When the Motion Picture Academy looked back at 1988, it gave its Best Picture award to a feel-good formula flick called Rain Man. Which isn't bad as such films go—I've always liked the scene when Dustin Hoffman blithely confesses to counting cards—but it certainly isn't as good as any of these:
1. A Fish Called Wanda
Directed by Charles Crichton
Written by John Cleese, from a story by Crichton and Cleese
The last great John Cleese movie.
2. Apartment Zero
Directed by Martin Donovan
Written by Donovan and David Koepp
"If that's a mask, either take it off now or leave it on forever."
3. Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser
Directed by Charlotte Zwerin
Genius wrapped up in madness.
4. My Neighbor Totoro
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki
The phrase "family movie" is usually a euphemism for "children's movie," but this really is a picture that people of all levels of maturity can enjoy.
Directed by Bernard Rose
Written by Matthew Jacobs, from a novel by Catherine Storr
Like My Neighbor Totoro, this is about illness, parenthood, and kids' fantasy worlds. But, um, not in the same way.
6. Distant Voices, Still Lives
Written and directed by Terence Davies
Like a modernist novel crossed with a music-hall singalong.
7. Grave of the Fireflies
Directed by Isao Takahata
Written by Takahata, from a novel by Akiyuki Nosaka
A good movie to watch if you want to cry uncontrollably for a bit.
8. Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie
Directed by Marcel Ophüls
There are those who collaborated with the Nazis during the war, and there are those who collaborated afterward.
9. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen Directed by Terry Gilliam Written by Gilliam and Charles McKeown, from a novel by Rudolph Erich Raspe
"Have him executed at once. This sort of behavior is demoralizing for the ordinary soldiers and citizens who are trying to lead normal, simple, unexceptional lives."
10. The Naked Gun Directed by David Zucker Written by Zucker, Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Pat Proft
In addition to featuring O.J. Simpson's finest performance outside a courtroom, this is the best baseball movie ever made.
11. Prometheus' Garden (Bruce Bickford)
12. Cane Toads: An Unnatural History (Mark Lewis)
13. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Pedro Almodovar)
14. The Vanishing (George Sluizer)
15. Miracle Mile (Steve De Jarnatt)
16. Cannibal Tours (Dennis O'Rourke)
17. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Philip Kaufman)
18. Running on Empty (Sidney Lumet)
19. Virile Games (Jan Svankmajer)
20. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (Robert Zemeckis)
And a shoutout to The Thin Blue Line, which can credibly claim to have gotten an innocent man freed from prison. Also, a shoutout to They Live: If I were to judge movies only by their best parts, that one would be in the top 10.
Of the films of 1988 that I haven't seen, I'm most interested in Bird.