The 1980s was an interesting time to be alive. The fashion was filled with pastels and neon, the hairstyles were wild (and often untamed), and a lot was going on in the world. It was also a great decade for movies. When it comes to great action, thrillers, dramas, and slapstick comedies, it’s tough to beat the films the ten-year period brought us. It was a decade where names like Stallone, Hanks, Candy, and Schwarzenegger shined on screen. But as great as the 80s was for filmmaking, it’s also a great decade to set movies.
And, unsurprisingly, there are a ton of movies set in the 1980s that were filmed in the 90s and well into the new millennium. Some are based on historic events, others use the decade as an overall vibe, and some movies embrace the wacky styles, clothing, and nostalgia of the era. There are thrillers, science fiction movies, comedies, dramas, and any other genre imaginable.
There are so many movies set in the 1980s that it’s difficult to pick the best. That being said, it’s still worth trying. While you might not totally agree with this list, and perhaps your favorite film is missing, below you’ll find eight of the best genre-spanning movies that take place between 1980 and 1989.
Stream: Max, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu
Set in 1988, with an atmospheric soundtrack filled with classic 80s new wave music, this spooky, mysterious time-traveling story centers around a brooding teen named Donnie Darko. One night he sleepwalks out of his house and meets a creepy, demented-looking rabbit named Frank who tells him that the world will end in a little over 28 days. He wakes up on a golf course and finds that a jet engine fell through the roof of his bedroom during the night.
Wet Hot American Summer
On-demand: Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video
This is a movie for anyone who went to (or wishes they went to) a sleepaway camp in the 1980s. It’s a nostalgia-filled farce of classic 80s camp movies like Meatballs. It’s filled with memorable music, one-liners, and intentionally cliché tropes, and touts one of the most impressive lists of comedic talents ever assembled on screen. This includes the likes of Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd, Ken Marino, Michael Ian Black, Janeane Garofalo, and more.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Stream: YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, MGM+, Paramount+
The film begins in 1987 as Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) begins working at a brokerage firm on Wall Street in New York City. Eventually, he starts his own brokerage firm and, along with his friend (played by Jonah Hill) makes a ridiculous amount of money while committing a ton of fraud along the way. Obviously, this poorly constructed house of cards is doomed to eventually fall.
The Wedding Singer
On-demand: YouTube, Amazon Prime Video
This is a great comedy either way, but the fact that it takes place in the awkward 1980s, specifically 1985. Adam Sandler plays the titular wedding singer, a man who loses his zest for life (and wedding singing) when his fiancé abandons him at the altar. When a woman named Julia (played by Drew Barrymore) hires him to plan her wedding, he falls in love with her. Will he finally get the love he deserves?
No Country For Old Men
Stream: Amazon Prime Video, Roku, Paramount+
You might have watched this whole movie and not necessarily know that it takes place in 1980. Regardless, this thrilling story centers on a man named Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin) who happens upon a site where a violent confrontation between drug dealers took place. There are bodies littered with bullet holes and this is where he finds a briefcase filled with money. What he doesn’t know is that it has a tracking device, and it belongs to a psychotic killer.
It’s the summer of 1987 and Jesse Eisenberg plays a young man who recently graduated from college. He planned to spend the summer after his last year of school backpacking around Europe. To his chagrin, his parents announce that they can’t pay for his trip and he’s forced to get a summer job at an amusement park called Adventureland.
This atmospheric, gloomy thriller takes place in the winter of 1987 in Minnesota. Jerry Lundegaard (played by William H. Macy) hires two criminals to kidnap his wife so he can get the ransom from her rich father to pay off his debts. Things go off the rails when the pair kills a state trooper and a random couple in a car who witnessed the crime. It just gets worse from there for everyone involved. Especially Jerry.
On-demand: Apple TV
This madcap, brutal thriller/dark comedy centers around a young businessman named Patrick Bateman (played by Christian Bale) in 1987. He has a temper that seems constantly ready to boil over. While he just seems like kind of a tightly wound jerk to the outside world, his rage is manifested at night when he spends his evening murdering people. This includes coworkers, a homeless man, and even a strange scene where an ATM machine tells him to kill a stray cat. Eventually, the audience is left wondering if any of it even happened at all or if it was all in his head.