Though it is a decade that produced some very questionable fashion, some strange music and more than its fair share of odd sayings the 80s certainly didn’t lack when it came to quality movies. Yes, there were plenty of duds and bad sequels, but there were plenty of all time classics, as you will see. Read on to see what flicks made the cut on my list of the top 50 films of the 80s:
50 – Weird Science – In my opinion this goofy, science fiction comedy epitomized a good 80s movie. Yes, the acting by Anthony Michael Hall, Ilan Mitchell Smith, Kelly LeBrock and a young Bill Paxton might not have been Oscar-worthy, but the hilarious story premise of two high school nerds who solve their love life problems by creating a woman (or sexpot as they officially refer to her as) more than makes up for any acting deficiencies.
49 – The Gods Must Be Crazy – A surprisingly funny movie about an African bushman who goes on a quest to the end of the earth to cast away the source of covetousness, greed, and violence among his people: a Coke bottle.
48 – Robocop – This movie would also make a list of the best science fiction movies of all time, and show highly on a list of the best action movies ever made as well. Peter Weller stars as a fatally injured police officer who is brought back from the edge of the grave to fight crime as a metallic cyborg.
47 – The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! – Canadian funnyman Leslie Nielsen, Priscilla Presley, O.J. Simpson and Ricardo Montalban all star in this hilarious spoof of the cop movie genre. The movie went on to spawn a pair of sequels – The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear and The Naked Gun 33 1/3rd: The Final Insult – and contrary to the usual Hollywood script the sequels were almost as funny as the original. This one also ranks high on a list of the best comedy movies of all time.
46 – Places in the Heart – From laugh out loud goofy comedy to emotionally wrought drama the best movies of the 80s offered something for viewers of all tastes and moods. Sally Field won an Oscar as Best Actress in a Leading Role for her portrayal of widow Edna Spalding, and John Malkovich all landed an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his turn as Mr. Will.
45 – My Left Foot – One of the best actors of the current era, Daniel Day Lewis, turns in another in a string of astonishing performances as Christy Brown, a young man who suffers from cerebral palsy and has learned to paint with his left foot. The role earned Lewis an Oscar for Best Actor in a Lead Role, and Brenda Fricker also earned an Oscar statue for her role as Lewis’s onscreen mother. I’ve yet to see Lewis in a bad role and if you appreciate his acting check out films like Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood for more samples of his incredible talent.
44 – The Karate Kid – Though this movie might not be as decorated as some of the others on the list almost anyone who grew up in the 80s remember it as one of the most popular films of that decade. Ralph Macchio, who was at the time one of the biggest heartthrobs in Hollywood stars in the lead role as Daniel Laruso, a teenage boy who is forced to learn karate to defend himself from bullies. However, it is Pat Morita who really steals the show as Daniel’s karate sensei Mr. Miyagi. Morita, who was previously most famous for playing the role of Arnold on the TV show Happy Days was so good that he was nominated for an Oscar that year.
43 – First Blood – There were few stars in Hollywood bigger in the 80s than Sylvester Stallone and this movie about an ex-Vietnam vet who goes to war with a small town’s police force would earn a deserving spot on a list of the best action movies of all time. Though the series would later get a bit over the top with sequels Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III the original film was gritty and reasonably realistic for an action film. Stallone also revived the character in 2008’s Rambo, a movie that was surprisingly well received by critics, probably due to its close feel with the original.
42 – The Untouchables – Plenty of star power in this one as Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Robert De Niro, and Andy Garcia all star in this film about Eliot Ness’s pursuit and ultimate takedown of legendary gangster boss Al Capone. Connery snagged the only Oscar hardware for the film, but all the performances were brilliant and the movie is an all time classic gangster film.
41 – St. Elmo’s Fire – Many of the so-called brat pack of the 80s – Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore and Ally Sheedy – star in this quirky film about a group of friends who’ve just left college and are trying to figure out what to do next.
40 – Lethal Weapon – One of the best action movies of the 80s, Lethal Weapon stars Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as a pair of police officers with completely opposite methods who must partner up to stop a gang of drug smugglers, including the psychopathic Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey). The film went on to spawn 3 sequels, but none came close to the quality of the original film.
39 – Fast Times at Ridgemont High – One of the best teen movies of the 80s, Fast Times at Ridgemont High shows us a side of dramatic actor Sean Penn that many young people today probably don’t even realize ever existed. Penn is awesome as stoner, surfer dude Jeff Spicoli, and his ongoing battle with his strict teacher Mr. Hand is one of the all time classic personality clashes in movie history.
38 – Top Gun – Risky Business might have been the launching pad for Tom’s Cruise’s career, but it was 1986’s Top Gun, an adrenaline-filled action movie about a fighter pilot training school that really shot him into superstardom.
37 – Good Morning Vietnam – The irrepressible Robin Williams absolutely dominates the screen and the airwaves as Adrian Cronauer in this 1987 war comedy about a serviceman who disregards protocol to entertain the troops during the Vietnam war.
36 – Ghostbusters – Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd lend their incredible comedic talent in this blockbuster science fiction comedy about a team of disgraced college professors who decide to use their rather unusual knowledge to start a business fighting paranormal entities in New York.
35 – When Harry Met Sally – A strong candidate for the best romantic comedy of the 80s, When Harry Met Sally was a perfect date movie when it was released back in 1989. Plenty of romance for the women, and the guys got to stare at the incredibly cute Meg Ryan as she faked an orgasm at lunch, and laugh at Billy Crystal’s sarcastic wisecracks. It’s a win-win.
34 – Batman – Though not as good as Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Dark Knight films, Tim Burton’s original Batman movie earns a deserving spot on the list of the best movies of the 80s. Michael Keaton is surprisingly good as Bruce Wayne and alter-ego Batman, but the legendary Jack Nicholson really steals the show with his crazed performance as The Joker. Nicholson was so good that many fans of the franchise prefer his portrayal over that of the late Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight. In True 80’s fashion Prince delivers the soundtrack to the movie.
33 – Tootsie – Dustin Hoffman has been a consistent force in Hollywood over his career and the 80s were no exception. Hoffman is fantastic in this challenging role where he ends up in drag to land a coveted part on a soap opera.
32 – Cocoon – Director Ron Howard hits a home run with this science fiction film about a group of senior citizens who regain their youthful energy by dipping in a pool filled with alien cocoons. A strange premise to be sure, but one that gives a flavor of originality to a decade that was absolutely loaded with bad sequels and copycat films.
31 – Stand by Me – Adapted from Stephen King’s novella The Body, Stand by Me details the misadventures of four young friends who set out on a camping trip and discover a dead body along the way. Will Wheaton, River Phoenix, Cory Feldman, and Jerry O’Connell star as the four boys in the story, and a young Kiefer Sutherland of 24 fame stars as the boys’ nemesis Ace Merrill.
30 – Do the Right Thing – Not all 80s movies were pure fluff. Spike Lee directs and stars in this racially charged film about bigotry and violence ignited during a brutally hot, humid day in New York. The powerful film earned Spike Lee a nomination for best screenplay, and Danny Aiello was also nominated in a supporting role for his turn as Sal.
29 – The Princess Bride – One of the best comedy films of the 80s, and also one of the best fantasy movies ever made, The Princess Bride tells the hilarious story of the true love of Westley (Cary Elwes) and Buttercup (Robin Wright Penn). Along the way there are battles with giants, sword fights with fencing masters, fire swamps, torture, miracles and more. Andre the Giant, Mandy Patinkin, Billy Crystal, and Christopher Guest are all stellar in supporting roles. If you haven’t seen this film, dismissing it as childish nonsense then you are missing out, and should march out and pick up the DVD this instant. Yes, it’s that good.
28 – Beverly Hills Cop – Eddie Murphy stars as a foul-mouthed Detroit cop who winds up on a forced vacation to Los Angeles, only to quickly find himself caught up in the criminal troubles plaguing that city. This is the movie that really put Eddie Murphy on the map, and was one of the highest grossing movies of the 80s, and still remains one of the highest grossing comedies of all time.
27 – Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior – Well before Lethal Weapon came out Mel Gibson was thrilling audiences in his role as Mad Max in a trilogy of movies set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The follow-up to 1979’s Mad Max and prequel to 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, The Road Warrior is the best of the trilogy, and gives a chilling look at what life might be like if another world war came to pass.
26 – Caddyshack – 80s comedy legends Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Rodney Dangerfield and Ted Knight team up in this hilarious golf comedy. As funny as these actors are it is ultimately a seemingly indestructible rodent who steals the show and provides most of the laughs. If you grew up in the 80s and haven’t seen this film then you must have been living in a cave. A true 80s classic.
25 – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – You know a movie has attained cult status when it is still widely quoted 23 years after its theatrical release. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off seems an appropriate film to mark our entry into the top 25 movies of the 80s. Matthew Broderick had appeared in a few films like War Games and Ladyhawke but his iconic portrayal of slacker Ferris Bueller, a high school slacker who will go to any length to enjoy a day off school really made him a household name.
24 – Die Hard – Another one of the best action movies ever made earns a deserving spot on the list. If you watched him on the TV show Moonlighting you would have been surprised to see Bruce Willis show up as the star of a big budget action movie. However, he not only pulled the role of John McClane off, but in doing so he created one of the most iconic characters in action movie history. The movie was massively successful and to date has spawned four sequels. However it is McClane’s original battle with terrorist Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) in the Nakatomi building that is the true classic in the series.
23 – The Outsiders – Teenage author S.E. Hinton’s book about the social interaction between groups of popular rich kids and a gang of poor “greaser” kids was a huge hit when it hit the big screen back in 1983. Pretty much the whole brat pack stars in this one with the film featuring many future Hollywood heavyweights like Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon and more. If you enjoy the film, definitely read the book. S.E. Hinton is a fantastic writer and her work has a very authentic feel.
22 – Terms of Endearment – 1983’s Terms of Endearment absolutely cleaned up at the Academy Awards landing 5 major awards including Best Picture, and Best Actress in a Leading Role for Shirley MacLaine. Despite the quality of the film guys might find themselves yawning a bit through this one as there isn’t much here to keep the males in the crowd entertained. It can’t be disputed though that this is one of the best chick flicks of the 80s.
21 – Brazil – Terry Gilliam’s warped sense of humor delivered us one of the funniest movies of the 80s. Jonathan Pryce and Robert De Niro star in this futuristic film about a bureaucrat who finds himself on the wrong side of the law after trying to fix a bug in the system. Convoluted and confusing Brazil might take a few viewings to get everything sorted out, but once you’ve got things figured you’ll find yourself enjoying this unique film immensely.
20 – Bull Durham – A baseball comedy marks the entrance into the top 20 best movies of the 80s. Kevin Costner, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon star in a bizarre love triangle with a backdrop of minor league baseball. Kevin Costner has made a habit of starring in baseball movies in his career and both Bull Durham and Field of Dreams could have made this list. I chose the former because I think it has probably has greater appeal to the women in the crowd.
19 – The Breakfast Club – If there is one movie that is synonymous with the 80s then The Breakfast Club is that film. A story about a group of students from all different walks of life who are forced to sit in detention together one fateful Saturday seems on the surface to be a pretty thin plot. However, it is the characters, however stereotyped, who really make this movie, and anyone who grew up in the 80s and experienced the social pressures and prejudices of high school in that era can identify with one or more of the characters.
18 – Amadeus – Though perhaps not as popular among the teenage crowd back in the 80s it is hard to keep this 8 time Oscar winning film off the list of the best movies of the 80s. Tom Hulce is not exactly a Hollywood name but his portrayal of music genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in this 1984 biopic stands as one of the crowning acting achievements of that decade. For those who are little more shallow the movie also gave us the huge 80s Falco hit, Rock me Amadeus.
17 – Moonstruck – This Oscar winning film would definitely be at or near the top of a list of the best romantic comedies of the 80s. Love triangles were apparently popular plotlines in the 80s as this film uses this plot device as well. The multi-talented singer and actress Cher gives the performance of her career in this classic 80s love story.
16 – Rain Man – As good as Dustin Hoffman was in Tootsie there can be little argument that his best work of the 80s came as his portrayal as an autistic man in 1988’s Rain Man. Tom Cruise stars alongside Hoffman and the chemistry between the two is fantastic right from the get-go. Though the subject matter might sound a bit heavy there are plenty of light moments, including a few that will make you laugh out loud, in this thought-provoking film.
15 – Scarface – With starring roles in films like The Godfather, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Heat, and Scent of a Woman Al Pacino can certainly throw his hat in the ring when it comes to picking the best actor of the past 40 years. His role as Cuban drug lord, Tony Montana can stand among all the aforementioned movies as some of his best work as an actor. “Say hello to my little friend!” is one of the most quoted lines in movie history. There is plenty of violence and mature subject matter in this one, but if you like your films gritty then Scarface is not to be missed.
14 – The Color Purple – Though I promised to keep this list of the top 50 80s movies as light and fluffy as possible these Oscar nominated films just keep slipping onto the list. Based on the Pulitzer prize winning novel by Alice Walker the film details the life of a young African American woman and her trials as she grows up in the early 20th century. Whoopi Goldberg is magnificent as Celie, the main character in the film, and talk show megastar Oprah Winfrey also shows her amazing acting ability in the role of Sophie, landing an Oscar nomination for her performance.
13 – Ordinary People – Better known for his work as an actor director Robert Redford nabbed himself an Oscar for his work on this extraordinary film about ordinary people who must deal with the pain of losing a loved one. The movie is emotionally powerful and the performances by Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore and Timothy Hutton as the family members left behind are all genuine and superb. If you are in the mood for a strong dramatic film definitely pick this one up.
12 – Airplane! – About as far to the opposite end of the spectrum from Ordinary People as you can get Airplane! is nothing but constant laughs. A parody of airline disaster movies, Airplane! should stand at or near the top of any self-respecting comedy fan’s list of the funniest movies ever made. Leslie Nielsen, Lloyd Bridges and Robert Hays all star in this endless quotable comedy classic.
11 – On Golden Pond – Henry Fonda, Katherine Hepburn and Jane Fonda star in this film about a father and daughter, long estranged, who work to repair their relationship. Henry Fonda is brilliant as the cantankerous Norman Thayer, and screen legend Katherine Hepburn is just as good as his inhumanly patient wife Ethel. Their acting was so good that the pair earned the rare double win as best actor and best actress at the Academy Awards. If you are worried it sounds a little dramatic for your tastes rest assured that this isn’t just a one dimensional film. There are plenty of laughs along the way particularly in the bickering between the old couple.
10 – Gandhi – Finally, we reach the top 10 movies of the 80s. Ben Kingsley gives the performance of a lifetime as Mahatma Gandhi, the famous pacifist who orchestrated a massive campaign of non-violent protests for the rights of Indians in South Africa. The film was a runaway winner for Best Picture that year, and Kingsley earned a deserving Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Though the film is more than a quarter century old its message is still as powerful as ever. It is a movie every person should see at least once, regardless of race, religion or gender.
9 – The Terminator – Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers one of the most iconic villains of all time in his role as the terminator in James Cameron’s 1984 classic sci-fi film. Sent back through time by the machines to assassinate the woman who will give birth to the child who will lead the human resistance in the future, Schwarzenegger is chilling as a cyborg killing machine hell-bent on assassinating Linda Hamilton. The film’s sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is arguably even better than the original, but since it didn’t come out until 1991 it is ineligible for this list.
8 – Aliens – Starring Sigourney Weaver as Ripley, the toughest chick in space, Aliens is as much a horror movie as a science fiction thriller, and the monsters in the film are impressively realistic, especially considering this movie is nearly a quarter century old. The original film, Alien is almost as good, but contrary to the usual Hollywood formula the sequel is actually a little bit better than the original and so gets the nod on this list.
7 – Back to the Future – Continuing with the science fiction theme, this quirky time travel film starring Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly is not only one of the funniest movies of the 80s, but one of the best films in any genre. Christopher Lloyd is absolutely perfectly cast as Doc Brown, a mad scientist who invents a time travel machine in the form of a DeLorean sports car. McFly becomes his willing guinea pig and takes the car to the past where he meets up with a much younger Doc Brown who must figure out a way to get him back home. To complicate things Marty ends up the object of affection of his own mother (a much younger version of course) and must play matchmaker between her and his father lest they never fall in love, causing him never to exist. Quite a conundrum to say the least!
6 – Blade Runner – This is the first time we’ve seen Harrison Ford’s name on this list, but you can bet it won’t be the last. In this Ridley Scott masterpiece Ford plays Deckard a Blade Runner (special police force unit) who has the difficult task of tracking down and killing replicants, or human clones. Dark and gritty with a post-apocalyptic feel Blade Runner is a must see for any sci-fi film buff.
5 – Platoon – During an era that produced several quality war films including Full Metal Jacket and Hamburger Hill, Oliver Stone’s masterwork Platoon stands alone as the best war of its era, and is certainly in the conversation as the best war movie of all time. Uncomfortably realistic Platoon gives the audience a front row seat of the horrors that took place during the Vietnam War and the incredible psychological effect on its participants.
4 – E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial – Steven Spielberg’s E.T. is a far different creature than Ridley Scott’s Aliens. The cutest creature ever to come from outer space, all this extra terrestrial life form wants to do is enjoy some M&Ms and make the occasional (really) long distance phone call home. A massive hit, E.T. set a box office record back in 1982 grossing just a hair under $400 million domestically before Titanic finally surpassed it in 1997. Be sure to watch for a young Drew Barrymore in the film.
3 – Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back – It took George Lucas 3 years to release the sequel to his stunning 1977 smash hit Star Wars, but the wait was well worth it. Easily the best of the 6 movies in the series the film is darker and more realistic. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia and the rest of the gang really take a beating in this one, and by the end of the film fans were left wondering if the resistance was doomed to fail. Fortunately, as Return of the Jedi showed us, it didn’t. Unfortunately, this was in large part due to Ewoks. Ugh.
2 – Raiders of the Lost Ark – It tough putting this classic adventure movie in the runner up spot on the list of the best 80s movies. Harrison Ford makes his 3rd appearance in the top 10 with his iconic character Indiana Jones and his adventure to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis get their hands on it. Take tons of action, great special effects, sprinkle in some mystery, romance and humor and you have the recipe for a classic. There have been 4 Indiana Jones movies to date, but much like the Die Hard series the first and the 3rd installments are the best.
1 – Raging Bull – As much as sentimentality tempted me to give Raiders of the Lost Ark the nod as the best movie of the 80s, objectivity made me realize that this incredible Martin Scorsese boxing film starring Robert De Niro actually deserved the title. Ironically, the film, unlike many other inferior films on this list, did not land an Oscar for Best Picture, and Scorsese was snubbed for best director. The Academy Awards weren’t a total loss though, as De Niro did pick up the hardware for Best Actor. Gritty, dark, and even disturbing, Raging Bull stands not only as the best boxing film of all time, but as the best sports movie period.