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. (We see you, Stranger Things fans.) 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 an America in sleek transition.
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Best '80s movies
The most significant movie of the 1980s 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Spike Lee’s critical and commercial breakthrough ranks among the most socially provocative films ever released by a Hollywood studio. Tempers flare on the hottest day of summer in Bed-Stuy; it’s as powerful as it is simple.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Halloween's John Carpenter fought hard to make his somber, 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.
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.
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.
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.
In the mid-’80s, the king of movie teen angst was…anyone? Anyone? John Hughes, who—anyone? Anyone? Produced his funniest picture in—anyone? Anyone? In 1986, of course. It’s this one, starring an inspired Matthew Broderick and set during the course of one eventful Chicago afternoon, a perfect day to play hooky.
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 paired-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.
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.
Is there a more quotable movie than this piss-take on heavy-metal musicians and the astrology-loving girlfriends who manage them? No, there isn’t. Because this comedy goes to 11. And along the way, it launches the still-influential format of the mockumentary and the directorial career of Rob Reiner.
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.
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 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.
Check out the fresh, young faces of future stars in this classic ’80s teen comedy—Anthony Edwards, Nicolas Cage, Eric Stoltz, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Forest Whitaker. And it’s surprising to think that Sean Penn managed to distance himself from the character of Jeff Spicoli, cinema’s most enduring portrait of the perpetually stoned troublemaker.
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.