10 Best Underrated Movies of the ’80s

Updated June 17, 2024 • Staff

The 1980s was a golden age for cinema, with some of the most iconic and beloved movies of all time being released during that decade. But for every "The Breakfast Club" or "Back to the Future," there were dozens of other great movies that flew under the radar. These movies are all well-made, entertaining, and (most importantly) overlooked. So whether you're a fan of '80s cinema or just looking for some great movies to watch, be sure to check out our list of the best underrated movies of the decade.

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10.

Drowning by Numbers (1988)

Murdering your spouse is bad, so it’s slightly bizarre how Drowning by Numbers has an unbothered, even amused, attitude towards its murders. Moments seem randomly placed, like the first scene of a girl jumping rope while listing the stars by name, and the film can be hard to follow, even if the production design and cinematography keep you drawn in. But as the film progresses, and Madgett’s son Smut enumerates the fictional games as if he was a historian of sorts, writer-director Peter Greenaway meticulously crafts a quirky, twisty crime comedy, where, like children’s games and the men in their lives, the murdering wives do what they do because they can get away with it. Drowning by Numbers cleverly plays with the way we treat folklore, structure, and rules, even down to the very medium Greenaway works with.

Our staff rating: 7.9/10
Genre: Comedy, Crime
Actor: Arthur Spreckley, Bernard Hill, Bryan Pringle, David Morrissey, Edward Tudor-Pole, Ian Talbot, Jane Gurnett, Janine Duvitski, Jason Edwards, Joan Plowright, Joanna Dickens, Joely Richardson, John Rogan, Juliet Stevenson, Kenny Ireland, Michael Fitzgerald, Michael Percival, Natalie Morse, Paul Mooney, Roderic Leigh, Trevor Cooper, Vanni Corbellini
Director: Peter Greenaway
Rating: R
9.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

Break-ups aren’t the easiest thing to overcome, but how we deal with them usually doesn’t get as ludicrous as the events Pepa goes through in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The film makes said nervous breakdown chaotic– it includes spiked gazpacho, a frantic call to the police, and being held at gunpoint– but as Pepa and the women around her try to put off each fire, at least one of them literally, writer-director Pedro Almodóvar ensures sympathy for them, with Pepa's snappy dialogue cutting through the lies of a smooth-talking womanizer refusing to face them. And it’s all paired with a suitably dramatic score, meticulous staging, and exaggerated, colorful frames mostly occurring in the wreck of a fabulously styled penthouse.

Our staff rating: 8/10
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Actor: Agustín Almodóvar, Ana Leza, Ángel de Andrés López, Antonio Banderas, Carmen Maura, Chus Lampreave, Eduardo Calvo, Fernando Guillen, Francisca Caballero, Gabriel Latorre, Guillermo Montesinos, Imanol Uribe, Joaquín Climent, José Antonio Navarro, José Marco, Juan Lombardero, Julieta Serrano, Kiti Manver, Loles León, Lupe Barrado, María Barranco, Rossy de Palma, Yayo Calvo
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Rating: R
8.

Miracle Mile (1988)

Before anything else, Miracle Mile is a romance. It begins with a meet-cute so adorable, it convinces lovebirds Harry and Julie to stick to each other in the next moments of the film, which couldn’t be more different than the first. Where the opening scene is sweet and lovely, the ones that follow it are fraught and bleak and eerily existential. At this point, the film transforms into its true self: an apocalyptic nightmare. When Harry receives word that a nuclear attack is incoming, the news spreads like wildfire and all hell breaks loose in this film that makes you question reality and humanity. 

It's one of the smoothest shifts in cinematic history, but even with panic swirling and violence erupting, love is still there. Harry and Julie’s quest to save and savor the bond they’ve formed is genuinely moving, and it effectively grounds this out-of-this-world film about the end.

Our staff rating: 8.1/10
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance, Science Fiction, Thriller
Actor: Alan Berger, Alan Rosenberg, Anthony Edwards, Brian Thompson, Claude Earl Jones, Danny De La Paz, Denise Crosby, Diane Delano, Earl Boen, Edward Bunker, Howard Swain, Jenette Goldstein, John Agar, Jordana Capra, Kelly Jo Minter, Kurt Fuller, Lou Hancock, Lucille Bliss, Mare Winningham, Mykelti Williamson, O-Lan Jones, Peter Berg, Raphael Sbarge, Richard Biggs, Robert DoQui, Steve De Jarnatt
Director: Steve De Jarnatt
Rating: R
7.

The Sacrifice (1986)

The end of the world, of course, forces people to contemplate one’s life purpose, the choices they made, and the opportunities they chose over others. Andrei Tarkovsky examines this idea in The Sacrifice– juxtaposing a hypothetical third World War with main character Alexander’s choices, the choices that led him to a successful acting career, but also led him to regret that he hasn’t done more to take action, until the deal he made with a cross between the Christian God and pagan sacrifice. The ideas are philosophically heavy, marked with Tarkovsky’s dreamlike imagery, long takes, and slow pacing, but it feels much more personal considering the sacrifice he made in leaving his family to create his last two films abroad. The Sacrifice is a masterful meditation on life itself, a deeply moving anti-war film that was a decent send-off of one of the greatest filmmakers ever to have existed.

Our staff rating: 8.1/10
Genre: Drama
Actor: Allan Edwall, Erland Josephson, Guðrún Gísladóttir, Helena Brodin, Jan-Olof Strandberg, Jane Friedmann, Susan Fleetwood, Sven Wollter, Tintin Anderzon, Tommy Kjellqvist, Valérie Mairesse
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
6.

Black Rain (1989)

Not to be confused with the American cop thriller with the same name, Shōhei Imamura’s Black Rain is about the atomic bomb, but it’s not really concerned about nuclear warfare. Sure, the film opens with gruesome shots of the day the bomb dropped, not sparing the viewers from the gore and the titular nuclear fallout, that in black and white looks the same. And yes, much of the conflict occurs because of the lingering effects of the radiation. However, Imamura is much more concerned with the way Japanese society had tried to deal with it through going back to tradition– through going through the motions of matchmaking and propriety and social status and through excluding those who suffered directly from the bomb. Black Rain has a singular perspective, one that stands out due to the country’s denial of war crimes.

Our staff rating: 8.3/10
Genre: Drama, History
Actor: Akiji Kobayashi, Etsuko Ichihara, Fujio Tokita, Hideji Ōtaki, Hisako Hara, Kazuko Shirakawa, Kazuo Kitamura, Kenjirou Ishimaru, Masato Yamada, Noboru Mitani, Norihei Miki, Sabu Kawahara, Shoichi Ozawa, Taiji Tonoyama, Takashi Miike, Tamaki Sawa, Toshie Kusunoki, Yoshiko Tanaka
Director: Shōhei Imamura
5.

Rouge (1987)

Vivid, seductive, and highly romantic, Rouge starts as an enchanting tale of a ghost courtesan that haunts a modern-day couple to look for her lost lover. It’s easy to be swayed by the ghostly lovers – the courtesan Fleur (Anita Mui) and wealthy pharmacy chain heir Chan Chen-Pang (Leslie Cheung) start off the film courting each other (and the audience) through lush visuals, dramatic declarations, and Cantonese song. They agree to a suicide pact and promise to find each other in the next life. However, as Fleur haunts newspaper journalists Yuen and Chor, it’s clear how different Hong Kong has become. From its culture to its attitudes towards romance, Rouge suggests that while modern day Hong Kong may be more cold and standardized, the past as we know it is only a gorgeous dream. And that dream hides a tragic, sordid reality.

Our staff rating: 8.4/10
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance
Actor: Alex Man, Anita Mui, Emily Chu Bo-Yee, Irene Wan, Kara Hui, Kara Hui Ying-Hung, Kara Wai Ying-Hung, Lau Kar-Wing, Leslie Cheung, Patrick Tse Yin, Ruby Wong, Ruby Wong Cheuk-Ling, Tam Sin-Hung, Wong Yu
Director: Stanley Kwan
Rating: Not Rated
4.

Stand By Me (1986)

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.

Our staff rating: 8.5/10
Genre: Adventure, Crime, Drama
Actor: Bradley Gregg, Bruce Kirby, Casey Siemaszko, Chance Quinn, Corey Feldman, Dick Durock, Frances Lee McCain, Gary Riley, Jason Naylor, Jason Oliver, Jerry O'Connell, Jerry O'Connell, John Cusack, Kent W. Luttrell, Kiefer Sutherland, Korey Scott Pollard, Madeleine Swift, Marshall Bell, Matt Williams, O.B. Babbs, Richard Dreyfuss, River Phoenix, Scott Beach, Wil Wheaton, William Bronder
Director: Rob Reiner
Rating: R
3.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Perhaps the most depressing but vital movie produced by animation giant Studio Ghibli, Grave of the Fireflies is a searing and sweeping drama that covers the horrors of World War II through the eyes of teenager Seita and his young sister Setsuko. Between the violence of war and the tragedy of loss, the siblings struggle to preserve not just their lives but their humanity. In typical Ghibli fashion, there are moments of gentle beauty to be found, but instead of conflicting with the overall stark tone of the film, they successfully underscore war's futility and brutality, making Grave of the Fireflies one of the most important anti-war narratives ever told. 

Our staff rating: 8.6/10
Genre: Animation, Drama, War
Actor: Akemi Yamaguchi, Ayano Shiraishi, Hiroshi Tanaka, Kyoko Moriwaki, Masayo Sakai, Tsutomu Tatsumi, Yoshiko Shinohara
Director: Isao Takahata
2.

Tampopo (1985)

While billed as a “ramen western”, Tampopo satirizes plenty of other American genres, including, but not limited to: 1) the inspirational sports film, with Tampopo’s diligent training, 2) the erotic, arthouse drama through its egg yolk kiss, 3) the witty, social comedy pointing out the absurd in dinnertime tables, and 4) the melodramatic mafia romance with its room-serviced hotel getaway. But the film doesn’t buckle under the weight of carrying all these genres– instead, the customer vignettes are all delicately plated to balance out the hearty journey of a store owner learning about ramen and the bemused, yet cohesive contemplation about food. Tampopo is one of a kind.

Our staff rating: 9/10
Genre: Comedy
Actor: Akio Tanaka, Chōei Takahashi, Fukumi Kuroda, Gō Awazu, Hideji Ōtaki, Hisashi Igawa, Hitoshi Takagi, Hyōe Enoki, Isao Hashizume, Izumi Hara, Ken Watanabe, Kenso Kato, Kinzō Sakura, Kōji Yakusho, Mariko Okada, Masahiko Tsugawa, Naritoshi Hayashi, Nobuko Miyamoto, Nobuo Nakamura, Rikiya Yasuoka, Ryutaro Otomo, Toshimune Kato, Toshiya Fujita, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Yoriko Dōguchi, Yoshi Katō, Zenpaku Kato
Director: Jūzō Itami
Rating: NR
1.

Blue Velvet (1986)

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. 

Our staff rating: 9.2/10
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 Harvey, Jack Nance, Ken Stovitz, Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, Moses Gibson, Peter Carew, Priscilla Pointer
Director: David Lynch
Rating: R

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