Synth-scored, plastic and rocking their upturned collars, the best ’80s movies have become monuments for nostalgia and self-mocking humour. Action movies, sci-fi thrillers and horror classics all emerge from this decade, as does a corporate slickness that marks the era's entertainments (often charmingly). Still, it's undeniable that the ’80s produced some major films, important and influential. Sometimes these were huge summer blockbusters, sometimes they were new things called ‘indies’. All of them add up to an essential picture of a transitional decade.
The best 80s movies: 30-21
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.
Apart from being the breakout film for an insane number of '80s stars – including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Forest Whitaker, Phoebe Cates and Sean Penn (as stoner Jeff Spicoli) – this sensitive high-school comedy marked the arrival of journalist-turned-screenwriter Cameron Crowe.
A black comedy about murderous high-schoolers that's actually gotten more provocative over the years, this film points the way forward to the adventurous indie scene that would blossom in the coming decade. You can expect some sincere John Hughes on this list, but here's the B side.
Yuppie self-entitlement gets scalded in this colossally influential sex thriller about a straying Master of the Universe (Michael Douglas) whose paramour turns the tables. Glenn Close's immortally crazy Alex Forrest can be seen in everything from ‘Basic Instinct’ to ‘Gone Girl’.
The mockumentary format was launched into popular imagination with Rob Reiner's cutting parody of heavy-metal bombast, performed by a brilliant cast of improvisers (including future director Christopher Guest). Inspired by decades of backstage rumors, the movie is beloved by musicians desperate for that ‘extra push over the cliff’ to 11.
It may never be conclusively settled who masterminded this horror hit – Tobe Hooper, the officially credited director, or hands-on producer Steven Spielberg – but the result was something uniquely subversive for Hollywood: a suburban nightmare that says your TV will eat you.
Struggling in the wake of the commercial disappointment of 1983's ‘The King of Comedy’, Martin Scorsese hit the reset button on his career with this pared-down, Soho-shot guerilla comedy. For all of this director's classic contributions to NYC cinema, ‘After Hours’ may yet be his truest depiction of the crazies that come out at night.
Teen auteur John Hughes was riding high with this unbowed, proudly egocentric comedy about a popular high-school senior (Matthew Broderick) who cuts class and lives out the perfect Chicago day. The movie's consistent euphoria makes it feel like a 103-minute dream sequence.
The best 80s movies: 20-11
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 recognise a breathtakingly perfect model of screenwriting.
In a rare case of good fortune, ‘Eraserhead’'s überweird David Lynch found his first Hollywood film to be a perfect transition to the big time. Lynch captures the pathos of the inspiring true story of John Merrick (Oscar nominated John Hurt) while staying true to his surreal instincts.
The great Sergio Leone (‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’) capped off his career-long inquiry into the nature of American violence with this epic Jewish gangster film starring Robert De Niro and James Woods. Fans hold it as highly as ‘The Godfather’, but the film is its own animal, beautifully evocative of the immigrant experience.
‘Halloween's John Carpenter fought hard to make his sombre, disgusting masterpiece, an elegant combination of the director's synth-scored minimalism and a maximalist expression of special-effects body horror (creatures designed by Rob Bottin). The movie was too much for most people, but remains one of the most significant films of the 1980s.
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 defence.
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.
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.
A high point of post-‘Network’ media commentary, James L. Brooks's comedy has all the neurotic byplay of a Woody Allen movie, with an added edge of prophetic insight into the coarsening character of TV news. Albert Brooks and Holly Hunter uncork richly confused performances – it's a crucial influence on movies like ‘Nightcrawler’.
Spike Lee arrived on the indie scene a few years earlier with ‘She's Gotta Have It’, but he fully earned his status as a filmmaker of big ideas with this powder keg, his critical breakthrough. Set on a sweltering block of Brooklyn's tense Bed-Stuy, it remains a timely drama about racism, the institutional abuse of power, and the defiant spark of change.
Even with ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ satisfying all expectations, George Miller's earlier sequel might have the slightest edge. A definitive post-apocalyptic epic, ‘The Road Warrior’ is loaded with Leone-esque mythic gestures, galloping music and frighteningly dangerous stunts.
The best 80s movies: the top ten
‘When you grow up, your heart dies,’ says Ally Sheedy's goth loner in this essential '80s teen drama – no other words spoken in a John Hughes picture are as emblematic of his unerring sympathy for a young generation finding its footing. The Simple Minds song doesn't hurt either.
For years, this was Martin Scorsese's greatest masterpiece – it may still be. Frequently cited as the best movie of the '80s, Raging Bull actually feels like the last gasp of the '70s: a complex ‘great man’ movie about a thug boxer (Robert De Niro) rhapsodised by Scorsese's operatic flights of visual excess and spiritual intimations.
Steven Spielberg spent the early part of his career honing the template for the blockbuster. As perfect as 1975's ‘Jaws’ is, it's ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ where all the pieces come together in an unparalleled action classic. The movie's DNA is taken from Hollywood's forgotten cliffhangers, but the spirit is wholly modern: Keep up with this guy in the hat if you can.
Woody Allen is having a late-period resurgence with movies like ‘Blue Jasmine’ and ‘Midnight in Paris’, but looking back over his career, there was no other filmmaker on the planet who, during the '80s, blended high and low comedy with such confidence. This one is as towering as ‘Annie Hall’: a serious inquiry in neurotic Manhattan lifestyles, touched by philosophical grace and punk spirit.
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.
As long as ‘Saturday Night Live’ 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.
Stanley Kubrick's ominous maze of a movie still has unexplored hallways down which obsessed fans can Big Wheel. It's not the first film that the faithful usually point to as Kubrick's all-time classic, but time has buoyed ‘The Shining's reputation as an intentionally garish study in domestic breakdown. Its mood is unlike anything in the horror canon.
Spielberg's childlike wonderment has no better conduit than this magical adventure, the essence of the director's way into an audience's heart. More subtly, ‘E.T.’ is not simply a film about believing in dreams and wishing on stars. It's a tale concerned with learning how to say goodbye and own your pain: Elliott is a young man by the end.
It took a committed act of mutual dreaming to bring this nightmarish futurescape into being. Visionary director Ridley Scott devoted time to nailing the details of an abandoned, acid-rain-etched Los Angeles, while the overall conception raised profound questions about humankind's responsibility to technological ambition – and its own soul. Hollywood has never again funded a sci-fi film this rich with ideas.
And here it is, the most significant movie of the 1980s, a film that turned its viewers into secret detectives sniffing out the seedy underbelly of American suburbia. David Lynch's surreal adventure felt utterly fresh in its moment. It also inspired TV's landmark ‘Twin Peaks’ and enabled the most daring director of his generation to pursue his wildest dreams.