1986 gave us some of the greatest films in cinema history, but whether they performed admirably at the box office or developed a cult following years later is another story. It is a year where virtually no genre or subgenre went untouched, and ingenuity was still a primary factor in filmmaking.
From Maverick and Ferris, to Ripley and Jason, characters who were either created or triumphantly returned in 1986 have deservingly etched their way into pop culture history, rewarding their creators with an enduring legacy.
Here are just 10 of the best movies from 1986.
1. Top Gun
Director: Tony Scott
Virtually everyone knows Top Gun, but in case you don’t, you really ought to check it out. Tom Cruise plays Pete Mitchell who, along with his friend Nick (Anthony Edwards), are invited to attend a Naval Fighters Weapon School after showing promise, despite being overly confident and insubordinate.
Top Gun is beautifully and impressively shot, with magnificent action sequences that still hold up today. The film’s soundtrack is every bit as good as the movie itself, which always helps. For the amount of action provided, there’s also its share of drama and romance — and it’s done remarkably well. If you haven’t seen it, an extended trailer for the sequel dropped recently.
2. Stand By Me
Director: Rob Reiner
Stand By Me is both realistic in its approach and entertaining in its ability to pull you in. Most of the movie is set in 1959, when four friends take a trip to find a dead body. Along the way, they’re met with struggles that ultimately strengthen their bond and the trip becomes a rather significant moment in their lives. It’s an adaptation of The Body novella written by Stephen King.
Stand By Me is perfectly cast, with the ensemble of young actors (Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell) portraying the characters with a genuine and mature self-reflective awareness. The cast and crew did such a magnificent job crafting this picture that, not only can you relate to some of the characters’ experiences, but you also feel like you were there with them. Even with its great soundtrack and decent budget, you feel like you’re there, at that age, holding a camera and recording as the story is unfolding. I see a lot of my old friends in this.
3. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Director: John Hughes
Matthew Broderick stars as the titular character, and does a brilliant job portraying an intelligent high school slacker with a penchant for adolescent rebellion. Throughout the film, he breaks the fourth wall with his hypochondriac friend Cameron (Alan Ruck), and his girlfriend (Sloane Peterson), as they skip school for the day.
It’s a hilarious, lighthearted movie that never fails to entertain. Jennifer Grey hilariously stands out as Ferris’ sister Jeanie. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is surprisingly clever and offers a strong message not many teen comedies of its time cared to send or relay successfully. As Ferris says, “Life moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
4. The Fly
Director: David Cronenberg
The Fly remake is arguably David Cronenberg’s greatest work. It’s a masterfully crafted, character driven tragedy with spectacularly horrific effects. Jeff Goldblum portrays a scientist named Seth, who creates a teleportation device that ultimately becomes his own undoing as a fly lands in the machine.
As he begins to change, his love interest, Veronica (Geena Davis), feels helpless watching the person she loves devolve into an insufferable, unstable monster with a disturbing idea of how to resolve everything that’s happened. Beyond fantastic entertainment, The Fly has a powerful narrative that borders metaphorical in its ability to induce thought or fear of disease or change.
5. Heartbreak Ridge
Director: Clint Eastwood
In Heartbreak Ridge, Clint Eastwood plays a decorated war veteran who has to train a seemingly incompetent group of inexperienced combat officers. The movie doesn’t necessarily break any new ground, however it does provide a break from other excessively violent action films of the decade, and it has much better dialogue than most.
The script is thoroughly enjoyable, and it’s shot colorfully, but what stands out is Clint’s performance. As always, he plays the tough alpha character but this performance is a little different in terms of the deliberate addition of a relaxed, and much needed, air of comedy. The screenwriter’s (James Carabatsos) veteran experience gives the movie credibility others of its kind miss.
6. Ruthless People
Director: Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker
Danny DeVito and Bette Midler star as a rich married couple who are at odds with each other, and it proves to be hilarious in Ruthless People. Barbara is kidnapped and held for ransom, but Sam doesn’t care and actually hopes they live up to their promise of killing her. Unable to get anything out of Sam, the two kidnappers (Helen Slater and Judge Reinhold) are stuck with trying to figure out how to clean up their mess.
Ruthless People is an unexpectedly hilarious, cleverly written movie with surprising acting turns. The trio of directors took an already fascinating premise and made it even more entertaining. Something about casting Danny DeVito and Bette Midler as a rich couple, trapped in a loveless marriage, makes the movie even more unconventionally appealing. When you hear the premise, neither of them come to mind. Intriguingly enough, they’re the best fit for their characters.
7. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives
Director: Tom McLoughlin
Retconning the ending of the previous installment, Friday the 13th Part VI continues the story of Tommy Jarvis (Thom Matthews), who survived Jason’s rampage in the fourth film. Featuring music by Alice Cooper, this entry balances in-jokes of the horror genre with gory tension-building.
After Jason’s accidentally resurrected, Tommy tries to warn people all to no avail.
Jason Lives plays like a celebration of the genre, adding a comedic self-referential streak that many credit Scream for. Unlike a lot of modern horror movies that feature comedy, this movie is actually funny, with none of the comedy feeling desperate or out of place. That stated, Friday the 13th Part VI is one of the best films you could watch at a party, or simply to be amused.
8. Short Circuit
Director: John Badham
Short Circuit is a simple, well-paced family film that embraces its own quirkiness to full effect. Johnny 5 is a robot experiment created by Newton (Steve Guttenberg), but after being struck by lightning, it magically gains consciousness. While the military searches for Johnny 5, wanting to terminate it, Stephanie (Ally Sheedy) befriends it and works to keep it safe.
The story is fairly simple and straightforward, but it’s wonderfully shot and it works perfectly as a family film. Think of it as WALL-E before WALL-E. The characters are likable, and the leads pair well together, but obviously the robot steals the show. Short Circuit tends to get thrown in with imitators of E.T., but the story never feels like a retread. It’s very much its own fun little movie.
9. Down and Out in Beverly Hills
Director: Paul Mazursky
Down and Out in Beverly Hills is about a homeless man named Jerry, played by Nick Nolte. After he sneaks into the backyard of a rich, unhappy couple, Barbara and Dave Whiteman (Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss), he hops into their pool in an attempt to commit suicide. Dave saves his life, and he and his family come to love Jerry as they get him back on his feet.
Down and Out in Beverly Hills is a fun popcorn movie with some serious, heartful moments thrown in. It’s noteworthy that this is Disney’s first R-rated movie. Down and Out in Beverly Hills has an interesting premise and it’s nicely shot, but it’s the performances that make it all the more intriguing.
Director: James Cameron
Although its predecessor is a claustrophobic sci-fi horror picture, Aliens is a sci-fi action film paced and packed with grander scale sequences. Sigourney Weaver reprises her role as Ellen Ripley, this time stronger and ready to fight. When she hears about an alien invasion in a colony, she suits up with a group of marines.
Sigourney Weaver’s performance in Aliens is easily one of her best. The special effects are absolutely incredible and still hold up pretty well. It’s a James Cameron film, so you can expect a great deal of balancing both action and attention to storytelling that most action films of the 80s lacked.
There you have it: the movies of 1986. Although some movies may show their age or they’re not as well known as some other ones, there’s still a lot of great movies out there, just waiting for you to discover them or give them a try. Aside from the more popular titles on the list, which movie(s) from 1986 are you curious about checking out?
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