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Raiders of the Lost Ark
Photograph: LucasFilm

The 30 best '80s movies

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

Joshua Rothkopf
Written by
Joshua Rothkopf
Written by
Andy Kryza
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Synth-scored, plastic and rocking their upturned collars, the best ’80s movies will always trigger nostalgia – even if you didn’t live through them in the first place. This was a decade that perfected the action movie and the summer blockbuster, but our list also includes masterworks by independent directors hitting their stride: such nobodies as Martin Scorsese and David Lynch. Without fail, these movies are always available to stream, and often appear on the best movies on Netflix. Start with these 30 titles, which, taken together, create a complex picture of a world in sleek, moneyed transition.

Written by Joshua Rothkopf, Tom Huddleston, Dave Calhoun, Andy Kryza & Cath Clarke

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the 100 best movies of all time

Best '80s 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. 

From a certain perspective, all of Stanley Kubrick’s movies are horror films: 2001’s terrifying cosmic loneliness, Dr. Strangelove’s cheery annihilation, the death duels from Barry Lyndon. Which is all a way of saying that when the director finally got around to making a proper thriller, he paradoxically produced the ultimate comic satire on the American family. With blood in elevators. Essential.

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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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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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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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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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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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Michael Lehmann’s black comedy has developed a sizable cult in the years since its release. (Given its murderous high-schoolers, it probably couldn’t – and shouldn't – get made today.) Whether you’re part of the clique or not, you know you just have to see Winona Ryder, Christian Slater and Shannen Doherty onscreen together.

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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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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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