The 25 Highest Grossing Movies of the 1980s

The 1980s was the decade of the blockbuster, as the sequels to Star Wars and Indiana Jones certainly proved.
Indiana Jones—seen here in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'—was one of the decade's most bankable characters.
Indiana Jones—seen here in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'—was one of the decade's most bankable characters. / Sunset Boulevard/GettyImages

The decade of excess was all about blockbusters and franchises. However, unlike today, most of the top-grossing movies were based on original concepts. Creativity flourished, and a total of seven movies directed and/or produced by Steven Spielberg (courtesy of Amblin, his production company) were among the decade’s biggest money-makers.

Thanks in part to Spielberg, the 1980s were an era of “kid-friendly” films, but Oscar-winning adult dramas, action-adventure films, and lots of comedies—including action-comedies—also made big money at the box office.

While the decade boasted diverse tastes in terms of genres, behind-the-scenes it was a different story. Of the 25 biggest movies of the decade, only one was directed by a woman (Look Who’s Talking). The top 100 doesn’t fare much better, with Penny Marshall’s Big being the only other woman-directed film to make “big” money). No POC directors appear on the list of the 25 highest-grossing domestic films of the 1980s, based upon Box Office Report’s data

1. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Gross: $399.8 million

A highly inventive film penned by Melissa Mathison, Harrison Ford’s then-wife (his scenes as a teacher were cut for time), and directed by Steven Spielberg, the film about an alien that phones home to a distant planet won the decade’s box office early in the ’80s. Originally named Night Skies, it was supposed to be a sequel to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but ended up being loosely based on Spielberg’s parents’ divorce. After more than 40 years, it still manages to place in the top 30 of lifetime grosses

2. Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)

Gross: $263.8 million 

What everyone remembers from the third installment in the original Star Wars trilogy is the lovable Ewoks, though apparently George Lucas was the only one on set who liked them. Other stand-out moments include a bikini-clad Princess Leia chained to Jabba the Hutt, Yoda dying, and Darth Vader finally removing his mask. 

3. Batman (1989)

Gross: $252.1 million 

By the end of the decade, superhero films began to take hold. Some people think Michael Keaton — who reprised his Batman role in 2023’s The Flash — is the best Batman of all time. Director Tim Burton had to fight for Keaton, who was mainly a comedic actor. The dark comic book adaption set the bar for superhero films to come. And who could forget Prince’s “Batdance” (and his entire soundtrack) and Jack Nicholson’s manic Joker performance, years before either Heath Ledger or Joaquin Phoenix won Oscars for playing very different versions of the character. Batman was the first film to make $100 million in 10 days, which made Warner Bros. very happy. 

4. Raiders of the Lost Ark  (1981) 

Gross: $245 million

Tom Selleck, who was starring in Magnum, P.I., was almost Indiana Jones. But CBS didn’t want Selleck to appear in the movie. Two weeks before filming began Spielberg hired Harrison Ford, and the rest is history. At 80 years old, Ford recently reprised Indy for a fifth (and final?) time in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

5. Ghostbusters (1984)

Gross: $238.6 million 

In the summer of 1984, “Who you gonna call?” became the catchphrase of the decade. Based on co-writer and actor Dan Aykroyd’s great-grandfather real-life interest in the paranormal, Ghostbusters grew into a worldwide phenomenon. It spawned Ghostbusters II (1989), a female-led reboot, and two Ghostbusters: Afterlife movies. 

6. Beverly Hills Cop (1984) 

Gross: $234.8 million

Saturday Night Live turned Eddie Murphy into a bona fide TV star, and Trading Places and 48 Hours established his film career. But Murphy’s role as the potty-mouthed Alex Foley in Beverly Hills Cop transformed him into a box office juggernaut. Initially, however, it was meant to be a vehicle for Sylvester Stallone, who even tinkered with the screenplay. When that didn’t work out, Daniel Petrie Jr. rewrote the script—and received an Oscar nomination for his efforts. It ended up becoming the highest-grossing film of 1984 and led to two sequels, with a fourth film on the way in 2024. 

7. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Gross: $222.7 million

Return of the Jedi might have revealed Darth Vader’s face, but The Empire Strikes Back revealed one of the biggest spoilers in cinema history: Darth is Luke and Leia’s daddy.  (Thankfully, social media didn’t exist back then.) The line “No, I am your father” is constantly misquoted as “Luke, I am your father.” The second installment in the trilogy rivals Jedi in being more disturbing and more critically acclaimed. It also was the highest grossing film of 1980. 

8. Back to the Future (1985)

Gross: $210.6 million

With apologies to Family Ties’ Alex P. Keaton, Marty McFly is Michael J. Fox’s most iconic role. Co-screenwriter Bob Gale stated that studios rejected his script for the beloved time travel comedy a whopping 40 times—sometimes more than once. Disney turned it down because they didn’t approve of the suggestion of incest between Marty and his 1955-era mother. That didn’t stop audiences from turning the film into a huge hit, which was followed by a pair of sequels.

9. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Gross: $197.1 million

In the third installment of the Indiana Jones series, Sean Connery plays Indy’s dad, who’s searching for the Holy Grail. The Last Crusade is a sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and director Spielberg brought back supporting actors Denholm Elliott and John Rhys-Davies for this adventure. The film just barely managed to make more money than its predecessor, Temple of Doom.

10. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Gross: $179.8 million

In the summer of 1984, the violence in “kid-friendly” Doom and Gremlins ushered in the PG-13 rating. It’s no surprise why. Let’s consider people eating chilled monkey brains and beetles, and a toughen-kids-up scene in which an evil guy performs a ritual heart removal. “It’s so mean,” screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote the first Indy movie, said of his reasons for passing on writing Temple of Doom. “There’s nothing pleasant about it. I think Temple of Doom represents a chaotic period in both [Lucas and Spielberg’s] lives, and the movie is very ugly and mean-spirited.”

Temple of Doom traumatized an entire generation who just wanted to see Ford swashbuckle his way into (future Mrs. Spielberg) Kate Capshaw’s heart. The film is also notable for Ke Huy Quan’s film debut as Short Round. In an emotional full-circle moment, Ford presented Quan’s film Everything Everywhere All At Once with 2023’s Best Picture Oscar; Quan also won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.  

11. Tootsie (1982)

Gross: $177.2 million 

In this gender-bending comedy, Dustin Hoffman plays an actor so desperate to get a good role that he dresses up as a woman to star in a soap opera. Bill Murray gifted us with the line, “That is one nutty hospital.” Jessica Lange won an Oscar for playing Hoffman’s love interest, and the movie marked Geena Davis’s film debut.

12. Top Gun (1986)

Gross: $176.7 million

As the highest-grossing film of 1986, Top Gun beat out the next film on the list, Crocodile Dundee, by $2 million. The film is based on a real school, and the Navy reportedly used the film as a recruiting tool. Meanwhile, the songs “Danger Zone” and “Take My Breath Away” helped the soundtrack sell 9 million copies. Almost 30 years later, Oscar-nominated sequel Top Gun: Maverick hit another pop culture milestone when it amassed an outstanding $1.49 billion worldwide gross

13. Crocodile Dundee (1986)

Gross: $174.8 million 

With a budget of around $8 million, Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee became the highest-grossing movie in Australia’s history and the second highest-grossing U.S. film in 1986. At the time, it was the highest-grossing non-U.S. film at the American box office. Paul Hogan won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a comedy, and the screenplay—co-written by Hogan—received an Oscar nomination. Two sequels followed, but neither one managed to capture the success of the original film.  

14. Rain Man (1988)

Gross: $172.8 million

Rain Man was the highest-grossing film of 1988, which is impressive considering the mid-budget drama ($25 million) was the only drama to top the ’80s box office chart any year. It won Best Picture, Best Director for Barry Levinson, and Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman. Raymond (Hoffman) and his brother Charlie (Tom Cruise) take a chaotic road trip from Cincinnati to L.A. (with a lucrative stop in Vegas). It’s the second time Hoffman appears on the list with an Oscar-winning film. 

15. Three Men and a Baby (1987)

Gross: $167.7 million 

Three Men and a Baby (which is based on the 1985 French film Three Men and a Cradle) sees three roommates and pals—Ted Danson, Steve Guttenberg, and Tom Selleck—band together to raise a child. Of course, hijinks ensue. An urban legend formed around the movie because of a ghostly figure in the background, which turned out to just be a cardboard cutout of Danson. The movie became the highest-grossing film of 1987, which led to both a sequel (Three Men and a Little Lady) and a TV show (Baby Daddy, which ran from 2012 to 2017). 

16. Fatal Attraction (1987)

Gross: $156.6 million

Whereas Three Men and a Baby was a comedy, there wasn’t anything funny about Fatal Attraction, the second-highest grossing film of 1987. Shot on a $14 million budget, Glenn Close stars as Alex Forrest, who has an affair with a married man, played by Michael Douglas. She doesn’t like to be “ignored,” so she boils his daughter’s bunny. The movie earned six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture and a Best Lead Actress nod for Close, who has said she didn’t think of Alex as a villain. In 2023, a TV series based on the film, starring Joshua Jackson and Lizzy Caplan, premiered on Paramount+. 

17. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Gross: $154.1 million

Set in 1947 and based on the 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was one of the first films to marry live-action with animation. The budget soared to $70 million, making it the most expensive movie ever at the time. (Today, that budget is equivalent to about $150 million, which is nothing compared to other blockbuster films.) Robert Zemeckis, who directed Back to the Future, cast Christopher Lloyd as a scary, non-blinking villain. Kathleen Turner provided the smoky voice of Jessica Rabbit. All of these things helped the film become the second-highest grossing film of the year. 

18. Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)

Gross: $153.6 million 

Three years after the incredible success of Beverly Hills Cop, Alex Foley returned for a sequel. This time around, Foley reteams with Billy Rosewood and John Taggart to prevent a robbery. Chris Rock makes an appearance as a parking valet. Though it grossed less than its predecessor, Beverly Hills Cop II received an Oscar nomination for Best Song, Bob Seger’s “Shakedown.” 

19. Gremlins (1984)

Gross: $153 million 

Similar to Temple of Doom, this dark, not-for-kids horror-comedy helped invent the PG-13 rating. Though Gremlins was released in the summer, it’s now known as a Christmas horror film. We have Joe Dante, Chris Columbus, and Spielberg to thank for creating Gizmo the Mogwai, the Gremlins, and the rules for taking care of a pet Mogwai. In 1990, Gremlins II: The Next Batch, a less dark and more absurd, sequel arrived. 

20. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)

Gross: $150.4 million

Sylvester Stallone stars as U.S. Army Special Forces veteran John Rambo, a different kind of vet compared to the men in Platoon. Stallone co-wrote 1982’s First Blood, and he co-wrote the sequel with future Avatar director James Cameron. Rambo: First Blood Part II is the only Rambo film to be nominated for an Oscar (Best Sound Effects Editing), but it ended up winning five Razzie Awards. Three sequels followed, including 2019’s Rambo: Last Blood.  

21. Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)

Gross: $147.3 million 

Mel Gibson stars as unhinged LAPD detective Martin Riggs, who gets paired with detective Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover). For Lethal Weapon, screenwriter Shane Black combined buddy-cop with action and comedy, creating a genre all its own. However, Warner Bros. felt Black’s vision for the sequel was too dark—Riggs dies. Eventually, Black walked away from re-writing it. In Lethal Weapon 2, Joe Pesci makes his first appearance as “OK, OK, OK” fast talker Leo Getz. The first film, which was released in 1987, only grossed $65 million; the sequel more than doubled that.

22. Look Who's Talking (1989)

Gross: $140 million 

By the late ’80s, Amy Heckerling was best known for directing the raunchy teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High. So she wrote and directed a family-friendly comedy about a talking baby, voiced by Bruce Willis. Kirstie Alley stars as a single mom who falls in love with a cab driver, played by John Travolta. (Fun fact: The film inspired the E*TRADE baby.) With a $7.5 million budget, Look Who’s Talking stands as the biggest hit of Heckerling’s career. She signed on for Look Who’s Talking Too and created characters for the short-lived TV spin-off Baby Talk, but wasn’t involved in Look Who’s Talking Now

23. Platoon (1986)

Gross: $138.5 million 

Writer-director Oliver Stone served in Vietnam and became the first Vietnam veteran to make a film about the war. His familiarity with the subject showed: In 1987, Platoon won Best Picture and Best Director for Stone. Stone went on to make two other Vietnam films, Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and Heaven and Earth (1993).

24. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)

Gross: $130.7 million 

In this grammatically incorrect-titled Disney film, Rick Moranis portrays a scientist who accidentally shrinks his kids. They have no choice but to defend themselves against predators in their backyard. Originally, horror filmmaker Stuart Gordon co-created the story and was supposed to direct, but Joe Johnston replaced him. It became what was then the highest-grossing live-action Disney film at the time. Two sequels and a TV show followed. 

25. An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) 

Gross: $129.7 million

Richard Gere plays a U.S. Navy Aviation Officer candidate who falls in love with Debra Winger. Louis Gossett Jr. won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Gere’s hard-nosed sergeant, making him the Black actor to win the award. The movie is also known for the Oscar-nominated song “Up Where We Belong” and the iconic ending in which Gere literally sweeps Winger off her feet.