Join us as our crew tries to select the most iconic film from each year in the 1980’s. There are many classic beloved films to choose from, which ones will make then cut?
The 1980’s were a magical time for cinema. On one hand you have the grittier aspirations from the 1970’s New Hollywood movement blending into a more commercial, and entertaining approach. On the other hand you find important filmmakers hitting their stride, whose work would come to define the next two decades of cinema and beyond. In the 1980’s film became as popular as ever, and for once it seemed to cater to everyone.
When we look back at the 1980’s there are certain films which stand out. These are the films which have come to define the decade in film. They may not have always been the most popular at the time of their release, but have aged well enough so that we continue to enjoy them to this day. They are cult classics, Hollywood blockbusters, or anything in between which remain pop-culture staples almost 40 years later.
But what if we had to pick the ten films that best defined the 1980’s, one from each year? I posed this question to our team and this is what they came up with. Below we’ve listed the film we think stands out the best from each year of the 1980’s and provided comments on why we made that decision.
It is important to note that these films are the ones that we felt are the most iconic from each year, not necessarily the most popular or best films. These are the movies that had the largest impact on our appreciation of pop culture from the 1980’s, and also the course of the industry during that time. These are movies that made actors into movie stars and directors into industry titans. What films would you choose from each year?
Garrett’s Choice = Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
I mean, it’s the best Star Wars film. One of the greatest sequels ever made. The highlight of one of the most important movie franchises on the planet, and really set the tone for how awesome 80’s movies could be.
Jordan’s Choice = Superman II
In the interest of changing things up a bit (and because Garrett took mine), I’m going with Superman II. While the first Christopher Reeves film is often held up as the standard for what Superman stories should be, I always enjoyed the sequel more. Getting to see him put his skills to the test against other super-powered foes was a treat, and the villainous Zod remains an icon all these decades later.
Sean’s Choice = The Empire Strikes Back
A really different kind of Star Wars film even now, heroes on the run and no ending victory was a bold choice that pumps the breaks on the galaxy ending threat for some great character development. It endears you all the more to every character and has some of the most compelling storytelling, imagery and character introductions in the franchise to date.
Becky’s Choice = The Empire Strikes Back
You really can’t deny that the 1980s got off to a roaring start with the release of The Empire Strikes Back. This remains one of my favorite Star Wars films, as it has one of the best duels in the entire saga as well as one of the biggest cinematic twists of all time. When I saw this idea of picking the best films from the 80s, I just knew this movie had to be one of my picks.
Garrett’s Choice = Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
The idea of Spielberg and Lucas teaming up must have blown people’s minds back in the day. This film certainly lived up to those expectations, and gave us the first new mega-franchise of the 1980’s. Adventure films have been trying to catch up ever since.
Jordan’s Choice = The Road Warrior
As much as Indiana Jones has had an impact on culture and adventure films, one could make the same argument for the bombastic action in the Mad Max sequel, Road Warrior. The film not only improved upon the original, but crafted a whole new mythos around the character, setting the stage for dynamic action pieces that continue to hold up today.
Sean’s Choice= The Evil Dead
I don’t think this is the best of the franchise, nor is it a fantastic film. It has one of the weirdest scenes in a film I’ve ever seen that even it’s director has come to regret. But the level of production value this film appears to have when made by a load of teenagers with zero mainstream filmmaking experience on a budget of under $400,000 is staggering and I can’t help but admire it for that.
Becky’s Choice = Clash of the Titans
While I am a huge fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark, my pick for the most iconic film of 1981 is Clash of the Titans, the last film to feature stop motion work from Ray Harryhausen. The film recounts the myth of Perseus and while the stop motion effects feel like they belong to a different era entirely, it’s done with such care that the film has been a favorite of mine for years.
Garrett’s Choice = E.T. The Extra Terrestrial
‘82 was an incredible year for classic films. I went with E.T. because it signified the type of lo-fi blockbuster event film that would only have been possible in the 80’s. It also signified the staying power of science fiction in those type of mass-market films. Spielberg was also at the top of his game.
Jordan’s Choice = The Dark Crystal
1982 turned out to be a banner year for sword and sorcery films. With Beastmaster and Conan The Barbarian, not to mention some solid animation offerings. For me, however, The Dark Crystal stands out to me. Jim Hensen’s idea of making a gripping, fantasy tale using only puppets worked better than it had any right to and remains a world we keep wanting to return to.
Sean’s Choice= Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan
It still holds up to be one of the best Trek film’s yet, easily Shatners best performance in the franchise with some absolutely heart wrenching deliveries. It solidifies Kirk and Spock as one of my favorite movie duos and has me emotional on every watch in those final scenes. “Of my friend, I can only say this. Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most human.” Is and will always be one of most heartbreaking and beautiful lines in film to me.
Becky’s Choice = The Secret of NIMH
I was highly tempted to choose Blade Runner for this year but I ultimately decided to go with one of my childhood favorites: The Secret of NIMH. I grew up watching this movie (despite the nightmares it gave me) and it remains a favorite of mine. Even after all these years the movie has some of the most beautifully rendered animation I’ve ever seen, with a gorgeous score from Jerry Goldsmith. And of course the climax of the movie remains one of the greatest animated scenes ever created from this era.
Garrett’s Choice = National Lampoon’s Vacation
Okay, maybe not the best or most impactful film of 1983, but it’s a classic comedy that has stood the test of time and founded a franchise that continues to this day. Vacation has become a pop-culture staple, helped define Chevy Chase’s stardom in the 80’s, and opened the door for less-family-friendly comedies in the mainstream.
Jordan’s Choice = Return of the Jedi
Not everyone was over the moon with Return of the Jedi upon its release (marking the first, of many times fans proclaimed the franchise dead), and I can’t even say it’s high on my regular watch rotation. Even so, it tells a powerful story of redemption and the power of finding your family/place in the world. In some ways, it feels like it gets better with age, and those moments where Vader finally casts down the Emperor manage to retain its emotional impact. Though it didn’t mark “the end” it still serves as an excellent example of how to wrap up a trilogy.
Sean’s Choice = Return of the Jedi
Perhaps not the most consistently entertaining in the Original trilogy, while a fun sequence the opening with Jabba has always felt oddly disjointed to me. But Ian McDiarmid is absolutely killer as Palpatine and a joy to watch in every scene. Luke’s whole story in this film is brilliant and it was the first film where I particularly liked him, seeing his wrestle with the Dark Side and conflict in wanting to rescue his father. It’s also such an immediate shift in Vader that I honestly find more compelling than the reveal in Empire. “It’s too late for me son” is a chill inducing line that gives a massive insight into Vader’s head that we had no gauge on before.
Becky’s Choice = Krull
Just hear me out on this one. While I know Return of the Jedi is the natural pick to go with for 1983, and I do love that film immensely, there’s one film I can’t help but highlight from this year and that’s Krull. While extremely derivative of Star Wars, with a mesh of sci-fi and fantasy that you will either love or hate, the film does feature one of James Horner’s best early scores that isn’t Star Trek II or III and that’s why I will highlight this film whenever I get the chance.
Garrett’s Choice = Ghostbusters
One of the defining films of the 1980’s. Combines the blockbuster appeal with more family-friendly sci-fi (this time blending with horror), and boasts an iconic cast of 80’s superstars at the height of their careers. A favorite film to millions of kids and adults today.
Jordan’s Choice = The Neverending Story
Not going to lie, this was a tough year for me to choose. On one had, you have David Lynch’s Dune movie, a fascinating attempt that’s memorable regardless if you liked it or not. Even so, I have to give this one to The Neverending Story. It’s hard to find any person of a certain age who wasn’t emotionally scarred by Atreyu’s horse Artax dying in the Swamp of Sadness. Even if little details are forgotten, the scale of the fantasy flick is undeniable.
Sean’s Choice = Beverly Hills Cop
1984 was a tricky year for me to be honest, not spoilt for choice as much as there were lots of films that I think are pretty good but not favourites of mine. But Beverly Hills Cop is just a really funny movie, it’s not exactly controversial to say how funny Eddie Murphy is but he really just sells the entire film. I wasn’t even that invested in the plot but watching Murphy just own every scene is brilliant.
Becky’s Choice = Dune
I will likely go to my grave defending David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune as it was my first real exposure to the story of Paul Atreides (I saw the movie before I read any of the books). While it’s nothing compared to last year’s Dune, it’s still a wonderful attempt to bring the story of Dune to life and there are scenes from that film that have stuck with me to this day (and the music is lovely also).
Garrett’s Choice = Back to the Future
Picking up on a familiar theme? Another adventurous family-friendly sci-fi film. BTTF is perhaps the most iconic 80’s film because of its connection to the 80’s. The cast, the DeLorean, the music, the pacing, and the plot all ooze with that unavoidable 80’s charm.
Jordan’s Choice = The Goonies
The ever lasting legacy of The Goonies is undeniable. I mean, pretty much every other year there are major articles prompting online discourse about whether or not the film is a genuine classic, or outright terrible. No matter where you fall on that line, the fact the conversation regularly happens decades later means it’s firmly embedded in our pop culture consciousness.
Sean’s Choice = Back to the Future
Just a charming film, not sure how else to describe but it has a very unique atmosphere that is undeniably Back to the Future. Everything it does is iconic and it’s a hell of a lot of fun, it’s such a weird and goofy idea that is absolutely nailed in it’s camp design and hilarious performances.
Becky’s Choice = The Black Cauldron
I know Disney likes to pretend this movie doesn’t exist, but it really is one of my favorite movies made in this year. While the adaptation leaves a lot of detail out, it’s take on the Horned King remains one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever seen.
Garrett’s Choice = Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
John Hughes was a force to be reckoned with in the 1980’s, and so I had to include one of his films as a representation of 80’s cinema. The 80’s saw an explosion of growth in the suburbs, and a new generation came of age in an entirely different environment which bred all sorts of new challenges. Hughes’ films connected with those people, and inspired countless other filmmakers to follow.
Jordan’s Choice = Aliens
Highlander is a close second on this one for me personally, but in terms of begin iconic, it’s hard to go with anything other than James Cameron’s Aliens. The film essentially set the standard for action films and sequels all at the same time. It took the lore already established and expanded on it in significant ways that are still being explored in books, comics, and video games to this day.
Sean’s Choice = Star Trek: The Voyage Home
A trope that Trek has done countless times by now, a story that takes us hundreds of years in the past to the modern day. This film takes one of the dumbest sci-fi premises I’ve ever heard and makes it possibly the best Trek film to me. An endearing, charming and wonderful comedy that gives every actor fantastic new material to work with. It’s a shock to me that Trek didn’t pursue the comedy genre further after this because it was amazing.
Becky’s Choice = Labyrinth
While I don’t deny the impact of Aliens, one of the most iconic movies for me from this time is Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. Having grown up watching the Muppet movies, I thought I knew what Jim Henson’s work was all about, and then I saw Labyrinth for the first time and my mind was permanently blown. This film remains an amazing achievement in puppetry that has aged unbelievably well.
Garrett’s Choice = RoboCop
Sci-Fi again, but darker, more violent, and serious. Maybe it seems campy today, but the message holds true. Plus the clunky approach is part of the magic of 80’s films – it makes it more fun than it has the right to be. Proof: the super-serious (read: grim) remake.
Jordan’s Choice = Predator
My love of creature features really began here, with Predator. While the movie is, for all intents and purposes, a horror flick, it still manages to capture the right amount of 80s action machismo to go with it. It’s a delicate balance the franchise has struggled to recapture ever since, but the combination of Science Fiction, horror, action, and creature feature never gets old.
Sean’s Choice = Evil Dead 2
Honestly didn’t think I’d be mentioning this franchise twice in this list but I’m trying to keep my choice different from others. I like this one, where the first one falls this one course corrects into a dumbass horror comedy that shows Raimi’s style really define itself and flourish. It’s camp, gory and ridiculous and I have a lot of fun with it.
Becky’s Choice = The Secret of My Success
To me, The Secret of My Success is the quintessential 80s movie: country kid moves to the big city, becomes a corporate bigwig as only he can, AND gets the girl in the end. All of this takes place to the sound of a synth-heavy soundtrack. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Garrett’s Choice = Big
What the best 80’s films do well is keep you captivated because they are easy to relate to. Before Hollywood made stories about superheroes they tackled issues that the everyman faces. Big is one movie that fits the bill. It catapulted Tom Hanks to stardom, and the premise is unforgettable. Who can forget that dancing scene in the toy store?
Jordan’s Choice = Bloodsport
Look, I’ll fully admit Bloodsport hasn’t exactly aged the best. Even so, it’s still a blast to watch. More importantly, it set the stage for a boom in Martial Arts films here in the West in the late 80s/early 90s that eventually gave rise to Asian action stars, like Jackie Chan and Jet Li, finding an audience beyond their home countries.
Sean’s Choice = The Land Before Time
I haven’t actually seen this film in years but it is seared into my brain as a deeply traumatic but wonderful watch. It’s probably one of my earliest memories of an animated film, I was a big dinosaur nerd as a kid and loved the idea of a silly adventure with a group of little dinosaurs. Little did I know I’d be in for a wonderful but emotional rollercoaster of a film.
Becky’s Choice = My Neighbor Totoro
While I also have fond (and deeply traumatizing) memories of The Land Before Time, to avoid too much repetition for my pick for this year I’ll go with My Neighbor Totoro. Of all of Miyazaki’s films, this is the one I love the most. Watching the two young sisters build a life in the country and interact with Totoro remains one of the most heartwarming things I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch. It’s a timeless story that everyone should see.
Garrett’s Choice = When Harry Met Sally
1989 was an incredible year for films, and this was probably the toughest year for me to decide on. Batman was my number 2, but I feel like it was ahead of its time, demonstrating the type of filmmaking that would be popular in the 90’s and beyond, and is not really remembered best for being an 80’s movie. When Harry Met Sally is a film that shows us a slice of life from the 1980’s, and it still holds up today.
Jordan’s Choice = Batman
Hard for me not to pick Batman here. As iconic as the Christopher Reeves Superman films are, Tim Burton’s Batman is the starting point for the modern era of superhero films. It showed how comics could retain certain aspects, while still appealing to a broader audience. While there have been many actors to don the cape and cowl since, there’s no denying they’re always in the shadow of this portrayal.
Sean’s Choice = Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade
My feelings on Sean Connery are less than positive to say the least, but I’ve always loved the dynamic between Indy and his dad in this film. It holds the whole film together, seeing Harrison Ford return to the confident scrappy lead who’s usually in his element hunting down artifacts, then be put in his place by his father is gold and makes this easily my favourite of the franchise.
Becky’s Choice = Major League
While Batman and Indiana Jones are really good picks for this year, I also feel like Major League is a good choice for an iconic movie. This screwball movie has me in stitches every time I watch it and it’s so fun watching the team get the better of their stuck-up owner.