Welcome to Paste’s 80 Best Movies of the 1980s. This list takes into account what the critics and audiences of the time could not—the lasting ripple effects of iconic performances, influential direction and pop-culture sweet spots, as well as some simply overlooked gems. That said, a great performance or popular endearment isn’t necessarily enough. The films on this list must be good, solid examples of their respective genre (and in some cases, the template for said genre).
This list is not meant to be just another rehashing of critical favorites nor a popularity contest. Instead, it’s a bit of both, with a few other considerations thrown in to boot. The result is a list that compares apples and oranges—and lima beans and lamps—with the ultimate goal of providing the Paste reader a list of movies that are worth checking out.
Are there 20 films by masters missing from this list? At least. Twenty films beloved by the masses absent and worth inclusion? Without a doubt. With that in mind, consider this the only thing such a list can be—a good start. We invite you to share your own suggestions in the comment section. Keep the tone collegial, and make the case for that movie you feel has been overlooked. Your fellow Paste readers will only stand to benefit!
It’s near impossible for moviegoers under a certain age to understand just how bleak the fantasy-film landscape was for avid fantasy buffs in the early 1980s. Most of the classics of fantasy literature were deemed unmakeable and those that were made were pretty much unwatchable. As for original screenplays? Krull. Dark times, indeed. Ladyhawke, Richard Donner’s tale of cursed lovers and the thief who helps them, was a break in the clouds, or more precisely, the first pebble of an eventual avalanche of genre that dominates the box office today. As Etienne, Isabeau and the Mouse, respectively, Rutger Hauer, Michelle Pfeiffer and Matthew Broderick invest their characters with a degree of role-appropriate personality and charm that marks them more as fantasy archetypes than film stereotypes. Shot simply and beautifully, Ladyhawke represented an important watershed for the genre—it felt real. (The soundtrack, sadly, sucks.) —M.B.
79. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Come for the “KhaaAAHHHHHN!”, stay for the surprisingly emotional treatise on aging without wisdom, as well as one hell of a potent, humbling gut punch of an ending. Anyone arguing for any other film in the Trek franchise will find themselves speaking into a black hole chewed in the matte canvas by exquisitely potent villain, played by Ricardo Montalban. That director/co-writer Nicholas Meyer somehow coaxes a performance from William Shatner that’s only barely un-Kosher makes this movie a space opera with broad, lasting appeal. —S.W.
78. Sixteen Candles
Molly Ringwald’s turn as Sam, the high-school sophomore in a family that’s forgotten it’s her Sweet 16—plus a stronger, more expansive supporting cast—push this John Hughes effort ahead of The Breakfast Club that followed. Anthony Michael Hall and his ever-skeptical friends represent a leap forward in the presentation of nerd-kind (making up, perhaps, for the step back of Gedde Watanabe’s offensive-but-hilarious-nonetheless Long Duk Dong). While fathers everywhere still say “What?!” to the closing image of Sam’s dad smiling benevolently as she goes off with some strange guy, the sweetness of family and friendship wins out. —M.B.
77. My Neighbor Totoro
Granted, later films by Hayao Miyazaki (especially Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away) would explore more serious themes, but the magic that made Studio Ghibli the only real pre-Pixar alternative to the Disney machine can be found here: the sprightly imagination, the endearing characters and the evocation of both childhood wonders and fears. —M.B.
More embedded in pop culture than any other comedy of the last 30 years, Caddyshack may just now be receding in its reach. Featuring iconic performances by both Chevy Chase and Bill Murray (one of whom has weathered the intervening years better than the other), the Harold Ramis-directed comedy put golf in its place and ensured it would be a long time before anyone would see a Baby Ruth near a swimming pool without snickering. —M.B.
75. The Terminator
It’s appropriate that the arrival of a naked cyborg (shaped much like the future governor of California) heralded the arrival of a filmmaker whose use of technology has had almost as significant an impact on the film industry as Dark Lord Lucas himself. (The box office receipts are comparable, as well.) Granted, in terms of special effects, James Cameron’s 1984 sci-fi thriller is a simple affair when compared to its sequel (or Titanic or Avatar), but its frenetic action and iconic title character made the success of The Terminator as unexpected as it was deserved.
74. The Brother from Another Planet
During the ’80s, John Sayles established himself as a smart indie writer/director with a knack for social commentary. But only one of his films embedded said commentary into a zany sci-fi plot. The result is the story of a mute alien who looks like a black man with weird feet, who crash-lands in Harlem and meets and observes the people of New York City. Joe Morton gives a stellar silent performance that, like the film itself, seamlessly moves from comic to empathetic. —J.M.
One of the decade’s most remarkable shots doesn’t feature any fancy camera moves or dramatic reveals. It just shows a 360-ton boat slowly inching up a large, steep jungle hill. Werner Herzog could have used some form of special effects to make it happen, but he felt the audience would have been able to tell, so he really pulled the boat up a mountain, in a famously hellish shoot (depicted in Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams). Perhaps the film is so engaging because Herzog’s own obsession with the unthinkable parallels that of his mad title character, a wild-eyed and wild-haired opera lover who wants to build an opera house in a small Peruvian city along the Amazon and tries to get into the rubber business to do it. Klaus Kinski embodies the role perfectly, allowing us to sympathize with his foolish dreams. —J.M.
72. The Vanishing
It’s easy to underrate the impact of director George Sluizer’s 1988 film. After all, the population explosion of cold, calculating killers featured in “murder of the week” television shows and news program reenactments makes The Vanishing’s innovative structure—introducing the viewer to the villain early and featuring him throughout the picture—seem almost formulaic. But the approach was riveting then, and still is today. —M.B.
71. A Christmas Story
To wring something as genuinely warm and heartfelt as it is hilarious from a central theme of rampant consumerism is a rare thing. To supplant Christmas Day TV scheduling previously reserved only for classics like It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street is quite another. Director Bob Clark assembles a pool of onscreen talent who were clearly born to inhabit Jean Shepherd’s treasured story of childhood amidst Major Awards, first swear words, cynical Mall Santas, and—of course—the ruminations on what it truly means to shoot your eye out. —S.W.