The Top Ten Movies of 1988
1988 was a contentious year; George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis battled for their party’s nominations, the Iran-Contra scandal dominated news headlines, al-Qaeda was formed and the foundations of the Soviet Union continued to crumble. Yet peace also reigned, as the Iran-Iraq War reached its end and the world celebrated the Winter and Summer Olympics, with Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards making headlines as a lovable loser. At the Oscars, The Last Emperor took home Best Picture, another historical epic in a trend of such films among 80s Best Picture winners. Future stars Haley Joel Osment, Michael Cera, and Rupert Grint were all born, while we bid farewell to stars such as William Cagney, Hal Ashby, and John Carradine.
Some readers will probably be shaking their heads with disbelief that 1988 is already 30 years ago. It’s interesting to consider how the culture and news headlines of an era influence the films being made, and further, which movies are remembered most fondly decades later. Flickchart’s global top 10 for the year reflects some of the controversies and events of the 80s, but also the culture’s sense of humor. No less than three Japanese anime (which American audiences in the 1980s often referred to as “Japanimation”) make the list, suggesting the strong inroads that medium has made globally over the last three decades.
Here are the top 10 films of 1988 as determined by the aggregate rankings of all Flickchart users:
10. They Live
For my money, They Live, John Carpenter’s wicked science-fiction action satire, may be one of the most subversive movies ever made. Not only does it take aim at the Bush-Reagan years (and yet remains relevant in today’s political climate), but it is severely critical of capitalism in general. In it, John Nada (Roddy Piper) arrives back in his hometown, looking for work and finding it on a construction site. The film juxtaposes grim scenes of the homeless and other people struggling to get by with glimpses of alien occupiers whose true visages and subliminal messages promoting conspicuous consumption and conformity can only be seen through special sunglasses (this also allows Carpenter takes a memorable potshot at Siskel and Ebert near the end.) Minus the science fiction metaphor, this is really not all that different from the world we live in.
So, how exactly did a movie like this get released by a Hollywood studio (Universal)? Outside of Roddy Piper, known primarily for his wrestling career (and having him show some skin), the movie, similar to the plot itself, might have snuck in by hiding in plain sight. Carpenter was known primarily as a horror director and was rarely overtly political. People likely went expecting a horror or action film and ended up getting something different, something more. The most famous scene in the movie is the epic fight between Nada and his buddy Frank Armitage (Keith David), which commentators such as Slavoj Zizek (The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology) have argued is another overtly political moment. I’m not necessarily buying it; it’s either extremely homoerotic or just two guys beating the crap out of each other. In any case, my only quibble is that They Live should have been longer, as it ends very suddenly and prevents us from further exploring its weird yet familiar reality. – Walter J. Montie
- Global rank: #464
- Ranked 71,442 times by 5,246 users
- Wins 53% of its matchups
Cinema Paradiso might be one of the greatest love letters to cinema ever written. The entirety of the movie expresses director Giuseppe Tornatore‘s love of cinema, and is a pure expression of joy about the effect movies can have on our lives. Many people only see movies as a form of entertainment, something to sit down and zone out in front of while gobbling popcorn. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, but for many of us, cinema has also moved our souls and opened up new ways of viewing life, with the best films leaving profound emotional aftereffects. Cinema Paradiso is a celebration of that kind of movie love.
We follow a young boy from his early love of film encouraged by a small-town projectionist to his adulthood where his passion for filmmaking battles with other concerns, both economic and romantic. Part of the film feels like 80s-era Stephen King stories about childhood nostalgia, and alongside the adult concerns about romance and life’s other passions, these are universal theme that can resonates strongly even for non-movie-addicts. Yet Tornatore’s film is also a wonderful homage to older classics of Italian and world cinema, and the ending’s use of these movies to express its message of love will leave you with a warm smile and tears rolling down your cheeks. – Connor Adamson
- Global rank: #432
- Ranked 65,432 times by 5,356 users
- Wins 50% of its matchups
In 1988, anime as a movie medium wasn’t yet widely known outside of Japan. Nobody could guess that Akira would become the standard with which to measure all anime features to come. Akira is a heady, psychological, post-apocalyptic, sci-fi mindbender that is wholly cut from an Eastern storytelling cloth, but presented with all the aplomb of a gigantic Hollywood blockbuster. Katsuhiro Ôtomo wrote and illustrated Akira in manga (comic) form first, but took that raw material, paired it with Shōji Yamashiro’s immense and propulsive score, and directed what to this day stands as a landmark both in animation and film as an art form. Every frame is mottled with infinite amounts of excruciating detail and dazzling colors. Violence and spectacle are never held back. The power of Akira‘s visual storytelling and its story of catastrophic tragedy are unparalleled. For anyone uninitiated with anime as a medium, there’s no better place to start. For anyone that already reveres anime, there’s still no other film that exemplifies its strengths like Akira. – Nathan Chase
- Global rank: #413
- Ranked 113,148 times by 10,157 users
- Wins 52% of its matchups
Growing up in the 1980s, Big was pure childhood fantasy come to life. With access to the adult world but the mindset of a child, every possible dream could come true. There’s no reason why you couldn’t get a bunk bed for yourself, or pack an apartment with video games and Nerf guns galore. But what makes Big greater than just the whims of a kid with unlimited options is how Tom Hanks plays the role of Josh Baskin. In Hanks’ first truly great performance, he plays Baskin exactly like a child with an adult’s body. Hanks doesn’t even seem like he’s acting. Rather than put a kid in an adult’s body, as per the story, the performance reads almost as if the Zoltar machine gave Hanks the ability to access the behaviors and mentality of a 13-year-old boy. The result is a wonderfully realized performance in Penny Marshall’s best film, with Hanks becoming a star by seemingly becoming a literal child before our eyes. – Ross Bonaime
- Global rank: #410
- Ranked 386,030 times by 51,397 users
- Wins 51% of its matchups
These days, it’s almost hard to fathom how they accomplished a film like Who Framed Roger Rabbit in the late 1980s. After all, the feat of putting human beings and living cartoons into the same world was attempted without the use of a single computer. Roger and the other Toons were applied (hand-drawn, the way cartoons should be) directly over the mechanical armatures and other devices used to manipulate real-world items alongside real people. Occasionally it shows, but it’s still a miraculous accomplishment, and justly deserving of the special Oscar Roger Rabbit earned for its techniques.
But technical marvels come and go (nine years later, is anybody really still talking about Avatar?), so what makes Roger endure? The concept of Toontown is realized not only beautifully but humorously, and even in our era of crossover universes there’s still a special thrill when Daffy and Donald Duck share the stage, or Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse banter while plummeting from the sky. It’s also anchored by a couple of truly great performances: Bob Hoskins as beleaguered detective Eddie Valiant and Christopher Lloyd as the delightfully evil Judge Doom. Finally, Roger and Jessica Rabbit two of the most truly wonderful cartoon characters ever realized, one impossibly lovable and zany, and one impossibly, uh, proportioned. (She’s not bad; she’s just drawn that way.) Especially for those of us old enough to have grown up with Roger, it’s got that special magic that no other movie can touch. – Nigel Druitt
- Global rank: #297
- Ranked 514,580 times by 66,220 users
- Wins 49% of its matchups
What motion picture combines quirkiness, irreverence, and creative use of calypso music with joyous abandon? Beetlejuice! What masterpiece (along with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) embodies all of the childhood awe and wonderment in the 80s? Beetlejuice! And, most importantly, what sterling example of cinematic bliss offers the single greatest Michael Keaton performance of all time? Well, you know.
With this film, Michael Keaton (who, by all known measurements, is a genius) unleashes a madman upon the screen every bit as lovable as The Dark Knight’s Joker (Keaton should’ve played The Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman). This praise may sound hyperbolic, but for a fourteen year-old kid back in the 80s, it was anything but. Few movies sparked my imagination or tickled my dark side so thoroughly. Tim Burton’s horror comedy epic inspired more performances of “Day-O” at my home than one could possibly imagine. It was fun and twisted, and became a welcome part of my cinematic DNA. Sing it with me: “Shake, shake, shake Senora, shake your body line, shake shake, shake Senora…” – Chad Hoolihan
- Global rank: #343
- Ranked 528,467 times by 70,207 users
- Wins 50% of its matchups
Grave of the Fireflies has often been touted as one of the most depressing movies of all time, and it’s certainly still in the running. Its realistic portrayal of the horrible ways war affects children doesn’t pull any punches, sometimes becoming almost mundane in its treatment of the story. There’s no sensationalizing, which makes the characters’ fates all the more tragic. That being said, the movie does ultimately bring out the beauty of close relationships in the midst of tragedy, so there is a small thread of hope woven throughout. While the visual style of anime is often equated less with realism than with fantasy (see Akira above or Totoro below), here it’s used to great effect to convey the emotional tone of the children’s situation, and does this perhaps better than the more photorealistic style favored by some U.S. animators. Grave is an uncommonly powerful use of the medium of animation, which is still seen by many people as being “for kids.” This movie is certainly not for kids, but it’s an incredible experience for adults. – Hannah Keefer
- Global rank: #236
- Ranked 51,959 times by 3,732 users
- Wins 60% of its matchups
3. Rain Man
Nobody speaks of Rain Man without speaking of Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning, career-defining performance. It’s a tour-de-force, to be sure, but there is one thing to bear in mind: no lead performance exists in a vacuum. And nobody rises to true greatness without help.
In Rain Man that help is supplied by Tom Cruise, in one of his more underappreciated roles. As hot-headed, self-absorbed Charlie Babbitt, Cruise is upstaged by Hoffman’s autistic savant, Raymond, in almost every scene. Yet the work Cruise does here should not be overlooked. Charlie’s brash nature seems tailor-made for Cruise’s Top Gun persona, but the subtleties he brings to his performance — particularly as Charlie’s shell cracks, and he begins to accept his very different brother — are just as impressive as Hoffman’s emulation of a neurological condition. And they are just as integral to Rain Man’s Best Picture Oscar win.
In the modern cinematic landscape dominated by superheroes and event films, Cruise is one of the last true movie stars whose name can still be the draw. Sure, he makes bank mostly because he’s willing to do his own stunts in big action pictures, and every once in a while he cranks out a groaner like The Mummy, but given the right role, Cruise is still a damn fine actor. Rain Man is one of the earliest examples of this oft-overlooked aspect of his stardom, and one of my favorite examples of why the man’s name still carries weight. – Nigel Druitt
- Global rank: #221
- Ranked 530,089 times by 67,619 users
- Wins 53% of its matchups
1988 saw the release of two separate Ghibli movies that made it onto this top 10 list (see Grave of the Fireflies above). Of the two, My Neighbor Totoro is definitely the lighter fare. It’s a delightful adventure about two sisters discovering unusual creatures near their new home. It has a slightly atypical structure for a family movie, as there is not really a villain for the kids to defeat or win over, but an almost exclusive focus on exploration and world-building. If there is an antagonist, it’s not a character so much as it is the illness that the girls’ mother is recovering from. Yet even this illness is in the background, seldom taking the spotlight as a central plot point. Thus the film seem low-stakes at first glance, but the stakes are not low, merely subtle. The girls’ anxiety over their mother’s wellbeing is always there in the background, coloring their actions and contextualizing their lighthearted adventures as much-needed breaks from the worries and uncertainties of their lives. We all need that, and Totoro works as both a simple adventure level for kids and on a deeper level for adults. – Hannah Keefer
- Global rank: #139
- Ranked 79,271 times by 5,541 users
- Wins 61% of its matchups
1. Die Hard
What can be said about Die Hard that hasn’t already been said? It changed the landscape of an entire genre of film, and effectively created its own sub-genre; action movie fans still describe its imitators as “Die Hard on a [boat, plane, etc.]” It also solidified the star power of both Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman. As thrilling and fun and well-directed as Die Hard is (it is the second in a trio of powerful action classics from John McTiernan), it is the two lead actors that make the film special. Willis’s isolated, street-smart, tough-but-vulnerable hero and Rickman’s sophisticated, ruthless, endlessly entertaining villain perfect a template that hundreds of movies have since tried to follow. Few have been able to live up to the dynamic, and none have surpassed. Die Hard manages to function both as a time capsule of late 80s/early 90s tropes, and as one of the reigning standards by which all later action movies are judged. – Tom Kapr
- Global rank: #36
- Ranked 805,149 times by 80,664 users
- Wins 65% of its matchups
Though the top 10 of 1988 as selected by the Flickchart user base are a fantastic collection of films, the bloggers have their own personal choices from 1988 that they’ve chosen to highlight. Check out these great hidden gems!
These days, Heathers is sometimes considered the founder of the holy trio of contemporary girl-centric comedies, the other two being Clueless and Mean Girls. Heathers, however, is not only my personal favorite of the three (by far), but also the highest on the global chart. What sets it apart is the genuine social commentary that comes through in the satire. With less capable writing and directing, the movie would just come across as mean-spirited, but it has a surprising amount of sympathy for all its characters, even the ones who have some serious issues going on. There’s a lot of serious material tackled here, most notably depression and suicide, and while these issues are approached from a dark comedy standpoint, it remains surprisingly relatable. Plus, it’s still wonderfully funny. In 2014 the movie was (very faithfully) adapted to a stage musical which has gathered an extremely strong cult following among teens, introducing the next generation to these characters in a new medium and proving that both its serious and comedic facets still resonate beyond the 80s. – Hannah Keefer
- Global rank: #588
- Ranked 78,007 times by 7,724 users
- Wins 48% of its matchups
As a Jeremy Irons fanboy, a film giving him the spotlight and showcasing his incredible range as an actor sounded to me like a dream come true. David Cronenberg‘s Dead Ringers features Irons as twin brother gynecologists who engage in a “game” of deception with various patients. Playing on their twin identity, they alternate between sleeping with the women and creating relationships with them, leaving the women unable to tell the difference between the two. One could argue that this is a fairly toned-down body horror for Cronenberg, given there are far fewer scenes of surreal body gore than a typical Cronenberg feature, but the body horror here comes less from blood and guts and more from the brothers’ dark manipulation.
Cronenberg plays on that factor for the audience as well as the characters, leaving it unclear which brother is which in certain scenes, even after the third act revelations come to fruition. The themes of duality permeate the imagery as well with a small smattering of surreal scenery and mentions of Siamese twins. Reportedly, both William Hurt and Robert De Niro turned down the lead role out of discomfort and difficulty. I’m glad they did, as Irons showcases why he is one of the better character actors out there. He manages to make both twins distinct enough to be separate characters, yet blends their behavior at the appropriate time to create the confusion the film desires. These masterful performances cement Dead Ringers as a truly unnerving film, despite it being one of Cronenberg’s least talked-about movies. – Connor Adamson
- Global rank: #853
- Ranked 23,690 times by 1,620 users
- Wins 48% of its matchups
The Vanishing traumatized me. I loved it. More often than I’d expect, though, I shudder when I see a travel center gas station, where the movie’s crucial events take place. Not much happens in this movie, which is part missing person procedural and part psychological portrait of two men driven by an obsessive need to know, but what does happen can’t be unseen, or rather, unimagined. An adaptation of a novel, this is the kind of horror movie which understands that not seeing and not knowing can be the most unbearable thing — even when seeing and knowing really is as awful as you imagine. (The movie’s French title translates to “The Man Who Wanted to Know.”) With a no-frills style and a summery, bucolic European setting, director George Sluizer beguiles and disarms before finally delivering the horrible truth. Stanley Kubrick called The Vanishing the scariest movie he’d ever seen, and in terms of its impact on my mind, I have to agree. – David Conrad
- Global rank: #868
- Ranked 16,946 times by 847 users
- Wins 56% of its matchups
If it had been made ten years earlier or ten years later, Willow would have easily, easily, spawned a culture-devouring franchise that we would all be sick of by now. But as it was, this extraordinary collaboration between George Lucas and Ron Howard is remembered only as a mildly-performing fantasy SFX demo reel, which is horrifyingly unfair. The world of Willow, with its casually implied racial histories and interwoven mythologies, is as magical of a spectacle as any vision of your Middle Earth with none of its nerd-culture baggage. This film is a well-needed reminder that non-franchise high fantasy remained a fresh and vital film genre for much longer than we typically give it credit, and that special effects don’t need to be “realistic” (whatever that means) in order to make you gasp, as long as you care about the characters and their struggles.
Warwick Davis, Val Kilmer, and Joanne Whalley all resist the temptation to make their characters “magical” and “thespianic” (like most fantasy actors today), instead keeping them dirty and direct and grounded in the rules of their world, which is cruel and beautiful in such measures as have rarely been captured on film before or since. (Fight me.) On a personal note, I’d like to take a moment to applaud first-time-actress Julie Peters who plays Willow’s wife Kaiya, she of the flaxen hair, sunrise smile, world-encompassing love for her husband, whom I have never stopped being in love with since I was five years old. – Doug Van Hollen
- Global rank: #1376
- Ranked 100,897 times by 13,082 users
- Wins 40% of its matchups