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
Director: Terry Gilliam
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
15. The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Director: Philip Kaufman
Take a beautiful Milan Kundera novel set in the Prague Spring of 1968, hand it to Philip Kaufman, and add Lena Olin, Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche, and I don’t know how you could avoid an existential knockout punch. Day-Lewis plays Tomas, a sexually promiscuous surgeon who is in a committed non-commitment with Sabina (Olin), a painter. On a business trip Tomas encounters Tereza (Binoche), a waitress, and they instantly connect. They even eventually get married, though since, as far as Tomas is concerned, sex and love are easily separable, he continues his affair with Sabina, to the distress of his wife. She tries a side encounter of her own, with an engineer (hi, Stellan Skarsgård!) but detachment isn’t really working for any of them: It turns out, erotic freedom is just as illusory and elusive as any other perceived freedom. A visually lapidary and emotionally haunting study of human eroticism, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a love story at its core, but it’s also an exploration of loneliness, the human craving for connection and how it conflicts with our equally strong inclination toward self-gratification—cinematically gorgeous, impeccably acted and tonally wistful. There are a lot of Hollywood directors for whom it’s completely impossible to handle sex in a way that is complex, or layered, or, actually, sexy. It’s one of Kaufman’s specialities, a testament to the film’s beauty. —Amy Glynn
Director: Claire Denis
Praising Chocolat, Claire Denis’ first film and a semi-autobiographical story about a white French family living in colonial Africa, Roger Ebert wrote, “It is made with the complexity and subtlety of a great short story, and it assumes an audience that can understand what a strong flow of sex can exist between two people who barely even touch each other.” Such a statement might surprise those who’ve seen the movie, since it neither shows nor overtly discusses sex, but he’s right: The unsaid words in Chocolat could fill volumes. The movie compares that part of the world’s racial divide with the horizon, a steady line separating the sky from the earth. You walk toward it, and it continually moves back. Of all the characters in the movie, the family’s African servant Protée (Isaach De Bankole) best understands the social rules under which everyone lives, but the movie conveys his enormously complex outlook with very little dialogue. He’s a nearly silent presence in a house full of chatter. Chocolat is a movie for adults, in the very best sense. Such maturity might be expected from someone who made her first film at the age of 40, and then after she’d worked as an assistant director for such legendary filmmakers as Jacques Rivette, Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. Denis is the co-writer of all her films, and a wide variety of resources provide inspiration—from Melville and Faulkner to her own experiences growing up in Africa and France. She combines all this in films that are both incredibly cohesive and truly cinematic. Where a novelist might describe what a character is thinking, Denis will convey something similar in a fleeting shot with a nuanced perspective. —Robert Davis
13. Midnight Run
Director: Martin Brest
If the ’80s saw the birth of the textbook action/comedy formula, Martin Brest was smack dab in the middle of it all. Originally conceived as a straight action movie, his Beverly Hills Cop cast Eddie Murphy, and together they infused the entire film with a lighthearted tone while keeping the basic requirements of an action flick’s structure in place. Midnight Run, Brest’s follow-up, perfects this hybridization. It’s a traditional road movie wherein grizzled bounty hunter Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) has to transport mob accountant Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin) across the country, with the mob and the police (including a gruff Yaphet Kotto) squarely on their tail. Usually the rough masculine bounty hunter would be the wild card against the accountant’s stuffy straight man, yet DeNiro and Grodin find refreshing ways of tinkering with that formula, with Jack eventually coming across as a regular good guy who was dealt more than a few bad hands, and Jonathan as a lovable but sometimes infuriating weirdo. None of the film’s action sequences take themselves too seriously, and none of its comedy mugs too hard, desperate to extract easy chuckles—but what makes it still shine after 30 years is how confidently Brest steers that easy-going tone, aided by the terrific chemistry between De Niro and Grodin, so on point it’s surprising they weren’t reunited for any further buddy romps again. —Oktay Ege Kozak
Director: Tim Burton
Believing in an afterlife is a game for gamblers, but understanding why people toss the dice is easy: There’s comfort in the thought that after shuffling off this mortal coil, you get to leave all worldly woes behind and move on to a new existence free of strife, stress and the mundane nonsense that weighs the human race down on a day to day—even hour to hour—basis. If there is an afterlife and the powers that be have a karmic sense of humor, then it probably looks less like the luminous paradise we’re accustomed to and more like the bureaucratic nightmare seen in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, in which the spirit world is structured like a DMV. It’s Les Claypool’s personal Hell.
But hey, being stuck in a 125-year holding pattern waiting for your caseworker to free you from haunting in death the places you haunted in life, beats staring into a black void for eternity, right? That’s until a carious ghoul, “bio-exorcist” Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), appears and tries to “help” you scare the yuppies who’ve moved into your old home out. Beetlejuice could be the kind of movie that doesn’t truly start until its namesake character shows up, but even when settled solely on Barbara (Geena Davis) and Adam (Alec Baldwin), it’s plenty bizarre and utterly charming, a ghost story with existential concerns and a love of the macabre to equal its fondness for screwball comedy. Think of it as one part spooky carnival ride and one part attempt at coming to terms with life after death. —Andy Crump
11. They Live
Director: John Carpenter
Like most of John Carpenter’s movies, They Live can be read however one pleases—they are, after all, mostly about pleasing you. A sharp commentary on consumerism carved gleefully with a dull knife, or maybe something closer to a concerned embrace of the bourgeois joys inherent in dumb violence, or maybe just a weird-ass sci-fi action movie with a weird-ass leading man: They Live is, almost inherently, a joy to watch. It’s as if Carpenter’s tapped into some sort of primordially aligned pleasure axis along your spine, giving you the tingles as he balances insight and idiocy throughout his tale about a drifter (“Rowdy” Roddy Piper) who, with the help of magic sunglasses, discovers that the rich and powerful are just as grotesque as he’d always assumed. Every one of Carpenter’s odd plot choices click into place as if preordained, so that when Piper’s in a completely pointless, six-minute fight scene with Keith David, one can’t help but love that Carpenter’s in on the punchline with all of us, which just happens to be that there is no punchline. The fight scene exists for its own sake—as maybe much of They Live does. Carpenter’s a goddamn genius. —Dom Sinacola
10. Working Girl
Director: Mike Nichols
Mike Nichols’ corner office fairy tale, starring Melanie Griffith as an ambitious secretary who usurps her backstabbing boss (Sigourney Weaver) when the latter is injured in a skiing accident, exemplifies the filmmaker’s sublime sense of poetic realism. From its soaring first frames of the Statue of Liberty, set to the tune of Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run,” the film is a rags-to-riches parable worthy of Preston Sturges, including a charming Harrison Ford as Griffiths’ love interest and a dolled-up Joan Cusack as the comic relief. As with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’s precise, perceptive camerawork, though, it contains a critique of gender, class and corporate mores that’s as sharp today as it was in 1988. It considers serious questions—of sexism in the bedroom (a slimy Alec Baldwin) and the boardroom (an even slimier Kevin Spacey); of the role speech and dress play as markers of “belonging”; of privileged women’s complicity in patriarchal culture—without ever losing its buoyant, playful faith in its heroine. It embraces romance, both personal and professional, without ever being snookered by it. From the shoulder pads and sky-high hair to the dim sum parties and hostile takeovers, the film is so of its moment that it’s come to define that moment, and yet, even 30 years on, it hasn’t aged at all: Working Girl is timeless. —Matt Brennan
9. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown put Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar on the international map. Part melodrama, part dark-yet-screwball comedy, the film tells the story of Pepa (Carmen Maura), whose suicide attempt is interrupted, with bizarre and hilarious consequences, Almodóvar mounting an investigation of the human, and particularly female, psyche. A rivetingly directed ensemble cast (including Antonio Banderas) and lush visual style make this film every bit as compelling as it was in 1988. —Amy Glynn
Director: Katsuhiro Otomo
The sum total of anime cinema from the early ’90s to present day is marked by the precedent of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. Adapted from the early chapters of Otomo’s landmark manga series, Akira was the most expensive animated film of its time and a cinematic benchmark that sent shockwaves throughout the industry. Taking place 31 years after after World War III was sparked by a massive explosion that engulfed the city of Tokyo, Akira is set in the sprawling metropolis of Neo-Tokyo, built on the ruins of the former and teetering precariously on the cusp of social upheaval. The film follows the stories of Kaneda Shotaro and Tetsuo Shima, two members of a youth motorcycle gang whose lives are irrevocably changed one fateful night on the outskirts of the city. While clashing against a rival bike gang during a turf feud, Tetsuo crashes into a strange child and is promptly whisked away by a clandestine military outfit while Kaneda and his friends look on, helplessly. From then, Tetsuo begins to develop frightening new psychic abilities as Kaneda tries desperately to mount a rescue. Eventually the journeys of these two childhood friends will meet and clash in a spectacular series of showdowns encircling an ominous secret whose very origins rest at the dark heart of the city’s catastrophic past: a power known only as “Akira.”
Like Ghost in the Shell that followed it, Akira is considered a touchstone of the cyberpunk genre, though its inspirations run much deeper than paying homage to William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Akira is a film whose origins and aesthetic are inextricably rooted in the history of post-war Japan, from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the “Anpo” student protests of that era to the country’s economic boom and the then-nascent counterculture of Bosozoku racing. Akira is a film of many messages, the least of which a coded anti-nuclear parable and a screed against wanton capitalism and the hubris of “progress.” But perhaps most poignantly, at its heart, it is the story of watching your best friend turn into a monster. Akira is almost single-handedly responsible for the early 1990s boom in anime in the West, its aesthetic vision rippling across every major art form, inspiring an entire generation of artists, filmmakers and even musicians in its wake. For these reasons and so many more, every anime fan must grapple at some point or another with Akira’s primacy as the most important anime film ever made. —Toussaint Egan
7. Dead Ringers
Director: David Cronenberg
In Dead Ringers David Cronenberg reins in the extremities of his earlier genre works into something resembling a chamber drama—except there’s always a catch with Cronenberg, and this time he almost cruely toys with the identities of identical twins, gynecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle (very loosely based on Stewart and Cyril Marcus), played by a Jeremy Irons who is doubled on himself through black movie magic. Cronenberg also plays with the audience’s perception of the duo, taking steps to establish Beverly as the “good” twin (more sensitive) and Elliot as the “bad” one (more bullish) before eventually degrading those categorizations and blurring the lines between the two characters, in more ways than one. A troubled relationship with actress-patient Claire Niveau (a fierce Genevieve Bujold) creates fissures in the relational dynamic of the twins, which in turn creates fissures in their minds; things get to a point where freakish gynecological tools are created due to imagined mutation spreading. The later scenes of the film take on a haunting quality as Elliot and Beverly become untethered from each other and, thus, their reality. They do manage to find each other again, but this is a David Cronenberg joint; don’t expect a happy ending. Dead Ringers is a brooding rumination on the external realities we use to define ourselves, what happens when our duality is divided and the subconscious ways in which we plant the seeds of our own destruction. More, it’s about doubling our Jeremy Irons intake in one sitting, which is always a worthy cause. —Chad Betz
6. Grave of the Fireflies
Director: Isao Takahata
Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies is the harrowing story of two children whose lives are left devastated by the 1945 firebombing of Kobe. Adapted from the autobiographical story of Akiyuki Nosaka, the film follows Seita, a young Japanese boy forced to care for his younger sister Setsuko in the wake of a devastating Allied attack that leaves his hometown in ruins. To describe the sum of their tragedies as “horrifying” feels like a gross understatement—the horror of Grave of the Fireflies is not reliant on brooding over callous acts of violence or fixating on the macabre, but rather on the heart-wrenching futility of Seita and Satsuko trying desperately to cling to some shred of normalcy in a world devoid of peace and security. Whether it’s the scene of Seita setting eyes on his mother for the first time after the firebombing, or Satsuko inadvertently stumbling across a corpse while playing at the beach, the film raises these children’s hopes of escaping a living hell on earth as quickly as it dashes them. It shows the audience, with no uncertainty, that these children will perish, but somehow through its hour-and-a-half running time compels the viewer to hope that this fate can be averted. Grave of the Fireflies is a chilling portrait of the fragility of human life when confronted by the indifferent brutality of an uncaring world, utterly unlike anything Studio Ghibli had produced before or since. Tragic in the truest sense of the word, Grave of the Fireflies is not only one of the studio’s greatest films, but unmistakably one of the greatest anime films of all time. —Toussaint Egan
5. Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Robert Zemeckis sparked a massive animation revival with this part-animated, part-live-action meta-noir, the first such hybrid to win multiple Oscars since 1964’s Mary Poppins. The superbly crafted Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is set in a fantasy 1940s Hollywood where humans coexist with “Toons,” many of whom work in “pictures” (the back lot of Maroon Cartoons is a hilarious collage of references to every classic Disney feature and Saturday morning cartoon). Mostly it’s a peaceful coexistence, but not for morose private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), who’s been in alcoholic down-and-out-ville and an avowed Toon hater since an animated character killed his brother Teddy. Of course, he finds himself tied (sometimes literally) to impulse-control-challenged cartoon star Roger Rabbit, who’s been framed for the murder of gadget magnate Marvin Acme. Roger’s sultry pinup-girl wife Jessica (voiced by Kathleen Turner) and Valiant’s long-suffering ex Dolores (Joanna Cassidy) team up with the reluctant odd couple to solve the murder, in which a shady, erasure-happy Toon Town magistrate named Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd in perhaps the single best cinematic use of his signature eye-bugging) seems to be implicated. The mosaic of references to both classic film noir and classic animation is the stuff of drinking games, the story is hilarious and, sometimes when you least expect it, genuinely affecting, and the antics of live-action characters in the “Forget it, Jake—it’s Toon Town” universe are a joy to watch. —Amy Glynn
4. The Vanishing
Director: George Sluizer
Ostensibly, The Vanishing is paint-by-numbers: Wife (Johanna ter Steege) disappears into thin air while on vacation; husband (Gene Boervets) obsesses for years afterward, his desperation written across tabloid headlines; kidnapper, Raymond Lamorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), eventually confronts the husband after seeing him on TV to give him one more chance to find out what happened to his wife; and then that ending happens, leaving a deep, unfillable hole in our stomachs.
Half of the movie is spent in the company of Raymond Lamorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), whose practice and training in scheming potential kidnappings echoes the husband’s obsession in finding out what happened to his partner. We’re practically shown everything we want to know: who did this awful thing, and what kind of person he is. We’re never actually clear on what the awful thing was, but the wife is no longer around and Raymond’s so obviously capable of anything, so we assume we know that something bad has happened. Really bad. And shouldn’t that be enough? Therein the tension’s seeded. Between two characters essentially training themselves to fulfill obsessive behaviors is this woman who will never, ever come back. We’re even fed the “why” for Raymond, given childhood anecdotes about his burgeoning sociopathy, receiving confessions that reveal how ingrained his penchant for “evil” is within his well-ordered brain (and well-ordered it surely is; he’s a strict high school chemistry teacher, often alluding to his own perfectionism)—and though all signs point to information best left buried, the husband still barrels forward toward the truth. Meanwhile, Raymond seems to relish in and predict the answer the movie saves for last: Obsession will go as despicably far, dig as despicably deep, as you think it will. When later in the movie Rex admits to having no hope of ever finding out what happened, yet still forever haunted by that lack, we can recognize the personal hell he’s experiencing. This is grief; he will forever live out the not-living-out.
Sluizer allows The Vanishing to indulge in exploiting the audience’s own sense of grief, for a moment opening the dour narrative to a few seconds of empty levity. Here go your unrequited loves, your lost loves and your unfair loves. Here is you, bereft of someone you cared so deeply for, continuing to take for granted that someone and that totally unique feel you bear for them. And while you gaze at your hallucinated self holding hands and kissing fingers, the pain of having that not-living-out is sharp, is black and lightless and eternally out of reach, right at the center of you. Whether you want to tear out your ribcage, tear into yourself, to find out what it really is—that’s your deal. And you know you won’t like what you find anyway. —Dom Sinacola
3. Die Hard
Director: John McTiernan
Die Hard may be the “stickiest” film of its decade—how many best-laid plans have been derailed by running across John McTiernan’s masterful actioner on cable? As Officer John McClane and Hans Gruber, Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, respectively, steal the show in career-defining roles, but even Henchman #10 (Asian man who eats candy bar, or Uli, to his friends) comes across more realized than most lead roles in today’s run-of-the-mill action flicks. Tightly plotted with cleverness to spare, Die Hard welcomes the scrutiny of multiple viewings without losing its humor or heart. Yippie ki-yay, indeed. —Michael Burgin
2. The Last Temptation of Christ
Director: Martin Scorsese
Three quarters of the way into The Last Temptation of Christ, for three and a half minutes—transformed into an eternity by the incessant scream-whinnying of a horse off-screen—David Bowie plays Pontius Pilate as a tired bureaucrat mildly amused by Jesus (Willem Dafoe) until the maybe-Messiah’s message of love becomes an irritating waste of time. He leaves the film softly exasperated: “We have a space for you up on Golgotha. Three thousand skulls there right now, probably more…I do wish you people would go out and count them sometime. Maybe you’d learn a lesson—no, probably not.” Director Martin Scorsese knew that to keep Pontius Pilate from being villainized in the eyes of an audience conditioned to behold Jesus’s crucifiers as the bad guys, he needed an actor in the role who could be worshipped as easily as he could be despised. Because The Last Temptation of Christ is Scorsese’s take on the human side of the Jesus story—how the divinity of the Christian figure is bolstered by that side of the “man”—the director required someone who could pass the death sentence on Jesus with the gravity of a figure of authority sadly but confidently doing his job—and only that. Bowie bears that cinematic cross.
Like Bowie, Scorsese’s film, greeted with expected controversy and hand-wringing from the religious right upon release, holds aloft an ambiguous grey throughout, sticking pretty closely to the Biblical account of events—at least as closely as author Nikos Kazantzakis hued in his novel, adapted by Paul Schrader. We’re never quite sure where Jesus precisely falls, navigating rage and penance and humility and lust, Scorsese’s Messiah the extremely culpable, extremely flesh-and-blood normal carpenter who must come to terms with his unbelievable responsibility up until the film’s (literally) shattering final moment. Just as we inevitably had to reconcile Bowie’s vulnerability with his iconic status, so does Scorsese expect us to realize Christ’s spirituality through the impossible obstacle of his humanity. —Dom Sinacola
1. The Thin Blue Line
Director: Errol Morris
A little after midnight on November 28, 1976, Dallas police officers Robert Wood and Teresa Turko made a routine traffic stop for a car driving without headlights. When Wood approached the vehicle, the driver pulled a handgun and shot him five times. The car sped off into the night while Turko fired hopelessly in its wake and Wood died at her feet. A cop killer was on the loose in Dallas. Turko’s recollections of the driver were meager, and 50 investigators worked through the sparse clues without a single witness. But less than a month later, on December 21, Dallas police arrested Randall Dale Adams, a 28-year-old itinerant laborer from Ohio. Though Adams claimed his innocence, a jury found him guilty and the judge handed him the death sentence. The man once branded in court as “Charles Manson” was safely locked away. Dallas breathed again.
Nine years later, in 1985, a documentarian named Errol Morris drifted into town from New York. Morris had never heard of Randall Dale Adams; he was in Dallas to speak to a doctor. By the time Morris left three years later, he had freed an innocent man, identified a murderer, uncovered widespread corruption and earned death threats, law suits and debt. He had also made one of the finest documentary films of the past 30 years—a nimbly stylized and obsessive pursuit of truth; a study in and a shrug to the pitfalls of myopia; the Serial podcast before podcasts ever existed; in Philip Glass’s score, a template for all true crime soundscapes to come; an epic story of life and death and the labyrinth of justice; an indictment of the misuse of power and a clear example of what happens when our broken system works as it was supposed to. A film that has repercussions to this day. He called it The Thin Blue Line. —Neil Forsyth