Greatest of All Time? The Best 80s and 90s Movies, Ranked.

Gabrielle London

The 80s and the 90s. Eras of beautifully crafted movies, renaissances for film. This time period brought about major accomplishments and great strides in the cinematic world, introducing unforgettable characters and plots. Many of the world’s greatest actors found their beginnings in this period, going on to help good movies become great. However there are several films which stand far above the rest, in both box office and brilliance. In this article, I’ll be ranking the definitive top 5 movies of the 80s and 90s, highlighting their best attributes and explaining their greatness. 

#5 – Dirty Dancing

In this classic John Hughes film, Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman goes with her family to a mountain resort the summer after she graduates from high school. One of the main draws of the retreat is its vast and varied selection of dance programs, including shows and classes. These programs are taught by well-versed dancers who rely on the job to live, the most notable of who, being Johnny Castle. As her time at the resort passes, Baby and Johnny get closer and she develops an intricate relationship with him, the other dancers, and dancing itself. 

The film does just about everything right. Not only does it perfectly capture the feeling of summer, but it also hooks audiences through a developing love story between Baby and Johnny. It skillfully integrates mature topics such as abortion and enables viewers to understand it from a different point of view, especially in a time where it was considered taboo. It is generally a feel good movie which utilizes familiarity to allow viewers to relate. Unlike other John Hughes movies at the time, Dirty Dancing does not rely entirely on angst and shock value. Rather, its natural charisma attracts audiences. Although it falters at times in applying and developing its side plots (such as Baby’s sister’s relationship, her goals to become a humanitarian, and Johnny’s future), that can be overlooked in favor of the film’s skills. It’s absolutely worth a watch and a perfect fit for anyone looking for a combination rom-com and coming of age. 

#4 – Good Will Hunting

This film focuses on Will Hunting, a young and largely unfeeling janitor at MIT—though he should be attending the school, not cleaning it. He’s had a difficult life and is a genius with wasted potential. One day after hours, he solves a complex equation set up by one of the professors at MIT. He quickly gets welcomed into a new part of his life, and the professor who proposed the equation begins to work with him and more importantly to go to therapy. He develops a unique relationship with therapist Sean Maguire, falls in love with an exchange student, and finally faces his trauma. 

Good Will Hunting is, quite simply, a beautiful movie. Watching Will’s life develop from a dead-ending, unfulfilling reality into a world of opportunity, love, and care, is captivating. Additionally, love interest Skylar is quirky and lovable. She serves as a medium between his two realities, and eventually becomes his devout motivation to get himself together and do something. Robin Williams’ performance as Sean Maguire is stellar—his talents are becoming, and an enormous aid in the intricacy of the film. Alongside Matt Damon as will, he helps create a thoughtful character. Good Will Hunting is one of those movies which might take a few watches to really understand each character, but it will always make you cry. It’s heavy and sweet and great for a rainy day. 

#3 – Forrest Gump

This classic centers around Forrest Gump, a honest and kind man who tells the stories of his life to those waiting at a local bus stop. He has both physical and intellectual disabilities—when he was young his legs were weak, though he later overcame it. Throughout the film, Forrest recalls his memories serving in Vietnam, losing his best friend, going on a cross-country running trip, winning a medal of honor for his service, creating an enormous seafood restaurant chain, coining the smiley face, and of course falling in love. He encounters many different people and shares his stories unprompted, but no one minds. Forrest is simple and charismatic, an all around great character. The movie is a classic and a great performance. 

Though there isn’t anything inherently unique or special about the plot of Forrest Gump, it still stands as one of the best movies of its time. It highlights the passage of time during several eras in the US through the eyes of Forrest, and how he processes the events in his life. It’s a detailed story which makes audiences’ hearts full, hoping that things will work out for him and embracing the story of his life. Tom Hanks is easily one of the best and most versatile actors of his time, and his performance as Forrest enhances the movie. His portrayal and interpretation of the character aids the audience’s positive feelings towards the film, thus making this one of his most iconic roles. Each side character in the movie should be appreciated as well—they have enormous impacts on Forrest’s life and perceptions, and they help develop and add depth to his character. This movie is a memorable classic and one of the best performances by Tom Hanks. It’s ability to introduce the world through Forrest Gump’s eyes at such depth is absorbing. 

#2 – Top Gun

Top Gun is the most elite training academy for naval fighter pilots. Only the best of the best get in, including Maverick and his best friend Goose. Maverick’s cocky attitude sets him apart from the other pilots, competition heightening. During his training, he’s not only fighting for the top spot at the school, but also his instructor’s affections. Maverick deals with a variety of unfortunate and untimely situations, and must learn how to handle them while training. 

Top Gun is a thrilling movie. Seeing Maverick and Goose fly and guide one another makes audiences feel alive and enthralled, and the plot twists in the story find an equilibrium between being over the top and underwhelming. The cast is perfectly selected, with Tom Cruise as Maverick and Kelly McGillis as instructor Charlie. Their performance is exactly how one would expect the characters to be, and their cool and collected auras serve as an enhancer for character development. During the film Maverick experiences death and loss, and his reaction is entirely appropriate relating to his character. In some movies death is used to change a character and it makes them into an entirely different person. However, in Top Gun, loss was used to create a character arc and develop Maverick, rather than completely reform his character. The soundtrack and filming in the movie is stellar—it perfectly fits the feel intended by the directors. Everything about Top Gun is well executed, allowing for the creation of a great movie. 

#1 – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the most iconic movie of the 80s and 90s, has a delightful and intriguing plot and great execution. It focuses on high school senior Ferris Bueller, who fakes sick to get out of school then sneaks out to spend the day in Chicago with his friend, Cameron, and girlfriend, Sloane. Throughout the day they go to a fancy restaurant for lunch, hijack a parade float, observe famous art, destroy a classic car, and go to a Cubs game. While they’re out, the school principal gets suspicious and tries everything in his ability to sabotage and expose Ferris. 

The movie is a classic, and a great narrative on fleeting teenage years. Each character is unique and adds to the plot, and the three main characters specifically create such a fun dynamic that this movie is hard to hate. The film executes several different overlapping plots beautifully. By using location cuts, the audience can observe what the principal is doing to expose Ferris, while Ferris is out having the time of his life in the city. The movie achieves a largely accurate representation of how high-school students act, something which many other shows and films fail miserably at (this is directed at Riverdale). It cleverly incorporates scenes in which someone’s parents are just a glance away from catching the trio to heighten tension. This also enhances the idea that although it might be wrong to skip school, a day off is all that they needed and was entirely to their benefit. Throughout the movie, Ferris breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses the camera, as if in a sitcom. It may not have been a necessary addition to the movie, but it’s skillfully executed and makes for a more immersive viewing experience. It’s easy to feel like you really know the characters and could be friends with them—their dynamic is very real and relatable to real life. As I see it there’s very little, if not nothing, this movie could’ve done better. Each concept it uses is done well and in such a way that it aids the plot and doesn’t feel like an unwanted add on. This movie is incredible, a classic which brings a fulfilling experience to any audience. 

The 80s and 90s was simply a great era for media and movies. So many cult classics and iconic characters were born, and this list covers only a few. Directors, actors, and producers came together to create some of the greatest cinema and for that we can only thank them. Each of the above movies are art, and all are worth a watch.

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