10 Essential Movies From the 1980s

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Julia Tran

“The Empire Strikes Back” is one of the two movies in the Star Wars franchise that I consider to be a masterpiece.

Luke Thompson, Assistant Editor

This article discusses movies with content that might not be suitable for some viewers. The list is not categorized in any particular order. 

That’s right, folks, it’s here: the sequel to my article from a few weeks ago that highlighted what I believe to be some of the best movies to come out of the 1990s. 

The 1980s is a decade that has maintained cultural relevance for almost half a century. Modern media has been drawn to the time period, with productions such as “Stranger Things” and “It” being prominent examples of popular television and film that are set during the time when our parents grew up. 

The 1980s gave us some questionable fashion trends, some outstanding music, and some incredible pieces of cinema. I have a sort of fascination with 80s movies, with the biggest reason being that so many of them are so good that they blow my mind.

So relax and take yourself back to the past; to a decade when there were only three “Star Wars” movies, a time of Reaganomics, when you could have watched Live Aid on your lousy color TV, when arcades and record stores were little pieces of heaven on Earth, when Run-D.M.C was at the height of the rap game, when big hair and roller skate arenas were the pinnacle of style, and when some of the best movies ever made were released unto the world.


Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – PG

I may have sold my soul to George Lucas at a very young age, but I still have a strange relationship with the Star Wars franchise. On one hand, there hasn’t been a single movie that I didn’t enjoy. On the other hand, out of the 11 movies that have been made, I only consider five of them to be actually good, and only two of them to be masterpieces.

“The Empire Strikes Back” is one of the two masterpieces. It is well-paced and beautifully scored, the story is wonderfully fantastical and surprisingly subversive, and the visual effects are mind-blowingly good — even 40 years later. 

Episode V is a classic, with its quality world-renowned and its mythos set in stone.

It has affected cinema long after its release; the notoriously dire ending has influenced a trend in sequels across numerous franchises. An example of a second movie in a series that has a darker tone and themes of failure is “The Dark Knight” (2008), from Christopher Nolan’s Trilogy of Batman films.

Even if you have never watched a Star Wars movie and weren’t planning on starting now, please give this one a try.

Also for those of you who may be wondering, the other movies that I consider to be good are “The Return of the Jedi”, “The Force Awakens”, and “Solo: A Star Wars Story”. And I’ll write about the other masterpiece when we get to the 1970s.

The Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – PG (but let’s face it, this movie is not for kids)

This is my favorite movie of all time. There will be no further questions. There will be no contradictions. This is, in my subjective opinion as a hopeless film fanatic, one of the single greatest movies ever made. 

There are very few films that can claim to have something close to a perfect script. Very few films have what can qualify as a perfect cast. Very few films have a soundtrack so iconic, so recognizable, that I can hear part of a song and immediately see the scene it accompanies playing out in my mind. “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark” is one of these movies. 

The action-adventure follows Indiana Jones, played by Harrison Ford, as he, his cohorts, and his nemeses race across oceans and continents to discover the last resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. It may take some creative liberties with the powers of the Ark, but man, is it good to watch a movie from a time when everyone was pretty much on the same page about making Nazis the butt of the joke. 

I want that time back.

This movie is perfectly paced, impeccably shot, and bound together in such a tight package of cinematic glory that it makes me kind of angry that such a good movie could exist. This movie makes me feel good when I watch it. 

Please don’t remake this, Hollywood. Let it remain sacred.

And stop making sequels. This is your last warning.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) – PG-13

This movie is ahead of its time. It speaks such volumes to John Hughes’ skill as a director that I can have arguments with myself about the plot and character development of a movie that is about a high school senior who skips school for a day to joyride around Chicago in a stolen Ferrari.

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” both nail what I consider to be the most important elements of film: screenplay and pacing. A movie with bad pacing can turn two hours into four. But with “Day Off,” watching it never becomes a chore. 

Laden with themes of independence, societal expectations, and good old-fashioned teenage rebellion, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” makes you want to take your best friends on a road trip to see the world because, in the words of the titular character, “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Die Hard (1988) – R

“Die Hard” is a Christmas movie and I will fight you if you disagree.

Just kidding. I won’t fight you.

But seriously, this movie is good. In fact, I want to give a massive tip of the hat to any 80s movie that, on paper, appears just another forgettable piece of action schlock, but that has the nuance, intelligence, and respect for the audience to be elevated to a higher plane of cinema. 

The premise is relatively simple; a New York City cop, played by Bruce Willis, travels to LA to be with his kids for the holidays, only to be trapped in a skyscraper with a group of anarchist jewel thieves who have taken his wife and all her coworkers hostage. 

It sounds about as silly as you can get. But there’s something about this movie that just makes it better than its first impression. It might be the believable characters and witty dialogue that never devolves into mindless one-liners. It might be the brilliant performances from Willis and Alan Rickman. It might be that Rickman’s character, Hans Gruber, is a villain who is likable because he’s actually smart. 

If you want to be engaged by the world and story, this movie is for you. But if you want to see a muscle-bound action hero shooting bad guys, then you can do that too.

The Princess Bride (1987) – PG

“The Princess Bride” is just… Ah, it’s just amazing. Equally grounded and whimsical, this movie has an atmosphere of innocence and joy that just gets to me. There’s nothing mean-spirited about it, and it also happens to be one of the funniest movies on this list.

There’s something for everyone in this movie. There are characters that everyone can root for, ideas that everyone can get behind, themes and stories being told that will resonate with anyone who watches this movie, regardless of how old you are.

Yes, it’s a love story. Yes, it’s a fairy tale. Yes, there are pirates and monsters and some really silly moments, but this movie knows exactly what it’s doing, and everything you see feels intentional and nothing feels phoned in.

Plus, this movie has what I think is one of the greatest movie lines ever, no exaggeration. You’ll know the one when you hear it.

Karate Kid (1984) – PG

I’m starting to realize that there are a lot of teen movies on this list, and I don’t actually care all that much. “Karate Kid” is really good. Like, it might just inspire you to get out of bed in the morning. It’s that good.

A down-on-his-luck high school student, eager to get the skills he needs to fend off his bullies, learns that discipline and self-control are just as important in martial arts as being able to punch someone really hard in the face. I can’t think of many better mentor-student relationships in film than Mr. Miyagi and Daniel.

This kind of summer fun might just lift your spirits as the school year winds down and we turn our attention to not burning alive. If you’re looking for a time capsule from 1984, but without all the authoritarianism, this is the movie for you.

Dead Poets Society (1989) – PG

Oh, man. This movie. This. Movie. I don’t really know where to start. There is nothing more awesome than a group of teens who become so inspired by literature and the romance of the arts that they begin to shake off the chains of expectation and constant external pressure. 

This movie makes the cheesy look serious. It makes the sentimental seem invaluable. It makes the trivialities of teenage angst seem like matters of life and death, because when you’re getting up the courage to call someone you like on the phone, it’s the most terrifying thing in the world.

This movie has a clear message that anyone who has a dream for something different, something beautiful and worthless, should follow that dream. But it doesn’t sugarcoat the potential dangers. It doesn’t shy away from showing that the business of following a passion is a high risk and high reward journey.

But the inspiration is still there. The power of words, camaraderie, and a joyful spirit cannot be ignored, and neither can this movie, in which Robin Williams utters the fateful words, “Carpe Diem,” which inspired a generation.

Back to the Future (1985) – PG (wow they really didn’t watch the movie did they?)

I am thoroughly convinced that this movie is greater than the sum of its parts. I love it so much, and yet there are parts of it that I just can’t deal with. For example, this is a movie about a teenager who goes back in time to the 1950s, meets his parents, attempts to attack his mom in order to get her and his dad to get together, and takes credit for writing the song “Johnny B. Goode.” Yeah.

But even so, this movie just has something about it that makes it good. It might be the iconic poster. It might be Michael J. Fox’s magnetic performance. It might be the goofy stakes and delightfully over-the-top plot. It might be that watching a kid from the 80s shredding on a guitar in front of a gym full of horrified 1950s kids just makes me laugh really hard.

So kick back, relax, and watch a movie full of irreverent humor, nonsensical time travel gimmicks, and a Delorian that flies.

Predator (1987) – R

Okay, hear me out.

It’s safe to assume that Arnold Schwarzenegger action films have a few key elements in common: violence, explosions, heavily muscled men emptying magazines into legions of bad guys. But for every brainless war film or revenge fantasy, there’s a “Predator.”

The movie begins with the ammo-dumping, one-liner spitting cotton candy that you’d expect from lesser movies of the genre as Arnie and his merry band of mercenaries cut their way through a South American jungle to strike at a drug cartel.

However, something very interesting happens once the heroes attempt their escape. The alien force to which the movie owes its title begins to hunt them down, and suddenly the very cinematic cliches that kept these characters alive start to fail them. 

“Predator” is surprisingly subversive; it doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t, but there’s something uniquely disconcerting about seeing invincible action heroes flounder in the face of a threat that their bulging biceps and indestructible masculinity cannot possibly save them from. Much in the vein of 1992’s “Scream” (hey, look! A callback!), this movie deconstructs the same genre that gives it its appeal. 

I just found something philosophical to say about “Predator.” A movie that gave us the line, “I ain’t got time to bleed.” I’m losing my mind. Please help.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) – PG

Here, finally, is a movie that everyone should see once in their lives. A story that proves that, despite differences of language, class, or planet of origin, friendship has no limitations.

It’s no wonder that Steven Spielberg has his name attached to three of the movies on this list. Love him or hate him, he’s one of the most influential and important filmmakers of all time. And I happen to love him.

If you like “Stranger Things,” then you have this movie to thank. A group of kids hiding a strange supernatural force from an insidious government organization? Yeah, there’s more than a little “inspiration” going on here. But hey! While we all wait semi-enthusiastically for the fourth season, “E.T.” has all the bike-riding, alien-discovering, childhood charm to make you wish that you grew up in a time where kids just up and left for suburban adventures on a whim, without a care in the world.


The 1970s are next on the list. If you want to argue with me in the comments section, you are free to do so. Just please keep it civil. Alright, I’ll catch y’all next time.