Pick Six: Most Popular Films of the 1980s

I’ve often wondered; what is the most popular and beloved film of the 1980s? It’s trickier to answer than one might think. You can’t go by box-office grosses alone, not only because of inflation throughout the decade (and the time elapsed since) but also because a commercial sensation one year might prove to be Not Such A Good Film After All, once the world takes a deep breath and actually considers what’s in that particular bottle of Kool-Aid. Popularity is more than just ticket sales. It’s legacy. Reputation. And still that isn’t conclusive. One can’t either go by emotional argumentation and gut instinct either, relying on subjective views alone. No. This is important stuff. This list needs a more elaborate, methodical approach than your everyday, regular normal list.

A combination of box-office grosses, ticket sales, the critics’ views (according to Rotten Tomatoes) and the public’s all-important verdict (according to IMDb), weighted against each other, is needed, using the FIA’s scoring system (of course, what else?) to add up the scores. The scoring for each part is as thus. The top ten in each category get points in this order: 25 – 18 – 15 – 12 – 10 – 8 – 6 – 4 – 2 – 1.

So, as Ray Winstone’s terrifying floating head would growl: Let’s get on it.

Worldwide unadjusted grosses:

  1. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) – $792.9m
  2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – $538.4m
  3. Return of the Jedi (1983) – $475.1m
  4. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – $474.2m
  5. Batman (1989) – $411.3m
  6. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – $389.9m
  7. Back to the Future (1985) – $381.1m
  8. Top Gun (1986) – $356.8m
  9. Rain Man (1988) – $354.8m
  10. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) – $333.1m

Estimated ticket sales in the USA:

  1. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial – 141.8m
  2. The Empire Strikes Back – 98.2m
  3. Return of the Jedi – 94.1m
  4. Raiders of the Lost Ark – 88.5m
  5. Ghostbusters (1984) – 70.7m
  6. Beverly Hills Cop (1984) – 67.2m
  7. Back to the Future – 59.1m
  8. Tootsie (1982) – 56.9m
  9. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – 53.5m
  10. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – 49.4m

Highest rated by viewers (per IMDb’s Top 250):

  1. The Empire Strikes Back – 8.8/10
  2. Raiders of the Lost Ark – 8.6/10
  3. Back to the Future – 8.5/10
  4. The Shining (1980) – 8.4/10
  5. Aliens (1986) – 8.4/10
  6. Das Boot (1981) – 8.4/10
  7. Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (1988) – 8.4/10
  8. Return of the Jedi – 8.3/10
  9. Once Upon a Time in America (1984) – 8.3/10
  10. Full Metal Jacket (1987) – 8.3/10

Most positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (only films with over 50 reviews):

  1. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial – 98% – 97 reviews
  2. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) – 98% – 59 reviews
  3. Raging Bull (1980) – 98% – 58 reviews
  4. Aliens – 98% – 58 reviews
  5. Airplane! (1980) – 98% – 55 reviews
  6. The Evil Dead (1981) – 98% – 52 reviews
  7. Big (1988) – 97% – 63 reviews
  8. Ran (1985) – 97% – 60 reviews
  9. The Princess Bride (1987) – 97% – 60 reviews
  10. Bull Durham (1988) – 97% – 60 reviews

The definitive, undisputed, final and ultimately ultimate list of the most popular films of the 1980s:

6: Aliens (1986) – 22 points

A scene from Aliens, with Sigourney Weaver and a xenomorph fighting

The only film making the final list on love alone, as it “only” grossed $130 million worldwide and sold a mere 22.9 million tickets in the USA, less than half of the 10th-placed film on each of those lists. It was universally praised as a game-changer in action cinema on its release and earned the love of people well outside its core action-sci-fi demographic, both sentiments that have only been strengthened in the 28 years since its release. It’s not just an action or sci-fi classic. It’s a classic, full stop.

5: Back to the Future (1985) – 30 points

Still from Back to the Future (1985) with Christopher Lloyd and Michael J Fox

Another audience favorite gets a spot above James Cameron’s story of growling monsters and their fight against the xenomorphs, on account of drawing a massive amount of people to the cinemas, both in the US and around the world. This is another classic, not just for its action, dialogue and inventive plot devices, but also for the fact it has led to almost three decades of perpetuating false but narratively engaging concepts of time travel.

4: Return of the Jedi (1983) – 36 points

A still from Return of the Jedi, with Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader

The last Star Wars movie to date (no, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Phantom… what? No. Never heard of it. Not those other names you’re talking about either. Must be a knock-off thing) was not only hugely popular at the box office, but a lasting audience favorite as well, scoring a cool 8.3 on IMDb today. Yes. Ewoks just beat Sigourney Weaver. I’m having a hard time digesting this myself.

3: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – 38 points

A still from Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones

The first Indiana Jones adventure is still his most beloved one. It was more popular in the US (4th) than worldwide (6th), but a colossal hit. Its huge rolling trapdoor ball of fame hasn’t stopped since, spawning three sequels (of varying quality, some would claim), TV spinoffs and a sustained, 30-year-and-running popular demand for dark-green fedora hats.

2: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – 61 points

A still from The Empire Strikes Back with Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader

A film so big and famous it served as the inspiration for the name of the world’s biggest film magazine. It’s also the third film in a row on this list starring Harrison Ford. It tore through box-office records, was – and still is – loved by audiences (8.8 on IMDb) and you can bet that at any given moment, somewhere in the world, at least 5 dads are showing it to their sons, as “mandatory education.”

1: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) – 75 points

A still from ET The Extra Terrestrial

The highest-grossing 1980s film worldwide. The highest ticket seller in the US by a long shot (and the 4th highest all-time). The single most critically-acclaimed blockbuster of the decade, which critically puts it over the top against Empire here. It won four Oscars. It held the top spot at the box office for a total of 16 weekends. That’s one more than Titanic. 51 weeks after its release, it was still 9th on the box-office charts. It had 44 top-10 weekends. All of these are all-time records. For a whole year E.T. ruled the cinemas. Today, a film would be through cinema, out on Blu-ray, available on Netflix and probably showing on your local TV station by the time it took E.T. to slip to #13 in the charts. Much like 1982’s cinemas, this list turned out to be a race for second place.

Written By Erlingur Einarsson

Icelander living in the United Kingdom. Film reviewer and columnist by night, sub editor for Imagine Publishing in the UK by day. Wants to see everything in the world. Has been told that he has an “unhealthy” obsession for Sam Neill and that he should “talk to a specialist about it.”

  • Chris

    Very cool post. There really were some freakin’ amazing films in the 80s!

  • Erlingur Grétar Einarsson

    There really were. And it’s eye-opening to see that some of them were proportionally even bigger blockbusters than The Avengers or The Dark Knight today. I’m thinking about doing a post or series on record breakers from the late-’70s onward, because there are some really surprising names in there.

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    Reading this made me miss the 80s. And I was born on the tail end of that decade.

  • Erlingur Grétar Einarsson

    I miss the ’80s pretty much constantly. Watched Predator and almost cried with joy over all that excessive brutal violence.

  • rich

    i’m glad you found various rankings. i don’t like how movies are ranked by box office earnings. i prefer tickets sold, but i don’t prefer to include tickets sold if a film is re-released, like when star wars made a second go-round.

    i hear a remake is in the works for “back to the future.” sure hope not. i’ll refuse to see it, just because.