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Ten 1980s Movies that are Still Shown in Theaters

Updated on February 10, 2018

The 1980s have been over for more than 25 years, but many movies from that decade continue to be shown in movie theaters.

Older moviegoers enjoy reliving the fun that they had when they first saw these movies in theaters, while younger patrons get a fuller experience of movies that they only know through television and video.

The home video industry took full root in the 1980s, and movies from that decade have been constantly available for viewing since they came out, unlike movies from previous decades.

So people have had the chance to watch their favorite 1980s movies many times on a small screen. Theater showings enable these moviegoers to enjoy familiar favorites in a much different way, in the company of other fans.

Many factors have contributed to the continuing appeal of 1980s movies, including:

  • Memorable pop singles on the soundtrack that have endured on the radio (Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Dirty Dancing, The Goonies). The launching of MTV in 1981 helped music videos become an important part of movie marketing.
  • The launching of popular series (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future). Viewers are fascinated by how a series and characters were first introduced to audiences.
  • Memories of movies first seen as children or teenagers (E.T., The Goonies, The Princess Bride). These movies temporarily take the viewer away from their current concerns.
  • Satirical and irreverent alternatives to classic Christmas movies of the 1940s and 1950s (A Christmas Story, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation). Annual Christmas movie series use these movies to add variety to their schedules.
  • The enduring impact of Steven Spielberg as a director and producer (Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Back to the Future, The Goonies). The Spielberg brand continues to be strong in the 21st century, and his name is usually featured prominently in the ads for these older movies.
  • Fresh spins on old movie genres (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Airplane!, The Princess Bride). The styles of these movies have been imitated many times since their release, and these originals have a special appeal.

Interestingly, films that won the Best Picture Oscar in the 1980s have not survived well on the big screen, including Chariots of Fire (1981), Gandhi (1982), Amadeus (1984), Out of Africa (1985), and Driving Miss Daisy (1989).

The following sections list the most popular 1980s movies in theaters since 2010, based on my informal survey.

I live in the Detroit area, so much of my research came from schedules that I saved from the Michigan Theater and State Theatre in Ann Arbor, the Redford Theatre in Detroit, and the Ohio Theatre in Columbus. To get a larger sample, I searched the Internet for "classic film series" and "classic movie series" from 2010 to 2015.

This list focuses on the movies that had the most general appeal both then and now, so it does not include any R-rated movies. From my research, I would guess that The Blues Brothers has been revived more often than any other R-rated movie of the 1980s.


Airplane! (1980)

Comedies are always more fun when you're watching them with a crowd, and the nonstop humor of Airplane! has helped keep it popular. Its gag-oriented style influenced many other movies, including later films by the directors Jim Abrahams and David Zucker (Top Secret!, The Naked Gun, and Hot Shots!).

The rapid pace of the dialogue made for many quotable lines, including funny misinterpretations of words and phrases that can have more than one meaning. For example, this exchange:

"Surely you can't be serious." "I am serious. And don't call me Shirley"

Airplane! is particularly enjoyable for older viewers who can fully relate to all of the cultural humor, such as Barbara Billingsley of Leave it To Beaver talking "jive" with two black men on the endangered airplane, or the young boy's comments about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's playing style.

Older viewers can also enjoy a cast that includes many familiar faces in roles that went against their usually serious image, like Robert Stack and Leslie Nielsen.

"And while the whole exercise is completely silly, 'Airplane!' is also very precise in its language, in the details within sight gags," wrote Associate Press Movie Critic Christy Lemire in the Journal-Gazette and Times-Courier of Mattoon, Illinois on January 21, 2012. "This kind of comedy is really hard to do just right without going overboard; the writing-directing team of Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker found that balance."

I had the fun experience of seeing Airplane! at the Redford Theatre in Detroit, where a loud explosion of laughter met Robert Hays' comment that a bar was "worse than Detroit."

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark made a powerful impression when it was released in 1981, with its unique mixture of action, humor, and special effects. It has a natural verve that is often missing from action adventures of the 21st century, with their heavy reliance on computer-generated effects.

"Like 'Jaws,' 'Raiders' has a rough-hewn look about it that seems utterly charming today," wrote Associated Press Movie Critic Christy Lemire in the June 13, 2011 edition of the Mattoon (Illinois) Journal Gazette. "You get the feeling that the boulder Harrison Ford is running from is an actual and very dangerous boulder."

Since Raiders came out, Ford has made many other movies, and is strongly associated with the Star Wars movie franchise, so his appearance in Raiders always retains a sense of freshness and vigor.

Raiders was the first of three Indiana Jones movies of the 1980s. The popularity of these films and a fourth Indiana Jones film in 2008 have helped keep this series alive in people's imaginations. Raiders will always be fun to watch because it shows how the series started and is many people's favorite film in the series.

Other factors that have contributed to Raiders's continuing popularity include a memorable and rousing musical score by John Williams; a compelling plot that includes the Nazi army's search for an important religious relic; and director Steven Spielberg's stylish parody of the B-movie adventure.

"Have you ever had as much fun at the movies as you did the first time you saw 'Raiders of the Lost Ark?' " commented Gannett writer Bill Goodykoontz in The Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser on May 18, 2013. "Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford make a great team."

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

At its core, E.T. has a sense of childlike innocence, wisdom, and wonder that keeps people interested in the movie. It helps them temporarily return to their own childhood, when they could see many things more clearly, unburdened by their adult accumulations of thoughts and emotions.

For many people, the movie also takes them back to their actual childhood of the early 1980s. They can relate to one or more of the children in the movie. The clothes, the food labels, the automobiles, the posters, and other cultural references help them return to that time.

The humanity of the movie continues to attract people, with the poignant, heart-rending friendship between the young boy Elliot and the alien E.T.

The ending is particularly powerful, with the reaction shots of the different characters showing how they had all been enriched by their close encounter with this funny-looking creature. When you see those different faces on a big screen, at least one of those faces is probably a mirror of your own.

"This film is movie magic at its most pure," wrote Teddy Durgin in The Star-Democrat of Easton, Maryland on June 7, 2012. "I have not seen a film since that so perfectly captures the world from a child's perspective. And, again, you get instant iconography in 'E.T. phone home,' in John Williams's soaring theme music, in that bicycle ride across the moon."

A Christmas Story (1983) and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989)

These two movies have become satirical and irreverent alternatives to more traditional Christmas movies like It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and White Christmas (1954), even for people who love those older movies.

Both films show the hectic and heartfelt quest for a perfect Christmas, by a young boy in A Christmas Story and by a grown man in Christmas Vacation.

A Christmas Story

In A Christmas Story, little Ralphie's intense desire for a Red Ryder BB gun reminds many people of their own strong wish for a special gift at Christmas time. It probably also reminds parents of how the fulfillment of that wish is a special opportunity to bond with their children.

The movie is also a trip down memory lane. It shows the hectic but communal ritual of downtown Christmas shopping in the early 1940s, decades before malls and the Internet.

"The film, about life in 1940s Indiana, didn't break any box-office records back in '83, but it has since become iconic," wrote John Monaghan of the Detroit Free Press on November 29, 2012. "Its infamous leg lamp and Red Ryder BB gun and the phrase 'You'll shoot your eye out' are now permanent Christmas time fixtures."

A Christmas Story, which has been made into a musical, was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2012.

The nonstop showing of A Christmas Story every Christmas Day on cable television has also helped keep this movie popular. When this movie is shown on a big screen, the impact of the many scenes is felt even stronger, in the friendly company of others who greatly enjoy this movie.

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

Christmas Vacation has continued to be popular because of its humorous view of the hectic and nerve-racking side of Christmas that most adults have experienced.

Chevy Chase reminds many people of their father at Christmas time, in his efforts to come up with a Christmas that both pleases his family and impresses his neighbors. Anyone who has hung up outdoor lights for Christmas can appreciate Chase's frustrated attempts to light up his family's house.

Christmas Vacation is also a collection of comical scenes that live strongly in people's memories. Many of these scenes are highlighted by the crazy behavior of Randy Quaid, a relative who makes an unexpected appearance.

Ghostbusters (1984)

The continuing popularity of Ghostbusters can be attributed to many factors, including its mixture of horror and comedy, all done up with a sense of silliness that reminds people of Abbott and Costello's monster movies.

Another factor is the number of quotable lines in the movie, delivered in a clever manner by actors and actresses with many famous images from other movies—Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, and others.

Another big factor in its endurance is a catchy theme song that continues to get much airplay, including in sports stadiums, where fans love to yell "Ghostbusters!" in response to the musical question, "Who ya gonna call?"

Viewers have commented that Ghostbusters contains many nuances and silly little moments that require multiple viewings to fully appreciate. For many people, it's a strong dose of fun, feel-good entertainment that keeps them returning for repeat viewings.

"It's not hard to identify the otherworldly success formula for 1984's Ghostbusters," wrote Bryan Alexander of USA TODAY in the Argus-Leader of Sioux Falls, South Dakota on August 24, 2014. "Take the skills of comedic leading man Bill Murray, along with his screenwriting co-stars Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd—all at the peaks of their Hollywood careers—and put them under the direction of Ivan Reitman. Then, in Ghostbusters parlance, cross their power streams."

Back to the Future (1985)

Back to the Future was the first movie in a science fiction comedy trilogy that got a big promotional boost in the fall of 2015. On October 21, 2015, many theaters showed Back to the Future II, which contains scenes that were set on that very day to show how the future looked from the 1980s.

The clever plot of Back to the Future always keeps the movie fresh. The time-traveling exploits of the main character Marty McFly create a lot of interesting and humorous contrasts between eras. The suspense of Marty's attempt to fix the future (in the 1980s) by fixing the past (in the 1950s) is always entertaining.

In an article in Florida Today on June 12, 2014, columnist Patrick Matthews talked about watching Back to the Future with his 9 and 11-year-old sons:

I had first watched the movie when I was a teenager. Had things really been so different back then? Were my kids viewing the 1985 scenes with the same sense of quaint amusement with which I was viewing the 1955 scenes?

The acting and interacting of Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd helps bring back return viewers, as well as the flashy image of the DeLorean time machine. A memorable pop song ("Power of Love") always take older viewers back to the middle 1980s when that song got a lot of radio airplay.

"It's a testament to the film's pop-culture cache that DeLoreans are forever synonymous with time travel and flux capacitors," wrote Barbara VanDenburgh of the Arizona Republic in The Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser on May 22, 2014.

The Goonies (1985)

Like E.T., The Goonies has helped many people return to their 1980s childhood. Audience members can relate to at least one of the wide variety of children in The Goonies.

The Goonies taps into the yearning to explore that is felt by many young children. This desire to explore adds a sense of adventure to life, and many viewers have called The Goonies an Indiana Jones movie for youngsters.

Thirty years after The Goonies was released, the actor who played the young boy Chunk in the movie reflected on its lasting appeal. In the June 7, 2015 edition of The Journal News of White Planes, New York, Jeff Cohen commented:

Now I'm seeing parents who watched it when they were kids, watching it with their kids, and people are enjoying it with their families; I think the reason it's multigenerational is it's about kids being kids and there's something eternal about that.

Like many other movies of the 1980s, The Goonies was helped along by a hit song, which was performed by Cyndi Lauper. The Goonies also got a big boost by the guidance and resources of executive director Steven Spielberg.

The area in Oregon where The Goonies was filmed celebrated the 30th anniversary of the movie in 2015.

"Not only can you tour iconic film locations, catch a screening of the movie and attend costumed parties, you also can do a treasure hunt and relive the '80s with music, memorabilia and more," wrote Carlee Wright in the Statesman Journal of Salem, Oregon on May 17, 2015.

Dirty Dancing (1987)

The popularity of Dirty Dancing has been helped greatly by the resonating power of one line of dialogue—"Nobody puts Baby in a corner!" That line gets to the heart of the need and desire for independence by the main female character in this romantic musical drama.

"The sweet heartbreak of the summer romance and the energetic mambo sequences conspire to make 'Dirty Dancing' an enduring delight," read a review of a 25th anniversary home video release of Dirty Dancing in the May 25, 2012 edition of the Courier-Post of Camden, New Jersey.

Dirty Dancing got a tremendous boost from the popularity of its soundtrack, which included a mixture of nostalgia-inducing old songs and catchy new songs. Some of the new songs became hit singles, and their continued airplay helps keeps people's memories of Dirty Dancing alive.

One of the songs, "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," is the background music for the climactic dance scene with Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey that has been implanted in the memory cells of people who keep returning to the movie.

"I recall sobbing from the time Patrick Swayze says, 'Nobody puts Baby in the corner,' to the time he lifts Jennifer Grey high above his head in the climactic dance number," wrote Christy Lemire of the Associated Press in the Arizona Republic on October 21, 2011. "Back then, it really did feel like the time of our lives."

The early death of Swayze from pancreatic cancer at the age of 57 in 2009 has also made Dirty Dancing a memorial tribute to Swayze.

The movie also continues to survive through live stage productions, as well as festivals at its filming locations in New York and North Carolina.

The Princess Bride (1987)

Like Airplane! and Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Princess Bride parodies a movie genre, in this case medieval romance and adventure. The two lovers at the heart of the romance are surrounded by a large collection of memorable characters who are fondly remembered by many viewers.

These characters speak many quotable lines, including;

  • "As you wish."
  • "Inconceivable!"
  • "My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

The Princess Bride doesn't take itself too seriously, but the comic relief doesn't detract from the dramatic conflicts at the core of the plot. Its setting in an imaginary world helps it live in the imaginations of people who have seen it.

The framing device of the story being told as a storybook tale by a grandfather to his bedridden grandson helps pull the viewer into the story, and add to the fantasy atmosphere of the movie.

Like other movies on this list, The Princess Bride uses a variety of movie styles to create many memorable scenes, each of which is probably someone's favorite scene that they look forward to seeing over and over again.

"Rob Reiner's 24-year-old film is much-beloved, remaining high on many filmgoers' lists of favorite movies," wrote Jack Garner in the Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, New York on August 5, 2011. "The Princess Bride blends the laughs of a fractured fairy tale with a truly touching romance."

© 2016 Bob Smith


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