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. –
60. Hellraiser (1987)
The mind of Clive Barker is dark, perverse, and fascinating — a realm filled with S&M monsters and eldritch horrors that prey on our darkest fantasies. Adapting this work tends to be hit or miss, but the first Hellraiser stands as one of the few films that really gets the S&M horrors of its author’s sensibilities. (Presumably, because he wrote and directed it as well.) “Some things have to be endured,” says one character, “and that’s what makes the pleasure so sweet”; for Pinhead and the Cenobites, the greatest terror is seeing just how blurred the line between unending agony and ecstasy can be.
What Makes It Pop: As horror images go, it’s hard to beat Andrew Robinson hanging from dozens of metal hooks, his face stretched beyond recognition, covered in blood while grinning in ecstasy and crying out, “Jesus wept.”
59. The Road Warrior (1981)
Just shy of 25 years after The Road Warrior, George Miller would return to the Mad Max series to ask a different generation who killed the world. But long before that film became a shorthand for apocalyptic political dialogue, the series began in earnest with Miller and star Mel Gibson’s expansion of the world teased out in 1979’s Mad Max. Max is no hero, and he’s never been; he’s just built to survive in a savage world, and thus carries a savior’s burden. What Miller did with the first film was intriguing; what he does here, with not all that much more money to work with, is downright stunning. He built an entire world, an entire wasteland, out of muscle cars roaring through the desert.
What Made This Pop: Loud cars. Lord Humongous. Mel Gibson, before a whole bunch of stuff happened. Need we say more?
58. Caddyshack (1980)
Caddyshack is the rare film that managed to capture its decade before it even happened. Harold Ramis’ comedy dropped in the summer of 1980, seemingly tipping off the inane comedies that would follow. Fueled by 18-holes of cocaine, this swift, 98-minute laugh riot is all over the place. Why are their Scottish caddies? What the hell was the point of that pregnancy scare? The answers were lost to the editing floor alongside its three hours of other footage. But it works. The characters are vivid. The music rocks. The jokes zip by. This is screwball comedy at its slouchiest, and sometimes, we all just need to slouch.
What Made This Pop: Chevy Chase at his coolest, Rodney Dangerfield at his savviest, and Bill Murray at his doofiest. The rest belongs to Ted Knight’s mania and a dancing gopher with the voice of Flipper. –Michael Roffman
57. First Blood (1982)
Because of the cartoonish legacy that the character of John Rambo has left behind, it’s worth noting that First Blood is actually a smaller kind of action picture with pathos. By Rambo III, Sylvester Stallone is practically a Marvel superhero fighting on the side of the Taliban, but in the original film—based on David Morrell’s novel and directed by Ted Kotcheff—John Rambo represents the plight of Vietnam veterans returning home from the war. The film does deliver expert action set-pieces alongside the message, and also features a gangbusters supporting cast in David Caruso, Richard Crenna, and the dastardly Brian Dennehy.
What Made This Pop: First Blood inspired countless action pictures—and rip-off and parodies—throughout the decade and introduced the world to John Rambo.
56. Lethal Weapon (1987)
The ‘80s had no shortage of buddy cop films, but Lethal Weapon might be its meanest and most effective. An early showcase for Shane Black’s rapier wit, not to mention Mel Gibson’s big break in the American movie scene, Riggs and Murtaugh’s first outing is a drop-dead hilarious ride from beginning to end, a simple premise elevated by two great actors (Gibson and Danny Glover) riffing off each other with infectious, addictive energy.
What Makes It Pop: As with all of Black’s movies regardless of context, it’s one of the best Christmas movies ever made. Don’t think about it too much, though.
55. Risky Business (1983)
There were dozens of movies in the 1980s about what happens while the parents are away. So, why are we still talking about Risky Business almost 40 years later? Yes, it’s probably the shades, the tighty-whiteys, and what Tom Cruise looks like dancing in them to Bob Seger. It might also be sex on an el train with Rebecca De Mornay while Tangerine Dream plays. Yeah, that’ll do it, too. But it’s also a reminder that most of us ’80s suburb kids were put on conveyor belts at young ages and promised safe and successful futures if we just agreed to stay on. In Risky Business, we see a young man say, “What the fuck,” climb off that conveyor belt, and realize that there’s something to be said for taking a risk once in a while. In many ways, Joel is the predecessor to another young man on this list: Ferris Bueller.
What Made This Pop: Oh, Christ … the tighty-whiteys, baby!
54. Blood Simple (1984)
Long before Joel and Ethan Coen were household names, all-time American filmmakers, and staples of college dorm rooms the world over, they stormed onto the ‘80s independent scene with Blood Simple. Their still-superb debut feature is rife with Coens hallmarks to come: criminals who are terrible at committing crimes, unexpected bursts of frank violence, deadpan comedy, and Frances McDormand. Yet unlike much of their seriocomic work to come, Blood Simple shares the most DNA with their eventual Best Picture winner No Country For Old Men. Death comes for us all, the film argues, no matter our best-laid plans. But our own idiocy sure does speed up the process.
What Made This Pop: That signature Coens dialogue, rife with deliciously oblivious bon mots even at the very beginning of what would be a long, great career.
53. A Christmas Story (1983)
I’d wager, thanks to annual marathons, that many people have seen A Christmas Story in full or in part more than any other movie. We know the beats, we know the classic lines and gags, and, yes, we know that EveryKid Ralphie is going to shoot that eye out — or at least come close. But, for many of us, even some born a generation or two after Ralphie, we see our own working-class or suburban families and Christmases: a grumpy but secretly tender breadwinner, a mother trying to hold everything together for the holidays, an annoying sibling treated so much better than us, and, of course, ourselves, who always seem to get the short end of everything. It’s a Christmas movie without magic or miracles — just fond memories of simpler times that we somehow survived with both eyes intact.
What Made This Pop: Families seeing their authentic selves in a Christmas movie that doesn’t try to sugarcoat the holidays.
52. Raising Arizona (1987)
Raising Arizona features one of Nicolas Cage’s best performances from a golden age of Nicolas Cage performances as H.I., an ex-con trying to go straight and settle into a normal life with Holly Hunter and a kidnapped child. Joel and Ethan Coen made their debut with the neo-noir Blood Simple, but it’s with Raising Arizona that audiences truly got a taste of their distinct style: the kinetic camera work, the offbeat score, their hyper-real brand of world-building, and the weird, wild, memorable characters like Leonard Smalls, the lone biker of the apocalypse.
What Made This Pop: Raising Arizona announced the Coens’ distinctly offbeat style.
51. Escape From New York (1981)
When thinking of the decade’s iconic filmmakers, John Carpenter is as synonymous a name as any. The ‘80s saw the director and composer’s primary heyday, with Carpenter leveraging the breakout success of Halloween into a series of unforgettable action and horror features. Escape From New York not only catapulted Kurt Russell from TV stardom to action movie legend, but it managed to offer one of the best takes on urban phobias in a decade chock full of them. This is lean, mean action cinema full of one-liners and memorable setpieces. In other words, it’s just about everything you could want from an action movie.
What Made This Pop: There are action hunks, and then there is Snake Plissken. Russell will be remembered forever for this performance, and not even Escape From L.A. can take that away from him.
50. Manhunter (1986)
Manhunter established filmmaker Michael Mann as an auteur. Having reinvented the prime time cop show as executive producer on NBC’s Miami Vice, Mann brought that stylish, neon-drenched aesthetic to the big screen with his adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon and William Petersen brings an intensity to profiler Will Graham, forced to confront his own demons in his pursuit of violent serial killer, The Tooth Fairy. Manhunter was overlooked at the time of its release—the Chicago Tribune stated that the film was “menaced by overstyled quarry”—but its ultra-stylish legacy can be felt in the worlds of Nicolas Winding Refn as well as NBC’s Hannibal.
What Made This Pop: Michael Mann’s ultra-stylish, neon-drenched aesthetic is intrinsically tied to the ‘80s.
49. Predator (1987)
The ’80s were the era of the action film, and there are few more muscular, more primal, more drenched in testosterone than John McTiernan’s Predator. Featuring a cast of alpha-male meatheads — Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Jesse “I Ain’t Got Time to Bleed” Ventura — facing off against an intergalactic sport hunter, Predator’s deceptively straightforward in its presentation. But McTiernan’s command of tension and Arnie’s delightfully corny performance (This is the “get to the choppa!” movie, after all) make it an indelible sci-fi classic.
What Makes It Pop: Stan Winston’s incredible design work on Preddy himself was just one of his many triumphs in that era – a muscular alien with dreadlocks and terrifying mandibles that made him feel truly ferocious, even if his laughter was canned.
48. Dirty Dancing (1987)
No one could have predicted how big of a hit Dirty Dancing was going to be. Targeted to teens, adults came out to the film in droves, oftentimes purchasing a ticket to the next screening immediately after walking out of one. With a soundtrack that features an Academy Award-winning song and the vapor-inducing sexual chemistry between stars Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, the film simply connected with audiences. That connection led Dirty Dancing to become one of the highest grossing films of 1987 as well as the first film to reach one million VHS sales.
What Made This Pop: Dirty Dancing gave audiences a dynamite soundtrack and sexual chemistry for the ages.
47. Coming to America (1988)
Eddie Murphy never wanted to be pigeonholed as a comedian. By the late ‘80s, he was a box office juggernaut, but he kept reading scripts that fell back on “Eddie does his laugh.” At the time, Murphy wanted to be a rock star, he wanted to be enlisted to Starfleet, and he wanted to be a leading man. With Coming To America, the actor found his answer. He reunited with Trading Places director John Landis, who not only brought out the chameleon in Murphy through prosthetics — a trick he’d replicate to even greater blockbuster success throughout his career (see: The Nutty Professor) — but also the choice romantic lead (traditionally given to while actors) in Akeem Joffer, an African prince looking for love in the States.
What Made This Pop: Eddie Murphy as a sweetheart.
46. Near Dark (1987)
Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire genre deconstruction Near Dark remains one of the great movies on the subject of immortal bloodsuckers, in large part because of its staunch unwillingness to fetishize or romanticize much of what defines the creatures. Sure, there’s an unexpectedly affecting love story at the film’s center, but it’s flanked on all sides by a darkly funny, brutally nihilistic examination of what a nightmare it’d be to live forever. Around a quarter-century before vampires would become sex icons, Bigelow posited that the only thing eternal life would do for most humans is unleash our worst impulses. She was probably right.
What Made This Pop: A quarter century before Twilight, Bigelow was already waxing philosophical about the creepiness of undead age gaps.
45. Vacation (1983)
Late greats Harold Ramis and John Hughes took a harpoon to the idea of the American family getaway in their 1983 classic National Lampoon’s Vacation. And what better way to show the dysfunctional cracks than shove the entire clan — not so different from our own families, really — into the ’80s version of a Conestoga wagon for 2,000 miles. Sure, our own fathers might not have tied a dead aunt to the car roof rack, skinny dipped with Christie Brinkley, or took all of Walleyworld hostage, but we’ve also seen poor dad come this close to losing it while on family vacation. When we watch the Griswolds, we see our own families: the pettiness, the dysfunction, and, yes, the love. Good talk, son.
What Made This Pop: Ramis and Hughes’ goodhearted honesty about family vacations being disasters waiting to happen.
44. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Rare is the movie that’s as funny as it is scary. Because of the subjective nature of both horror and comedy, pulling them off is an impressive skill and John Landis did so expertly with An American Werewolf In London. Rick Baker’s centerpiece transformation scene set a high bar for the “how did they do that” era of special effects filmmaking throughout the ‘80s, placing it under harsh bright lights but never showing the seams. And with a great script and memorable effects, Griffin Dunne just about steals the show as the re-animated Jack.
What Made This Pop: An American Werewolf In London expertly blended horror and comedy and helped usher in a new era of special make-up effects.
43. Stop Making Sense (1984)
Jonathan Demme’s unforgettable concert film is not only one of the absolute best examples of the medium, a demonstration of how vital and how truly cinematic a filmed performance can be when done right, but it might well be one of the all-time great movies about music in general. Demme finds the Talking Heads at the height of their popularity and craft alike, and treats David Byrne less as a frontman than as a protagonist, a guide to the globetrotting musical theatrics of the band who leads them through the performance like the grand marshal of a parade. It’s a document of a hyper-influential band at its absolute best.
What Made This Pop: If you’ve never seen it, just watch the first few minutes, as Byrne expands “Psycho Killer” from a single-track accompaniment to a full arrangement. It’s one of the coolest damn openings to a concert you’ll ever come across.
42. A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
One part heist flick, one part distinctly British farce, Roger Ebert wrote of A Fish Called Wanda that “one of its strengths is its meanspiritedness.” The script—meticulously penned by co-star John Cleese over several years— features inspired Monty Python-style silliness alongside a pitch-black sense of humor. It’s also sexy and even a little bit romantic. Jamie Lee Curtis—much like her character Wanda—runs the show and nearly outpaces comic royalty like Cleese, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin. The violent style of comedy that Wanda perfected is still being cribbed today (see: Date Night).
What Made This Pop: A Fish Called Wanda has the distinction of being the rare film that literally made someone laugh so hard that they died.
41. Amadeus (1984)
Amadeus dramatizes a fictionalized rivalry between Mozart and Salieri, framed as a mortal clash between a transcendently talented lout and his mediocre-but-devout counterpart. But the film resonates beyond its musical focus and period setting as an elemental conflict between ability and aspiration, centering on the divine puzzlement of who’s granted natural talent and who’s left to wallow in bitterness and envy. Far from a mediocrity, the film distills the thrills and hardships of artists acclaimed, aggrieved, audacious into its two captivating avatars and their slow-spun tragedy.
What Made This Pop: Miloš Forman’s gorgeous meditation on the distance between character, talent, and fairness in the world still pierces today.
40. Akira (1988)
No list of ‘80s greats would be complete without the anime that defined not only its genre, but even gave Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner some stiff competition. The year is still 2019, but Akira trades the streets of Los Angeles for a Neo Tokyo where children are the subjects of grotesque government experiment. Akira showed the masses that anime was a serious method of filmmaking by way of intricate detail and radical visuals.
What Made It Pop: Clown skull crackdowns and takedowns with a sole handgun by a mere child. Come on!
39. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
The pitch for Who Framed Roger Rabbit is easy — come see Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and all your other favorite cartoon pals on screen together in one giant cartoon smorgasboard. Beyond the toon mash-up and tribute to the early days of the medium though, the film is a technical marvel, blending live action and animation seamlessly. But the core of the movie is a dose of hard-boiled noir that uses a toon/human split to craft a compelling mystery with memorable new characters of its own, including a villain who’d haunt the nightmares of young viewers for ages!
What Made This Pop: It’s the ultimate cartoon crossover built around a superb detective story.
38. Clue (1985)
Before Hollywood decided to cash in on lazy adaptions and remakes galore, there was 1985’s Clue, the first-ever film based on a board game. On paper, the project already had all the makings for an engaging enough flick, what with its built-in premise. What director Jonathan Lynn turned in, however, was so much more than family game night plastered on celluloid. With a stellar ensemble and superb writing, Clue eclipsed the game itself to become its own thing. And like the game, the twists and turns and rapid-fire dialogue — chock full of puns, cultural references, and turns of phrase — only add to its replay value.
What Made This Pop: Clue was no red herring — it actually set the bar for board game film adaptations, and hell, murder-mystery comedies for decades to come.
37. The Breakfast Club (1985)
The works of John Hughes are intrinsically tied to the ‘80s. Far removed from the sleazy silliness of typical teen sex comedies of the decade (Porky’s, Revenge Of The Nerds), Hughes took a more introspective look at the lives and loves of teenagers. The characters in The Breakfast Club are largely archetypes, but they are archetypes that any average teenager can relate to—perhaps even more than one of them. His voice was at times sardonic, at times precious, and time raunchy, but always honest; the characters and truths of The Breakfast Club still resonate today because of that honesty.
What Made This Pop: The Breakfast Club gave teenagers a sense that someone out there understood them.
36. Heathers (1988)
Heathers is the kind of satire the world needs more of: sardonic, mean-spirited, and on-point. A wry parody of the introspective, John Hughes teen comedies that crowded multiplexes throughout the ‘80s, Heathers is fearless in its comedy, never afraid to take the joke to far into darker territory, and all but established Christian Slater and Winona Ryder as onscreen delegates of the cynical Generation X. This darkly comic tale of high school cliques and teenage suicide still resonates today … if you have any kind of sense of humor. How very.
What Made This Pop: A pitch-perfect (and pitch black) satire that skewers the ‘80s and welcomes the more cynical ‘90s.
35. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
If you have to sum up Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, you might do worse than saying it’s Back to the Future (a huge hit about to spawn a sequel at the time) meets Wayne’s World (then, an SNL sketch about bands and babes soon to become a hit). It’s probably also fair to say that Bill and Ted didn’t do time travel or bands and babes as well as those properties. The simple truth is that the movie charmed us. Bill and Ted, minus the bogus lexicon, were just two likeable dudes getting treated heinously by life, and not only did Hollywood deem them worthy of an adventure but with stakes where the whole universe depended upon their success. (Suck on that, Marty McFly!) It was so ridiculous that it turned out to be brilliant. Bill and Ted proved that a really smart dumb comedy could be made about idiots — and made us consider that perhaps the idiots weren’t that dumb after all.
What Made It Pop: They may not exist anymore, but this was the coolest thing anyone had done with a telephone booth since Superman.
34. Say Anything… (1989)
If there was ever a film to poke holes in the surface-level, horny caricature of teenage romance in any generation and supplant the narrative with unrivaled character depth and an underlying plot made out of music all on it’s own … that film is Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything. Together, John Cusack and Ione Skye paint a note-perfect portrait of what happens when teenage emotion, weariness of the road ahead, and the stereotypical disillusionment of growing up in the Pacific Northwest collide in a perfect storm. The result? A catharsis that continues to hit home three decades on.
What Made It Pop: Lloyd Dobler made the boombox, and caring, cool.
33. The Fly (1986)
“Be afraid. Be very afraid.” No shit. When David Cronenberg reimagined The Fly, nobody could have ever imagined it would be this eternally terrifying. Watching a hunky Jeff Goldblum win it all and lose it in the most miserable way is still one of the worst ways you can spend a Friday night, but damn, do we love doing it. Christ, this is such a merciless movie, capitalizing on our deepest and darkest fears of body terror, while also swatting at hypersexualized feelings of emasculation. Goldblum is relentless, too, which is why we’re crying and screaming and losing our collective shit with Geena Davis by the end of it.
What Makes It Pop: Hmm, poor choice of words for a movie that sees Goldblum placing his dick in a jar. What pops? The human condition. All of it. This is peak body horror that’s gone unrivaled for over 30 years.
32. Batman (1989)
While the current superhero craze arguably kicked off in the early 2000s, it’s hard to deny Tim Burton’s impact on the genre with his grimly Gothic 1989 take on the Caped Crusader. Between Burton’s Expressionist aesthetics and unconventional casting choices (Michael Keaton as Batman? Jack Nicholson as the Joker? Arli$$?!), Batman is a comic book tale as off-kilter as any we’ve seen. And yet it holds strong as a foundational element for the Marvel-shaped mountain Hollywood stands on today.
What Makes It Pop: That Prince soundtrack, so beautifully idiosyncratic yet perversely fitting for Burton’s anything-goes Gotham. The film has “Batdance” in it for God’s sake, how could we not put it on this list?
31. When Harry Met Sally (1989)
Sure, Meg Ryans faux-release in the middle of a sandwic’h shop is the part of When Harry Met Sally that always comes up in highlight reels. But it’s also a funny exemplar of the film, in that it’s one of the only moments when Rob Reiner’s outstanding romantic comedy goes broad with its comedy. When Harry Met Sally is a film built almost entirely out of minor incidents, the long walks and meandering conversations that constitute most real-life romances. It has an emotional authenticity to its story of odd-couple friends who struggle to reconcile their connection with the growing attraction that follows, the kind that every romantic comedy has striven to achieve since.
What Made This Pop: Ryan and Billy Crystal’s indelible chemistry. It’s relatively easy for two actors to come off like they desire each other. It’s far tougher for them to come off like they actually, truly belong together.
30. The Evil Dead (1981)
A landmark in independent horror filmmaking, Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead is drenched in blood and layered with expertly-crafted macabre humor (humor that would later go on to permeate the franchise that the film spawned). What makes the film stand out is Raimi’s accomplished directing and technical savvy (the vas-o-cam, in which the camera plows through the forest, is one of the film’s many technical achievements). And though Final Boy Bruce Campbell’s Ashley J. Williams would later become a snarky wise-ass delivering constant one-liners, The Evil Dead gave us a sympathetic and sweet protagonist to lead audiences through the film’s forest of Deadites.
What Made This Pop: Low-budget charm meets gnarly gore. Stephen King’s glowing endorsement.
29. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
“If you woke up and found yourself living in the movie, you’d be happy. I wanted that kind of feel.” That’s how director Amy Heckerling summed up Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Well, she nailed it. This chummy snapshot of early ’80s high school life is a total joy ride, one that rolls on by and feels like a fuzzy memory, even for those who grew up at a different time and in a totally different place. Most likely because screenwriter Cameron Crowe wrote it all firsthand, while doing his best investigative work as a SoCal student in disguise. The research paid off because there’s no other school we’d like to return to on an annual basis.
What Made This Pop: The Go-Gos, Stevie Nicks, Jackson Browne, the most believable high schooler in Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates’ attitude, and, sure, we’ll even throw a bone to Academy Award-winning asshole Sean Penn. –Michael Roffman
28. Raging Bull (1980)
For one, the sports movie never looked quite like this until Robert DeNiro packed on the pounds (and self-loathing) in Raging Bull. It was a genre of heartbreak and pity, of underdogs that audiences cheered. But no, Jake LaMotta was an animal and an asshole, and redemption seemed nigh impossible. Hell yeah, Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader. And what a rush to watch this car wreck of a human in one of the most perfect tragedies put to film. And two, if it weren’t for Raging Bull, Marty may have never gotten over the agonizing defeat of New York, New York and his festering drug problems. What we have here is one of the purest and most intense works of self-immolation ever filmed. And in a career defined by multiple masterpieces, Scorsese arguably has his realest one here.
What Made This Pop: Give DeNiro a stage where his bull here can rage. And though I can fight, I’d much rather recite: That’s entertainment! That’s entertainment. Seriously, he gained a ton of weight and went to hell for the role. That is entertainment!
27. The Blues Brothers (1980)
In 1980, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd joined forces, suited up, and broke down every single one of Hollywood’s preconceived notions about role models with their hysterical and masterful The Blues Brothers. Yes, if you can believe it, the heroes of yesteryear’s action flicks were *gasp* anything but realistic (Sorry, Arnold). Enter the Elwood brothers, one fresh out of prison, both sent on a mission from God to avenge the orphanage which raised them. Illinois nazis? Done for. Police? Don’t make them laugh. Their weapon of choice? Certified toe-tappers, tail-feather shakers, and an effervescent cool.
What Made This Pop: “Twist it! Shake it, shake it, shake it, shake it baby! Here we go loop di loo! Shake it out baby! “
26. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
A Nightmare On Elm Street gets unfairly lumped in with the glut of slasher flicks that crowded multiplexes throughout the ‘80s. Far more imaginative than your average Friday The 13th clone, Nightmare was a modern-day ghost story and Freddy Krueger a gruesome manifestation of the sins of the parents being revisited upon their children. Krueger only has seven minutes of screen time in Nightmare, but it was enough to leave a lasting impact on audiences making him the premiere boogeyman of the decade and beyond.
What Made This Pop: Wes Craven unwittingly created one of the ‘80s weirdest—and coolest—pop culture phenomenons with the character of Freddy Krueger.
25. Scarface (1983)
By the time Brian De Palma’s Scarface rolled around, Al Pacino could have washed his hands of acting, and left us with a poignant pantheon of near perfect performances. Instead, he put his method acting chops on proud display as everyone’s favorite cocaine cowboy wrought with paranoia, Tony Montana. And while Tony as a character alone is enough to send this film over the edge, it’s the fact that the movie itself does something few ever accomplish: it’s an homage to Howard Hawks’ 1932 original, a compliment, and a seamless replacement all in one.
What Made It Pop: Tony Montana’s little friend.
24. Blue Velvet (1986)
There’s perhaps no greater cautionary tale on the ills of nostalgia than Blue Velvet — at least not in the ’80s. The way David Lynch funnels in these familiar motifs of ’50s Americana, only to subvert them under the weight of late-night dread and an out-of-control Dennis Hopper, is the stuff of nightmares. From infinite sidewalks to dark nightclubs, Lynch often paints in broad strokes, leaving the narrows for his viewers to fall into absent-mindedly. Even now, in the wake of Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire, and all 18 episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return, this still feels like the truest distillation of Lynch.
23. Robocop (1987)
Paul Verhoeven’s ubermensch satire of cops and TV and swinging dick action theatrics just sparks. But here’s the thing: It’s okay to like Robocop as both an action hit and a black comedy. As gallows humor, we’re still baffled by the squib-heavy gore and grotesque effects, nervously laughing all the way. But funny enough, those things also make this a guilty pleasure of the highest order. Call it intellectualized NC-17 nonsense, but Verhoeven could really tap into baser instincts for crowd-pleasing goodies that we’d enjoy from him for years to come. Point being? We’d buy this for a dollar.
What Made This Pop: Dead or alive … Robo shot bad dudes in the dick and we still love that.
22. Planes Trains and Automobiles (1987)
At no point in John Hughes’ Planes, Trains and Automobiles do we ever feel like we’re watching a typical, dime-a-dozen road-trip movie, home-for-the-holidays film, or odd-couple comedy. It surely helps having cast two legends in their prime, Steve Martin (as Neal the tight-ass) and John Candy (as Del the Pest), who turn every eye roll, forced smile, and throat clearing into a comedic masterclass. But, just as much, I think it’s that Neal’s final straw snaps in the first 20 minutes. And once he does that, the film has to go somewhere that a formula can’t take it. Yes, Neal and Del reach their destination, make it home for the holidays, and nearly kill each other in the process several times; all of that was bound to happen. But the fact that Hughes, Martin, and Candy leave us thinking about far more than a trip gone awry as the credits roll remains the reason we’re still talking about this film 30-plus years later.
What Made This Pop: Hughes being curious enough to delve beneath the laughs and find out what makes this odd couple tick.
21. The Princess Bride (1987)
Made during a streak where director Rob Reiner could do no wrong, The Princess Bride remains an adventure for all times. Based on the comedy-fantasy novel by William Goldman, who adapted the book for the screen, Reiner steers the tale of stable boy Wesley (Cary Elwes) and the beautiful Buttercup (Robin Wright) through duels with kidnappers, treks through fire swamps, and final comeuppances with royal rapscallions — all while a young Fred Savage recoups from illness as his grandpa (Peter Falk) reads to him. It’s a charming, silly tale with a brilliant ensemble cast and remains one of the most quotable films of all time. It has “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” What more could we want?
What Made It Pop: It gave us a fairy tale that wasn’t afraid to laugh at itself.
20. Blade Runner (1982)
After releasing his arresting Alien, Ridley Scott walked out amongst genre elites to helm the most accessible yet technologically astute sci-fi thriller audiences had ever seen. Blade Runner’s plot was simple enough: Harrison Ford plays “a detective that doesn’t do any detecting”, but must track down and destroy stray replicants. The plot’s implications, however, are much heavier: What is it to be human? Coupled with visuals that truly put the stun in “stunning”, Blade Runner reaches out beyond its decade into greatest-of-all-time territory.
What Made It Pop: Roy Batty’s gut-wrenching “Tears in Rain” speech.
19. Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
During a 1985 appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, Eddie Murphy revealed that the scariest thing he had ever done in his career was Best Defense because “it was really, really bad. Really bad.” Murphy was afraid that his career was going to stall out, but with Sylvester Stallone pulling out two weeks before filming on Cop was scheduled to start, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer convinced the comic to take over the lead role. Stallone as Axel Foley almost seems unfathomable now, as it seems to be the role—a wisecracking Detroit cop—Murphy was born to play. Beverly Hills Cop was a critical and financial success in the winter of 1984, and Murphy was, to paraphrase Foley, sitting on top of the world.
What Made This Pop: With Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy cemented himself as one of the biggest movie stars of the ‘80s.
18. Stand by Me (1986)
The greatest Stephen King adaptation is one that hardly involves him. When Stand By Me was first released in 1986, Columbia kept it at arm’s length from the Master of Horror. They had their reasons, and honestly, the film’s all the better for it. This is the kind of story best discovered without any rhyme or reason. The impact is so severe; a palpable coming-of-age drama on memory, friendship, and the things we take for granted. It’s only when you go back and realize it came from the mind of King that you start to appreciate the finer details. Like, you know, how it’s also a love letter to writing.
What Made It Pop: The chemistry, Jack Nitzsche’s translation of Ben E. King’s titular ballad, Richard Dreyfuss’ narration, and, of course, the runaway performance by the late River Phoenix. If only tears were a currency. –Michael Roffman
17. Gremlins (1984)
It’s a comedy, it’s a horror movie, it’s a Christmas classic, it’s a family movie. Gremlins is a holiday stocking overstuffed and hanging by its last thread on a hook nailed far too close to the fire. But it never falls, even when it should. That’s the understated beauty of Joe Dante’s lovable cult classic, a film that could have only ever existed in the ’80s. Back then, Hollywood still had the patience and interest in such cross-genre projects, mostly because the filmmakers making them could still pull it off. Dante is the king of these mortal men, and Gremlins is the prelude to his true masterpiece, 1990’s The New Batch.
What Made This Pop: Gizmo. Are you kidding? –Michael Roffman
16. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1987)
In high school, all you want out of life is to have the autonomy of an adult. You don’t want the problems, or the responsibility, but you definitely want the chance to run off with your friends and experience life on your own terms for a little while. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off captures that heady rush of infinite possibility that people only enjoy for a small fraction of their lives, if they’re lucky. It’s one of John Hughes’ best movies, sitting at the perfect intersection of his most fanciful comic instincts and his keen ear for the poignant moments of growing up. And hey, if you didn’t identify with Ferris, Hughes also finds his best-ever character in Cameron Frye, hero to depressives everywhere.
What Made This Pop: For as wonky as the scene-to-scene geography is, Ferris Bueller doubles as an exceptional Chicago travelogue. The city’s never looked so wide-open.
15. Aliens (1986)
Crafting a followup to Ridley Scott’s instantly-iconic 1979 space horror film seems like a fool’s errand at first glance; turning it into an oo-rah action movie sounds downright foolish. But a height-of-his-powers James Cameron managed to make it work, transplanting the xenomorph from a haunted-house movie in space to an exciting, unflinching Vietnam allegory.
What Makes It Pop: At the center of it all is Sigourney Weaver delivering a justifiably Oscar-nominated performance (rare for genre films) as a woman facing her (literal) demons and coming out the other side a stronger person.
14. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
In a decade where the biggest box-office smashes had muscular names like Arnold and Sly attached to them, who would have thought that a 98-pound pipsqueak in a buzz cut, tight gray suit, and red bow tie would become the action hero the ’80s needed? Paul Reubens’ manic man-child, Pee-wee Herman, could do little wrong in the ’80s, and his Big Adventure became the perfect vehicle for the character. From the opening Rube Goldberg breakfast to the closing shot of Pee-wee and Dottie riding off into their next adventure, Tim Burton (yes, that one) created a brilliant, believable world for Reubens to wander through and inhabit as Pee-wee. A world where not only was this strange, eccentric character accepted but also seemed to impact the lives of everyone he met for the better while on his quest to find his missing bike. I love this movie so much that I just might marry it.
What Made It Pop: Tim Burton’s generosity, Danny Elfman’s idiosyncrasies, and Paul Reubens in the performance of a lifetime make for an adventure that none of us will ever forget.
13. The Thing (1982)
Many of the films on this list so far have grappled with a quintessential ‘80s fear: an enemy you can’t identify, even as you know it’s omnipresent. The Thing makes that fear as literal as possible, through the spread of a nasty alien infestation on a remote Antarctic research base. John Carpenter, doing some of his best work, amplifies the sense of isolation with each character death; the more the Thing takes over, the more inevitable its dominance begins to seem. And right up until the very end, he never quite tips his hand about who might be infected, and who’s just waiting around to die.
What Made This Pop: The unforgettable creature effects. From a screaming petri dish to a sentient severed head, this is some of the nastiest, most physical stuff any horror director has ever pulled off.
12. Big (1988)
Tom Hanks had already made his splash in hits like Bachelor Party, and well, Splash. But this was the Hanks dude’s first Oscar nomination and what a well-deserved one at that. This is pre-meme and uber prestige Hanks. Boyish Tom Hanks. Charming the hell out of audiences with Jimmy Stewart-like gee shucks sweetness as the boy who just wishes he was a little bigger. God Capra couldn’t have come up with a sweeter idea, and this movie still rings sincere, by way of a pinball 1980s sensibilities and juvenile innocence. Big feels uniquley like a last of its kind.
What Made This Pop: “Shimmy shimmy coco pop, shimmy shimmy rock, shimmy shimmy coco pop.”
11. Beetlejuice (1988)
Among Tim Burton’s eccentric, expansive oeuvre, there’s a Michael Keaton-sized ghoul that stands out among the rest — and no, it’s not just because of the abrasive zoot suit. Beetlejuice exists as Burton’s crowning glory for its bold collection of oddball choices and chances. From hot-off-the-presses stop motion techniques to the perfectly morbid plot itself to diabolically dark witticisms that serve as side splitters and fodder to scare you out of your socks in equal measure, Beetlejuice is a masterpiece from the underworld.
What Made It Pop:
10. The Terminator (1984)
We could spirograph the script and its Oedipal leanings till our fleshy exteriors melt. The Terminator is a landmark of low budget, high concept action filmmaking, and it was Jim Cameron’s seminal debut *and super-promise of things to come.) And talk about a case study in unique star power. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the panzer tank of a machine. Making monosyllabic memorable. But that’s film school. This movie’s also so dorkily cool, intense, and shockingly re-watchable. A time traveling sci-fi romance that still ticks like clockwork? Couldn’t build a better machine if we tried.
What Made This Pop: This movie puts Arnie in studs, in a bar called Tech Noir, and the script still comes out looking pretty great.
09. This is Spinal Tap (1984)
Rob Reiner’s exquisite tale of one of England’s loudest rock bands singlehandedly laid the foundation for the mockumentaries we’ve loved throughout the years. That’s right, your Viagos, Vladislavs, Deacons, and even your Michael Scotts may very well not exist if it weren’t for the questionable comeback tour unraveled within the celluloid of This Is Spinal Tap. And while this extremely ludicrous take may climb its way to the top of our ‘80s charts, the film’s equally honest caricatures of the music industry have never been more relevant than in a modern society obsessed with glossy, pre-canned rock biopics.
What Made This Pop: “This pretentious ponderous collection of religious rock psalms is enough to prompt the question, ‘What day did the Lord create Spinal Tap, and couldn’t he have rested on that day too?'”
08. Ghostbusters (1984)
For a decade all about aesthetics, Ghostbusters sucks in its gut and stands the tallest among them all. There’s Elmer Bernstein’s score. That sound design. The crunchy effects. The reds. The greens. The purples. The earth tones. It’s a comedy, it’s horror, there’s adventure, there’s romance. New York was still dirty and mysterious. Slobs could still be heroes. Snobs were still villains. The rich were the worst, the poor had the answers. Mick Smiley. The Bus Boys. Did we mention Bernstein already? Ghostbusters is the essential rewatchable movie. You’re sold on the world within seconds and you fight to savor every one of those seconds by the time Ray Parker Jr. sings us off at the end.
What Made It Pop: It came, it saw, it kicked our VCR’s ass.
07. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
If Jaws and Star Wars didn’t usher in the era of the big-budget summer blockbuster, Raiders of the Lost Ark certainly would have. A film soaked in homage to the adventure serials of the past, but with the benefit of exceedingly modern filmmaking sensibilities, Raiders might just stand as an example of an absolutely perfect adventure film.
What Makes It Pop:In Indiana Jones, Spielberg and star Harrison Ford crafted an impeccably likable protagonist, a classic Errol Flynn swashbuckler infused with a remarkably naturalistic sensibility. He punches Nazis and hates snakes – what’s not to love?
06. Do the Right Thing (1989)
In only his third feature film (or joint), revolutionary filmmaker Spike Lee discovered a way to keep audiences talking about a movie for at least the next 30 years: have an action occur in the final moments that will leave moviegoers mulling over a moral dilemma. It also helps to have a tight script, an uncanny knack for world building, a painter’s skill with light and color, the greatest hip-hop anthem of all time, and acting talents like Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, John Turturro, and Giancarlo Esposito on hand. Lee’s first masterpiece is a brilliant slow-burn that reminds us that doing the right thing, especially in the face of hate and ugliness, isn’t as cut-and-dry as we might think.
What Made It Pop: Lee respects audiences enough to let them think for themselves about what they’ve witnessed.
05. Die Hard (1988)
There’s a reason folks described every action movie in its wake as “Die Hard on a _____.” The movie rooted the notion of the ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances firmly into the DNA of the genre, and established tropes and conventions that are used to this day. Its tight script, single location, memorable villain, and hardscrabble rather than muscle-bound hero made the film a watershed moment for action on the big screen. It’s not just your favorite Christmas movie; Die Hard was a game-changer.
What Made This Pop: Die Hard brought the bombastic action flick back down to the scrappy everyman.
04. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Widely-recognized as the superior installment in George Lucas’ Star Wars saga,The Empire Strikes Back took our every cynicism about the dirtiest of dirty words – “sequel” – and threw it out the window. What was left was a piece of film that saw a more mature Lucas stray away from simply regurgitating the Jungian archetypes and fun fare that fueled Star Wars, and instead, expand the lore with poignancy and character development unmatched in the Star Wars canon. And hey, those asteroids were pretty cool, too.
What Made It Pop: “Luke, I am your father.”
03. E.T. (1982)
When film lovers describe something as “Spielbergian,” they’re often referring to Spielberg’s sixth feature, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. From Explorers to Stranger Things, the indelible image of kids riding bikes on an adventure is intrinsically tied to the director. In his prime, Spielberg had such a knack for capturing the average American family—kids, in particular— all by juxtaposing the normality of suburbia with fantastical events. In addition to becoming the highest grossing film of all time in 1983, E.T. cemented Spielberg as the great visionary of fantastic cinema throughout the decade. Even a poorly received Atari game couldn’t stand in its way.
What Made This Pop: The “Amblin aesthetic” that would be copied and parodied for decades to come.
02. The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s rendition of Stephen King’s masterpiece may take a liberal interpretation of the author’s work, but in its way, it’s as true to the claustrophobic, all-too-human spirit of his horror stories as any adaptation ever could have been. This is textured genre filmmaking, a film that aims to not only frighten you, but to immerse you in that fear in such a way that you feel as though escape is impossible. It features several of the most frightening sequences in the history of scary movies. It’s as oft-imitated a horror film as has ever been made. And in a decade full of defining highs for the genre, it’s one of the absolute heights.
What Made This Pop: Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s score. From those first swells, the audience is already trapped, and forced to sit alongside the Torrence family as they drive through the hills to their damnation.
01. Back to the Future (1985)
Back to the Future is so many things to so many different people. It’s a brilliant comedy, it’s a sentimental love story, it’s a tale of remarkable triumph, it’s a stylish sci-fi adventure, it’s a perverted commentary on the American nuclear family, it’s a haunting parable on the spoils of Reaganomics. Okay, that last one’s debatable (unless you’re Crispin Glover). Whatever the case, this sucker’s nuclear with thematic dimensions that should keep fans, scholars, and writers talking for a large chunk of the space-time continuum. As for an ’80s film? There’s no competition; for Christ’s sake, 1985 is a character!
What Made This Pop: Point toward Robert Zemeckis and Dean Cundey’s vivid portraits, or Bob Gale’s diamond script, or Alan Silvestri’s rousing scores, or Industrial Light and Magic’s revolutionary fireworks, or the once-in-a-lifetime chemistry between Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd … you’d be smart to pick either. You’d also be wrong, and here’s why: Sometimes, and this is very rare, everything just clicks together to create something bigger than either party ever intended. It’s