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

20. Aliens (1986)

(Image credit: 20th Century Fox)

If the original Alien is the definitive sci-fi horror movie, Aliens set the blueprint for every sci-fi action film that’s followed it. Hot off the back of The Terminator, director James Cameron came in to the world Ridley Scott created and reassembled it in his own image – relentless, muscular action with a very human story at its core.  

It’s the perfect sequel, both a logical continuation of what had come before and an ingenious expansion of the mythology, with the mother/daughter relationship between Ripley and the orphaned Newt mirrored by the introduction of an equally maternal Alien Queen. Six movies on, the franchise hasn’t come close to matching this classic, one of the very best 80s movies.

Most iconic moment: “Get away from her, you bitch!” is the t-shirt-worthy quote, but the Colonial Marines’ first close encounter with the Xenomorphs is brutal, chaotic brilliance.

19. Die Hard (1988)

(Image credit: 20th Century Fox)

Another member of the pantheon of best 80s movies that created the blueprint for a whole subgenre. It seemed unfortunate at the time, but New York cop John McClane getting trapped in an LA skyscraper on the night “exceptional thief” Hans Gruber and his gang attempt to rob the safe proved life-changing for all involved.

Bruce Willis was transformed from popular Moonlighting TV star to bona fide action lead overnight, while Alan Rickman created the decade’s definitive screen villain in Hans Gruber. But the real stars are Steven de Souza’s script and John McTiernan’s explosive direction, which make the most of the claustrophobia of the tower block setting. Without Die Hard, there’d be no Speed, no Under Siege and no Hot Fuzz – it’s that big a deal. And sorry, It’s a Wonderful Life and Home Alone, but Die Hard is the best Christmas movie of all time.

Most iconic moment: “Now I have a machine gun. Ho. Ho. Ho…”

18. Ghostbusters (1984)

(Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

If you watched Ghostbusters as a kid, you probably saw a totally different movie to the one you’d see now. On one level it’s a fun sci-fi movie about catching spooks, with cool hardware, an iconic car, memorable jargon, a catchy-as-hell theme tune and the occasional scare – the sort of family movie that can spawn a successful animated spin-off like The Real Ghostbusters.

Watch it as an adult, however, and you realise it’s really a comedy with blockbuster bits bolted on, as a bunch of Saturday Night Live veterans work their way through some of the best one-liners (many of them improvised) ever put on screen. Bill Murray has never been better than he is as Dr Peter Venkman – back off man, he’s a scientist. 

Most iconic moment: It’s got to be the appearance of the giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man terrorising New York.

17. This is Spinal Tap (1984)

(Image credit: Embassy Pictures)

Rob Reiner’s iconic rockumentary – if you will, mockumentary – not only established the faux-documentary format that’s been used in everything from Best in Show to The Office and What We Do in the Shadows, but is one of the funniest, most quotable comedies of all time – as well as being one of the best 80s movies.

Following the US comeback tour of an English heavy metal band who’ve seen better days, it’s so well observed that numerous real-life rock stars have claimed it’s about them. The thing is, David St Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel and Derek Smalls can hold their own against all of them, with amplifiers that “go to 11”, malfunctioning stage sets, and piano ballads with extremely questionable titles. The songs are really good too.

Most iconic moment: It’s got to be the show-stopping performance of “Stonehenge” – shame the boulders are only a foot high…

16. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Until Steven Spielberg smashed his box office own record with Jurassic Park 11 years later, this modern fairytale was the biggest movie of all time. It’s easy to see why. With the director coaxing incredibly naturalistic performances from kids (including a young Drew Barrymore) and a puppet, this tale of a boy befriending an alien marooned on Earth is a simple tale told beautifully.

While the director unashamedly tugs at the heartstrings, you don’t feel manipulated because the characters are so real and ET himself so endearing. The film also knows when to roll out the action sequences, with the BMX chases making every kid feel they could be a hero.

Most iconic moment: Chased by government officers, ET makes Elliott and friends’ bikes fly as John Williams’s strings soar.

15. The Terminator (1984)

The Terminator franchise has become such a convoluted mess of time paradoxes and ludicrous plot twists that it’s easy to forget how brilliant James Cameron’s original tale of a cyborg killer from the future is – the movie that established the movie careers of both Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger is a lean, non-stop action machine.

The similarly brilliant Terminator 2 may have upped the scale seven years later with its groundbreaking CG and broader story, but this is a tighter, more efficient movie, completely focused on its deadly tale of cat and mouse. Arnie, whose subsequent Terminators have all played at being the good guy, has never been better than he is here. 

Most iconic moment: Before it became a catchphrase and a cliché, the first time the Terminator says “I’ll be back” ( before slaughtering an entire police station) is genuinely chilling.

14. The Thing (1982)

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Made in the middle of John Carpenter’s golden run (Halloween, The Fog, Escape from New York, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China), The Thing is the director’s masterpiece. A remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951) (itself an adaptation of John W. Campbell novella “Who Goes There?”), it’s the ultimate paranoia thriller, as a bunch of guys are stranded in an Antarctic research station with a shapeshifting alien hiding among them…

 The performances are great and Carpenter milks the tension for all its worth, but it’s Rob Bottin’s groundbreaking alien prosthetics that steal the show. The way the rubber skin stretches and breaks gives The Thing an otherworldly quality that modern CGI could never touch.

Most iconic moment: The blood test scene is tense as hell, but the moment a head sprouts legs and scuttles across the floor is a genuine shocker. “You gotta be fucking kidding,” indeed…

13. The Fly (1986)

(Image credit: 20th Century Fox)

David Cronenberg made the story of a scientist who accidentally splices his DNA with a fly’s his own in this superior remake.  Ditching the 1950s movie’s cheesy notion of the unfortunate protagonist winding up with a fly’s head and arm, Cronenberg switches things round to make the film a study of his regular themes of disease and body horror.

Jeff Goldblum is at his nerdy best as Seth Brundle’s body slowly decays, before the monster inside starts to rule and he has to battle a new, more brutal side to his character. But beyond the horror and state-of-the-art make-up effects The Fly works because it’s grounded by one of cinema’s greatest doomed romances, with Goldblum and Geena Davis finding the humanity beneath the goop.

Most iconic moment: "I'm an insect who dreamt he was a man, and loved it. But now the dream is over... and the insect is awake.”

12. The Shining (1980)

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

While the subdued likes of About Schmidt have proved that Jack Nicholson is more than capable of being subtle, he’s at his most memorable when he lets himself off the leash. Stanley Kubrick’s one horror movie gives the star free rein in a movie that expertly shows one man’s descent into madness at the isolated Overlook Hotel. 

Despite taking considerable liberties with Stephen King’s original novel – the author was never a fan of the adaptation – it’s packed with iconic images that have made a considerable impact on pop culture. It’s since been spoofed in everything from The Simpsons to Spaced, formed the basis of a sequence in the Ready Player One movie, and spawned Room 237, a documentary about the themes in the movie.

Most iconic moment: Nicholson smashing through a door with an axe is pretty scary – but somehow, yelling “Here’s Johnny!” makes it even more frightening.

11. Stand by Me (1986)

(Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

Different Seasons, Stephen King’s 1982 collection of novellas, has been a gift to cinema. Its quartet of non-horror tales has been the inspiration for Bryan Singer’s Apt Pupil, The Shawshank Redemption, and this peerless take on “The Body”.

Director Rob Reiner spins one of Hollywood’s great tales of coming of age, as four boys set out on a trip to find the body of a missing boy. Led by a brilliant performance from the late River Phoenix, it’s by turns funny, harrowing and poignant – even though much of its running time is just a group of perfectly cast kids talking about their hopes and fears. "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12,” says Richard Dreyfuss’s narrator at the end. Hard to argue with that. 

Most iconic moment: This may not be a Stephen King horror story, but it does contain one of the maestro’s scariest moments – the scene where the boys are trapped on a bridge with a fast-approaching train is heart-in-mouth stuff.

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