchy with her big bazoongas and sass. And in the case of Dabney, he perfected the asshole boss archetype that’s still being drawn from now but was all over that decade. The film could’ve just starred those two and I guarantee it would’ve been just as successful but with Fonda and Tomlin in the mix, it becomes something more. You need all the elements, not just the two best ones (and I’m not talking about the bazoongas) for the film to be as effective. And man does it hold up. 9 to 5 still feels like it’s still light years ahead of the curve — try to imagine a film coming out now that stars two of our greatest female comedians, one of the greatest female musicians, and is all about dismantling a toxic work environment in the age of #MeToo. It’s unfathomable but not only did it happen, but it was also the second-biggest film of 1980 behind The Empire Strikes Back. That’s insane. Films like this don’t get made anymore but thank God this one did and thank God it stars Dolly Parton (and the others).
66. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
While some have taken umbrage with the direction the series went after the first (least of all Kirk Douglas who refused to do First Blood because he disagreed with Stallone’s decision to keep Rambo alive), there’s no denying the raw badassitude displayed in First Blood Part II. After this film came out, boys no longer wanted to be astronauts when they grew up and they stopped playing Cowboys ‘n Indians and started wearing bandannas and playing war. This fundamentally changed an entire generation of kids who went to the church of Stallone and were baptized in the waters of ass-kicking action and came out the other side believers. Their new religion was one of testosterone and blood and their new god was Rambo. This isn’t the melodrama of the first and it isn’t trying to be. It’s an over-the-top action film aimed at young boys (the ’80s were a different time) and every single one of them loved it.
65. Risky Business (1983)
I think we can all safely agree that if we ever slid across the floor in our socks and underwear it was because we were imitating Joel, played perfectly by a young Tom Cruise, from Risky Business. It’s sort of crazy that the film has been remembered for this brief comedic scene because Risky Business is otherwise a very serious coming-of-age story. There are plenty of ’80s films about a teenager cutting loose and throwing a huge party in his house while his parents are gone, but none of them are quite like Risky Business. The film is less about Joel’s freedom while his parents are out of town, and more about dealing with adult issues like money, career, and love. Joel becomes entangled with each of these things during the course of the movie and what he learns from them actually helps to secure his future. I don’t think every kid should start a pop-up brothel to make money, but that’s part of the film’s charm. The film takes a laughable premise and makes it work by never pulling focus on Joel’s motives and dreams. Risky Business is a lot more than Cruise lip-syncing to “Old Time Rock and Roll” in his underwear and it’s a shame that will always be the first thing that comes to mind when mentioning the film.
64. Platoon (1986)
Platoon holds a very special place in my heart. As a Vietnam War vet himself, my father always asserted that no cinematic depiction of the war came closer than Oliver Stone’s Platoon. Obviously, Stone’s own time serving in Vietnam informed much of what Platoon would become. What strikes me most about this film is the aimless nature of its characters and much of the plot. In a weird way, it almost operates as a ‘hangout film’ version of a war movie. The ensemble cast features way too many great faces to name, but Willem Dafoe steals the show as the film’s moral compass. He also suffers one of the most heartbreaking and memorable movie deaths of all time.
63. Caddyshack (1980)
With the possible exception of Airplane! or This Is Spinal Tap, I do not think there is a funnier film this decade. It has been a permanent fixture of my own personal top five since I first saw it and I doubt anything will ever bump it. Everything outside of Maggie (which is thankfully edited down to the bone), is comedic gold. Whether it’s Bill Murray talking about meeting the Dalai Lama or trying to kill that obviously fake gopher; Rodney Dangerfield annoying the shit out of every pretentious snob around him; Chevy Chase doing damn near the exact same thing or Ted Knight less than amused by any of this. Every performer gets their time to shine and every one of them kills. It’s one of those comedies that feels like it’s delivering iconic line after iconic line. Without having seen it in years, I’m confident I can recite it almost word for word. The jokes just stick to your brain. There are more influential comedies this decade and there are definitely more successful ones but for my money, there are very few that are as funny.
62. Dekalog (1988)
The ’80s might be the decade where our collective love of the mini-series began. We had Richard Chamberlain doing a damn good job of convincing us that he isn’t gay in Shogun, The Bourne Identity AND The Thorn Birds, Patrick Swayze fighting against his friend and figurative brother in North and South, a full-on alien invasion in V that was so successful, it spawned a sequel, television series and a toy line, and of course Lonesome Dove, which helped kickstart a resurgence in westerns. Each year seemed to produce at least one that was bigger than the one that came out the year previous but as impressive as our mini-series were, they were still television productions at the end of the day. If you really wanted to see what long-form cinema could be, you needed to look overseas at the insanely long epics Berlin Alexanderplatz and Dekalog. While both are masterpieces and are equally deserving of a spot on this list, they’re still technically cheats and if I’m going to break the rules for one of them, it’s going to be Dekalog.
Thematically based on one of the Ten Commandments, each of Dekalog’s episodes branch off into distinct narratives that explore wildly different philosophical topics. Each highlighted commandment is just a thin framework for director Krzysztof Kieślowski to tell an even bigger story that slowly comes into focus over its ten chapters. Connecting ten different movie-length stories through narrative callbacks and thematic points was just the start of his ambition. In fact, his byzantine story structure is one of the least impressive things about it. Kieślowski is not a man to rest on his laurels. He didn’t just want each chapter to feel different, he wanted them to look different as well, going so far as to employ a new director of cinematography for almost every episode. If this all sounds pretentious and inaccessible, it’s not. I mean, there’s a reason it’s on the list, and the nearly 14-hour behemoth Berlin Alexanderplatz isn’t — Dekalog is actually entertaining.
61. The Little Mermaid (1989)
This is a movie that I can very clearly remember watching with my family in the living room of my childhood home. I was a kid who grew up on Disney films, so I can recall being in awe of just how colorful The Little Mermaid was, how incredible the songs were and how amazing Ursula was as the film’s villain (she’s still my favorite to this day). The Little Mermaid defied the expectations of the studio and became a box office hit. It also kickstarted what would become Disney’s modern golden era in animation. While it may be a bit outdated in its storyline (young girl wants to marry a guy she’s never met) its animation and music are timeless. It remains one of my favorite animated features and is still extremely watchable, even today.
What are some of your favorite ’80s movies? Maybe they’ll show up later in the list!