The 30 best '80s movies

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

The ‘80s are on everyone’s mind these days: a purple, synth-scored explosion of sex, action movies and the greatest blockbuster summer movies of all time. It’s a decade that perfected the Hollywood sci-fi masterpiece, but our list of the best ‘80s movies includes plenty of highbrow classics from legendary directors like Martin Scorsese and David Lynch, who owned the moment. Dive in to our 30 favorites—and turn your collar up.

Best '80s movies: 30–21

30

Tootsie (1983)

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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29

Amadeus (1984)

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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28

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

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.

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27

Heathers (1988)

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.

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25

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

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.

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22

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

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.

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21

Ran (1985)

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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Best '80s movies: 20–11

20

Back to the Future (1985)

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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19

The Elephant Man (1980)

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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16

Airplane! (1980)

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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15

Die Hard (1988)

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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14

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

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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Best '80s movies: Top ten

10

The Breakfast Club (1985)

“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.

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9

Raging Bull (1980)

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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8

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

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.

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6

Aliens (1986)

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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5

Ghostbusters (1984)

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.

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4

The Shining (1980)

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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3

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

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.

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2

Blade Runner (1982)

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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1

Blue Velvet (1986)

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.

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