Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here
Leaving Website

You are now leaving and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

The 20 Most Awesome Movies of the '80s

The decade shows it had the (right) stuff, from 'The Empire Strikes Back' to 'Do the Right Thing'

spinner image Spike Lee in the film Do the Right Thing and Michael J Fox in a scene from Back to the Future
Spike Lee (left) as Mookie in "Do the Right Thing" and Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly in "Back to the Future."
Courtesy Everett Collection; MCA/Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

Let other decades toss around “best” while celebrating their movies. The 1980s flat-out own “awesome.” Consider the evidence: Tentpole movies dug their posts deeper in the ‘80s. Franchises began to boom. Saturday Night Live (SNL) cast members populated comedy after comedy. Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg came of artistic age, convincing us they would indeed be commanding our attention for decades to come. The dream factory was still minting and burnishing stars — not just celebrities: Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, Harrison Ford, Meryl Streep. No decade amplified the woes and wows of the teenager and barely adult the way the Eighties did, giving a genre a pack of brats and its own auteur in John Hughes. And toward the decade's close, indie films were beginning their own ascent. So, here are 20 awesome — as in most excellent, amazing and, yes, sometimes even “best” — movies to stream.

spinner image Image Alt Attribute

AARP Membership— $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Join Now

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

A sequel that bests its original, this second installment (alright, alright, alright ... fifth if you're following the space saga's epic arc) introduced the wee Jedi Master Yoda, who schools Luke Skywalker in the ways of the Force. And for that, ever grateful will we be.

Where to watch: YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime, Disney+

9 to 5 (1980)

Four decades before Grace and Frankie got jilted by their gay hubbies, Jane Fonda, 82, and Lily Tomlin, 80, along with insta-screen star Dolly Parton, 74, were giving it to the Man (Dabney Coleman, 88, terrific as the sexist, harassing, bigoted boss) in this women's rights vs. office wrongs comedy (original title Nine to Five). All spunk and twang, the titular Parton-penned theme song went to Billboard's number 1 spot.

Where to watch: YouTube, Google Play, iTunes, Hulu

Raging Bull (1980)

What's black and white and red all over? Jake LaMotta's bloodied face. Director Scorsese's (now 77) sumptuous black-and-white, knockout adaptation of the boxer's memoir took two of his finest collaborations — with Robert De Niro, 76, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, 80 — to new heights by limning the pugilist's depths.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube

The Shining (1980)

Nothing beats the “Redrum, Redrum” like director Stanley Kubrick's elegant take on Stephen King's novel (to the author's chagrin). Jack Nicholson, 83, is brilliantly unhinged as a writer under the influence of a horror cocktail: one part writer's block, one part cabin fever with a bracing shot of restless, relentless spirits.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

For American audiences, this Aussie sequel was the true intro to Mel Gibson's (64) iconic — and perhaps too aptly named — character “Mad” Max Rockatansky. Director/cowriter George Miller's (75) grim, postapocalyptic desert action flick, with its lawless gangs and unglued protagonist, remains a classic of road raging thrills and dystopian chills.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

In introducing a guy named Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford, 78), this retro adventure set an example of the rewards (popcorn chomping and box office) in store for those adept at infusing old popular pleasures with contemporary sass. It's easy to trace the lineage of makers Spielberg, 73, and George Lucas, 76, as well as writer Lawrence Kasdan, 71, to contemporary mass-culture whizzes J.J. Abrams, Ryan Coogler and Jon Favreau.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Netflix

Blade Runner (1982)

From composer Vangelis's first dissonant chords to the grime and neon of a future Los Angeles, Ridley Scott's (82) sci-fi classic — based on a Philip K. Dick novella — served up an atmospheric, noir-soaked dystopia. But it's the story of corporate exploitation and the question of AI/replicant self-consciousness that bedevils and touches even now.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

All together now: “E.T. phone ...” A boy named Elliott befriends a lost, wrinkly-cute alien, and audiences and filmmakers — from WALL-E's Andrew Stanton to the Duffer Brothers of Stranger Things — have feasted on that intergalactic friendship ever since.

See more Health & Wellness offers >

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu

RELATED: Movie quiz break! Stretch your brain with our brand-new trivia challenge, right here: How Well Do You Know Your Films of the 1980s?

Tootsie (1982)

Actor Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman, 82) still annoys. But the Southern matron he pretends to be to get a gig on a daytime soap remains as sweet-tea delish as ever. Dorothy Michaels rocks the set of Southwest General and poses some fun — as well as maddeningly relevant — questions about gender and workplace power.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Netflix

The Right Stuff (1983)

The women of Hidden Figures had the right stuff. The pen-protecting, black-rimmed engineers in last year's amazing Apollo 11 had it, too. But Philip Kaufman's (83) film of Tom Wolfe's New Journalism tome about the pilots who signed up for the NASA Mercury Mission — Chuck Yaeger, Alan Shepard, John Glenn among them — makes for one helluva ride (so much so that Nat Geo and Leo DiCaprio are producing a limited series based on the same material).

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, HBO Max

Ghostbusters (1984)

Arguably the most enduring of the decade's comedies featuring SNL stars (here Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd, now 69 and 68), this NYC-set romp still tickles with its paranormal posse, their ectoplasm foes, and a theme song to, well, “die for” doesn't seem quite right. But who you gonna call?

Where you gonna watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube

The Terminator (1984)

Before Arnold Schwarzenegger, 73, became the sawed-off shotgun-wielding guardian of John Connor, he was pure assassin in the James Cameron original. This one doesn't flaunt the FX of its killer sequel but does hit notes of tenderness thanks to Michael Biehn's (64) turn as a time-traveling soldier sent to protect Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton, 63).

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu

Back to the Future (1985)

With its running Oedipal gag of Marty McFly (not) dating his mom, this crazy time-travel action-comedy could have made fans of Sigmund Freud and the late French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard. There's a lot to unpack for those who want to. But stars Michael J. Fox, 59, and Christopher Lloyd, 81, make it so easy to just sit back and enjoy the ride — in Doc's DeLorean.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube

The Breakfast Club (1985)

The Simple Minds cut “Don't You (Forget About Me)” provided the go-to song for this teens-in-detention gabfest. And it's proved an anthem for ‘80s teen movies, which while not always great have been hard to shake. John Hughes reworked the script on the genre and his ‘80s hits (as writer, director, or both) could easily have hijacked this list: National Lampoon's VacationSixteen CandlesPretty in PinkFerris Bueller's Day Off, and Trains, Planes and Automobiles.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube

Witness (1985)

Harrison Ford plays the stranger and Pennsylvania Amish country the strange land in director Peter Weir's drama about a kid who sees a murder (Lukas Haas), his pretty widowed mom (Kelly McGillis, 63) and the Philly cop out to protect them (Ford).

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu

Aliens (1986)

With the central relationship of the traumatized but savvy Warrant officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, 70) and the youngster Newt, this sequel — written and directed by James Cameron — boasts one of the great mama-bear turns of all time.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, HBO Max

Platoon (1986)

"Write and direct what you know” might be the motto. This riven war flick from writer-director Oliver Stone, 73, wrestles with the brutality of Vietnam from the perspective of a former soldier — Stone himself. The character played by Charlie Sheen, 54, serves as our guide, not unlike 80-year-old dad Martin Sheen's wide-eyed role in Apocalypse Now.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube

RELATED: See how Platoon ranks in our critics’ brand-new list of auteur Oliver Stone's very best work, right here: The Essential Films of Oliver Stone, Ranked

Dirty Dancing (1987)

Pleasure, we'd like to introduce you to Guilty. If we go by how easy it is on any given Sunday afternoon to find this ladies’ choice classic on cable, the late Patrick Swayze still holds sway. The “Will Baby ever nail that lift?” montage is still a hoot. Jerry Orbach's stern dad casting brings a smile because he was a musical theater guy and Det. Lenny Briscoe. And from this vantage, the unwanted pregnancy side story seems even edgier.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

Loving tinkerer of cinema tech and tales, Robert Zemeckis, 68, brought live-action and animated characters together in this story about a fallen detective (Bob Hoskins) and a missing Toon star. In addition to being innovative, it was fun – and frisky. As the voice of Jessica Rabbit, Kathleen Turner, now 66 (uncredited at the time), turned her animated character into a va-va-voom star.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Disney+

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Spike Lee, 63, wrote-directed-starred in this tragicomedy fit for the Greeks, in which the flawed hero is actually a Brooklyn neighborhood on a steamy summer day. The director's third film in the decade established him as an oft brilliant — just as oft prickly — visionary. (And a terrific champion of acting.) From the moment Rosie Perez, 55, does her fisticuffs dance to Public Enemy's “Fight the Power,” the film endures. And Mookie's wounded, rebellious act continues to be referenced and wrestled with in our #BlackLivesMatter times.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Vudu

Discover AARP Members Only Access

Join AARP to Continue

Already a Member?