The Best '80s Movies on Netflix

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The Best '80s Movies on Netflix

For all the harm that was done in the 1980s, from deregulation to the drug wars, the decade did deliver the age of the blockbuster, and several of its best examples are streaming on Netflix right now. Directors like Spike Lee, Ridley Scott, Rob Reiner, Harold Ramis, Barry Levinson and Ivan Reitman delivered grand adventures, prestige drama and silly comedy that still hold up four decades later.

These films are likely to leave Netflix soon, so enjoy your blockbusters while you can. Here are the 10 best movies from the 1980s you can stream on Netflix right now.

1. She’s Gotta Have It

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Year: 1986
Director: Spike Lee
Stars: Tracy Camila Johns, Spike Lee, John Canada Terrell, Tommy Redmond Hicks
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Rating: R

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An explosively frank feature debut that immediately announced Lee’s brave, fresh new voice in American cinema, She’s Gotta Have It, shot like a documentary, is a levelheaded exploration of a young black woman named Nola (Tracy Camilla Johns) trying to decide between her three male lovers, while also flirting with her apparent bisexuality, in order to, first and foremost, figure out what makes her happy. What’s refreshing about the film is that Lee always brings up the possibility that “none of the above” is a perfectly viable answer for both Nola and for single women—a game changer in 1986. The DIY indie grainy black-and-white cinematography boosts the film’s in-your-face realism. —Oktay Ege Kozak


2. When Harry Met Sally

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Year: 1989
Director: Rob Reiner
Stars: Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby
Rating: R
Runtime: 96 minutes

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Easily the most beloved romantic comedy of its decade, the story of Harry (Billy Crystal), Sally (Meg Ryan) and their 12-year journey to couple-hood boasts a solid script by Nora Ephron that feeds and feeds off of the unexpected chemistry between its leads. (And with each new generation of lovers watching the diner scene for the first time, another woman laughs and another man sits silently, wondering what’s so funny.) —Michael Burgin


3. The Color Purple

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Year: 1985
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Margaret Avery, Adolph Caesar, Rae Dawn Chong
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 153 minutes

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Today, Spielberg is respected as a dramatic director as much as a maestro of crowd-pleasing blockbusters, but when he decided to bring Alice Walker’s emotional gut-punch of a novel to the big screen, he was taking quite a career risk. Not only did he not have any straight dramatic work in his portfolio up until that point, but the thought of a white male filmmaker known for making movies about aliens and whip-cracking archeologists tackling a beloved female-centric African-American story didn’t help anything. Yet Spielberg took great advantage from some spectacular performances, The Color Purple’s success relying heavily on Spielberg’s intrinsically empathetic and humanist nature, as well as the perspectives of his stars. In Celie, portrayed with heartbreaking naturalism by Whoopi Goldberg, we can relate to powerlessness and feeling worthless, as she does at the hands of her abusive husband (Danny Glover). Granted, Spielberg omitted some of the more intimate parts of the novel, such as the relationship between Celie and a singer (Margaret Avery), which represents Celie’s first step towards empowerment (an omission the director admitted he regretted after the fact), but the film’s lasting power is still undeniable. —Oktay Ege Kozak


4. Steel Magnolias

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Year: 1989
Director: Herbert Ross
Stars: Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis, Julia Roberts, Tom Skerritt, Sam Shepard
Rating: PG
Runtime: 118 minutes

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Based on a stage play by Robert Harling, this story chronicles the bonds among a group of women in Louisiana. Occasioned by the death of the playwright’s sister from diabetes complications, it touches on the quotidian (but life-altering) dramas of friendship and love, marriage and parenthood, illness and lives cut short. Steel Magnolias stars Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Daryl Hannah and Julia Roberts and is generally acknowledged to have initiated Roberts into stardom, though Sally Field’s performance is probably the standout. Not an overwhelmingly clever film, it is certainly a compassionate one, and it presents a humble and kind-spirited testimony to the sustaining power of female friendship. —Amy Glynn


5. Labyrinth

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Year: 1986
Director: Jim Henson
Stars: Jennifer Connelly, David Bowie
Rating: PG
Runtime: 101 minutes

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Directed by Jim Henson and produced by George Lucas, this fantastical journey through the Goblin King’s never-ending maze looked lighthearted (singing, dancing Muppets! David Bowie!) but was chock-full of the bizarre. Jennifer Connelly’s 14-year-old protagonist Sarah fell into pits full of green, slimy hands, met critters who ripped their own bodies apart and found herself in an M.C. Escher painting, all while trying to rescue her stolen baby brother from Goblin King Bowie.


6. Risky Business

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Year: 1983
Director: Paul Brickman
Stars: Tom Cruise, Rebecca De Mornay
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 99 minutes

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This role as nebbish high school overachiever Joel Goodson catapulted Tom Cruise into an A-list Hollywood career in which he would pretty much invariably play much cooler characters, so there’s something charming about revisiting a role in which Cruise isn’t meant to come off as particularly slick. Likewise, the iconic dancing-around-in-his-underwear scene presages a bit of vibe that would make Home Alone so beloved, the sort of stupid hijinks that any of us get up to when we don’t think anyone is watching. As Lana, meanwhile Rebecca De Morany portrays one of the most iconic sex symbols of the decade, right up there with the likes of Phoebe Cates in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Like that film, the gender politics of Risky Business have not exactly aged gracefully, but the charm of the leads is still as apparent as ever. —Jim Vorel


7. National Lampoon’s Vacation

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Year: 1983
Director: Harold Ramis
Stars: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Christie Brinkley, Anthony Michael Hall, Dana Barron, Randy Quaid, Imogene Cocoa, John Candy
Rating: R
Runtime: 98 minutes

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The ultimate family road trip movie also gives us Chevy Chase’s most enduring role as the selfish, obsessive, but generally well-meaning suburban dad Clark Griswold. It’s a good conduit for Chase’s inherent smugness—all of his best movies feature Chase as a charismatic asshole, which is apparently pretty much who he really is. In Vacation he’s surrounded by a top cast, with Beverly D’Angelo, Imogene Cocoa and John Candy deserving special notice, and is working with what might be John Hughes’ most hilarious script, all under the direction of comedy legend Harold Ramis. Griswold is a savvy parody of the boomer mentality, and that has seemed to grow even more pointed in the decades since the movie was released.—Garrett Martin


8. Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack

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Year: 1988
Director: Yoshiyuki Tomino
Stars: Toru Furuya, Shuichi Ikeda, Hirotaka Suzuoki, Maria Kawamura, Nozomu Sasaki, Koichi Yamadera
Rating: TV-14
Runtime: 119 minutes

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The first Gundam theatrical film and final chapter in the original saga begun in 1979 with the “Universal Century Timeline” of the Mobile Suit Gundam TV series, Char’s Counterattack has the weight of three seasons of TV behind it. Yoshiyuki Tomino, creator of the Gundam series, directed and wrote the film, adapting it faithfully from his novel, Hi-Streamer. Widely considered the best film in the Gundam franchise, Char’s Counterattack is most successful at wrapping up the 14-year rivalry between the “hero” of the Earth Federation, Amuro Ray, and the leader of Neo-Zeon, Char Aznable. The story involves a classic Gundam dilemma: Char’s Neo-Zeon force attempts to drop an asteroid filled with nuclear weapons onto Earth, which would free the colonies from the yoke of oppression by their rivals, the Earth Federation, and kill everyone on Earth in the process. As with all of the best Gundam tales, Tomino approaches the story from a hard sci-fi point of view, clearly laying out the science behind things like giant mobile suits and “newtypes” (humans that have evolved to acquire psychic abilities). Tomino carefully lays out the reasoning behind Char and Amuro’s passions and hatreds, not allowing the viewer to choose a clear side. Gundam series have always been willing to take on discussions about the horrors of war and how mankind, for all its advancements, never seems to be able to free itself from humanity’s baser instincts. Char’s Counterattack attempts this as well, yet it’s mostly concerned with wrapping up the rivalry between Amuro and Char—and on that note, it succeeds wildly. Featuring gorgeous, tense fight sequences set in space, an excellent soundtrack by Shigeaki Saegusa, and some of the most lauded Gundam designs in the history of the franchise, the film is inarguably one of the high points of the Gundam Universe. One downside: If you don’t have the investment of spending hundreds of episodes of television with these characters, the plot can be confusing, and Char/Amuro’s ending will likely not resonate as strongly. Regardless, Char’s Counterattack remains a key moment in the Gundam universe, one still worth checking out almost 30 years later. Hail Zeon!—Jason DeMarco


9. Road House

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Year: 1989
Director: Rowdy Herrington
Stars: Patrick Swayze, Ben Gazzara, Kelly Lynch, Sam Elliott
Rating: R
Runtime: 114 minutes

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The 1980s were a decade of preposterous action films, but even in that crowd Road House still manages to make your jaw drop with its sheer, goofy incredulity. The patron saint of “tough guy cleans up a corrupt town” films, Road House exists in a reality all its own, a place where philosophically aware, tai chi-wielding bar bouncers are all that stand between small-town folk and their utter domination by sleazy businessmen. This film manages to make a really crappy job sound like the most noble calling on Earth, while simultaneously handing Patrick Swayze some of the most hilariously silly one-liners in the history of the genre. How can you not love the film that asserts “pain don’t hurt,” or finds “you’re my new Saturday night thing” to be romantic? From start to finish, it’s gloriously over-the-top and entertaining in a way that only a star-driven ‘80s action spectacle can be. —Jim Vorel


10. National Lampoon’s European Vacation

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Year: 1985
Director: Amy Heckerling
Stars: Chevy Chase, Beverly De’Angelo, Eric Idle, Dana Hill, Jason Lively
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 94 minutes

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The first of the Vacation sequels feels like something of a wayward retread—of course any sequel to National Lampoon’s Vacation was going to mine similar territory, but this one sadly does away with the most relatable aspects of a cross-country family roadtrip to engage in rather dated commentary on international culture and travel. The Griswolds themselves simply feel less important, to the point that the filmmakers forgot how they spelled the name the first time around, and they’re now “Griswalds.” The tradition of the constantly rotating actors portraying Russ and Audrey begins here, but the kids in particularly are a poor substitute for the originals. In general, the film is let down by a weaker supporting cast, with the exception of the unfortunate Eric Idle as the poor tourist who the Griswolds continuously injure throughout their travels. At the end of the day, European Vacation just fills a bit flat, especially in comparison to the original and the superior Christmas Vacation. —Jim Vorel