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The 10 Best Films of 1988

by Jack Sommersby

The greatest year of filmgoing allows me to offer up a full range of film titles I hope you'll be inclined to give a look-see.

1988 was my favorite film year, and perhaps it was because I was eighteen at the time -- what with my hormones raging at their peak -- that I got such a great deal of undiluted enjoyment from so many damn films, even if they all weren't perfect. Yes, there were a few exceptions: Peter Bogdanovich's gruesome attempt at a modern screwball comedy, Illegally Yours, proved Rob Lowe doesn't have a drop of comic style in his veins; the criminally unfunny Caddyshack II had the audacity to think Jackie Mason could make a worthy substitute for Rodney Dangerfield; Cocktail was a sophomoric morality play, with a generic Tom Cruise doing his usual Acting 101 thing; and the absurdly overpraised Rain Man (where Cruise was actually passable) contained a palpably absurd story that was never believable for a minute. But there were a great deal of good to very-good films that may not have made the 10-best cut yet deserve recognition just the same. The Accidental Tourist was hampered by Lawrence Kasdan's typically somnolent direction, but William Hurt and Bill Pullman contributed outstanding turns as a reclusive travel-guide writer and his romantically hopeless editor. Action Jackson was lean and mean and exciting and showcased Carl Weathers as a charismatic action hero and Craig T. Nelson as a quintessential screen villain. Alien Nation was a victim of post-production tinkering, yet it was still the best piece of sci-fi action since The Terminator and a showcase for two good-natured turns by James Caan and Mandy Patinkin. The remake of And God Created Woman was far better than expected, and the erotic heat worked up between Rebecca De Mornay and Vincent Spano (both terribly underrated) was red-hot.

Betrayed was powerful yet hampered by numerous plot holes, with Debra Winger providing a towering performance as an undercover FBI agent assigned to infiltrate a racist network. Two drug-rehabilitation dramas, The Boost and Clean and Sober, were cliched yet well-made, with James Woods and Michael Keaton outstanding in their starring roles. Dennis Quaid captivated as a poisoned college professor searching for his killer in the stylish thriller D.O.A.. License to Drive, with Corey Haim and Corey Feldman, was (believe it or not) an inventive, imaginative teen comedy. Dead Ringers was another cinematic triumph for director David Cronenberg. Married to the Mob was a bit overly studied, but with Dean Stockwell highly memorable as the megalomaniac mob kingpin Tony "The Tiger" Russo, who cares? Masquerade was a good Hitchcockian thriller up until its dumb finale. The scene from Miles From Home where Kevin Anderson and Penelope Ann Miller fall in love at first sight was heart-lifting, as were the deeply felt performances by Sean Connery and Meg Ryan in the formulaic-yet-slick action film The Presidio. Permanent Record was an uncommonly smart and honest high-school drama on the topic of suicide. Rent-a-Cop was completely disreputable as a police thriller yet a grand guilty pleasure for those who have an affinity for bad cinema with oodles of unintentional laughs. Stealing Home was derivative of Summer of '42, but it boasted several honest, affecting moments and an outstanding supporting performance by Jodie Foster. Switching Channels was a good-natured, rambunctious remake of My Girl Friday that proved Kathleen Turner a flake at comedy yet not her assured, relaxed co-star, Burt Reynolds. And Chuck Norris even came through with two fine performances in two fine action films, Hero and the Terror and Braddock: Missing in Action III. The Thin Blue Line was a mesmerizing documentary of the Texas criminal justice system gone askew. Finally, one of the real kickers of the year was Two Moon Junction, an erotically charged softcore flick that featured a sultry pre-Twin Peaks Sherilyn Fenn and (are you ready?) Burl Ives. Yep, it was that kind of year.


10. Funny Farm

Though it isn't quite as uproarious as the 1985 classic Fletch, this bright adaptation of Jay Crowley's wonderful same-title novel ranks as Chevy Chase's second-best star vehicle. What we have here is another one of those fish-out-of-water stories, with Chase playing Andy Farmer, a New York sportswriter who, along with his homemaker wife, Elizabeth (Madolyn Smith), move to a small New England countryside town, where he plans to write The Great American Novel. Yet instead of living a life of tranquility, the Farmers discover their seemingly Norman Rockwell-ian town to be more reminiscent of something out of the Twilight Zone: there are huge snakes in their pond; the mailman is a hard-driving drunk who pitches their mail out of his pick-up truck; it costs twenty cents to make a call from the pay phone in their home; the sheriff has to get around by taxi because he keeps flunking his driving exams; and there's a corpse buried in the garden. To worsen matters, Andy experiences a serious case of writer's block, he's alienated practically the entire citizenry with his bumbling antics, and his wife manages to crank out a fantastic children's book about an equally bumbling squirrel with the same name as him. What makes Funny Farm decidedly different from the majority of its ilk are the wonderful comical situations, which are never painfully forced but always tactfully developed. The film has the benefit of crack source material, and the veteran director, George Roy Hill, wisely doesn't push things when they needn't be; he gives the scenes proper definition and dramatic focus yet enough aesthetic leeway in allowing the actors and jokes to flourish. And Chase and Smith make for an agreeable, believable couple to lead us through the proceedings (their marital spat over Andy's godawful finished novel is a keeper). The film is meticulously crafted and the kind of comedy that, if you're in the right mood, can leave you laughing for days.

9. (tie)

Working Girl

Melanie Griffith is an intelligent secretary looking to move up in the corporate world of Manhattan. Sigourney Weaver is her conniving boss whose scruples got jettisoned as soon she earned her MBA. Harrison Ford is a middle-level businessman looking for true love. All three may seem like cliches, but the first-rate performances by the actors, witty adult dialogue by Kevin Wade, and well-calibrated direction by Mike Nichols turn them into the kind of irresistible characters the audience feels lucky to spend a couple of hours with. Ample supporting backup is provided by Alec Baldwin, Joan Cusack, Oliver Platt, and Kevin Spacey, with the great cinematographer Michael Ballhaus giving New York a lovely pictorial sheen that lends this multi-Oscar-nominated Cinderella story an enchanting fairy-tale quality.

Red Heat

Arnold Schwarzenegger and James Belushi make for a fabulous team in this sensationally entertaining action extravaganza by director Walter Hill. Schwarzeneggar is a Russian cop sent to Chicago to take back a sinister drug lord responsible for his partner's death; Belushi is the Chicago cop Schwarzeneggar teams up when the culprit escapes. What basically ensues is: all hell breaks loose in the Windy City. There are breathlessly edited shootouts inside a jail lobby, a hospital, and a seedy hotel, with a knockout of a grand finale involving the high-speed (and highly destructive) chase involving two passenger buses. The juxtaposing of shots by Hill is masterly, with each and every scene bursting with snap and style. But it's not just the great action that carries the show, but the two vivid lead characters: Schwarzeneggar and Belushi give crowd-pleasing, varied performances, with the former injecting a surprising degree of irony into his line readings. The film is loud, exciting, funny, and a solid display of filmmaking craftsmanship at its finest.

8. Jack's Back

One hundred years after the original Jack the Ripper murders, a copycat serial killer is leaving behind a slew of mutilated corpses throughout the Los Angeles area, replicating the exact details of the crimes, right down to the victims' types, incisions, and body placement. When the latest victim turns out to be a recent patient of a free clinic, two of the medical-school employees (played by James Spader and Cynthia Gibb) are soon put in mortal danger. Jack's Back is suitably taut and breathlessly paced, with a proper respect for violence and a repulsed view of innate evil. Nothing in it is sensationalized to give the audience an easy way out in getting a kick out of the violence; it's a clever, stylish thriller that stays focused and allows the viewer little leeway to get their bearings -- it's in its mastery of keeping you off-balance that the film manages to glide over its contextual inconsistencies and keep the whodunit aspect niftily deceptive. Debuting writer/director Rowdy Herrington displays a great camera eye and a wonderful feel for gothic atmospherics; with Shelly Johnson's evocatively lighting lending a strong assist, Herrington gives us a City of Angels shrouded with the kind of doom-laden visual schema that clings and unnerves. Aside from the crack suspense moments (when Herrington wants you to jump, you will), the action sequences are well-choreographed and the occasional loopy humor cannily integrated into this impressively engineered whole. Gibb is both beautiful and appealing, with Spader giving a seductive, commanding performance in a dual role that emits serious star wattage. The film lacks the interesting sociological undercurrents of the well-regarded From Hell, yet its limited scope frees it of the bulky exposition that weighed that ambitious film down. Excepting Michael Mann's remarkable Manhunter of 1986, this was the best serial-killer thriller of the decade.

7. Rambo III

The best of the Rambo series. When Sylvester Stallone's John Rambo's previous commanding officer, Col. Trautman (played by the late Richard Crenna), is captured during an unofficial mission in Afghanistan and held prisoner by a brutal Russian commander, well-muscled ex-Vietnam vet Rambo goes behind enemy lines to attempt a rescue. After being criticized for the lack of characterization in the acceptable-but-mechanical Rambo II: First Blood, Stallone infused his character with some semblances of depth this time around; Rambo isn't exactly Shakespearean in dramatic power, yet he's become introspective and contemplative as he's aged -- he's learned to consider the consequences of his actions -- and Stallone underplays him with vivid, quiet conviction. The story itself is far from a grabber, though, with its heavy-handed metaphors and irksome inclusion of a spunky kid who tags along with Stallone slight deficiencies. But the name of the game here is action, and the production immensely benefited from the firing of original director Russell Mulcahy (Highlander) and the hiring of second-unit director Peter MacDonald, who makes a smashing debut here. In addition to his huge respect for actors (he favors wide shots of them in the same frame rather than each one in endless close-ups), he shows an incredibly refined film sense for shooting action at various interesting angles and juxtaposing them into cohesive sequences where the spatial logistics are coherently defined. (In other words, MacDonald is the opposite of a Michael Bay.) Several standout bits: a helicopter attack on freedom fighters on horseback; a cat-and-mouse battle inside a huge cave; an escape through the catacomb-like underbelly of a Soviet compound; Rambo closing a gaping wound by exploding gun powder into it; and even a neat throwaway line, like when an arms merchant asks what a strange-looking device called a blue light does, and Rambo answers, "Turns blue."

6. Tequila Sunrise

Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne's first directed-film since his perceptive character study Personal Best of 1982 is this romantic crime drama that pits two longtime friends (Mel Gibson's retired cocaine dealer, and Kurt Russell's narcotics lieutenant) against each other in vying for the affections of the luxurious restauranteuse (Michelle Pheiffer) who comes between them during a DEA investigation. When Towne concentrates on the dynamics of the relationships between these three, the film sizzles; but when he tries spritzing things up in the final third with action (which comes off as purely perfunctory and is unimpressively staged), it drizzles. Luckily, the first two-thirds are so good that we're willing to overlook the tepid follow-through as a mere inconvenience. What's hugely appealing about Tequila Sunrise is that it seems to be taking place in a hidden alcove from the rest of the world: even though there's a criminal investigation encompassing the characters, they're far more concerned with penetrating each other's protective emotional shields and playing mind games in Malibu beach houses and high-priced restaurants. There's a fascination in watching the three initially confident main characters falter when love figures into the equation; it's as if it were a foreign pathogen that found its way into their bloodstream, causing them to act elated yet frightened at the same time. The film is ultimately about loyalty, and Towne dexterously makes this implicit in the Gibson/Pheiffer, Gibson/Russell relationships without overstressing things. There's a giddy high to be had in seeing glamorous, gorgeous stars staring into each other's eyes and mouthing dialogue you know can only come from the movies ("Just lookin' at you hurts more."), engaging in foolhardy actions that ring an oddly true bell (like Gibson calling to cancel a dinner reservation while being chased by the police), or just reveling in the colorful give-and-take verbal banter that a filmmaker who truly loves actors like Towne has afforded them. A small masterpiece of glitzy irrelevance.

5. Patti Rocks

This ferociously honest and mercilessly funny comedy/drama was initially threatened with an X rating, and not because of sex and nudity (though it has explicit moments of both), but because of the manner in which the three central characters verbally express themselves. The majority of the action takes place inside a car, which is driven by a sexist-pig adulterer (played by Chris Mulkey) who just happens to be one of the most goofy human oddities ever to (dis)grace the planet; his passenger is an estranged friend (John Jenkins), who's agreed to ride down with him on a long cold night to visit a woman (Karen Landry) whom he's "knocked up" to tell her that he's married. There's virtually no plot, and with the gut-funny dialogue and classic camaraderie worked up between Mulkey and Jenkins, it simply doesn't need one. Mulkey's Eddie endlessly gripes about women and not being able to "play the field" just because he's married; he's a rambunctious overgrown child who refuses to accept responsibility for his indiscretions. (Mulkey is astounding in his free-wheeling characterization.) Providing the perfect counterbalance is Jenkins's world-whipped, recently divorced Eddie, who antagonizes his dimwit friend by introducing "reality" into the conversation; he's grounded yet also deeply wounded and carrying around a sinking weight of despair. (Jenkins is witty and galvanizing and possessor of the grandest wholehearted laugh I've ever heard.) And Karen Landry's Patti serves as the catalyst who drives both men down onto their collective knees; the film surprises us with this down-to-earth, no-nonsense woman who, unlike Billy's other female conquests, is far from a pushover. (Landry gives her character a quiet dignity that resonates.) The unfussy camerawork is efficient and unobtrusive, the scene transitions are agile, and the dialogue (penned by the cast and director David Morris) is simply uproarious. Besides, how many films are gutsy enough to have a lead character described as "having the philosophy of a dog: If you can't f-uck it or eat it, then piss on it"?

4. Midnight Run

Director/producer Martin Brest's wonderfully entertaining follow-up to his wonderfully entertaining Beverly Hills Cop is this action comedy starring Robert De Niro as a Los Angeles bounty hunter who's assigned to track down and transport accountant Charles Grodin, who jumped bail after being arraigned for embezzling $15 million from a dummy corporation run by the mob. The bounty hunter wants his $100,000 reward, the accountant wants to escape because he'll be killed by the mob if incarcerated, the FBI is hot on their trail, as well as a group of mobster henchmen with itchy trigger fingers and a rival bounty hunter who means to collect the reward himself. The sure-handed direction by Brest keeps the pace hopping and the individual sequences wonderfully filled out; the action is inventively staged; the exuberant music score by Danny Elfman gives the proceedings plenty of bounce; each of the supporting actors gets a chance to shine; and the interplay between De Niro and Grodin (whose diametrically opposite acting styles mesh perfectly here) is simply priceless. George Gallo's honey of a screenplay also boasts the kind of delicious dialogue many of us have been quoting for years ("Oh, yeah? Well, here come two words for you: Shut the fuck up."). Perhaps a tad overlong (Grodin's stealing a biplane, with De Niro subsequently hanging onto the wing of it, feels unnecessary), but this warrants nary a slap on the wrist in light of the enormous fun derived from a film with a well-worn story structure that manages to put countless witty spins on the kind of familiarities thought to be unsalvageable. (It's also one of those rare action comedies that gets the tone right.) Offers up that rare cinematic experience that simply makes you feel good.

3. Mississippi Burning

FBI agents Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe are sent down to a small Mississippi town in 1964 to investigate the disappearance of two civil-rights activists and the African-American teenager they were transporting. Based on a true story but considerably fictionalized by screenwriter Chris Gerolmo, this controversial Oscar-winner angered many for placing the white heroes front and center, and the blacks into the background. Yet a film, whether it's based on a true story or not, should be judged for what it is and not what it isn't. Yes, an interesting film could have been made of a story told from a black character's perspective; however, with two white characters sharing that duty, Mississippi Burning still manages to function as a riveting and disturbing film that works as an involving crime drama, a scathing social expose, and a touching love story. The nature of racism is perceptively explored here (poor white Southerners thinking themselves better than blacks is the only thing of pride they can hold onto) and given a seedy texture that gets under your skin (you can practically see it oozing out of a racist bartender's bulging veins), and the psychological complexity staggering (like an FBI agent's manipulative tactic of using romance to get information out of a deputy's wife -- who is repulsed by her husband's violent bigotry -- with little regard for the consequences). Alan Parker directs flawlessly and demonstrates a genuine feel for the Deep South that eluded him in his otherwise-splendid Angel Heart from the year before; and even when the writing occasionally bogs things down and the strong-arm tactics employed by the FBI come off as more entertaining than plausible, Parker manages to frame everything in a realistic context that we can respond to. In a film full of many delights, the greatest of them is Gene Hackman's magnificent, career-capping performance as the more perceptive of the agents, one who can ingratiate himself even in a room full of bigots yet can swing into a Shakespearean rage in the face of hostility that's truly frightening to behold.

2. Die Hard

Based upon a not-bad novel, Die Hard tells the tale of an NYPD officer (played by a plucky Bruce Willis, in a role turned down by Richard Gere) and his attempts to outwit a gang of European terrorists who've seized control of a downtown Los Angeles skyscraper on Christmas Eve. His estranged wife (the appealing Bonnie Bedilia) is one of the hostages, and the leader of the terrorists (a brilliant Alan Rickman) -- whose dress, demeanor, and intelligence suggest a Wall Street investment banker -- is prone to equal bits of self-admiration and cold-blooded violence. The central gimmick -- McClane running around the building clad only in undershirt and pants (sans socks and shoes) dusting off terrorists singlehandedly -- is palpably absurd, but John McTiernan's muscular direction keeps all of the outlandish story aspects intelligently aligned; we have that rare feeling of knowing we're in the hands of a director who knows exactly what he's doing, so we feel comfortable giving ourselves over to his 'vision' and leaving our common-sense detectors at the concession stand. The action sequences are, quite simply, the best ever filmed, with McTiernan's imaginative staging making the most of the limited set pieces; and when the action transports the audience out of the building and to the goings-on of the LAPD and FBI, the tension (which you could cut barbed wire with) is expertly sustained. But the film's secret weapon is its off-hand humor. Whether it's the nifty set of one-liners the gifted screenwriters have afforded Willis (as they similarly afforded Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs) or a bit of humor that's agreeably understated (like a SWAT officer pricking his finger on a rose bush), it helps sustain a jovially entertaining mood to help offset the sometimes-gory violence. Even a go-for-the-Oscar scene in a bathroom, with Willis tearfully telling a fellow officer on a radio to tell his wife he's sorry, comes off better than it should. I saw Die Hard at a sneak preview without expecting anything great from the director of Predator and the star of tv's Moonlighting. Suffice to say, I (along with practically everyone in the not-quite-packed theatre) were left stunned and filled with unbridled admiration. Twenty-five years later, I still am.

1. Bull Durham

Screenwriter Ron Shelton wrote a dandy screenplay for 1986's The Best of Times, which dealt with small-town high-school football and showcased an array of appealing, funny, interesting characters. In his directorial debut, Bull Durham, which he also wrote, he's managed to incorporate a similar strong character base into a quaint tale of a love triangle during a season of minor-league baseball. And the result is nothing short of magical. Kevin Costner plays Crash Davis, an articulate veteran catcher whose baseball knowledge unfortunately exceeds his talent; Tim Robbins is Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh, a rookie pitcher who's got a "million-dollar arm but a five-cent head"; and Susan Sarandon is Annie Savoy, the Durham Bulls's number-one fan who chooses one player each season to tutor the rudiments of baseball and sex to (she ends up with Nuke but longs for Crash). Instead of following the rules of most sports films (even his own The Best of Times), Shelton doesn't structure the story so the final payoff is a final crucial game; rather, the payoff that's worked up to is purely emotional, with two soul mates finally letting down their guards, accepting their limitations and mortality, and feeling agog over the rich rewards of doing so. The film manages to hit as many emotional highs as a daytime tv drama, yet they feel genuine and, more importantly, earned; the main characters don't run to a particular type, and their moods and joys and frustrations aren't easily pegged -- you sometimes have to interpret their silences as well as their words. Shelton is some kind of genius at keeping the dramatics perfectly blended with the humor, which is a considerably arduous task considering just how gut-funny the comedy is. Whether it's Nuke muttering to himself on the mound that wearing a garter belt doesn't make him "queer", Crash succumbing to an empire's taunting to get him thrown out of a game, a time-out on the pitcher's mound that results in a discussion about the perfect wedding gift, all are perfect examples of the comedy growing from incident and character rather than blatantly presented gags. Costner, Sarandon, and Robbins have never been better, and the film is a near-flawless masterpiece that has continued to stand the test of time.


Best Picture: Bull Durham
Best Actor: Gene Hackman (Mississippi Burning)
Best Actress: Debra Winger (Betrayed)
Best Supporting Actor: John Jenkins (Patti Rocks)
Best Supporting Actress: Frances McDormand (Mississippi Burning)
Best Director: John McTiernan (Die Hard)
Best Screenplay: Ron Shelton (Bull Durham)
Best Cinematography: Jan De Bont (Die Hard)

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originally posted: 10/19/03 18:53:59
last updated: 01/14/17 14:45:44
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