The first Rocky film is a cinematic masterpiece, a pure character piece as reflective of Sylvester Stallone’s own rags-to-riches journey as it is the exploitative nature of the American Dream against the normal everyman. 1985’s Rocky IV is even better but for very different reasons. It is packed to the brim with the signature melodrama, inspiring synth-pop bangers and very subtle ‘New Cold War’ commentary of the era, as Stallone’s all-American hero goes up against Dolph Lundgren’s Soviet super-boxer. Yeah, it’s really subtle Cold War commentary, you might not have picked up on it.
The Breakfast Club
Much like Friends would do in the 90s, 1985’s The Breakfast Club became a breakout hit largely because of its characters. They all occupy their stereotypes well, with just enough depth to show the worries and wants beneath the appearance of the jock, the nerd and the secretly hot weirdo. The fashion, the super-sick burns, the hair, everything on screen from the opening second until the credits roll just screams ‘this was made in the 80s’. Had Tiktok been around at the time of release, there would have been a trend of getting detention on purpose for after school hi-jinks.
Tom Cruise ruled the 80s with an iron fist. Risky Business, Rain Man, Cocktail, Legend: the list goes on. Of all of his 80s silver screen appearances, 1986’s Top Gun makes a great case for the most emblematic of the decade. The mix of macho meets homoerotic; the handsome rogue who breaks the rules but gets the job done, puts on his sunglasses and blows things up for America. The kind of squeaky clean patriotism you can only get from a shower with the boys after a hard game of volleyball.
The Lost Boys
1987’s The Lost Boys was a bit of an oddity in the context of its time. There weren’t many other vampire movies in the 80s, outside of niche, low budget pulpy horror. It was also tonally at odds with the camp and bombast many other 80s films found success with. Yes, it had a lot of camp, but it was all in the atmosphere. Smokey forests and city lights reflecting off the ocean, and a soundtrack that acts like a borderline religious experience. All this makes it a definitive example of a subversive 80s classic.
All the best 80s media was all about dancing. Whitney Houston knew what was up. Age gap discourse aside, 1987’s Dirty Dancing is still beloved for how well it captured the coming of age experience of the era. In a decade filled with some of the greatest music, TV and film, pioneered by some of the most talented and absolutely extra performers, young women were starting to see they really could do anything. Baby’s awkward, sheltered, stuttering charm giving way to the beauty and expression of her dancing, resonated with audiences then and now.
A Nightmare On Elm Street
The 1970s saw a major horror movie boom: the ‘slasher’ emerged with Halloween, and demon children were a dime a dozen with The Exorcist and The Omen. 80s horror took on a distinctively different feel, exemplified best by the emergence of the cruel and comedic dream demon Freddy Krueger. 1984’s A Nightmare On Elm Street brought fear into the home, haunting something as inescapable and cherished as sleep. It was also incredibly silly. Profound and interesting, yes, but so goofy… and that is 100% the 80s in a nutshell.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Star Trek was never above being weird; much of the original series featured stories built around farce, but managed to wrap things up with some sort of moral takeaway. The first three movies had some comedy, but were ultimately pretty straight-faced. 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home saw the crew of the enterprise travel back in time to then-contemporary San Francisco, to steal a pair of humpback whales to stop a probe in the future. Shot on location with numerous extras, The Voyage Home is like looking through a worm hole right into the ridiculous heart of the 80s.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
As the highest-grossing film of the decade, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial managed to beat out some some truly huge movies to become the cultural phenomenon it is now recognized as. Director Steven Spielberg took the grand ideas of the sci-fi genre and used them to tell an intimate, deeply personal story, reflecting a period of time where it seemed the world was growing quicker, becoming more connected through technology, and were ‘weird’ was no longer a weakness but a strength. Released in 1982, E.T. set the tone for the entire decade.
The Princess Bride
Fairy-tale fantasy as a genre has produced some incredible art, and 1986’s The Princess Bride is a textbook example of this. Using meta-fiction to construct its story within a story, director Rob Reiner (adapting William Goldman’s novel) tells a story about stories; why we love them, why we tell them, why we flock to experience them in droves. This post-modern form of film is all the rage right now, continuing a trend that took off in the 80s. It was an era, in the art, of discovery and experimentation, using new technology to create with a sense of childlike wonder.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
1986 John Hughes film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is irreverent, quirky and oozing with the smug charm of 80s youth. Mathew Broderick carries the film’s gradual ramp-up into chaos with a sense of unflappable confidence. The city of Chicago acts like a second main character in the film, enticing Bueller and dragging him through gag after gag. This strong focus on setting and tone means that the decade’s energy is inescapable, everything from the random extras to the fourth wall breaks pull you into the 80s, forcing you to engage with the wacky antics on its own far-out and radical terms.