The 80s was a great decade for film. After the advent of the blockbuster with Jaws in 1975, the 1980s saw some of cinema’s biggest franchises born. Star Wars and Alien both picked up speed in the 80s, while other huge, decade-defining releases like the Back to the Future series were just getting started.
The question is: is there any way to decide on the best movies made during the decade of huge hair and fluorescent legwarmers? Well, according to voters on IMDb, there are no 80s movies better than these!
It’s often said that a sequel can never recapture the magic of the original, but that’s not always the case. James Cameron’s Aliens came out seven years after 1979’s Alien, and, despite being of a different genre to the creeping horror of the original, Cameron’s sci-fi action movie has been evaluated by critics as equal – if not superior – to Ellen Ripley’s first adventure.
Set in the far future, Aliens begins with Ripley drifting alone through space, the sole survivor of the attack on the Nostromo. Having agreed to return to LV-426 with a troop of Colonial Marines, a far more fast-paced but equally deadly disaster plays out, during which Ripley’s tenacity and desire to stay alive at all costs are tested once again.
9. Come and See
Come and See is a 1985 Soviet anti-war film based on the 1978 book I Am from the Fiery Village, and follows a Belarusian teenager who joins the resistance during the Nazi occupation of Belarus.
The film made a splash with its distinctive blend of hyper-realism and underlying surrealism, which allowed it to explore themes of existentialism, politics and war in a visceral way. The title is a reference to chapter six of the Book of Revelation, which describes seeing the pale horse whose rider was Death.
8. Full Metal Jacket
Stanley Kubrick was one of the biggest directorial forces of his day, with a mastery of tone that’s unmatched even today. Full Metal Jacket came out in 1987, and showcased the trademark Kubrickian off-kilter cinematography, intense performances and precise direction. The film follows a platoon of US Marines as they struggle to succeed in boot camp, only to be faced with the harsh realities of the Vietnam War after graduating.
Grim and unflinching, Full Metal Jacket is filled with infamously brutal scenes that are broken up with small moments of respite and a smattering of dark humour, mostly deriving from the iconic performance of R Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. Ermey’s distinctive bark and creative insults have been endlessly parodied, with many other portrayals of drill sergeants since drawing from Ermey’s performance.
7. The Shining
What do you get when you cross one of the world’s greatest directors with one of Stephen King’s most beloved works? You get a horror classic that is somehow both an agonising slow-burn and a pulse-jumping, fast-moving thriller. The Shining had the deck stacked against it from the beginning, having opened the same weekend as The Empire Strikes Back and earning mixed reviews thanks to its pace and discombobulating, impossible imagery. Not only that, but Stephen King himself also made it known that he was not overly fond of the final product.
Despite all this, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has come to be understood as a true classic, featuring one of Jack Nicholson’s most unhinged performances, and iconic camera work that has been endlessly parodied and pastiched. The film is so influential that when Shining book sequel Doctor Sleep was itself adapted for the screen in 2019, director Mike Flanagan treated Kubrick’s version with almost religious reverence.
6. Raiders of the Lost Ark
If there’s any movie franchise more representative of the golden age of blockbusters than Star Wars or Jurassic Park, it’s Indiana Jones. The titular character is the perfect hero to build a series around: more swashbuckling than the slightly stuffy James Bond and less bumbling than Rick O’Connell from The Mummy.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is the quintessential action-adventure movie, updating the nostalgic serial adventure flicks of the mid-20th century with bigger set pieces, better stunt work, and a performance from Harrison Ford that should be studied by all leading men. Raiders’ non-stop pace and feel-good, adventurous atmosphere has inspired countless imitators and even landed it in the United States Library of Congress.
5. Once Upon a Time in America
When you think about mobster movies featuring swaggering criminals, trilby hats and sloe-eyed damsels with questionable morals, you probably think of the genre’s golden ages of the 30s, 50s or 70s. However, one of the greatest entries in the genre came in 1984, with Once Upon a Time in America. This epic crime film was a joint American-Italian production, directed by Spaghetti Western maestro Sergio Leone and starring Robert De Niro.
Leone’s final film before he died, Once Upon a Time follows a group of young Jewish men who rise to prominence as gangsters in New York’s organised crime scene. It was originally envisioned as two three-hour movies, but eventually made it to theatres with a runtime of three hours and 49 minutes, or two hours and 19 minutes if you lived in America. The shortened American version was a flop that was panned by critics and audiences alike, but the so-called ‘European Cut’ is now one of the best-loved crime movies of all time.
4. Back to the Future
It’s impossible to overstate the cultural impact of Back to the Future. Everything about it is synonymous with the 80s, despite the fact that the movie spends a significant amount of time in 1955. It elevated Michael J Fox from a workaday TV actor to one of the biggest names of the decade, and spawned two film sequels, an animated series and even a West End musical.
As for why Back to the Future has remained so enduring and beloved, it’s not difficult to figure out. The film features wacky and quotable but also incredibly endearing performances from both Fox and Christopher Lloyd, and has a fast-paced plot that even children can understand, with a sprinkling of raunch and social commentary that can only be picked up by adult viewers. So, in essence, there’s something for everyone!
3. Grave of the Fireflies
Studio Ghibli movies have a reputation for being sweet, calming and whimsical but, despite sharing the same beautiful art style and introspective pace, Grave of the Fireflies is a very different beast when compared to the likes of My Neighbor Totoro. Adapted from a short story of the same name, the film follows two twins living in Japan as they struggle to survive the final weeks of the Second World War.
Not only has Grave of the Fireflies been ranked as one of the greatest war films of all time, but it’s also become a landmark piece of Japanese animation. It was so successful that it inspired live-action adaptations in 2005 and 2008, but the original remains the best, a harrowing and devastatingly emotional look at war through the eyes of innocents.
2. Cinema Paradiso
If some movies become classics because of their pop culture ubiquity, then others become classics for the opposite reason. Cinema Paradiso is a joint Italian and French production that hasn’t been anywhere near as widely seen as our no.1 but is just as skillfully made, with direction from Giuseppe Tornatore and a score by Ennio Morricone and his son Andrea.
Cinema Paradiso follows the ageing employee of a rundown movie theatre, and the friendship he develops with a young boy who visits frequently, all set against the backdrop of war. This slow-moving, reflective film swept the Cannes Film Festival and became an instant overseas success, and has even been credited with single-handedly revitalising Italy’s film industry in the 80s.
1. The Empire Strikes Back
The original Star Wars trilogy is one of the best franchises the 80s has to offer and, out of the three Star Wars films, The Empire Strikes Back is the most beloved by a significant margin. Therefore, it only makes sense that The Empire Strikes Back is considered one of the decade’s best movies overall.
Not only does Empire feature the iconic “I am your father” showdown between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, but it also helped to codify the hallmarks and conventions of the space opera genre in the modern age. 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope may have captured the hearts of fans, but it was the follow-up movie that truly turned Star Wars into a franchise that is still adored today.