10 Best Underrated Movies of the ’80s

10 Best Underrated Movies of the ’80s

July 17, 2024

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The 1980s was a golden age for cinema, with some of the most iconic and beloved movies of all time being released during that decade. But for every “The Breakfast Club” or “Back to the Future,” there were dozens of other great movies that flew under the radar. These movies are all well-made, entertaining, and (most importantly) overlooked. So whether you’re a fan of ’80s cinema or just looking for some great movies to watch, be sure to check out our list of the best underrated movies of the decade.

1. Blue Velvet (1986)

best

9.2

Country

United States of America

Director

David Lynch

Actors

Angelo Badalamenti, Brad Dourif, Dean Stockwell, Dennis Hopper

Moods

Discussion-sparking, Gripping, Thrilling

David Lynch’s star-studded provocation Blue Velvet was both revered and criticised upon its release because of how heavily it leans on sexuality and violence to advance its plot, but today the film’s hailed as a contemporary masterpiece. Still, scenes with that kind of content are quite hard to stomach in combination with Isabella Rossellini’s depiction of an unstable, delicate singer named Dorothy. But Dorothy is surely not in Kansas anymore… It takes a young college student (Jeffrey Beaumont played by Kyle McLachlan) who becomes fascinated with her as part of his self-appointed detective quest, to uncover deep-rooted conspiracies. In his endeavours, Jeffrey is joined by butter blonde Sandy (Laura Dern), and the twisted love triangle they form with Dorothy in the middle is one for the ages. Dennis Hooper stars as one of the most terrifying men on screen and Lynch regular Angelo Badalamenti scores the film with an eerie precision like no other. 

2. Tampopo (1985)

best

9.0

Country

Japan

Director

Jūzō Itami

Actors

Akio Tanaka, Chōei Takahashi, Fukumi Kuroda, Gō Awazu

Moods

Easy, Feel-Good, Funny

While billed as a “ramen western”, Tampopo satirizes plenty of other American genres, including, but not limited to: 1) the inspirational sports film, with Tampopo’s diligent training, 2) the erotic, arthouse drama through its egg yolk kiss, 3) the witty, social comedy pointing out the absurd in dinnertime tables, and 4) the melodramatic mafia romance with its room-serviced hotel getaway. But the film doesn’t buckle under the weight of carrying all these genres– instead, the customer vignettes are all delicately plated to balance out the hearty journey of a store owner learning about ramen and the bemused, yet cohesive contemplation about food. Tampopo is one of a kind.

3. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

best

8.6

Country

Japan

Director

Isao Takahata

Actors

Akemi Yamaguchi, Ayano Shiraishi, Hiroshi Tanaka, Kyoko Moriwaki

Moods

Dark, Depressing, Dramatic

Perhaps the most depressing but vital movie produced by animation giant Studio Ghibli, Grave of the Fireflies is a searing and sweeping drama that covers the horrors of World War II through the eyes of teenager Seita and his young sister Setsuko. Between the violence of war and the tragedy of loss, the siblings struggle to preserve not just their lives but their humanity. In typical Ghibli fashion, there are moments of gentle beauty to be found, but instead of conflicting with the overall stark tone of the film, they successfully underscore war’s futility and brutality, making Grave of the Fireflies one of the most important anti-war narratives ever told. 

4. Stand By Me (1986)

best

8.5

Country

United States of America

Director

Rob Reiner

Actors

Bradley Gregg, Bruce Kirby, Casey Siemaszko, Chance Quinn

Moods

Character-driven, Discussion-sparking, Dramatic

Stand By Me follows four young friends as they journey around their small town searching for a rumored dead body. On the surface, it moves like an adventure story. The boys narrowly avoid guard dogs and leeches, speeding trains and tough teen gangs. But along the way, they also learn much about each other, in particular about the stark reality of their home lives and the growing depths of their inner struggles, so that beneath all the small-time thrill is a beating coming-of-age story. 

Based on a novella by horror master Stephen King, Stand By Me is terrifying in its ability to evoke the unique thorniness of passing through the gates of adulthood, but also warm and comforting in its reminder of the universality of this feeling.

5. Au Revoir les Enfants (1987)

best

8.5

Country

France, Germany, Italy

Director

Louis Malle

Actors

Arnaud Henriet, Francine Racette, François Berléand, François Négret

Moods

Challenging, Depressing, Discussion-sparking

There are moments in our childhood that we deeply regret, even if we didn’t know better, even if innocence can excuse us, and even if we weren’t the ones primarily responsible for the mistake. The memory of it can be haunting, but none has been as devastating as the memory depicted in Louis Malle’s semi-autobiographical period drama Au Revoir les Enfants. Malle brings us to the boarding school rhythms with ease, straightforwardly depicting it as is, but with the camera and the sequencing recognizant of the implications. With the natural dynamic between the unthinking Julien (Malle’s younger self) and the alert and afraid Jean formed through subtle moments, Au Revoir les Enfants culminates into the heartbreaking coming-of-age moment that Malle personally lived through in World War II.

6. Rouge (1987)

best

8.4

Country

Hong Kong

Director

Stanley Kwan

Actors

Alex Man, Anita Mui, Emily Chu Bo-Yee, Irene Wan

Moods

Dramatic, Emotional, Romantic

Vivid, seductive, and highly romantic, Rouge starts as an enchanting tale of a ghost courtesan that haunts a modern-day couple to look for her lost lover. It’s easy to be swayed by the ghostly lovers – the courtesan Fleur (Anita Mui) and wealthy pharmacy chain heir Chan Chen-Pang (Leslie Cheung) start off the film courting each other (and the audience) through lush visuals, dramatic declarations, and Cantonese song. They agree to a suicide pact and promise to find each other in the next life. However, as Fleur haunts newspaper journalists Yuen and Chor, it’s clear how different Hong Kong has become. From its culture to its attitudes towards romance, Rouge suggests that while modern day Hong Kong may be more cold and standardized, the past as we know it is only a gorgeous dream. And that dream hides a tragic, sordid reality.

7. Black Rain (1989)

best

8.3

Country

Japan

Director

Shōhei Imamura

Actors

Akiji Kobayashi, Etsuko Ichihara, Fujio Tokita, Hideji Ōtaki

Moods

Challenging, Character-driven, Discussion-sparking

Not to be confused with the American cop thriller with the same name, Shōhei Imamura’s Black Rain is about the atomic bomb, but it’s not really concerned about nuclear warfare. Sure, the film opens with gruesome shots of the day the bomb dropped, not sparing the viewers from the gore and the titular nuclear fallout, that in black and white looks the same. And yes, much of the conflict occurs because of the lingering effects of the radiation. However, Imamura is much more concerned with the way Japanese society had tried to deal with it through going back to tradition– through going through the motions of matchmaking and propriety and social status and through excluding those who suffered directly from the bomb. Black Rain has a singular perspective, one that stands out due to the country’s denial of war crimes.

8. Miracle Mile (1988)

best

8.1

Country

United States of America

Director

Steve De Jarnatt

Actors

Alan Berger, Alan Rosenberg, Anthony Edwards, Brian Thompson

Moods

Dark, Gripping, Mind-blowing

Before anything else, Miracle Mile is a romance. It begins with a meet-cute so adorable, it convinces lovebirds Harry and Julie to stick to each other in the next moments of the film, which couldn’t be more different than the first. Where the opening scene is sweet and lovely, the ones that follow it are fraught and bleak and eerily existential. At this point, the film transforms into its true self: an apocalyptic nightmare. When Harry receives word that a nuclear attack is incoming, the news spreads like wildfire and all hell breaks loose in this film that makes you question reality and humanity. 

It’s one of the smoothest shifts in cinematic history, but even with panic swirling and violence erupting, love is still there. Harry and Julie’s quest to save and savor the bond they’ve formed is genuinely moving, and it effectively grounds this out-of-this-world film about the end.

9. The Sacrifice (1986)

best

8.1

Country

France, Sweden, United Kingdom

Director

Andrei Tarkovsky

Actors

Allan Edwall, Erland Josephson, Guðrún Gísladóttir, Helena Brodin

Moods

Challenging, Character-driven, Dark

The end of the world, of course, forces people to contemplate one’s life purpose, the choices they made, and the opportunities they chose over others. Andrei Tarkovsky examines this idea in The Sacrifice– juxtaposing a hypothetical third World War with main character Alexander’s choices, the choices that led him to a successful acting career, but also led him to regret that he hasn’t done more to take action, until the deal he made with a cross between the Christian God and pagan sacrifice. The ideas are philosophically heavy, marked with Tarkovsky’s dreamlike imagery, long takes, and slow pacing, but it feels much more personal considering the sacrifice he made in leaving his family to create his last two films abroad. The Sacrifice is a masterful meditation on life itself, a deeply moving anti-war film that was a decent send-off of one of the greatest filmmakers ever to have existed.

10. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

best

8.0

Country

Spain

Director

Pedro Almodóvar

Actors

Agustín Almodóvar, Ana Leza, Ángel de Andrés López, Antonio Banderas

Moods

Dramatic, Funny, Grown-up Comedy

Break-ups aren’t the easiest thing to overcome, but how we deal with them usually doesn’t get as ludicrous as the events Pepa goes through in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The film makes said nervous breakdown chaotic– it includes spiked gazpacho, a frantic call to the police, and being held at gunpoint– but as Pepa and the women around her try to put off each fire, at least one of them literally, writer-director Pedro Almodóvar ensures sympathy for them, with Pepa’s snappy dialogue cutting through the lies of a smooth-talking womanizer refusing to face them. And it’s all paired with a suitably dramatic score, meticulous staging, and exaggerated, colorful frames mostly occurring in the wreck of a fabulously styled penthouse.

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