Skip to main content

The 25 best 80s movies, from Back to the Future to Blade Runner and beyond

10. The Breakfast Club (1985)

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

The most John Hughes of all the John Hughes movies, this is the quintessential ’80s teen flick. It’s the ultimate distillation of the idea that the best high school movies work because you’re trapping people who’d never choose to be together in one place, as representatives of the classic US high school cliques – “the jock”, “the nerd”, “the princess”, “the basket case” and “the criminal” – find themselves in detention. They then inevitably learn they have more in common than they thought, before expressing their feelings via the medium of the essay.

Most of the cast look way too old to be in school, and talk with an eloquence you won’t hear in many classrooms, but as implausible and emotionally overwrought as it is, The Breakfast Club is undeniably iconic.

Most iconic moment: At the end of the movie, to the sound of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me”, Judd Nelson’s John Bender punches the air in triumph, before being immortalised in freeze frame.

9. Gremlins (1984)

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Never expose them to sunlight, never get them wet, never feed them after midnight… When your new pet comes with rules like that, it’s kind of inevitable that at least one of them will be broken. That said, failing to follow the instructions doesn’t usually lead to a horde of mischievous reptilian creatures spreading havoc across a small American town.

Coming from the darker edges of the Spielberg/Amblin spectrum – along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins prompted the introduction of the PG-13 certificate in the U.S. – it’s also anarchically good fun, with director Joe Dante as much influenced by Looney Tunes as he is by horror. Gremlins are dangerous, but really they just want to have a good time.

Most iconic moment: After a tiring evening terrorising unsuspecting townsfolk, the Gremlins sit down for a communal singalong in front of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

8. Brazil (1985)

(Image credit: 20th Century Fox)

Of all the entries on this list of the best 80s movies, this is the one the phrase “flawed masterpiece” was made for. Monty Python legend Terry Gilliam’s passion project is a wildly inventive, if slightly incoherent, reinvention of Orwell’s 1984. Set “somewhere in the 20th century…”, it’s as if past, present and future have collided to create a bureaucratic hell packed with intimidating plumbing – there’s something very British about a dystopia where filling out forms is part of the nightmare.

It’s ostensibly about Jonathan Pryce’s Sam Lowry’s quest to right an administrative cock-up, but the plot’s almost irrelevant – instead enjoy it for the visuals, and Robert De Niro (yes, really) as vigilante plumber Harry Tuttle.

Most iconic moment: Michael Palin playing on his nice guy image as a torturer who finds the whole thing terribly inconvenient.

7. Labyrinth (1986)

(Image credit: TriStar Pictures)

Muppet master Jim Henson’s first fantasy epic was the rather bleak The Dark Crystal, but his second is a considerably lighter affair, with comedy, songs and even some human actors added to the mix – including David Bowie as Jareth, the Goblin King. With a script from Monty Python’s Terry Jones, it’s a fun, child friendly take on the classic quest, as 16-year-old Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) makes her way through the eponymous maze to rescue her baby brother before he becomes a goblin forever.

Packed with amazing puppets of all shapes and sizes, and inventive backdrops – the M.C. Escher-inspired room from the last act is amazing – Labyrinth exists in a world unlike any other on screen. Though it has to be said that in 2019, the borderline-romantic relationship between Sarah and Jareth does feel somewhat awkward.

Most iconic moment: Not one of Bowie’s greatest hits, perhaps but undoubtedly one of the catchiest, “Magic Dance” is an earworm for the ages. “You remind me of the babe…”

6. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

Ferris Bueller is the ultimate example of teenage wish fulfilment – the effortlessly cool kid who skips school and basically gets away with it. Of course if you’re going to play truant, you may as well do it in style, and Ferris certainly does that, “borrowing” a vintage Ferrari, performing in a massive Chicago parade, and constantly staying one step ahead of cynical Dean of Students Ed Rooney.

On paper Ferris should be insufferably smug, but Matthew Broderick keeps him just the right side of annoying via a winning mix of charm and fourth wall-breaking asides to the camera. But the true star is Alan Ruck’s Cameron Fry, the morose, sardonic best friend who grounds Ferris and the movie – just don’t believe the lie that Ferris did everything for his BFF…

Most iconic moment: Ferris’s attempt to wind the mileage down on Cameron’s dad’s Ferrari goes, er, slightly wrong, and the classic car goes flying out of a garage window.

5. The Goonies (1985)

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

If any one film could be cited as the main inspiration for Stranger Things it’s this story of hunt for an actual pirate’s treasure buried under an Oregon town. Effectively Indiana Jones for pre-teens (it even features Short Round from Temple of Doom), it’s an endlessly quotable race through puzzles, booby traps and scenes of extended peril – the sort of adventure every kid wishes they could go on.

Gremlins writer Chris Columbus’s script sparkles, but it’s the young ensemble (including a pre-Thanos Josh Brolin) who make it work, thanks to their natural, easy chemistry. The Fratellis also make for memorable villains, walking the tightrope between ineptitude and genuine menace.

Most iconic moment: Youngest Fratelli brother Sloth turns hero, swinging into action from a pirate ship’s mast, and yelling the immortal, “Hey you guys!”

4. Batman (1989)

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

It’s hard to believe it now but superheroes were anything but a big deal in the late-80s. The risible Superman 4 had killed the Christopher Reeve Man of Steel series, and Marvel’s sole representative on the big screen – aside from Howard the Duck – was Dolph Lundgren in The Punisher. Then along came Batman…

Thanks to an innovative, logo-driven marketing campaign, Tim Burton’s movie was pretty much guaranteed to be a smash. But it’s also a wonderfully quirky movie that acknowledges the ludicrousness of a man dressing up as a bat, while remembering that the villains are generally the most interesting residents of Gotham City – Jack Nicholson’s wonderfully over-the-top Joker deservedly received top billing.

Most iconic moment: Batman takes Vicki Vale on a trip to the Bat Cave, as Burton reveals a gothic take on the Dark Knight that couldn’t be further from the 60s TV show. Danny Elfman’s much-imitated theme music seals the deal.

3. When Harry Met Sally (1989)

(Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

No screenwriter has owned the romantic comedy quite like the late Nora Ephron did, and When Harry Met Sally is her masterpiece. Based around the idea that a man and a woman can’t be friends because “the sex part gets in the way”, it follows Billy Crystal’s Harry and Meg Ryan’s Sally through years of on/off relationship.

This is several cuts above the average rom-com, however, with brilliant chemistry, sharp writing and a healthy cynicism about happily-ever-afters. Thirty years on, it remains a high watermark in the genre.

Most iconic moment: It has to be the incredibly famous diner orgasm scene – we’ll have what she’s having.

2. Akira (1988)

(Image credit: Toho)

It’s almost a cliché that the one anime entry on this list of the best 80s movies should be Akira – but that’s because it’s a sci-fi classic every bit as influential as Blade Runner.

Like Ridley Scott’s film, it’s also set in 2019, but replaces Los Angeles with a Neo Tokyo where gangs of futuristic bikers roam the streets. As a pair of childhood friends find their paths diverging after one becomes the subject of secret government experiments, it’s a good excuse for some of the most radical animation ever put on the big screen, with backgrounds packed with mind-boggling levels of detail. More importantly, however, this was an important reminder to the West that cartoons aren’t just for kids.

1. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

An image from A Nightmare on Elm Street

(Image credit: New Line Cinema)

Thanks to Halloween and Friday the 13th, the slasher movie was already big business by the time A Nightmare on Elm Street came along. But director Wes Craven – who’d later go on to put a post-modern spin on the genre with Scream – gave us a killer unlike anything we’d seen before with the knife-handed Freddy Krueger. This guy stalked teenagers in their dreams…

It’s an ingenious idea that gives victims no respite (after all, nobody can stay awake forever), and the chance to construct some gruesomely elaborate deaths – this remains the only film where Johnny Depp has been liquidised on a bed. Sequels of varying quality gradually diminished Krueger and made him more wisecracker than killer, but in his first outing he’s a true icon of horror.

Most iconic moment: Falling asleep in the bath can be risky at the best of times, but as Final Girl Nancy finds out, it’s particularly dangerous when a guy with bladed gloves can kill you while you dream…