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.
80. The Blues Brothers (1980)
“It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark… and we’re wearing sunglasses.” The Blues Brothers was the first film created as a spin-off from a Saturday Night Live sketch. Though it was fairly successful it would be more than a decade before another property proved popular enough to warrant the film treatment (1992’s Wayne’s World, which remains the highest grossing film based on a Saturday Night Live property). A potent mix of comedy, action sequences and fantastic music, the film somehow works an alchemical magic, becoming something greater than its disparate parts. Featuring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as the eponymous Jake and Elwood Blues, “on a mission from God” to save the orphanage where they grew up, as well as a ton of blues music legends, the film was a followup to director John Landis’ Animal House, which had also featured Belushi. By the time the film came out neither Belushi nor Aykroyd were even on Saturday Night Live anymore, prompting distributors to cut back on their release schedule fearing their stars had waned. They were idiots. Still the best film based on a Saturday Night Live property. Sorry MacGruber.
79. Modern Romance (1981)
A movie Stanley Kubrick once referred to as “perfect”, Modern Romance is a comedy all about the ups and downs of an on and off-again relationship written, directed and starring Albert Brooks. Which, if you’re familiar with his work, tells you everything you need to know about the film’s type of humor. He’s the West Coast Woody Allen. His jokes are often wry, sardonic, and self-deprecating and every situation is heightened for maximum cringe. He’s nebish, unsure of himself, and filled with extreme overconfidence. He has no idea how to maintain a relationship, how to pick up women, or even what he really wants but he does know he doesn’t want to be alone. Except when he says he does. Which is a lie. He creates a self-fulfilling loop of immediate attraction followed quickly by crushing despair when the relationship, that he rushed into, inevitably falls apart. Watching a sad sack continually crash upon the rocks of love sounds depressing on paper but since Brooks is one of the funniest people on the planet, you kinda want to watch the cycle repeat forever. Because you know it will and it will always be funny. Take for example the scenes between him and the exercise equipment salesman (played by his real-life brother) or when he’s cracking jokes during a sound recording or when he’s just trying to go to bed while high on quaaludes. It’s scene after scene of comedic gold built from actual realism. We all know a Robert Cole and watching him fail feels authentic, sometimes painfully embarrassing but since he kinda deserves it, always hilarious.
78. Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Even though they tried killing each other on almost every film they worked on together, Herzog and Kinski kept on collaborating in spite of their mutual disdain for each other simply because they matched each other’s crazy. No one but Herzog could have or would have made something like Fitzcarraldo and no other actor but Kinski is insane enough to agree to star in it. It was a beautiful partnership built out of a mutual or maybe even a shared delirium. Herzog channeled his crazy into his art by becoming more creatively ambitious and Kinski channeled his into his performances, which were always unhinged but also always great. It feels like a symbiotic relationship where they’d both feed off each other’s madness. If you haven’t seen this movie, stop what you are doing and watch it. And then come back so that all this crazy or insane talk makes sense to you. It’s impossible to talk about this film without using the word crazy to describe every single thing that happens on screen, backstage, or on a set.
If you want to see examples of the wild production, check out the documentary Burden of Dreams. It captures everything. Every fight, every violent disagreement, and every potential murder. It’s one of the great warts-and-all docs but as entertaining as their skirmishes are, the real value of the movie is seeing Herzog actually pull an opera house up a steep hill in the amazon. The movie is about that same thing, so Herzog decided to do it for real and the end result is something you need to see to believe. If that’s all the film had to offer, it would still be more than enough to earn it a spot on this list but there’s so much more to it. The performances, both amateur and professional, are all fantastic, the cinematography is stunning and that score will imprint itself on your brain forever. Herzog might be crazy but he’s most definitely a crazy mad genius.
77. Private Benjamin (1980)
Playing like a female version of Stripes, Private Benjamin is another wacky comedy about a strong-willed independent who goes into the military but the military doesn’t change her, she changes the military! Or it would be if Goldie Hawn didn’t have complete control over her image and knew exactly how to play against it. For years and years, she was always looked at as the “dumb blonde” and since her roles reflected as much, people just assumed she was. But Hawn, like many other performers who’ve been typecast, was just good in a particular role. She found her niche and rolled with it but unlike other actors who played similar parts, she was actually smart. You don’t have a career in Hollywood that’s lasted for 50 years if you’re only good at one thing.
Private Benjamin was the film and role that proved that her every career up to that point had been an act. There have been about a million fish-out-of-water stories set in the military but not one of them comes close to having as strong a narrative arc as this one does. The military does change her and the person she becomes by the end of it is so radically different than the one from the beginning, that both versions could’ve been split up and made the list separately. She goes from being one of the great underdogs to one of the strongest females in all of film. Her performance and her character’s arc are easily enough for the film to make the cut, so the murderer’s row of comedic and dramatic actors that make up the cast feel like a buffet of riches.
76. Reds (1981)
Reds might be the most audacious blank check movie ever made. After the success of Heaven Can Wait, every studio was chomping at the bit to bankroll Beatty’s next project but little did they know he had pie-in-the-sky dreams for his follow-up. I can only imagine the look on their faces when he came in with this pitch. “It’s a 3+ hour epic like Gone With the Wind or Lawrence of Arabia that has drama and romance and action and best of all, Jack Nicholson will be in it!” I can only assume that only after they gave it the greenlight, that someone actually asked what it’s about because I can’t imagine any of them would’ve thrown a coin at a film about John Reed, a radical American journalist who become involved with the Communist revolution in Russia with the hope of bringing its spirit and idealism to the United States. An over three-hour film about a communist made in 1981 is about as crazy an idea as you can have but God bless the execs he must’ve fooled because it’s a crazy idea that paid off and then some. First of all, it’s not a political film. It deals with politics but Beatty never tries to push an agenda. He’s fascinated by the man, not his beliefs. Something about Reed’s story struck a chord with him. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s an American in the middle of a revolution in Russia who wrote a massively successful and important book about it but then overstayed his welcome when the side he was fighting for might not have been on the right side of history. Or maybe he related to him in some way and felt empathy for his story. I have no idea what drew him to John Reed and I certainly have no idea how he convinced anyone to bankroll this but I’m glad he was and I’m glad they did because it’s one of the last films of this ilk we’ll ever see.
75. Blood Simple (1984)
You almost never hear people talk about Blood Simple when they talk about the Coen Brothers. And yet their debut film has most of the hallmarks of come of their more well-known films like Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, and No Country for Old Men. And for a freshman effort, Blood Simple is lacking none of the quality the Coens have become known for delivering in their darkly funny movies. All the components are there: the dark noir tone, the comedy of human errors, the murder, the tension. And all put together with the skill befitting a much more experienced director.
It deserves to be seen and talked about, and it deserves a spot on our 100 Greatest ’80s Movies list.
74. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
The 1980s continued the American cinematic reckoning with the war in Vietnam. Begun in the 1970s with films like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, the ’80s exploded with films like Hamburger Hill, Good Morning Vietnam, Platoon and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. (The influence of the war in film wasn’t limited to movies ABOUT the war, it showed up in hundreds of other 80’s films, from The Stunt Man to First Blood to House.) Oliver Stone’s Platoon had come out the year before, and there were plenty of “if you could only watch one” sort of discussions about the two films. For me, Platoon was always the more visceral and effecting film, but Kubrick doesn’t make bad movies and in the years since I first saw them both it’s the stark, uncompromising scenes from Full Metal Jacket‘s first half that stay with me. Lee Ermey, Mathew Modine and, in particular, Vincent D’Onofrio were standouts and the almost clinical detachment of Kubrick’s filmmaking somehow made it all worse. If you DO have to watch only one 80’s film about Vietnam I’m still going to say Platoon – but if you don’t see Full Metal Jacket you’re missing out.
73. Blow Out (1981)
In a career filled with Hitchcock-inspired thrillers, it’s the low-key Blow Out that might be his most suspenseful. A movie sound recordist accidentally records the evidence that proves that a car accident was actually a murder and consequently finds himself the target of some very powerful men who do not want that information getting out. It plays a bit like a paranoid espionage thriller like The Conversation or The Parallax View until John Lithgow shows up and then it turns into a suspenseful cat-and-mouse thriller with shades of a slasher. It’s a nasty little movie with a cynical edge that has one of the hardest-hitting gut punches of a dénouement. It also has John Travolta’s single greatest performance of his career. Tarantino had to cast him in Pulp Fiction to remind everyone how great he is in this. He’s a man frantically trying to figure out what is happening, who is after him, and why, all while the noose gets tighter and tighter. Watching him try to undo the mistake that landed him in this situation is akin to having a panic attack in slow motion. It’s unrelenting suspense from one of the great masters who works almost exclusively in suspense.
72. Cinema Paradiso (1988)
I love two films that feature a friendship between a young boy and an aging projectionist. The first is The Last Action Hero. This is the second. This might have been the first foreign-language film I ever saw that wasn’t a dubbed Godzilla movie, Italian horror film or a kung-fu flick. I adored it. The love of movies and movie-making just poured out of the screen at me and the final sequence (of all the censored bits of the movies edited together) is strangely affecting. Watching it recently I find it more maudlin and sentimental than I remembered, but still a heartwarming story about friendship, movies, nostalgia, and love. And it made me start to look for and watch other foreign films, for which I’ll always be grateful.
71. Prince of the City (1981)
Brian De Palma was originally supposed to direct this with Travolta in the lead, but after they left the project, the producers decided to aim a little bit higher and went after the king of the corrupt cop movie: Sidney Lumet. Wanting to portray a more nuanced look at police corruption as opposed to Serpico, which he thought was too “good guys” vs “bad guys”, Lumet jumped at the opportunity to redo his previous film but better. And he did. This feels like the template that every cop show from NYPD Blue to The Shield either borrowed or directly lifted from. This is the alpha and omega when it comes to stories involving a corrupt cop forced to rat out his corrupt cop buddies. It begins and ends here. Heavily imitated but never bettered, Prince of the City is one of the must-see essentials of the genre and yet, most have still never seen it or even heard of it. Treat Williams, who was a relative unknown at the time, was cast as the lead, which might’ve hurt it at the box office at the time but he’s been in enough things now that he’s at least a known quantity but the film is still under seen, so I doubt that’s the reason. And it sure as hell ain’t his performance because he’s fantastic in this. This should’ve immediately put him on the A-list but since no one saw it, it didn’t. The film should have also been nominated at the Academy Awards but it wasn’t. It’s like the universe wants it to stay obscure for some reason. I don’t know why it wasn’t a hit at the time, I don’t understand why it isn’t hailed as a masterpiece now and I certainly don’t know why it’s not readily available at the moment. You have to search for it like it’s buried treasure, which is appropriate because that’s exactly what it is.
What are some of your favorite ’80s movies? Maybe they’ll show up later in the list!