10. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
John Hughes’s seminal coming of age classic is the ultimate depiction of teenage wish fulfillment ever seen on film, taking the rebellious instincts and crafting them into an exciting and free spirited adventure that is a caper and hangout film all at once. One of Hughes’s best qualities as a writer and director was his ability to make his worlds feel lived in and his characters feel real, and who wouldn’t want to spend a day hanging out with Ferris (Matthew Broderick), Cameron (Alan Ruck), and Sloan (Mia Sara)?
Between the inventiveness of the schemes and the fourth wall breaking, Broderick’s performance is one for the ages, particularly in the more tender scenes in which he pushes Ruck’s Cameron to admit his true feelings about his father. Jeffrey Jones’s Principal Rooney remains one of the best adult authoritarian villains of 80s teen movies, and Charlie Sheen’s uproarious cameo still holds up as a treasure today.
9. Trading Places
In 1983, two of the biggest comedic stars of the 1980s united for a film that put both of them in their comfort zone and created a unique and original premise. Both Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) and Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Akroyd) are flawed men in their own ways, with Valentine’s deceitful hustles and Winthorpe’s pretentious, bumbling behavior, and seeing the two placed in each other’s shoes makes for brilliant satire. As they discover that their experiences have been part of a bet made by a system with no empathy for them, it’s entertaining to see the ways in which this pair comes together to combat the insider trading machine.
Murphy is on fire as always, particularly as he must slowly conform to the standards of a white collar business world, and Akroyd deserves credit for getting the audience to empathize with a character who starts off very dogmatic. While its best known for the supporting performances by Jamie Lee Curtis as Akroyd’s love interest and Denholm Elliot as the villainous Coleman, there’s a great number of iconic 80s figures who appear in supporting roles, including Paul Gleason, Frank Oz, Kelly Curtis, James Belushi, and Giancarlo Esposito.
Not only was Ghostbusters the most financially successful comedy of the 1980s, but it is perhaps the most consistently referenced and quoted; not only does the Ghostbusters logo remain a signature and the Ray Parker Jr. theme song remain iconic, but the characters of Venkman (Bill Murray), Ray (Dan Akroyd), Egon (Harold Ramis), and Winston (Ernie Hudson) have remained figures that audiences care about. Ghostbusters stood out at the time because it was one of the first major comedies that was treated like a blockbuster release; in a post-Jaws and post-Star Wars industry looking to crown the next blockbuster champion, Ghostbusters had a similar impact with its instantly recognizable mythology and thrilling visual effects.
First and foremost though, it’s a comedy, and the genius of Ivan Reitman’s direction cannot be overstated. Combining a small business model to the work of supernatural heroes remains a wonderful concept, and many modern directors have cited Ghostbusters among their primary influences.
7. National Lampoon’s Vacation
The National Lampoon’s Vacation series is one of the longest running comedy franchises of all-time, and while many would cite the third installment, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, as a cherished holiday classic, it’s hard to deny the power of the original film.
The film marked an interesting collaboration between director Harold Ramis and writer John Hughes; Ramis was renowned for his high concept visual gags, black comedy, and satire of existing social structures, and Hughes is associated with a sense of warmth and accuracy to how relationships are formed. These two sensibilities are perfectly combined in a film that is both relentlessly ludicrous with its never ending series of ridiculous escapades, but also quite heartfelt in its depiction of family. The story is quite raunchy and often cruel to the characters, making the moments of genuine family bonding all the more crucial for the tone.
Produced as one of the earliest films from National Lampoon, Caddyshack has a notoriously chaotic production that resulted in one of the most haphazard and funniest films ever made. The films of National Lampoon often tend to poke holes in the semblance of normal structure and stick it to authority, and that sensibility doesn’t only come across in the themes of their films, but in their structure; Caddyshack is a film that allows each one of its performers to do their own thing and gives everyone breathing room, while also tying things together with the context of an outrageous sports movie.
The film was a comeback of sorts for Rodney Dangerfield, but it also placed Chevy Chase in a perfectly suave mentor role and Bill Murray in one of his wildest and most physically demanding performances. Endlessly quotable and completely committed to upping the hijinks, Caddyshack was an early example of Harold Ramis’s ability to string a production full of so many strong personalities into a coherent film.
Many films on this list are in the raunchy, R-rated vein, but Big stands out as one of the funniest and most endearing family comedies ever made. This was a breakout role for Tom Hanks, who received his first Academy Award nomination for his role as a young boy who through magic is turned into a grown adult man overnight. Hanks had proven to be a force of comedic talent in films like Splash and his smaller roles, but this role showed the incredible imagination he had as a performer, as trying to navigate the adult world as a boy with limited comprehension is not an easy task. Hanks proved why he is among the most likeable leading men of all-time, and the story is equally as charming and optimistic as he is.
The film isn’t just a great film for families to watch, but an uncynical ode to childhood that reminds audiences what innocence is like and what responsibility actually looks like. It is often cited among the best fantasy adventures of its time, and has inspired other films such as the 2019 superhero film Shazam!
4. Midnight Run
Simply put, Midnight Run is among the best buddy cop films ever made. A great buddy comedy requires two strong, conflicting personalities, and you couldn’t ask for two more different actors that Charles Grodin and Robert De Niro. De Niro is perhaps the greatest actor of the past half century, and although his comedic roles have been hit and miss, he nails everything about this performance, and is able to play the affable tough guy who learns to open up. Grodin is a perfect counterbalance, and he rides the fine line of being irritating to De Niro’s character without vexing the audience.
The hostility turned friendship works because of the commitment that the actors have, as their sense of moral righteousness changes over the course of their adventure together. Every scenario the two are placed in is related to a key development in their characterization, and Midnight Run finds a mix of rich pathos and sharp dialogue that is rare for any comedy.
Some films immediately announce themselves as future classics, but others take their time to permeate the culture. Clue is an example of a film that has slowly risen through the ranks of comedic films, as it was initially released to mediocre reviews and financial disappointment, and many even referred to the multiple endings as a “gimmick.” Slowly but steadily, Clue has become a cult phenomenon, and it has been recognized as one of the great ensemble murder mysteries of all-time, and one that satirizes the Agatha Christie style of investigative thriller.
Each character, loosely inspired by their board game monikers, is a flawed, self-obsessed narcissist, and seeing these buffoons forced to spend time with each other and open up makes for great comedic banter. If there is a standout performance, it has to be Tim Curry as the butler Wadsworth, a relentless showman who orchestrates much of the film’s investigation, and Curry gives one of his most spirited and energetic performances. It’s often a caustic, deathly funny story, but there’s also a formal brilliance to the way the story is staged and the house is laid out. Any fan of murder mysteries like Knives Out or Game Night should consider Clue to be essential viewing.
2. The Breakfast Club
In the hall of fame of high school movies, The Breakfast Club is the absolute gold standard. John Hughes is often credited as the first filmmaker who made films specifically for teenagers that related to their fears, desires, and anxieties, and his cinematic empathy has never been more apparent as it is in The Breakfast Club.
The reason the film holds up so well is that its representation of movie character tropes are perfectly compatible with the time it came out; the princess (Molly Ringwald), the athlete (Emilio Estevez), the brain (Anthony Michael Hall), the basket case (Ally Sheedy), and the criminal (Judd Nelson) were all established cliches at this point, and Hughes’s wonderful screenplay sends up these stereotypes by suggesting that all of these characters have something more to offer.
Not only does the film argue that they can relate to one another, but that they have much more in common than they’d expect. One of the great cinematic chamber pieces, The Breakfast Club is perfectly cast with actors who can handle the whip smart dialogue and raw emotionality. It’s the crowning work of Hughes’s storied career.
1. An American Werewolf in London
The horror-comedy subgenre certainly existed before An American Werewolf in London, as films like Young Frankenstein or The Rocky Horror Picture Show served as send ups of popular monster B-movies. However, there was never anything quite like An American Werewolf in London, a film that is as equally scary as it is hilarious.
The makeup effects from Rick Baker were absolutely groundbreaking, and a sequence like “the transformation” is the perfect summation of the unique market that the film cornered; it’s gruesome, viscerally haunting imagery touched with a zany sense of physical comedy, and the film’s combination of uproarious fish-out-of-water antics with grimly realized horror elements make for a thoroughly genre busting romp.
David Naughton should be credited for the demanding work he does to sell David’s realizations and transformations, and Griffin Dunne gives one of the all-time great comedic supporting turns. Even today, it holds up as a film worthy of discussion, as the shocking ending and metaphorical subtext are worth examining. It’s hard to name only one film as the best comedy of the 80s, but An American Werewolf in London is an utterly unforgettable experience.