The 30 Best Films of 1989

Movies Lists 30 Best Films of 1989
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The 30 Best Films of 1989

Much like the year that preceded it, 1989 was a pretty significant year for the movies. During the decade’s last gasp, we saw the first big studio film directed by a black woman (A Dry White Season), the official return of Disney animation (The Little Mermaid), the feature debut of Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies, and Videotape), the arrival (love him or hate him) or documentarian/provocateur Michael Moore and the second splashdown harbinging the Superheroic Age of Film we currently occupy courtesy of Tim Burton’s Batman. Along with these films came plenty of influential pop culture mainstays—When Harry Met Sally, Heathers and Field of Dreams—as well as at least one movie by a director/studio whose influence on these shores would blossom later (Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service). Whether you lived it, or are just looking to brush up on the significant (and simply enjoyable) films of the year:

Here are the 30 best movies of 1989.

30. Tetsuo: The Iron Man

Director: Shinya Tsukamoto


So meticulous it gets unpleasant; so unpleasant it can get sublime—Shinya Tsukamoto’s first entry in his existential body horror series is the stuff of psycho-sexual cyber-nightmares, like Eraserhead if David Lynch were full of hate rather than fear. Which is maybe too severe a presumption, that Tsukamoto despises his fellow man. What if all he despises is the flesh? In following the downfall of one Japanese salaryman (Tomorowo Taguchi), who, upon hitting a man with his car on a joyride with his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara)—a man (played by the director) obsessed with painfully merging his body with metal—leaves the victim to die, Tsukamoto wraps oneiric logic and nauseating set pieces in a brutal medley of squishy, industrial sound carefully constructed to make every one of the film’s 67 minutes feel like an eternity spent on the precipice between pleasure and pain. It isn’t for everyone, which isn’t much to say, because you’ll know whether Tetsuo is for you or not within its opening minute. It is an unrelentingly surprising experience: As the Salaryman transforms into a heaving carbuncle of drills and spikes and wires and greasy, shiny inorganic stuff, seemingly infected by the man he struck with his car, the film emerges as something funnier, something more transcendently minded, than its maggot-infested beginnings. It’s been written that filming was so miserable, most of Tsukamoto’s crew quit before he was done. Probably for the best. Tetsuo wishes for something better for all involved—even if “better” is only relative. —Dom Sinacola

29. Steel Magnolias

Director: Herbert Ross


Based on a stage play by Robert Harling, this story chronicles the bonds among a group of women in Louisiana. Occasioned by the death of the playwright’s sister from diabetes complications, it touches on the quotidian (but life-altering) dramas of friendship and love, marriage and parenthood, illness and lives cut short. Steel Magnolias stars Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Daryl Hannah and Julia Roberts and is generally acknowledged to have initiated Roberts into stardom, though Sally Field’s performance is probably the standout. Not an overwhelmingly clever film, it is certainly a compassionate one, and it presents a humble and kind-spirited testimony to the sustaining power of female friendship. —Amy Glynn

28. Say Anything…

Director: Cameron Crowe


In his directorial debut, Cameron Crowe places one of the all-time charming film courtships within that strangely insular time, mid-transition: between high school and college (and career, and family). In Lloyd Dobler, the defining role of John Cusack’s career, Crowe presents an appealing, convincing everyman whose pursuit of a girl (Ione Skye), supposedly out of his league, reveals how foolish such handicapping can be in the first place. Though Crowe would go on to create a number of career-launching roles for women (Renee Zellweger and Kate Hudson), in Say Anything, Dobler rules. —Michael Burgin

27. Born on the Fourth of July

Director: Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone, essentially, found the perfect mouthpiece in Tom Cruise, as Vietnam veteran and anti-war protester Ron Kovic, to champion his own politics revolving around America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The scenes recalling Kovic’s experiences that result in his PTSD, paralyzing disability and alcohol abuse are as gut-wrenching as anything in Full Metal Jacket, and witnessing the development of those things after his return to his country is a tragedy unraveling onscreen all its own. Cruise is phenomenal as a man truly broken—physically and psychologically—by his traumas (as is the scene-stealing Willem Dafoe as a fellow wounded warrior). Despite ending on a hopeful thread, Fourth of July is a tough watch, but very worthwhile—perhaps even patriotically necessary. —Scott Wold

26. A Dry White Season

Director: Euzhan Palcy


It would be easy to dismiss it as yet another bit of white-savior anti-racism Hollywood Oscar bait upon cursory glance, but A Dry White Season is a deservedly angry and righteously indignant rallying cry against the evil of South African apartheid. Director Euzhan Palcy, who co-adapted Andre P. Brink’s 1977 novel with Colin Welland, was the first black female director tapped to helm a major Hollywood release—in 19-freaking-89. Setting the shamefulness of that tardiness aside, Palcy proves that representation matters by pulling her focus as much away from her white protagonist as she can without shying away from depicting the graphic brutality of a system devised to torture and dehumanize its black population. She also provides a refreshing twist on the white savior trope, showing how a history teacher played with great empathy by Donald Sutherland, who gradually becomes woke as he doggedly investigates the murder of his gardener (Winston Ntshona) at the hands of the police, has openly benefitted from this system to the point that any attempt at redemption, no matter how heartfelt, might eventually fall short. With its fiery damning of institutionalized racism, Palcy constructs a formidably gripping thriller out of this important narrative. —Oktay Ege Kozak

25. Let It Ride

Director: Joe Pytka


In this media-saturated age, it’s not as easy to be a “forgotten gem” as it used to be. With the constant curation available from online pubs (Paste included), personal blogs, Twitter threads, etc., it seems like most everything gets dug up and remember, even if just in passing. Still, films like Joe Pytka’s Let It Ride prove that some decently overlooked gems remain. A comedy with a light farcical touch, the film features Richard Dryfuss as Jay Trotter, a habitual (and unsuccessful) gambler determined to leave the race track behind in order to repair his marriage with his wife, Pam (Teri Garr). But maybe, just maybe, the powers that be could let him go out as a winner? Though driven by Dreyfuss, the film is equally as enjoyable as a mass character study (even if one done with the broadest of strokes) of the denizens (gamblers and others) who populate the insular world of the racetrack. David Johansen, Jennifer Tilly and Robbie Coltrane are some of the more recognizable names, but the entire film is filled with small moments, nicely delivered by bit players along with the bigger names. As a result, Let It Ride is one of those rare films that both you and your film-loving friend may not have seen. Thirty years after its release is as good a time as any to correct that oversight, don’t you think? —Michael Burgin

24. The Abyss

Director: James Cameron


Waaaayyyy back in 1989, before disappearing beneath the waves with Titanic and Ghosts of the Abyss, James Cameron was torturing his cast and crew with the infamously punishing shoot of this nail-biter sci-fi thriller involving the deep sea exploration of an unidentified sub. Though generally remembered as “lesser Cameron,”—mainly due to a deus ex machina ending—The Abyss nevertheless rivets viewers with genuine tension throughout. (Claustrophobics, in particular, might want to give this one a wide berth.) Ed Harris is phenomenal as the foreman of a deep sea drilling rig in way over his head (sorry), and Cameron regular Michael Biehn gets to play the heavy this time. Of course, this being a Cameron project, the SFX were well ahead of its time, and still impress to this day. —Scott Wold

23. Back to the Future Part II

Director: Robert Zemeckis


One of the first big Hollywood movies to be filmed back-to-back with its sequel, Zemeckis’s Back to the Future Part II certainly is no Part I (or even Part III), but it has a handful of its own charms. Michael J. Fox once again delights as the hip teen apprentice to mad scientist Doc Brown (a hilariously frazzled Christopher Lloyd), Marty McFly (and Marty McFly Jr. and Marlene McFly). Even with an uninspired, convoluted story, the film remains memorable due to its highly inventive “future of 2015” setting. Sure, we all carry around what are essentially pocket-sized supercomputers now, but a lot of us would trade ours in a hot second for one of the movie’s kickass hoverboards or flying cars. Screenwriter Bob Gale proved himself a bit prophetic too when, back in 1989, he somehow predicted the rise of Donald Trump through the villainous Biff Tannen (a scene-stealing Thomas F. Wilson), a character the writer admitted is based on Trump. And hey, who can forget a flick that was only off by one year with a throwaway joke about the Cubs winning the World Series? —Scott Wold

22. Monsieur Hire

Director: Patrice Leconte


Basing his film on a novel by Belgian writer George Simenon, director Patrice Leconte blends cold, cool visuals, superb performances and a haunting score by composer Michael Nyman (The Piano, Gattaca, pretty much every Peter Greenaway film) in this too-often-overlooked French thriller/love story. Whether you get caught up in the whodunnit, the off-kilter romance or just the fascinating portrait of the title character, Monsieur Hire will leave a lasting impression. —Michael Burgin

21. Kiki’s Delivery Service

Director: Hayao Miyazaki


Based on Eiko Kadono’s popular 1985 young adult novel, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a cheerful and charming story of adolescent independence, positivity, and the font of inner strength that compels every young person to go out into the world and build a life of their own. Miyazaki’s fourth film under Studio Ghibli follows the titular Kiki, a thirteen-year-old witch who ventures out into the world from the comfort of her hometown to begin her training as an adult. Noticeably lacking in any sort of antagonist or grand adventure, Kiki’s Delivery Service focuses instead on the everyday struggles of a young adult coming into her own, albeit with a magical twist. Finding a place to stay, securing a job, learning how to make new friends and taking on more responsibilities: These are the sort of stakes that define Kiki’s journey and make her story an endearing one. Miyazaki’s affinity for depicting flight shines through every scene of Kiki wrestling against the air current to steady her broom mid-flight, her dress billowing in the wind as she jets off in the film’s spectacular finale. Though all of Studio Ghibli’s previous films were modest critical, if not financial, successes up to this point, Kiki’s Delivery Service was a true watershed moment for the studio, becoming the highest-grossing film in Japan in 1989 and securing critical acclaim both at home and overseas. —Toussaint Egan

20. Parenthood

Director: Ron Howard


Parenthood is an irresistibly relatable family dramedy, featuring an ensemble cast of comic actor nirvana, all directed by Ron Howard (who could not be more within his wheelhouse here). Chiefly revolving around the parental anxieties of dad Gil Buckman (Steve Martin), the narrative weaves throughout his family, including sister Helen (the incomparable Dianne Wiest), who’s stuck refereeing her rebellious teenage daughter (Martha Plimpton) and secret-husband (Keanu Reeves, hot right off of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, released earlier the same year), as well as troubling over her puberty-stricken son, Gary (Joaquin Phoenix), whose withdrawn behavior is raising eyebrows within the family. Rounding out the dazzling cast are Rick Moranis, Mary Steenburgen and the legendary Jason Robards as Gil’s father. Parenthood has, practically, an overabundance of heart and simultaneously terrifying, but painfully funny, moments. Is there a parent alive who doesn’t wake up in existential horror wondering their well-meaning choices turn their child into a deranged watchtower shooter? —Scott Wold

19. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Director: Steven Spielberg


After an unfortunately racist turn into dark and gloomy territory with the franchise’s previous installment, Spielberg and Lucas decide to play it safe by going back to the Nazi-punching, ancient-Christian-magic-excavating roots of the original Indiana Jones adventure. There aren’t many surprises this time around, but Spielberg takes full advantage of the success previous films afforded him. Of course, the film’s biggest addition to the Jones mythos is Sean Connery as Indy’s absentee father: The frail ties between protagonists and their fathers is a recurring theme in Spielberg’s films, and the natural chemistry between Harrison Ford and Connery provides the organic support such a relationship needed. Since the Indiana Jones series apparently began with Spielberg’s desire to direct a James Bond movie, the casting of Connery brings the brand full circle. —Oktay Ege Kozak

18. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

Director: Peter Greenaway


Aside from depicting the most unorthodox sausage dinner ever put on film during its notorious finale, Peter Greenaway’s sick pitch-black dark comedy, with all the legitimate praise that comes with that description, allows Mirren to showcase one of the bravest and most complex performances of her career. As the cheating wife to an abusive husband played with teeth-gnashing hysteria by Michael Gambon, Mirren audaciously explores a wide emotional range, from meek arm candy all the way to a zero-fucks-given force of blind revenge. —Oktay Ege Kozak

17. Field of Dreams

Director: Phil Alden Robinson


A uniquely American fantasy, Field of Dreams solidified Kevin Costner’s status as a rugged Everyman, A-list actor and perhaps the only man allowed to star in baseball films that make money. And though “If you build it, he will come” quickly raced up the charts of “Most Clichéd Phrasing,” it’s also true that the film’s ending is among the best opportunities to see grown men cry. —Michael Burgin

16. Glory

Director: Edward Zwick


Matthew Broderick may appear in the lead as Col. Robert Gould Shaw, but Glory belongs to Denzel Washington (Pvt. Trip), Morgan Freeman (Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins), Andre Braugher (Cpl. Thomas Searles) and Jhimi Kennedy (Pvt. Jupiter Sharts). These actors deliver incredible performances as members of the first all-black regiment in the Union army during the Civil War, with Washington going on to win the 1990 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Instead of focusing on the obvious North vs. South binary, Glory follows the men as they struggle against Northern racism and their own perceptions of what it means to be Black, and what it means to be Black in an army where they are almost never seen as equals—despite fighting on the same “side” as their white counterparts. With a hauntingly beautiful score, and some of the most memorable war scenes directed by Edward Zwick, Glory is one of the most important films not just about the Civil War, but about America’s eternally complicated history of racism and the black pride that persists in spite, on the battlefield and beyond. —Shannon M. Houston

15. A City of Sadness

Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien


Set in the late 1940s, during the onset of the “White Terror,” a period of martial law following the takeover of Taiwan care of the mainland Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)—a time in which thousands of Tainwanese artists, academics and activists were murdered or imprisoned—Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s drama doesn’t require a deep understanding of historical context to grasp the trauma translated throughout the lives of the Lin family. Context helps, of course; the depths of his characters’ torment, and the purging of that torment, gains power with even the slightest understanding of the circumstances Hou’s characters face, were one to limit one’s purview of such an atrocity to only this film. And yet, A City of Sadness breathes brokenness, Hou’s three brothers—the oldest, Wen-heung (Chen Sung-young), doomed to understand the perils of the historical moment through the ruthlessness of the Shanghai mafia; Wen-leung (Jack Kao), a victim of the KMT machine, reduced to being, simply, the brother with the debilitating brain injury; and youngest Wen-ching (Tony Leung), a deaf-mute and silent observer of his family’s dissolution—the vessels through which Hou investigates a legacy of pain. The director provides little information for the audience, in long takes and claustrophobic domesticity, besides the acuity of tragedy in everything little thing they do, every little day they live. It is more than enough. —Dom Sinacola

14. Roger and Me

Director: Michael Moore


Self-aggrandizing provocateur Michael Moore made a name for himself with this doc, in which he tours his hometown of Flint, Michigan in the wake of GM’s closure of local factories. As the company outsources labor to Mexico, crippling Flint’s workforce, infrastructure and collective psyche, Moore totes his camera around in search of then CEO and president Roger B. Smith to get answers and, you know, be Michael doing Michael. He poses as a TV reporter to get the word on the (crime-ridden) streets, and then a shareholder to crash a GM convention. His lens encounters a who’s who of visiting conservative personalities (Pat Boone, televangelist Robert Schuller, Ronald Reagan), along with outraged blue collar citizens. It’s a pointed (if highly manipulative) commentary on class and capitalism—and gonzo demagogue Moore at his most tolerable. —Amanda Schurr

13. Henry V

Director: Kenneth Branagh


Kenneth Branagh’s directorial debut and an important part of his powerhouse-casting Shakespearean reboot-a-thon, Henry V is widely considered one of the best Shakespeare adaptations of all time. Its heavily laureled cast includes Paul Scofield, Ian Holm, Judi Dench, Christian Bale, Derek Jacobi, Robbie Coltrane and Emma Thompson, as well as Branagh himself in the title role, receiving Oscar nods for both Best Actor and Best Director. A darker and grittier version of the text than Laurence Olivier’s 1944 Henry V, the film has a significantly edited script and incorporates some unconventional flashbacks, primarily involving Falstaff (Coltrane), who is technically only referenced in the play. Branagh’s production is exceedingly accessible, a film well-designed to make contemporary audiences fall in love with Shakespeare, and a tremendous showcase of British acting power. —Amy Glynn

12. Heathers

Director: Michael Lehmann


As much an homage to ’80s teen romps—care of stalwarts like John Hughes and Cameron Crowe—as it is an attempt to push that genre to its near tasteless extremes, Heathers is a hilarious glimpse into the festering core of the teenage id, all sunglasses and cigarettes and jail bait and misunderstood kitsch. Like any coming-of-age teen soap opera, much of the film’s appeal is in its vaunting of style over substance—coining whole ways of speaking, dressing and posturing for an impressionable generation brought up on Hollywood tropes. But Heathers embraces its style as an essential keystone to filmmaking, recognizing that even the most bloated melodrama can be sold through a well-manicured image. And some of Heathers’ images are indelible: J.D. (Christian Slater) whipping out a gun on some school bullies in the lunch room, or Veronica (Winona Ryder) passively lighting her cigarette with the flames licking from the explosion of her former boyfriend. It makes sense that writer Daniel Waters originally wanted Stanley Kubrick to direct his script: Heathers is a filmmaker’s (teen) film. —Dom Sinacola

11. Drugstore Cowboy

Director: Gus Van Sant


Gus Van Sant’s sophomore feature film was the filmmaker’s huge breakout, earning him near-universal critical acclaim. And it’s ridiculously easy to understand why: Drugstore Cowboy is a propulsive, gripping slice of cinema. Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by James Fogle, Cowboy features an electric lead performance in Matt Dillon as Bob, a junkie who, along with girlfriend Diane (Kelly Lynch), friends Rick (James LeGros) and Nadine (a young Heather Graham), robs pharmacies while getting high on their supply in and around Portland, Ore. in 1971. The film veers wildly between bleak drug-addled hellscape, paranoid delusions and pitch-black comedy. That it does so in a way that is perfectly in service with—even elevating—the story being told is the best testament to the talent and discipline of Van Sant as a writer/director. And, really, who could resist a movie featuring both funny and tragic drug overdoses that actually casts William S. Burroughs as a junkie priest? —Scott Wold

10. The Little Mermaid

Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker, Jørgen Lerdam


The Disney Renaissance began, for good and bad, with this perky reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s famous (and much darker) fairytale, starring Jodi Benson as the voice of Ariel, a mermaid who longs for life on land. It brought Disney animated features back from a vegetative state and won a host of awards and accolades, many of them for its witty, evocative score (Howard Ashman and Alan Menken even scored a Grammy). The underwater setting required the most intensive special effects design of any Disney feature since Fantasia, and eschewed the bleary watercolors of many of the studio’s 1970s efforts in favor of a vivid, saturated palate. The film is very much a document of the late ’80s, but it’s still remarkably funny: Pat Carrol voices the villainous Ursula, who was modeled on Divine, to excellent effect; Rene Auberjonois has a brief but brilliant turn as a manic French chef; and Buddy Hackett stylishly carries on the Disney tradition of doofy but crucial bird characters as Scuttle, a mouthy seagull. Like many of Disney’s best films, The Little Mermaid inhabits the coming-of-age/love-story space, and while people grumbled (as they always will) at the heavy emphasis placed on a female protagonist capturing the attentions of a charming young prince, it is also, importantly, about what happens when you negotiate yourself, about the importance of keeping, and using, your voice. —Amy Glynn

9. When Harry Met Sally

Director: Rob Reiner


Easily the most beloved traditional romantic comedy of its decade, the story of Harry (Billy Crystal), Sally (Meg Ryan) and their 12-year journey to couple-hood boasts a pitch-perfect script by Nora Ephron that feeds and feeds off of the unexpected chemistry between its leads. (And with each new generation of lovers watching the diner scene for the first time, another woman laughs and another man sits silently, wondering what’s so funny.) —Michael Burgin

8. Batman

Director: Tim Burton


With each passing year, it becomes harder to remember that for decades, the popular perception of Batman was not that of the brooding, grim vigilante. Before Tim Burton’s Batman, it was that of the super-campy TV series (and 1966 movie) Batman, colorfully portrayed by Adam West. Though hyped to unholy hell ahead of release, Burton’s version of the character and world restored a great deal of respectability to not only the Caped Crusader, but to comic books in film. Applying the Burton house style of German Expressionism-inspired visuals, Gotham City was again rebuilt as the Great Depression-era New York-at-midnight it was originally conceived as, and Michael Keaton’s astonishing sharp-left turn from being perceived as only a comedic actor to that of the split personality Billionaire Playboy/World’s Greatest Detective created what may have amounted to the film’s biggest critical shockwaves. With Jack Nicholson as the Joker, applying the same mania as he did to the second half of The Shining, Burton’s full package was one entertaining-as-hell summer movie. (Enough so to forgive an archvillain’s needlessly changed origin story.) As both the genre and the Batman mythos itself have received more and more sophisticated treatment, it’s harder and harder to view Burton’s film as a Batman film, and easier to see it as pure Burton. Still, in 1989, it was an inspiring glimmer of things to come. —Scott Wold

7. The Killer

Director: John Woo


Pure of heart, purer of violence, the modern iconism of John Woo functionally begins here. Behold the emo assassin Ah Jong (Chow Yun-fat), on the Triad’s payroll but looking to finally get out, get clean—until an innocent nightclub singer, Jennie (Sally Yeh), loses her sight while caught in the crossfire of Ah Jong’s final hit. The guilt consumes him so ravenously he becomes obsessed with Jennie, and eventually falls in love with her, promising to pay for the eye surgery she needs to keep from going completely blind, a promise he can only keep by taking a few more jobs. Meanwhile, Detective Li Ying (Danny Lee) becomes obsessed himself after witnessing Ah Jong in action, admiring how such a seemingly cold-blooded murderer could, amidst all that chaos, stick to a noble code. Inevitably, these two obsessions converge in a balletic flutter of doves’ wings, as the two inimitable gunfighters reluctantly join forces, balking at the law, to take down the psychopathic Triad boss who once employed Ah Jong. Grown men will gaze at each other a tad too lasciviously as they polish their guns and lick their wounds; innumerable bullets and bodies will fly in slow-motion with little concern for physics; a church will be shot up; Chow Yun-fat will be called “Shrimp Head”—The Killer is action cinema as elegant mayhem, melodrama matching the stakes of the lives exploited for our absurd amusement. It’s a beautiful thing to witness, even if you’ve seen all of this in so many of Woo’s movies to follow, because there is nothing more empirical, more foundational, than the pained face of Chow Yun-fat, his finger on the trigger, realizing he’s been betrayed. It belongs in a museum. —Dom Sinacola

6. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

Director: Pedro Almodovar


Porn, junk, obsession, madness, coercion and Antonio Banderas? It must be Pedro Almodovar. Critically and popularly successful in Spain, Almodovar’s excursion into the heart of Stockholm syndrome was controversial on its U.S. release, which came around the time the NC-17 rating was established. The story of a mentally ill young man in love with a porn star gone legit, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! uses a fusion of rom-com and horror conventions to explore the metaphorical potential of restraint. Ricky (Banderas) abducts Marina (Victoria Abril) so that he can establish himself as a devoted partner, which obviously requires her being tied up in an apartment so she can give him her undivided attention. And it works; she falls in love with him. Making that dynamic believable is no small feat. Marina, who is acting in a horror film within the film, remarks to her director that it’s “more of a love story than a horror story,” to which the director quips, “Sometimes they’re indistinguishable.” For Almodovar they nearly always are; he’s a master of dark obsessive impulses and desires that defy the conventions of society. —Amy Glynn

5. Crimes and Misdemeanors

Director: Woody Allen


“Is there a God? And if so, is He watching?” Woody Allen’s somber meditation on this variant of the Big Question centers on two, vaguely interrelated stories: A successful ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) takes drastic measures to deal with an increasingly threatening mistress (Anjelica Huston) while a married filmmaker (Allen) finds himself attracted to the assistant (Mia Farrow) of his egotistical brother-in-law (Alan Alda). The events that follow leave the viewer uncomfortably aware of just how unanswerable some questions can be. This philosophical discomfort has only been heightened in the years since as it’s become much harder for some—and impossible for many—to enjoy Allen’s films in light of the accusations that have been leveled against him. This has especially been the case in films where Allen writes his stand-in character—often Allen himself—exhibiting the same school of misbehavior he’s accused of in real life. (See Manhattan.) In Crimes and Misdemeanors, this autobiographical gloss has additional resonance, as the script wrestles with whether misbehavior, even the most egregious, truly gets punished (and implies, if not, why not behave as you will?). It’s hard not to read the initial guilt, then relief and return to normalcy of Martin Landau’s character as, on some level, authorial wish fulfillment. —Michael Burgin

4. Sex, Lies, and Videotape

Director: Steven Soderbergh


When the Berlin wall fell in 1989, Sex, Lies, and Videotape was being shown all across what used to be known, mere hours beforehand, as West Berlin. Citizens of East Germany, whose access to “subversive” art had been heavily censored for decades, flocked to theaters to see Steven Soderbergh’s film, judging by the title that they were in for some real adult entertainment. Imagine going through hell for so many years, looking forward to enjoying your first taste of naughty freedom, only to be met with an American intellectual filmmaker’s abrasively un-erotic, deeply thoughtful examination of sexual ennui amidst a quartet of middle class whites. The universe has a sick sense of humor.

Soderbergh’s feature debut, which immediately solidified him as an impressive new voice in American independent cinema, is a frank, stripped-down study on how one’s sexual nature can inform one’s character: Can a change in sexual behavior in service of a partner’s needs truly lead to happiness? Ann (Andie MacDowell), a rather conservative southern belle, finds her life turned upside down by the introduction of her husband’s (Peter Gallagher) old college friend, Graham (James Spader), whose physical impotence leads him to record other women talking about their sexual experiences as his only way of getting off. Intrigued by the possibility of unconventional erotic experiences, Ann’s drawn to Graham, exposing her husband’s callous approach to sex as power play in the process. Expertly using his meager budget to capture the essential themes of his story, Soderbergh relies on a minimal amount of locations and basic production design to stay focused on the characters and the performances, though Walt Lloyd’s cinematography, seething with the heat of the film’s Louisiana locations, is shot in stunning clarity. —Oktay Ege Kozak

3. My Left Foot

Director: Jim Sheridan


Outstanding performances and cinematography are the hallmarks of this biopic. Well known for his total-immersion method of character acting, Daniel Day-Lewis takes on the challenge of his career in the role of Christy Brown, an acclaimed Irish writer and artist with cerebral palsy who is only able to control his left foot. This true story is filmed on location, and is a visually compelling study of the slums of Dublin. Director James Sheridan wisely gives us a complete portrait of Brown, warts and all. Bitter, unlikeable and amazingly talented, Christy Brown succeeds in making us cheer even as we curse him. —Joan Radell

2. Dead Poets Society

Director: Peter Weir


The Maverick Mentor Who Changes Everything is a cinematic supertrope for a reason: It’s real. Many of us have had that teacher, and those who haven’t have missed a transcendent experience. In the case of Peter Weir’s 1989 classic, the sorcerer is a rogue literature teacher named John “Keats” (ha ha) Keating, who has returned, in 1959, to his alma mater, an ultra-stodgy elite boys’ boarding school. His mission is to teach poetry to what must be the most poetry-resistant demographic on earth: adolescent males. And since there are no spoiler alerts on 25-year-old films, let me just say he succeeds. In an extraordinary performance by Robin Williams, Keating harnesses his classic manic coke-y verbal machine-gun-volleys and hilarious impersonations—restraining that impulse with the very control his character was urging his students to shake off, exhorting his students to emulate Thoreau and “suck the marrow out of life.” He shook them up, demanding that they look at their ordinary environment from different perspectives (from the tops of their desks, for example) as he fed them Walt Whitman and Shelley and the Transcendentalists. We all need to be reminded that we have agency, choices, that we make our own worlds regardless of what tools or materials with which we’re given to make them. That we don’t have to accept gray, mindless, forgettable lives. That we can each choose to be more alive even if that choice includes choosing death (and it sometimes does). As Dead Poet’s Society member Charlie Dalton, a supporting character played beautifully by Gale Hansen, intones one night to beatnik drumming, “Laughing, crying, tumbling, mumbling / Gotta do more, gotta be more; Chaos screaming, Chaos dreaming / Gotta do more, gotta be more.” The message of the movie is one of the eternal ones: Be the hero of your own play. Be the star. Carpe diem, boys. —Amy Glynn

1. Do the Right Thing

Director: Spike Lee


Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee’s brutally direct masterpiece about America’s fraught race relations, compacted within a block of Bed-Stuy during the hottest day of a 1989 summer, might be hypnotically entrenched in late ’80s aesthetic and style, but its tragic breakdown of racial conflict is timeless. Like a master manipulator of tone and tension, Lee meticulously turns up the heat until the inevitable explosion tears apart the society with which Lee’s spent the course of the movie making us fall in love. Tragedy expands tenfold. Powered by amazing performances from a great ensemble cast—from established heavy hitters like Ossie Davis, Danny Aeillo and Ruby Dee, to then-newcomers Martin Lawrence, Samuel L. Jackson and John Turturro—and Ernest Dickerson’s scorching cinematography, Do The Right Thing is one of those rare achievements that manages to be equal parts hilarious and devastating. It’s certainly one of a handful of quintessential American films. —Oktay Ege Kozak