The 1980s witnessed the birth of some of the biggest and best standalone movies and movie franchises of all time, but, the teen movie genre, above all others, is the one that really blossomed during this period, becoming forever synonymous with the decade. Some of Hollywood’s biggest names were catapulted into stardom from these films, while others never did escape them. From the John Hughes collection to really all the Two Coreys’ films (Feldman and Haim), the 80s teen genre took an up-close, and often hilariously stereotyped, look at teen life, making a lasting impression on film audiences and the industry, as well as how teenagers would be perceived moving forward.
While comedies certainly dominate the teen genre, this list will be a little more general, including any movie where teenage life is central to the plot, ripe with angst, uncontrollable hormones and anti-authoritative attitudes.
You will almost definitely have heard of these films. Perhaps you’ve even seen them all. But all of these movies still work today. For one reason or another, each of these films still hold value for today’s audiences, no matter how silly or passé they may seem. Despite all the bad hair, dated references and predictable plotlines, these movies continue to pass the test of time and deserve another look.
16. The Lost Boys
Young vampires, both Coreys, a young Keifer Sutherland with great hair, plus an amazing theme song (“Cry Little Sister”), what’s not to love? But seriously, vampires are the perfect metaphor for teenagers—sleep all day, party all night. Even though the plot may not be the most intricate or well thought out, there are some great critiques of the Gothic genre at the heart of this film. The deadpan humour throughout is on point as well. If, for no other reason, watch this film again for The Frog Brothers, played by Feldman and Jason Newlander, the most knowledgeable vampire hunters since Van Helsing.
15. Weird Science
Often panned when held up to John Hughes’ other, more critically acclaimed films, Weird Science is one of the funniest in this collection, regardless of its shallow premise. Unapologetically crass, this 80s (male) teen take on the Frankenstein mythos is centered around two nerds creating a dream woman from a PC. Ah, the promise of early desktop computers. Anthony Michael Hall, in one of his several appearances on this list, proves once again that being a nerd on the outside of the cool group is actually more relatable for audiences than those on the inside. What was Hughes trying to say about movie goers?
14. Adventures in Babysitting
A Chris Columbus classic, as well as his directorial debut, Adventures in Babysitting is a charming and funny rescue mission in big bad downtown Chicago. Elisabeth Shue is, as always, amazing as the lead in this movie. It’s unlikely to teach any real life lessons, but as a simple, enjoyable film, it easily completes its mission. With a far-fetched look at the vice and seediness of downtown cities, the film is probably better viewed as an allegory for how young teens view the downtown nightlife than any accurate representation.
13. Revenge of the Nerds
In the same vein as Animal House (1978), this comedy is one of the best to follow in those great footsteps. Raunchy, mildly offensive and almost entirely sex-driven, expect it and you will probably enjoy it quite it a bit. Similar to many films in this list, nerds are a catch-all for difference and intolerance. Sure, nerds might not be as iconic today as they were in the 70s and 80s, but substitute in any presently objectified group and there’s still a recognizable statement being made here. Above all else, like similar titles in more recent years, this movie is best when it’s not taken too seriously.
This list would be incomplete without the model for teen sex comedies included. With as much sex humor jam packed into 94 minutes as possible, Porky’s doesn’t shy away from portraying teens as sex robots, but it works. Taking place in the 50s, the film’s hijinks, while ridiculous, always feel naïve and harmless. While it’s the least critically appreciated film on the list, Porky’s success can’t be denied. It’s massive box-office gains aside, the film also led to a number of followers, including the huge American Pie franchise.
11. Teen Wolf
Probably best known for its editing slip in the final scene, this is a movie that deserves to be remembered for more. Sure it beats the audience over the head with coming-of-age metaphors, but there are also some great morals at its core. Michael J Fox is as endearing as ever, even if him being a werewolf doesn’t necessarily mean anything. So what if he really only uses his new found werewolf abilities to be a better basketball player, he plays the hell out of it. And, if a squirrely, unimaginably tiny Michael J Fox bouncing around a basketball court doesn’t keep you engaged, nothing will. Plus, the sequel Teen Wolf Too gave us the film debut of the hilarious Jason Bateman, so there’s always that.
10. Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Another film with an all-star 80s cast (Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Forest Whitaker and Phoebe Cates—also the debuts for Nicolas Cage and Eric Stoltz), Fast Times gives audiences a deeper look at 80s teenagers, even if it might paint them with overly broad strokes. Don’t listen to the naysayers. There’s a lot more to this movie than Penn’s Jeff Spicoli character. There’s truth and strength in many of the characters, something that is often lacking in 80s teens in film, especially in females.
What might be the most unknown of the films on this list, Lucas is a truthful coming-of-age movie with another strong cast telling the story. Corey Haim as the lonely title character is convincing and still entirely relatable today. There are a number of powerful performances from the other cast members including Kerri Green, Charlie Sheen and the debut of Winona Ryder. If you haven’t seen this movie, do yourself a favor and see it. If you have, see it again. High school hasn’t changed so much that this will need any translating; it worked then and it works now.
8. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
The film’s legendary status in teen comedy is only surpassed by Ferris Bueller’s own high school status. Not as funny as many films on the list and not as effective of a satire as the others, but this is still a madly entertaining movie. One of the few films in the genre without an underdog as the main character, this John Hughes classic is as refreshing as it is silly. While the specifics may not be very believable today, the journey is still every bit as valuable. Matthew Broderick’s outstanding career aside, this might always be his best and brightest role. If you haven’t seen it, you’ve heard his name… Bueller? Bueller?
7. A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven submitted the last of the big three (Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street) into the slasher arena, but he made his impact felt nonetheless. Led by Heather Langenkamp, the teenagers of Elm St. (which includes the film debut of Johnny Depp) fight back when they are terrorized by the terrifying Freddy Krueger in the place where many teenagers do some of their very best work, their dreams. What might be a metaphor for taking control of one’s future, this move is incredible without it. Creepy, atmospheric and ultimately one of the best all-time horror movies, Nightmare on Elm Street is and will always be relevant.
6. The Karate Kid
This movie is too good. Ralph Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso is a seriously captivating character. New Jersey tough, wildly sarcastic and tightly wound, the mockingly named “karate kid” and his undeniable on-screen chemistry with the Elisabeth Shue is enough to make this movie great, but you then add in karate, Mr. Miyagi and some borderline black magic and you have a masterpiece. Magically, nearly everyone in 80s movies was proficient in martial arts, so it makes sense that LaRusso needed to level the playing field. Even though martial arts aren’t as popular today as they were in the 80s, the Miyagi treatment translates well enough today for any discipline.
5. Breakfast Club
Ever heard of it? Fit with an 80s dream team of Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, and Ally Sheedy, this movie is one of the most beloved 80s films. It also showcases perhaps the most amazing montages ever put together (or ridiculous, depending on your perspective). Likely Hughes’ best effort, The Breakfast Club is a visual essay on teenage stereotypes, who they apply to and who applies them. While the actual labels might be a little overused and too black-and-white for today’s audiences, the message remains the same: stereotypes are kind of like your favorite pair of jeans from yesteryear, just because you can fit into them, doesn’t mean they aren’t uncomfortable.
4. Back to the Future
If Back to the Future ever falls out of favor with audiences, there’s something seriously wrong. Can you believe that Michael J. Fox almost wasn’t Marty McFly? No, seriously, Eric Stoltz was originally cast and shot for 5 weeks until Fox came on to take over. One of the most amazing things about watching this movie today is the total inception that takes over modern audiences. You know the story; a time-travelling teen from the 80s attempts to kindle his parent’s relationship, while side-stepping a very strange Oedipal love triangle and negotiating teen life in 50s. It’s probably because the film is drawing a comparison between generations that it so compelling to watch today; teenagers from 30 years ago or 60 years ago are still teenagers after all.
3. Sixteen Candles
The launching pad movie for Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, arguably, and John Cusack, Sixteen Candles is a classic teen comedy, sure, but it’s still an amazing movie today. With just the right mixture of both funny and sweet, strong performances from Ringwald and the ever-precocious Hall, John Hughes proves he is in tune with teen concerns, without taking them too seriously or belittling them in any way. As with many films from different times, it’s easy to retrospectively pick apart moments for racist or sexist undertones. However, even with some cringeworthy moments, there is enough brilliance in this film to keep it important for a long time yet.
2. The Goonies
Written by Steven Spielberg and Chris Columbus, a story that is overflowing with excitement and humor, this film will be forever cemented as the prototype for teen adventure films. It also marks the film debuts for Josh Brolin and Sean Astin, part of a great cast that includes 80s wonder child Corey Feldman, Jonathan Ke Quan fresh off of his Indiana Jones fame, Kerri Green, and Jeff Cohen. If you’re wondering whether a young teen adventure is still appreciated by audiences and critics, look no further than J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (2011), a film that recreates the same recipe with similar success, likely without the lasting impression that its predecessor has enjoyed.
It feels strange to say that a movie that has enjoyed so much critical success is undervalued, but Heathers is such a good film that it may have been impossible to ever achieve the success it truly deserves. Coming at the tail end of the 80s teen movie craze, this dark comedy completely disrupts and dismantles the genre. Even with the more recent success and popularity of Mean Girls (2004) and Scream Queens (2015), which follow Heathers’ well-designed plan, the Winona Ryder and Christian Slater led cult film is so smart and ahead of its time that it is still as brilliant and enjoyable as it ever was.
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