30 Years of Pop Culture Must-Sees (1985-1990)
Imagine that you are among the first wave of the invading alien horde, still scouting out the best way to destroy humanity so that you can have our rich resources (billions of empty water bottles and old phones being especially attractive to your species). Right now, though, you’re passing as human – or trying. All that movie chatter in the break room, all those old movie quotes that go over your head – your ignorance of such things almost gives you away.
Movie literacy matters. Our tropes, cultural metaphors and in-jokes are more likely to come from Netflix or the multiplex than books these days. And even if they do come from books, don’t worry: the film adaptations will be released in no time.
Dear future alien overlords, movies are our lingua franca. For you and all your kind, our Zeke contributors and Facebook community have compiled a list of 100 must-see movies from the last 30 years – not the greatest movies of the last few decades, mind you (although many are great), but those that have most defined us, the ones that have become a part of our pop cultural heritage. Watch, enjoy, and then effortlessly join in movie banter with those you’ll be conquering a few years from now.
(Ranking such a list would be an impossible task, and the Zeke community might have come to blows over what movies should top the list. To simplify matters we’re going in chronological order, 25 or so movies at a time.)
1. Back to the Future (1985) – It’s 1985 when Marty McFly is trying to get back to 1955. He has to return home before he has such an effect on the past that his parents never get married and he never exists. – Laura Adair
Back to the Future has seeped deep in our collective consciousness. If you’ve ever joked about the flux capacitor going out on your car, or said, “Make like a tree and get out of here” (guilty on both counts), you have this movie to thank. – Sharon Autenrieth
2. The Breakfast Club (1985) – It’s Saturday detention and this week there’s one student from the 5 suburban, 80s, high school stereotypes. They’re supposed to spend the day thinking about who they think they are. – Laura Adair
Don’t you forget about this one! John Hughes ruled the mid-80s, and The Breakfast Club was the most thoughtful of his teen comedies, starring several members of the then-ubiquitous Brat Pack. Everyone who has ever passed through adolescence could find him/herself in here somewhere. – Sharon Autenrieth
3. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) – Paul Reuben’s adapted his Saturday morning kids’ show for the screen, turning the story of a stolen bike into a twisted film noir that is hilarious and occasionally alarming. It was our first glimpse of Tim Burton as a director, and the movie that set rocker Danny Elfman on a new path writing film scores. Also, “Tequila!” – Sharon Autenrieth
4. Aliens (1986) – The explosive yang to Alien’s yin, James Cameron’s sci-fi action masterpiece cranked the sensory overload to 11, subjecting audiences to a screaming barrage of guns and knives and fangs and claws and acid and lasers and smoke. Infesting the haunted house of the original with a serious bug problem, Aliens remains the high-water mark of the genre, even thirty years later. Fun fact: It was also the first movie I ever saw, in the theater, when I was 3. This might explain a few things. – Michael Allen
5. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) – John Hughes’s grandest fantasy depicts the teen experience as the escapist ideal, blending magical realism with true wit and an unquenchable love of life. – Michael Allen
6. Stand By Me (1986) – This is a movie about friendship, adventure, bullies, society, growing up and the truthfulness of the line, “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve.” – Laura Adair
7. Top Gun (1986) – Tony Scott’s 1986 United States Air Force drama Top Gun was a landmark film, cementing Tom Cruise’s star power. It can be enjoyed on so many levels: either ironically because parts of it are so ridiculous, or as an 80’s Cold War time capsule with one of the most iconic soundtracks in Hollywood history, or as a film that set the bar so high from a practical effects standpoint that it will likely never be matched, so long as studios would rather use computer graphics airplanes rather than real jets piloted by real human beings. – Kyle Schlenz
8. The Lost Boys (1987) – Joel Schumacher’s teen vampire thriller blends horror, humor, and plenty of visual style with standout performances from a cast full of young 1980s stars including Jason Patric, Corey Haim, Kiefer Sutherland, and Corey Feldman. – Brittany Horth
9. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) – John Hughes was Preston Sturges for the 80s: that guy who could do no wrong, making a series of comedies that caught the essence of a decade, ran it through a very specific comic sensibility and pressed it onto film in a way that was indelibly his own. This one, among the few that weren’t about teenagers or kids, plays like a contrast of opposites straight out of classic Hollywood. Steve Martin is cast against his then-expected type as the stiff businessman grumbling against John Candy’s supremely obnoxious but un-self-consciously warm shower curtain ring salesman, both just trying to get home for Thanksgiving. The movie is like a prototype Tommy Boy for adults, with more of a premium placed on heart over shtick, so that the final ethereal moments of reunion feel earned. – Robert Hornak
10. The Princess Bride (1987) – One of the most quotable films in cinematic history, and a family movie that is genuinely endearing no matter your age. It’s a fractured fairy tale about true love threatened by pirates, assassins, R.O.U.S.es, an evil prince, and death itself – and it’s sweet, funny, and absurd. It also boasts an eclectic, unforgettable cast including Wallace Shawn, Carol Kane, and Andre the Giant. – Sharon Autenrieth
11. Raising Arizona (1987) – “Let’s go get Nathan Junior!!” So proclaims a driven, re-invigorated Nicholas Cage as chronic criminal turned new dad, H.I. McDunnough. The ever-disheveled McDunnough might just be the part the actor was born to play, plugged firmly into the Coen brother’s utterly gut-busting tumbleweed of a comedy, Raising Arizona. With personally motivated quirk and bumpkin stylization at every turn, this is easily the funniest movie about kidnapping ever made.
“Okay, then.” – Jim Tudor
12. Robocop (1987) – A movie that shows how you can have your cake and eat it too. Both a brilliant satire and a brilliant action movie. And more than anything, it’s hilarious. – Paul Hibbard
13. The Untouchables (1987) – Kevin Costner had his first big screen success as Chicago 1930s “Untouchables” leader Eliot Ness in director Brian De Palma’s crime thriller, which also stars Robert De Niro as gangster Al Capone. From its shocking opening scene of a kid and a suitcase bomb to its tension-gripping climax on the steps of Union Station, this is an epic gangster saga as redefined for the 1980s. – Justin Mory
14. Beetlejuice (1988) – A Looney Tunes adventure as filtered through the imagination of Charles Addams, Tim Burton’s second movie makes gleeful gruesomeness out of the futile efforts of a nice, recently deceased (as opposed to “diseased”) couple’s efforts to oust the unpleasant, city yuppies who newly-occupy their Winter River, Connecticut home. Michael Keaton earned screen immortality as the title’s thrice-called, malevolent “ghost with the most” and Winona Ryder, as daughter Lydia, earned the undying love of every Gen X adolescent who saw the movie in the spring of 1988 by calling herself “strange and unusual”, her use of the word “plummeted”, and her frequent references to a “dark room”. – Justin Mory
15. Die Hard (1988) – You get to know the characters so well in the first ten minutes that before the danger ever rolls into the Nakatomi building, you’re already hooked. Enjoyably smarmy bad guys, slow motion explosions, catchy quips, damsels in distress… It’s the streamlined culmination of a hundred action tropes, handled with muscly freshness by John McTiernan and filtered through Bruce Willis’s sarcastic, why-me-why-now, everyman sensibility. He’s a profane Bugs outsmarting Fudd in an erupting skyscraper. The part was offered to others first, and it might have just been another action movie – it’s arguably Willis’s relatable, put-upon persona that makes it so much fun to watch a man pick glass out of his feet. – Robert Hornak
16. They Live (1988) – John Carpenter used cheap, campy sci-fi to say something that actually matters about media, consumerism and control. It careens between so-bad-it’s-good and just plain good in a way that is almost surreal. I still can’t decide if casting wrestler Roddy Piper was crazy-genius or just crazy, but somehow it worked. And this movie has one of the best/worst lines in modern filmdom. Something about bubblegum… – Sharon Autenrieth
17. Batman (1989) – Bam! Pow! Zap! Holy era-gone-by, Batman! Before Tim Burton got his moody, introverted hands on the caped crusader, the campy Adam West Batman television series offered the only vernacular the general public knew when considering comic book heroes. Seriously pitting Michael Keaton’s caped crusader against Jack Nicholson’s over-the-top Joker, Burton instantly changed all that, delivering the dark template for what has become the predominant cinematic genre in the world: The comic book superhero film. – Jim Tudor
18. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) – This Is Spinal Tap meets Back to the Future in the time-traveling adventures of late-’80s California metalheads Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves) and Bill S. Preston, “Esq.” (Alex Winters), who, together, form the rock duo who will one day save the world, THE WYLD STALLYNS! But before redeeming humanity the future Two Great Ones must first get a passing grade on their history exam and, aided by futuristic “cool dude” Rufus (George Carlin) – and a telephone booth time machine – go back in time to retrieve such diverse historical figures as Napoleon Bonaparte, Billy the Kid, Sigmund Freud, Socrates (or “So-Crates”), Beethoven, Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, and our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, for the RADDEST! MOST TUBULAR! TOTALLY AWESOME! presentation on the subject of history ever given in a high school auditorium. – Justin Mory
19. Dead Poets Society (1989) – Robin Williams stars in one of the few movies to strike an appropriate balance between his manic humor and his deep emotional immediacy without lolling over into schmaltz or, you know, too much Robin Williams. He’s the new young teacher at a stodgy prep academy in the late ‘50s, whose unorthodox approach to class time fills his conservative young charges with ideas that slowly pull them into various degrees of Life Lesson. Stamping the classical phrases “carpe diem” and “O Captain! My Captain!” onto the public consciousness, Peter Weir’s direction takes what could have been “Footloose in a Boarding School” and shrouds it in an embracing warmth leavened by Williams’ grounded, intelligent and often extremely funny performance. – Robert Hornak
20. Do the Right Thing (1989) – Filtering the raw fury of the Black Power Movement through the bare-knuckle aesthetic of old school hip-hop, Spike Lee’s timeless treatise of love and hate and summer heat is every bit as relevant in the age of #Ferguson as it was in the days of Howard Beach. – Michael Allen
21. Say Anything (1989) – Millions of women are still pining for Lloyd Dobler. Cameron Crowe made the definitive Gen-X romantic comedy, but it is anything but a chick flick. It takes young love seriously, as it should, and gives us a tenderhearted, believable, totally crush-worthy male lead in John Cusack’s Lloyd. Even if he was a dreamer with a questionable plan for the future, Lloyd seemed grounded in a way that others around him could only admire or resent. His romantic gesture involving a boombox and some Peter Gabriel has yet to be surpassed. – Sharon Autenrieth
22. Edward Scissorhands (1990) – Fairy tales present universal truths, and Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands is a gentle and subtle modern fairy-tale, or perhaps, more a retelling of the Frankenstein story, revealing deeper truths about us. Everything from the Gothic mansion on a hill (very Addams Familyish), the clichéd, pastel-hued American suburb, to the delightful Steam-punk character dressed in black leather with sharp blades instead of hands creates a visually compelling film portraying loneliness, anxiety, melancholy, naïve innocence, lust, avarice, and jealousy. With the excellent acting from Johnny Depp, Dianne Wiest, Winona Rider, and Vincent Price this movie is a sad love story spiced with humanity and humor. – John Wylie
23. Goodfellas (1990) – One of Scorsese’s several masterpieces, a hyperstylized ode to the NYC Mafia of the 60s and 70s that’s one part detailed, how-to procedural and one part pitch black comedy illuminating the extreme hubris and near-pathological naïveté required to maintain such an extravagant lifestyle of blood-soaked entitlement. Pulled along fast, we’re treated to a virtual bible of cinematic showmanship, from fast-push-in dollies and freeze frames, to multiple voiceovers and the most perfectly timed soundtrack of classic pop hits that side of Quentin Tarantino. It’s a riches-to-rags story told on the highest level, one that makes you feel smarter for recognizing the myriad film references and makes you appreciate the depth of Scorsese’s influence on every filmmaker who’s come after him. – Robert Hornak
24. Total Recall (1990) – Arnold: “If I’m not me, then who the hell am I?” Sharon Stone: “Beats me, I just work here.” This is the dippy, vaguely satirical tone of Paul Verhoeven’s “Be Careful What You Wish Fulfill” sci-fi (based on a Philip K. Dick short story) about a restless working man, Arnold, who goes to a company called Rekall to take the vacation of his dreams with a “memory plant” as a secret agent on the Mars colony. The subsequent is-it-live-or-is-it-Rekall? action-mystery is juiced up with broad ideas delivered broadly, but with enough of the Verhoeven wink that we simply can’t make fun of it. The movie is a time capsule of late 80s action tropes, special effects, and creature work, but we’re too entertained to care: the cheese is part of, if not entirely, its greatness. – Robert Hornak
A few thoughts on this list….only six years and already 24 movies? Yep, this top 100 list is definitely front-loaded, chronologically speaking. There were far more submissions from the early years than from the 2000s on. Perhaps we are nostalgic, and more highly value what is receding into the past – or perhaps this is just a reflection of the the nature of this list, which is meant to honor movies that can stand the test of time. Or perhaps there really are standout years or eras, even within the limited 30 year span we’re looking at. It may all become clear after you read Part 2, Part 3 & Part 4.