By now, our nostalgia for the ’80s has outlasted the decade itself by about 20 years — and for good reason. Like the ’60s before it, the ’80s was an Industrial Revolution of Pop Culture. Think about all the icons. Or the fashion. Or the trends. In almost every vertical, be it music, or film, or television, there was something radical going down. Even better, there was an economy of weird, and the mainstream was trying its hardest to capitalize on it in every capacity. Not a bad thing.
Yet perhaps no medium was more impacted than film. So much about what we love in film came from this era. It perfected the summer blockbuster. It championed the midnight movie. It brought movies into our homes. Did you know that by 1985, there were already 15,000 video rental stores operating in America? And in just four years that number had escalated to 25,000? In an era of streaming, those numbers seem antiquated, but they were paramount for Hollywood. It changed the game.
That change extended to America and beyond. For the first time ever, you could watch your favorite movies at your own leisure, a twist in the moviegoing experience that went on to influence everything from family hangouts to Saturday sleepovers. All of a sudden, concepts like a “Friday night rental” or a “re-watchable movie” were just as integral to the industry as a “box office smash” and a “Sunday matinee.” Now, they’re an everyday part of our pop culture vernacular.
Without them, we certainly wouldn’t be assembling this list: The 80 Greatest Movies of the ’80s. After all, most, if not all of the titles ahead, were ranked and compiled off the conceit that these have been a part of our culture since they first hit celluloid and eventually made their way into our homes via VHS, then Laserdisc, then DVD, and you get the point. The very fact that they were the first to do so is one of the myriad reasons why they’ve becomes such staples in film culture.
That notion was integral when compiling these movies. Because we didn’t want to just list all the greatest critical triumphs from 1980 to 1989 — although many are scattered amongst this list — we wanted to celebrate those that were truly emblematic of that magical time. Not all of them made the cut — if we’re being transparent, this was inordinately difficult to chisel down to the poppy 80 title — but we’re confident each and every one of these titles had a special place in your living room.
And probably still do.
80. All Dogs Go To Heaven (1989)
There’s an especially offensive turn of phrase being thrown around to describe the kids these days: snowflakes. But children of the ‘80s? Anything but. Case in point: All Dogs Go to Heaven. On the surface it’s an endearing children’s movie about a very naughty pup and the little girl who softens his cold, seemingly loveless heart. And yet, when all is said and done and you’ve hit play on your VCR, what do you get? A fiery hellscape of gambling, alcoholism, homicide, torture, winged demons, and death.
What Made It Pop: A cruel and unusual amount of quintessentially ‘80s blue eyeshadow we only wish was part of the phantasmagoria.
79. Labyrinth (1986)
We here at Consequence of Sound have an affinity for Jim Henson’s fantastical creations. Yes, we reserve equal real estate in our hearts for muppets and gelflings, but it’s Henson’s second, dare we say comedic, fantasy epic that takes the cake. Beyond David Bowie’s brilliant and now emblematic performance as the nefarious Goblin King, Jareth, Labyrinth took Henson’s masterful puppeteering to the next level and into the cutting-edge of animatronics. Over 30 years later, Henson’s creature comforts are as breathtaking as ever.
What Made It Pop: David Bowie, people.
78. Friday the 13th (1980)
Essentially a rip-off of John Carpenter’s Halloween, both in concept and in execution (only with the added bonus of Tom Savini’s outstanding practical effects), Friday the 13th would go on to shape the entire landscape of ‘80s slashers. It may not be a particularly novel or clever film, but its unexpected financial success (a $39.8 million domestic gross against a budget of $550,000) cemented its iconic status. Many films would go on to mimic its formula, but none would be able to match its cultural impact. The film’s influence on the horror genre is still felt to this day.
What Made This Pop: Friday the 13th made copycatting cool (and profitable).
77. Field of Dreams (1989)
Field of Dreams can be described as a baseball ghost story that takes place in a cornfield in Iowa. More simply, though, it’s a story about second chances — in this case, between a father and son. To make that happen, dead ballplayers walk, time unravels, and the universe, for once, connects all the dots. It’s a film designed with no other purpose than to make grown men cry about our pain and regrets at not having maintained our own relationships better. And because it does that so well, millions have made it a tradition to watch annually and thousands continue to make the father-child pilgrimage to the Kinsella’s farm in Dyersville, Iowa.
What Made This Pop: Reminding us that a game of catch is just a way for men to say, “I love you.”
76. Purple Rain (1984)
With Purple Rain—the album and the film—Prince broke through to the mainstream. Inspired by the British New Romantic style, Prince reinvented The Revolution’s look and brought Wendy Melvoin in on guitar for the recording and the film. Purple Rain is the pseudo-autobiographical—at times, contrived and overly dramatic—story of Prince’s career up until 1984. But really, it’s the onstage performances at Minneapolis rock club First Avenue that propel the film. Prince is electric on screen; audiences were watching a superstar being born. And credit where credit is due, Morris Day as Prince’s main foil almost steals the show from his royal purpleness. That takes talent.
What Made This Pop: Purple Rain brought MTV to the big screen and saw a superstar being born.
75. The Goonies (1986)
“Down here, it’s our time!”
These days, any wistful look back at how groups of restless kids used to entertain themselves is treated with a certain glow. You know the one. It’s the Spielbergian/Amblin Entertainment twinkle, that bikes-and-adventures aesthetic that made nondescript American suburbs feel like jumping points for a generation of youths searching for more. The Goonies is awash in that glow (it was produced by Spielberg himself), but there’s a darker, sadder tinge present in the film as well. Even tabling the danger presented by a trio of escaped criminals, it’s a movie about a bunch of kids trying to save their parents from gentrification by unearthing a pirate treasure. And it taught kids of a certain age that, no matter how bad things get, you’ll make it if you never say die.
What Made This Pop: That Cyndi Lauper tie-in song, for starters, which will lodge itself in your brain for weeks once you hear it and defines the light, devil-may-care attitude of the whole film.
74. True Stories (1986)
Imagine, for a moment, that we actually saw the tiny, banal details of everyday life as their own miracles deserving of cinematic admiration. This is the principle underlying David Byrne’s first, and so far only, feature-length film True Stories. While there’s more than a bit of arch commentary to be found throughout on the tedium of everyday American life circa 1986, Byrne’s unnamed narrator guides the viewer through a gregarious world, one where Louis Fyne (a never-better John Goodman) searches for love with childlike idealism and even our worst experiences can be assuaged with a great song. Byrne’s vision of Earth feels almost alien in its unabashed, radical kindness.
What Made This Pop: Byrne’s gut-busting interludes, which see him reckoning with modern progress in a way that manages to simultaneously revile and embrace it. –
73. Down By Law (1986)
In our recent interview, Jim Jarmusch mentioned that he lived by “Strummer’s Law”—a concept of musician Joe Strummer—which states “no input, no output.” With 1986’s Down By Law, the filmmaker looks back to film noir, the French New Wave, and prison escape films but the output is purely Jarmusch. It’s a rambling hangout film featuring Tom Waits, Jon Lurie, and Roberto Benigni as a trio of hoods who break out of a New Orleans jail and make a run for it. How Jarmusch capitalized on that simplicity is how he became a distinct voice of independent film in the 1980s, a voice that’s still present today (see: The Dead Don’t Die).
What Made This Pop: Jim Jarmusch created a signature style that would inspire countless independent filmmakers.
72. Videodrome (1983)
David Cronenberg saw the future with Videodrome, his nightmarish, dystopian 1983 feature about a cable TV executive (James Woods) who discovers a violently erotic tape that could hold the keys to the future of television and the end of our world. Cable was gaining steam rapidly at the time of the film’s release; within a few decades, the principles of pleasure-forward entertainment without taste or discrimination would overwhelm every facet of mass media and popular culture alike. Videodrome imagines a future in which our sickest impulses would subsume our bodies, turning us into addicts desperate for the next endorphin rush of sex, violence, and ideally both at once. Long live the new flesh.
What Made This Pop: Few semiotics lessons come as literally as James Woods reaching into, and eventually shoving his whole body through, a wet and waiting female mouth in pursuit of a more perverse kind of entertainment.
71. Brazil (1985)
Brazil may be the peak of Terry Gilliam’s imaginative, visual splendor. Between its baroque, larger-than-life take on a dystopian future and its effervescent, arresting dream sequences, the film’s a feast for the eyes. But it also packs a darkly comic and satirical punch, as one clerical error ruins a man’s life, feeds his delusions of grandeur and escape, and sends him into a downward spiral that loosens his grip on reality and stability. The mix of surrealism and black humor marks Brazil as an unforgettable bit of its director’s trademark bizarre tragicomic stylings.
What Made This Pop: Gilliam’s ornate dystopian fever dream burrows into the back of your mind and stays there.
70. Roger & Me (1989)
Michael Moore has made a career out of his attempts to expose the underbelly of the United States and it all started with his 1989 documentary, Roger & Me. The doc takes an unflinching look at his hometown of Flint, Michigan and the effect the closing of the General Motors plant had on the city. Urban decay overran Flint in the wake of the factory’s closing, and Moore conducted interviews with factory workers—most of whom saw themselves dying with the company—reckoning with the fact that GM cut them loose and outsourced their jobs to Mexico (read: cheaper, non-unionized labor). Released in December of 1989, it seems a fitting farewell to the decade that epitomized the notion that “greed is good” and made way for the cynical ‘90s.
What Made This Pop: Roger & Me provides a snapshot of the destructive power of ‘80s greed and introduced documentarian Michael Moore to the world.
69. Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan (1982)
Show me a man who says Star Trek: Wrath of Khan is overrated, and I’ll show you a filthy stinking liar. Like the sci-fi of the day was wont to do, Khan unfolds at a steady pace that teetered on grueling, but this tried and true gem injected its source material with enough juice to power even the most mammoth-sized warp cores. Perhaps unlike Treks before it, Khan saw utterly arresting battles and genuinely charming dialogue — even down to its eponymous villain (and hey, there’s actually a villain).
What Made It Pop: Spock. Everything Spock.
68. The Lost Boys (1987)
The boyish enthusiasm and violent amusements of Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys is one thing. It’s a neon-lit blast of INXS-flavored ‘80s excess that re-ups vampire tropes in sexy new ways. But we gotta be honest: Lost Boys rides high on an undercurrent of deliciously homoerotic tension that’s made this essential new camp. Schumacher coolly plays with chest-puffing masculinity that feels like a step ahead of paranoid 1970s cinema that feels almost progressive in hindsight. Corey loves Corey. Kiefer flirts with Jason Patric. We love how ridiculously overt this movie is.
What Made This Pop: The sexy sax man. We still believe.
67. 9 to 5 (1980)
God, Dabney Coleman deserved every stupid thing that happened to him in 9 to 5. What a giddy tale of revenge! Putting Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, and Jane Fonda together on camera to get revenge against dirty dudes that done did them wrong! Oh my god this movie’s still such a hoot. From the banger of a theme song to the leads’ perfectly designed personalities, 9 to 5 holds up in post-Feminine Mystique landscape as a proto-feminist romp that we can’t enough of (and still don’t, frankly).
What Made This Pop: Early popular misandry’s never been this much fun.
66. The Karate Kid (1984)
It’s brilliant: John G. Avildsen took what worked in Rocky and sold it to ’80s teenagers. Oh, let’s be fair, The Karate Kid is more than a knockoff of the Italian Stallion (even if Ralph Macchio does his best Sly). It’s an innocent underdog story that strings together all kinds of life-long lessons, from sticking up to yourself to balancing one’s emotions to avoiding a plate of spaghetti. Pat Morita is instantly lovable as the sagacious Mr. Miyagi, and it’s still a crime he lost his 1985 Oscar nomination. No worries, though, his words and final nod of approval will live on in Quotes sections and GIF searches ’til the end of time.
What Made This Pop: Avildsen’s indie-style filmmaking, Macchio’s fluffy hair, William Zabka’s tenacious bully Johnny, and Bill Conti’s soaring score make this an infinite afternoon gem. Also: Bananarama.
65. After Hours (1985)
At this point, it’s almost a misnomer to call Martin Scorsese’s 1985 comedy After Hours “underappreciated.” While it’s hardly the director’s most acclaimed work of his career, and isn’t even his best-regarded film of the ‘80s alone, it may well be among his most influential. As a thoroughly square, 9-to-5 yuppie wanders into a New York City he can’t understand, and in which he absolutely doesn’t belong, the film turns a funhouse mirror on the decade’s hedonism while turning poor Griffin Dunne into a target for brutal potshots at the then-and-now reality of bored dilettantes ruining everything. Some people, as the film posits, are better off staying in their own lane.
What Made This Pop: Once it gets going, the film’s offbeat delerium creates a unique editorial and dramatic rhythm that arguably no film has quite matched in the years since.
64. Heavy Metal (1981)
Featuring blood, babes, barbarians, and Black Sabbath, Heavy Metal is a teenage rock ‘n roll dream come true. Based on the French sci-fi magazine Métal hurlant, this animated anthology became a cult classic after repeated late-night airings on TBS and Cinemax throughout the ‘80s (it wasn’t officially released on home video until 1995). With segments that feature coke snorting aliens and a heroic barbarian voiced by John Candy, this is a film custom made for well-lubricated midnight audiences. Many of the film’s animators went on to work on The Real Ghostbusters and Luc Besson left his fingerprints all over the first segment with his film, The Fifth Element.
What Made This Pop: Animated sci-fi, fantasy, and horror featuring Cheap Trick and a cast of SCTV favorites. ‘Nuff said.
63. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Stanley Kubrick returned from a seven-year directorial absence with a story every bit as terrifying as his previous film, 1980’s horror game-changer The Shining. The film follows Private J.T. “Joker” Davis from his green beginnings in marine boot camp to his first heavy action as his platoon humps through the burning, dilapidated wreckage of a decimated Huế in Vietnam. While that year’s popular Platoon spelled out the internal struggle of soldiers facing hell, Kubrick’s march through Vietnam has kept us asking questions not only about the nature of war but the true nature of man ever since. It’s a harrowing personal journey in the face of realities every bit as cold, callous, and indifferent as a full metal jacket howling through the warm night air in search of a fleshy home.
What Made This Pop: Kubrick’s reluctance to pass quick judgement on the men engaged in a very unpopular war.
62. Broadcast News (1987)
It’s almost quaint to look back at James L. Brooks’ breezy, intricate dramedy about the early days of sensationalist TV news in an era where the press is considered an enemy of the people. That said, it manages to paint a picture of the high-pressure nature of the news business – where shows are pieced together second by second – while still focusing on the whims and wants of its main trio, with Albert Brooks, Holly Hunter, and William Hurt giving some of the best performances of their careers. If you’ve ever had a private crying jag at work just to get your head above water, you’ll find a lot to relate to in Broadcast News.
What Makes It Pop: Few lines say more with less than Brooks telling Hunter, “I’ll meet you at the place near the thing where we went that time.”
61. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Frank Oz’s adaptation of the off-Broadway musical (featuring music and lyrics from a pre-Disney Alan Menken and Howard Shore, respectively) retains all of the quirky aspects of the stage production while expanding the world of Skid Row for the silver screen. A major financial risk for the studio at the time (horror musicals aren’t exactly en vogue with mainstream audiences), Little Shop of Horrors won over audiences with the effervescent charm of its two protagonists (Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene) and by changing the musical’s downbeat ending to something slightly more optimistic.
What Made This Pop: Little Shop of Horrors mixed B-movie schlock with delightful tunes to maximum effect. –