20 Films That Prove The 1980s Was The Greatest Decade
Of almost any decade, right now it’s the 80s that looms large over popular culture. Whether it’s pining for synth pop or craving the good old days of big action stars (often with European accents and questionable acting ability), the 80s truly is the decade of nostalgia. We should know – that’s why we’re running a website for all of the Eighties Kids out there!
But just because something is nostalgic doesn’t mean it gets a free pass. If you take off the rose-tinted spectacles and look back at the 80s, what do you see? Thankfully, the decade was a bumper ten years of cinema. Sure, there was some real dreck, but we’ve assembled a list of movies that prove the 80s was more than just a nostalgia-fest: it really was the greatest decade on film.
What do you get when you bring together director Joe Dante (The Howling, Explorers), writer Chris Columbus (The Goonies) and exec producer Steven Spielberg?
Answer: you get one of the most gleefully entertaining studio monster movies ever made – and one of the darkest intended for a wide audience.
Made in the middle of an unprecedented run of hits for Spielberg as producer – the film arrived after Poltergeist and before Back to the Future and The Goonies – Gremlins is one of many gems in The Beard’s heavily bejewelled 80s crown.
For Dante, however, Gremlins is the pièce-de-résistance, his greatest achievement in melding horror, black comedy and evil puppet creatures direct from the depths of Hell. It’s also, trust us, one of the most heartwarming Christmas movies of all time.
Cartoonish sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch is a favourite for some, but for our money the first Gremlins is still the best of this almost-franchise, featuring as it does such standout scenes as a suburban gremlin massacre involving a microwave and a Phoebe Cates monologue about Dad dying up a chimney while dressed as Santa Claus. Bring the whole family!
19. Dirty Dancing
Romance films have gained a reputation for sentimentality, cliché and shallowness – and, generally speaking, unfairly so, with several genres contributing their fair share of thin plots and wooden characters.
Nevertheless, it takes talent to make a romantic film that cuts through audience expectations and becomes a long-standing classic, and there’s no better example than Dirty Dancing.
Made on a paltry budget of $5 million, Dirty Dancing dominated the global box office with takings of $214.6 million. And for good reason: this story of two down-on-their-luck aspiring dancers has resonated with audiences of all generations, with its iconic lift and theme song recognisable today.
That’s not to say Dirty Dancing completely breaks the mould. One of the film’s more prominent, and potentially controversial, plot points is about a botched abortion.
Reproductive rights were at the heart of a culture war in the 1987, and often featured in films and songs of the era.
But it’s the timeless romance between Patrick Swayze’s Johnny and Jennifer Grey‘s Baby that has stayed with us.
The argument about whether Ridley Scott’s Alien or James Cameron’s Aliens is the better film is well-trodden and somehow still unfinished. The good news is that we don’t have to delve into any of that, since Alien released in 1979, even if it only received a UK-wide release in January of 1980. That’s a debate we aren’t stepping into.
But even if you do prefer the close-quarters tension of Ellen Ripley’s first Xenomorph encounter, Aliens is still regarded as one of the best sequels of all time, happily changing up the formula and giving it more of an action feel.
Aliens capitalises on Ripley’s show of strength in the first film and transforms her into a full-blown hero – no longer is she looking after a cat, but an actual human child. Next she’ll be getting a mortgage (actually, the less said about what she does next, Alien 3 and 4, the better).
Throw in a James Cameron story about the fatal flaws of colonialism – themes he’s still exploring in the Avatar films decades later – and you’ve got a movie that feels like a faithful continuation of the series while also upping the ante.
Much has been made of Ripley as a strong female lead, but it’s worth remembering that this is a film that also has a strong female enemy – the Alien Queen, who prompts the timeless line: “Get away from her, you b****!”
What’s more 80s than puppets, especially from The Jim Henson Company? Here’s what: Jim Henson’s puppets with the extravagant acting and costuming of one David Bowie, Goblin King.
We should start off by mentioning something you might already know: Labyrinth was a box office bomb, and critical reception was mixed. But that doesn’t stop it being one of the decade’s best films in retrospect.
Starring Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King, this is a creature-filled nightmare paradise that’s as darkly comedic as it is plain dark. As much as the grasping Shaft of Hands traumatised us, this film is a masterclass in how practical effects never go out of style.
Bowie’s performance should be praised, too. While Jennifer Connelly is an engaging and likeable protagonist, it’s Bowie’s big hair and ethereal delivery that steals the show. Plus: that codpiece.
The poor reception of Labyrinth led to Henson stepping down as a director, and it was the last of his films to be released during his lifetime. Henson probably had no idea just how much staying power his film would have.
16. Flash Gordon
Flash Gordon is a film that could only be made in the 80s. From its grand space opera plot to an unparalleled soundtrack by Queen, this is a time capsule of a movie that gets both better and worse every time you watch it.
Directed by Mike Hodges, otherwise best known for writing and directing the 70s classic Get Carter, Flash Gordon is a camp and messy film that triumphs and trips up in all the right ways.
After all, who can forget Brian Blessed’s classic delivery of “GORDON’S ALIVE!”, or that bit with the giant scorpion, or the rocket cycle, or the teasing question mark that appears after The End?
At the same time, Flash Gordon can occasionally be difficult to follow. Why does the action centre on a man who plays for the New York Jets? Isn’t it a weird coincidence that Flash accidentally meets a man who’s secretly been working on interstellar travel?
Still, despite all of its flaws – and sometimes because of them – Flash Gordon is a rollicking 80s madhouse of a film. Released in 1980, it set the tone for a decade of gung-ho optimism and all-new special effects.
15. The Goonies
If you were to boil down the vibe of an 80s film to a single word, you could do worse than to pick ‘adventure.’ While almost every film involves a quest of some kind, that against-all-odds exploration and gumption still feels distinctly 80s.
And that sense of adventure is exactly what makes The Goonies so great. A rag-tag bunch of kids – who embody such character quirks as Precocious Inventor, and Overweight – are forced to solve a distinctly grown-up problem through child-like means.
To stop their neighbourhood getting bulldozed, they seek a long-lost pirate treasure. One part Stand by Me and two parts Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, this is a coming of age story that’s thrills all the way down.
As the kids eventually find the treasure, they slip down a waterslide into a glistening cavern. Whether it gleams so brightly on screen, or just in our memories, we aren’t quite sure.
This is the film that paved the way for Stranger Things, albeit with less HR Giger and more Hey You Guygers.
15. Die Hard
There have been many imitators over the years – Die Hard on a Bus (Speed), Die Hard on a Plane (Air Force One), Die Hard on a Plane but with Snakes (Snakes on a Plane) – but still none have come close to matching Die Hard in a Skyscraper, aka Die Hard.
Adapted from the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, 1988’s Die Hard was originally primed to star Frank Sinatra, but when producers realised septuagenarians rarely make compelling action heroes, they made film history by going in a different, Bruce Willis-shaped direction.
There are many good reasons why Die Hard is considered one of the greatest action movies. First, there’s the script by Jeb Stuart and Steven E de Souza, tight as a drum.
There’s the clear, muscular direction by John McTiernan, fresh off 1987’s Predator and gorging on a big studio budget to create action setpieces for the ages. There’s also Alan Rickman, hamming it up in his first ever film as a West German terrorist with eminently villainous hair.
The film, though, belongs to Bruce Willis. In an age of quip-happy, uber-ripped heroes, Willis first made his mark in Die Hard as an average Joe action star, only one still capable of singlehandedly annihilating an entire building full of Euro-baddies. Yes it’s a Christmas movie.
14. Pretty Woman
Fun fact: Pretty Woman was almost ‘3000’, the story of a Los Angeles sex worker and addict who agrees to spend the week with a businessman in exchange for the title sum, so she can use the money to take her streetwalker friend to Disneyland. It wasn’t a comedy.
Thankfully, the film that eventually got made out of this enlightening tale of Reagonomics was a comedy, and not just any comedy, but one of the foundational texts of the modern rom-com.
Starring Richard Gere in perhaps his most iconic role as handsome Wall Street jerk Edward Lewis, Pretty Woman also happens to be the film that introduced the world to Julia Roberts.
As Vivian Ward, the sex worker with a heart of gold and teeth bright enough to guide traffic through fog, Roberts is on Oscar-nominated form, her wide-eyed charm at its apex in scenes opposite a twinkling Gere.
Is the film problematic? Sure! But Pretty Woman is still fun, bringing laughs, heart and the kind of fairytale ending that generations of starstruck lovers have dreamed of.
Part man, part machine, all cop – the movie’s tagline says it all. No other film on this list is so brashly horrifying, unflinchingly satirical, and utterly ridiculous as Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop.
Starring Peter Weller as the eponymous mecha-popo, Robocop takes the crashed economy of late 70s Detroit and extrapolates it to a dystopian future, filled with crime and corruption.
But make no mistake: this is no by-the-numbers action flick. Robocop is an avenging angel, passing judgement on societal ills that any 80s cinemagoer would have recognised (and, frankly, would recognise today): rampant consumerism, police overreach and mass media.
It’s also very silly, whether it’s the star of a TV commercial screaming out “I’d buy that for a dollar!” or the scene in which a man is literally liquified by toxic waste and then explodes.
Whether this over-the-top brutality is part of the film’s clever satire, or just an example of 80s excess, is up for debate. Regardless, RoboCop is far too fun to miss.
11. The Breakfast Club
Unlike some other films on this list, a summary of The Breakfast Club doesn’t sound especially exciting. After all, the film is literally about a group of misfit kids on detention, and then afterwards they go home.
And yet, The Breakfast Club is so much more than the synopsis. For those coming of age in the 80s, The Breakfast Club was a paean to independent spirits and a testament to how everyone matters.
A John Hughes classic, this is a key ‘Brat Pack’ film, and one that led to a host of other Molly Ringwald teen comedies like Pretty in Pink and The Pick-up Artist.
Ringwald herself recently revisited the film in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and it’s true that some parts of the film have aged badly, like when Claire is touched inappropriately without her consent.
Nonetheless, the film’s broader themes stand tall. Each one of us is a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.
These days, the lead actors of films have to be stubbled Goliaths or vampiric demigods. Back in the 80s, we frequently settled for Bill Murray. Which is not so much to take a shot at the great comic actor, but rather to give a sense of how an everyman in a quirky situation led to some of the best films of the 80s.
The prime example of this is Ghostbusters, which sees a group of dorky scientists hired to beat back the supernatural. It’s very Murray-Ramis, very New York, and unmistakably 80s.
From its quippy comedy to its iconic special effects – as well as the inherent delight of mixing exterminators with exorcists – it’s no wonder that Ghostbusters got a sequel, a reboot, and then yet another reboot in Ghostbusters: Afterlife.
And whether it’s the Stay Puft marshmallow man, or the instruction not to cross the streams, or the aggravatingly catchy theme song, it’s impossible to avoid the cultural impact of this film.
Just, when you rewatch it, try to forget that scene with Dan Aykroyd in which he goes cross-eyed. You know the one we’re talking about.
While today’s actors might be more stacked than ever, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t room for some serious muscle back in the 80s. Predator, for one, features so much bicep it should really be called the Battle of the Bulge.
The Predator franchise has frequently been compared to Alien, not least because of the deadliness of the title creatures, but these movies are actually completely different beasts. Where Alien is about one woman’s grit, Predator is about a dozen men each trying to out-testosterone each other.
From Arnold Schwarzenegger’s one-liners to the frankly impractical displays of firepower, Predator is just the right blend of sci-fi, action, and close-quarters jungle thriller.
The film was actually met with mixed to negative reviews on its release, with Variety deriding it for attempting to replace a “tissue-thin-plot with ever-more-grisly death sequences.”
But if you really want to measure the lasting impact of a film, put a hundred people in a room and show them a picture of a helicopter. At least half will yell out “Get to the choppa!”, or at least think it.
8. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
When you’re in school, there’s no sweeter dream than to be out of it. After all, there’s a boundless world out there full of exciting locales and thrilling activities. When you’re an adult and ‘treating yourself’ to a small bag of apple slices that have gone slightly brown, stuck in front of a computer, school might seem like the halcyon days of youth.
Thankfully, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off helped us forget our term-time troubles when we first watched it, and still helps us escape into teen adventure today. Starring Matthew Broderick in a career-forging lead role, this is a sunny Chicago day put to film.
Slacking off school with his girlfriend and hypochondriac best friend – though quite why Cameron is friends with Ferris, we can’t say – Ferris has a day filled with parades, fast cars and baseball.
Perhaps one reason why Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is so popular is that it gives us an idealised version of who we’d be in high school, ethics notwithstanding: Ferris is funny, dates the prettiest girl in school, and knows all of his classmates will back him up no matter what.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that this is one of the first and most popular films to break the fourth wall. Deadpool would be dead in the water without Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
7. The Shining
Stanley Kubrick is revered as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. Stephen King is frequently touted as the greatest horror writer of all time. And with the author’s material in Kubrick’s hands, you get the unimpeachable success of The Shining – even if King himself hated it.
With a career-best performance from Shelley Duvall, and one that’s certainly among Jack Nicholson’s greatest, The Shining gets horror exactly right.
While there might be an elevator-full of blood, and no shortage of creepiness, this is a film that keeps drawing you in. That allure is missing from most modern horror films, which settle for jump scares and gore.
Instead, the Overlook Hotel is alluring for both the characters and the audience – we can’t bear to imagine what’s in Room 237, but we have to open the door anyway.
The other Stanley Kubrick film of the 80s was Full Metal Jacket, which would be a fine choice for any 80s film list. But for us, it’s The Shining that kicked off the decade’s reputation for excellent psychological horrors, and as such earns its place here.
Some might argue that Beetlejuice is the best 80s film of all time, and we’ve been taught that saying something three times makes it real. (To save our efforts, just read that first sentence twice more.)
The movie is a rowdy affair, to say the least. Michael Keaton stars as the undead mischief-maker in a role far removed from his other 80s triumph – Batman – and the more dramatic work with which he’s associated today.
We’re also treated to one of Winona Ryder’s earlier performances, and one that surely kickstarted goth fashion. Dancing from the macabre to the hilarious – and also to Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) – Beetlejuice has the frantic energy of a late afternoon game show and all the spooks of genuine gothic horror.
This was the film that made truly made Tim Burton’s name as a director. While his directorial debut was Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in 1985, the attention for that film was focused firmly on Paul Reubens.
As wacky, colourful, and frightening today as it was in 1988, Beetlejuice deserves to be in any serious 80s buff’s collection.
5. Raiders of the Lost Ark
After the success of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, George Lucas initially didn’t want the actor for his newfangled archaeological adventure, fearing he’d become “”[his] Bobby De Niro.” Thankfully, like the rest of us, Lucas relented to Ford’s roguish charm.
Inspired by the pulp fiction and serial films of the 30s and 40s, Raiders of the Lost Ark still feels bang up to date. Harrison Ford throws his punches straight from the hip, and his quips straight from the lips, in a movie that features everything from airstrips to excavating Egypt.
Raiders masters that very 80s trope: it’s completely clear who the bad guys are. Any debate about Indy’s colonialist theft of ancient artefacts is wrapped up in the heavy carpet of “that belongs in a museum!” and tossed in a river – we’ve got Nazis to be dealing with.
And what Nazis they are. Whether it’s Toht the Gestapo agent, or Belloq the collaborator, these are villains who you just want to see melted alive by ancient spirits. And you’re in luck.
This is a film that kicked off a decade-long franchise, and an additional film that we don’t talk about. And with a fifth Indiana Jones film in the works, returning to the original now is an absolute must.
4. The Terminator
Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of the biggest stars of the 80s, and this is the film that started it all. For audiences willing to believe that the killing machines of the future will be programmed with thick, Austrian accents, this movie is catnip.
It’s a foregone conclusion by now, but Schwarzenegger strikes an imposing figure as the Terminator, a robot sent back in time to stop the leader of the resistance from ever being born.
While the film features lighter moments, such as Arnie walking naked into a bar, the climactic factory scene truly is terrifying, even if the then-revolutionary special effects aren’t quite as smooth as they seemed at the time.
We also witness Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor progress from victim to bonafide action hero, something that would be cemented in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Given that the Terminator franchise has been critically and commercially savaged as of late, with even the return of Cameron and Hamilton failing to stem a $130 million loss for 2019’s Dark Fate, it’s worth going back and figuring out what the first instalment got so right.
3. Back to the Future
Back to the Future is a perfect film. There, we said it. Even if the majority of the film takes place in the 50s, this is an unforgettable 80s classic.
From Marty’s radical attitude – he skateboards, for god’s sake – to Doc Emmett Brown’s DeLorean obsession, to Michael J Fox’s actual performance of Johnny B Goode, this is a film that makes us wish we could go back in time and watch it in cinemas all over again.
Originally intended to lean a lot more heavily on Marty’s relationship with his own mother, which would have pleased Sigmund Freud and no one else, Back to the Future was successfully retooled as a grandfather paradox caper.
And while the film never loses its lighthearted tone, it’s hard not to well up a little as Doc Brown dances through the street, having successfully sent the DeLorean back to the future.
The movie is being adapted into a musical in 2020, with a book by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. Now, how do you set this thing to travel forward in time?
2. Blade Runner
When it was first released 38 years ago, nobody had much nice to say about Blade Runner, up to and including the people who actually made it.
Following a testy shoot in which director Ridley Scott clashed with essentially everyone, the dystopian sci-fi was re-edited by a wary studio, who tacked on a happy ending and a rare voiceover – performed with audible hate by star Harrison Ford – that actually makes the story less easy to follow.
Cut to the present day, and Blade Runner, restored by Scott to his original vision in multiple director’s cuts, is a keystone of the science fiction genre, a dense and visually magnificent neo-noir.
What’s more, Scott’s tale of androids being hunted through a devastated LA of the future (now past – the film is set in 2019) only seems to become more relevant with each passing year.
What was a warning in 1982 – that the then-trajectory of mankind could lead to corporate domination, environmental catastrophe and a creeping AI takeover – now just looks like a prophecy we failed to heed. Oops!
1. The Empire Strikes Back
Since The Empire Strikes Back was released 40 years ago, there have been nine more Star Wars films, multiple Star Wars TV shows and more comics, books, games and assorted other tie-ins than you can shake a Kowakian monkey-lizard at.
And yet, nothing in the ever-expanding Star Wars multimedia franchise has come close to matching the perfection of 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back.
Taking characters and ideas that George Lucas introduced in 1977’s Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner in the film’s sequel both expands the universe and puts the microscope to Lucas’ space-western archetypes.
Empire isn’t short on still-breathtaking special effects – the opening battle sequence on Hoth might be the best Star Wars setpiece of them all – but its finest asset is its rich, probing character detail. (That, or the bit with the blind space-slug who lives in an asteroid.)
Throw in some heady intergalactic romance, the greatest plot twist of all time, a backwards-talking alien mentor and Lando Calrissian’s sweet capes, and you’ve got what amounts to what we’re calling the best movie of the decade. Now change our minds.