1980s Movies: What Did People Watch?


The 1980s were one of the best, if not the very best, decade for movies of all time. Both story writing and special effects were climaxing at the same time and it made for an awesome time for all.


A short list of movies from the 80s, even a top ten list, is almost impossible to make. A Top 100 list is even hard. There are just so many great movies in almost any category.

From E.T. to Goonies to Freddy Krueger, there was something for every age group. Want some comedy? The best comedies are from the 80s. Police Academy was one of my favorites ever.. I love all the characters.

Gremlins were taking over every town while every kid in America was taught not to feed Mogwai after dark.

Jack Nicholson solidified his place as a Hollywood legend with captivating performances in The Shining and Batman. He truly was the quintessential crazy man.

Share your love for 1980s Movies: What Did People Watch?

Share this page on Facebook Share this page on Google+ Tweet this page Pin this page on Pinterest Share this page on Tumblr Share this page on Reddit

To learn more about 1980s movies, click on the green arrow next to the year you want to read about below.

Movies in 1980

The Shining (1980)

Critics considered The Shining a failure in 1980.

The movie industry struggled to make money in 1980. Only one film, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, had any guarantee of viewership.

Unfortunately, The Empire Strikes Back accounted for 25 percent of all ticket sales in the summer.

Other movies that were released in 1980 have done much better after the fact than they did at the time. In fact, many movies that we consider to be classics were trashed by critics and fared poorly at the box office.

The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation to the Steven King thriller, features some of Jack Nicholson’s best acting. But people didn’t care for it much then.

A few films were surprises: The Blue Lagoon, Airplane (one of my favorite comedies of all time) and Friday the 13th were all very popular and made huge profits because they were relatively cheap to make.

Otherwise, one commercial failure followed another, including movies with high priced stars. Movies like Bronco Billy, Rough Cut, Brubaker, and Urban Cowboy were box office disasters.

Even The Blues Brothers was considered a complete failure at the time. They just didn’t know how great they had it, did they?

Top 10 Movies in 1980

What were the most popular movies in 1980?

  1. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
  2. 9 to 5
  3. Stir Crazy
  4. Airplane!
  5. Any Which Way You Can
  6. Private Benjamin
  7. Coal Miner’s Daughter
  8. Smokey and the Bandit II
  9. The Blue Lagoon
  10. The Blues Brothers

Who won the 1980 Academy Awards?

Best Picture: Ordinary People
Best Director: Robert Redford – Ordinary People
Best Actress: Sissy Spacek – Coal Miner’s Daughter
Best Actor: Robert De Niro – Raging Bull

Movies in 1981

Superman II (1981)

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s the most successful movie in 1981!

1981 had its fair share of blockbusters. The most notable being the Indiana Jones film Raiders of the Lost Ark.

It was conceived and produced by George Lucas and directed by Steven Spielberg. It was a witty, expensive version of the action-packed movie serials of the 1930s and 40s. The film was released in June and took in $125 million during the summer season.

The summer’s other blockbuster was Superman II, which grossed over $100 million. Most critics said that Superman II was even better than the first one.

Several comedies were popular at the box office. Stripes, starring SNL star Bill Murray, Arthur, featuring Dudley Moore and Time Bandits all rocked the box office.

More movies than usual were directed toward mature audiences. On Golden Pond, Ghost Story and Atlantic City all feature characters dealing with less than lighthearted issues.

But the industry still had its share of lightweight numbers. These included Prince of the City and Whose Life Is It Anyway?, an adaptation of the play about a quadriplegic, with an outstanding performance by Richard Dreyfuss.

True Confessions, a pretentious police story with existential overtones wasted the talents of Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall.

Much was made about Warren Beatty’s movie titled Red. Not forgotten was the fact that he spent $33 million making the film. In the wake of the 1980 Heaven’s Gate disaster, general sentiment was strongly against such extravagant productions.

Top 10 Movies in 1981

What were the most popular movies in 1981?

  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  2. On Golden Pond
  3. Superman II
  4. Arthur
  5. Stripes
  6. The Cannonball Run
  7. Chariots of Fire
  8. For Your Eyes Only
  9. The Four Seasons
  10. Time Bandits

Who won the 1981 Academy Awards?

Best Picture: Chariots of Fire
Best Director: Warren Beatty – Reds
Best Actress: Katharine Hepburn – On Golden Pond
Best Actor: Henry Fonda – On Golden Pond

Movies in 1982

E.T. (1982)

E.T. was the movie of the year in 1982

The motion picture industry in 1982 had a year of remarkable commercial highs mixed with discouraging low points. The summer brought a genuine bonanza that made 1982 a financial banner year.

The Summer of 1982 was highlighted by the release of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. The sweet-natured fantasy about a kindly alien who is stranded on Earth on protected by children until he can arrange a passage home. The movie earned $300 million at US box offices by mid-December, tripling the $100 million figure that traditionally established a blockbuster at the time.

E.T. solidified Steven Spielberg’s standing as a creator of top-grossing, critically acclaimed films.

Both Rocky III and An Officer and a Gentleman grossed over $100 million that year.

1982 brought some very notable performances from veterans of the film industry. Meryl Streep’s performance in Sophie’s Choice earned her great acclaim, as did Jessica Lange’s in Frances.

Action-packed 48 Hrs. hoped to launch Eddie Murphy’s career from an SNL star to a worldwide celebrity.

Mephisto won the award for best foreign film in 1982. The story of an ambitious actor’s rise in Nazi Germany, Mephisto benefited from a mesmerizing performance by Klaus Maria Brandauer.

Hollywood continued to attract a youthful audience that adhered to one of two themes: teenagers indulging in sex (Porky’s, Fast Times at Ridgemont High) and teenagers being victimized by mad killers (Friday the 13th, Part III).

Friday the 13th, Part III was also filmed in 3-D and experienced mild success, encouraging thoughts that 3-D might be a viable option for the future.

1982 had its fair share of flops. Some of the more notable commercial failures were One From The Heart, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Yes, Giorgio and Inchon.

Top 10 Movies in 1982

What were the most popular movies in 1982?

  1. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
  2. Tootsie
  3. An Officer and a Gentleman
  4. Rocky III
  5. Porky’s
  6. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
  7. 48 Hrs.
  8. Poltergeist
  9. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
  10. Annie

Who won the 1982 Academy Awards?

Best Picture: Gandhi
Best Director: Richard Attenborough – Gandhi
Best Actress: Meryl Streep – Sophie’s Choice
Best Actor: Ben Kingsley – Gandhi

Movies in 1983

Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs.

Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs.

Members of the film industry took a chance in 1983 by funding The Right Stuff, a non-fictional film about the early workings of the U.S. space program. What was risky about it? In Hollywood, politics was considered box office poison. A major character in The Right Stuff was John Glenn, Ohio Senator and hopeful candidate for the Democratic Party in the 1984 U.S. Presidential election.

Many thought the film would help Glenn’s chances of securing the nomination. However, even though critics loved the movie, the general public seemed to fear they would be watching three hours worth of political propaganda — and subsequently avoided what was an unbiased and brilliant film.

Another story about a fictional astronaut, Terms of Endearment, starring Jack Nicholson, Shirley Maclaine and Debra Winger, was one of the most endeared movies of the year.

As expected, the final installment in the Star Wars trilogy: Return of the Jedi, was a box office smash. John Travolta made a comeback with Staying Alive, while Eddie Murphy emerged as the star of the year with two huge hits: Trading Places and 48 Hrs.

Two family oriented comedies were very well received by audiences. Michael Keaton starred as a husband turned homemaker in Mr. Mom, while Chevy Chase played a dad who can do no right in National Lampoon’s Vacation. Risky Business and Flashdance were two surprise hits that no one saw coming.

In a somewhat interesting juxtaposition, 1980 U.S. flop Heaven’s Gate, starring Chistopher Walken and Kris Kristofferson, was re-released to find adoring British audiences.

For the first time in history, home entertainment was started to make a substantial impact on the movie industry. Raiders of the Lost Ark sold over $20 million worth of VHS tapes in 1983, proving that people do in fact like enjoying movies at home. Another threat to the film industry came in the form of piracy. Video cassettes were becoming increasingly easy to duplicate and people started making (and sometimes selling) copies they had made at home.

Top 10 Movies in 1983

What were the most popular movies in 1983?

  1. Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
  2. Terms of Endearment
  3. Flashdance
  4. Trading Places
  5. WarGames
  6. Octopussy
  7. Sudden Impact
  8. Staying Alive
  9. Mr. Mom
  10. Risky Business

Who won the 1983 Academy Awards?

Best Picture: Terms of Endearment
Best Director: James L. Brooks – Terms of Endearment
Best Actress: Shirley MacLaine – Terms of Endearment
Best Actor: Robert Duvall – Tender Mercies

Movies in 1984

Ghostbusters (1984)

Ghostbusters was the highest grossing film in 1984.

In 1984 the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) added a new rating that fit snugly between PG and R. It was called PG-13 and it indicated that a movie was deemed suitable for a viewing audience of 13 years old or higher.

Three different Hollywood movies made farmers’ plight the center of the plot. Places in the Heart, Country, and The River were all set far outside of the urban setting the movie industry had focused on in recent years.

One of the most anticipated movies of the year was Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club. With a price tag over $47 million to make, the movie was considered Coppola’s best chance at redemption.

Ghostbusters, starring Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, earned over $200 million to become the most successful U.S. comedy of all time. Murray’s performance in particular cemented his standing as one of the premier comedy actors of the era. Because of the movie, the term “busters” became a popular suffix, and words like “crimebusters” and “smokebusters” became standard nomenclature.

Not far behind Ghostbusters at the box office, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was a wildly popular movie in 1984. Starring Harrison Ford, it was the sequel to 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Another blockbuster, Gremlins, was expected to fail due to its violent content. However, audiences loved the little furry creatures as much as the ugly lizard-like ones. It was a merchandiser’s dream. Over 50 different manufactures received licenses to create Gremlins products ranging from toys to lunch boxes to bed sheets.

While Gremlins was considered by many to be too violent, one film was so violent it was actually pulled from release. Silent Night, Deadly Night, a movie featuring a madman that stabbed people to death while wearing a Santa costume was so ill received it was yanked from theaters.

Former Rocky director John Avildsen struck back with The Karate Kid, his first successful film in eight years. Speaking of Rocky, superstar actor Sylvester Stallone starred with Dolly Parton in what was possibly the biggest flop of the year, Rhinestone.

Director Milos Forman enjoyed much success with Amadeus, a film about Mozart. The Natural, starring Robert Redford, became an instant classic as well.

Eddie Murphy played the leading role in his most successful film to date, Beverly Hills Cop. At this point there was absolutely no doubt that Eddie Murphy was a full blown actor, and not just a comedian acting in movies.

Overall, 1984 was a very profitable year for movie studios, including other great films such as Footloose, Police Academy, Romancing the Stone, Splash, Purple Rain, Red Dawn, Star Trek III and Tightrope.

Top 10 Movies in 1984

What were the most popular movies in 1984?

  1. Beverly Hills Cop
  2. Ghostbusters
  3. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  4. Gremlins
  5. The Karate Kid
  6. Police Academy
  7. Footloose
  8. Romancing the Stone
  9. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
  10. Splash

Who won the 1984 Academy Awards?

Best Picture: Amadeus
Best Director: Miloš Forman – Amadeus
Best Actress: Sally Field – Places in the Heart
Best Actor: F. Murray Abraham – Amadeus

Movies in 1985

Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future (1985)

Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future (1985)

Financially, 1985 was one of the worst years for the movie industry in the entire decade. Box office receipts for the summer were down 14% from 1984. Even worse, ticket sales for September were at their lowest point since 1968.

According to critics, the problem was due to an overabundance of “teen movies.” Around a dozen different teenage romper flicks flopped miserably at the box office. The only truly financially successful teen film in 1985 was The Breakfast Club, which won over critics and viewers alike with its moderately realistic depiction of teenage drama, dialect and personality.

Two films worth noting from the spring were Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, a favorite among critics. The other film, which was significantly more popular with moviegoers was Witness, starring Harrison Ford — an interesting tale of a street-smart cop hiding from corrupt officers in an Amish village.

Prizzi’s Honor, a dark comedy starring Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner, was somewhat popular with the adult crowd.

Rambo: First Blood, Part II, an action film starring Sylvester Stallone, was one of 1985 biggest commercial successes. The movie was controversial for some, presenting what they called a “revisionist history” of the Vietnam War. Regardless, Rambo became a worldwide action hero, with full merchandise including toy guns, knives, bed sheets and action figures.

However, the most successful movie in 1985 was a classic that people still love dearly to this day: Back to the Future. Starring Michael J. Fox, this whimsical story about a high school student who meets a mad scientist who invented a time machine, brought in over $190 million in 1985 alone.

Another heartfelt science fiction movie titled Cocoon, directed by Ron Howard, achieved decent success as well.

Clint Eastwood tried to resurrect the Western genre with Pale Rider, but it failed to make much money and Hollywood tabled it’s plans for a Western resurgence.

Even though people love it today, The Goonies was panned as a miserable failure by critics in the summer. Directed by Spielberg, his next movie, released in December, was the most anticipated movie of the year: The Color Purple.

Rambo wasn’t the only blockbuster Sylvester Stallone put out in 1985. Rocky IV appeared in theaters near Thanksgiving, and it got the worst reviews in the entire franchise. Regardless, Rocky fans loved the anti-Soviet sentiment, and the movie made an astonishing $31.8 million in it’s first five days.

1985 also witnessed the death of legendary movie producer Orson Welles, who passed on October 10, 1985. His most famous film, 1941’s Citizen Kane, remains to this day one of the most influential movies in history.


Top 10 Movies in 1985

What were the most popular movies in 1985?

  1. Back to the Future
  2. Rambo: First Blood Part II
  3. Rocky IV
  4. The Color Purple
  5. Out Of Africa
  6. Cocoon
  7. The Jewel of the Nile
  8. Witness
  9. The Goonies
  10. Spies Like Us

Who won the 1985 Academy Awards?

Best Picture: Out of Africa
Best Director: Sydney Pollack – Out of Africa
Best Actress: Geraldine Page – The Trip to Bountiful
Best Actor: William Hurt – Kiss of the Spider Woman

Movies in 1986

Crocodile Dundee

Crocodile Dundee was one of the most popular movies in 1986

If critics were disappointed by the motion picture industry in 1985, then they were even more dismayed with 1986. With no technological advancements to speak of, most movies were quite predictable in their successes and failures. The only real controversy of the year was over some people’s hatred of colorization, which was a relatively new process.

Broadcasting executive Ted Turner bought the rights to several black and white classics with the purpose of colorization and re-broadcast. The Maltese Falcon, Yankee Doodle Dandy and It’s a Wonderful Life were all colorized in 1986. Filmmakers such as Woody Allen, Frank Capra and John Huston condemned the process, calling it “cultural butchery.” Huston, director of The Maltese Falcon, was so enraged he urged the public to boycott the film.

Good news for film scholars emerged when an unreleased, uncut and unfinished Orson Welles film called It’s All True was discovered in Paramount’s stock-footage vault. The footage was expected to be compiled and shown at film festivals in 1987.

A surprise hit from Australia, Crocodile Dundee, starring Paul Hogan, was a very popular movie with both young and older viewers. Another popular 1986 film, Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise, did well at the box office even though most critics dismissed it as trite. Cruise abruptly changed direction in the Martin Scorsese-directed The Color of Money, playing a young pool player tutored by Paul Newman.

Sequels did surprisingly well in 1986. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, The Karate Kid Part II, and Aliens all performed admirably at the box office. Stand By Me, a nostalgic, coming of age story by Stephen King, was a hit. To many, it was a refreshing and brilliant departure from King’s earlier horror-themed work. School themed comedies were popular, as audiences lined around the block to watch Back to School and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in theaters.

In 1986, Hollywood was rocked by the deaths of two pre-television legends: James Cagney and Cary Grant.

Top 10 Movies in 1986

What were the most popular movies in 1986?

  1. Top Gun
  2. Crocodile Dundee
  3. Platoon
  4. The Karate Kid Part II
  5. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
  6. Back to School
  7. Aliens
  8. The Golden Child
  9. Ruthless People
  10. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Who won the 1986 Academy Awards?

Best Picture: Platoon
Best Director: Oliver Stone – Platoon
Best Actress: Marlee Matlin – Children of a Lesser God
Best Actor: Paul Newman – The Color of Money

Movies in 1987

Dirty Dancing (1987)

Dirty Dancing was a surprise hit in 1987

1987 proved to be a great year for the motion picture industry. Box office records were being broken and rentals were through the roof. Life was good for Hollywood.

Joel and Ethan Coen broke out with Raising Arizona. And Steve Martin grew a long nose in Roxanne.

The biggest hit of the year, however, was the steamy Fatal Attraction. The movie, in which respectable married attorney Michael Douglas is hounded by his former lover Glenn Close, was a conventional if voluptuously filmed variation of a theme explored in 1971 in Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me.

Dirty Dancing, starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, proved to a surprise hit as well. The movie told a nostalgic story of a sheltered young woman’s sexual awakening at a Catskills summer resort in the early 1960s.

Charles Martin Smith, Kevin Costner, Sean Connery and Andy Garcia played federal agents who take on the mob in the 1987 hit The Untouchables.

Woody Allen told a Senate subcommittee in May about his opposition to colorization — the process used to add color to black and white films.

After three horrible movies, Tom Selleck finally made a movie people liked in Three Men & A Baby. Beverly Hills Cop II did pretty well at the box office. too.

Oliver Stone’s Platoon won the Academy Award for best picture in 1987. Stanley Kubrick made his long awaited return to filmmaking with Full Metal Jacket. The wait was well worth it.

Good Morning Vietnam opened late in the year to raving reviews.

Top 10 Movies in 1987

What were the most popular movies in 1987?

  1. Three Men and a Baby
  2. Fatal Attraction
  3. Beverly Hills Cop II
  4. Good Morning, Vietnam
  5. Moonstruck
  6. The Untouchables
  7. The Secret of My Success
  8. Stakeout
  9. Lethal Weapon
  10. The Witches of Eastwick

Who won the 1987 Academy Awards?

Best Picture: The Last Emperor
Best Director: Bernardo Bertolucci – The Last Emperor
Best Actress: Cher – Moonstruck
Best Actor: Michael Douglas – Wall Street

Top 10 Movies in 1988

What were the most popular movies in 1988?

  1. Rain Man
  2. Who Framed Roger Rabbit
  3. Coming to America
  4. Big
  5. Twins
  6. Crocodile Dundee II
  7. Die Hard
  8. The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!
  9. Cocktail
  10. Beetlejuice

Who won the 1988 Academy Awards?

Best Picture: Rain Man
Best Director: Barry Levinson – Rain Man
Best Actress: Jodie Foster – The Accused
Best Actor: Dustin Hoffman – Rain Man

Top 10 Movies in 1989

What were the most popular movies in 1989?

  1. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  2. Batman
  3. Back to the Future Part II
  4. Look Who’s Talking
  5. Dead Poets Society
  6. Lethal Weapon 2
  7. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids
  8. Ghostbusters II
  9. The Little Mermaid
  10. Born on the Fourth of July

Who won the 1989 Academy Awards?

Best Picture: Driving Miss Daisy
Best Director: Oliver Stone – Born on the Fourth of July
Best Actress: Jessica Tandy – Driving Miss Daisy
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis – My Left Foot


Share your love for 1980s Movies: What Did People Watch?

Share this page on Facebook Share this page on Google+ Tweet this page Pin this page on Pinterest Share this page on Tumblr Share this page on Reddit

4 thoughts on “1980s Movies: What Did People Watch?

  1. David Goforth

    I’m surprised there was nothing in the 1985 category about Back to the Future. In fact, there was no 1985 list at all. The Goonies also didn’t make the charts. Along with a few other movies. This is a good list, but it doesn’t even cover some major movies from the mid 1980’s.

    1. Paul Phipps Post author

      You’re right, David! Back to the Future is one of my favorite movies of all time. Goonies is too. I haven’t written the article section for 1985 yet, but I will today since you pointed it out. 🙂 Thanks for visiting!

  2. Lyndzy Passmore

    I was sad to see that The Breakfast Club was not included. It is my all time favorite movie.


What do you remember?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *