The year was 1988. The Cold War had warmed up considerably by then and the so-called ‘party decade’ was festively winding down stateside. The political and cultural influences on cinema were reflected in the themes, emotions and messages of the films of the late 80’s. Going through a list of releases from that period, it’s almost like we couldn’t stop celebrating, but still needed something to celebrate. And yet, despite this conflicting canvas, few people view the 80’s as the best decade of cinema – usually it’s overshadowed by the solemn dramatic classics of the 70’s and the modern, heady blockbusters of the 90’s.
Despite all of this, 1988 shines brightly even 30 years on, and you don’t have to look too hard to find some real gems. Take Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing (clocking in at over 80 minutes, even still), a cold, calculated concoction that, some have gone as far as to say, may have actually changed the world. Credited in some circles with causing the Polish government to abolish the death penalty, Kieslowski’s film is a harrowing taste of modernity at a time when we may not yet have been ready for such in-your-face, matter-of-fact depictions of society’s violent tendencies.
John Waters’ Hairspray on the other hand seemingly came out at exactly the right time, and perfectly bookended the most adventurous part of his career as a director. One of his ‘tamer’ films, Hairspray was not just flashy 60’s nostalgia. Waters created a perfect anti-racism fable that, not only fit the times, but would unfortunately stay current for years to come (witness the 2007 remake).
Waters was just one of many filmmakers with career highlights in the year 1988. Another was the Greek auteur Theo Angelopoulos. While he had been a veteran of historical melodrama up to that point, it wasn’t until 1988’s release of Landscape In The Mist that he reached his zenith. It’s a film designed to stop you in your tracks and fully consider what’s really important about the concept of the ‘road movie’ – it’s not the journey or the destination, but the meaning of the whole endeavor that really matters. Landscape in the Mist was so shockingly innovative in fact, that many forget it was released in the 80’s. It’s impossible that a film this contemplative (and technically stupendous) could be released at such an ‘innocent’ time for cinema.
After all, it came out at around the same time as Ivan Reitman’s high concept comedy Twins. For my money, Twins may be Reitman’s most enjoyable comedy, if not his best film overall. Looking back on it now, one is amazed by how effortless the laughs are, how sharp the humor is, and how enjoyable the performers are to watch on screen. Reitman has made a career out of endlessly rewatchable comedies and that is no easy feat. Twins is now looked down upon… Why? Part of the fun is that the jokes are easy, yet the actors still pull them off wonderfully on screen.
Lastly, I want to bring up the perfect antidote to the comedic overtones of Twins – George Sluzier’s chilling thriller The Vanishing. It’s a film that fills the audience with an inescapable dread. A great example of the surprising power of Dutch cinema, The Vanishing is one of those films that will not sit right with the viewer after it’s over. For some reason, this made-up story feels a lot more real than the sensationalized true-crime podcast-bait of today. In ’88, before the internet made them easy to consume, these types of stories had an extraordinarily haunting power over society.
And here is the best part, these films didn’t make it to the Top 15 movies list that I’m going to chronicle as part of my attempt to sum up 1988 – the year that was in film. That’s how good of an year it was – I’m actually proud it’s my birth year! I can’t wait to watch some 15 of the most important films that came out in 1988, starting with the Dan Aykroyd/John Candy classic (I hope) The Great Outdoors! See you then.
Previous posts in series: