Why 1988 was the best year in movie history

All week long our writers will debate: Which was the greatest film year of the past half century. Click here for a complete list of our essays.

While I tend to think of the '80s as a crassly commercial lull between the artistic adventurousness of the '70s and the independent experimentation of the '90s, there were things about the '80s that i hold dear in terms of what I love about movies. And if you're talking about the best of the '80s, the year that crystallized all the things the decade did well was 1988, a year that looks upon closer inspection like an embarrassment of riches.

One of my twenty favorite films of all time, as outlined in this article, was released in 1988, which automatically makes it a year worth closer consideration. The '80s may have begun with one of his strongest films, but the decade as a whole was a difficult one for Martin Scorsese, one of the most vital American filmmakers working at the time. His struggles to find a place in the '80s studio game make sense because he didn't make easy films to digest, and the '80s were all about easy to digest. It was the era of the highest of high concepts, and that just wasn't Scorsese. He made the year's most controversial film, and “The Last Temptation Of Christ” remains one of his finest hours, a powerful and adult movie that explores the inner life of someone who is said to be equal parts divine and human. It's a timeless film in look and style, and as soon as it was released, the controversy died down and the film was, sadly, not a hit.

The same is true of one of the best films George Lucas ever had his name on, and it was heartbreaking to see just how completely overlooked “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” was when it was released. It is one of the most energetic and playful films that Francis Coppola ever made, with a knockout performance by Martin Landau and a great leading turn by Jeff Bridges. It was one of the most purely beautiful films released that year, and it has aged well. If anything, “Tucker” remains ripe, sealed but ready to serve the moment it gets officially rediscovered. There were other films that year that just didn't connect with the general public but that were lovely efforts from some very talented fllmmakers. Jonathan Demme's “Married To The Mob” was a daffy bit of business with a great Michelle Pfeiffer performance that was completely overshadowed by her work in “Dangerous Liaisons” later in the year. “They Live” is one of John Carpenter's most bleak and subversive films, and may have been politically ahead of the curve by about fifteen years. It also contains one of the funniest scenes in Carpenter's whole career, one that beautifully encapsulates and punctures his idea of machismo. Wes Craven's “The Serpent and the Rainbow” is unlike pretty much every other film in his filmography, and that's a good thing. It's a striking take on Wade Davis's non-fiction work about the anthropological origins of the zombie story, and it benefits from the way Craven seems to be determined to stretch.

All of these so far are films that I love, but that are not universally acclaimed. I couldn't justify calling 1988 the best year of movies based only on the titles listed above. But the big, instantly recognizable titles that year are not just big, they are iconic. They loom large on the pop culture landscape, both in terms of ongoing impact and also in terms of how heavily imitated they are…

Tom Hanks dancing on the oversized keyboard in “Big.”

Eddie Murphy and his dazzling work with Rick Baker that allows him to vanish into several unexpected characters.

John McClane, in that bloody white shirt, barefoot, laughing hysterically as he reaches for the two guns taped to his back.

Roger Rabbit doing pretty much every damn thing Roger Rabbit ever did.

“It's K-K-K-K-K-Ken, c-c-c-coming to k-k-k-k-k-kill me!”

A supernatural dinner party set to the sounds of Harry Belafonte.

Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in Vegas. Definitely Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in Vegas. Definitely.

Kevin Costner explaining what he believes to Susan Sarandon.

Jodie Foster, too much beer, and a pinball machine.

Gynecological tools for the examination of mutant women.

Tracy Turnblad and her friends tearing down racial barriers.

So many big films and images there, and that's still not everything. What about the films that should have been bigger? In a perfect world, “Midnight Run” would have been just as big a hit as anything that came out that year. It's pretty much a perfect movie, and the chemistry between Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin is off-the-charts great. Martin Brest has been missing in action since “Gigli,” but no one who makes a film as great as “Midnight Run” should be benched for a decade or more just because he makes one terrible movie. “Colors” is a pretty raw and wicked cop film that felt incendiary at the time it was released. Roman Polanski's “Frantic” is a great low-simmer thriller with a wonderful performance by Harrison Ford at a time when he seemed to be struggling to figure out who he was as an actor. The uber-stylish “D.O.A.” was good slick knowing fun, wise about the way it tweaked noir convention, and with a lot of fun, sweaty performances throughout. If you're going to make fun of Sherlock Holmes, it has to be done in a very smart way. It's just fitting, and “Without A Clue” more than qualifies.

There are films that came out in 1988 that are so good that they feel like they demand separate articles, like “The Unbearable Lightness Of Being,” “Dead Ringers,” “Eight Men Out,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” or Almodovar's “Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown,” and each one of those could be held up against any other film from Philip Kaufman, David Cronenberg, John Sayles, Frank Oz, or Pedro Almodovar and still look like a winner.

When you are talking about the “best movie year ever,” you've got talk about not just the five or ten best films of that year. That's not what makes a year special. Instead, you have to look at how deep a list you can make of movies that really connect in that year, even if they didn't do at the time. By that metric, 1988 is a deep year, with some great roles for women in films like “The Accidental Tourist,” “Gorillas In The Mist,” and “Working Girl.” Louis Malle's “Au Revoir, Les Enfants” is one of his very best, a tender memory piece, while Oliver Stone's “Talk Radio” is the very opposite of tender, a scabrous piece of work with a remarkable central performance from Eric Bogosian. Clint Eastwood's “Bird” is a small, somber biopic of one of the more difficult geniuses of jazz, with “The Thin Blue Line” is a documentary by the great Errol Morris that was part of the wave of docs that forced the mainstream to start taking them seriously. And if you want to see the other great Jodie Foster performance from that year, you have to track down the extraordinary “Five Corners,” scripted by John Patrick Shanley.

Even fans of mindless violence must have felt pretty good because “Above The Law” made its debut in theaters, introducing us to Steven Seagal.

Wait… scratch everything else I just said. “This is the year the film was released that introduced us to Steven Seagal.” On that note, I win the whole thing… right?

Right? Mic dropped. I'll show myself out.

Other pieces in this series:

1973 by Brian Formo

1974 by Daniel Fienberg

1977 by Louis Virtel

1980 by Richard Rushfield

1982 by Alan Sepinwall

1988 by Drew McWeeny

1998 by Michael Oates Palmer

1995 by Jane Hu

1999 by Kris Tapley

2001 by Chris Eggertsen

2012 by Zara Lisbon