The 100 Greatest Movies of the 1980s

The 100 Greatest Movies of the 1980s

The 1980s in the history of film proved to be a decade of comfort, cynicism, brilliance and disappoint. We were just coming away from the blockbuster ’70s. We had just seen Marlon Brando in the most famous crime family in film history. We saw how Steven Spielberg could scare, thrill, entertain and enthrall audiences with such classics as Jaws, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And, of course, there was that little space opera created by George Lucas in 1977.

Woody Allen was also a popular filmmaker in the 1980s. His take on modern life, no matter how dramatic or comedic it may have been, was refreshing for audiences. He had just won Best Picture and Best Director for Annie Hall at the Academy Awards. Critics were eating up his work like candy. So, his name was no less popular by 1980 than Steven Spielberg’s.

Then, during the 1970s, you had the darker end of filmmaking, brought to the screen with panache by a promising filmmaker, Martin Scorcese. His films were what we call “film noir.” Everything from Mean Streets in 1973 to Taxi Driver in ’76 proved to be a much different take on crime life than The Godfather. It can be argued that none of his earlier films had much of a plot. But, they were more like studies on the underbelly of society.

In the 1980s, these filmmakers would either prove themselves to be great or turn into shadows of their former selves. Raiders of the Lost Ark was a great surprise for audiences in 1981 and, once again, showed how great Steven Spielberg and George Lucas could be. Just a year before that, Scorcese blew audiences away with the little-known story about a boxer in Raging Bull. By 1982, Star Wars was still the top-grossing film of all time. But then, Spielberg came back to reign for 15 years with the sweet tale of a boy befriending an alien in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.

As the years went by, we heard less and less of Lucas, Spielberg, and even Woody Allen. Lucas produced Howard the Duck. Spielberg gave us Hook and The Empire of the Sun. Woody Allen made Hannah and Her Sisters and then The Purple Rose of Cairo. While these may or may not be good, they were anything but popular films.

A new master would emerge in the 1980s, arguably replacing Spielberg as the ultimate blockbuster filmmaker.

James Cameron, a recent “graduate” of the “Roger Corman film school,” amazed and surprised audiences with two to three major sci-fi masterpieces, including The Terminator and Aliens. While The Terminator sky-rocketed to fame in the ever-growing home video market on VHS, Aliens was the sequel to Alien (1979) everyone wanted. Star Sigourney Weaver was the first actress to be nominated for an Oscar in a science-fiction/horror film. Terminator star Arnold Schwarzenegger would become a household name.

The Terminator (1984)
The Terminator (1984)

After his dismal debut with Pirahna II: The Spawning, James Cameron decided to completely take up the reigns and do almost everything himself. In 1989, the last film Cameron made in this era was The Abyss. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be until the 1990s that Cameron would show us how brilliant The Abyss actually was with the Special Edition laserdisc release.

Tom Hanks, a man that would prove himself to be a legend in the 1990s had a string of comedy hits. From Bachelor Party to Big to The Man with One Red Shoe to Splash, Hanks was on fire. Also, his Splash co-star, the late, great John Candy would also appear in a number of hit comedies in the 1980s.

John Hughes, the king of the teen comedy in the 1980s was also branching out from hits like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club to adult comedies with major comedians. You may not know this but John Hughes gave us Uncle Buck and Planes, Trains and Automobiles with Candy while at the same time, giving us teen classics like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Other actors and filmmakers that were flourishing in the 1980s include Meg Ryan, Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone, Chevy Chase, Dan Akroyd, Eddie Murphy, Ridley Scott, Ron Howard and many more. The films listed below include some of these great artists’ talents. Please, don’t hesitate to run out and rent any one of them at your local video store. They should still carry them.

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
2. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
3. Aliens (1986)
4. The Karate Kid (1984)
5. Back to the Future (1985)
6. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
7. Raging Bull (1980)
8. The Terminator (1984)
9. The Untouchables (1987)
10. The Breakfast Club (1985)
11. Raising Arizona (1987)
12. Field of Dreams (1989)
13. A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
14. National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)
15. Trading Places (1983)
16. The Abyss (1989)
17. Caddyshack (1980)
18. Splash (1984)
19. Bachelor Party (1984)
20. Big (1988)
21. When Harry Met Sally (1989)
22. Sixteen Candles (1984)
23. Lethal Weapon (1987)
24. Top Gun (1986)
25. Robocop (1987)
26. Poltergeist (1982)
27. Airplane (1980)
28. Platoon (1986)
29. Die Hard (1988)
30. Glory (1989)
31. The Princess Bride (1987)
32. Rain Man (1988)
33. Batman (1989)
34. John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)
35. Coming to America (1988)
36. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
37. Terms of Endearment (1983)
38. Overboard (1987)
39. Predator (1987)
40. Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
41. Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
42. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
43. Beetlejuice (1988)
44. The Fly (1986)
45. Seems Like Old Times (1980)
46. The Road Warrior (1981)
47. Ghostbusters (1984)
48. Scrooged (1988)
49. Risky Business (1983)
50. Blade Runner (1982)
51. Used Cars (1980)
52. The Shining (1980)
53. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
54. Superman II (1980)
55. The Goonies (1985)
56. Tootsie (1982)
57. Spaceballs (1987)
58. Pretty In Pink (1986)
59. Say Anything (1989)
60. Roxanne (1987)
61. The Little Mermaid (1989)
62. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
63. Romancing the Stone (1984)
64. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
65. The NeverEnding Story (1984)
66. Twins (1988)
67. Witness (1985)
68. Moonstruck (1987)
69. Fletch (1985)
70. The Naked Gun (1988)
71. Uncle Buck (1989)
72. Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
73. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
74. Dead Poets Society (1989)
75. Gremlins (1984)
76. Labyrinth (1986)
77. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
78. Short Circuit (1986)
79. A Christmas Story (1983)
80. Dirty Dancing (1987)
81. Amadeus (1984)
82. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
83. The Big Chill (1983)
84. Lean on Me (1989)
85. Arthur (1981)
86. Hannah and her Sisters (1986)
87. Chariots of Fire (1981)
88. Once Upon A Time in America (1984)
89. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)
90. The Color Purple (1985)
91. Stand By Me (1986)
92. Return of the Jedi (1983)
93. Three Men and a Baby (1987)
94. Crocodile Dundee (1986)
95. Fatal Attraction (1987)
96. An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
97. The Verdict (1982)
98. Flashdance (1983)
99. Cocoon (1985)
100. Spies Like Us (1985)

1980s: A Decade of Cinematic Richness

The 1980s were a transformative period for cinema, characterized by a mix of high-concept blockbusters, groundbreaking special effects, and the rise of independent filmmaking. This era brought audiences some of history’s most iconic and enduring movies, spanning genres from sci-fi and fantasy to drama and comedy.

The Birth of Franchises

The 1980s solidified the blockbuster phenomenon, with filmmakers leveraging advancements in special effects to create visually stunning cinematic experiences. This era saw the birth and continuation of major franchises that are still beloved.

  • E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982): Directed by Steven Spielberg, this heartwarming story of a young boy and his alien friend became a defining movie of the decade, showcasing Spielberg’s ability to blend science fiction with deep emotional resonance.
  • Back to the Future (1985): Robert Zemeckis’s time-travel adventure, starring Michael J. Fox, combined witty humor, a clever script, and groundbreaking special effects to create an instant classic that spawned sequels and a lasting legacy.
  • The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983): George Lucas’s Star Wars saga continued with these sequels, deepening the characters and themes introduced in the original film while pushing the boundaries of visual effects and storytelling.

The Rise of Teen Cinema and Comedies

The 1980s were also known for the emergence of movies focused on the teenage experience, thanks to directors like John Hughes and the popularity of comedies that blended humor with heartfelt messages.

  • The Breakfast Club (1985): John Hughes’s seminal work captured the nuances of the teenage experience, breaking down stereotypes and exploring the challenges of adolescence with humor and empathy.
  • Ghostbusters (1984): Combining comedy, action, and special effects, this supernatural adventure became a cultural phenomenon, showcasing the decade’s penchant for high-concept storytelling.
  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986): Another Hughes classic, this film celebrated the spirit of youth and rebellion, symbolizing freedom and creativity for an entire generation.

Innovative Storytelling

The 1980s weren’t just about commercial successes; they also witnessed films that pushed the envelope regarding narrative and technical innovation.

  • Blade Runner (1982): Ridley Scott’s dystopian masterpiece set new standards for visual storytelling in the science fiction genre, exploring complex themes of identity, humanity, and the future.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): Steven Spielberg and George Lucas teamed up to create this action-adventure classic, introducing the world to Indiana Jones, an archaeologist who became one of cinema’s most iconic heroes.
  • The Terminator (1984): James Cameron’s sci-fi thriller blended groundbreaking special effects with a compelling story about fate, love, and survival, introducing audiences to a new level of action storytelling.

Dramatic Masterpieces

Beyond the spectacle and laughter, the 1980s also produced films that delved into deeper emotional and social themes, offering powerful commentaries on life, war, and human nature.

  • Platoon (1986): Oliver Stone’s gritty portrayal of the Vietnam War offered a raw and emotional look at the conflict, earning critical acclaim and sparking conversations about the realities of war.
  • Amadeus (1984): This biographical drama about the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart blended historical epic with personal rivalry, showcasing the power of music and the complexities of genius.
  • The Color Purple (1985): Directed by Steven Spielberg, this adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel explored themes of racism, sexism, and redemption in the early 20th-century American South, highlighting the decade’s ability to tackle serious social issues.

As we look back on the greatest movies of the 1980s, we celebrate a decade that brought us some of the most memorable and transformative moments in cinematic history.

Author Gwen

Gwen is a freelance artist and writer for film, advertising, corporate projects, and web media. She feels his expertise in the entertainment industry provides a unique opportunity to engage the public through real-life stories and over a decade of experience and knowledge.