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.
90. Runaway Train (1985)
There was a time back in my obsessive cineaste days when I’d spend hours and hours on IMDB collecting nuggets of trivia of my favorite films and trying to memorize as many filmographies as I could. My favorite rabbit hole I ever went down was discovering that Eric Roberts, an actor that at the time I utterly dismissed as just the pretty younger brother of Julia Roberts, was actually just as great, if not better than her, and even had an Oscar nom as proof, blew my mind. It’s like someone under the age of twenty, who only knows Bruce Willis from his unwatchable Redbox exclusives, finding out that he was one of the biggest and best stars of the ’80s and ’90s. Eric Roberts was that low rent of an actor to me, that an Oscar nom, for an action movie no less, felt like a prank. There was no way either he or Runaway Train was good, let alone Oscar-worthy but since he was nominated, I decided to check it out for myself, and man, I’ve never been happier to eat crow in my life.
First of all, it completely changed my perception of him as an actor. He’s phenomenal in the film and he more than holds his own against Jon Voight. Their scenes together are so good, they could be discussing manilla land disputes and I’d be riveted but since their scenes together are on a (say it with me now) runaway train, I’m on the edge of my seat. The film is an action thriller about two escaped prisoners (Voight and Roberts) who hide on board a train speeding through Alaska. After the driver suffers a fatal heart attack, the train becomes an unstoppable speeding bullet hurtling towards certain death or potential freedom. In addition to that, they’re also being pursued by a vindictive prison warden in a helicopter. They can’t jump off the train because it’s going too fast. If they do somehow make it off, they’ll most likely freeze to death since it’s Alaska and with the warden buzzing around them, they also have to be strategic when it comes to moving from train to train without being shot at. It’s an enormously entertaining adventure/character study that everyone on this site (and the one we were at previously) must be tired of hearing me recommend at this point but I’ve been beating the drum for it for a while for a reason. It’s an action film written by Akira Kurosawa, directed in the style of Sidney Lumet, and filled with great performances. It’s a film I keep selling to people because the sales pitch is that great and It writes itself.
89. The Killer (1989)
When I was younger I associated Chinese media almost entirely with Kung-Fu flicks from Hong Kong. Then I saw The Killer. An eye-popping (sorry) blend of high-octane violence with an emotional and philosophical core. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I found myself with tears in my eyes at the ending (SPOILER), with Chow Yun-fat’s Ah Jong and Sally Yeh’s Jennie crawling, blind, past each other in the flaming wreckage. A film about friendship and the possibility of redemption and also about shooting a lot of people in bloody and grotesque ways. A milestone in my cinematic experience and one of – if not the – greatest Hong Kong action movie of all time.
88. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)
There are multiple ways to interpret Peter Greenaway’s magnum opus. Some see it as a political allegory, others as a religious parable, and the less astute, a simple tale of revenge but no matter what you get out of it, it’s impossible to not walk away with a film’s worth of images burned into your subconscious. As grand as an opera and as exquisitely composed as a five-course meal, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is a visual assault on the senses. Everything about it, from the cinematography to the set design to the composition of shots, is designed to stick with you. Much like how a great meal is made to hit all five of your taste buds, this film was made to hit all five senses. You can almost smell the ducks hanging from the ceiling in the kitchen. You can almost taste the suckling pig on the spot. You can almost feel the dirty back alleys and dingey lots. And you definitely hear and see a whole helluva lot.
On top of the stylistic excess, the film pushes violence and sex to the extreme. The Thief (Michael Gambon, who really should be credited as The Gangster) does some horribly nasty and violent things throughout and the Wife (Helen Mirren) has many a steamy sex scene with her Lover (Alan Howard). Greenaway isn’t titillating or trying to repulse for mere shock value. He approached it all as a singular piece. The colorful sets bleed into the eye-popping wardrobe which bleeds into the beautifully composed shots which bleed into the bombastic sex and violence. If everything bled into everything else, why wouldn’t there be actual blood to go along with it? At the intersection of style and substance, this is among the few films that stand snack dab in the middle of both.
87. Aliens (1986)
I’ve probably said this here before, but I saw this film before the original Alien. I was at a friend’s house and we watched it on HBO and I thought it was fucking awesome (I still do). It’s action-packed, funny, scary and it’s a damn good-looking film. James Cameron knocked it out of the park with this sequel seven years after the fact to a film not many thought needed a sequel. It’s the perfect follow-up and was made in a similar vein to how he made Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Aliens and T2 are both more action-packed whereas the first films fit nicelyr into the horror genre.
86. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Jack Burton could just be my favourite hero of all time. He might not be the most athletic. Or coordinated. But what he lacks in traditional hero qualities he sure as hell makes up for with confidence. There’s a lot more to Big Trouble in Little China than Jack Burton, however. The whole movie feels like a comic book brought to life. Full of mystery, action, and romance, it’s immensely fun for all ages from start to finish. A film I enjoy as much now as I did when I was a teenager.
85. Batman (1989)
Why is Tim Burton’s Batman one of the greatest films of the 1980s? I’ll forgo my typical fanboying over Michael Keaton’s Batman, Jack Nicholson’s Joker, and Danny Elfman’s iconic score. Let me give you a different perspective. Prior to 1989, the general public’s exposure to Batman was relegated to Saturday morning cartoons and the syndicated (and heavily campy) Adam West Batman of the 1960s. To the non-comic book reader, Gotham City could have been Any City, USA. What director Tim Burton, writer Sam Hamm, and production designer Anton Furst gave the movie-going public was a dark, gothic, and troubled Gotham City protected by an equally troubled and flawed Batman. Batman’s sidekick Robin was nowhere to be seen and the always staunch and reliable Gotham City Police Department was now littered with bad cops as Commissioner Gordon fought for control. This movie took the squeaky-clean superhero film and turned it on its head. In many ways, the total opposite of 1978’s Superman, and it worked fantastically. Tim Burton’s Batman set the stage for future comic book adaptations and helped spawn one of the most critically acclaimed animated series ever. That’s why it’s not just one of the greatest films of the 80s, but one of the greatest superhero films of all time.
84. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
John Hughes wrote and/or directed some of the most memorable and successful live-action films of the 1980s. His rival is no one except maybe Steven Spielberg, who also owned the ’80s with hits like Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Yet, I’d argue Hughes was the 1980s while Spielberg was ’80s entertainment. Let me explain. Spielberg is possibly the greatest director the world has ever seen (when he wants to be) and he has given us at least one new classic a decade, but he’s still just a director. Sure, he’ll write a story or screenplay here and there and act as an executive producer on other films, but he’s mostly a director. Hughes, on the other hand, was constantly writing in the ’80s and if he wasn’t writing, he was directing. It’s easy to forget sometimes how many ’80s films have Hughes’ DNA written all over them, so let me run them down. National Lampoon’s Class Reunion, Mr. Mom, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Nate and Hayes, European Vacation, Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, The Great Outdoors, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation were all written by Hughes. Of course, the films we mostly attribute to the acclaimed writer are the films he also directed: Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, She’s Having a Baby, and of course, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
The Breakfast Club may be considered Hughes’ magnum opus, but I’ve always found Ferris Bueller the more entertaining film. The 1986 film is the perfect blend of compelling characters and outlandish adventures mixed with Hughes’ trademark humor and heart. The Master of the Coming-of-Age Film, Ferris Bueller explores the looming weight of graduation and adulthood that hangs over the film’s three protagonists. Matthew Broderick gives a stellar performance as Ferris, who knows that his time slacking off and skipping school is about to end. He understands that life doesn’t really get easier the older you get, so he’s trying to make the most of the days he has left. Ferris knows that one missed day of school, one failed test, and one C+ will not ruin your future prospects. As long as you can still get good grades, it’s okay to hit the cruise button and enjoy what life has to offer. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is Hughes’ most accessible film because we can all relate to the message the film is trying to send, which is to be mindful of your current predicament, but not let it bring you down. Like Ferris said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
83. They Live (1988)
“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”
They Live is one of those movies that I rewatch often. At least once a year. At this point, there are no surprises left to be discovered in the movie. No deeper meanings or hidden themes are to be discovered. I’m not scrutinizing Rowdy Roddy Piper’s portrayal of Nada for some subtlety previously missed in all the other viewings. I’m not watching for the cutting-edge visual effects, and I’m not even watching for the action, though the fight scene between Piper’s Nada and Keith David’s Frank Armitage is legendary. It’s not the breathtaking cinematography or Carpenter’s deft direction of his actors that brings me back.
It’s not any of those things. I go back to They Live every year because I like hanging out with these characters. I imagine myself caught up with Frank and Nada on their adventure. Running through the alleyways and warehouses of Los Angeles, trying to evade the parasitic aliens who secretly run the world, eventually exposing them and saving the world in the process.
And every time, without fail, as They Live draws to a close, I find myself feeling just a little bummed out that the adventure is, once again, over. And I begin to look forward to the next time I join these guys to help save humanity.
I think it just might be that time again.
82. Wings of Desire (1987)
A love story with a premise so perfect, that it could’ve been made in any era, Wings of Desire is about a guardian angel who falls in love with a circus performer and wishes to lose his eternal life to become a mortal and experience life with her. It’s the most simple of premises and yet, Wim Wenders’ masterpiece never feels slight. Since the film deals with an impossible scenario between a human and an angel, you would think the fantasy would somehow soften the reality of his decision, like there’s a loophole built into it that guarantees a happy ending but that’s not the case. The angel (played by Bruno Ganz) never struggles with his decision to sacrifice everything for love nor he does care. After being on Earth and watching over us for eons, he’s finally found a purpose and that’s more important to him than anything. His fight for love trumps everything, even the fact that she doesn’t even know he exists yet (humans can’t see angels), which means he would’ve done this for nothing if he can’t woo her, isn’t taken into consideration. Nothing matters but her heart. It’s a timeless love story that ranks amongst the very best in the genre.
81. Poltergeist (1982)
My wife and I watch this almost every October. It’s one of our all-time favorite films. The sequels are nonexistent in our house. Neither of them nor the remake gets watched ever. To be honest, as much as I love Sam Rockwell, I still can’t bring myself to watch the remake. But this film is just outstanding. It’s prime ’80s horror without being a slasher film. You genuinely connect with the family and feel their pain and struggle with this evil entity that is in their home. Poltergeist is probably the reason living in the ‘burbs freaks me out.
What are some of your favorite ’80s movies? Maybe they’ll show up later in the list!