Nostalgia for the films of the 1980s is stronger now more than ever, as Hollywood often draws upon this golden age of blockbuster films as the source of new ideas moving forward. Projects like Stranger Things and Ready Player One have marketed themselves entirely on references to the most popular characters and iconography of 80s films, and many of these properties have been the source of countless sequels, prequels, reboots, and reimaginings.
Oftentimes a film is judged by how long it stays within the public consciousness, but the truth is that many times the best films of a certain decade may have been those that flew under the radar. When it comes to the 80s, there were many brilliant films that aren’t referenced constantly today, but still are deserving of praise and recognition. Here are ten great 80s movies you may have missed.
10. Time Bandits
Terry Gilliam is one of the most versatile and imaginative filmmakers of his generation, and has never been someone who has adhered to conventions. The 80s were a great period for Gilliam, as he would release his masterpiece Brazil in 1985; Gilliam also made other films, including 1981’s Time Bandits. While it has the story of any standard children’s fantasy film, Gilliam took the project in a darker and more surreal direction.
The film follows young Kevin (Craig Warnock), who inadvertently joins a band of time traveling dwarves that travel across many timelines in search of adventures. Gilliam’s background in sketch comedy allowed him to create unique and memorable situations out of each era that the group travels to, with standout performances including John Cleese as Robin Hood and Ian Holm as Napoleon. The beautiful design of the sets and practical effects holds up to this day.
There’s perhaps no actor who succeeded more in the 80s than Harrison Ford, as his performances as Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and Rick Deckard brought him critical acclaim and immense box office success. However, Ford has always proven to be an actor who can surprise, and he delivered one of his greatest performances to date as Detective John Book in Peter Weir’s crime masterpiece Witness.
After an eight-year-old Amish boy, Samuel, witnesses an undercover police officer being killed at a train station, Book travels to his community to protect him from the shadowy forces that want to silence him. While the film works as a crime thriller where Book must discover which cops are dirty and how the murder was conceived, the heart of the story comes from Book learning about the Amish customs and being gradually accepted within the community. Ford is able to make this stoic character grow gradually warmer, and he received his only Academy Award nomination for this performance.
8. The Holcroft Covenant
The works of author Robert Ludlum would go on to inspire many successful works in Hollywood, specifically the Bourne franchise, but one of the more underrated Ludlum adaptations is The Holcroft Covenant. The film comes from legendary director John Frankenheimer, and stars Michael Caine as the son of a Nazi general who learns that his father may have left him a fortune. However, Caine’s character Noel Holcroft soon learns that there is a larger conspiracy at play, as the children of other Nazi leaders are attempting to revitalize the Third Reich.
This is a much more action-oriented role from Caine, and he is able to play Holcroft as a dynamic character; while he can initially come off as snide and even unlikeable, the audience is able to sympathize with the man’s search for his father’s legacy. As with any Ludlum adaptation, the film features a number of twists and turns over many exciting international locations, and Frankenheimer’s steady direction keeps the story moving at a relentless pace.
7. Stop Making Sense
Often cited as one of, if not the best concert film of all-time, Stop Making Sense was a breakthrough achievement. Directed by the legendary Academy-Award winning filmmaker Jonathan Demme, the film combined footage from four separate Talking Head concerts at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, seamlessly combining the shows into a singularly propulsive experience. Starting only with vocalist David Byrne’s performance of “Psycho Killer,” the film adds his remaining bandmates to the stage as each new song is introduced.
It’s a masterful achievement in editing, as instead of cutting to reaction shots from the audience, the film allows the viewer to feel like they are actually there. Of course, much of the film’s resonance comes from Byrne’s natural brilliance as a performer, and the footage of him at the height of his performative power is absolutely unparalleled. Stop Making Sense is still cited to this day as the gold standard of rock movies.
6. The Running Man
Stephen King adaptations are more popular now than ever before, and the 80s saw the release of many of the best King adaptations ever, including The Shining, Stand by Me, and Christine. One film not cited frequently enough is The Running Man, an action movie ahead of its time that can be enjoyed for its surprisingly adept social commentary and enjoyable campier elements.
The film takes place in a dystopian society where convicted criminals are forced to compete in a reality game show competition that pits them against traps and killers in order to determine their “innocence.” Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as Ben Richards, an honest cop who is placed in the game after he discovers that the government has killed protestors against a food riot. The joy of the film is seeing Richards succeed in the game, besting the lethal forces at play and winning the audience’s favor; while it works as an enjoyable Schwarzenegger action vehicle with a good deal of one-liners and ridiculous stunts, it also doubles as a clever commentary on the faith audiences place in the media and their aptitude for witnessing violence.