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The 80 best '80s movies: 80-40

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They gave us the gutsy action hero, the maverick cop, the brassy heroine and the comedy sidekick. They left behind some of the greatest movies the world has ever seen. They were, in short, the '80s; a time when the hair was big, the stunts bigger and the bad guys were usually Russian. For the next chapter of Empire's unique tribute to ten movie magical years, we've begun our countdown of the 80 best movies of the '80s.

80. Platoon (1986)

Platoon

With typical bloody-mindedness, Oliver Stone took a subject Hollywood didn't want to touch – the Vietnam War – and spun it into Oscar gold. Taking a different tack from the mythic craziness of Francis Ford Coppola's earlier Apocalypse Now, Platoon's success is in its grunt's-eye view of the controversial conflict. Stone having served in Vietnam himself, it was a perspective he was almost uniquely qualified to present. Somehow he manages to humanise and empathise with the soldiers without shying away from the horror and folly of America's involvement.

79. Batman (1989)

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Strange now to remember that Batman seemed revolutionary in its darkness to a 1989 audience used to the brightly coloured Bat-antics of Adam West. Watching it today, used as we are to "gritty" superhero films, it looks camp again. But, boy, was it exciting back in the summer of '89. Jack Nicholson's unhinged Joker isn't to everyone's taste these days, but Michael Keaton remains an effectively understated Dark Knight, in a goth Gotham that seems arrested in the 1940s. Almost 30 years on, TV's current Gotham retains that strange vibe, and every other blockbuster is a superhero movie. We've moved on from Tim Burton's Batman, but we're still feeling its influence.

78. Top Gun (1986)

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If it looked a lot like a recruitment video for the US Navy, it was – and is – impossible not to get caught in Top Gun's jetwash. Stern-jawed with its own seriousness, all while giving us lines like "Son, your ego is writing checks your body can't cash!" and featuring 30 percent more high-fiving than any other movie on Earth, it is, like its hero, brash and self-assured. It may not have been the smartest film of its time - at points, Maverick's (Tom Cruise) flying maxim "If you think, you're dead" seems to have applied to the screenwriting process - but it sure is fun. As an aside, do people really fly rubber dog shit out of Hong Kong?

77. Hairspray (1988)

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Set in '60s Baltimore, this kitsch classic is a John Waters nostalgia trip that's full of big hearts and even bigger barnets. Ricki Lake is wannabe dance star Tracy Turnblad, who dreams of appearing on The Corny Collins Show but is soon immersed in a battle against dance-floor segregation. It's like Grease meets Selma. Subsequently remade and spawning about a hundred theatrical remakes, Hairspray showed Hollywood that you could cast plus-size stars and audiences would still comes flocking. It's a message that still seems to be sinking in.

76. Dirty Dancing (1987)

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"Nobody puts Baby in the corner." Or so goes the mantra in the Catskill Mountains. Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey are the lovestruck opposites foxtrotting, mamboing and, err, grinding their way into each other's hearts in Emile Ardolino's romantic drama: one that resulted in that lift being attempted at every wedding since. Grey and Swayze effortlessly saved Baby and Johnny from two-dimensionality, stepping perfectly in time with the '60s soundtrack whilst leaving viewers either wanting to be Johnny Castle or with Johnny Castle.

75. The Lost Boys (1987)

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You know that thing when your older brother starts acting out and it transpires that he’s actually a vampire? Sucks, doesn’t it. That’s exactly what happens when Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam Emerson (Corey Haim) move to Santa Carla in Joel Schumacher’s Californian horror. As Michael finds himself drawn to magnetic vamps David (Kiefer Sutherland) and Star (Jami Gertz), Sam joins up with vampire hunters, the Frog brothers (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander), to try and reverse Michael’s toothy problem. Were they worms? We’re still not sure. What we do know is that these are the coolest Draculites ever committed to screen.

74. Big (1988)

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When 12-year-old Josh Baskin (David Moscow) fails to impress a girl due to being too short to go on a ride at the carnival, he makes a desperate plea to fortune-telling machine, ‘Zoltar’. The next morning? Poof! Josh Baskin is now Tom Hanks. Penny Marshall’s fantasy comedy is chock-full of magic, from the unplugged Zoltar machine right through to the famous FAO Schwarz scene Hanks shares with Robert Loggia.

73. ¡Three Amigos! (1986)

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The sound of inflated egos whistling as the air quickly escapes permeates this memorable comedy, which showcases Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short. It might be set in 1916 during the reign of silent movies, but ¡Three Amigos! skewering of actorly attitudes works perfectly in the star-driven '80s as three faux gunslingers are called upon to save a small Mexican village from bandits, but misunderstand the request as a request for them to perform. Physical gags (that salute!) sit comfortably alongside verbal sparring, while the three leads mesh brilliantly. And earn ten trivia points from the Burning Bush if you knew that this film was co-written by composer Randy Newman.

72. Labyrinth (1986)

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For people of a certain age who weren't up to the mammoth tome of Tolkien, this was their first real introduction to fantasy. A relatable tale of a frustrated older sister (Jennifer Connolly) who must rescue the baby brother she nearly wished away from the well-coiffed clutches of goblin king Jareth (David Bowie), this is director Jim Henson pouring his love of magic and muppetry on to the screen. And of course Bowie, playing a character who sounds like he should be the stuffy manager of a fast food restaurant, delivers the cunningly charming goods.

71. Heathers (1989)

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There was no shortage of movies for teenagers in the 1980s, but Heathers offered a striking alternative to the Cameron Crowe/John Hughes demographic. A comedy as black as Christian Slater's overcoat, it sees a precocious 17-year-old Winona Ryder join the three most popular girls in school, all named Heather. It takes Slater's rebel-without-a-cause to send her down a dark path with deadly results. Those shoulder pads are liable to have someone's eye out, for starters.

70. The Fly (1986)

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"Be afraid," ordered the tag line. "Be very afraid." Taking a hokey 1958 B-shocker with a cool, creepy idea at its heart (teleporting scientist accidentally swaps heads with a fly) and injecting it with his own, gruey brand of scaremongering, David Cronenberg certainly made sure we were. Now the human/fly interface was something that happened at a genetic level, and the original's sudden transformation became something gradual, insidious and horribly relatable. Seth Brundle's (Jeff Goldblum) disintegrating mutation into Brundlefly is an extremely amplified illness; cancer, or the '80s newest killer, AIDS. Safe to say, The Fly really got under its audience's skin.

69. RoboCop (1987)

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So much more than a high-concept action movie about a cyborg policeman, RoboCop is also a savage satire and a religious parable, with its structural narrative nicked from folk mythology. The deeper you go into it, the more you find. But it works as a shoot 'em up too. Its savage, gonzo violence and truly hissable villains perhaps work so well because they're from an outsider's skewed perspective: Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, here only making his second English-language film. The sequels (and remake) increasingly missed the point. Verhoeven's later Starship Troopers is RoboCop's real spiritual successor.

68. Do The Right Thing (1989)

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Spike Lee's finest couple of hours is a pressure cooker of racial tension, taking place over a single, sweltering hot summer day in Brooklyn. Its furious power was such that several contemporary newspapers were worried that it amounted to incitement to riot. Whether Lee's character, Mookie, does the right thing when he breaks the window that kicks everything off, is a question the film leaves ambiguous – but Lee has since pointed out that some audiences seem more concerned about the property damage than the death of a prominent character. Public Enemy's Fight The Power is the backbone of the piledriving soundtrack.

67. The Karate Kid (1984)

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Wax on, wax off. Wax on, wax off. Now repeat. Ralph Macchio is the young Padawan to Pat Morita’s Mr Miyagi in the first instalment of John G. Avildsen’s (yes, the director of Rocky) martial arts trilogy. Moving from New Jersey to California, Daniel (Macchio) befriends Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue) and receives the unwanted attention of her karate-proficient ex-boyfriend. Luckily, Miyagi is prepared to train Daniel to fight said ex in the Under-18 All-Valley Karate Tournament, leading to a tense, air-punching finale that only the director of Rocky could construct.

66. The Little Mermaid (1989)

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It is better, so they say, down where it's wetter. Disney took this aphorism to its logical conclusion in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, an animated musical as bright, sparkly and innocent as Ariel's big blue peepers. With its its colourful animation, showstopping Broadway tunes, and a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale repackaged for Generation X, it set the template for Disney's late '80s/early '90s renaissance.

65. The Goonies (1985)

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“Heyyyyy yooouuu guuyyyyyssss!!!!” Richard Donner’s highly infectious and quotable adventure succeeds in great part thanks to its brilliant young cast - hello Josh Brolin and Sean Astin. From Corey Feldman having fun at the expense of Spanish-speaking maid Rosalita (Lupe Ontiveros), to the Fratellis extracting the world’s longest confession from the put-upon, Truffle Shufflin’ Chunk (Jeff Cohen), The Goonies balances comedy and fantasy to startling effect, never forgetting to let the genuine emotion shine through.

64. The Breakfast Club (1985)

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You can name The Magnificent Seven - well, at least six of them - but can you list The Breakfast Club? John (the criminal), Claire (the princess), Andy (the athlete), Brian (the brain) and Allison (the basket case) are sent to Shermer High School's answer to Guantanamo on a fateful Saturday morning in March 1984 and emerged changed for ever... along with most of the rest of us. John Hughes' knack for portraying teens in a way that was insightful, generous and sensitive, while never missing a good boob-and-lippy based party trick, was basically supernatural. True fact: at no point does anyone eat breakfast.

63. Airplane! (1980)

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Tell me Billy, do you like movies about gladiators? How about airplanes? Having made an inauspicious entry into comedy movies with The Kentucky Fried Movie, the comedy trio of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker practically invented the spoof subgenre as we know it with Airplane!. By hiring serious dramatic actors to deadpan silly lines, the ZAZ gang began a trend for audacious, mould-breaking comedies that continued throughout the decade. It's an entirely different kind of flying. Altogether.

62. Predator (1987)

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John McTiernan's second feature is proof that the unremarkably generic can be elevated to ridiculous greatness by the right director and cast. A mash-up of the men-on-a-mission war movie and an alien / then-there-were-none slasher horror, McTiernan slips in some sly swipes at the action genre along with some groan-worthy homoeroticism – but more-or-less keeps a straight face. It's full of iconic moments like the Ol' Painless jungle destruction and the final one-man-army mud fight. And Arnold was, arguably, never better.

61. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

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Originally pitched as a sitcom by the real Adrian Cronauer but spurned by networks because they failed to see the nascent funny side, the idea for Good Morning, Vietnam hit Robin Williams when Cronauer tried to make it work as a TV movie. The final film, massively overhauled by writer Mitch Markowitz, was tailored to Williams' needs and he roars in the role of a funny, frustrated Armed Forces Radio DJ who learns some tough truths about war and humanity. He received a well-deserved Oscar nomination, but don't disregard a subtle turn by Forest Whitaker as Private Garlick.

60. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

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Stanley Kubrick had, by his track record, a relatively busy decade in the 1980s, releasing a grand total of two movies. Tougher and less sentimental than the previous year's Platoon, Full Metal Jacket was an uncompromising war movie with a dark sense of humour. It's essentially split into two halves: the second half is a serviceably scathing depiction of Vietnam at its zenith, but it's the initial boot camp segment that has proved most memorable. In his traumatic training regimes, real-life Marine R. Lee Ermey conjures up some of the most quotable insults of the decade (eg "Were you born a fat, slimy, scumbag puke piece o' shit, or did you have to work on it?").

59. Trading Places (1985)

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Few films tackle the go-go '80s with as much delicious wit as John Landis' Trading Places. The decade of excess is riotously skewered in a Mark Twain-inspired fable which sees Eddie Murphy's homeless hustler unwittingly swapping lives with Dan Aykroyd's snooty commodities trader, the result of a far-fetched wager. It's a smart examination of rich and poor from a time when the gap was widening, and it's hilarious to boot. As a bonus, it also boasts one of the best looks-to-camera in cinema history.

58. Fatal Attraction (1987)

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Whether you see it as a terrifying domestic horror film or just sub-Hitchcockian schlock with a nasty misogynist streak, Fatal Attraction is a defining '80s thriller. There's bonking, splashes of lurid violence and deserving yuppies getting their comeuppance. If the eventual body count only amounts to one deranged mistress (Glenn Close) and a small bunny, the punishment for Dan Gallagher's (Michael Douglas) infidelity is pretty ferocious. The 'til death do us part' had never been more literal than in a final bathroom showdown. Just try not to cheer.

57. Midnight Run (1988)

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The fact that this is the greatest of all road-trip Mafia bounty hunter movies should not be devalued by the fact that it's also the only one. A begrudging bromance between two men who initially hate each other – Mob account Charles Grodin and Robert De Niro's by-the-book ex-'tec – Midnight Run's third wheel is Dennis Farina's awesomely abusive gangster, Jimmy Serrano, who just wants to put a fork through both their fuckin' hearts. An '80s classic of the kind they really don't make anymore. Oh, and the Litmus Configuration remains the funniest con in the canon.

56. The Terminator (1984)

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Strange how the biggest action hero of the decade earned that accolade by playing one of that same decade's biggest villains. Even stranger when you consider said action hero wasn't even physically suitable for the part, as originally envisioned by James Cameron. After all, the T-800 cyborg was supposed to blend in, be a hidden assassin, look… normal. Not, for example, like a hulking Austrian bodybuilder last seen hacking people up with a broadsword in Conan The Barbarian. Still, The Terminator hit huge and gave us two '80s icons in one: the larger-than-life Arnold Schwarzenegger, with his catchphrase, his rippling muscles and his extensive, explosive ordnance. And the steely-grinned, red-eyed nightmare from the future, which until the firey final act lurked beneath that sculpted physique.

55. Gremlins (1984)

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Don't get Mogwai wet. Don't feed Mogwai after midnight. Don't expose Mogwai to bright light. Why? Because they turn into feral, murderous Gremlins when you do. All hell breaks loose when Billy Peltzer's (Zach Galligan) cute little furball Gizmo is dowsed in water, spawning a batch of tricksy, sadistic mogwai with a taste for human flesh. Gremlins may have rubbed some parents up the wrong way (it helped bring about the PG-13 rating), but the smoking, poker-playing critters had already made their mark.

54. Fitzcarraldo (1982)

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Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski had gone mad in the jungle in the '70s on Aguirre, The Wrath Of God. The fact that they both signed up to do it again a decade later is testament to the perversity of their fractious relationship. The story of an eccentric visionary who wanted to build an opera house up the Amazon, Fitzcarraldo is arguably more interesting for its production story than the finished film. "Nobody had ever had cause to drag a boat over a mountain," beamed Herzog afterwards, "and nobody ever will again. I am a conquistador of the useless." The whole insane story is unraveled in Les Blank's documentary Burden Of Dreams.

53. Poltergeist (1982)

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Long before the subprime crisis made real estate seem terrifying, Poltergeist offered some scary home-buying business. Admittedly, an ancient burial ground is not the best place to park your family, as the white-bread Freeling clan (Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams) soon find out in Orange County, California. It's the prelude to all kinds of floaty-object, dimension-straddling, milk-glass-breaking spooks in a genre flick that may not be ferocious enough for gorehounds but it's plenty frightening enough for the casual dabbler. The controversy over its authorship – Tobe Hooper directed but Steven Spielberg's creative involvement was fundamental – may never be resolved. Neither of them would have been rushing to take ownership of the 2015 remake.

52. The Untouchables (1987)

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Brian De Palma's stylish, confident directing; David Mamet's slick, elegant screenplay; Kevin Costner's first major leading role; Robert De Niro's 30 pound weight gain; Sean Connery's Oscar-winning Ireland-by-way-of-Edinburgh accent; Ennio Morricone's imperious, almost operatic score... As gangster movies go, The Untouchables is pretty untouchable. Batter up.

51. The Thing (1982)

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The film everyone conveniently forgets when they claim all remakes suck. John Carpenter took the Howard Hawks / Christian Nyby original and gave it an overhaul of frozen paranoia and extraordinary '80s creature design: courtesy of obsessive practical FX wizard Rob Bottin, who essentially lived on the set throughout the whole lengthy process. Of The Thing's many astonishing moments, the upside-down severed human head with the spider legs is perhaps the most unforgettable. This film is older now than the Hawks version was when this one was new. You've gotta be fucking kidding…

50. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

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At the crest of the late '80s animation comeback came this perfect marriage of the medium's biggest hitters. Disney and Warner Bros. – arch rivals in cartoon capery – for the first time agreed to join forces for Robert Zemeckis' groundbreaking blend of animation and live-action. Film noir detective potboiling and looney toonage make for an esoteric mix that shouldn't work, but it absolutely does. It's just drawn that way.

49. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)

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There are no shortage of '80s teenage comedies; there are very few '80s teenage comedies which see Genghis Khan escape a time-travelling telephone box to skateboard around a shopping mall. There's still something deeply endearing about this goofy history lesson, which pairs a young Keanu Reeves with Alex Winter – plus cameos from Napoleon, Sigmund Freud, Beethoven, Socrates, and Abraham Lincoln behesting a watching audience to "party on, dudes". Words to live by.

48. Scarface (1983)

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When it comes to 1980s excess, there are few more perfect artefacts than Brian De Palma's fantastically garish crime thriller. Updating the rather more sober 1932 Howard Hawks original into a Cuban drug trafficking melée, there's big hair, bigger personalities, mountains of cocaine, and a tidal wave of decadent, ultra-stylised violence. The soundtrack could function as a Best Of The '80s compilation, too.

47. Mad Max 2 (1982)

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"In the roar of an engine, he lost everything... a burnt-out, desolate man, a man who wandered out into the wasteland...." George Miller's Mad Max series gets progressively more insane with each entry. (2015's Fury Road sees the franchise arrive at peak insanity). This sequel broadens the wastelands, imagining a post-apocalypse of leather, fire and sand through a resolutely 1980s prism (the future will have mohawks, apparently). As dystopias go, Miller's vision is often mimicked, rarely bettered.

46. Manhunter (1986)

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Serial killing, '80s-style, reached its gory, icy peak in the clinical hands of Brian Cox's Hannibal Lecktor in Michael Mann's thriller. The not-so-good doctor plays the familiar role of mind game-playing quasi-consultant to Will Graham's FBI agent as the G-man tries to draw a bead on a terrifying, physically powerful killer known as the Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan). It's all handled with elegance and a degree of chilly detachment by its director, and beautifully shot by Dante Spinotti. Manhunter didn't do a fraction of Silence Of The Lambs' later box office or register on the awards circuit, but it's aged like a fine chianti.

45. My Neighbour Totoro (1988)

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You wait ages for a cat bus, and then two come along at once. Japanimation experienced a renaissance in the late 1980s when a small anime house named Studio Ghibli set up shop, and in 1988 released Grave Of The Fireflies and My Neighbour Totoro on the same day. Both were acclaimed, but it's the latter that has taken on a timelessness. Only the blackest heart cannot be spellbound by this gorgeous tale of wood spirits and magical trees in post-war Japan. Totoro's the kind of neighbour we wouldn't mind living next door to.

44. Crimes And Misdemeanors (1989)

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A long, long way from the early, funny ones, this is the high-water mark of Woody Allen's slightly later, really quite serious phase. The Woodster was tackling all kinds of darkly-tinged themes in a movie that tiptoes close to straight-up thriller terrain as Martin Landau's ophthalmologist gets his shady brother to off his troublesome mistress (Anjelica Huston). Set against this fierce depiction of moral cowardice and male weakness is Woody himself, amiably blundering about trying to make a documentary about his insufferable brother-in-law (Alan Alda). Judaism's bleak inner turmoils have never been funnier.

43. Das Boot (1981)

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A lot of young men go to sea in a leaky tin can and grow hipster beards in Wolfgang Petersen's U-boat classic. Along the way, they're depth-charged, strafed, hunted and generally embattled until most are holding it together by a thread. The Battle of the Atlantic (specifically, war veteran Lothar-Gunther Buchheim's account of it) offers the historical backdrop, but ultimately this story of survival and courage is a universal one. There are no good guys or bad guys here, just a lot of men desperately hoping to see dry land again. Watch the director's cut to experience it in all its nerve-lacerating glory.

42. Field Of Dreams (1989)

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In this age of male emotional acceptance, we might be long past the days of this (and maybe Old Yeller) being The Films That Blokes Feel They Can Cry Over, but Phil Alden Robinson's exploration of obsession, grief, and baseball still has the power to take the heartstrings and play them like a fiddle. Adapting the magical realism of W.P. Kinsella's book Shoeless Joe, Dreams offers up Kevin Costner as the farmer who ends up communing with spirits which channels his earthy everyman persona to perfection. If you let it in, the tears will come.

41. The Blues Brothers (1980)

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The Blues Brothers is a perfect conglomeration of music, comedy, and blockbuster moviemaking: a mission from God powered almost entirely by alcohol and cocaine (if reports from the set were to be believed). One of many classic 1980s comedies to come from the burgeoning Saturday Night Live stable, it matched massive musical numbers (James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles...) with mammoth stunt spectacle (the demolished building, the shopping mall chase, the military finale...) and introduced a generation to Ray-Ban Wayfarers.

40. Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)

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Lethal Weapon was a loose and confident creation but Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Murtagh (Danny Glover) seem to be having even more fun in their second outing - even when confronted with racist smugglers and Joe Pesci's loveably irritating Leo Getz. So does returning director Richard Donner. He pulls out some cracking set-pieces, including an opening car chase, a helicopter assault and that fateful trip to the loo. Joss Ackland and henchman Derrick O'Connor make convincing villains, entirely failing to see the funny side of the bromancing cops' verbal jousting and, in the process, giving the world the key to a truly terrible South African accent. "Dee-ploo-matic e-mew-nity" indeed.

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Read the other articles from Empire's '80s Month here.