3 Movies Like Spies Like Us (1985)

Staff & contributors

A marvelous combination of perfect casting and a sizzling script. William Hurt, Albert Brooks, and Holly Hunter are such natural talents they could make reading a dictionary watchable, but seeing them weave through James L Brooks punchy dialogue is a delight to behold. The three form the foundation of this drama that is as much about journalistic ambition as it is about love.

Hunter and Brooks are principled workaholics at a news station juggling a platonic friendship that seems destined for more but lacks a driving spark. Enter Hurt, a charming though self-admittedly stupid news anchor, who Hunter at once resents and yet can’t help falling for. What seems like a ready-built rom-com plot, however, churns into something else entirely. It’s a delicious film crackling with wit and character and is as funny as it is astute. 

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Albert Brooks, Amy Brooks, Christian Clemenson, Ed Wheeler, Frank Doubleday, Gennie James, Gerald F. Gough, Gerard Ender, Glen Roven, Holly Hunter, Jack Nicholson, Joan Cusack, John Cusack, Kimber Shoop, Leo Burmester, Lois Chiles, Luis Valderrama, Marc Shaiman, Marita Geraghty, Martha Smith, Nat Benchley, Peggy Pridemore, Peter Hackes, Raoul N. Rizik, Richard Thomsen, Robert Katims, Robert Prosky, Robert Walsh, Stephen Mendillo, William Hurt

Director: James L. Brooks

Written and directed by the film’s star, Albert Brooks, Defending Your Life imagines an afterlife in which purgatory is a courtroom, and whether you’ll be saved or damned is judged based on the life you led on Earth.

Did you live courageously, or did you live fearfully? Were you ashamed, meek, afraid of being vulnerable? Or did you risk some tender part of yourself in order to connect with others, to meaningfully impact another life?

Daniel Miller (Brooks) discovers he may not have lived as boldly as he assumed. In the afterlife and awaiting his day in afterlife court, he meets Julia (Meryl Streep, in what is possibly one of her most captivating roles), who is kind and thoughtful and a capital-G Good person. Of course, it’s only after dying that Daniel tunes in to the great possibility of a life not lived on autopilot. But is he too late to atone for his unexamined life—or is there time yet for a second chance?

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, Romance

Actor: Albert Brooks, Alex Sheafe, Arell Blanton, Art Frankel, Bob Braun, Buck Henry, Cathleen Chin, Clarke Coleman, Clayton Norcross, Clifford Einstein, David Purdham, Ernie Brown, Ethan Embry, Gary Ballard, Gary Beach, George D. Wallace, George Wallace, Glen Chin, Greg Finley, Hal Landon Jr., Ida Lee, James Eckhouse, James Paradise, Jennifer Barlow, Jennifer Barlow Grodsky, Jerry Prell, Jim McKrell, Joey Miyashima, Julie Cobb, Ken Thorley, Kristopher Kent Hill, Lee Grant, Leonard O. Turner, Lillian Lehman, Marilyn Rockafellow, Mary Pat Gleason, Maxine Elliott Hicks, Meryl Streep, Michael Durrell, Newell Alexander, Noley Thornton, Nurit Koppel, Peter Schuck, Rachel Bard, Raffi Di Blasio, Rip Torn, Roger Behr, Ronald L. Colby, S. Scott Bullock, Sage Allen, Shirley MacLaine, Sidney Chankin, Susan Walters, Time Winters, Wil Albert

Director: Albert Brooks

In this neo-noir crime drama, John Cusack, Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening play a trio of con-artists in modern day (1990) California. Roy (Cusack) is a small-stakes hustler prone to swindling bartenders and drunken sailors for pocket money, while Lilly (Huston) plays his estranged mother who reappears in his life while working a series of horse track bluffs. Myra (Bening) notches in between the two of them as Cusack’s boisterous yet conniving girlfriend, and the instant mutual dislike between her and Lilly sets the film’s course of action in motion. It’s a fun, edgy thriller that will leave you guessing up until it's shocking finale. Elevated immeasurably by Elmer Bernstein’s old-fashioned, hard boiled music score, The Grifters is a real feather in the hat for both director Stephen Frears and producer Martin Scorsese.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Anjelica Huston, Annette Bening, Billy Ray Sharkey, Charles Napier, David Sinaiko, Eddie Jones, Frances Bay, Gailard Sartain, Gregory Sporleder, Henry Jones, Ivette Soler, J.T. Walsh, Jan Munroe, Jeff Perry, Jeremy Piven, Jimmy Noonan, John Cusack, Jon Gries, Juliet Landau, Lou Hancock, Martin Scorsese, Michael Laskin, Micole Mercurio, Noelle Harling, Pat Hingle, Paul Adelstein, Richard Holden, Robert Weems, Sandy Baron, Stephen Tobolowsky, Steve Buscemi, Sy Richardson, Teresa Gilmore, Xander Berkeley

Director: Stephen Frears

Rating: R