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10 Essential Movies From the ’80s

Relive the era of yuppies and lovable space creatures with this must-see film guide

  • Leslie Nielsen and Robert Hays in 'Airplane!'

    ‘Airplane!’ (1980)

    This gag-packed satire of ’70s disaster films launched many a catchphrase (“Don’t call me Shirley!”) and a whole genre of imitators. It also transformed the career of star Leslie Nielsen: The stolid silver-haired character actor found himself reborn as a deadpan funnyman in the Naked Gun franchise and other flicks.

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  • Robert De Niro in 'Raging Bull'

    ‘Raging Bull’ (1980)

    Martin Scorsese’s biopic about middleweight champion Jake La Motta is remembered not only for Robert De Niro’s punishing performance (he gained 60 pounds to play the aging boxer), but also for Michael Chapman’s black-and-white cinematography. Scorsese was reluctant to film the blood-drenched fight scenes in color.

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    AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo

    ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982)

    The unlikely tale of the friendship between a homesick extraterrestrial and a lonely young boy, E.T. became the highest-grossing film of the 1980s and today ranks as one of acclaimed director Steven Spielberg’s most poignant films.

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  • Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Jason Leigh in 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High'

    ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ (1982)

    Based on then-Rolling Stone writer Cameron Crowe’s undercover stint at a Southern California high school, this quintessential ’80s teen pic offered more than just hormonal romps. First-time director Amy Heckerling coaxed star-making performances from young Sean Penn and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

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  • Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Ernie Hudson in 'Ghostbusters'

    ‘Ghostbusters’ (1984)

    Originally penned by Dan Aykroyd for himself and his Saturday Night Live costar John Belushi, who died in 1982, Ghostbusters was recast with another SNL veteran — Bill Murray — when it hit the screens in the summer of ’84 to become an iconic comedy blockbuster. Some purists wailed when the franchise was rebooted this year with an all-female cast of ’busters.

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  • A caucasian middle aged couple eat popcorn in movie theater with text that reads keep life fun and your calendar full.

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  • Arnold Schwarzenegger in 'The Terminator'
    ZUMA Press/Alamy

    ‘The Terminator’ (1984)

    Director James Cameron’s stylish B movie about a lethal cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from the year 2029 who time-travels to 1984 proved to be a surprise hit with both critics and fans, launching both Cameron’s career and the still-going Terminator movie franchise.

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  • Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall in 'The Breakfast Club'

    ‘The Breakfast Club’ (1985)

    Widely hailed as the king of teen comedy, John Hughes churned out scripts faster than Hollywood could make them through the 1980s. Of his iconic trilogy — Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) — which he both wrote and directed, the second reigns supreme in its unmatched ability to capture the anxiety, humor and lameness of adolescence.

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  • Kelly McGillis and Tom Cruise in 'Top Gun'
    Collection Christophel/Alamy Stock Photo

    ‘Top Gun’ (1986)

    A shiny pastiche of military hardware and MTV-style visuals, director Tony Scott’s ode to Reagan-era American triumphalism gave us Kenny Loggins’ song “Danger Zone” and catchphrases such as “I feel the need for speed!” Tom Cruise was at his cockiest as the daredevil F-14 jockey Maverick, inviting viewers into a world where bombshell astrophysicists fall for fighter pilots and every Navy officer has a kitschy nickname. No wonder it still soars 30 years later.

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  • Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas in 'Wall Street'
    Ronald Grant Archive/Alamy

    ‘Wall Street’ (1987)

    Meant to be a cautionary fable of the dangers of unbridled capitalism, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street instead inspired a new generation of Gordon Gekkos to recite his wolfish mantra, “Greed is good.” Another gem from Michael Douglas: “You’re not naive enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you, buddy?”

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  • Spike Lee and Danny Aiello in 'Do the Right Thing'
    AF archive/Alamy

    ‘Do the Right Thing’ (1989)

    Spanning one long, hot day in the life of a Bed-Stuy neighborhood in Brooklyn, Spike Lee’s fiery urban drama addressed police brutality, racism, hip-hop, love and pizza. While the film effectively captured the edgy atmosphere of American cities at the end of the ’80s, its themes resonate all too easily in the modern day.

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