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The 100 Best Movies of the 1980s (part 1)

When we launched The Best Decade, we knew that we wanted to highlight some of the amazing movies of the era, but we didn’t think to wait and do this until the 10th or 20th article. Instead, we tackled it on the first one. And – wow – was it hard. When you care as much about this era as we do, mentally debating which should be 26th on the list and which should be 27th was a legitimately difficult. It took twp people 20 hours (collectively) to agree on the list, get all of the supporting data, and publish to this webpage.

Part of the challenge was picking both great movies (plot, acting, etc) but also picking movies that were representative of the decade. So, using our methodology, a very good movie that exemplifies the 1980s ranked higher than a great movie that didn’t have a tie to our favorite decade.

In order to have the page load faster, we are going to break it into 5 sections. Part 1 – 25 Honorable Mentions (this page), Part 2: #100 – # 76 , Part 3: #75 – #51 , Part 4: #50 – #26 , Part 5: #25 – #1

Some of you may want to skip the fluff of the extra information about the films like the image, director, actors, etc and just see the list all in one page in text. If this is you – you can visit the NO FLUFF LIST. Now, without further ado, enjoy the fruits of our labors.

#125 – The Cook, The Thief, The Wife and Her Lover (1989)

Director: Peter Greenaway

Actors: Helen Mirren

Plot Summary: A black comedy about a brutal gangster who frequents a gourmet restaurant and terrorizes its patrons, leading to a dangerous love affair between his wife and the restaurant’s cook, and a deadly confrontation between the two.

Why This Movie Made The List

This movie captures some of the quirkiness of the post punk era that we experienced in the 80s. Greenaway walks the line between being interesting and being upsetting – but this movie is memorable.

#124 – The Jazz Singer (1980)

Director: Richard Fleischer

Actors: Neil Diamons

Plot Summary: A musical that is a remake of the 1927 silent film about a successful young singer who must choose between his family’s traditional Jewish heritage and his love of popular music.

Why This Movie Made The List

This movie from 1980 may belong more in the 70s than it does the 80s, but it’s easy to forget what a force Neil Diamond was. Adults and kids alike were singing songs from the Jazz Singer.

#123 – Staying Alive (1983)

Director: Sylvester Stallone

Actors: John Travolta

Plot Summary: A musical that is a remake of the 1927 silent film about a successful young singer who must choose between his family’s traditional Jewish heritage and his love of popular music.

Why This Movie Made The List

Another movie that may have been more at home in the 70s. Staying Alive was the dying gasp of disco. By the time this movie was released in 1983, the disco generation had already put away their leisure suits and were modeling the preppie costumes more associated with the 80s.

#122 – Poltergeist (1982)

Director: Tobe Hopper

Actors: Craig T Nelson, JoBeth Williams

Plot Summary: A supernatural horror film about a family whose suburban home is haunted by angry spirits that communicate through the television set and eventually kidnap their youngest daughter.

Why This Movie Made The List

One of the scariest movies of the decade, Poltergeist was actually written by Steven Spielberg who also produced the movie. I think it was the fact that the spirits targeted a little girl that most frightening – especially to the parents in the theater.

#121 – Nuts (1987)

Director: Martin Ritt

Actors: Barbra Streisand, Richard Dreyfuss

Plot Summary: A courtroom drama about a high-end escort who goes on trial for murder and fights to clear her name and prove her sanity.

Why This Movie Made The List

The golden age of Barbra Streisand was from 1968 when she debuted in Funny Girl until 1976 when starred in A Star is Born. But she made a few movies in the 1980s including Nuts. She didn’t win an academy award nomination, but a lot of people thought she deserved one.

#120 – On Golden Pond (1981)

Director: Mark Rydell

Actors: Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Jane Fonda

Plot Summary: A comedy about an aging couple who spend a summer at their cottage on Golden Pond, reflecting on their past and forming a bond with their estranged daughter and their grandson.

Why This Movie Made The List

To have 3 actors of this caliber in the same film is pretty spectacular. But, despite the A+ acting, there is nothing in this film that screams the 80s. We included it in the list because it was Henry Fonda’s last major role and he (and Hepburn) won an Oscar for it.

#119 – A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

Director: Charles Crichton

Actors: John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline

Plot Summary: A comedy about a gang of thieves who attempt to steal a valuable diamond and end up double-crossing each other.

Why This Movie Made The List

While Kevin Kline made his acting debut in 1982’s Sophie’s Choice, it was his second major role that won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for A Fish Called Wanda where worked alongside Month Python alums Michael Palin and John Cleese.

#118 – Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

Director: Gus Van Sant

Actors: Matt Dillon

Plot Summary: A crime drama about a group of drug addicts who rob pharmacies to support their habit, but their life of crime becomes increasingly dangerous as they are pursued by the police and their addiction spirals out of control.

Why This Movie Made The List

Gus Van Sant made his debut with 1985’s Mala Noche which garnered festival buzz, but it was 1989’s Drugstore Cowboy that really propelled him to the big leagues and, at the same time, revitalized Matt Dillon’s career.

#117 – Big (1988)

Director: Penny Marshall

Actors: Tom Hanks

Plot Summary: A comedy about a young boy who wishes to be “big” and wakes up the next morning as a fully-grown adult. The protagonists uses his childlike qualities to win in the world of adulthood.

Why This Movie Made The List

Tom Hanks was already a star when Big was released. He had been in the sitcom, Bosom Buddies, and a half dozen feature films including Splash — but Big (directed by Penny Marshall from Laverne and Shirley fame) really put him on the map.

#116 – Aliens (1986)

Director: James Cameron

Actors: Sigourney Weaver

Plot Summary: A science-fiction action movie about a group of marines sent to investigate strange events at a remote colony, where they encounter a hostile alien species.

Why This Movie Made The List

Sequels are never better than the first movie in a series — except for when they are. And, Aliens is one of those rare cases. Alien (1979) was a great movie, but Aliens is even better. It’s too bad that Alien3 in 1992 couldn’t quite measure up to either of its predecessors.

#115 – Peewee’s Big Adventure (1985)

Director: Tim Burton

Actors: Paul Reubens

Plot Summary: A quirky comedy that follows Pee-wee Herman, a man-child who lives a colorful and eccentric life, as he sets out on a cross-country quest to recover his stolen bicycle.

Why This Movie Made The List

Few characters are as iconic as Pee-Wee Herman. It took Paul Reubens almost 5 years to perfect the character including an unsuccessful audition for the 1981 cast of Saturday Night Live. After the success of the movie he was asked to host the show in late 1985.

#114 – Roger and Me (1989)

Director: Michael Moore

Actors: Michael Moore

Plot Summary: A documentary about filmmaker Michael Moore’s attempts to track down former General Motors CEO Roger Smith to confront him about the closing of several auto plants in Flint, Michigan and its devastating effect on the town and its residents.

Why This Movie Made The List

The 1980s didn’t have a lot of great documentaries. I think this is the only to make our list. The writer / director / actor Michael Moore honed his skills at The Michigan Voice and Mother Jones before turning his pen to the social issue of America’s rust belt losing its competitive edge.

#113 – The Little Mermaid (1989)

Director: Ron Clements

Actors: Jodi Benson

Plot Summary: A Disney animated musical about a mermaid princess who yearns to live on land and experiences both triumphs and hardships in her quest to become human, win the heart of a prince, and find a place where she truly belongs.

Why This Movie Made The List

This is the only Disney animated movie on the list and it was a real banger. It put Disney on the track of having strong female characters (so called princesses) that have ruled the box office ever since. Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Moana …. Elsa – anyone?

#112 – Valley Girl (1983)

Director: Martha Coolidge

Actors: Deborah Foreman, Nicholas Cage

Plot Summary: A romantic comedy movie about a punk rocker who falls in love with a wealthy valley girl and must navigate their different worlds and social groups.

Why This Movie Made The List

Make no mistake, we don’t think Valley Girl was a great (or even, very good) movie. It does have two distinctions, though. It was Nicholas Cage’s breakout film and it self-consciously examines the “valley girl” linguistic and cultural phenomena that was so popular in the early 80s.

#111 – Pretty in Pink (1986)

Director: Howard Deutch

Actors: Molly Ringwald, Jon Cryer, Andrew McCarthy

Plot Summary: A coming-of-age romantic comedy film about a high school student who must choose between her longtime best friend and a rich and popular guy.

Why This Movie Made The List

Two out of the three main actors (Molly and Andrew) are official members of the “brat pack” and the third (Jon) is an honorary member. Our list wouldn’t be complete without the all-so-relatable yearning and angst of Ducky. Every 80s guy had that female friend that they were secretly in love with.

#110 – Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Director: Woody Allen

Actors: Mia Farrow, Carrie Fisher, Woody Allen

Plot Summary: A movie about the intertwined relationships and personal struggles of three sisters and the men in their lives.

Why This Movie Made The List

I would argue that Woody Allen’s most iconic movies are from the 1970s (like Annie Hall and Manhattan) but he did some amazing work in the 1980s as well. The reason this isn’t higher on the list is that it could be set in virtually any time. Despite being a great movie. it’s link to the 80s is weak.

#109 – Revenge of the Nerds (1984)

Director: Jeff Kanew

Actors: Anthony Edwards, Robert Carradine, Ted McGinley

Plot Summary: A comedy about a group of college students who band together to form their own fraternity and seek revenge against the jocks who have been bullying and harassing them.

Why This Movie Made The List

Here’s another movie that won’t win any Oscars but still deserves a spot on our list. It is pure schlock, but so much fun to watch. The stereotypes about Greek life are sometimes ridiculous and other times spot on. And, let’s not forget that this movie launch the career of Anthony Edwards,

#108 – Risky Business (1984)

Director: Paul Brickman

Actors: Tom Cruise, Rebecca De Mornay

Plot Summary: A classic comedy about an ambitious high school student who takes advantage of his parents’ absence to start an escort service in his home.

Why This Movie Made The List

While Tom Cruise had some significant supporting roles in the early 80s, Risky Business is where he really broke out as a leading man. And, one of the most iconic movie scenes of the 1980s – Tom sliding around in his dress shirt and tighty-whiteys – is from this move.

#107 – Porky’s (1981)

Director: Bob Clark

Actors: Dan Monahan

Plot Summary: A comedy about the misadventures of a group of high school friends as they try to lose their virginity and take revenge on a corrupt gym teacher.

Why This Movie Made The List

This was the movie that every teenage boy in the 80s sneaked around to watch. This is a movie that couldn’t be made in the 2010s or 2020s. We are far too woke. The opening scene with our heroes peaking at the girls in the high school locker room would get people canceled for sure.

#106 – Fame (1980)

Director: Alan Parker

Actors: Eddie Barth, Irene Cara, Lee Curreri

Plot Summary: A musical drama that follows the lives and struggles of a group of students at the New York High School of Performing Arts as they strive to become successful musicians, actors, and dancers.

Why This Movie Made The List

Fame cut across both the big screen (a blockbuster movie) and the small screen (a successful TV show). Irene Cara gets a lot of the acting credit for the movie, but there were a ton of unknown actors who were the real stars.

#105 – Tron (1982)

Director: Steven Lisberger

Actors: Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner

Plot Summary: A sci-fi adventure movie in which a programmer is digitally transported inside a computer where he must outwit the computer’s master control program to escape.

Why This Movie Made The List

This is a great example of a movie whose special effects were state of the art when it launched, but now seem antiquated. I remember sitting in the theater and watching this movie with wonder. Imagine how amazing and immersive SFX will be 40 years from now.

#104 – 48 Hrs (1982)

Director: Walter Hill

Actors: Eddie Murphy, Nick Nolte

Plot Summary: The original buddy-cop action film about a hard-edged cop who partners with a fast-talking convict on a mission to track down two cop-killers within 48 hours.

Why This Movie Made The List

Apparently there were “buddy cop” movies as early as 1949 — who knew — but 48 Hrs was the first one that most of us actually saw. With the comedic genius of Eddie Murphy and the hard as nails persona of Nick Nolte, this movie was so much fun to watch.

#103 – Caddyshack (1980)

Director: Harold Ramis

Actors: Bill Murray, Rodney Dangerfield, Chevy Chase

Plot Summary: A comedy set in a prestigious golf club, where a wealthy developer, a clueless caddy, a crazy greenskeeper, and a Guru-wannabe golf pro compete for attention and cause chaos, as the members prepare for the annual tournament.

Why This Movie Made The List

When Chevy Chase left SNL in 1976, everyone thought he was making a huge mistake. Caddyshack (albeit 4 years later) kinda proves that he had a point. Some people would argue that Bill Murray was teh real star of this movie, but this put Chevy Chase on the A-list and made his SNL departure seem justified.

#102 – Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Director: Amy Heckerling

Actors: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates

Plot Summary: A coming-of-age film that follows the lives of several high school students, as they navigate the challenges of adolescence, including dating, sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Why This Movie Made The List

There are three things that Fast Times is remembered for: the irreverent attitude of Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli, the stunning (bestill my beating heart) shot of Phoebe Cates getting out the the pool, and the fact that this is Cameron Crowe’s screenwriting debut.

#101 – Die Hard (1988)

Director: Jim Abrahams

Actors: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman

Plot Summary: One of the greatest action films ever about a New York cop who battles terrorists who take over a high-rise building on Christmas Eve, as he fights to save his wife and the hostages and take down the villainous mastermind behind the attack.

Why This Movie Made The List

Bruce Willis did a couple of movies (and the TV show, Moonlighting) – but Die Hard is what turned him into a mega-star. The movie also played on the Japan-o-phobia that was a popular trend in the late 80s and early 90s. One last thing – a lot of people consider this to be the only real action-Christmas movie.

Continue on to part 2 – #100 – #76

The 100 Best Movies of the 1980s (part 3) – The Best Decade

Wednesday 8th of February 2023

[…] 25 Honorable Mentions […]

The Best Movies of the 1980s (part 2) – The Best Decade

Tuesday 7th of February 2023

[…] 25 Honorable Mentions […]