What is it about the ’80s that make people so nostalgic? The music was great if you like Depeche Mode and New Order, synth-pop, and the Talking Heads. While most of us could live without the shoulder pads and teased hair, you have to admit, it was a great time for movies.
The movies of the ’80s have a lighthearted quality. Of course, there are always exceptions, but, it’s almost as if Hollywood finally realized (and since forgot) that they were creating entertainment. Not social commentary, not proselytizing, not consciousness-raising, although those things have their places. ’80s movies weren’t trying to save the world, they were just entertaining people. The summer blockbusters were in full bloom, but so were the rom-coms, the heartfelt dramas, love stories, and small thrillers. If they were formulaic, the formula worked, and the movies made good on what they promised.
Another thing the ’80s movies did well was special effects. Although the Star Wars franchise transformed the world of special effects way back in the ’70s, audiences weren’t so jaded, and new effects were being created to wow audiences all the time. Movies went at a slower pace and took the time develop characters and relationships–something often missing from today’s tentpoles. The children were more like children, believable and relatable. Just take Elliott and Gerdie from E. T.
Next time you’re in the mood for some fun, lighthearted entertainment, Netflix has these excellent movies on offer.
Or if you find yourself feeling less period-specific, check out our list of the best movies on Netflix and on Amazon Prime.
30. Big Trouble in Little China
Directed by John Carpenter, written by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein, and adapted by W. D. Richter, Big Trouble in Little China stars Kurt Russell, Kim Catrall, Dennis Dun, and James Hong. This dark fantasy martial arts film was a commercial failure but has since become a cult classic. A green-eyed Asian woman arriving from China is abducted by the ghost of a 3,000-year-old warlord who needs her to break a curse. Kurt Russell plays the macho truck driver who agreed to pick her up for his friend, and who has to venture into a weird underground world to save her.
Bill Murray stars in this modern dark comedy take on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Murray plays a heartless television exec who is trying to make his entire staff work Christmas Eve to put on an overproduced live broadcast of A Christmas Carol. Clearly he has not absorbed the message of the story, but three ghosts interrupt him on the big night to get him to change his ways.
28. Superman III
Aiming to defeat the Man of Steel, a rich CEO (Robert Vaughn) hires a bumbling but brilliant slacker (Richard Pryor) to seize control of a weather satellite and annihilate Columbia’s coffee crop. When Superman (Christopher Reeve) manages to thwart the plan, Webster commands Gorman to use the satellite to locate kryptonite, Superman’s mortal weakness. Gorman develops synthetic kryptonite, but it is missing an unknown element which he replaces with tar, and yields unexpected effects.
27. Superman II
In this hit sequel to the first Superman movie starring Christopher Reeve, fugitives from the planet Krypton take control of the White House and team up with Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) to destroy Superman and rule the world. Superman’s love affair with Lois Lane picks up where the first movie leaves off, as does the strange relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane.
26. The Thin Blue Line
I mentioned that '80s movies were almost always pure entertainment. This is one of the exceptions, and it deserves a spot on the list. The Thin Blue Line is a documentary about Randall Adams, a man who had been falsely convicted of murder in the '70s and sentenced to death--though he had not yet been executed. This documentary revealed contradictions in the case against Adams, and evidence that another man was actually guilty. A year after this movie was released, Adams' conviction was overturned and he was released from prison. For that reason, some people consider The Thin Blue Line the most effective documentary ever made.
25. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is one of the best family movies about a shrink ray ever created. Rick Moranis plays a suburban father and inventor whoinvents an “electromagnetic shrinking machine” and accidentally makes four kids smaller than an ant. The four kids then have to survive the dangers of the backyard, which has suddenly become a jungle, to make it to the house and change themselves back.
Amadeus is an adaptation of the play about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his rival, Antonio Salieri. It won eight Oscars, including best picture, and it’s one of the best movies of the decade. Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) is a mediocre composer who plots revenge against Mozart (Tom Hulce)--Salieri finds it unjust that Mozart, a childish jerk, is gifted with a taletn so great that he’ll win immortality. Despite this, Salieri sits at the 35-year-old Mozart’s deathbed, transcribing his last work for him, because he can’t deprive the world of the perfection of the music.
23. Working Girl
Melanie Griffith will get you excited about taking charge of your career (and life) in this triumph of the '80s. Sigourney Weaver and Harrison Ford are at their best here, and Carly Simon’s powerful soundtrack will make you weep. When Tess (Melanie Griffith)’s boss (Sigourney Weaver) has a ski accident that will keep her out of the office for six weeks, Tess learns that her boss was about to steal one of her ideas and claim ownership of it. That makes her mad enough to masquerade as management and set up a meeting with Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford), the man who can make the deal happen. She ends up in bed with him, after telling him “I have a head for business and a body for sin.”
22. Turner & Hooch
Try to get more '80s than this: Turner's a cop. Hooch is a dog. They fight crime. Prepare to run through an intense cycle of emotions in this comedy about a cop (Tom Hanks) whose new partner is a drooling mastiff. This is one of the truly greatest dog movies of all time--and that’s saying a lot. At the start of the movie, Hooch belongs to a crusty old sailor (John McIntire), who is killed by criminals. Hooch saw the killers and subsequently helps his new owner to catch them, while Turner strikes up a relationship with a vet played by Mare Winningham.
21. Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Bueller? Bueller? Matthew Broderick has better things to do than go to school. You’ll get a free tour of Chicago when you watch John Hughes’s comedy about a teen playing hooky. Ferris takes the day off so he can spend it with his girlfriend, Sloane (Mia Sara), and help his best friend, Cameron (Alan Ruck) win some self-respect.
20. Adventures in Babysitting
In this upbeat comedy, one babysitter must leave her quiet suburban home to face the big city when her friend gets stranded. The only trouble is she has a few kids tagging along. The babysitter is played by Elizabeth Shue, and when she gets a frantic call from her best friend, she packs the three kids into her car and heads for Chicago. Along the way, they have lots of misadventures. This movie is good for a few laughs.
Before Mean Girls and Clueless, there was Heathers, and with Christian Slater as Winona Ryder’s love interest, it’s just as necessary to watch. Though beware--this is a very dark teen comedy. Veronica hates the girls in her popular clique. Enter mysterious newcomer J. D., who offers her the perfect solution to end their social tyranny. This is a morbid comedy about peer pressure, teenage suicide, and the deadliness of cliques that not only exclude but also maim and kill.
18. The Princess Bride
This cult classic comedy-romance follows a peasant farmhand (Carey Elwes) as he battles bumbling outlaws and an evil prince to win the hand of his one true love, Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright). Almost as soon as she realizes she loves the farm boy she’s been ordering around, Buttercup is kidnapped by agents of the evil Prince Humperdink (Chris Sarandon). Billy Crystal and Carol Kane have memorable performances as an ancient wizard and crone who specialize in bringing the dead back to life, and Mandy Patinkin plays Inigo Montoya, a heroic swordsman looking for the six-fingered man who killed his father. The Princess Bride is a sly parody of sword and sorcery movies that brings comedy to the genre. It was adapted by William Goldman from his own novel, and directed by Rob Reiner.
As an investigator sifts through the wreckage of two jumbo jets, he learns the doomed passengers were abducted by someone from the future. This leads him down the rabbit hole, where he discovers a bleak future making repeated incursions into the past.
16. The Manhattan Project
When a teen discovers that a lab is building nuclear bombs, he exposes its secret by stealing plutonium and building his own bomb for a science fair. This surprisingly clever thriller features strong performances by John Lithgow and Cynthia Nixon.
15. The Man with One Red Shoe
Two factions of the CIA trail Richard, a classical violinist who’s picked out of a crowd and accused of being a spy because he wears one red shoe. This is one of many fun comedies Tom Hanks turned out before people got the idea that he was some kind of serious actor.
In this crude, wacky comedy, a young caddy named Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) works at the snooty Bushwood Country Club to raise money for his college education, while the assistant groundskeeper (Bill Murray) wages an all-out battle against a pesky gopher that’s doing damage to the golf course.
13. License to Drive
After failing his driver’s exam, a teen steals his grandfather’s prized baby-blue Cadillac and goes on the wildest ride of his life. This comedy remembers the painful and complex emotions around getting your drivers’ license, the embarrassment of being dropped off at a party by your parents, and the daily horrors faced by driver’s ed teachers.
12. Can't Buy Me Love
Tired of being an outcast, a nerdy teen offers his life savings of $1000 to the most popular girl in school in exchange for her dating him for a month, believing that being seen with the right girl is all that stands between him and popularity. But that popularity, when he gets it, isn't as easy to hold onto as he expects. This ‘80s cult classic marks one of the first leading roles for future Grey’s Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey.
11. An American Werewolf in London
Two American hikers in England are attacked by a werewolf, leaving one a zombie, and the other with the werewolf's curse. This gory, arch horror-comedy also features some impressive special effects, especially for 1981.
10. E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial
A lonely suburban boy named Elliott stumbles across an alien who was left behind by his spaceship. After luring the alien into his garage with a trail of Reeses Pieces, Elliott names the alien E.T. and tries to take care of it. The end up working together to keep each other safe, and find a way for E.T. to make his way home. An Oscar nominee for Best Picture, Steven Spielberg’s beloved fantasy tale was the highest-grossing film of the 1980s.
9. On Golden Pond
Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda both won Oscars for their role as an elderly couple dealing with aging, memory loss, and generational conflicts while at their summer house by the lake. Their daughter is played by Henry Fonda's real-life daughter, Jane Fonda. Her fiancé (Dabney Coleman) and his teenage son (Doug McKeon) arrive soon after. The dysfunctional family spends the summer learning to communicate and to understand one another.
8. Harry and the Hendersons
When the Hendersons accidentally run over a strange Bigfoot-type animal, they decide to take the friendly “Harry” home and adopt him as a pet. In order to protect Harry from the authorities who hunt him, they must keep him a secret, even though he makes about as much of a mess of their house as you might expect from a Sasquatch.
7. The Verdict
A washed-up, ambulance-chasing, alcoholic attorney (Paul Newman) gets a chance at redemption when his friend tosses him an open-and-shut medical malpractice case. But when the lawyer sees the victim, he takes the case as an opportunity to right a wrong and recover his own self-respect. Along the way he falls in love with an alcoholic woman played by Charlotte Rampling. The screenplay for this courtroom thriller was written by David Mamet and directed by Sidney Lumet.
6. Pee Wee's Big Adventure
When his treasured bicycle is stolen, childlike prankster Pee-wee Herman sets off on a whirlwind cross-country adventure to recover it. This classic movie was most people's first introduction to the strange directorial style of Tim Burton, and the even stranger character of Pee-wee Herman, played by Paul Reubens.
This is a remake of a 1944 movie starring Spencer Tracy as a pilot who dies in combat and is assigned by heaven to return to earth to inspire the younger pilot who will take his place. Tracy also has to stand by and watch while the younger pilot falls in love with his old girlfriend. This remake by Steven Spielberg moves the story from wartime to the world of firefighting. The firefighting pilot (Richard Dreyfuss) dies and becomes a guardian angel to new pilot played by Brad Johnson.
Flashing the wild stand-up comedy that made him a household name, Eddie Murphy unleashes uncensored observations and parodies in this 1983 live show. This performance took place a year before Beverly Hills Cop made him a star, while he was still on Saturday Night Live. Some of his bits include impersonating a kid excited over an ice-cream truck, a shoe-throwing mother, and a dead-on impression of James Brown.
3. *batteries not included
The impoverished residents of an East Village tenement are threatened with eviction by an evil real estate developer. But a group of small alien "fix-its"show up and help them battle the developers. The aliens are robots, something like miniature UFOs, but they're full of personality that gives the movie its heart.
2. Three Fugitives
This is remake of a French film, Les Fugitifs. Fresh out of prison, former stickup man Daniel Lucas (Nick Nolte) finds himself taken hostage at a bank by would-be robber Ned Perry (Martin Short), and the cops--aware of Lucas’s history--naturally assume the two are a bank-robbing team. On the run from the cops, Lucas tries to get away from his incompetent "partner," while Perry tries to get the money to his sick daughter.
1. Grease 2
Smitten with the leader of Rydell High’s sexy Pink Ladies, the nerdy new British kid transforms himself to become the object of her affection. It's two years since the original Grease, and time for a new crop of kids to have youthful misadventures around cars, sex, and dancing. This movie features a standout early performance by Michelle Pfeiffer.