Every year, there are great films, overlooked films, and smash hits. However, if you look at the films of 1988, it feels like a completely different industry than the one we have in 2021. Throughout this particular year in history, film fans were treated to a wide variety of comedies, dramas, action blockbusters, and experimental auteur-driven projects. It was simply an embarrassment of riches.
Today, there is a vast difference between the films that are celebrated at the Academy Awards and the highest-grossing films of the year. However, the Best Picture winner at the 1989 Academy Awards, Rain Man, was also the year’s top earner. That being said, there was no film that was more influential than Die Hard. Die Hard created the modern action movie, and is responsible for the surge in action films in the 1990s.
If you’re doing a marathon of the best films of 1988, you have a great number of selections in front of you. Here are the 20 greatest films of 1988.
A Fish Called Wanda
A Fish Called Wanda has all the hallmarks of a great Monty Python production. Similar to how the Python troupe lampooned epic films with Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Monty Python’s Life of Brian, A Fish Called Wanda satirized the archetypes of caper and noir films. Although comedies are generally absent from the Academy Awards, Kevin Kline won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his hilarious turn as the eccentric robber Otto West.
Although the quality of Tim Burton’s work has definitely declined in recent years, Beetlejuice is Burton at the height of his powers. Between the genuinely heartfelt story, award-winning makeup effects, and Michael Keaton’s scene-stealing performance as the titular character, Beetlejuice is equally funny and scary. Official word on the status of Beetlejuice 2 has stalled for years, but the Broadway adaptation starring Alex Brightman debuted to positive reviews in 2018.
Big was Tom Hanks’ maturation as an actor. Hanks would eventually veer into more dramatic territory a few years later with Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, but in Big, he proved that he could sustain a compelling character for an entire film. He wasn’t just relying on his inherent charm. Hanks could not have been more perfectly cast; who else would you get to play a literal child who is trapped within a fully grown man’s body?
Coming to America
Eddie Murphy has never been more creative than he was in Coming to America. Murphy and his co-star Arsenio Hall played multiple roles in this hilarious story of an African prince who travels to America in search of love. Although Coming to America is just as crude as you would come to expect from Murphy, the romance is played very sincerely. Coming to America was also a breakthrough film in terms of representation with its ensemble cast of black actors.
Even if you don’t generally enjoy period pieces, Dangerous Liaisons is unflinchingly sordid in its depiction of sexual politics. Equally heartbreaking and uproarious, Stephen Frears’ adaptation of his 1985 play shows that deep down, the upper class is just as deprived as everyone else. Although John Malkovich chews the scenery with his demented depiction of Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont, its Glenn Close’s performance as Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil that dominates the film. It is just one of Close’s many heartbreaking Oscar losses.
Die Hard is often cited as the greatest action film of all-time, and it’s for a good reason. The influence of Die Hard is undeniable, but the film holds up remarkably well because of all the practical work that John McTiernan did to make it realistic. McTiernan understood the importance of fully-realized characters; although the action is relentless, McTiernan spends time allowing the audience to empathize with John McClane (Bruce Willis) before the bullets start flying. It’s also amazing to consider that Die Hard was Alan Rickman’s cinematic debut.
Harrison Ford was easily the most popular actor of the 1980s, but it wasn’t all about Star Wars and Indiana Jones for him. In between his massive blockbuster roles, Ford worked with many brilliant auteur filmmakers to create unique genre films. Frantic has all the trappings of a classic noir, but it’s even more ruthless. The film captures the terror of the language barrier. Ford stars as Dr. Richard Walker, an American doctor who searches for his wife Sondra (Betty Buckley) when she goes missing during their vacation in Paris.
Midnight Run is the perfect buddy film. The key to a great double act is finding two actors who can believably play polar opposites, yet are still compelling as friends. Robert De Niro didn’t phone it in just because Midnight Run was a comedy; he took the time to explore how Jack Walsh’s bounty hunting career impacted his familial life. Charles Grodin is somehow able to irritate Walsh to no end, yet not become annoying to the audience. Midnight Run is also one of the rare action-comedies that doesn’t skimp on the action.
Some classic films haven’t aged well, but unfortunately, Mississippi Burning is more relevant than ever. The film bravely tackles the themes of police brutality, systematic racism, and the limits of the law. Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe star as two FBI agents that investigate the murder of three Civil Rights activist in the small town of Jessup County, Mississippi. The cops of the secluded community are obviously involved in the coverup, but it’s still shocking how far the film was willing to go with its searing incitement of local justice. Brad Dourif’s Deputy Sheriff Clinton Pell is among the most detestable film characters of all-time.
Roger Ebert famously stated in his original review that he had a “feeling that Mystic Pizza may someday become known for the movie stars it showcased back before they became stars.” He was absolutely right. Julia Roberts’ dominance of the romantic comedy genre began with this earnest story of young Portuguese-American women who learn about the trials and tribulations of growing up as they work at the titular pizza joint. Outside the romance itself, Mystic Pizza is simply a great coming-of-age story about friends who remain tightly-knit amidst economic frailty. You can also catch a very young Matt Damon in one of his earliest roles!
Recent Best Picture winners like Green Book and CODA have been criticized as generic crowd pleasers, but Rain Man is an example of a feel-good movie done right. The film’s representation of the autistic community is earnest, and Dustin Hoffman rightfully took home the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Raymond Babbitt. Rain Man was also one of the most important films of Tom Cruise’s career. Cruise was unafraid to be unlikable at times, and held his own against a veteran of Hoffman’s reputation.
The Accidental Tourist
The Accidental Tourist had the potential to be the epitome of a manipulative melodrama. Lawrence Kasdan was able to avoid clichés with his thorough examination of grief, depression, and romance. The late great William Hurt has never been more heartbreaking. Hurt stars as Macon Leary, a travel writer whose life is in shambles after the death of his son. Kasdan avoids dwelling on the tragedy too much through Leary’s romance with the eccentric dog trainer Muriel Pritchett (Geena Davis).
The Last Temptation of Christ
The Last Temptation of Christ was the most-controversial film of 1988, sparking outrage, petitions, protests, and many interpretations. It had been a passion project of Martin Scorsese’s for many years. Although Catholic guilt had been a theme in many of his films, The Last Temptation of Christ finally allowed Scorsese to tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth’s (Willem Dafoe) last days. Regardless of your religious affiliation, The Last Temptation of Christ is a painstakingly crafted film, featuring some of the most patient, meticulous sequences of Scorsese’s career. That’s no small statement.
Oliver Stone was treated to routine praise in the 1980s thanks to the success of Platoon, Wall Street, and Born on the Fourth of July, but sadly, Talk Radio has been lost in the shuffle. Your mileage on Stone’s political statements may vary, but Talk Radio is oddly precinct with its themes of toxic masculinity, media obsession, and the dark side of “fan culture.” Eric Bogosian starred in an adaptation of his own play, which follows an obscene radio personality whose cult-like fan base grows obsessed with his opinions to an unhealthy degree. Bogosian was loosely inspired by the real assassination of the Denver radio host Alan Berg in 1984.
They Live is just one of John Carpenter’s many masterpieces, but none of his films feel quite as precinct as this sci-fi paranoid thriller. Carpenter may not be a “subtle director,” but his incitement of capitalism and subliminal messaging in advertising is undeniably effective. Of course, Carpenter is first and foremost a craftsman, and They Live features one of the greatest action sequences of all-time. The drifter Nada (“Rowdy” Roddy Piper) and construction worker Frank Armitage (Keith David) trade blows in a grueling six-minute brawl.
Tucker: The Man and His Dream
Tucker: The Man and His Dream is not the generic “inspirational biopic” that its title may suggest. Francis Ford Coppola explored the greed of corporations and the consequences of capitalism in this story of the brilliant American automobile innovator Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges). Although Tucker is met with success early within his career, his progress is limited by the dominance of the “Big Three” automobile manufacturers that dominate the industry. Bridges’ searing courtroom speech at the end of the film remains one of his finest acting moments ever.
The “Brat Pack” starred in their fair share of both genuine classics (The Breakfast Club, The Outsiders, Sixteen Candles) and films that do not age well at all (St. Elmo’s Fire, The Pick-Up Artist, Weird Science). Young Guns falls somewhere in the middle. It’s not the best depiction of the Billy the Kid story, but you get Emilio Estevez, Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, Charlie Sheen, and Dermot Mulroney at the height of their charisma. In the midst of a revisionist period for American westerns, Young Guns was fun fluff that didn’t take itself too seriously.
Star Wars was born out of George Lucas’ failure to secure the rights to Flash Gordon. Similarly, Lucas’s failure to adapt The Lord of the Rings resulted in Willow. Perhaps Willow wasn’t the success that Star Wars was, but the fantasy adventure still gets in its version of an unlikely hero (Warwick Davis’s titular family man), a smart-talking scoundrel (Val Kilmer’s Madmartigan), and a feisty princess (Joanne Whalley’s Sorsha). Willow was met with a mixed word-of-mouth initially, but it apparently inspired a big enough cult following to spawn the upcoming Disney+ series scheduled to be released this November.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Who Framed Roger Rabbit changed special effects forever with its synthesis of cartoon and live-action characters. However, that’s not the reason that it’s a classic. Robert Zemeckis found the perfect tonal balance; Who Framed Roger Rabbit is just a little too mature for kids, and a tad too wacky for adults. What easily could have been a disaster ended up being a genius satire of both noir movie clichés and the animation industry.
Working Girl is another example of a studio romantic-comedy that does everything right. These types of mid-budget films are rare in today’s cinematic ecosystem. Melanie Griffith stars as Tess McGill, a hardworking secretary whose boss (Sigourney Weaver) takes credit for her idea. Mike Nichols is sensitive to the way that women are treated in the workforce. The romance between Tess and Harrison Ford’s Jack Trainer is built on mutual respect.