What are the best ’80s movies? Let’s go back to the ’80s because, hey, why not? It was the era of legwarmers, shoulder pads, big hair, and RPGs. It also happened to be one of the greatest decades for movies, and we’re here to prove it.
It was a high point for the best horror movies like An American Werewolf in London, a coming of age for the best rom-coms such as Pretty in Pink, and a game-changing time for the best action movies, with James Bond redefining himself in the face of competition from an archaeologist by the name of Indiana Jones. These are the films that won’t get put in the corner, baby.
21. Beetlejuice (1988)
Despite foregoing the classic ’80s aesthetic in favor of that typical Tim Burton look, Beetlejuice is an ’80s movie through and through. In what other decade would a movie this weird, energetic, and downright wacky have come into our lives?
When a couple dies and spends their ghostly days in their new home, they struggle to take back control when an affluent new family move in and tear their house to pieces. Thankfully (or regrettably), that’s where Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice comes in. A devious and untrustworthy “bio-exorcist” from the other side, he goes about making life Hell for anyone who is unfortunate enough to come his way.
20. The Lost Boys (1987)
Far before the days of Twilight, no movie was doing sexy young vampires better than The Lost Boys. Set in the sweaty, brightly-lit Santa Cruz, The Lost Boys follow a mother and her two sons moving to live with their grandfather on the coast. But the brothers soon discover that the city is occupied by motorcycle-driving, leather-wearing vampires.
The older brother is seduced by the group and finds himself getting a little too close for comfort, while the younger brother must work with some kooky locals to try and knock down the vampiric hierarchy. The Lost Boys, frankly, is a blast. Big hair and even bigger scares, it’s a comedy-horror that will make Edward Cullen look lame by comparison. One of the best vampire movies ever made? Quite possibly.
19. The Breakfast Club (1985)
One can’t bring up the topic of ’80s movies without at least mentioning The Breakfast Club. Yeah, okay, it might seem a little vanilla compared to the teen movies of modern times, but back in the ’80s, a movie that was so teen-centric was pretty extraordinary. Of course, there were others, but none of them focused on the sheer confusion and anxiety that came just be being a kid as much as this.
In a way, The Breakfast Club was to the ’80s was what Rebel Without a Cause was to the ’50s — a movie about teens, for teens, examining problems that only teens could understand.
18. The King of Comedy (1982)
You can keep your Goodfellas and your Raging Bull. The best collaboration between Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese is the very weird and very unsettling The King of Comedy. De Niro plays a fairly shitty stand-up comedian who resorts to kidnapping to get a spot on a late night show.
It’s a bravura performance from De Niro as a guy who might once have been a decent bloke, but has been twisted and curdled by his ambition for fame. This one’s a gem.
17. Heathers (1989)
The ’80s was a fertile ground for the best teen movies and, right at the end of the decade, the genre got a malevolent shot in the arm from the acidic genius of Heathers. Winona Ryder plays the reluctant member of a popular clique who falls in with Christian Slater’s dangerous outsider. Things just get darker from there.
Heathers is bold and challenging, even more than 30 years later, and it’s no coincidence that its stage musical adaptation has been a hit all over the world. That’s not to mention some of the most quotable dialog ever penned.
16. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
The word “mockumentary” has been around since the ’60s, but the film that firmly lodged the term in the public consciousness – and also created a blueprint for faux-documentary comedies that’s still being used today – was This Is Spinal Tap. Director Rob Reiner’s fictional chronicle of an English prog-rock band has been named “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the US Library of Congress, which sounds heavy, man.
But make no mistake, this is one of the best comedy movies ever and has also given the zeitgeist the phrase “up to 11” (“Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it?” explains lead singer Nigel Tufnel) and drummers meeting bizarre deaths.
15. Ghostbusters (1984)
Who ya’ gonna call? Since 1984 there’s only been one answer to that question. And we also know never to cross the streams. Supernatural comedy Ghostbusters starred Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson as hi-tech, proton-packed spook exterminators in a film that matched lunatic laughs with blockbuster eye-popping effects.
It would go on to launch a franchise in itself, with a handful of movies and even one of the best animated series. Make no mistake, Ghostbusters made spooky spirits cool again. Ectoplasm has never been so icky, nor marshmallow men so terrifying.
14. When Harry Met Sally (1989)
So sweet, so charming, so… subversive? To the unenlightened, When Harry Met Sally might seem like just another rom-com, but it’s so much more than that. Aside from a smart, hilarious Nora Ephron script that’s a masterclass in social psychology, the movie boasts superb lead performances from Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as friends trying to kid themselves they don’t have to be in a relationship.
It was also the film that changed Hollywood’s attitude toward talking about sex in movies. You know what we’re talking about — when another diner watches Ryan’s character faking an orgasm in a restaurant and tells the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having”. An iconic contender for any list of the best romance movies, no doubt.
13. Rocky IV (1985)
Is there anything more ’80s than seeing Sylvester Stallone take on a towering Russian in a boxing ring? From the not-so-subtle undertones of Cold War tensions between the USA and Russia to the science fiction vibes of Drago’s training regime and the uplifting spirit of Rocky’s underdog story, this is vintage cinema.
After the deadly Drago puts Rocky’s pal Apollo Creed in a coffin, the Italian Stallion becomes hellbent on getting revenge in one of the best sports movies of all time, even if it kills him. Ding-ding!
12. Stand By Me (1986)
An ’80s film based on a rare Stephen King story that’s not horror – or trash – is a rare beast indeed. But Stand By Me, a coming-of-age road movie (well, railway track movie), starring River Phoenix as one of a motley group of boys off on an adventure to find a dead body, is an amazingly emotional and moving, yet wonderfully uplifting, character study.
Part adventure movie, part coming-of-age, Stand By Me contains the likes of thrilling sequences of danger and emotional breakdowns that turn a spotlight to the often underestimated complexity of young kids. If you think you know King, watch this and see if you feel the same way.
11. Do The Right Thing (1989)
One of the best Spike Lee movies, this may be over three decades old now, but sadly, the racial issues it raises still feel as culturally relevant as they did in 1989.
A fiery tale of racial tension igniting into all-out violence in a Harlem neighborhood on the hottest day of the year, it boasts sparky dialogue that has lost none of its passion or power in the intervening years. A hugely influential and important movie, it’s also peppered with comedy gold: “You wanna boycott someone? You ought to start with the goddamn barber that f**ked up your head.”
10. Akira (1988)
Akira is the Japanese film that genuinely made the rest of the world sit up and take anime seriously (sorry, Marine Boy – you were only ever going to be a childhood nostalgia footnote in the west). In this sense, it’s on of the more ground-breaking movies on this list.
A monumental slab of apocalyptic sci-fi with designer violence and stylish, stylized action, it’s also one of the best body horror movies and features mind-searing images that never fade from the memory. Good luck trying to get over it once you’ve watched it.
9. Gremlins (1984)
When a young man is gifted a mysterious creature, he neglects to remember some very important rules: Avoid bright light. Don’t get it wet. Don’t feed it after midnight. Of course, when the guidelines are broken, this cute little fluffy pet turns into a horrific, violent gremlin. Chaos breaks out in a suburban town, thus birthing one of the coolest movie any kid could watch.
Gremlins is truly the movie you couldn’t believe you were allowed to see. The genius lays in the blurred lines between satire and seriousness. Just how much of this are we supposed to take straight? Between the genuinely grim violence and hilarious, clumsy antics, Gremlins is a genre-bending monster masterclass.
8. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Okay, we’ll confess: E.T was one that sort of sat lower on the scale of the best Steven Spielberg movies than it should have for years in our minds. We had been so distracted by sharks and dinosaurs, that we neglected to give this lovable alien his time in the sun. Of course, it all worked out in the end — E.T was the highest-grossing movie of all time for a while, and was on the receiving end of nine nominations at the Academy Awards that year.
But for us, it’s only been on recent re-watches that we’ve come to realize just how special this movie is. From the sweeping John Williams score to the gutting emotional connection between a boy and his pet alien, E.T reached into our heart and gave it a real squeeze. It’s adventure, friendship, and sci-fi all rolled into one. Bravo, E.T. Bravo.
7. Blade Runner (1982)
One of the films that influenced Akira – as well as about 90% of the best science fiction movies made since – was director Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Nowadays, it’s revered as one of the greatest films in the genre, but it didn’t always start out that way.
A flop at the box office, it nevertheless swiftly became the science fiction connoisseur’s pick, thanks mainly to its exquisite visuals and fully immersive world-building. Plus, Roy Batty’s dying words (written by actor Rutger Hauer), have Shakespearean resonance: “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain”.
6. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
John Hughes comedies were as intrinsic to the ’80s as New Romantics, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was his masterpiece. Matthew Broderick, breaking the fourth wall like an embryonic Deadpool, turns skipping school into a crazy, cool adventure.
It’s a breathless series of set pieces — remember the Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder? Twist And Shout? The trampoline fence jumping? Of course you do. Bet you suddenly feel the need to take a sick day, right?
5. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Look, we could argue until our eyes bleed about which is the best Star Wars movie. But let’s face it: The Empire Strikes back is one of the tightest installments in the franchise. Most will tell you it’s their favorite, and with good reason. Empire took all the world-building and excitement of the first movie and turned it up to 11 (callback!), heightening everything we thought we knew about the world and characters who inhabit it.
And, come on, Empire gave us Yoda! Plus, it’s also the movie that gave us the iconic Darth-father reveal, and Han Solo’s carbonite capture. Honestly, now that we think about it, almost all of the franchises’ most iconic moments came from this one.
4. Back to the Future (1985)
The Rolls Royce of the best time travel movies. Not the DeLorean. Because let’s face it, no one in 2021 would know what a DeLorean was if not for this film. The Terminator (1984) may have beaten Back to the Future to the screen, but at the time, that was a mere cult hit.
It was Back To The Future that introduced blockbuster multiplex audiences to timey-wimey, twisty-turny temporal hijinks on a grand scale, even though most of them were going, “Ick, is he going to kiss his mom?”
3. Aliens (1986)
Before the ’80s, everyone knew that sequels were rubbish. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) bucked the trend, but Aliens truly upped the ante. Director James Cameron didn’t just make a follow-up to Ridley Scott’s original — he practically created a new genre.
If Alien (1979) had been a haunted house horror in sci-fi trappings, then Aliens reshaped the best war movies in sci-fi clothing. Slick, action-packed, and adrenaline-pumping, Aliens threw thousands of xenomorphs into the mix and added massively to the franchise’s mythology.
2. Die Hard (1988)
“Yippee Ki Yay, motherf**ker!” – a phrase nobody ever uttered before Die Hard, but many have since. Bruce Willis stars as the barefooted cop who has to take down some terrorists who’ve taken over a Los Angeles skyscraper.
The defining ’80s action movie, it’s a witty and inventive rollercoaster ride. But perhaps its main contribution to pop culture has been… no, not providing eight seasons of Brooklyn Nine-Nine with a running gag, but getting people to endlessly argue about whether it counts among the best Christmas movies or not.
1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The dream team of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas combined their cinematic clout to create a franchise that was an homage to the cinema serials of the 30s and 40s. Adventurer archaeologist Indiana Jones was a role Harrison Ford took to like a geek to Dungeons and Dragons, and a cinematic icon was born.
In fact, there’s barely a thing in the movie that hasn’t become iconic: the hat; the whip; “Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”; the massive rolling rock; the melting faces; the triumphant music; and, of course, Indy shooting that show-off with the sword.
And there you have it! The best ’80s movies of all time. For classic picks here is our guide to the best ’90s movies of all time and best 2000s movies ever made. If you’re done with the past and want to look to the future, then we’ve got a guide breaking down the best new movies 2023 has to offer, and you can take a look at our guides on Beetlejuice 2 and Superman Legacy.
And, if you’re feeling nostalgic, why not check out this guide from our sister site, Wargamer, on how to solve a Rubik’s Cube — how about that for a blast from the past?