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The best movies of the 1980s, ranked

You’ll find a DeLorean time machine, plenty of hair gel and the perfect blockbuster in our ranking of the best '80s movies

Joshua Rothkopf
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The ’80s were a time of excess, whether you’re talking music, fashion, drugs or Wall Street, and it’s most certainly true of the movies, too.  Thanks to Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer – among many others – budgets got bigger and the films got louder, raunchier and more violent. For that reason, the cinema of the 1980s is often looked down upon. Sure, it was when movies assumed a more prominent place in popular culture than ever before. But coming out of the ’70s New Hollywood revolution, when movies got grittier, realer and more complex, the films of the era could feel artificial, overblown and just plain dumb.

At least, that was the conventional wisdom. In retrospect, though, the ’80s was a thrilling decade to be a film fan. It’s when the celebrated auteurs of the previous decade – David Lynch, Martin Scorsese – came of age. The indie scene that exploded in the ’90s began to rumble, and more eyes turned to international cinema than ever before. And, perhaps more than any other time, it’s when the biggest movies were also among the best. You’ll find it all represented on this list of the greatest films of the 1980s. These are the movies any cinephile worth their salted popcorn must see – ideally on a VHS tape with tracking issues, but streaming is fine, too.

Written by Joshua Rothkopf, Tom Huddleston, Dave Calhoun, Andy Kryza, Cath Clarke, Matthew Singer & Phil de Semlyen

Recommended:

🔥 The 100 best movies of all-time
🎘  The 50 best songs from ‘80s movies
💣 The 101 best action movies of all-time
💀 The 100 best horror movies of all-time

Top 1980s movies

As fresh-feeling as a movie about the rot that festers below white-picket suburbia could ever be, David Lynch’s opus offered the Reagan era an American nightmare to chew on. Kyle MacLachlan is the Alice in this dark wonderland, as he’d be again in TV landmark Twin Peaks, encountering a villain for the ages in Dennis Hopper’s nitrous-chugging Frank Booth. Its success enabled the most daring director of his generation to pursue his wildest dreams.

In a doomy 2019 L.A., Harrison Ford is the chilly dispatcher of android ‘replicants,’ many of whom have more soul than he does. The forefather of this authenticity paranoia is source author Philip K. Dick, who saw Ridley Scott’s film shortly before his death and approved. But credit the director (and key collaborator Vangelis, who stirred the synths) for envisioning it all in a glinting, glitzy valley of self-regard, where women in nightclubs wear veils and humanity mourns itself.

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Alien invasion has never been so heartwarming as in Steven Spielberg’s ode to growing up and letting go. It’s at once evergreen and seriously decade specific. But Reese’s Pieces, BMX bikes, Speak & Spell and Coors beer aren’t just nostalgic examples of product placement; they drive the actual plot of the film. If you want to feel really old, Elliott (Henry Thomas) is in his 50s now. 

Stephen King didn’t much like Stanley Kubrick’s take on his novel about a haunted hotel that turns its various male caretakers into murderous, axe-wielding dull boys, but the rest of the world knows better. If it’s not Kubrick’s best movie – and it damn well might be – it’s almost certainly his most iconic, owing mostly to Jack Nicholson’s bravura performance as a novelist gradually driven insane during a snowed-in winter by a combination of writer’s block and the racist ghosts whispering in his ear.

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As long as SNL launches new comedians into the stratosphere, it will have to contend with this ingenious transitional vehicle, the movie that gave improvisational skit humor a loony sci-fi sheen and turned NYC into a paranormal playground. Director Ivan Reitman doubles down on the earthy cheering crowds, the hot-dog vendors and a distinctly Kochian mayor.

James Cameron would go on to be able to claim the two highest-grossing movies in cinema history, but right here is the crux of his reputation. Aliens was an impossible assignment: Make a sequel to a revered sci-fi classic while adding your own imprint on the material. Cameron did that and more, turning Sigourney Weaver's Ripley into an enduring feminist icon, amping up the military action and producing the most exhilarating roller-coaster ride of the decade.

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When Harrison Ford first emerges from the shadows in Raiders of the Lost Ark, we know everything about him, even though we don’t know a damn thing. Such is the myth-making power of Steven Spielberg. We immediately buy that this tenured academic is also a skilled warrior with the grace of Buster Keaton, stumbling and flailing through gunfire, explosions, vehicular mayhem, squirming snakes and the wrath of God himself. Ask anyone their favourite part of Raiders and you’ll get a different answer. And none of them are wrong, because the movie is perfect. 

Is it Martin Scorsese’s finest film? It’s certainly a strong contender (ba-da-bing!), and there’s little doubt that Robert De Niro’s performance is one of the all-time greats – not just for the remarkable physical transformation, but also for his embodiment of male sexual jealousy presenting itself as rage.

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Global anticipation was huge for the follow-up to Star Wars, but few were expecting this darkly sophisticated transitional tale, loaded with psychological trauma, unresolved daddy issues, massive action sequences and a wholly believable Muppet main character. George Lucas is due much of the credit, but we're happy he had the actors directed by Irvin Kershner.

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The perfect action movie, John McTiernan's all-time classic is a model of efficiency, placing a likable, pissed-off cop (Bruce Willis) in a glass tower, plaguing him with foreign-accented terrorists, and imbuing him with a catchphrase for the ages. Die Hard's influence is incalculable: It's the final word on high-octane Hollywood film craft.

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Akira (1988)
Akira (1988)

Arriving just before the start of the Disney renaissance and the beginning of Studio Ghibli’s golden era, writer-director Katsuhiro Otomo’s adaptation of his own post-apocalyptic manga is the most consequential animated film of the ’80s. Its future-shock visuals and compelling story, of a biker on a mission to rescue his best friend from a government experiment, introduced an entire generation of Western audiences to the wonders of Japanese anime. It remains the genre’s main gateway drug three decades later.

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Possibly the least quote-unquote ‘80s’ film on this list, you will not find any easy ‘Me Decade’ comforts in Elem Klimov’s masterpiece (although it does have a bad guy with an unusual pet, if you’re really reaching). This is a film you sit in front of, jaw slack and body tensed, as its litany of Nazi-perpetrated horrors unfold in 1940s Byelorussia. But don’t let that deter you, because Come and See – with its title (and themes) borrowed from the Book of Revelation, and its young hero ageing before your very eyes – could be the greatest war film ever made. It’s also probably one of your favourite filmmaker’s favourite films.

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‘I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?’ However true, that’s not the sentiment one expects from a Stephen King adaptation. Indeed, this coming-of-age period piece, set in 1950s Oregon and directed by Rob Reiner, is almost certainly the warmest project the horror master’s name has ever been attached to. Of course, it’s also a bildungsroman centred on a group of misfits searching the woods for the body of a dead classmate, so it’s not that far outside his wheelhouse. It’s also given an extra shot of pathos by a teenage River Phoenix, screen-searingly great as a troubled kid who seems to know he’s not long for this world. 

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Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Movies about the secret lives of teenagers were all the rage in the ‘80s, but only Amy Heckerling’s sex comedy feels like watching teenagers actually live. Screenwriter Cameron Crowe famously went undercover at a California high school to figure out what kids of the day really wanted out of life, lending the film its attitudinal authenticity, though his findings weren’t exactly groundbreaking – like young people of any generation, ‘80s teens wanted to get high, get laid and get to adulthood before being truly prepared for it. Regardless, it's a fabulously fun, immortally insightful time capsule, capturing a time when the shopping mall was the center of the universe and Cheap Trick ruled the world.

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Gag after gag, line after line, there's no more unhinged comedy in the whole of American movies than this genius invention, crafted by director-screenwriters Jim Abrahams and brothers David and Jerry Zucker. You may still hope that your seatmate speaks jive, or that your copilot worked harder on defense. 

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Look, we’re not going to argue that Prince is an underrated thespian, or that the plot of Purple Rain isn’t fairly silly. What we will say is that none of that stuff matters when you have the greatest musician of the late 20th century, playing the best songs of the 1980s, in unquestionably the most scorching live-music performances ever feigned on camera. Prince may not have been a great dramatic actor, but his otherworldly charisma still burns holes in the screen, even when he’s just sitting on his bed eating Doritos. You know who is pretty dang great, though? Morris Day and Jerome Benton, effortlessly hilarious as the most player-hatin’ duo since Statler and Waldorf.   

It’s hard to believe that John Carpenter’s frosty, paranoid adaptation of the 1938 sci-fi novella Who Goes There? was not hailed as a horror classic immediately upon arrival – in fact, it was widely panned and forgotten. But that just goes to show how ahead of its time it was: Rob Bottin’s state of the art, stomach-churning special effects must have been too much for ’80s audiences to handle. Decades later, the visuals are still terrifying, but it’s the cold, taut storytelling and bone-chilling atmosphere that truly impresses. 

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David Lynch’s first Hollywood effort retains his characteristic air of menace while conforming somewhat to the conventions of its genre. John Hurt somehow manages to give a stirring performance beneath what looks like half a ton of makeup, and Anthony Hopkins is commanding in one of his most subtle, compassionate turns.

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The elements here are instantly iconic: Michael J. Fox's time-traveling teen, the sleek DeLorean, Christopher Lloyd's Einstein-on-uppers ‘Doc’ Brown. But return to the film (which has lost none of its charm) and you'll also recognize a breathtakingly perfect model of screenwriting.

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Akira Kurosawa's late-period masterpiece, a feudal spin on King Lear, is a peak of '80s foreign cinema, crafted by a director in youthful command of his epic prowess. Ran has since become the standard by which all stage-to-screen Shakespeare adaptations are judged.

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Is Matthew Broderick’s smooth-talking truant some sort of proto-yuppie folk hero? A secret sociopath bending the world to his whims? A Tyler Durdenesque imaginary friend trying to snap Cameron Frye out of the doldrums of impending adulthood? It could be all three. But one thing is for sure: In Ferris, John Hughes forged a character of almost preternatural charm, then sent him tromping through a joyful day (well, unless you’re a principal doing his job) in Chicago. The character’s charisma makes it easy to follow him anywhere. We hear they said the same thing about a Mussolini.  

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Martin Scorsese’s post-Raging Bull ’80s contains some of his most underrated movies, and this dark, dingy urban comedy might just be his most underrated. Griffin Dunne stars as a bored Manhattan office drone battling a series of escalating indignities as he attempts to get home after a date gone wrong. Shot guerrilla-style on the streets of SoHo, it may also be Scorsese’s most New York movie – a tribute to the city’s truly scuzzy underbelly, which no one at the time knew was just a few years away from being sanitised beyond recognition.  

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The gags go all the way up to 11 in Rob Reiner’s deadpan typhoon of LOLs. The mockumentary template has been borrowed many times since but rarely as entertainingly as in this account of a washed-up rock band on its disastrous comeback tour. ‘There’s a fine line between clever and stupid’ pronounces Tap frontman David St Hubbins (Michael McKean). A movie full of dimwits has never been this smart.

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Misogynist trash or secretly feminist critique of misogynist trash? However you choose to view it, Adrian Lyne’s influential erotic thriller spurred a whole decade’s worth of movies that walked the same line, many of them also starring Michael Douglas as a very bad husband whose libido keeps getting him (and sometimes his kid’s pets) into hot water. Try as they may, though, few of its imitators can claim to evoke the same passionate response – even if you’re in the ‘misogynist trash’ camp, you’re watching to the bitter, bloody end, every single time.

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An antidote to the John Hughesian idea that all kids, deep down, just want to be friends, director Michael Lehmann’s blacker-than-black comedy argues that some teenagers are just incurable assholes – and that the world would be better off without them. Winona Ryder and Christian Slater star as a couple who devise a plot to kill the mean girls at their Ohio high school, framing the murders as suicides. It’s one of the few films that truly couldn’t – and probably shouldn’t – be made today; shoot, it was barely acceptable in 1988. But above the violence, it’s an absolutely vicious satire of the social hierarchy of adolescence that makes you wish more movies had this kind of teeth. 

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War is hell, and basic training is its waiting room. Stanley Kubrick’s penultimate film revisits the themes of his Paths of Glory from 30 years previous, but it makes even that movie’s scathing anti-war message look like a daisy in a gun barrel. A nightmare in two acts, it follows a group of soldiers from boot camp to the battlefield, which in this case is Vietnam circa 1968. By no means is the second half, set among the ruins of Hue, a tiptoe through the tulips, but it’s the first part, detailing how the American war machine turns young men into unfeeling cogs, that lingers in the memory most – particularly the grinning visage of Vincent D’Onofrio’s tormented Private Pyle, moments before he dishonourably discharges himself from the planet.

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They Live (1988)
They Live (1988)

Apologies to Hell Comes to Frogtown, but the definitive ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper acting performance belongs to John Carpenter’s over-the-top anti-consumerist sci-fi satire. Its message isn’t exactly subtle – an itinerant worker (Piper) discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the subliminal messages secretly opiating the masses and the grotesque aliens masquerading as elected officials – but then, it’s just the sort of sledgehammering that an era known as the ‘Greed Decade’ probably deserves. And jokes aside, it’s a wonder Piper never made a Rock-like transition from pro-wrestler to true action star – he knew how to deliver a badass one-liner, and his six-minute back-alley brawl with Keith David is an absolute all-timer.  

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Burt Lancaster plays a Texan oilman seduced by the magic of a tiny Scottish seaside village and the vast canopy of stars above it in this gently whimsical gem that proves there’s more to ‘80s capitalists than Gordon Gekko and colossal cell phones. It’s a movie that’s aged like a fine single malt whiskey and it has much the same effect on the viewer: woozy, warming and wondrous. 

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The Killer (1989)
The Killer (1989)

Hong Kong ace John Woo orchestrates violent spectacles with the grace of a ballet choreographer, and this thriller, about a hitman repenting for blinding a young singer during a job, is his Swan Lake. Bullets fly, doves disperse and bodies hit the floor, and a whole generation of incoming film nerds – including Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez – stood up and took notice.

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Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Robert Zemeckis opened a portal to the original multiverse of madness in this groundbreaking blend of animation and live action, imagining a world where not only humans and cartoons commingle but classic characters from Mickey Mouse to Yosemite Sam share the same space. Although the concept enraptured young’uns – who, truth be told, were probably a bit too young for the script’s pulpy dialogue and innuendo - an entire generation is still scarred by memories of Christopher Lloyd as Judge Doom, a corrupt justice of the peace bent on committing ’toon genocide.  

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A popular phenomenon that even inspired a No. 1 pop hit, Milos Forman's electrifying life of Mozart turned a generation onto classical music. Snobs took issue with the original play's alteration of the facts, but there's no denying the power of F. Murray Abraham's covetous Salieri, a performance for the ages.

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Arnold Schwarzenegger always possessed undeniable screen presence, but becoming a certified movie star required finding the perfect role to circumvent his limited acting chops: that of a time-travelling cyborg assassin who only speaks in robotic one-liners. Seven years passed between the original Terminator and the blockbuster sequel, so for a certain generation, the bigger, far more expensive T2 is the definitive iteration. But what T1 lacks in state-of-the-art effects, hip catchphrases and Edward Furlong it more than makes up for in taut, suspenseful execution. It’s proof that James Cameron didn’t always need a budget the size of Moldova’s GDP to tell a good story.

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Evil Dead II (1987)
Evil Dead II (1987)

It’s billed as a sequel, but the second instalment of Sam Raimi’s splatstick franchise is really the director remaking himself. He keeps the same basic story as the low-budget, high-energy original – unsuspecting city dwellers go into the woods and accidentally unleash hell on earth – and the excessive gore, while upping the physical comedy to damn near Three Stooges level. The exact moment in which Bruce Campbell became Bruce effin' Campbell is the scene where he does battle with his own possessed hand, flinging himself around a kitchen like a bloodstained Buster Keaton. You won’t know whether to laugh or vomit.

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Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Fitzcarraldo (1982)

A monument to lunatic ambition, made by two ambitious lunatics whose tempestuous relationship makes the Gallagher brothers look like the Olsen twins, Werner Herzog’s depiction of one madman’s quest to build an opera house in the Peruvian jungle simmers with an insanity that can’t be faked, because it’s not: yes, he and Klaus Kinski really went into the Amazon and, yes, he really did rig a pulley system to haul a massive steamship over a mountain. It has to be seen to be believed, and even then, it feels like a hallucination.

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A difficult, out-of-work NYC actor has more success landing roles as a woman in this dazzling feminist comedy that touches all parts of your brain. Dustin Hoffman considered Dorothy Michaels the role of a lifetime –watch him tear up discussing the part here.

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  • Action and adventure
RoboCop (1987)
RoboCop (1987)

A cop gunned down in dystopian near-future Detroit is resurrected as a nigh-indestructible titanium law enforcement killbot. Far-fetched? Maybe in 1987. But given the militarisation of the American police force in the decades since, Paul Verhoeven’s ultraviolent satire of Reagan Era corporate greed seems even more ahead of its time now than it did back then.

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The ’80s were an awesome time to be a vampire. If you weren’t hanging out at the boardwalk, watching oily bodybuilders play sax and preying on canoodling college kids, then you were rolling around the southwest in a blacked-out Winnebago, terrorising biker bars and getting into shootouts with the cops. Kathryn Bigelow’s take on the bloodsucker genre was grittier, artier and certainly dustier than Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys, which came out the same year, but it made the undead lifestyle look no less cool. It’s no wonder the film’s protagonist – a hunky rancher (Adrian Pasdar) unwittingly turned into a creature of the night by the cute drifter he meets outside a gas station one evening – seems conflicted about his predicament. Sure, he’s forced to abandon his family and feast on blood, but an eternity killing rednecks with Bill Paxton sure beats a life wrangling cattle in small-town Oklahoma, right? 

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An American Werewolf in London (1981)
An American Werewolf in London (1981)

At no point in John Landis’s superlative horror-comedy does the titular backpacking Yank-turned-feral-night-hunter drink a piña colada at Trader Vic’s, but his hair does look perfect thanks to Rick Baker’s next-level special effects. No more Lon Chaney disappearing into the shadows and emerging in a fur mask: here, the poor sod’s transformation from man to woolly beast is depicted in all its skin-stretching, stomach-churning detail. It still looks perfect today. Awoooo!

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Brazil (1985)
Brazil (1985)

Work sucks, and Terry Gilliam knows. Audiences, critics and studio execs alike were flummoxed by the ex-Monty Python member’s surreal send-up of bureaucratic drudgery and technological overdependence, but its influence has shown itself in several places over the years – most recently in the acclaimed Apple TV series Severance.  

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Following the bruised-black noir of Blood Simple, the Coen Brothers’ second film made clear that their career would not follow any designated path, swerving into a madcap crime caper with the energy of a live action Tex Avery cartoon. Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter play a seemingly mismatched couple – he’s a crook, she’s a cop – who decide the solution to their fertility struggles is stealing a baby from a local furniture magnate. Bad idea. 

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Along with Do the Right Thing, Gus Van Sant’s breakthrough presaged the coming decade’s indie film revolution. A movie about a gang of pharmacy-robbing junkies could have easily degraded into B-level pulp, but Van Sant lends the story a gritty, personal authenticity. Aside from heralding the arrival of one of cinema’s most exciting new voices, Drugstore Cowboy also revitalised the career of Matt Dillon, introduced Heather Graham and included a cameo from the patron saint of druggy artistes, William Burroughs.

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A black comedy rendered in colours so garish they’d give Jacques Demy a toothache, Spanish provocateur Pedro Almodóvar broke through internationally with this spicy tale of distraught lovers, religious extremists and spiked gazpacho. It shifts from outrageous melodrama to even more outrageous comic farce so sharply it’ll leave you dizzy and breathless – mostly from delirious laughter.

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  • Fantasy
Beetlejuice (1988)
Beetlejuice (1988)

Before wasting his creative energy on mall-goth remakes of classic movies no one asked for, Tim Burton was putting his considerable imagination to use crafting wholly original worlds actual goths wanted to live inside. Nothing encapsulates his mirthfully macabre vision better than his second feature, which imagines death as a form of house arrest. Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis and teenage Winona Ryder keep the film tethered to earthly emotions, allowing Michael Keaton to go fully off the rails as a supernatural huckster manipulating a recently dead couple into freeing him from netherworld purgatory.

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