Though 30 seems indulgent, 1988—especially compared to the relatively lacking 1998 —proved to be such a formative year for film, such a definitive stamp on pop culture iconography, we can’t be blamed for wanting some extra space to write about so many movies we love.
Thirty years ago, John McTiernan and Martin Brest epitomized the action comedy, Errol Morris practically created the tone of every true crime documentary you love, Terry Gilliam set the course for his befuddling career to come—in fact, more than half of Monty Python can be found on this list—and Harrison Ford made successful strides to distance himself from pulpy genre fare. Studio Ghibli released two anime all-timers—and that’s not counting Akira.
Looking back three decades offers invaluable insight into our contemporary cinematic dreamscape. After all, there would be no Space Jam without Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and no new Space Jam without the first Space Jam. One can only struggle to imagine a world without Space Jam..
Here are the 30 best movies of 1988.
Director: Newt Arnold
There are tomes to be written and classes to be taught on the perplexing existence of Bloodsport—purportedly our current President’s favorite movie, if one were to fast-forward through the talking parts, directed by a normal adult man named Newt—but perhaps the film is best summarized in one moment, the infamous Scream. Because in these 40 seconds or so, the heart and soul of Bloodsport is bared, with little concern for taste, or purpose, or respect for the physically binding laws of reality—in this moment is a burgeoning movie star channeling his best attributes (astounding muscles; years of suppressed rage; the juxtaposition of grace and violence that is his well-oiled and cleanly shaven corporeal form) to make a go at real-live Hollywood acting. Although Bloodsport is the movie that announced Jean-Claude Van Damme and his impenetrable accent to the world—as well as serving as the crucible for (seriously) every single plot of every Van Damme movie to come—it’s also a defining film of the decade, positioning martial arts as certifiable blockbuster action cinema. Schwarzenegger and Stallone? These were beefy mooks that could believably be action stars. Van Damme set the bar higher: His body became a better and bloodier weapon than any hand-cannon that previous mumbling, ’80s box-office draws could ever wield. —Dom Sinacola
29. The Blob
Director: Chuck Russell
Of all the horror remakes of the 1980s, The Blob proved to have perhaps the easiest and most natural of transitions. Simply swap out the communist paranoia of the Steve McQueen-starring 1958 original for some light satirization of the horror genre itself, along with a healthy dose of governmental distrust, and you’re all the way there. It’s remarkable, in fact, just how similar the two films are in terms of structure and characters. Where they diverge, though, is in how they depict Blob-related violence. All Russell’s The Blob has to do is get a bit closer, and the Blob itself does the rest. Incredibly icky sequences of melting faces and severing limbs give certain sequences a Dead Alive sort of flair for comic ultraviolence, but nothing surpasses the phone booth scene, wherein we learn exactly what happens when the full force of the Blob comes crashing down on someone in a confined space. It isn’t pretty. Ultimately, 1988’s The Blob is a solid popcorn thriller that taps into the inherently nostalgic, anti-authoritarian streak also present in the likes of The Return of the Living Dead. —Jim Vorel
28. Coming to America
Director: John Landis
If this movie consisted of the barbershop scenes inside of My-T-Sharp and nothing else, it would still be one of the greatest comedies of all time. Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall teamed up with director John Landis (Blues Brothers) and created a classic. As Prince Akeem from the fictional African country of Zamunda, Murphy travels to the great United States of America to evade his arranged marriage and find true love (in Queens, obviously). Akeem encounters all of the wonders of black America, but the satirical twist is genius—the black preacher (via Hall as the incomparable Reverend Brown), the club scene, the barbershop, hip-hop culture, and Soul Glo—it’s all here. Cameos from actors like Cuba Gooding Jr., Samuel L. Jackson, Louie Anderson, and Murphy’s Trading Places co-stars Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy take the Coming to America experience to a whole new level. An excellent comedy and a great tribute to New York City, this story of a prince just looking to be loved is a must-see for everyone—including those of us who’ve already seen it. —Shannon Houston
27. Histoire(s) du cinéma
Director: Jean Luc Godard
Rather than making a “proper” or “good” film, Godard has always tried to create something that isn’t what we’ve seen before. After first despairing of video—“We have a strong feeling that video has nothing to do with film,” he declared in 1972—he experimented with the form in the mid-’70s with Numéro Deux, a movie about both film financing and members of a family telling their individual stories. He’s even played around with slow-motion in 1980’s stunning Every Man for Himself. But with projects such as Histoire(s) du cinema, he sought nothing less than to tie the history of movies to the history of the 20th century. At four and a half hours long, divided into eight parts, and composed wholly of visual and audio “quotes” from seemingly countless other films, the documentary essay is considered, at the very least, Godard’s densest work, let alone that it represents Godard’s willingness to see the incomprehensible manifest at that impulse’s most obsessive. Some mainstream filmmakers will attempt a change-of-pace movie by shooting with a low budget or no stars. This is seen as “brave” and “risky.” That’s where Godard has always resided.
This makes him a hero, even if it doesn’t make him particularly beloved. The combative, didactic quality of this film, of all of his films, gets him labeled a pretentious misanthrope. Even his most ardent supporters can become exasperated with him. Writing about 2010’s Film Socialisme, which uses nonsensical subtitles and divides its story into three seemingly unconnected segments, Roger Ebert groused, “This film is an affront. It is incoherent, maddening, deliberately opaque and heedless of the ways in which people watch movies.” (Ebert seemed to fall into the same trap he warned others to avoid back in the day. Here’s Ebert in 1969: “The films of Jean-Luc Godard have fascinated and enraged moviegoers for a decade now. The simple fact is: This most brilliant of all modern directors is heartily disliked by a great many people who pay to see his movies.”) Speaking generally about Godard’s oeuvre, David Thompson observed, “He is the first director, the first great director, who does not seem to be a human being.” —Tim Grierson
26. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Oh, to recount the extraordinary events of your life with deadpan sobriety; to look back on the time you spent gallivanting ’round the Moon and through the realms of Roman gods as nothing more than a matter of fact. Most of us, in our golden years, will likely reflect on days past with at least a measure of regret or wistful nostalgia, but most of us aren’t the title character of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (played with joy by John Neville), who makes his reflections in the spirit of “been there, done that.” Terry Gilliam’s 5th feature is perhaps the most Gilliam-y movie in his filmography, a case of art satisfying the whims of its subject.
At just over two hours in length, with a budget of roughly $46 million and a gross of less than a fifth of that, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is exactly the kind of story the Baron himself would adore: The tallest of tales, an ambitious, extravagant, wonderfully lavish entertainment far too big for its financial britches. Gilliam has never been anyone’s idea of a commercial filmmaker, but even for him The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is over the top, and in fact nearly killed his career dead after its colossal box office failure in 1988. (For all its excesses, one gets the sense that this detail would be the Baron’s favorite part of the film’s legend.) That’s just an excuse for Gilliam admirers to romanticize this chapter in his filmography, of course. The movie that came close to toppling Terry! What a chronicle! What a sensational delight!
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen didn’t get much love on release, and decades later it’s still less respected in Gilliam’s body of work than, say, Brazil or The Fisher King. Pop culture remains fascinated with the film primarily for the hubbub surrounding its production. Still, its glorious exaggerations, couched in the telling and staging of its narrative, rank among the purest expressions of Gilliam’s eccentricities and prevailing themes. In The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, his preference for fantasy, and his belief that fiction is truer than truth, are on full display. The film is exuberant. It’s unique. It’s rich and textured, the kind of movie that announces its author in a single frame. Most of all it’s transporting. Authenticity doesn’t matter. Maybe the Baron is a charlatan. Maybe he’s the genuine article. You’ll hope for the former regardless. —Andy Crump
25. Torch Song Trilogy
Director: Paul Bogart
Harvey Fierstein’s trilogy of plays, named for the yearning tracks that would play in dimly lit bars at night—sometimes lip synced by him or his fellow drag queens—was initially written and performed before the AIDS crisis, but after the infancy of the Gay Rights Movement. Though the film adaptation, which compresses the three-and-a-half-hour running time of the plays to two hours, was released at the height of the AIDS crisis, Torch Song Trilogy, rather than eliding AIDS so to speak, offers a particular perspective of gay life that feels fleshed out in its nuances and complications, never maudlin in its efforts to be “positive.”
Fierstein plays Arnold Beckoff, a raspy-voiced Jewish drag queen in New York who has never been young and beautiful at the same time, but whose persona is predicated on a kind of convergence of gay Jewish neuroses, exaggeratedly worrying about what it might mean to be young or beautiful. Well, maybe it’s not so exaggerated: His anxiety over falling for bisexual teacher Ed (Brian Kerwin) causes him great distress, casting him as the bi who got away, though he finds a fulfilling, loving relationship with Alan (Matthew Broderick) when Arnold does let love in. The grand finale of the film is a crackling confrontation with Arnold’s mother (Anne Bancroft), where the two standoff, Ms. Beckoff never really having dealt with her son’s sexual identity, and Arnold ambivalent about letting his mother back into his life.
Paul Bogart’s faithful adaptation is subtly ambitious in its fidelity and unfussiness; Arnold’s opening monologue, in which he addresses the audience while putting on his face, is done with a sense of invention and an awareness of the funny illusions that drag queens create—that we create about ourselves and others—his dressing room bedecked with mirrors. That the film is firmly rooted in the politics of the 1980s, with a Utopian idea of what gay life could be without disruption, does not mar the poignancy with which it is written. Rather, it swells with finely detailed emotion, bittersweet…like hearing Billie Holiday sing “This Time, the Dream’s On Me” on the radio. —Kyle Turner
24. The Naked Gun
Director: David Zucker
The final hoorah from the comedy trio David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker—ZAZ for short—The Naked Gun is so stupid it’s hilarious. This, of course, was ZAZ’s secret weapon in films like Airplane!, and in Leslie Nielsen’s stone-faced imbecility they found their muse. A former dramatic actor, Nielsen rejuvenated his career by playing Frank Drebin, a hapless L.A. police detective trying to prevent the assassination of Queen Elizabeth. (And in his courting of possible femme fatale Priscilla Presley, he taught us the importance of wearing full-body condoms.) A wonder of slapstick and deadpan silliness, The Naked Gun makes jokes about terrorists, gay panic, boobs, even “The Star-Spangled Banner.” There’s a character named Pahpshmir. Good lord, it’s all so gloriously idiotic. —Tim Grierson
Director: Roman Polanski
Frantic is not one of Polanski’s more highly regarded films in most circles, yet its first act is about as convincing an exhibition of talent as any in his oeuvre. In many ways, Frantic is a conventional mystery-thriller about an American doctor (a suitably frayed Harrison Ford) in Paris searching for his kidnapped wife—something probably about due for an action-oriented Liam Neeson remake—but Polanski elevates the material to great heights, or at least does before the absurd twists of the plot catch up with him. It’s really in the first act that Frantic earns its title, but not through the frenetic style that a modern director would employ to interpret it. Polanski allows Ford to give us that quality in his performance, and in restraining the editing and composition of the piece, to give us the space to really take that performance in. Where Polanski and his team shine brightest, though, is in the mood of that first hour or so. Working with a Hollywood budget, Polanski delivers a rich neo-noir atmosphere while avoiding all the aesthetic cliches that implies. Paris comes alive through the lens of Witold Sobocinski, but it’s an old life, history dimly radiating from every corner of the frame. In that opening hour Ford’s displaced and distressed American seems most at risk not from his wife’s kidnappers, but from the worn details that surround him and the way the light seems folded into ancient shadows: the overwhelming sense of our insignificance in a storied place—even when we’re in crisis. —Chad Betz
Director: Michael Lehmann
As much an homage to ’80s teen romps—care of stalwarts like John Hughes and Cameron Crowe—as it is an attempt to push that genre to its near tasteless extremes, Heathers is a hilarious glimpse into the festering core of the teenage id, all sunglasses and cigarettes and jail bait and misunderstood kitsch. Like any coming-of-age teen soap opera, much of the film’s appeal is in its vaunting of style over substance—coining whole ways of speaking, dressing and posturing for an impressionable generation brought up on Hollywood tropes—but Heathers embraces its style as an essential keystone to filmmaking, recognizing that even the most bloated melodrama can be sold through a well-manicured image. And some of Heathers’ images are indelible: J.D. (Christian Slater) whipping out a gun on some school bullies in the lunch room, or Veronica (Winona Ryder) passively lighting her cigarette with the flames licking from the explosion of her former boyfriend. It makes sense that writer Daniel Waters originally wanted Stanley Kubrick to direct his script: Heathers is a filmmaker’s (teen) film. —Dom Sinacola
Director: John Waters
There’s a reason John Waters’ subversive throwback to American Bandstand and the fight for racial integration has since spawned a Broadway show, a popular film remake and a live TV musical: The most “accessible” film of the legendary queer director’s wide-ranging career may not be as unsettling as the decade’s other leer at postwar Americana (Blue Velvet), but it nonetheless manages to smuggle a range of radical ideas about race, gender and the importance of teen culture past the censors in Tracy Turnblad’s “flamboyant flip.” Set in Baltimore in 1962, Hairspray follows Tracy (Ricki Lake) as her determination to appear on The Corny Collins Show becomes a quest to de-segregate the city’s most beloved cultural institutions, aided by her best friend, Penny (Leslie Ann Powers); her boyfriend, Seaweed (Clayton Prince); Seaweed’s mother, Motormouth Maybelle (Ruth Brown); heartthrob Link Larkin (Michael St. Gerard); and (ultimately, reluctantly) her overbearing mother, Edna (Divine). But it’s not simply a paean to interracial cooperation, or a piece of bubblegum nostalgia for the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll: Befitting Waters’ bomb-throwing sensibilities, the film’s denouement raises the specter of white supremacist terror, and with it the unseemly truth that it’s often supported by the most “respectable” among us. In this sense, if Hairspray is a throwback, it’s one that refuses to forget the nation’s blemishes—a camp-inflected, brightly colored, broadly funny knife into the heart of the system, sealed with a matinee kiss. —Matt Brennan
20. Bull Durham
Director: Ron Shelton
I believe in ridiculous names like Crash Davis and Nuke LaLoosh. I believe in romantic comedies about giving up on a certain phase of your life where characters stand up and deliver cliched “I believe” speeches that, despite being borderline cheesy, somehow ring completely true. And yes, I too believe there should be a Constitutional Amendment banning Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in Bull Durham. The most engaging presentation of the minor-league life on film—and a pretty salute to baseball, in general—this first installment in the unofficial Kevin Costner Baseball Trilogy proved that baseball could equal big box office. Costner and Susan Sarandon anchor this film that does its part to engender a love for the game and the people who court it. —Bonnie Stiernberg & Michael Burgin
19. A Fish Called Wanda
Director: Charles Crichton
This ensemble piece shows what can happen when four skilled comic actors (John Cleese, fellow Monty Python alum Michael Palin, Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis) are given a script (written by Cleese) that puts them all on equal footing. The result is a tour-de-force of crisply delivered, character-driven comedy that, while tough on old ladies, fish and terriers, continues to reward new and returning viewers. (The film also broke through the Academy’s normal bias against comedies, winning Kevin Kline a richly deserved Best Supporting Actor for his role as Otto.) —Michael Burgin
18. A Short Film About Killing
Director: Krzysztof Kie?lowski
An extended, 82-minute version of the fifth-in-Catholicism commandment (“thou shalt not kill”) episode for his Polish miniseries Dekalog, Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing opens with a few shots of creatures: first some dead bugs, then a dead rat, then it lingers on a shot of a cat set to hang by children. Killing, it seems, is in our nature, to the extent that our punishment for killers is to kill them. Green and sepia filters lend the look of the picture a sickly quality, as rough, skewed camerawork from Slawomir Idziak enhances the feeling that, no, the world is not right. The young killer, Jacek (Miroslaw Baka), in this film is not exactly portrayed sympathetically, but he is portrayed as human, and his environment is oppressive and damaging; the systems of justice that rear their head in the back half of the film are no less affected by the world’s sickness. From the hanging cat, to the hapless taxi driver that disturbed Jacek tries to “hang,” to the trial that hangs Jacek, the synonymity of the impulse is unmistakable, an impulse that has been built into the groundwork of our society—be it war, capital punishment, or even just our forms of entertainment. Kieslowski’s entire Dekalog is rife with deft, complex examinations of modern morality and the primal roots of such, but none scrape at quite so raw a nerve as A Short Film About Killing. It shows us as we are, indebted to death, even as it starves for something better. —Chad Betz
17. Cinema Paradiso
Director: Giuseppe Tornatore
Giuseppe Tornatore’s ode to film and love provided a shot in the arm to Italy’s film industry, as well as that rarest of films—the “great subtitled date film”—for the American film-goer. It also took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. (The extended cut of the film reveals a more complicated take on nostalgia and the film’s father figure.) —Michael Burgin
16. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
My Neighbor Totoro is not only Miyazaki’s most iconic work to date, it’s also an all but perfect family film that manages to distill the essence of childhood whimsy down to its purest state. It has a sort of timeless appeal, disarming audiences new and old of their cynicisms and suspicions with beautiful settings, empathetic characters and an infectious marching band theme. Set in 1958, the film follows university professor Tatsuo Kusakabe and his daughters Satsuki and Mei as they move into an old house out in the countryside in order to be closer to their mother, who is recovering from a long illness. We see the world through the girls’ eyes: leaping through the fields along the house, chasing skittering dust mites, tumbling down holes in the base of trees to land safely on the bulbous stomach of a benevolent spirit animal.
My Neighbor Totoro was revolutionary for luxuriating on quiet contemplative moments in a time when most of anime was otherwise dominated by the chase from one flash to the next spectacle. The late film critic Roger Ebert described it best, “My Neighbor Totoro is based on experience, situation and exploration—not on conflict and threat.” It’s a film sprung fully formed from the imagination of a master animator, a movie about the everyday magic of being a child and the simple power of meeting the world with an open heart. —Toussaint Egan