What from the '80s was actually good?
April 3, 2008 3:24 PM   Subscribe

I'm a child of the '80s, and I loved the '80s. However, I didn't develop a sense of good taste until about 1994, and as a result my pop-culture radar is completely jammed with crappy cartoons designed to sell toys, cereal commercials, and Ewoks. Can you recommend totally awesome movies/TV shows/etc. that will satisfy my '80s nostalgia, but are good enough to watch today?

I spent my formative years reading endless volumes of Sweet Valley Twins and Baby-Sitters Club books and running to the TV every time Rainbow Brite or Captain N came on. A lot of the stuff I loved as a kid hasn't aged well, though; most of it is painfully unwatchable now. (I mean, Rainbow was whiny and boring, Starlite was a pompous jerk, and Twink was a wuss. I'm beginning to sympathize with Murky Dismal.) I'd like to revisit my youth while keeping the cringing and brain atrophy to a minimum.

Additionally, I know my mental catalog of '80s pop culture is woefully incomplete; being young, I naturally missed out on a lot. There's a whole decade of PG-13 movies I missed! But much like I couldn't tell a Trix ad from a real cartoon at the age of four, I'm having trouble picking out the stuff that's actually worth my attention.

So I am looking for recommendations of movies, TV, books, anything from the decade that is quintessentially '80s—as so totally '80s as possible—but well-done and interesting enough to be worth watching in 2008 and beyond. The medium and genre are not particularly important, though I'd certainly welcome anything that would have appealed to a kid back then.

(I haven't mentioned music because I listen to plenty of '80s pop and don't really need recommendations in that area. Plus, I have a feeling I already know what you’re going to say.)
posted by Metroid Baby to Media & Arts (75 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
I watched the film Dragonslayer a couple of years and loved it--not just for nostalgic reasons. It has an oddball, occasionally atonal score by Alex North, beautiful stop-motion visual effects, and a nearly perfect, tightly written screenplay. I think I liked it more as an adult than I did as an '80s child.
posted by Prospero at 3:29 PM on April 3, 2008

Tron, Watcher in the Woods, and Princess Bride are all movies I still enjoy watching.
posted by nikksioux at 3:31 PM on April 3, 2008

The Cosby Show
posted by elle.jeezy at 3:31 PM on April 3, 2008

I freaking love Teen Witch and Girls Just Want to Have Fun.
posted by spec80 at 3:37 PM on April 3, 2008

The obvious answers are the Star Wars trilogy, Indiana Jones series, and the Back to the Future trilogy. There's also Ghostbusters, Terminator... I know these are all the 'easy' answers, but they ARE 80s movies.
posted by LSK at 3:39 PM on April 3, 2008

John Hughes films: Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Pretty In Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Planes Trains & Automobiles, Uncle Buck, etc...

TV Shows: Webster, Greatest American Hero, Mr. Belvedere, Family Ties, Small Wonder, etc...

John Bellairs had a great series of mystery books for teens. I recently went back and breezed through a few of these and they stood up quite well.

If you really want a overview of all that was wonderful and wonderfully bad about the 80's, you should check out VH1's "I Love The 80's" series.
posted by ISeemToBeAVerb at 3:39 PM on April 3, 2008


Sixteen Candles
Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Purple Rain
The Terminator
Animal House
Friday the 13th
Grease (?)
The Neverending Story


Princess Daisy
Anything by Harold Robbins
Flowers in the Attic
The Amityville Horror
posted by elle.jeezy at 3:41 PM on April 3, 2008

Three words: Better Off Dead.
posted by scody at 3:41 PM on April 3, 2008 [4 favorites]

Neuromancer (William Gibson, novel). Alot of great sci-fi flourished in the 80s, but the cyberpunk genre is brilliant for a bleak and messy view of technology that we've (largely) forgotten in lieu of web 2.0 rounded corners and happy social networking sites.
posted by cowbellemoo at 3:42 PM on April 3, 2008

Oh man, I loved the Mysterious Cities of Gold!

Also, this just barely made the 80s, but ladies and gentlemen, it's the Muppet Show!
posted by MsMolly at 3:43 PM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Movies: I have to start off with "Say Anything". This has got to be one of those "will be fantastic no matter when viewed" movies. Followed up by "Airplane!", "Tootsie", "Ghostbusters", "The Color Purple", "Good Morning, Vietnam", "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?", "Platoon" and last but not least “Coming to America”. Not all of these would appeal to a kid back then but are worth seeing.

If you're looking for kid-only movies then check out the following: "The Empire Strikes Back", "Raiders of the Lost Ark", "ET", "Gremlins" (not a kid movie but totally appealed to me because of that fact), "The Karate Kid”, “Three Men and Baby” (although this might not have aged as well as I remember), and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”.

I don’t have a lot of knowledge on the cartoon aspect but here is a link: http://www.80scartoons.net/toons/index.html. It has all the shows you could possible want to know about. If I had to pick at this very moment, I would say “Transformers”, “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” and “Voltron, Defender of the Universe” are all pretty prevalent to my childhood.

I know there are many things missing so hearing what everyone else has to say will be quite interesting. Thanks for posing this question!
posted by MeeMaMN at 3:44 PM on April 3, 2008

I remember Square Pegs being pretty cool. I'm not sure if it has stood the test of time, but I plan to add it to my Netflix queue when it's released.
posted by MegoSteve at 3:50 PM on April 3, 2008

IMDB's top-rated 1980s titles
posted by martinrebas at 3:50 PM on April 3, 2008

I can't believe no one has said the GOONIES yet!
posted by pinksoftsoap at 3:58 PM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Here's a whole bunch of suggestions, all movies except for one British TV show (The Singing Detective). A few are repeats of what others have mentioned:

Atlantic City
Au Revoir Les Enfants
Blue Velvet
Broadway Danny Rose
The Brother From Another Planet
Do the Right Thing
The Elephant Man
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
The Killing Fields
The King of Comedy
Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance
Local Hero
Melvin and Howard
Midnight Run
Mona Lisa
My Beautiful Laundrette
My Life as a Dog
The Outsiders
Pelle the Conqueror
Prince of the City
Raging Bull
The Right Stuff
River's Edge
The Road Warrior
Roger & Me
Rumble Fish
Salaam Bombay!
sex, lies and videotape
The Shining
Sid & Nancy
The Singing Detective
Sixteen Candles
Something Wild
Stardust Memories
Stranger Than Paradise
The Terminator
Terms of Endearment
They Live
This is Spinal Tap
Tin Men
Urban Cowboy
The Vanishing
Wall Street
When Harry Met Sally
Who Am I This Time?
Wings of Desire
Withnail and I
Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown
Working Girl
The Year of Living Dangerously
posted by MaudB at 3:59 PM on April 3, 2008

Brazil is a standout movie of the eighties for me.

Withnail and I was also a standout.

Fast Times and Ridgmont High for a genre movei
posted by mattoxic at 4:00 PM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Three words: Better Off Dead.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Also, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure came out in '89.
posted by Nelsormensch at 4:01 PM on April 3, 2008

From the Internet Movie DataBase, the 50 top rated films from the 80's. I've seen maybe only half of the top 50, but of those I would recommend them all. Notable titles include Brazil, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, Blade Runner, Platoon, and Scarface.

A similar listing: the most searched-for films from the 80's, also from IMDB. It lists films which have enduring popularity but which aren't necessarily critically acclaimed. Films you might enjoy include the Star Wars spoof, Spaceballs or the previously mentioned Ghostbusters. Karate Kid is a mediocre movie, but it's very... 80's-flavoured.
posted by WalterMitty at 4:01 PM on April 3, 2008

Oops, I'm sorry, I hadn't read the very end of your question. Well, these all came out during the 80s anyway. Who's to say whether they're quintessentially of that decade or not....
posted by MaudB at 4:01 PM on April 3, 2008

For heaven's sake, REPO MAN!
posted by seldomfun at 4:04 PM on April 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

2nding Blade Runner - I just watched it for the first time recently and was really surprised how good it was.
posted by Craig at 4:04 PM on April 3, 2008

Response by poster: I am kind of embarrassed to admit that I've watched very few of these. I might have to start off with the John Hughes movies.

Thanks for the recommendations so far, and keep 'em coming!
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:06 PM on April 3, 2008

The A-Team and The Fall Guy
posted by JaredSeth at 4:07 PM on April 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

oh...and Big and Bachelor Party
posted by JaredSeth at 4:09 PM on April 3, 2008

Real Genius is surprisingly watchable.
posted by adamdschneider at 4:11 PM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, and since no one else has mentioned it, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.
posted by adamdschneider at 4:13 PM on April 3, 2008 [4 favorites]

British comedy show.... The Young Ones!!
posted by nimsey lou at 4:14 PM on April 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

Spartakus and the Sun Beneath the Sea (Les Mondes Engloutis) was a wonderful cartoon, cheesy in parts but mystical and ancient in a unique way.

Beetlejuice and Ghostbusters are still among my favorite supernatural movies, no irony required.

I stop now only because I'd be here all night thinking about it.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:17 PM on April 3, 2008

Star Trek: The Next Generation.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 4:18 PM on April 3, 2008

oh, and The Blues Brothers.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 4:20 PM on April 3, 2008

Oh, and The Gods Must Be Crazy.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 4:21 PM on April 3, 2008

Tastes will vary, but among TV shows Moonlighting has held up well for me. Miami Vice, not so much.
posted by gimonca at 4:30 PM on April 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Seconding Star Trek: The Next Generation, but also Star Trek II, III and IV for some quality 80s sci-fi.
posted by seldomfun at 4:35 PM on April 3, 2008

Better Off Dead and Real Life are both great movies.
posted by OmieWise at 4:36 PM on April 3, 2008

John Waters
Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

The Unforgettable Fire
Husker Du
REM Green
Crowded House
posted by KokuRyu at 4:48 PM on April 3, 2008

Oh, yeah...

Paris Texas
Wings of Desire
Fitzcarraldo/Burden of Dreams
posted by KokuRyu at 4:49 PM on April 3, 2008

I second Beetlejuice'; it's still totally watchable, and hilarious.

I think my personal favorite of the John Hughes lot is Pretty In Pink, on the strength of Jon Cryer as Ducky. One of the lesser cried-up Hughes films (that I didn't realize was a Hughes film until I went to recommend it) is Some Kind Of Wonderful. Highly recommend.

The Wonder Years was made in the 80's, and while it's about growing up in the 60's... it's still so clearly a product of the 80's. If you want to relate to other people about what they grew up watching around this time, you can't go wrong here.

If you want a TV show about growing up in the 80's that wasn't made in the 80's at all, Freaks & Geeks is it. So good.
posted by dorothy humbird at 4:53 PM on April 3, 2008

Seconding Moonlighting! You should watch this one for sure. Definitely a good show to watch for '80's style, and it has a young Bruce Willis (and Cybil Sheppard!) in the title role(s)...

Talking about "before they were stars shows', you might also like Remington Steele, which has Pierce Brosnan before he became Bond (but with a similar bond-like attitude at times!)

... plus many of the ones others have mentioned, which are iconic 80's films for me (like Back to the future, Goonies, Ghostbusters etc)...
posted by ranglin at 4:55 PM on April 3, 2008

Flight of the Navigator

Oh my goodness, MACGYVER!
posted by chihiro at 5:18 PM on April 3, 2008

This is right in the sweet spot of Dick Francis novels and you can go backwards or forwards for decades from there and still stay with the same author. If you have even a cursory interest in horse racing, all the better.
posted by Rafaelloello at 5:33 PM on April 3, 2008

Risky Business
posted by farmdoggie at 5:33 PM on April 3, 2008

...And if you're looking for a starting point, I'd start with Proof (1985):

Young wine merchant Tony Beach's exposure of a liquor scam sparks a brutal murder and forces the corruption in the liquor industry to spread into the realm of thoroughbred horse racing
posted by Rafaelloello at 5:39 PM on April 3, 2008

Seconding the young ones. It is quintessenitally '80s and will remain watchable till kingdom come*.

*Kingdom Come was the typical 80's metal hair band, they did not stand the test of time, not even in the 80s.
posted by necessitas at 5:42 PM on April 3, 2008

Two movies come to mind, though they are not set in the 80s but define 80s movies for me:

Stand By Me
Fandango, a lesser-known film about college grads coming of age during the Vietnam war. If you agree the 80s gave us Judd Nelson or Kevin Costner, do see this. (Good luck finding it.)
posted by skyper at 5:44 PM on April 3, 2008

Lots that others have mentioned...

Plus I've got a soft spot for Angel Heart

And Edge of Darkness is one of the greatest television programs ever
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 5:58 PM on April 3, 2008

Ulysses 31. Mind-bending sinister greek legend-based space opera, with obligatory comic robot side-kick and the most funk-ass theme tune ever.

"Mortals! You defy the Gods?!..."

Also, Cosmos by Carl Sagan. Equally mind-bending TV for a saucer-eyed kid. I still play the soundtrack ad nauseum to this very day.
posted by freya_lamb at 6:03 PM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh and WarGames...
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 6:05 PM on April 3, 2008

Ack, bad link. Feast eyes and ears instead upon: Ulysses 31
posted by freya_lamb at 6:14 PM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Blood Simple, the first Coen brothers movie.
posted by O9scar at 7:27 PM on April 3, 2008

Raising Arizona, Colors.
posted by nadise at 7:49 PM on April 3, 2008

Ooh, and Fatal Attraction. You gotta know what people are talking about when someone refers to boiling the bunny.
posted by nadise at 7:59 PM on April 3, 2008

Some of my favorite movies from the eighties:

Mystic Pizza


Adventures in Babysitting

Peggy Sue Got Married (many will disagree that this is good, but I like it)



Of course there are a ton of good comedies from the eighties that you may have already seen: Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters. I always liked Weekend at Bernies. Private Benjamin and Overboard with Goldie Hawn are great too.
posted by LoriFLA at 8:19 PM on April 3, 2008

Seconding three that have already been mentioned above that made an impact on my then male adolescent mind and which I would still be happy to watch now:

Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire)

Filmed in 1987, while there was still an East and West Berlin, two years before the closing scene of the 80's when the wall came down. After very little talking for most of the film, Solveig Dommartin delivers an impenetrable existential five minute monologue in beautiful french-accented german near the end. (That's Nick Cave playing live in the background at the start of the clip for those who watch it.)

Brazil — Terry Gilliam's 1984.

Blade Runner — Science Fiction got real.
posted by Sitegeist at 9:12 PM on April 3, 2008

Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister.
posted by sien at 9:15 PM on April 3, 2008

What Sitegeist said. Brazil, Blade Runner, and Wings of Desire are 3 stunning films that strongly colored my adolescence as well.

It's interesting that they all traffic, in some way, in totalitarian imagery. The '80s saw a revival (mostly ironic, thankfully) of totalitarian aesthetics from the '20, '30s, and '40s. This phenomenon definitely had a lasting impact on me.

Along the same lines: An '80s TV show that has never been given its due is Max Headroom. (Good luck finding it.)
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 9:49 PM on April 3, 2008

I also loved Miami Vice -- partly because I was growing up in Miami as it was being shot there, and it made my city seem much more glamorous and exciting than my experience of it actually was.

I now own the 1st 2 seasons of the show on DVD. It's uneven, but still obviously groundbreaking in so many ways: the hyper-designed look of the series (fashion, colors, buildings, cars, lighting, camera angles); the amazing music (Jan Hammer's lush electronic score, plus a bevy of great and not-so-great pop tracks); and the noirish, downbeat plots and "cinematic" storytelling.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 9:55 PM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hey, looks like a bunch of Max Headroom episodes are online! Cool.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 10:06 PM on April 3, 2008

Hill Street Blues, which almost makes up for Cop Rock.
posted by toxic at 10:11 PM on April 3, 2008

Enthusiastically seconding Real Genius. A very sweet, funny film with some laugh out loud moments. Plus, it's got William Atherton!
posted by dhammond at 11:21 PM on April 3, 2008

The Venture Bros. Despite being recently made, it's as quintessentially 80's as cartoons get.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 1:42 AM on April 4, 2008

Since you're asking about pop culture in general, I'd like to add one more aspect: video games.

Super Mario Bros.
The Legend of Zelda

As a start, these three games really changed the way video games were played. And they're still incredibly fun to play.
posted by smersh at 3:47 AM on April 4, 2008

(I haven't mentioned music because I listen to plenty of '80s pop and don't really need recommendations in that area. Plus, I have a feeling I already know what you’re going to say.)

No you don't. Here are some cult performances that set the curve.

Klaus Nomi the most influential New Wave performance artist you've never heard of. He sang like an angel and looked like a space alien.

The Forbidden Zone, a surreal no-budget film produced by the Elfman family and Danny Elfman's first movie score.

Although the film was released in '75, the cult of Rocky Horror reached its peak popularity in the 80s. And while we are on the topic, Elvira. Yeah, she started as a rehash of a 50s character, but the use of Cassandra Peterson's image to sell just about everything during the month of October was pure 80s.

And more popular:
The big slasher horror franchises: Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween.

Games: Trivial Pursuit, and the Rubik's Cube.

Star Trek II-V

Desperately Seeking Susan, Adventures in Babysitting and Ferris Bueller's Day Off are three movies with the same quintessentially 80s plot: repressed suburbanite has an epithany through misadventure in the big city. Susan is a feminist take on the genre, Babysitting a straightforward teen comedy worth watching for the Albert Collins cameo, and Ferris the most intelligent of the three.

The Venture Bros. Despite being recently made, it's as quintessentially 80's as cartoons get.

I'll disagree with that for too reasons. First, its source material comes more from the '60s and '70s. Second, it works as a satire because most of the source material was so naive, straight-forward, and utterly lacking in satire or snark.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:53 AM on April 4, 2008

Maybe I missed it, but how no one suggested Short Circuit is mind boggling.
posted by zennoshinjou at 5:08 AM on April 4, 2008

OMG, I can't believe nobody's said Labyrinth! 80s to the core!
posted by crunchtopmuffin at 5:50 AM on April 4, 2008

Not sure if this fits, but: Watch highlights from the broadcast of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Total 80's schlock fest. It was pretty much the first time there was all this Rah-Rah USA stuff, plus lots of "Up close and personal!" interviews, cheesy 80's music, short shorts and spandex... Basically redefined how sports was presented to the viewing audience.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:46 AM on April 4, 2008

Big Trouble in Little China

MTV20 collection of videos from when the "M" in "MTV" meant "music." Robert Palmer's videos for "Addicted to Love" and "Simply Irresistible." A-Ha's "Take On Me" video. Dire Strait's "Money for Nothing" video. Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Max Headroom

Books: Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero, Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Bestselling Books of the '80s.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:00 AM on April 4, 2008

Klaus Nomi the most influential New Wave performance artist you've never heard of. He sang like an angel and looked like a space alien.

Yep, an extraordinary, fascinating artist and a heartbreaking life story. Don't miss the documentary.
posted by scody at 11:19 AM on April 4, 2008

St. Elsewhere. Not only is it a great show - I was all of 2 when it first aired and wound up getting hooked in college - but you'll also get to see quite a few recognizable folks in much younger days.

Only the first season is available, but you can watch it online for free. (Try digging around on that site. Hill Street Blues - produced by the same folks - is also up there, as are a few other shows that may have been mentioned.)
posted by Ponsonby Britt at 12:05 PM on April 4, 2008

Revenge of the Nerds (1984)
Echo Park (1986)
Miracle Mile (1988)
posted by Rash at 12:18 PM on April 4, 2008

Are you sure I can't interest you in some '80s pop music?
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:17 PM on April 4, 2008

BladeRunner stands up so well to the passage of time, I'm always amazed each time I watch it. It doesn't disappoint me, like some 25 year old stuff does through my idealized memory filter. Now, there's some obvious modeling going on with the flying cars and such. But the thing is, it doesn't look bad, even when you know what's going on. And there are some parts that compete with some of the best in current CGI (and even better, if you consider that most CGI looks pretty 2D and crappy). Even the synthesizer music hasn't gotten outdated too much, even though synthesizer music in general sounds outdated.

Oh, and the Ah-ha video "Take on Me." I always have to stop and watch it. Good music, interesting animation.
posted by SpacemanStix at 3:53 PM on April 4, 2008

Pee-wee's Playhouse. Sweet candy-coated mutant 80s Memphis design, covered with prescient hipster snark. Aardman animations. Laurence Fishburne. Classic cartoons and pure childish id.

Oh, and thirtysomething sure tastes 80sy.

A book you might enjoy is Retro Hell by Darby Romeo. It has more tiny trivia in it about your childhood than you could ever hope to remember by yourself.
posted by Sallyfur at 7:00 AM on April 6, 2008

pee wee hermans shenanigans(90s?)
posted by femmme at 7:22 PM on August 8, 2008

Not a "good" movie, but I would still put The Hunger in a must-see category. Because in the eighties I was fledgling goth, and you don't get anything better than David Bowie married to Catherine Deneuve seducing Susan Sarandon and Bauhaus is playing "Bela Lugosi's Dead."
posted by desuetude at 8:01 PM on October 3, 2008

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