30 Years Later: Best Films of 1988

And coming in, just under the wire for 2018, is my retrospective look at the best movies of 1988. This year is personally significant in that it features Who Framed Roger Rabbit? – the very first movie I have any recollection of seeing in the theatre. Apart from that movie however, every movie from 1988 is one I saw in a later year marking this as slightly different from my previous retrospective best lists (1997, 1998, 2007, 2008). Still as always, it was a rewarding experience. But before we dive into my (highly subjective) list of the best films of the year, let’s get a quick snapshot:


 

TOP BOX OFFICE MOVIES (North America Gross in USD)

1. Rain Man ($172,825,435)
2. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? ($156,452,370)
3. Coming to America ($128,152,301)
4. Big ($114,968,774)
5. Twins ($111,938,388)
6. Crocodile Dundee II ($109,306,210)
7. Die Hard ($83,008,852)
8. The Naked Gun: From the Files of the Police Squad! ($78,756,177)
9. Cocktail ($78,222,753)
10. Beetlejuice ($73,707,461)

(figures courtesy of Box Office Mojo)

Looking at this list is going to feel jarring to anyone familiar with modern box-office dynamics. First of all, there is only one sequel in the Top 10. The rest are bonafide original works with nary a preexisting intellectual property (IP) in sight. And lest you think this is a bizarre outlier that masks the state of the industry in 1988 as a whole, there are only four movies that are sequels in the top 50 movies of the year. Compare that to 2018 where (as of writing) all the movies in the Top 10 are sequels of some sort and only one sequel (Incredibles 2) is based on an IP that did not previously exist in another medium. Meanwhile 31 of the Top 50 movies in 2018 so far are either sequels, prequels, or remakes.

The second major difference is how readily I can recall the names of the people starring in these movies. Tom Cruise. Dustin Hoffman. Tom Hanks. Geena Davis. Eddie Murphy. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Danny DeVito. Alec Baldwin. Being an A-list star is synonymous with box-office success. Fast-forward 30 years and Tom Cruise (Mission Impossible: Fallout) is the only discernible star in the Top 10 movies who can pull in the crowds based on his name alone, and even then he is seen as one of the last of a dying breed. The biggest box-office stars of 2018 are only as big as the movie brands they are attached to.

But perhaps most shocking of all is the fact that sitting on top of the box office is Rain Man – the movie that will end up snagging the Best Picture Oscar. The last time that has happened was in 2003 when The Return of the King won the box-office crown and the Best Picture Oscar. And considering that in the intervening years only 7 movies have garnered a Best Picture nomination while ending in the Top-10 box office gross for their year (The Martian, American Sniper, Gravity, Toy Story 3, Inception, Avatar, Up), it only further emphasizes the increasing disparity between the Academy and the business of making money.

ACADEMY AWARD FOR BEST PICTURE

Winner: Rain Man
Nominees: The Accidental Tourist, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning, Working Girl

Looking at the list of nominees in 1988 only confirms how the ’80s were perhaps the Oscar bait-iest of periods in the academy. You get the delicate family drama ala previous winner Ordinary People in The Accidental Tourist, a traditional period piece with high production values in Dangerous Liaisons, a “white-people-overcome-racism” movie in Mississippi Burning, an “actor’s” comedy from a well-respected director that is just happy to be here in Working Girland the eventual winner that took the prize on the back of a well-respected actor playing a disabled person in Rain Man. As always, the Academy Awards are always a chance for the Hollywood film industry to celebrate how they view themselves and their place in society. It seems the 80s was the period where they were most self-congratulatory about the “importance” of their field and 1988 was no different.


 

Note: Before I get comments about the seemingly glaring omission of Bull Durham let me state for the record that I think Bull Durham is fine but I have never been wowed by the movie despite seeing it multiple times. I also don’t care too much about baseball in general so do with that what you will. Similarly Coming to America has never won me over either. I am willing to grant that the problem may be me, and not the movies themselves.

25. (TIE) A SHORT FILM ABOUT KILLING / A SHORT FILM ABOUT LOVE dir. Krzystof Kieslowski

So let’s acknowledge that placing these two movies here is sort of a cheat. First of all, these are not the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth best movies on this list and deserve to be much higher. They are also not of equal quality, with Killing being better than Love (although both are excellent). But the reason they are placed here on this list is because both of these movies eventually become episodes in Kieslowski’s masterpiece Dekalog which got released in 1989. In both cases, the shorter versions of these movies turns out to be the better choice, and so I felt it better to honor them next year for their 30th year anniversary. Still, it felt wrong not to mention these movies at all so here they are in what is effectively an “Honorable Mention” slot.

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24. DANGEROUS LIAISONS dir. Stephen Frears

In many ways Dangerous Liaisons is the spiritual ancestor to this year’s excellent The Favourite as Glenn Close and John Malkovich continue the proud tradition of showing aristocrats frivolously playing devastating social and emotional games with people they deem less worthy. Close is especially terrifying and alluring as the Marquise de Merteuil, a flirtatious and bored aristocrat who enters in a pact with Malkovich’s Valmont where she offers herself up to Valmont as a prize if he manages to seduce and effectively ruin her ex-lover’s fiancee (Uma Thurman). Added on top of this is the fact that Valmont also has eyes on committing infidelity with Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer) and you have a witty and naughty movie with the talent to back up its seductive premise.

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23. DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS dir. Frank Oz

It is impossible not to hear the plot of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and not think it’s going to promise a great time for anyone who watches it. Michael Caine plays Lawrence Jamieson, a suave and sophisticated con-man who seduces wealthy women and steals their money, who runs into, Freddy Benson (Steve Martin), a lowlife hustler whose methods are as amateurish as they are crass. Worried that Benson might scare his potential targets away, Jamieson proposes a wager: the first person to con American heiress Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly) out of $50,000 wins, and the loser has to leave town. Naturally this leads to both of them trying to sabotage one another’s plans in hilarious and clever ways, while Colgate reveals herself not as easy a mark as she initially appears. The chemistry between the leads is fantastic and the fact that Martin and Caine have not appeared together in another movie is borderline criminal.

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22. HEATHERS dir. Michael Lehmann

Heathers is a great dark-comedy that suffers from the fact that in the intervening years the reality of school shootings and terrorism have ceased to be the stuff of macabre humor and has evolved instead into a terrifying and increasingly normalized reality. So more than most of the movies from the era, Heathers has forced a drastic rereading of the material in which Christian Slater’s J.D. is no longer merely a rebellious anti-hero but an out-and-out villain while Winona Ryder’s Veronica Sawyer is merely an accessory to the crime. Still in its time and in its place, divorced from our tragic and violent modern realities, it is an undeniably funny dark comedy.

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21. DEAD RINGERS dir. David Cronenberg

Dead Ringers is a rarity in Cronenberg’s early output in that it is not focused on his usual brand of body-horror (The Dead Zone being the other exception). As such it is refreshing to see Cronenberg craft a twisty psychological thriller without relying on his usual gross-out special effects. As Jeremy Irons, playing a dual role as twin gynecologists, is especially chilling and unnerving. However, the film has the distinct feeling that Cronenberg is trying to make a movie with one hand tied behind his back, which ultimately keeps it from being a top-tier Cronenberg movie.

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20. MIDNIGHT RUN dir. Martin Brest

While it is relatively common for comedic actors to cross over into dramatic roles, the opposite is a much rarer feat which makes Midnight Run such a treat. Robert De Niro, arguably one of the greatest actors ever, here gets the rare chance to flex his comedic muscles during the height of his acting powers in a broad buddy-comedy and it works. And further proving that filmmaking is sometimes mysterious and alchemic, pairing De Niro’s hard talking bounty hunter with Charles Grodin as a mild-mannered CPA on the run for embezzlement is one that shouldn’t work, but magically does.

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19. RAIN MAN dir. Barry Levinson

Without fail I find myself pondering every few months what would have happened if Tom Cruise had actually picked up a Best Actor Oscar during the late 80s and early 90s when he was actively pursuing one. Would it have cemented his path to future prestige drama performances, garnering many more nominations and wins along the way? Or would it have sped up his eventual journey from being a critically-acclaimed actor to the consummate entertainer he is today? In any case Rain Man is a forceful reminder that Tom Cruise at the top of his game was nearly untouchable, perfectly as adept here in a purely dramatic role as he was in his blockbuster roles. Dustin Hoffman got all the acclaim for his tic-filled performance here, but thirty years later, I think it’s time we appreciate what a one-of-a-kind actor Tom Cruise is and it is to the Academy’s discredit that it never found the space to award him when he was actually trying to win their favor.

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18. HAIRSPRAY dir. John Waters

The workable 2007 remake starring Zac Efron and John Travolta has taken up its place in the public consciousness for the definitive version of Hairspray which is unfortunate for several reasons. First, John Travolta’s portrayal as Edna Turnblad, though passable, cannot hold a candle to a role that belongs to the legendary Divine. Second John Waters is so much more competent a director than Adam Shankman and it shows here as Shankman merely seems to be painting-by-numbers while Waters point-of-view is clear as day. And finally, the transgressive elements of the film hold so much more resonance in the 80s, where segregation stands-in as a clear allegory for the AIDS crisis giving this breezy musical a real-life urgency that the remake can only hint at. Choose the original flavor. Choose John Waters’ Hairspray.

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Before Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, before John Cena, and before the concept of crossover wrestling stars came “Rowdy” Roddy Piper who, for no discernible reason, decided an alien conspiracy movie ala Invasion of the Body Snatchers directed by the mad and wonderful mind of John Carpenter was the perfect vehicle for him to star in. No matter, because it is still arguably the best performance by a wrestler in a mainstream movie not the least because he has one of the greatest line deliveries ever, “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubble gum.”

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16. WORKING GIRL dir. Mike Nichols

Between the romantic view of the field of finance and the amount of shoulder pads present there is a strong argument to be made that Working Girl is perhaps the most 80’s movie ever made. Tess McGill’s (Melanie Griffith) rise from office temp to corner office may seem less virtuous today in the days of late capitalism, but there is something undeniably entertaining of seeing actors of the calibre of Griffith, Sigourney Weaver, and Harrison Ford simply stretch their acting muscles to bring life Mike Nichols’ movie, resulting in something that is as effortless to watch as it is ultimately slightly vapid.

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15. BEETLEJUICE dir. Tim Burton

Since the “Tim Burton”-style has in recent years been so overused as to descend into derivative self-parody, it is easy to forget how fresh and original his campy and gothic style must have seemed when he first burst on the scene. Beetlejuice is remarkable because it not only reveals that Burton’s quasi-gothic vision for filmmaking arrived onscreen fully-formed (his debut film Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure required some fealty to the popular series) but also shows his penchant for great storytelling (something that has faded away in recent years as his unique style has increasingly become his crutch). The cast of Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, Catherine O’Hara, and Wynona Rider among others is also severely underrated as all of them put in career-highlight performances.

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14. A FISH CALLED WANDA dir. Charles Crichton

A Fish Called Wanda has a strong shout for being amongst the best comedic ensembles ever assembled, as well as being the very rare comedy that is simultaneously British and American in its humour. The Monty Python duo of John Cleese and Michael Palin help to establish the movie’s comedic credibility, but it is the unexpected comedic turns of “the American Laurence Olivier” Kevin Kline and “scream queen” Jamie Lee Curtis that cement this farcical screwball as one of the funniest comedies of the 80s, if not of all time.

 

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13. DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES (1988) dir. Terence Davies

There is a tendency when portraying the lives of working class to lean into the harshness of their lives. Not so with Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives which looks at the lives of a working class family in 1940s and 50s Liverpool with all the bittersweet warmth of going through a family album, in which public joys are mixed in with private griefs and tragedy. The movie pivots on the presence and absence of Pete Postlethwaithe’s abusive patriarch, although Davies’ compassion for all his subjects means he cannot be reduced to a caricature. Also, for a movie so steeped in realism, it is surprisingly filled to the brim with music and singing, bringing a raw level of levity to the proceedings.

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12. BIG dir. Penny Marshall

Granted, the premise of a 13-year old boy magically turning into a 35-year old man is not entirely original. Further, the idea that this 13-year old boy in a 35-year old man’s body manages in his escapades to sleep with a thirty-something woman is at some level a little creepy. But it is easy to ignore that when you are watching Big and that’s because of two things. First, Tom Hanks is just so darn likeable as a clumsy middle-schooler struggling to come to grips with his newly mature body and whose goofiness and joy inspires wistful thoughts to those among us who have long since left that simply giddy joy of childhood behind. And second, director Penny Marshall keeps this high-concept premise intimately small, wisely allowing Hanks to simply be his charming self and keeping the comedy organic and unforced, ultimately ignoring any chance to preach childlikeness to her audience.

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11. THE VANISHING dir. George Sluizer

While on holiday Rex’s girlfriend Saksia disappears at a rest stop, never to be seen again. This prompts Rex on an obsessive three year search to find her, or at the very least to find out what happened to her. This leads him down a dark and twisty path that is horrific not because there are any real scares to be found, but because he seems to be unfailingly headed down the path to ruin. That the movie’s ending is obvious should not take away from the fact that it is also one of the bleakest and most honest endings in movie history.

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10. CHOCOLAT dir. Claire Denis

With Chocolat Claire Denis puts in a strong shout for one of best directing debuts ever. Partly a loose memory of her own experience growing up in colonial Africa, it tells the story of Aimee Dalens (Giulia Boschi), who arrives at an isolated outpost in French-occupied West Africa and finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage of convenience while being drawn into a forbidden attraction to Protee (Isaach De Bankole), the houseboy of the estate and easily the most competent man on the property. That the only thing keeping her from acting out on her attraction is the rules and conventions of a racist society is a damning indictment of both her and fellow colonists, but it also provides the framework for both Aimee and Protee to very subtly taunt and tease one another. Never has a movie in which so little physical intimacy has been shared been more sexually charged.

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9. WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT dir. Robert Zemeckis

As I mentioned at the top, this was the first movie I remember seeing in the theatre. And though my childhood self was very much satisfied watching anything with a cartoon rabbit in it, I will readily admit that most of it flew over my head. Only upon revisiting it as an adult can I appreciate its pitch-perfect homage to film noir as well as the remarkable filmmaking achievement of marrying animation with live-action. While the animation/live-action hybrid is not something new, it is the first (and so far only) movie to treat both animated figures and human actors on equal footing and not have one as the sideshow to the other. The fact that Roger Rabbit’s success has not been replicated in the decades since (Space Jam’s box-office success is not matched by critical acclaim) simply speaks to what a remarkable film it is, easily the most unique film of 1988.

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8. CINEMA PARADISO dir. Giuseppe Tornatore

The movie is admittedly a brazenly sentimental depiction of childhood, as Little Salvatore grows up in a small and cloistered village in Italy and finds his only solace in the friendship he strikes up with Alfredo, the projectionist of the local cinema. When Alfredo is blinded by the fire, he trains Salvatore to be a projectionist himself and the cinema becomes Salvatore’s window to the larger world. In other words this movie is basically catnip for cinephiles like me, with its underlying message that “you can’t go home again” particularly piercing to those whose childhood innocence has been jaded by the passage of time.

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7. THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST dir. Martin Scorsese

Easily the most controversial movie on this list and, as is almost always the case, most of the controversy is stirred by people who have never seen the movie. The Last Temptation of Christ, far from being a sacrilegious take on the life of Jesus, is in fact a fascinating portrait of two creators (director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader) openly trying to wrestle through their doubts about their religious upbringing, and especially the question of what it means that Jesus was somehow fully human. That their wrestling takes them into uncharted theological waters may breed nervousness amongst the devout, but no other explicitly religious movie exemplifies the journey from doubt to something approximating faith better.

(FULL REVIEW)

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6. AKIRA dir. Katsuhiro Otomo

It is not too much of a stretch to say that 1988 represents the year that anime truly broke out as an international phenomenon. The first feature to truly achieve crossover status is Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk fever-dream that has perhaps had the largest influence on modern Hollywood inspiring everything from The Matrix to Inception and to Netflix’s Stranger Things and everything in between. Despite being animated 30 years ago, it still looks miles ahead of our current time as it tells a twisty tale of telekinetic children, insidious governments, scientific experimentation, and rebellious liberation in a plot so dense that it practically begs multiple viewings – not that anyone should complain mind you.

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5. WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN dir. Pedro Almodovar

Pedro Almodovar trades his usual dark comedy for an outright farce, and the results are stupendous. Carmen Maura plays Pepa, a soap opera actress who finds herself in the middle of a real-life one when she is unceremoniously dumped by boyfriend Ivan. This simple premise turns into a twisty screwball farce as multiple players, each with their own connections to Pepa and Ivan, quickly descend upon Pepa in quick succession, creating a scenario of multiple spinning plates to rival the best classic screwball comedies of the era. And like the best classic screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s, the quick and witty dialogue, multiple sub-plots, and frenetic pace are bound to leave you exhausted by the end, but probably with a big grin on your face.

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4. DIE HARD dir. John McTiernan

Even though the movie relies a little bit too much on the idiot plot (whereby the story would be more easily resolved if everyone not named John McClane acted more like rational human beings and less like idiots), let that not detract from the fact that Die Hard is the epitome of a great action movie. The efficiency of the movie’s one-location setting, the superb editing that helps establish every action set-piece’s geography, and the perfect calibration between providing high stakes and an achievable mission all serve to create a movie that is somehow both escapist blockbuster fare and somewhat grounded in reality. Bruce Willis is fantastic as John McClane, the surly cop who finds himself trapped in a building with a bunch of terrorists, but the show truly belongs to Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), easily one of the greatest villains ever to grace the scene. (Also, it’s not a Christmas movie. But that’s a whole different conversation)

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3. THE THIN BLUE LINE dir. Errol Morris

There are several things that are striking about seeing The Thin Blue Line thirty years later. First, it is astonishing just how much the true-crime genre – which has exploded in recent years – owes much of its conventions to Errol Morris’ documentary. His documentary, about Randall Adams who was wrongly accused of murder, is remarkable because it is so fully forms the genre that it spawned. It is also remarkable because Morris’ film actually had real world consequences, eventually changing the fate of the accused. In many ways it is easy to underestimate just how excellent this movie is because so many true crime documentaries (enough to form several cable channels worth of content) have borrowed its conventions to inferior effect in the years following its release, but there is no doubt that The Thin Blue Line is the Citizen Kane of true crime.

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2. GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES dir. Isao Takahata

I’ll be honest with you: I have only seen Grave of the Fireflies once. And though I have been tempted to return to the movie, I just cannot bring myself to because it is the most emotionally devastating movie I have ever seen in my life. Isao Takahata strips away the veneer of the glories of war to look at its direct effect of two children, Seita and Setsuko, as they struggle to survive at the very end of World War II in 1945. Takahata’s refusal to shy away from the war’s horrors and to honestly drive the story’s narrative to its logical conclusion without softening its hard edges certainly makes this one of the bravest animated films ever made, even if it ensures that its grief-stricken plot is going to haunt you for the rest of your life while leaving you an emotional wreck in its immediate aftermath.

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1. MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO dir. Hayao Miyazaki

My Neighbor Totoro was the other half of the double bill with Grave of the Fireflies and I can only hope that this movie was the second on that bill because it would be devastating the other way around. If Grave of the Fireflies is a harrowing tale of childhood innocence lost then My Neighbor Totoro is a life-affirming declaration of how precious that childhood innocence is. Telling the story of Satsuke and her younger sister Mei as they navigate moving to the country to be nearer to their sick mother, it is a wonderful testament to the power of child-like imagination as a bulwark against grief and despair; it is also a heartwarming invitation for us to return, if only for awhile, to our own age of childhood innocence.

2 thoughts on “30 Years Later: Best Films of 1988

  1. Pingback: Hall of Fame #5: My Neighbor Totoro (Studio Ghibli #3) – Homebody Movies

  2. Pingback: 10 Years Later: Best Movies of 2009 – Homebody Movies

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