Best feel-good 80s movies to watch, straight from a Gen Xer

Back in the 1980s, multiplex movie theaters grew to offer more than 10 movie screens — and supersized movie theater candy and snacks matched the bigger-is-better-trend. The movie theater popcorn was great, but the suddenly enormous box of Milk Duds, giant pretzels, huge sodas, and other movie theater food made the concession stand a new and exciting experience all its own.

It’s no surprise that the first 19-screen multiplex opened in 1987 in Universal City, CA, as Cineplex joined forces with Universal Studios. But the Midwest was eager to go grand, too. By the late 80s, Studio 28 in Grand Rapids, Michigan expanded from 12 to 20 movie screens. Welcome, 6,000 movie theater-goers! New York boasted legendary movie theaters — or movie palaces as many of them were called — all around the city with beautiful movie theater carpet and opulent decor. Some of the more memorable places to see a movie were the Paramount Theatre, The Strand, The Theatre at Madison Square Garden, and Radio City Music Hall.

File:NYC Radio City Hall.JPG“File:NYC Radio City Hall.JPG” by Lesekreis is licensed under CC0 1.0

So how much did a movie ticket cost in the 80s?  

According to AARP, “The average price of seeing a flick was $3.55 in 1985, not including popcorn and soda. Today? It’s $9.16, well above the inflation-adjusted 1985 price of $8.65. On the other hand, you can now get reclining leather seats, beer, and more or less edible pizza in the theater, too.”

How we knew movie showtimes in the 1980s

Remember newspapers? Well, back in the 80s, the best way to find out movie showtimes was looking them up in the newspaper.  Most parents had a subscription for the local newspaper, which was tossed on the driveway in a Wonder Bread bag by the neighborhood paperboy on his  bike. For us kids, it was a real thrill to scan the paper to see what was playing at your favorite theater and make a plan to meet up with friends.

Newspapers weren’t the only way to know movie showtimes. There was also the option to call individual theaters on the phone and listen to a recording of all the movies playing and the various times you could see them, but that required pulling out a ginormous phonebook to look all the theaters up individually in the yellow pages, so that was no fun. And the final option was to  drive by and check the movie theater marquee.

Then in 1989, along came Moviefone. It was pretty exciting at the time because you only had to call 1-800-777-FILM, enter your zip code, and you could hear all the movies playing near you. “Hello! And welcome to Moviefone!” The interactive experience with that familiar voice made movie-finding so much easier by streamlining the search.

As many Gen Xers know, there’s basically a Seinfeld for everything — so if you want to get a sense of the Moviefone experience, yes, there’s a Seinfeld for that. In “The Pool Guy” episode, Kramer’s new phone number is getting misdialed by people trying to call Moviefone to request movie times and locations; when he gets a call, he checks his newspaper and reads off the options to people in the distinctive Moviefone voice without revealing they dialed the wrong number. Watching that scene with George can still make us laugh just as hard today.

How we bought movie tickets in the 1980s

Certain blockbuster movies, like Top Gun, Ghostbusters and E.T., would start queueing up hours beforehand so you just had to wait in line and hope they didn’t sell out before you got up to the window. And even then, if your group was lucky enough to score tickets, there was no guarantee you would be able to sit together. A favorite story in our house is remembering when my dad took my 13-year-old brother to Pizza Hut before seeing The Shining in June of 1980. My dad didn’t know what it was about but liked Jack Nicholson and there was a huge line so he figured it must be good.  My brother had to sit by himself two rows in front of him because it was sold out and there were no two seats together in the whole theater. Fast forward about 30 minutes — and they were both in total shock once the movie got going and the audience started screaming. Needless to say, my dad got my brother out of the theater real fast.

Thankfully, later this year, we’ll all be able to use the new movie ticketing app to reserve seats together so we can hide behind our loved ones during the scary parts, lol. Sign up for email updates to be the first to know.

Big Hair, big heart, big movie theaters…and even bigger movie stars

Let’s talk about the 80s — and not just a movie at the movie theater — but the theater-going experience back then. By the 80s, movie theaters were central to the Gen Xer’s social life. We enjoyed expanded movie showtimes and more theaters in which to see them. Give us a mall with a movie theater in it and comfortable movie theater seats and we were in heaven. That’s where, as middle and high school kids, we’d meet up on the weekends — sometimes even staying a few hours through an afternoon movie marathon where you could pay a discount to watch two movies back-to-back. (Or if you really loved a movie, you’d just watch the same one twice, like I did with Dead Poet’s Society, Pretty in Pink, and Rainman.)  

After all, we didn’t have Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, AppleTV+, Disney+, countless television channels,  — or even anything resembling On Demand cable. We had to wait around to see television shows once a week. Can you imagine? And we had to wait all year to catch a single airing of our favorite Christmas specials — so if you missed Rudolph or The Year Without A Santa Claus, you were SOL.  Better luck next year!

Video rental stores revolutionized movie-watching in the 80s.  To watch a movie at home you had to have a VHS player (or a Betamax if your parents got it wrong) and then you could rent a tape of the newest released movies or old favorites from Blockbuster Video or your local video store. Be Kind, Rewind! If you want to understand more about the Blockbuster era movie rentals, check out Netflix’s new documentary The Last Blockbuster.

Cable television really started to enjoy increasing popularity in the 80s as it began to mainstream into people’s homes, and HBO started offering movies, comedy specials, and concerts. I can tell you, that felt revolutionary at the time. It was like having a movie theater at home. Still, renting movies remained popular through the 90s because to watch what you wanted, when you wanted, was still mostly an elusive concept.

For GenXers, 80s movies were all we talked about, thought about, and quoted

Wouldn’t it be great to take a Back to the Future Delorean car to visit the 80s for just a quick time travel trip? We wouldn’t change a thing. Except, perhaps, the skinny tie and mullets. OK, and maybe the stiff bangs and bad perms. Oh, and you can also keep the parachute pants, giant shoulder pads, and acid-washed jeans. 

The 80s movie-going experience ushered in (see what I did there?) a whole new coming of age genre that was unique to the culture of the times.  Love stories explored more complex themes, young adult movies captured teen angst in a way that movies before had not explored — thereby creating the need for a PG-13 rating in 1984 — and movie music soundtracks became a feature that were often as popular as the movie itself – and in many cases, even more so. (See: Purple Rain, Footloose, Some Kind of Wonderful, Top Gun.)

And just like Annie Potts’ character Iona in Pretty in Pink, we all love to OD on nostalgia from time to time, right? So grab yourself a Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler or a nice cold HI-C, kick back on your futon, and join us for a major throwback-fest to some of the most defining Gen X movies of the 1980s, including popular quotes from 80s movies, soundtrack faves, and where to watch the best 80s movies.

Best 80s Movies – Teen Romance: Say Anything (1989)

Directed by Cameron Crowe, this movie is an 80s legend. It’s hard to think of a movie that captures first love better than this movie does. The romance between brainiac Diane (Ione Skye) and earnest Lloyd (John Cusack) remains etched in our brains for its vulnerability and total innocence. Who can hear Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” without thinking of Lloyd standing outside Diane’s window, his boombox held high in a desperate attempt to win her back, after her father encouraged her to end their relationship? Lloyd is a Romeo with hipster chutzpah; his real-life sister Joan Cusack, playing his on-screen sister Constance, brings an authenticity to his home life scenes.  When this movie hit the movie theaters, we ran to see the ethereal, quirky Ione Skye paired with the kind-hearted, quirky John Cusack. After all these years, it’s still perfect for anyone jonesing for an 80s movie that beautifully captures the high school-level intensity of falling in love for the first time.

Memorable Say Anything quote: “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know as a career, I don’t want to do that.” – John Cusack as Lloyd Dobler when asked what he wants to do with his life.

Memorable song:  “In Your Eyes” – Peter Gabriel 

Where to watch Say Anything: Buy or rent Say Anything on Amazon Prime.

Movie tickets sold: Say Anything was a worldwide success earning more than $20 million at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1983 was $3.99

Best 80s Movies – Teen Romance: Sixteen Candles (1984)

John Hughes’s directorial debut hit movie theaters with a bang and was an instant success thanks to a hilarious script, a handsome love interest (Jake, played by Michael Shoeffling), and a relatable main character in 16-year-old Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald). Other notable cast members include: Anthony Michael Hall as Farmer Ted aka “The Geek,” John Cusack as Bryce, Haviland Morris (as Caroline), Blanche Baker (as Sam’s sister Ginny), Gedde Watanabee as Long Duk Dong, Paul Dooley as Dad Jim Baker, and Carlin Glynn as Mom Brenda Baker. 

This classic coming-of-age romantic comedy captures all things awkward about high school: the feeling of going to dances in the gym, house parties, personal relationships with parents and siblings,  and falling in love with a person who you feel is far out of your league. The final scene in this movie is iconic, and the soundtrack cemented John Hughes as a successful screenplay writer and director who would go on to create some of the most iconic 80s-defining movies of the decade, with exceptional soundtracks to match.

Memorable Sixteen Candles quote: “That’s why they call them crushes. If they were easy, they’d call them something else.” – Paul Dooley as Samantha’s Dad offering sage advice 

Most memorable song: ”Young Americans” – David Bowie

Where to watch Sixteen Candles: Buy or rent Sixteen Candles on Amazon Prime.

Movie tickets sold: Sixteen Candles was a big success among younger audiences, earning close to $23.7 million at the box office; the average price of a ticket in the U.S. in 1984 was $3.36. 

Best 80s Movies – Teen Romance: Valley Girl (1983)

Most Gen Xers remember Valley Girl as the movie that launched Nicolas Cage’s career. Deborah Foreman plays Julie Richman, a high school girl from San Fernando Valley, CA who falls for Randy (Nicolas Cage), a punk rocker from downtown Hollywood, CA.  The two meet at a high school party and fall for one another pretty hard. Julie’s friends — along with her previous boyfriend (who is a total, shallow jerk) — pressure her to break up with Randy. It all comes to a head at the prom, of course, (another major movie theme of this decade) and ends in totally awesome 80s style.

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Memorable Valley Girl quote: “He’s like tripendicular, ya know?” Deborah Foreman’s Julie sharing her early opinion of Randy with her best friend.

Memorable song: “I Melt With You” – Modern English  

Where to watch Valley Girl: Buy or rent Valley Girl on Amazon Prime.

Movie tickets sold: Valley Girl was a major success among teen audiences. Although it brought in just over $17.3 million at the box office, its budget was a meager $350,000; the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 1983 was $3.15. 

Best 80s Movies – Teen Romance: Dirty Dancing (1987)

Dirty Dancing (1987) Patrick Swayze stars as Johnny and Jennifer Grey as Frances — nicknamed “Baby” — in this unforgettable love story between two people from opposite sides of the tracks (another popular 80s theme). They meet while spending the summer at a luxury resort in the Catskill Mountains; Johnny as a dance instructor, and Baby there with her wealthy family. Baby’s father makes several incorrect assumptions about Johnny, which ultimately leads to Johnny losing his job and leaving the resort. He comes back, though, in spectacular fashion to set the record straight. If you haven’t seen this one yet, it’s worth the watch.

Memorable Dirty Dancing quote: “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” Patrick Swayze to Jerry Orbach who plays Baby’s Father.

Most memorable song: “(I’ve Had) The Time of my Life” – Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes

Where to watch Dirty Dancing: Buy or rent Dirty Dancing on Amazon Prime.

Movie tickets sold: Dirty Dancing was a massive success, bringing in nearly $214 million at the box office worldwide; the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 1987 was $3.91. 

Best 80s Romance Movies: When Harry Met Sally (1989)

For many people, this movie is the yardstick by which all rom-coms are measured. As Neil Drumming of This American Life recently stated in episode #638, he can’t imagine dating someone who didn’t like When Harry Met Sally. “If you’re not interested in the relationship between Harry and Sally, I don’t really understand what kind of person you are,” he said. 

Like most of us, Neil likes the extended talking that happens between Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) and loves the ending, when Harry runs across New York City on New Year’s Eve to reach Sally. When this movie hit the theaters, men and women everywhere weighed in on Harry’s observation to Sally: “What I’m saying is––and this is not a come-on in any way, shape, or form––is that men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” 

The iconic scene where Rob Reiner’s mother, Estelle Reiner declares: “I’ll have what she’s having” after Sally illustrates her point that “all men are sure it never happened to them and all women at one time or other have done it, so you do the math” on women faking orgasms also had us talking. The clever and provocative conversation throughout the movie stays with us as cultural reference points; the portrayal of friends-turned-lovers in this movie remains the gold standard.  

(One of the most) memorable When Harry Met Sally quotes: “It’s just that I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” – Harry, on finally realizing he’s completely in love with Sally

Memorable song:  “It Had to Be You” – Harry Connick Jr. 

Where to watch When Harry Met Sally: Buy or rent When Harry Met Sally on Amazon Prime.

Movie tickets sold: When Harry Met Sally received critical acclaim, earning $93 million worldwide at the box office; the average price of a movie ticket in 1989 was $3.99. 

Best 80s Movies – Romance: Coming to America (1988)

Coming to America stars Eddie Murphy as Prince Akeem, an heir to the throne in Zamunda, a fictional African nation. After his parents present him with a pre-arranged bride on his 21st birthday, Prince Akeem rejects her in favor of finding an independent woman on his own. He travels to Queens, NY with his friend and personal assistant Semmi (Arsenio Hall) and goes undercover to find true love with a woman he can respect for her intelligence and free will, and who can love him for who he is without knowing of his wealth and position back home. There, he meets smart, beautiful Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley), and falls in love with her while working for her father at McDowells. 

The movie also features James Earl Jones as Prince Akeem’s  father, King Jaffe Joffer; Madge Sinclair as his mother, Queen Aoleon; John Amos as Cleo McDowell, Lisa’s father and owner of McDonald’s knock-off McDowell’s; Eriq LaSalle as Darryl Jenks, Lisa’s selfish, lazy boyfriend; and Allison Dean as Patrice McDowell, Lisa’s younger sister. Louie Anderson, Samuel L. Jackson, and Cuba Gooding Jr. also make brief appearances.  Directed by John Landis, the movie was an instant fan favorite for Eddie Murphy’s story as much as for his and Arsenio Hall’s clever appearances in different roles throughout the movie. The Duke brothers Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer (Don Ameche) from Trading Places, in which Eddie Murphy also starred, make a cameo appearance as themselves, now homeless and living under a bridge. Akeem gives them a pile of money and Randolph excitedly declares “Mortimer, we’re back!”

For fans of the first movie, Eddie Murphy stars in its clever sequel featuring most of the original cast. It’s set in Zamunda but sends Akeem and Semmi back to Queens, New York where it all began. You can watch Coming 2 America now on Amazon Prime.

Memorable Coming to America quote: “This is America, Jack. I’m going to break my foot off in your royal ass!” John Amos as Lisa’s father Cleo to James Earl Jones as King Jaffe Joffer, Akeem’s Father.

Memorable song – a new version of the original: “Coming 2 America”John Legend, Burna Boy, Niles Rogers

Where to watch Coming to America: Buy or rent Coming to America on Amazon Prime.

Movie tickets sold: Coming to America was a big success, grossing upwards of $288 million worldwide at the box office; the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 1986 was $3.71. 

Best 80s Movies – Romance: Top Gun (1986)

Directed by Tony Scott, this action drama stars Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Meg Ryan, Anthony Edwards, Tom Skerritt, and Val Kilmer. This film had enormous commercial success and earned an IMAX 3D release in 2013. No wonder: the action sequences, aerial stunts, and chemistry between Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis were breath-taking. The film also won an Academy Award for Best Original Song “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin

In this film, Naval Aviator Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) demonstrates tactical and flying prowess that leads him to TOPGUN, the Naval Fighter Weapons School at Naval Air Station Miramar. His partner’s best friend Nick “Goose” Brandshaw, played by Anthony Edwards, and nemesis-turned-admirer “Iceman” played by Val Kilmer. There he meets and falls in love with astrophysicist and instructor Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), who was an 80s darling, so watching her onscreen is a delight that conjures that era. But in a larger sense, Top Gun holds up over time because it appeals to both men and women due to the action vs. emotion equation when the stakes are high.

Memorable Top Gun quote: “Talk to me, Goose.” Tom Cruise as Maverick to Anthony Edwards as Goose  

Most memorable song: “Take My Breath Away” – Berlin

Where to watch Top Gun: Buy or rent Top Gun on Amazon Prime

Movie tickets sold: Top Gun was the top grossing movie of 1986, bringing in nearly $357 million at the box office; the average price of a movie ticket in 1986 was $3.71. 

Best 80s Romance Movies: An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

Directed by Taylor Hackford, this iconic 80s movie stars Louis Gosset Jr., Richard Gere, and Debra Winger. Zack Mayo (Richard Gere) is a Navy pilot candidate, along with his friend Sid, who suffer with the other candidates through the punishing training program led by Sergeant Foley (Louis Gossett Jr.). Notably, Louis Gossett Jr. won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, the first African American male to win that award. On top of their training program, Zack and Sid are warned about the local girls luring in would-be officers. Sid falls for local girl Lynette, while Zack falls for Paula (Debra Winger). But Sid dooms himself through love, rendering himself an “Okie from Muskogee” in Lynette’s eyes. The film deals with suicide, death, and painful self-reflection. Meanwhile, Zack is commissioned into the Navy. He then carries Paula away in his arms as everyone in the factory claps. The chemistry between Richard Gere and Debra Winger was a stand-out feature of this movie. 

Memorable An Officer and a Gentleman quote: In every class, there’s always one joker who thinks that he’s smarter than me. In this class, that happens to be you. Isn’t it, Mayon-naise?” – Louis Gossett Jr. as Sgt. Emil Foley to Richard Gere’s Zack Mayo

Memorable song: “Up Where We Belong” – Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes

Where to watch An Officer and a Gentleman: Buy or rent An Officer and a Gentleman on Amazon Prime.

Movie tickets sold: An Officer and a Gentleman was a commercial success, bringing in more than $190 million at the box office; the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 1982 was $2.94. 

Best 80s Coming of Age Movies 

The 80s was rich with so many coming of age movies, it’s hard to narrow them down to just a few. Plus,  they were all so different;  some were funny, some heartbreaking, some were about love and loss;  friendships gone sour; or cold and distant parental relationships. One thing they all had in common, though, was an ensemble cast that launched the careers of many of countless actors and actresses.

Best 80s Coming of Age Movies: Stand By Me (1986)

Directed by Rob Reiner and based on the Steven King novella called The Body, Stand By Me follows four pre-teen boys as they set out on a two-day hike in Oregon to find the dead body of a missing boy. The film stars Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, and Kiefer Sutherland. The movie captures the boys’ fears, their wish to be heroes, and their fierce bonds. The character Gordie (Wil Wheaton) reflects as an adult on this trek into the deep unknown, with buddies who go the extra mile for you and with you. He says, “I never had friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” We, too, look back on this movie whenever we search for a movie that captures the intensity of our early friendships.  

Stand by Me was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and two Golden Globe Awards: one for Best Drama Motion Picture and one for Best Director. 

Memorable Stand By Me quote: “We’d only been gone for two days but somehow the town seemed different; smaller.” – Gordie’s observation on returning home at the end of their adventure.

Memorable song: “Stand By Me” – Ben E. King

Where to watch Stand By Me: Buy or rent Stand By Me on Amazon Prime.

Movie tickets sold: Stand by Me was a favorite among young and old audiences alike, bringing in more than $52.3 million at the box office; the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 1986 was $3.71. 

Best 80s Coming of Age Movies: Big (1988)

Brilliantly directed by Penny Marshall, Big stars Tom Hanks (Josh), Elizabeth Perkins (Susan), Jared Rushton (Billy), John Heard (Paul), Merecedes Ruehl (Mrs. Baskin), and Robert Loggia as MacMillan, the President of MacMillan toys. When 13-year-old Josh goes to a traveling carnival fair with his family, he makes a wish on a Zoltar machine to be “big,” and overnight is transformed into a grown man. 

Afraid and with nowhere to go, Josh secretly visits his best friend Billy to tell him what happened; Billy doesn’t believe him at first, but then comes around. While “big,” Josh is confronted with various adult situations — including a romantic interest in co-worker (Susan) — which he’s not sure how to handle, but his child-like charm and innocence endear him to others and manage to bring out the kid in everyone around him. His loyal friend, Billy, helps him with big decisions like how to act and where to live — but ultimately is the one who brings him back around to wanting to become a kid again. 

The movie had several iconic scenes, including: Susan’s sleepover (“I get to be on top!”), the piano scene with Mr. MacMillan, the white tuxedo worn to the company Christmas party, and the “I don’t get it?” robot-turns-into-a-building scene at work with angry Paul. Tom Hanks’ performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor and won him the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy; Big was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay. 

Memorable Big quote: “I’m your best friend. What’s more important than that, huh?” –  Billy (Jared Rushton) to Josh (Tom Hanks) when he fears he’s lost his best friend permanently 

Memorable song: “Hot in the City Tonight” – Billy Idol

Where to watch Big: Buy or rent Big on Amazon Prime.

Movie tickets sold: Big was hugely successful, raking in nearly $152 million at the box office; the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 1988 was $4.11. 

Best 80s Coming of Age Movies: Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Adapted from Carmeron Crowe’s book Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story (early copies of which today are quite valuable), the movie was directed by Amy Heckerling and stars Jennifer Jason Leigh (Stacy Hamilton), Sean Penn (Jeff Spocoli), Phoebe Cates (Linda Barrett), Judge Reinhold (Brad Hamilton), Robert Romanus (Mike Damone), Brian Backer (Mark Ratner), and Ray Walston (Mr. Hand). 

The story is based on Cameron Crowe’s experiences while attending Redondo Beach high school while undercover on assignment at age 22, seven years after his own graduation from high school. The story’s main focus is on Stacy, whose best friend is an older, wiser, more experienced young woman advising her on sex and love. Two other subplots unfold: one focused on her brother Brad’s jobs and relationships; and the other on non-starter Jeff Spicoli who has reportedly “been stoned since the 3rd grade.” 

The movie was added to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” — and rightfully so. Fast Times hilariously and endearingly captures the language, friendships, and relationship dramas of high school during the late 70s/early 80s, and makes us feel like we’re one of them as they grow and mature throughout the year. Bonus: see first notable on-screen performances by Nicolas Cage (credited as Nicolas Coppola), Eric Stoltz, and Forest Whitaker.

Memorable Fast Times at Ridgemont High quote: “When it comes down to making out, whenever possible, put on side one of ‘Led Zepplin IV.’”- Robert Romanus as Mike Damone, giving advice to friend Mark Ratner (Brian Backer)

Memorable song:  “Somebody’s Baby” – Jackson Brown

Where to watch Fast Times at Ridgemont High: Buy or rent Fast Times at Ridgemont High on Amazon Prime.

Movie tickets sold: Fast Times at Ridgemont High was a smash hit and has become an enduring cult favorite, earning north of $27 million at the box office; the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 1982 was $2.94. 

Best 80s Coming of Age Movies: The Karate Kid (1984)

The Karate Kid is the gift that keeps on giving. After the blockbuster success of the original, The Karate Kid became a movie franchise spawning The Karate Kid II (1986), The Karate Kid III (1989), and The Next Karate Kid (1994) — and then later even a remake of the original with the same name The Karate Kid (2010). All three of The Karate Kid movies in the 80s were written by Robert Mark Kamen, directed by John G. Avildsen, and produced by Jerry Weintraub––the last of whom went on to also produce The Next Karate Kid. The original 80s movie tells the coming of age story of high schooler Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) who moves with his mother (Randee Heller) from New Jersey to California. He does not fit in well at his new school on the west coast, and has several run-ins with Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and other boys at school who are students of the Cobra Kai dojo led by John Kreese (Martin Kove); Kreese teaches and advocates a show-no-mercy approach to karate. The boys continue to bully Daniel, confronting him up on a regular basis, until Daniel meets Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), the groundskeeper at his apartment complex. Daniel also befriends Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue) who happens to be Johnny’s girlfriend. Daniel becomes a student of Mr. Miyagi, and trains for the All Valley Karate Tournament in Los Angeles where karate dojos compete against one another. Along the way, he falls in love with Ali, angering Johny even more. In 2018, Netflix released the popular spin-off Cobra Kai TV drama series featuring the same main actors that were in the original movies, including Ralph Macchio,  William Zabka, and Martin Kove. The storylines focus on the same characters 34 years later, their families, and their continued involvement in the Cobra Kai dojo.

Memorable The Karate Kid quote: “Wax on, right hand. Wax off, left hand. Wax on, wax off. Breathe in through nose, out the mouth. Don’t forget to breathe.  Very important. Wax on, wax off.” – Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi teaching Daniel the basics of karate. 

Memorable song: “You’re the Best” – Joe Esposito

Where to watch The Karate Kid: Buy or rent The Karate Kid on Amazon Prime.

Movie tickets sold: The Karate Kid was an international success, pulling in nearly $91 million at the box office; the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 1984 was $3.36. 

Best 80s Coming of Age Movies: The Outsiders (1983)

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this movie is an adaptation of the 1967 novel of the same name by S. E. Hinton. The movie stars Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise, Leif Garrett, and Diane Lane. A critical and box office success, this movie helped to launch the Brat Pack genre of the 80s. The film depicts the rivalry between a poor “greaser” gang and the rich Socs (short for Socials). At the time, the movie was hailed for portraying teenagers in a more realistic way, with rough talk and parents who fail them. Seeing this movie in the theater fit the epic quality of these misunderstood dreamers. Seeing it at home lets us grab our tissue box.  

Memorable The Outsiders quote: “Stay Gold, Ponyboy. Stay Gold.” – Ralph Macchico’s character Johnny Cade to C. Thomas Howell’s Ponyboy inspired by Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” 

Memorable song: “Stay Gold” – Stevie Wonder

Where to watch The Outsiders: Buy or rent The Outsiders on Amazon Prime.

Movie tickets sold: The Outsiders was a big hit among kids in middle and high school especially, earning $33.7 million at the box office; the price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 1983 was $3.15.

Best 80s Coming of Age Movies: Risky Business (1983)

Written and directed by Paul Brickman, this breakout film for Tom Cruise also stars Rebecca DeMornay. Tom Cruise plays high school senior Joel Goodson who runs a brothel while his parents are out of town—and gets into Princeton, too. Tom Cruise flies by the seat of his boxer shorts to become the poster boy for capitalism in an age that became known as the “go-go Eighties.” 

Memorable Risky Business quote: “Sometimes you gotta say ‘What the f*ck.’ Make your move. Joel, every now and then, saying ‘What the f*ck’ brings freedom. Freedom brings opportunity. Opportunity makes your future.” – Friend Miles (Curtis Armstrong) to Joel (Tom Cruise)

Memorable song: Old Time Rock ‘N Roll” – Bob Segar & the Silver Bullet Band

Where to watch Risky Business: Buy or rent Risky Business on Amazon Prime.

Movie tickets sold: Risky Business was an 80s hit, topping $63.5 million at the box office; the price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 1983 was $3.15.

Best 80s Coming of Age Movies: St. Elmo’s Fire (1985)

St. Elmo’s Fire, co-written and directed by Joel Schumacher, tells the story of seven friends as they navigate life in Washington D.C. after college. Buggala! Buggala! Buggala!  Ha! Ha! Ha! The movie stars brat-packers Emilio Estevez (as Kirby Keger), Rob Lowe (as Billy Hicks), Andrew McCarthy (as Kevin Dolenz), Demi Moore (as Jules), Ally Sheedy (as Leslie Hunter), Judd Nelson (as Alec Newbary), and Mare Winningham (as Wendy Beamish) as best friends and recent graduates of Georgetown University.  Though it didn’t fare well among critics, the movie resonated big-time with audiences in their teens and early 20s, earning close to $40 million at the box office. The story delves into the complex emotional relationships between various characters, including the excruciating pain of unrequited love, the despair caused by lies and betrayal, the challenges of parental responsibility, and the blurred lines between romantic love and close friends.  Andie McDowell plays a smaller role as Dale Bieberman, the love interest (more like obsession) of Kirby Keger (Emilio Estevez). St. Elmo’s Fire was notably the first brat-pack-era movie that made the leap from high school to post-collegiate life in “the real world.”   

Memorable St. Elmo’s Fire quote: “I can’t remember who met who first, or who fell in love with who first. All I can remember is the seven of us, always together.” – Ally Sheedy narrating as Leslie Hunter

Memorable song: St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion) – John Parr

Where to watch St. Elmo’s Fire: Buy or rent St. Elmo’s Fire on Amazon Prime.

Movie tickets sold: Brat-packed St. Elmo’s Fire was a huge hit, earning $37.8 million at the box office; the price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 1985 was $3.55.

Iconic 80s Movies that are Culturally Significant: Do the Right Thing (1989)

Writer, producer, and director Spike Lee was a movie-making phenomenon in the 80s (and still is today), turning out multiple classics that defined the age — and the city culture — in which they are set. This one takes place in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The movie features Salvatore “Sal” Fragione (Danny Aiello) as an Italian pizza shop owner in a neighborhood predominantly filled with Black and Puerto Rican residents. One customer feels Sal’s wall, dedicated to Italian celebrities, should feature more actors and entertainers of color given the neighborhood clientele it serves. The wall becomes a symbol of racism and division; the movie features heavy dialog using racial stereotypes in a way that had people sit up, take notice, and start listening in a more honest way. The film, with its all-star cast including John Turturro, Samuel L. Jackson, Rosie Perez, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, and Martin Lawrence (making his film debut), received critical success and was nominated for two Academy Awards.

Memorable Do the Right Thing quote: “Always do the right thing.” – Ossie Davis as Da Mayor to Spike Lee’s character Mookie.

Memorable song:Fight the Power” – Public Enemy

Where to watch Do the Right Thing: Buy or rent Do the Right Thing on Amazon Prime.

Movie tickets sold: Do the Right Thing was a major hit with audiences, earning $37.3 million at the box office; the price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 1989 was $3.99.

Iconic 80s Movies that are Culturally Significant: Blues Brothers (1980)

Directed by John Landis, this musical comedy stars John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Carrie Fisher, and Aretha Franklin. It was based on the recurring musical sketch “The Blues Brothers” on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. It’s now a cult film and, in 2020, became preserved in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” John Belushi was like a supernova—his tremendous comedic, musical, and acting talents blazed and then vanished all too quickly with a drug overdose in the early 80s. Still, his timeless talent defined the 80s and lives on today; this movie is a national treasure. 

In it, ex-convict Jake Blues (John Belushi) and his brother Elwood (Dan Aykroyd) are brothers bent on saving the Catholic orphanage in Chicago where they were raised. To keep the orphanage from closing, they need to pay its $5,000 property tax bill. So they hatch a plan: reunite their Blues and Soul revivalist band. But first, there’s the tiny matter of… paying 116 parking tickets on their Bluesmobile; eluding a mysterious flame-throwing woman who turns out to be Jake’s vengeful ex-fiance; and eluding the police, Illinois Nazis, and a crazed country band. So many hoops to jump through for these heroes of redemption, these Soul Men. 

Memorable Blues Brothers quote: “We’re putting the band back together.” – Jake Blues (John Belushi) says repeatedly, followed by Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd) who always adds: “We’re on a mission from God.”

Memorable song (and scene!):  “Think” – Aretha Franklin 

Where to watch Blues Brothers: Buy or rent Blues Brothers on Amazon Prime.

Movie tickets sold: The Blues Brothers was a sensational success, earning a whopping $115.2 million at the box office; the price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 1980 was $2.69.

Iconic 80s Movies that are Culturally Significant: Working Girl (1988)

Directed by Mike Nichols, this movie stars Harrison Ford, Melanie Griffith (with humongous 80s hair) and, Joan Cusack (also with humongous 80s hair), and Sigourney Weaver. Working-class girl Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) from Staten Island works as a stockbroker’s secretary. She aspires to an executive position but chauvinism and stereotypes get in her way. When her conniving, undermining boss Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) steals Tess’s idea for a merger, Tess devises a plan to reclaim her idea. We cheered Tess then for all of the workplace politics that continue to vex us today. 

Memorable Working Girl quote: “I have a head for business, and a bod for sin. Is there anything wrong with that?” – Tess McGills (Melanie Griffith) to Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford)

Memorable song: “Let the River Run” – Carly Simon (who won an Academy Award for Best Original Song, as well as a Golden Globe and a Grammy)

Where to watch Working Girl: Buy or rent Working Girl on Amazon Prime.

Movie tickets sold: Working Girl was a success, earning an impressive $103 million at the box office; the price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 1988 was $4.11.

Iconic 80s Movies that are Culturally Significant: Tootsie (1982)

Directed by Sydney Pollack, this 80s romantic comedy was a critical and box office success. It stars Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Bill Murray, and Geena Davis. When Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) can’t get an acting job in New York City, he dresses up in drag to land a role as a woman on a soap opera. Against the backdrop of mistaken sexual identity and questions of sexism, a love story emerges. Classic joke from Michael’s roommate (Bill Murray) as he eyes Michael in drag: “Don’t play hard to get.” 

Most Memorable Quote: “I was a better man with you as a woman than I ever was with a woman as a man.” – Dustin Hoffman as Michael Dorsey (referring to himself in drag as Dorothy Michaels) to Jessica Lange’s character Julie Nichols.

Most memorable song: “It Might Be You (Theme from Tootsie)” – Dave Grusin 

Where to watch Tootsie: Buy or rent Tootsie on Amazon Prime

Movie tickets sold: Tootsie was a massive commercial success, earning a whopping $177 million at the box office; the price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 1982 was just $2.94.

Iconic 80s Movies that are Culturally Significant: The Princess Bride (1987)

This fairytale-inspired adventure comedy has a cult following still to this day. DIrected by Rob Reiner, the movie is packed with stars, including: Robin Wright, Cary Elwes, Andre the Giant, Mandy Patinkin, Wallace Shawn, Fred Savage, Billy Crystal, Carol Kane, Peter Falk, Chris Sarandon, and Christopher Guest. Grandpa (Peter Falk) reads the book to his grandson (Fred Savage), and narrates the story throughout the movie. “When I was your age, television was called books!” he shouts, before diving in to tell the story. As he reads, the movie takes us through the love story of Princess Buttercup and her farmhand Westley, who always declared “As you wish” to her requests. 

Westley then embarks on a long journey overseas to build his fortune so he can be with Buttercup, and is later presumed dead after his ship is attacked by deadly pirates. He survives and returns back to Florin and travels (with a group of motley characters) to save Princess Buttercup from marrying the awful Prince Humperdinck. 

Eventually, the lovers reunite. In 2016, The Princess Bride was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry’s list of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically” significant American movies.

Memorable quotes from The Princess Bride (because there are too many to choose just one):

“Inconceivable!” – Wallace Shawn as Vizzini, who exclaims this throughout the movie in every kind of situation. At one point, Indigo Montoya hilariously responds: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”  

Perhaps the best known and most often quoted is:  “My Name is Indigo Montoya. You killed my Father. Prepare to die.” – Mandy Patinkin to the six-fingered man (Christopher Guest) who killed his father.

On the 30th anniversary of the film a few years ago, Mandy Patinkin shared some reflections on his character’s famous quotes:

Memorable song: “Once Upon a Time…Storybook Romance” – Mark Knopfler

Where to watch The Princess Bride: Buy or rent The Princess Bride on Amazon Prime

Movie tickets sold: A beloved family film, The Princess Bride grossed nearly $31 million at the box office; the price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 1987 was just $3.91.

Iconic 80s Movies that are Culturally Significant: Ghostbusters (1984)

This supernatural comedy, directed by Ivan Reitman and written by Dan Ackroyd, stars Bill Murray, Sigourney Weaver, and Rick Moranis. The film is considered the first comedy to use expensive special effects, and Dan Ackroyd initially worked on the project with John Belushi before he died. 

Dan Ackroyd was reportedly fascinated with spirituality, like many of us then and now. Parapsychologists who start a ghost-catching business in New York City––how catchy is that? Very. The Ghostbusters song, by Ray Parker Jr., sparked a sensation, a multimedia franchise, and the word “Busters” became like a job you expected to see in the Want Ads in the 80s. “Who You Gonna Call?”

Memorable Ghostbusters quote: “We came! We saw! We kicked its ass!” – Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray)

Memorable song: “Ghostbusters” – Ray Parker Jr.

Where to watch Ghostbusters: Buy or rent Ghostbusters on Amazon Prime

Movie tickets sold: Ghostbusters was a top grossing movie in 1984, earning more than $295 million; the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 1984 was $3.36.

Iconic 80s Movies that are Culturally Significant: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

This sci-fi classic, produced and directed by Steven Spielberg, won four Oscars and is considered one of the greatest films of all time. It stars Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Robert MacNaughton, and Drew Barrymore. It is a beautiful, fantastical story beloved by young Gen X fans for its depiction of the intense mental connection and love between Elliot and E.T. Little sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore’s debut) is pure magic from the moment she shrieks upon seeing E.T. 

But the real magic of this iconic 80s movie lies in its brilliant exploration of humanity. E.T.’s glowing finger, his heartlight, and his reminder that “I’ll be right here” as he points to Elliot’s forehead left us with all the feels and had us returning to the movie theaters to see it over and over and over again. From start to finish, this movie is out of this world. 

Memorable E.T. quote: “Phone. Home. E.T. phone home” – E.T. says pointing out the window towards space 

Memorable song: “Three Million Light Years from Home”  – John WIlliams

Where to watch E.T.: Buy or rent E.T.  on Amazon Prime

Movie tickets sold: E.T. was the largest grossing movie in 1982, and third highest grossing overall in the full decade of the 1980s, earning nearly $360 million internationally; the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 1982 was $2.94. E.T. was re-released again in 1985, and again for its 20th anniversary in 2002, bringing its total overall to a staggering $792.9 million internationally. 

Iconic 80s Movies inspired by Music: Purple Rain (1984)

Prince plays the Kid, a young and talented musician living in an abusive situation at home. He falls in love with Appollonia (played by Appollonia Kotero), another performer who is trying to make it in the Minneapolis music scene. The Kid’s band, called The Revolution, is growing frustrated that The Kid won’t let them play their own music, and he’s feeling the pressure from rival Morris Day and The Time

The movie catapulted Prince’s career; the soundtrack album was Prince’s sixth studio album and the first to credit his band The Revolution. To date, it has sold more than 25 million copies and the movie is regarded as one of the greatest musical films of all time.

Memorable Purple Rain quote:  “I’d like to dedicate this to my father, Francis L. It’s a song the girls in the band wrote, Lisa and Wendy.” – Prince, as The Kid, playing his new song “Purple Rain” for the first time to an audience

Most memorable song: Purple Rain” – Prince and The Revolution 

Where to watch Purple Rain: Buy or rent Purple Rain on Amazon Prime

Movie tickets sold: Thanks to the amazing album of the same name that churned out hit after hit on the Billboard charts, the movie Purple Rain was an instant pop favorite, earning nearly $70 million at the box office; the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 1984 was $3.36.

Iconic 80s Movies inspired by Music: Flashdance (1983)

Directed by Adrian Lyne, this feel-good 80s movie became a blockbuster hit even though Roger Ebert initially pooh-poohed it as insubstantial. Jennifer Beals is Pittsburgh steelworker Alex Owens who moonlights as a nightclub dancer but aspires to be a professional ballerina. Whether or not Roger Ebert was onto something, this movie sticks with you as classic 80s––even if it’s simply because of the breakdancing, the music, and Beals’ iconic sweatshirt with the oversized neck hole. The off-the-shoulder look suddenly had every girl everywhere wearing her sweatshirt this way. Academy Award-winning “Flashdance…What a Feeling,” sung by Irene Cara, is spot on. What a glorious feeling 80s-style dancing was, and is.

Memorable Flashdance quote: “Don’t you understand? You give up your dream, you die.” – Michael Nouri as Nick Hurley to Jennifer Beals Alex.

Memorable song: “What a Feeling” – Irene Cara

Where to watch Flashdance: Buy or rent Flashdance on Amazon Prime

Movie tickets sold: This movie was no flash in the pan; Flashdance made an astounding $201 million worldwide at the box office; the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 1983 was $3.15.

Iconic 80s Movies inspired by Music: Annie (1982)

Aileen Quinn stars as the adorable “little orphan Annie” in the movie remake of the Broadway production of Annie (originally starring Andrea McArdle). The movie’s A-list cast includes Albert Finney as Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, Ann Reinking as Grace Farrel, Geoffrey Holder as Punjab, Bernadette Peters as Lily, Tim Curry as Rooster Hannigan, and Carol Burnett (who steals the show) as the mean, boy-crazy, Miss Hannigan.

One of the greatest movie scenes about the excitement of going to the movies in the 1930s comes from this movie when Daddy Warbucks and Grace Farrel take Annie to the movies for the first time at Radio City Music Hall. The opulence of the entrance, the movie theater ushers dressed in formal black pants with white jackets and gloves shining their flashlights to show them the way, and the pre-show entertainment with the famous Rockettes, make us wistful for the old days when going to the movies was such a unique and special occasion (although, it can still be just as unique and special––you can even rent a movie theater).

Memorable Annie quote: “You’re never fully dressed without a smile.”

Memorable song: “Tomorrow” – The Orphans and Annie

Where to watch Annie: Buy or rent Annie on Amazon Prime

Movie tickets sold: Annie sang and danced its way to the box office, earning $57 million worldwide; the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 1982 was $2.94.

Iconic 80s Movies inspired by Music: Footloose (1984)

Footloose (1984). This musical drama film is directed by Herbert Ross and stars Kevin Bacon, John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Lori Singer, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Chris Penn. City boy Ren McCormack (Kevin Bacon) moves to a small town where the minister bans dancing and rock music. Ren eventually persuades the town to put on a prom, vanquishes a bully, gets the girl, and dances the night away with his friends. Ready to cut loose?

Memorable Footloose quote: “We’re not stuck in the goddamn middle ages here. I mean, we’ve got TV. We’ve got Family Feud.” Chris Penn as Willard to Kevin Bacon’s Ren McCormick

Memorable song: Footloose” – Kenny Loggins  

Where to watch Footloose: Buy or rent Footloose on Amazon Prime

Movie tickets sold: Footloose was beloved around the world, pulling in more than $80 million at the box office; the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. in 1984 was $3.36.

We could go on and on, because there are so many 1980s-era movies to love.  For Gen-exers, we consider it the golden age of movies, thanks to beautiful, new multiplex theaters, affordable ticket prices, endless choices, and parents who would drop us off for the entire day without much thought to what we might be watching.

And don’t think we forgot about  ALL THE JOHN HUGHES MOVIES! That whole series of iconic films will get its own standalone feature.

So, my fellow Gen Xers, go tap a nice, frosty beer ball, invite your friends over to veg, and enjoy a marathon movie night of your 80s faves. Or, throw an 80s dance party instead.



Totally, we made an iconic 80s movies mixtape (we mean playlist)

All the signature songs from these great movies, all in one playlist:

Movies in theaters you might like

With all of this talk about 80s movies and the 80s movie theater experience, it has us wanting to head to our local movie theater. Check out the latest new movie releases right here to find a movie to watch in theaters now.

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