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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
Tom Huddleston
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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 & 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.

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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 49 now. 

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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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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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Woody Allen had a late-period resurgence with movies like Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris, but looking back over his pre-scandal 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.

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Thanks to George Lucas’s childhood diet of TV serials, Raiders is an ‘80s action-adventure with at least one desert boot in the 1940s. That boy’s-own DNA – whipcracking heroes, ancient artefacts, ruthless adversaries and breathless chases – finds its perfect expression in a twinkly-eyed archeologist played to perfection by Harrison Ford. Knock it back like one of Marion Ravenwood’s shots of booze. 

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  • Movies
  • Comedy

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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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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