The 100 Greatest Movies of the 1980s (2024)

It was the decade that gave us the Reagan administration, Rubik’s cubes, “The Reflex” and Run DMC. (Thank you for three of those things.) And if you went to the movies regularly, you were blessed with a steady diet of horny teens, killer robots, homesick extraterrestrials, raging bulls, road warriors, cop-and-crook team-ups, and more dystopian visions of the future than you could shake a time-traveling DeLorean at. For a long time, the Eighties were considered a bit of a cinematic dead zone stuck between the New Hollywood/modern blockbuster-inventing Seventies and the edgier, irony-heavy Indie Revolution Nineties. It was a lull, a pressed pause button, a clearing of the throat in between arias. But that 10-year period minted a handful of Hall of Fame movie stars. Multiplex culture thrived. Genres like science fiction and horror hit new heights. Several major directors brought their A game to the 1980s, a transfusion of fresh-blood filmmakers hit the scene with breakthrough works and bold debuts, and a handful of veteran international auteurs made late masterpieces. Documentaries became formally innovative, socially insightful and more popular than ever. It’s never quite been the lost decade that people have claimed it was.

So it wasn’t that hard, after many Zima-fueled nights of popping VHS tapes in and out of our video cassette recorders, to come up with a definitive ranked list of the 100 greatest movies of the 1980s. Some of these went home with Oscars. Some dominated the box office for weeks on end. Some of these became instant cult classics and some were smaller films championed by few at the time, and have only recently — and belatedly — been rediscovered as true treasures. Some are movies that might have flown under your radar entirely yet have not only stood the test of time, they’ve proven that they’re well worth yours. And all of these selections are ones we felt represented not just the decade they sprung from, but the very best that Eighties cinema had to offer.

  • ‘Testament’ (1983)

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    Released just a couple weeks before the far more ballyhooed and star-driven ABC nuclear-holocaust film The Day After, Lynne Littman’s slow-burn drama featured Jane Alexander and William Devane as a married couple with three kids, their lives forever altered after coordinated missile strikes devastate America. Unlike so many of the post-apocalyptic spectacles that followed, this what-if film on the effects of nuclear war on everyday life is hushed, realistic and intimate, focusing on a woman who must hold her family together after her husband’s disappearance during the blast. There’s no mutant hoards or splashy special effects — just the grim, gripping finality of a society coming to terms with the fact that the end is nigh. — T.G.

  • ‘Gregory’s Girl’ (1980)

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    Scottish director Bill Forysth’s tender, enchanting rom-com watches as a gangly Glaswegian kid named Gregory (Gordon John Sinclair) loses his spot on the school soccer team. The catch: He can’t be mad because the young woman, Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), who’s now playing his position is sweet, smart, a far better athlete, and gorgeous. Of course this kid is head over heels in love with her. Fate has a few other things in store for our would-be Casanova. It’s a little gem of a film, keying in to the fact that when you’re a teen in the first flushes of infatuation, every emotional up and down feels new, raw, and supremely unstable. Also, if it helps if you have a precocious little sister to give you advice about the opposite sex. —D.F.

  • ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’ (1981)

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    A month before MTV defined the image of Eighties pop with new-wave videos full of Aquanetted coiffures and shoulder pads the length of football fields, filmmaker Penelope Spheeris released a doc that depicted how bands really looked and behaved in the streets of Los Angeles at the time. The first of her Decline documentaries gobbed in the face of hardcore punk, and serves as a time capsule for both a moment and a scene: It captures the squalor Black Flag lived in at the time, the wanton contempt Fear held for their audiences, and the gritty self-destruction of the Germs as frontman Darby Crash mumbles his lyrics and quixotically tempts a tarantula with a breakfast of scrambled eggs. Today it serves as a testament to just how safe, wholesome, and predictable punk has become. —K.G.

  • ‘Miracle Mile’ (1988)

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    After a meet-cute at the La Brea tar pits, a jazz trombonist (Anthony Edwards) makes — and subsequently misses — a date with a waitress (Mare Winningham). He ventures to her place of work to make amends, and while at the diner, picks up a ringing payphone. The voice on the other end then warns him of an impending nuclear strike. He’s got to find his soulmate before the world ends not with a whimper but with a bang. Steve De Jarnatt’s lean, Los Angeles-set romance could have been just another apocalyptic spectacle full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Instead we get an offbeat escapade set to Tangerine Dream’s ethereal, couldn’t-be-more-’80s score, as the City of Angels descends into fiery madness, insignificant squabbles get settled and a love story gets the full-circle ending it deserves. —R.D.

  • ‘Scarface’ (1983)

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    “Say hello to my little friend!” Brian De Palma’s controversial remake of Howard Hawks’ 1932 mobster movie hands Al Pacino a license to kill and chew abundant amounts of scenery, and not necessarily in that order. It’s been embraced by an entire generation of fans and a good portion of the hip-hop community for it’s over-the-top portrayal of the aspirational gangster life, from the copious amounts of commodified cocaine to its garish portrayal of Miami’s good life — the name “Tony Montana” is now synonymous with kingpin panache, yayo-fueled luxury, and bootleg bootstrap-capitalism. Even without the quotable lines every few minutes (“All I got in this world is my word and my balls, and I don’t break ’em for no one!”), it’s a memorable update of the old chestnut about crime paying off handsomely before the inevitable fall, ’80s style. —D.F.

  • ‘Matewan’ (1987)

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    You can refer to what happened in the coal-mining country of West Virginia in 1920 as “The Battle of Matewan” or “The Matewan Massacre” — for John Sayles, it’s a ground-zero moment for American labor no matter what you call it. An indie filmmaker long before the term was popular, the writer-director took a long, hard look back at the people, places and events that caused the stand-off between the overworked, underpaid miners and the brutal thugs hired by the Stone Mountain Coal Company to boil over. Sayles, cinematographer Haskell Wexler and his cast make you feel as if you’re watching a sepia-toned photograph come to life, with everyone from Chris Cooper’s catalytic organizer from the North to James Earl Jones’ dignified working man to Mary McDonnell’s widowed local appearing to have stepped out of the distant Appalachian past. Yet this roughhewn ensemble drama’s point about the workers-right movement couldn’t be more pertinent comin’ down the mountain during a decade (and presidential administration) that wasn’t exactly union-friendly. It filled in a gap of little-known American history. It also suggested that the fight wasn’t quite over in the present, either. —D.F.

  • ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’ (1988)

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    There’s trouble in Toontown, and it’s up to flinty private dick Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) to find out who’s behind the murder of a prominent citizen with ties to the L.A. neighborhood that’s home to Hollywood’s animated stars. The catch: He’s got to do it with one of the world’s most famous — and obnoxious — toons, a rabbit named Roger. Robert Zemeckis showbiz satire pulls out all the stops, as well as a few falling anvils and the occasional bugged-out eyeballs, in this melding of live-action and animation. It was a take-off and a tribute to the old Looney Tunes that was deemed a technological marvel of the time period, though its real appeal is seeing actors trade barbs with a who’s-who of cartoon superstars; if you’d ever pined to see Daffy Duck and Donald Duck try to outplay each other on pianos, you’re in luck. As for Roger’s comely wife Jessica, look: She’s not bad. She’s just drawn that way. —D.F.

  • ‘Near Dark’ (1987)

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    Part neo-Western, part old-school vampire chronicle and 100-percent adrenaline rush, Kathyrn Bigelow’s sophom*ore feature made good on the promise of her biker-chic debut The Loveless (1981): Here was a director who could deconstruct a genre while still delivering the goods. Cowpoke-next-door Adrian Pasdar meets a mysterious woman who’s new in town; one neck-bite later, he’s fallen in with a family of bloodsuckers who tool around in a blacked-out R.V., looking for dinner once the sun goes down. It’s a gory, giddy take on the American love of the open highway as two endless lanes of possibility and a place where dangerous outlaw types like Lance Henriksen’s alpha vamp and Bill Paxton’s loose cannon prey on anyone in their path. And should road-movie semiotics not be your bag, there’s always that massacre at a sh*tkicker bar (“Finger-lickin’ good!”) to tide you over. —D.F.

  • ‘Airplane!’ (1980)

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    Calling Airplane! the best spoof ever made is almost faint praise, given how only a fraction of those have been any good. But it’s a testament to the film’s creative team — brothers David and Jerry Zucker, and their partner Jim Abrahams (ZAZ for short) — that their unceasing arsenal of visual and verbal gags is enough to satisfy the gag-a-second needs of an 87-minute comedy. The secret of this disaster-movie parody is that this trio follow the plot to the obscure 1957 drama Zero Hour closely — traumatized former war pilot must take charge of an in-progress commercial flight when food poisoning cripples the crew — which gives them enough structure to hang foreground-background jokes, references to Saturday Night Fever and From Here to Eternity, and reams of silly wordplay. What’s your vector, Victor? —S.T.

  • ‘The Vanishing’ (1988)

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    It’s the simplicity of George Sluizer’s blood-freezing Dutch horror film that gets you: no gimmicks, no stunts, no elaborate shocks, just the gnawing worst-case-scenario terror of someone you love disappearing without trace, and there being absolutely nothing you can do about it. A couple on holiday in France stop at a gas station; the woman goes in to buy a drink and never returns. The villain, when he turns up, isn’t a monster or a masked psycho; he’s simply a regular middle-aged man who blandly admits that he has no conscience. There’s no fighting and no winning in Sluizer’s nihilistic stunner, and while the filmmaker himself would go on to direct an American remake a few years later, its his original portrait of a nightmare that still chills you to the core. —G.L.

  • ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’ (1989)

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    Arthouse aesthete and agent provocateur Peter Greenaway proved that you could shock audiences even as you tantalized them with some of the most gorgeous meals ever filmed — and that sex and violence should also be doled out piping hot, even if they’re ingredients in a dish best served cold. A boorish gangster (Michael Gambon) and his entourage frequent a chic French restaurant, which is also the favorite eatery of a intellectual gourmand (Alan Howard). He attracts the attention of the criminal’s wife (Helen Mirren). The two have an affair. It ends in tragedy, one which quickly turns Jacobean. Its envelope-pushing scenes caused the MPAA to threaten it with an “X” rating; the distributors opted for no rating and then milked the controversy for all it was worth. The resulting furor made it a hit, but don’t let the pearl-clutching brouhaha detract from the fact that it’s a genuinely sexy and disturbing movie; that the couture by Jean-Paul Gaultier and the color-coded cinematography make this a visual feast; and that it’s the most accessible of the British filmmaker’s work, and arguably his best work, period. —D.F.

  • ‘Amadeus’ (1984)

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    A biopic for people who hate biopics, this Oscar-winning big screen adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play — about the complicated relationship between the brash young musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) and the more conservative composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) — takes some liberties with history in service of delivering a more entertaining drama. Shaffer (who also wrote the screenplay) and the movie’s director Miloš Forman present their version of the 1700s European aristocracy, replete with witty dialogue, eye-catching costumes and thoughtful musings about why God sometimes blesses oafs with talent while ignoring the devout. As invigorating as it is tuneful, it’s the rare period piece that feels utterly modern. —N.M.

  • ‘The Brother From Another Planet’ (1984)

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    Future Scandal patriarch/Skynet enabler Joe Morton is an extraterrestrial who crashes down on our big blue marble and lands in New York City. Lost, mute and confused, he eventually makes his way up to Harlem, where his ability to heal wounds and/or fix broken technology earns him food, shelter, romance and respect. Meanwhile, two cosmic cops (played by a young David Strathairn and writer-director John Sayles) are hot on his trail and eager to return him to his home planet. Switching gears entirely after his proto-Big Chill debut Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979), Sayles wanted to use science fiction to examine the immigrant experience (it’s not a coincidence that the Brother, as he’s known, first lands at Ellis Island). But he also noted that, given the fact that it’s a Black man who fell to Earth, the hope was also to ”[force] people to look at racial and power relations they take for granted.” Mission accomplished. —D.F.

  • ‘Atlantic City’ (1981)

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    Atlantic City always seems like it’s crumbling — or, at best, in a state of perpetual transition — and Louis Malle’s uniquely seductive fusion of crime drama and May-December romance catches the Jersey gambling hub at a time when its once-grand hotels are getting razed for an uncertain future. Working from a script by playing John Guare, the French director casts the legendary Burt Lancaster as an aging numbers-runner and an unlikely mentor to a Canadian waitress (Susan Sarandon) who’s looking for a way into the gambling business. In this world of criminal deception and urban decay, the tenderness that develops between them makes the movie seem like a fantasy, at least until reality comes crashing through. —S.T.

  • ‘Withnail and I’ (1987)

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    Writer-director Bruce Robinson based this bleary-eyed, endlessly quotable comedy on his life in London circa 1969, casting Paul McGann as the “I” of the title. But it was a newcomer, Richard E. Grant, who stole the show as Withnail, the ultimate in grandiose alcoholic roommates. The film, about the pair’s ill-fated trip to Withnail’s uncle’s country cottage, cheekily sends up the British upper crust. But it also brilliantly pokes fun at druggy bohemians through the character of drug dealer Danny (Ralph Brown), who thinks that barbers are government agents trying to cut off the cosmic vibrations humanity receives through its hair. A genuine cult movie, it hit theaters in 1987 with an 18-year-old hangover, still miserable from the fallout of the hippie movement’s descent into addiction, cynicism, and death. —K.R.

  • ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ (1989)

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    On paper, the idea of two teenage numbskull teenagers that save mankind by traveling through time to meet the likes of Joan of Arc, Billy the Kid, and Sigmund Freud sounds like a straight-to-video, D.O.A. dud. But this comedy turned into a bona fide sleeper hit, thanks to a clever script and the hey-dude chemistry between the two leads. Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are high school students and heavy metal fans that will one day bring about world peace with their music (Wyld Stallyns 4-eva.) First, however, they have to pass a high school history class, which will require from help from a time-traveler named Rufus (George Carlin) and a journey through the past that will find them quoting the lyrics of “Dust In The Wind” to Socrates, tempt Gengis Khan with a Twinkie, and introduce Ludwig van Beethoven to the music of Bon Jovi.Its impact can be seen everywhere from Wayne’s World to Dumb and Dumber, and it, like, totally set the bar for knucklehead buddy comedies. —A.G.

  • ‘Midnight Run’ (1988)

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    Who could’ve guessed that teaming a brooding actor best-known for heavy dramas with a character actor best known for bone-dry comedies would result in one of the decade’s funniest and most exciting buddy pictures? Robert De Niro looks as sour-faced as ever, playing an irritable bounty hunter; Charles Grodin gives a typically deadpan performance as a chatty white-collar criminal. But as this mismatched duo journeys across the country, pursued by the mob and the FBI, director Martin Brest and screenwriter George Gallo find the humanity and humor in their oddball chemistry — as well as an entertaining tension in the tight scrapes they have to puzzle and banter their way through, side by side. Countless movies and TV shows in the decades since have tried (and mostly failed) to recreate this strange magic. Accept no substitutes. —N.M.

  • ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989)

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    The film that kicked off the Disney renaissance, and is maybe therefore to blame for the all-consuming nostalgia machine that the corporation is today — but the Mouse House’s grand, soaring reworking of the distinctly downbeat Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, about a mermaid yearning to be human, is too tuneful and joyful to let anything be held against it. At a time when the old-school Hollywood musical had been largely retired, John Musker and Ron Clements’ film proved that young audiences could still thrill to earnest, elaborately choreographed song-and-dance numbers. The trick: They just had to be in iridescent cartoon form, with songs that were as unshakeable as the calypso-cheese delight “Under the Sea” or the Streisand-worthy belter “Part of Your World.” —G.L.

  • ‘Hollywood Shuffle’ (1987)

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    Robert Townsend’s semi-autobiographical indie concerns Bobby Taylor (played by Townsend himself), an aspiring actor pining for stardom. For him and his peers, however, there seems to be only one road to fame: play white-defined racial parodies of Blackness or don’t work at all. The movie wrestles with this reality through a series of hilarious vignettes like “Sneakin’ in the Movies” (a take-off of Ebert and Siskel’s Sneak Previews) and “The Black Acting School,” a faux-infomercial advertising a training program for African Americans to learn how to perform like thugs, servants and slaves. Though Black stories and roles have greatly improved in the three decades since Townsend’s takedown, his comedy’s vision still resonates against the unchanged realities faced by today’s Black performers. —R.D.

  • ‘River’s Edge’ (1986)

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    Or: No, the kids are most definitely not alright. Tim Hunter’s based-on-a-true-story drama about a high school student who kills a young woman — and then brings his friends and classmates to the scene of the crime — is one of the most disturbing teen movies ever made, in which nihilism battles numbness for being the de facto emotional state of American youth. Asked why he murdered his girlfriend, the killer (Daniel Roebuck) casually replies, “She was talkin’ sh*t.” A hyperventilating Crispin Glover eventually realizes that they have to protect their friend and bury the body, while a babyfaced Keanu Reeves feels something like a conscience slowly being awakened in the back of his skull. It’s a genuinely unnerving look at a subset of a generation that was slowly being both overstimulated and desensitized — and that’s before Dennis Hopper shows up and lovingly waltzes with a blow-up sex doll. —D.F.

  • ‘Sweetie’ (1989)

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    Jane Campion kickstarted her film career with this quirky, sui generis tale of two sisters: Kay (Karen Colson), a neurotic, emotionally closed-off woman stuck in an unhappy marriage to a man with a question mark on his head (a fortuneteller told her that would be the sign of her soulmate); and Dawn (Genevieve Lemon), a highly unstable woman nicknamed “Sweetie” by their father who dreams of being an actor, or maybe a singer, or possibly some sort of creative something or other if she can get her sh*t together. It’s an incredible introduction to a major talent, and right from the get-go, you can see the Australian filmmaker laying the groundwork for everything to come — from peering into the psychological complications of female desire without blinking to the way family dynamics form and/or warp us even into adulthood. (Squint during the lyrical yet WTF sequence involving dancing cowboys and you’d swear you were watching an outtake from The Power of the Dog.) “I’m really gonna do something now!” Sweetie keeps screaming every time she’s about to lose her cool. It’s Campion, however, who made good on the threat. —D.F.

  • ‘Full Metal Jacket’ (1987)

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    Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam movie isn’t about Vietnam per se, but about the process of turning soldiers into mirthless killers, so utterly divorced from their humanity that can carry out missions without thinking about their targets — or even why they’re fighting in the first place. The opening third alone, turning on the relationship between a ferocious drill sergeant (R. Lee Ermey) and a sensitive recruit (Vincent D’Onofrio), is a chilling distillation of a theme Kubrick had explored many times before in classics like Paths of Glory and A Clockwork Orange. This is how meaningless wars are stocked. —S.T.

  • ‘Police Story’ (1985)

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    Equally comfortable mugging in a Members Only jacket and doing a leaping dropkick through the windshield of a car, Jackie Chan’s star was already burning bright enough in the mid-1980s to illuminate all of Hong Kong. A mega-hit that spawned five sequels, Police Story is a charming, gritty action-comedy that also contains one of the most famous — and dangerous — stunts of his career: A daring jump where Chan slides four stories down a metal pole ringed with live electrical bulbs, crashing through a glass window shortly before reaching the ground. The scene burned and lacerated the star’s palms, dislocated his pelvis, and came perilously close to paralyzing him. And he still went out for a drink afterwards. —K.R.

  • ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ (1988)

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    Over the course of a prolific decade — seven features in eight years — Pedro Almodovar had already established himself as the freakiest new queer talent on the European scene. But this thrillingly chaotic black comedy brought the Spanish filmmaker into the (relatively) respectable, Oscar-nominated mainstream, and it somewhat miraculously did so without turning down the volume on his affinity for loud, high, thoroughly perverse melodrama — preferably in the most saturated primary colors any camera can capture. It may be a farce that begins its dizzying spiral from a TV star (Almodovar regular Carmen Maura) in the midst of a breakup and uses spiked gazpacho as a plot device, but the film basically is a shot of spiked gazpacho, tangy and acrid and compulsive. —G.L.

  • ‘Heathers’ (1988)

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    Winona Ryder and Christian Slater’s misfit characters relish mocking their classmates at Westerburg High — similarly, the actors, along with director Michael Lehmann, have a blast setting cutesy ‘80s teen-movie tropes aflame, satirizing the clichés while exposing the genuine darkness of adolescent life. Suicide, hom*ophobia, bullying and violence are the subjects of Daniel Waters’ biting screenplay, alongside all those immortal lines of dialogue. (“I love my dead gay son!”) In the process, Ryder became the queen of youthful alienation, while her costar briefly wore the crown of the Next Jack Nicholson, his every sardonic line-reading a call to arms for Gen-X kids who knew that encroaching adulthood was bullsh*t. —T.G.

  • ‘Vagabond’ (1985)

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    Long before her jaunty doc Faces Places beguiled arthouse audiences and Film Twitter’s endless meme-ification turned Agnes Varda into international cinema’s quirkiest grandma, the veteran French New Wave filmmaker made this ruthless but searingly compassionate study of a young female drifter (rivetingly played by Sandrine Bonnaire) who decides to live outside society’s rules and structures. Along the way, she encounters a number of unsatisfied folks and similarly unmoored souls, some of whom envy her responsibility-free lifestyle. Naturally, she pays a grim price for her freedom. Fusing Varda’s feminist sensibility, vérité impulses and knack for loose formal experimentation, it’s her toughest, most beautiful film — a work filled with hard edges and flinty social consciousness. —G.L.

  • ‘Drugstore Cowboy’ (1989)

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    Spitting in the eye of “Just Say No,” Gus Van Sant closed the ‘80s with a somber examination of drug addiction, highlighted by Matt Dillon’s crushingly fragile performance as an addict who leads a group of Portland junkies in the early 1970s knocking off convenience stores to get their fix. Drugstore Cowboy adapted James Fogle’s autobiographical novel for this portrait of existential drift, never glamorizing its milieu but nonetheless showing deep compassion for those strung out and barely hanging on. The movie introduced audiences to actors like James LeGros and Heather Graham, but it also announced Van Sant’s arrival as one of independent cinema’s most restless, poetic voices. —T.G.

  • ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

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    You want rebellious, SNL-style comedy seamlessly merged with sci-fi, horror, action and the sort of big-budget FX spectacle that characterized the 1980s — who ya gonna call? Ivan Reitman’s smash hit about everyone’s favorite parapsychologists battling an NYC full of demons, demigods and a 20-story Stay Puft Marshmellow Man proved that you didn’t need to avoid crossing genre streams to construct a one-size-fits-all blockbuster, so long as you had the right ingredients and set the temperature on high. (It helps if you have an earworm of a theme song and an instantly iconic logo as well.) The holy trinity of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and the late, great Harold Ramis give this mash-up a fun, funny after-hours-party vibe; Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, Ernie Hudson and Annie Potts help round out a supporting cast perfect for mixing snark with shrieks. It gave you an entire multiplex’s worth of entertainment in one single serving, and gave the decade one hell of a box-office juggernaut. We still ain’t ‘fraid of no ghosts. —D.F.

  • ’48 Hrs’ (1982)

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    A sociopathic crook is sprung from a prison work gang and makes his way to San Francisco, where he wants to locate the loot from their last score. An SFPD cop stakes out a hotel where the escaped con is staying and a shoot-out ensues. So far, Walter Hill’s crime thriller is a typical hardboiled story set in the city by the bay. Then the cop tracks down the guy’s associate, a prisoner named Reggie Hammond — and from the second you hear Eddie Murphy singing “Roxanne” in a jail cell, the movie shifts into a whole other gear. Originally a project potentially designed for Cline Eastwood and Richard Pryor in the ’70s, 48 Hrs eventually hit the screen starring Nick Nolte and the then-20-year-old Saturday Night Live breakout player, and Murphy’s unpredictable, livewire energy immediately establishes that the comedian is in his element here. By the time he rips into the patrons of a redneck bar, he owns the film. Murphy would follow his big-screen debut with the one-two punch of Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop, and there was no looking back from there. An ’80s star is born. —D.F.

  • ‘Possession’ (1981)

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    The divorce epidemic of the 1980s saw its most avant-garde expression in Andrej Zulawski’s singular horror film about the primal fears of — and fraught psychological dynamics between — men, women, and tentacle monsters. A Cold War chill hangs over the story, about the acrimonious split between an estranged married couple (played by Sam O’Neill and Isabelle Adjani) in a divided Berlin. But the performances run white-hot, particularly from Adjani, who’s unforgettable as a woman possessed by a feral ecstasy that’s ripping her apart from the inside. Blending unsparing character study, stylized theatricality, and shocking, sexualized gore, Possession takes a personal apocalypse and blows it up until it engulfs the world. —K.R.

  • ‘The Killer’ (1989)

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    Director John Woo’s international breakthrough movie plays up the romantic side of the ‘80s Hong Kong action boom, all billowing curtains and doves flapping across the screen as the soundtrack swells. And it’s not just the music-video imagery — much like hair metal bands, Woo loves staging a scene in a church— that makes it so emotional. The unapologetic melodrama between the characters factors in as well: Hitman Ah Jong’s (Chow Yun-Fat) noble quest to restore the sight of a young singer blinded in a shootout recalls Woo’s idol, Jean-Pierre Melville, while the dynamic between Ah Jong and his sworn rival, the dogged Detective Li (Danny Lee), explores masculine codes of honor in a style that recalls the films of Michael Mann. For many, this was the gateway drug to an entire subsection of action cinema that would become a very big deal in the following decade. —K.R.

  • ‘Caddyshack’ (1980)

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    You can’t tell the story of 1980s screen comedy without locating the Venn-diagram sweet spot between Saturday Night Live, National Lampoon and Second City — which is exactly where you’ll find this decade-starting (and decade-defining), co*ke-dusted slobs-vs.-snobs fest set in a snooty country club. Inspired by the caddying stints of co-writer Brian Doyle Murray and his brother Bill when they were teens, director Harold Ramis’ golf movie uses the loosest imaginable plot (Michael O’Keefe is a working-class kid working for rich golfers’ tips and trying to rise above his station) as a mere clothesline for mixing and matching a wide variety of comic styles together. You get the smooth-talking smarm of Chevy Chase, the Catskills shtick of Rodney Dangerfield and the goofy slapstick of Bill Murray’s dim-witted, gopher-hating groundskeeper, as well as gags involving nudity, vomit and what happens when a candy bar gets thrown into a pool. The fact that it all somehow fits together is a miracle. That it’s one of the most fondly remembered and oft-quoted comedies of the decade, however, is no surprise at all. —J.B.

  • ‘Blood Simple’ (1984)

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    Joel and Ethan Coen would be the first people to tell you they had no idea what they were doing when they started filming their neo-noir debut. (“None of us had been on a feature film set before,” cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld admitted, later adding, “Joel and Ethan thought they were going to have to make peanut butter sandwiches for the crew; they didn’t realize we had a caterer.”) When you check out the end result, however, you can tell that the brothers were clearly quick studies: This thriller about a Texas love triangle, a botched murder plot and a lot of double-crosses is the work of ultra-confident auteurs who have already found their voice. In fact, all the elements of their Coens’ towering oeuvre can be found here: the can’t-miss crime scheme that inevitably goes wrong; the distinctive take on a specific slice of American life; and the willful collision of humor and darkness. (Not to mention the presence of Frances McDormand, who later married Joel.) It’s a singular take on a well-worn genre that doubles as an announcement of two great talents who were just warming up. —T.G.

  • ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ (1985)

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    This freewheeling, tricked-out screwball comedy of mistaken identity and misplaced desire — in which a housewife (Rosanna Arquette) gets curious about a personal ad, loses her memory and finds herself in over her head — would’ve been a hit in just about any decade. But two bits of good timing helped make it a classic of this particular era. It came to director Susan Seidelman on the heels of her low-budget triumph Streamers, a seamy roar of “No Wave” moviemaking that captured downtown New York in all its grime and glory, and carried over to this project in a way that give it a hipper-than-usual edge; and she had the keen eye to cast an up-and-coming recording artist and Danceteria regular named Madonna in the show-stealing (yet supporting) title role, watching her popularity explode while the picture was in production. It’s an exemplary ‘80s farce, a snapshot of a scene, and a glimpse of a burgeoning superstar right as she’s about to go supernova. —J.B.

  • ‘The Long Good Friday’ (1980)

    The 100 Greatest Movies of the 1980s (35)

    Someone has put London mobster Harold Shand right in the crosshairs, on the very eve of a lucrative deal with an America Mafioso to “re-develop” some prime urban real estate. Henchmen turn up dead, a pub is blown to bits minutes before a key meeting, and even his saintly ma is being threatened. Strand’s got to find out who’s targeting his empire and why, before he finds himself nailed to the cross. John Mackenzie’s gritty thriller set the bar high for the decade’s British gangster flicks, adding an East End edge to a classic rise-and-fall tale and drawing a straight line between the underworld and the business world — they’re both sides of the same individualistic, capitalistic coin. (To paraphrase the country’s leader at the time, there is no such thing as society, just those that have and those that take.) Bob Hoskins convinces us he could be the second coming of James Cagney (U.K. division), Helen Mirren plays a moll that’s one part high-society matron and one part Lady Macbeth, and the whole shebang ends with one of the genre’s most quietly devastating climaxes. There’s no Easter Sunday on the horizon here. —D.F.

  • ‘Back to the Future’ (1985)

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    Proof that all you needed for a hit back in the 1980s was a time-traveling DeLorean, a patron saint named Steven, and the world’s most charming, likeable and comically on-point TV star. That last aspect, of course, can’t be underestimated when you’re talking about director Robert Zemeckis’ romp about an ’80s kid who gets whisked back to the 1950s, and must play matchmaker to his parents in order to ensure he’ll still exist. It’s weird to think that Michael J. Fox was actually a replacement for another actor who “parted ways” with the production; the role of the vest-wearing, era-hopping, rock-and-roll-inventing Marty McFly is so perfectly tailored to the Family Ties MVP’s skill set that you can’t picture anyone else in the role. Even if this wasn’t a comedy that ticked off two of three of the decade’s big blockbuster requirements — a high-concept premise, Boomer nostalgia and a “produced by Steven Spielberg” credit — Fox’s wisecracking boy-next-door persona would knock this thing into the stratosphere. Just when you think it can’t get any more ’80s, a Huey Lewis song plays over the soundtrack. Way to go, McFly! —D.F.

  • ‘Akira’ (1988)

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    If you’ve only seen one anime, it’s probably director/cowriter Katsuhiro Otomo’s hugely influential adaptation of his manga, a post-apocalyptic head trip about a biker, Shōtarō (voiced by Mitsuo Iwata), out to save his friend Tetsuo (voiced by Nozomu Sasaki) after the government tries to harness his psychic abilities. Akira taught Western viewers — and filmmakers — how to imagine the encroaching new millennium: This is a lurid, engrossing vision of corrupt governments, overrun cityscapes and generally bad vibes. College audiences and midnight-movie junkies couldn’t get enough of its cyberpunk edginess, with Otomo’s bold animation and hyper-stylized violence guaranteeing that this sci-fi future-shock landmark would be an enduring cult classic for generations to come. —T.G.

  • ‘Broadcast News’ (1987)

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    There were plenty of love triangles in the movies of the 1980s, but few were as nuanced and knotty as the one between Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), a type-A TV news producer with high ideals and compartmentalized emotions; Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), her most frequent collaborator, and man who’s all brains and sharp quips; and Tom Grunick (William Hurt) is an up-and-coming anchor with a handsome face and empty head. Jane should fall for Aaron and be repelled by Tom — but the human heart, being what it is, doesn’t work that way. Coming near the end of a decade when cable news became more inescapable and national media became more vapid, writer-director James L. Brooks’ bittersweet tale of love and ratings now plays both as a top-notch romance comedy and a pointed time capsule. Lines such as “Wouldn’t this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?” will still make you laugh; the warning about where our actual broadcast news industry would be heading is apt to make you cry. —J.B.

  • ‘Evil Dead II’ (1987)

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    Long beforeSpider-Man, director Sam Raimi established his geek cred with two horror classics: the micro-budget cult hit The Evil Deadand this more expensive, more ambitious sequel. Like the first film, Evil Dead II stars Bruce Campbell as Ash Williams, a luckless galoot who keeps getting attacked by ancient demons every time he visits a creepy old cabin in the woods. Though still ostensibly a shocker — complete with scary monsters and bloody dismemberments — Raimi’s runaway ghost story also pays homage to the Three Stooges and Tex Avery, and with its zippy camera moves and nifty hand-crafted special effects, this movie captured the imagination of genre fans and adventurous cinephiles alike. It was a staple of those “dude you haveto see this” favorites on in the era of home-video binging, perfect for endless rinse-rewind-repeat viewings. —N.M.

  • ‘Cutter’s Way’ (1981)

    The 100 Greatest Movies of the 1980s (40)

    Before The Big Lebowski came along, there was another shaggy-dog L.A. noir starring Jeff Bridges as an aimless bachelor who sleuths around the city’s rich and powerful elite with a temperamental Vietnam vet (John Heard) at his side. Cutter’s Way wasn’t made in the ‘70s, but it feels like an iconoclastic leftover from an era where weird projects got the green light, as if the phrase “drunk Chinatown” scored at a pitch meeting. Directed by Czech ex-pat Ivan Passer, it’s a film about two guys clumsily investigating a suspected murder in Santa Barbara, but between the zanier moments — including one involving Heard on horseback — the film wrestles meaningfully with the costs of being a devoted friend. —S.T.

  • ‘Bull Durham’ (1988)

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    It may be easy, even in these days of Yellowstone fever, to forget how crazy people went over a hot young Kevin Costner back in the day. This Ron Shelton baseball rom-com, however, is an instant reminder of exactly why everyone coronated the California native with the matinee-idol good looks and confident, masculine vibe as the ’80s answer to Gary Cooper — even more than his other notable movies of the decade, Bull Durham is a showcase for Costner’s charisma, old-school screen presence and off-the-charts sex appeal. It helps that the writer-director’s story of a minor-league catcher at the end of glory days, the hot new pitcher (Tim Robbins) he takes under his wing and the iconoclastic woman (Susan Sarandon) who loves them both has a genuine affection for those who never quite make it in (or to) the majors as he does for the sport itself. And the fact Shelton not only gives these characters a believably mature romantic connection but blesses Costner with one showstopper of a speech (“I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days…”) lets you know how much he’s playing to the actors and the adults in the audience. Everyone gets teed up for success here. Costner just happens to be the one who hits it out of the park. —D.F.

  • ‘My Dinner With Andre’ (1981)

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    French filmmaker Louis Malle teamed up with André Gregory and Wallace Shawn to make a bourgeois encounter audaciously experimental: a struggling downtown playwright, raised wealthy but now debt-saddled and fretful, reconnects with his long-lost friend, a mercurial and moneyed theater dropout, over quail at Café des Artistes. What’s on the menu? Polish forests, Japanese Buddhist priests in the Sahara, being buried alive on Halloween, and realizing that everything is a performance. Life goals are absurd, death haunts us all, and our nagging need for firm ground makes us crave face-to-face contact with another person. It’s a tribute to inner lives that’s dreamlike in its simplicity — the sublime expression of quiet supper talk as supreme drama. Conversation is the real feast. —S.G.

  • ‘Purple Rain’ (1984)

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    A star is born, as Prince turns autofiction into genre-fusing pop pageantry and transforms from a skinny little Minneapolis kid into His Royal Badness. The plot is paper-thin: a difficult frontman alienates his band while fighting inner demons and rival groups for rock dominance at the local nightclub. Questionable acting, cheesy dialogue, and a corny foil in the form of a mugging Morris Day should rightfully have sunk this backstage melodrama with ruffled shirts. But its post-glam, post-funk, proto-polyamorous revolution (and Revolution) was a revelation for the MTV generation — not to mention its chart-topping, multi-platinum soundtrack. It’s the hornie*st musical ever made: each frame drips with pheromones as the Purple One prances and entrances, vamping and pouting in equal measure before his guitar-stroking climax sprays the audience with music-fueled ejacul*te. —S.G.

  • ‘Modern Romance’ (1981)

    The 100 Greatest Movies of the 1980s (44)

    Just as Albert Brooks’ first film, 1979’s Real Life, satirized reality television long before it even existed, his follow-up was an anti-rom com before that genre was a thing, focusing on an on-again/off-again relationship between two people who have nothing in common and should never be together. As Robert, a film editor who obsesses over his fed-up girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold), Brooks has the courage to put his worst self on screen, which gives the film a unique insight into the jealousy and neediness that can bond couples as strongly as love. Yet for all its pessimism, Modern Romance is hilarious, too, like an extended bit where Robert gets high on ‘ludes and talks to his pet bird “Petey.” —S.T.

  • ‘Big’ (1988)

    The 100 Greatest Movies of the 1980s (45)

    The ’80s were — blessed with? plagued by? — a slew of movies involving adults and kids body-switching, with hilarious shenanigans ensuing; for a while, you felt like every other week ended with a Freaky Friday clone hitting theaters. It was easy to find the potential for laughs in a high-concept premise like this, but it took Tom Hanks and director Penny Marshall to find the poignancy in it. Big may be a slight derivation of the formula: The Splash star doesn’t trade places with a parent or another adult, his younger self simply becomes a thirtysomething dude overnight thanks to a magic fortune-telling machine. Yet the way Hanks plays this boy-to-man transition with such a potent mix of guilelessness, glee, innocence, melancholy and confusion, gives this comedy an abundance of heart. There’s a reason he nabbed his first of six Oscar nominations with this. Let a thousand real-life FAO Schwarz piano duets bloom. —D.F.

  • ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ (1985)

    The 100 Greatest Movies of the 1980s (46)

    A keen-eyed, sharp-tongued look at Thatcher’s Britain — and the attitudes of the nation regarding race, class, success, money and sexuality, long after the sun had set on its empire — director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Hanief Kureishi’s satire pits two misfits against the system and lets everything around them work up a nice, thick lather. Omar (Gordon Warnecke) is a second-generation Pakistani living in London and eager to make his way in the world. His hustler of an uncle unloads a second-rate laundrette on his nephew as a favor; soon, the young man and his old friend/lover Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), a former punk with National Front associations, are turning a profit and getting it on in the backroom. It blew into British cinema like a breath of fresh air, becoming a minor sensation across the pond in the process and giving a lot of audiences their first look at a future Oscar-winner/super-intense milkshake drinker. —D.F.

  • ‘Roger and Me’ (1989)

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    There were first-person documentaries before Michael Moore’s quest to meet Roger B. Smith, the General Motors’ chairman who stripped Flint, Michigan, of thousands of jobs (see: Ross McElwhee’s 1985 single-and-Southern cine-essay Sherman’s March). And there were many examples of the form being used for muckraking purposes, to be sure. But it was Moore’s combination of man-on-the-street gotcha journalism, oddball comedy vignettes and rage over the way the filmmaker’s hometown had been screwed over that puts this a cut above your usual fist-shaking screed. It was the rare documentary of the age to cross over into being a huge, popular hit, and whether you think Moore’s subsequent cult-of-personality celebrity has now become a burden or a boon for the discourse, you can’t deny the way he sets up his David v. Goliath showdown here — and scores a win for the little guy even when the big guy shuts the door on him. —D.F.

  • ‘Sophie’s Choice’ (1982)

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    The myth of Meryl Streep — strong contender for greatest actor of her generation, master of accents and a performer capable of making stone statues weep salty tears — had already been in effect when Alan J. Pakula’s adaptation of William Styron’s novel hit screens. Her role as Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish immigrant in the middle of a love triangle between her volatile boyfriend (Kevin Kline) and a young Brooklyn writer (Peter MacNicol), essentially cemented her status as the standard-bearer for contemporary screen acting. We tend to take Streep’s greatness for granted now, but to see the way she teases out the tragedy in this women, before ripping herself open to reveal the secret she harbors, is to see why her combination of precise technique coupled with an endless reservoir of emotional access is to be wowed all over again. The title has become a shorthand for making a tough decision, but try watching the devastating scene that it inspires again and you find you don’t casually drop it into conversations anymore. The movie gave Streep her fourth Academy Award nomination out of [checks notes] a gajillion and nabbed her second Oscar. It’s a well-earned win. —D.F.

  • ‘Thief’ (1981)

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    The surfaces are slick, the men are professionals, the stakes are high and the synth-heavy score by Tangerine Dream is equal parts dreamy and menacing — you could call Michael Mann’s first feature film a trial run for almost everything he’d do from here on in, so long as that didn’t undercut just how great this airtight thriller is from the jump. His tale of a career safecracker named Frank (James Caan), who wants out after one final score so he can settle down, gives you an entire sensibility that’s already fully formed. It’s a movie that treats crime as a job, complete with skill sets and taking pride in your work, and loves the look of a city (in this case, Chicago) in the wee small hours. And the ending, which goes from a noiseless cat-and-mouse game to carnage, should be taught in film schools. —D.F.

  • ‘Aliens’ (1986)

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    James Cameron’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s game-changing sci-fi/horror hybrid juices it up for the muscleman ‘80s, injecting tough-talking space Marines, heavy firepower, and Bill Paxton dispensing surfer-inflected catchphrases into an action-packed rescue mission to the corporate space colony where it all began. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is, of course, reluctantly along for the ride, though definitely not out of her depth, here or ever — as she proves early on, she can operate heavy machinery and hunt “bugs” with the best of them. The movie not only turns Ripley a more nuanced version of someone who can handle herself under pressure (and gives Weaver a showcase to do some of her best work to boot), it also flips the script on the decade’s he-man action-hero ideal, making her the ultimate mama bear to scrappy survivor Newt (Carrie Henn). And it set the bar for future franchises by proving that not all sequels were destined to be merely rinse-repeat retreads of the original. —K.R.

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