Ten Highest-Grossing Movies of the 1980s

Published: July 27, 2014

The 1980s. For those of us who were not fortunate enough to experience it first-hand, it's a time filled with wondrous mystery. So many great TV shows, so much great music, and, of course, so many great movies. How could one decade be so culturally rich and exciting? The world may never know. 

Anyway, let's take a look at the ten highest-grossing* movies of the 1980s.

*Note: Prices are not adjusted for inflation.

  1. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

    Ah, Temple of Doom. The angst-ridden teenager to Raiders of the Lost Ark’s wide-eyed child. Directed by Steven Spielberg, This film is often criticized for its darkness, and seems to sharply divide fans of the franchise to this day. Many say this is the worst of the original three Indiana Jones films, while some consider the best. Whatever your opinion, it remains the lowest-grossing of any of the Indiana Jones films.

  2. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

    Long-thought to be the final installment in the franchise, Last Crusade left behind the horror elements of Temple of Doom and returned to the child-like sense of wonderment that made Raiders of the Lost Ark so endearing. Ironically, it also deals with what is arguably the most mature subject matter in the entire series: The re-forging of a long-strained father-son relationship, which was inspired by Spielberg’s real-life troubled relationship with his own father. Wow. Spielberg sure likes to put some heavy stuff in his kid-friendly movies.

  3. Back to the Future

    What can be said about Back to the Future that hasn’t already been said? It’s funny, it’s exciting, and more than anything else, it’s original. It took hard sci-fi elements and put them into a wacky 80s teen comedy. And it worked! Pretend you were around the first time Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis were coming up with this idea. If one of them said to you, “So it’s this movie about a normal teenager who’s friends with this crazy old inventor who makes a time machine, then the kid travels back in time, almost hooks up with his mom, helps his dad beat up a guy, and has to make sure that his parents get together or he’ll fade from existence,” would you say, “Yeah, that sounds awesome”? No, probably not, because I assume you’re a sane person. And yet, this movie became an instant classic and is even more beloved today than when it premiered.    

  4. Beverly Hills Cop

    Beverly Hills cop premiered in 1984 and made Eddie Murphy an international star almost overnight. The film is a pretty standard action comedy of the era. Or at least it would be, if not for Murphy. His personality and presence absolutely make this movie. Don’t get me wrong, the movie itself is good. The script is tight, if a little predictable, and the action is surprisingly exciting and well done. But Murphy’s constant wit and sharpness take this movie over the hilarious edge, turning it into one of the most memorable movies of the decade.    

  5. Ghostbusters

    Also released in 1984, Ghostbusters became an instant smash hit with audiences and critics alike, even being nominated for two Oscars (for Best Visual Effects and Best Original Song). Despite having trouble getting off the ground early on (producers deemed Dan Aykroyd’s early script with time-travelling “Ghostmashers” too expensive, forcing him to rethink the concept entirely), the film spawned a beloved multi-media franchise that is still going strong. In fact, rumors of a proposed third Ghostbusters movie have been circulating since at least the 90s.

  6. Raiders of the Lost Ark

    Well, this is it. The one that started it all. At least as far as Indiana Jones is concerned. Raiders of the Lost Ark was an incredible success and is arguably responsible for launching Harrison Ford into superstardom. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ love letter to the sci-fi/fantasy adventure serials they grew up watching, Raiders revolutionized the entire industry; from its ground-breaking visual effects to its heart-pounding action, its influence is still being felt far and wide today.    

  7. Batman

    Tim Burton’s 1989 adaptation of Batman was unlike anything audiences had experienced before. There had been other comic book movies of course (most notably 1978’s Superman), but none quite like this one. It’s important to remember that this was long before the current trend of super-popular superhero movies, meaning that this film was an incredible risk. Aside from devoted fans of the comic itself, most audience members were familiar with Batman only through the 60s television show starring Adam West, which was known for being incredibly campy and silly (even to the point of being satirical, as some fans argue). But Burton pulled inspiration from the increasingly dark and mature comics of the 80s and wowed audiences with a version of the character that could truly be called the Dark Knight. Throw in Jack Nicholson’s unforgettable performance as the Joker, and you’ve got an instant classic that paved the way for superhero films as a genre.    

  8. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

    The second Star Wars film and the first of the 1980s, Empire Strikes Back is considered by many (including this writer) to be the best of the series. A New Hope had already prepared audiences for the stunning visuals and fantastical new worlds that are staples of the franchise, but Episode V surprised fans by taking a much darker turn than its predecessor. It’s easy to lose sight of this now, given the fact that “darkness” and “gritty” seem to be little more than buzzwords applied to many of today’s blockbusters, but Empire Strikes Back was truly a shock to many in how mature and, frankly, bleak it is (for a Star Wars film, of course.) By the end of the movie, the heroes have been tortured and betrayed; had terrible emotional trauma thrust on them; and have lost one of their trusted companions, not knowing if he’s alive or dead! Remember, it was entirely plausible at the time that Han Solo was dead! Imagine: Star Wars without Han. Bleak indeed.    

  9. Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

    It’s frankly hard to believe that any film of the 1980s would have drawn larger crowds than Return of the Jedi. This film was the culmination of a thrilling, unique, and (most importantly) fun story that took six years to tell. It was the first time in history a film franchise of this cultural magnitude had existed; and for fans, this was the ultimate bittersweet payoff. If Episode V had put Star Wars’ status as a kids’ franchise into question, Episode VI solidified the fact that this wasn’t just for kids. It dealt with the mature themes of sacrifice, strained familial bonds, and redemption. And, shockingly, it turned Darth Vader into a hero (although just barely).    

  10. E.T.

    E.T.? Yeah, E.T. In a decade dominated by action, adventure, foul-mouthed cops, Nazi face-melting, and BDSM (see Batman, slave Leia), a children’s film reigned supreme. Of course, it did have the sci-fi/fantasy angle that so many of these other films shared. It also has one other thing in common with many of these movies: Steven Spielberg. Spielberg directed four of the movies on this list and produced a whopping seven, helping to usher in the current era of huge-spectacle blockbusters. But, like many Spielberg films, the core of E.T.’s story is incredibly simple: it’s a story about friendship, and about growing up. Through Elliott’s eyes, we as an audience experience the rewarding nature of friendship, and the inevitable bittersweet sting of going one’s own way.    

The 80s were an incredible time to be a movie-goer. These ten movies barely scratch the surface of the huge pool of memorable pop culture to come out of the decade. Having said that, the importance of these films on today's popular cinema cannot be overstated. Now we have our Marvel Movies and our X-Men and our Cornetto Trilogy; but none of those would exist without the revolutionary blockbusters of the 1980s.