Looking back at the iconic 1980s, there was one filmmaker who stood out for giving voice to a generation of teenagers and young adults: John Hughes. For several years there, Hughes pumped out hit after cult hit, speaking to the hearts of an up-and-coming generation. But if you’re new to the Hughes oeuvre or wondering if you missed one of his flicks along the way, here’s a quick-and-dirty guide through his essential movies:
John Hughes first emerged on the Hollywood scene in the early 1980s as a writer and occasionally bit actor in a few classic comedies, most notably National Lampoon’s Vacation and Mr. Mom (1983). His writing chops would carry him far and deliver amazingly memorable lines such as “Sorry folks, the park’s closed. The moose out front should’ve told you.” Hughes would return to pen more Vacation sequels, including 1985’s European Vacation.
Sixteen Candles (1984) told the story of high schooler Samantha (Molly Ringwald) on the day of her sixteenth birthday. Overlooked by her family and frustrated that her crush on an older kid named Jake hasn’t been resolved, Sam finds herself ping-ponging between weird situations at school and even stranger ones at home. Parts of it are kinda racist and the whole thing is very cliché, but this is perhaps where a lot of high school film clichés originate. Sixteen Candles marked the directorial debut of Hughes.
Perhaps one of the most ’80s of all ’80s movies, The Breakfast Club (1985) identified the tribalism that was deepening in American schools and how, at the end of the day, all kids are strange, hurt, wonderful, and desperate to be liked. The story of a Saturday morning detention of five very different teens struck a chord in filmgoers, and Hughes was catapulted into stardom from then on. The movie also highlighted Hughes’ uncanny ability to pull together an amazing soundtrack, which he would do time and again.
Themes of geeks rising above their station was often repeated by Hughes, but no more strongly than in Weird Science (1985). Anthony Michael Hall comes back for yet another Hughes flick as part of a duo of dorks who use science… somehow… to create the perfect woman. Said perfect woman then helps the two rise in social status and grow in confidence and ability.
While 1986’s Pretty in Pink wasn’t directed by Hughes, his hand was strongly on this film as both the writer and producer. Molly Ringwald returns as the poor teen who finds herself the subject of a love triangle between a rich guy and her geeky best friend. Music, fashion, relationships, and class struggles are all present, and while this movie is somewhat divisive, it’s also a guilty pleasure to many.
If you want a shot of straight-up fun, comedy, and teenage fantasy, then you can’t get any better than Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). Hughes wrote, directed, and produced this fanciful tale of an untouchable high schooler taking a day off of school with his two best friends while his sister and principal try to bust him for it. While there are a couple of moments of drama tucked in here and there, mostly it’s just a wild comedy that is as improbable as it is enjoyable.
The lesser-known companion to Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful (1987) again saw Hughes writing a romantic drama about a love triangle. Only this time, it was two girls and a boy. So… that was something. To some fans, this was the better of the romantic movie pair.
Speaking of companion films, 1987’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles always felt like it should be paired up with Ferris Bueller. Hughes did writing, directing, and producing on this one as well, and it carries with it the same sort of surreal comedy adventure. In this case, it’s a stuffy businessman who teams up with an overweight goofball on a journey to get back home for Thanksgiving.
1988 saw two efforts from Hughes, starting with She’s Having a Baby. A slightly more serio-comic look at the first year of marriage, this movie didn’t quite connect with audiences or cement itself as one of the director-writer’s classics.
The Great Outdoors was a fine little family comedy that Hughes wrote and produced, although it didn’t quite attain the heights of the Vacation franchise. Still, there’s some serious comedic talent on display here, including Hughes’ man-crush John Candy.
Candy must have had a crush on Hughes as well, because he returned for his third big role, this time as Uncle Buck in 1989. The cigar-chomping titular character proves that he’s more than just the black sheep of the family by babysitting his nephew and nieces, and it was a fine way for Hughes to wrap up his strong record of directing jobs in the ’80s. There was even a bit of that trademark teen angst in the daughter, although by this time Hughes was no longer in the business of teenage movies.
John Hughes’ final 1980s film — of which he wrote and produced but did not direct — was the amazingly funny National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989). Quotable, hilarious, and perfectly illustrating the weirdness of Christmas togetherness, it’s become a staple for many fans to watch around the holidays.
With the turn into the new decade, John Hughes largely retired from directing altogether, only coming back once for 1993’s Curly Sue. Instead, he spent the next two decades writing and producing more family-friendly films such as Home Alone, Beethoven, Baby’s Day Out, and Flubber. He did occasionally pen scripts for romantic comedies (Career Opportunities, Only the Lonely), but he had put an end to the teen stories that made him a 1980s legend.