9 Best Movies & Shows Released in 1986

Staff & contributors

Find the best movies and show to watch from the year 1986. These handpicked recommendations are highly-rated by viewers and critics.

David Lynch's star-studded provocation Blue Velvet was both revered and criticised upon its release because of how heavily it leans on sexuality and violence to advance its plot, but today the film's hailed as a contemporary masterpiece. Still, scenes with that kind of content are quite hard to stomach in combination with Isabella Rossellini's depiction of an unstable, delicate singer named Dorothy. But Dorothy is surely not in Kansas anymore... It takes a young college student (Jeffrey Beaumont played by Kyle McLachlan) who becomes fascinated with her as part of his self-appointed detective quest, to uncover deep-rooted conspiracies. In his endeavours, Jeffrey is joined by butter blonde Sandy (Laura Dern), and the twisted love triangle they form with Dorothy in the middle is one for the ages. Dennis Hooper stars as one of the most terrifying men on screen and Lynch regular Angelo Badalamenti scores the film with an eerie precision like no other. 

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery, Romance, Thriller

Actor: Angelo Badalamenti, Brad Dourif, Dean Stockwell, Dennis Hopper, Donald Moore, Frances Bay, George Dickerson, Hope Lange, Isabella Rossellini, J. Michael Hunter, Jack Nance, Ken Stovitz, Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, Peter Carew, Priscilla Pointer

Director: David Lynch

Rating: R

Éric Rohmer’s The Green Ray is the kind of film that you come away from being more honest with yourself. That effect is thanks to the contagious directness of its protagonist: Delphine (Marie Rivière), a newly single young French woman whose summer vacation plans have just been unceremoniously upturned after the friend she was going away with takes off with a man instead. Now at a loose end, the indecisive Delphine meanders between her home in Paris and several gorgeous holiday spots, but that old saying — “wherever you go, there you are” — proves true. Neither the beaches of Cherbourg and Biarritz nor the lofty beauty of an Alps resort can soothe her restlessness or give her what she’s looking for, probably because she doesn’t quite know what that is herself.

Delphine’s is an achingly familiar search for anyone who’s ever felt like they’ve drifted off of life’s path, but blessedly, the conversation-driven Green Ray doesn’t leave us wallowing in that despair. That’s partly thanks to its final moments — which rank among cinema’s most stunning — but mostly because Rivière, who improvised much of her incisive dialogue, puts into words things that so many have felt but few would admit. In that sense, The Green Ray feels as much like a miracle as its last shot does.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Béatrice Romand, Carita Holmström, María Luisa García, Marie Rivière, Rosette, Vincent Gauthier

Director: Éric Rohmer

Stand By Me follows four young friends as they journey around their small town searching for a rumored dead body. On the surface, it moves like an adventure story. The boys narrowly avoid guard dogs and leeches, speeding trains and tough teen gangs. But along the way, they also learn much about each other, in particular about the stark reality of their home lives and the growing depths of their inner struggles, so that beneath all the small-time thrill is a beating coming-of-age story. 

Based on a novella by horror master Stephen King, Stand By Me is terrifying in its ability to evoke the unique thorniness of passing through the gates of adulthood, but also warm and comforting in its reminder of the universality of this feeling.

Genre: Adventure, Crime, Drama

Actor: Bradley Gregg, Bruce Kirby, Casey Siemaszko, Chance Quinn, Corey Feldman, Dick Durock, Frances Lee McCain, Gary Riley, Jason Oliver, Jerry O'Connell, Jerry O'Connell, John Cusack, Kent W. Luttrell, Kiefer Sutherland, Korey Scott Pollard, Madeleine Swift, Marshall Bell, O.B. Babbs, Richard Dreyfuss, River Phoenix, Scott Beach, Wil Wheaton, William Bronder

Director: Rob Reiner

Rating: R

With a premise straight out of a cheesy sci-fi B-movie, you wouldn't expect Little Shop of Horrors to be a bona fide spectacle, and yet its tale of a wish-fulfilling yet bloodthirsty plant remains as thrilling and intense as ever. More importantly, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's rock-musical songs remain boisterous and theatrical, gleefully performed by Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Steve Martin, and Levi Stubbs. And buried underneath all this is a comedy with a heart of darkness and a legitimately disturbing morality tale.

Musicals and horror movies are genres that typically cater to a more niche audience, but Little Shop of Horrors should be fun enough to draw anybody in, thanks to the film's impressively tactile sets, director Frank Oz's knack for physical comedy, and animatronic special effects that look better than most CGI creations today. As both a horror movie monster and a massive puppet, the vicious plant named Audrey II is entirely worth the price of admission, no matter which version of the film you seek out.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Horror

Actor: Barbara Rosenblat, Bertice Reading, Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, Danny John-Jules, Edward Wiley, Ellen Greene, Heather Henson, Jim Belushi, John Candy, John Scott Martin, Kevin Scott, Levi Stubbs, Mak Wilson, Miriam Margolyes, Rick Moranis, Steve Martin, Tichina Arnold, Tisha Campbell, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Vincent Gardenia, Vincent Wong

Director: Frank Oz

Before The Silence of the Lambs and Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal, there was Manhunter and Brian Cox’s deeply unnerving Dr. Lecktor. Michael Mann’s neon-lit serial-killer thriller follows Will Graham (William Petersen), a retired FBI agent lured back to work by a psychotic mass murderer whom no one at the Bureau can catch. But Will has something no one else on the force does: he was so committed to tracking down the now-imprisoned Lecktor that he developed an ability to warp his mind into that of a deranged killer, seeing a kind of logic in their madness that allows him to hunt them down. 

While that’s a professional superpower of sorts, it’s also a point of insecurity and a source of deep torture for Will, who struggles with the burden of his extraordinary empathy. Manhunter is thus a different kind of psychological thriller: while its dive into the depraved minds of Lecktor and the Tooth Fairy is certainly disturbing, it’s the obsessive, sanity-smashing effect the investigation has on Will that is most terrifying. Add to that Dante Spinotti’s impossibly vivid cinematography, Tom Noonan’s shudder-inducing performance as the voyeuristic Tooth Fairy, and the film’s surprisingly layered treatment of the murderer, and this is the serial-killer movie to end all others.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Horror, Thriller

Actor: Alexandra Neil, Annie McEnroe, Benjamin Hendrickson, Bill Cwikowski, Bill Smitrovich, Brian Cox, Chris Elliott, Dan Butler, David Allen Brooks, David Seaman, Dennis Farina, Frankie Faison, Garcelle Beauvais, Jim Zubiena, Joan Allen, Joanne Camp, John Posey, Ken Colquitt, Kim Greist, Kin Shriner, LA Winters, Marshall Bell, Michael D. Roberts, Michael Talbott, Michele Shay, Norman Snow, Patricia Charbonneau, Paul Perri, Peter Maloney, Robin Moseley, Stephen Lang, Tom Noonan, William Petersen

Director: Michael Mann

Spike Lee burst onto the filmmaking scene with this, his groundbreaking debut feature. Low in budget but high in confidence, She’s Gotta Have It fizzes with unadulterated energy and style, from its kaleidoscopic opening montage of stills depicting life in Brooklyn (where the film is set) to the joyous direct addresses of its credits sequence.

The film helped to kick off the independent movie movement in the US, and it’s not hard to see why: Lee and his collaborators (including members of his own family) do so much with so little here. Along with its visual and formal inventiveness — including ample fourth wall breaks and cinematographer Ernest Dickerson’s momentary, audacious switch from black-and-white to vibrant color — She’s Gotta Have It also broke new ground with Nola (Tracy Camilla Johns), the young, Black, unapologetically polyamorous artist whom the film’s forthright exploration of sexuality and feminism is centered on. Lee has since expressed regret about one scene in the film — an ill-judged moment that unavoidably dilutes some of its brilliance — but this aside, She’s Gotta Have It stands overall as a radical, exuberant, and impressively assertive lightning bolt of an entry into the medium that Lee changed forever.

Genre: Comedy, Romance

Actor: Bill Lee, Cheryl Burr, Eric Payne, Erik Dellums, Ernest R. Dickerson, Fab 5 Freddy, John Canada Terrell, Joie Lee, Monty Ross, Raye Dowell, Reginald Hudlin, S. Epatha Merkerson, Spike Lee, Tiziano Cortini, Tommy Redmond Hicks, Tracy Camilla Johns

Director: Spike Lee

Rating: R

Based on co-writer Wu Nien-jen’s experiences, Dust in the Wind is a bittersweet coming-of-age story about lost love. The two sweethearts, Ah Yuan (Wang Chien-wen) and Ah Yun (Hsin Shu-fen), move out of their rural hometown to try to make a life in Taipei. Through day-to-day glimpses of the life they’re trying to make, it’s easy to root for their love in the beginning. As they go through the struggles of daily life, the lovers seem to glow only in each other’s presence, thanks to the gorgeous cinematography from Mark Lee Ping-Bin. However, love isn’t enough. Outside circumstances threaten their love, such as poor healthcare, theft, and the military draft. Director Hou Hsiao-hsien refuses to let us recognize this at the immediate moment, though. Like Yuan, the weight of each moment hits us belatedly, and it’s only in the end when he can’t do anything, that we realize it.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Danny Deng, Grace Chen Shu-Fang, Hsin Shu-Fen, Lawrence Ko, Li Tian-Lu, Mei Fang, Yang Li-yin

Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien

Rating: Not Rated

Manon des Sources (Manon of the Springs), directed by Claude Berri, follows a young woman named Manon living reclusively in the rural countryside. This film is the sequel to Jean de Florette, during which a young Manon watched her father fall victim to the greedy manipulation of two men. Now, a decade later, Manon is older and more cunning—and when she sees the opportunity to gently avenger her father, she exacts tragic revenge.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Manon of the Springs lies in its actors. Emmanuelle Béart is captivating as Manon, quiet and observant, while Yves Montand and Daniel Auteuil are fittingly terrible as César Soubeyran and Ugolin. Manon and the springs she must protect are worthy heroes of this epic saga.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Armand Meffre, Daniel Auteuil, Didier Pain, Elisabeth Depardieu, Emmanuelle Béart, Fransined, Hippolyte Girardot, Jean Bouchaud, Margarita Lozano, Pierre Nougaro, Roger Souza, Ticky Holgado, Yves Montand, Yvonne Gamy

Director: Claude Berri

Rating: PG

Bearing pretty much every trademark you've come to expect from a sports drama, Hoosiers might not bring as many surprises to the formula but it still makes all its moves with a surplus of heart. Elevating the already entertaining basketball footage is Gene Hackman's uncommonly hotheaded coach and (Oscar-nominated) Dennis Hopper's town drunk—both of whom deepen this film's story of hometown pride into one of midlife redemption. Hickory, Indiana comes to life as a character in itself, where local sports are treated with as much reverence as politics and religion, which makes every basket feel that much more like a victory lap.

Genre: Drama, Family

Actor: Barbara Hershey, Chelcie Ross, David Neidorf, Dennis Hopper, Fern Persons, Gene Hackman, Gloria Dorson, Michael O'Guinne, Michael Sassone, Robert Swan, Sheb Wooley

Director: David Anspaugh