19 Best Movies & Shows Released in 1988

Staff & contributors

Find the best movies and show to watch from the year 1988. These handpicked recommendations are highly-rated by viewers and critics.

This tender, autobiographical coming-of-age story about a working class family in post-war Liverpool is Terence Davies’ masterpiece—evoking memories through a series of loosely connected scenes that highlight the joys and woes of growing up. It is comprised of two films shot two years apart. The first details the tribulations of a young family surviving an abusive father in the ‘40s. The second part follows the kids grown up and finding their way in the ‘50s, and the influence of music and cinema on their lives. Davies uses a series of beautifully composed tableaux to tell the tale, which bring the setting and the characters intimately to life. Distant Voices, Still Lives is regarded as one of the greatest British films of all-time.

Genre: Drama, Music

Actor: Alan Bird, Andrew Schofield, Angela Walsh, Anne Dyson, Bill Moores, Carl Chase, Dean Williams, Freda Dowie, Ina Clough, Jean Boht, John Michie, Lorraine Ashbourne, Matthew Long, Michael Starke, Nathan Walsh, Pauline Quirke, Pete Postlethwaite, Roy Ford, Sally Davies, Susan Flanagan

Director: Terence Davies

Fear of abandonment is at the heart of The Vanishing. Lovers Rex and Saskia are separated on their way to France after the latter vanishes without a trace. For the next three years, Rex dedicates his life to finding out what happened to Saskia in whatever way possible, endangering his own safety in the process. George Sluizer’s chilling psychological thriller shows the evils that curiosity and obsession can bring, and is a uniquely perverse look at the ugly side of truth-seeking.

Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller

Actor: Bernadette Le Saché, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Caroline Appéré, Didier Rousset, Gene Bervoets, Gwen Eckhaus, Johanna ter Steege, Lucille Glenn, Pierre Forget, Roger Souza, Tania Latarjet

Director: George Sluizer

Even before any blood is inevitably shed during A Short Film About Killing (which serves as the expansion of another episode from director Krzysztof Kieślowski's Dekalog miniseries, alongside A Short Film About Love), there's something positively oppressive and sinister even just in the way the movie is shot. Kieślowski and cinematographer Witold Adamek use color filters to make the film deliberately ugly—as if the image is degrading right in front of us. Oftentimes shadows obscure the edges of the frame, shining a sickly yellow spotlight on the characters on screen. It's the perfect way to get right into the heads of these people existing in a lawless land driven by primal instinct.

When crime and punishment finally occur, they're equally difficult to watch unfold, but in different ways. Kieślowski lingers on the details—the tools and processes that we tell ourselves will make the act of killing easier. And what he's ultimately able to expose is how capital punishment has been made to seem humane, just, or necessary, when it's often even more barbaric, cruel, and unproductive than a crime borne of desperation. The very government that does nothing to address the roots of crime is the same one most eager to kill criminals instead.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Aleksander Bednarz, Andrzej Gawroński, Artur Barciś, Barbara Dziekan, Jan Tesarz, Jerzy Zass, Krystyna Janda, Krzysztof Globisz, Leonard Andrzejewski, Małgorzata Pieczyńska, Mirosław Baka, Olgierd Łukaszewicz, Władysław Byrdy, Zbigniew Borek, Zbigniew Zapasiewicz, Zdzisław Rychter, Zdzisław Tobiasz

Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski

Perhaps the most depressing but vital movie produced by animation giant Studio Ghibli, Grave of the Fireflies is a searing and sweeping drama that covers the horrors of World War II through the eyes of teenager Seita and his young sister Setsuko. Between the violence of war and the tragedy of loss, the siblings struggle to preserve not just their lives but their humanity. In typical Ghibli fashion, there are moments of gentle beauty to be found, but instead of conflicting with the overall stark tone of the film, they successfully underscore war's futility and brutality, making Grave of the Fireflies one of the most important anti-war narratives ever told. 

Genre: Animation, Drama, War

Actor: Akemi Yamaguchi, Ayano Shiraishi, Hiroshi Tanaka, Kyoko Moriwaki, Masayo Sakai, Tsutomu Tatsumi, Yoshiko Shinohara

Director: Isao Takahata

Before anything else, Miracle Mile is a romance. It begins with a meet-cute so adorable, it convinces lovebirds Harry and Julie to stick to each other in the next moments of the film, which couldn’t be more different than the first. Where the opening scene is sweet and lovely, the ones that follow it are fraught and bleak and eerily existential. At this point, the film transforms into its true self: an apocalyptic nightmare. When Harry receives word that a nuclear attack is incoming, the news spreads like wildfire and all hell breaks loose in this film that makes you question reality and humanity. 

It's one of the smoothest shifts in cinematic history, but even with panic swirling and violence erupting, love is still there. Harry and Julie’s quest to save and savor the bond they’ve formed is genuinely moving, and it effectively grounds this out-of-this-world film about the end.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance, Science Fiction, Thriller

Actor: Alan Berger, Alan Rosenberg, Anthony Edwards, Brian Thompson, Claude Earl Jones, Danny De La Paz, Denise Crosby, Diane Delano, Earl Boen, Edward Bunker, Howard Swain, Jenette Goldstein, John Agar, Jordana Capra, Kelly Jo Minter, Kurt Fuller, Lou Hancock, Lucille Bliss, Mare Winningham, Mykelti Williamson, O-Lan Jones, Peter Berg, Raphael Sbarge, Richard Biggs, Robert DoQui, Steve De Jarnatt

Director: Steve De Jarnatt

Rating: R

Break-ups aren’t the easiest thing to overcome, but how we deal with them usually doesn’t get as ludicrous as the events Pepa goes through in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The film makes said nervous breakdown chaotic– it includes spiked gazpacho, a frantic call to the police, and being held at gunpoint– but as Pepa and the women around her try to put off each fire, at least one of them literally, writer-director Pedro Almodóvar ensures sympathy for them, with Pepa's snappy dialogue cutting through the lies of a smooth-talking womanizer refusing to face them. And it’s all paired with a suitably dramatic score, meticulous staging, and exaggerated, colorful frames mostly occurring in the wreck of a fabulously styled penthouse.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Agustín Almodóvar, Ana Leza, Ángel de Andrés López, Antonio Banderas, Carmen Maura, Chus Lampreave, Eduardo Calvo, Fernando Guillen, Francisca Caballero, Gabriel Latorre, Guillermo Montesinos, Imanol Uribe, Joaquín Climent, José Antonio Navarro, José Marco, Juan Lombardero, Julieta Serrano, Kiti Manver, Loles León, Lupe Barrado, María Barranco, Rossy de Palma, Yayo Calvo

Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Rating: R

Mike Leigh’s films have always touched on class politics, but seldom as directly as in this lowkey portrait of Thatcher-era London. Cyril and Shirley are a sweet working-class couple at a crossroads in their relationship. Their lifestyle is contrasted with Cyril’s sister and her husband who exist in a more comfortable middle-class setting, and then paralleled again with an upper-class couple living next door from Cyril’s mother. 

Even at this early stage of his career Leigh gracefully entwines these stories to create a moving and coherent narrative. ‘High Hopes’ as a title might be largely sarcastic, but the film is full-hearted and occasionally even optimistic as it strides its snarky way through the grim facades of 80s London.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Cheryl Prime, David Bamber, Diane-Louise Jordan, Edna Doré, Heather Tobias, Jason Watkins, Judith Scott, Lesley Manville, Linda Beckett, Phil Davis, Philip Jackson, Ruth Sheen

Director: Mike Leigh

Murdering your spouse is bad, so it’s slightly bizarre how Drowning by Numbers has an unbothered, even amused, attitude towards its murders. Moments seem randomly placed, like the first scene of a girl jumping rope while listing the stars by name, and the film can be hard to follow, even if the production design and cinematography keep you drawn in. But as the film progresses, and Madgett’s son Smut enumerates the fictional games as if he was a historian of sorts, writer-director Peter Greenaway meticulously crafts a quirky, twisty crime comedy, where, like children’s games and the men in their lives, the murdering wives do what they do because they can get away with it. Drowning by Numbers cleverly plays with the way we treat folklore, structure, and rules, even down to the very medium Greenaway works with.

Genre: Comedy, Crime

Actor: Arthur Spreckley, Bernard Hill, Bryan Pringle, David Morrissey, Edward Tudor-Pole, Ian Talbot, Jane Gurnett, Janine Duvitski, Jason Edwards, Joan Plowright, Joanna Dickens, Joely Richardson, John Rogan, Juliet Stevenson, Kenny Ireland, Michael Fitzgerald, Michael Percival, Natalie Morse, Paul Mooney, Roderic Leigh, Trevor Cooper, Vanni Corbellini

Director: Peter Greenaway

Rating: R

An arguably tough watch, The Accused fluctuates between crime and courtroom drama, eschewing any kind of sentimentality in its storytelling. No place for pity where trauma reigns: the fact that the film is based on a real case of as gang rape means little in a world were that's still a daily occurrence. The Accused knows it well and invests its two protagonist with all the anger in the world, hoping the justice system will be on the right side of history at once: that of women. Two amazing leads set the bar very high: Jodie Foster and Kelly McGillis who plays prosecutor Kathryn Murphy. Together, they make a powerful duo of heated performances that embody the contradictions of being a woman under patriarchy.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Allan Lysell, Andrew Kavadas, Ann Hearn, Antony Holland, Babs Chula, Bernie Coulson, Carmen Argenziano, Christianne Hirt, Dana Still, David Sheridan, Denalda Williams, Deryl Hayes, Frances Flanagan, Freda Perry, Garry Chalk, Garwin Sanford, Jerry Wasserman, Jodie Foster, Kelly McGillis, Kevin McNulty, Kim Kondrashoff, Leo Rossi, Linda Darlow, Marsha Andrews, Michele Goodger, Mike Winlaw, Pamela Martin, Peter Bibby, Peter Van Norden, Rebecca Toolan, Rose Weaver, Scott Paulin, Stephen Dimopoulos, Stephen E. Miller, Steve Antin, Terry David Mulligan, Tom Heaton, Tom McBeath, Tom O'Brien, Veena Sood, Walter Marsh, Woody Brown

Director: Jonathan Kaplan

Rating: R

Based on the true story of the last French woman executed by guillotine, Story of Women depicts wartime survival under the Vichy regime. While men were sent to fight in the war, women in France stayed home, in a country occupied by the Nazis, with their government collaborating with the Axis powers they were supposedly at war with. Marie-Louise Giraud is one such woman. Like her country, she is pushed to do crimes forbidden by the state, first for kindness, but eventually for comfort, but only she gets the death penalty for 27 abortions, when only a few Vichy officials have been tried for crimes against humanity, which includes the deportation of seventy thousand Jews to concentration camps. The contrast is made much more poignant with Isabelle Huppert and Claude Chabrol’s creative partnership.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Caroline Berg, Dani, Dominique Blanc, Evelyne Didi, Franck de la Personne, François Cluzet, François Maistre, Guillaume Foutrier, Henri Attal, Isabelle Huppert, Jacques Brunet, Jean-Michel Noirey, Lolita Chammah, Marie Bunel, Marie Trintignant, Nils Tavernier, Pierre-François Dumeniaud, Sylvie Flepp, Vincent Gauthier

Director: Claude Chabrol

If you enjoy wondering aloud to yourself how filmmakers were able to make a movie at all, 1988's almost wordless tale of two bears trying to survive the Canadian mountains was somehow shot with real, expressive bear "actors," despite the film being a work of fiction. A cross between a stunningly photographed nature documentary and a brutal folktale, The Bear gets right to the uncompromising conditions out in the wild, where human beings are portrayed as just as savage—and just as merciful—as the beasts they hunt. Clever editing and Jean-Jacques Annaud's directorial vision hide all the seams in the movie's magic tricks, allowing us to fall in love quickly with these majestic bears and the all-too-human emotions they seem to be expressing.

Genre: Adventure, Drama, Family

Actor: André Lacombe, Bart The Bear, Jack Wallace, Tchéky Karyo, Youk the Bear

Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud

Running on Empty is a movie that covers many timely themes including capitalism, education, and social class. It tells the story of a family who have to go on the run and hide their true identity for the rest of their lives. Director Sidney Lumet’s light touch on heavy topics gives the movie a tender and intimate atmosphere throughout. Aside from the great script, River Phoenix's performance is definitely one of the biggest highlights of this movie, where he successfully delivers a restrained yet fascinating performance. Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch also give a top-notch performance that adds to the movie’s thrill. In short, Running on Empty is the kind of movie that shows there is courage in running away when it's the right thing to do.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Romance

Actor: Alice Drummond, Angela Pietropinto, Augusta Dabney, Bobo Lewis, Burke Pearson, Christine Lahti, Daniel Dassin, David Margulies, Donna Hanover, Ed Crowley, Elżbieta Czyżewska, Herb Lovelle, Jenny Lumet, Jonas Abry, Judd Hirsch, Justine Johnston, L.M. Kit Carson, Leila Danette, Lynne Thigpen, Marcia Jean Kurtz, Martha Plimpton, Michael Boatman, River Phoenix, Ronnie Gilbert, Sloane Shelton, Steven Hill, William Foeller

Director: Sidney Lumet

Rating: PG-13

Without focusing on just one team, career, or fateful game, Bull Durham avoids every sports movie cliche—using Minor League baseball as a way into the complicated relationships between a rookie, a veteran, and a longtime fan. By stripping away our expectations of there needing to be a winner and a loser, writer-director Ron Shelton allows these characters to blossom in their own unique ways, allowing us to observe how each of them views life from their stubborn, little boxes. Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon are sex appeal personified, while never smoothing over the thorniest parts of their characters. And Tim Robbins takes what could have been a two-dimensional caricature and gives him real depth.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: C.K. Bibby, Danny Gans, David Neidorf, Garland Bunting, George Buck, Henry G. Sanders, Jenny Robertson, Kevin Costner, Lloyd T. Williams, Rick Marzan, Robert Dickman, Robert Wuhl, Stephen Ware, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Tom Silardi, Trey Wilson, William O'Leary

Director: Ron Shelton

Education isn’t always a guarantee, especially in less privileged areas that are underfunded, overlooked, and underprioritized, in the belief that these kids wouldn’t amount to much in the end. That being said, sometimes, what changes that fate is having a teacher that believed in his students and encouraged them to learn more than what they were expected. Stand and Deliver is a dramatization of the real life Jaime Escalante, who transformed a math program in an east LA high school to the point where his entire class ace California’s calculus test. The film definitely takes some dramatic liberties, but it does capture a sense of his quiet determination, the personality that pushed him to believe in and connect with students differently. While Escalante’s program eventually ended due to admin changes and staff in-fighting, Stand and Deliver is a reminder of the importance of nurturing ganas, or desire, in the classroom.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Andy Garcia, Betty Carvalho, Bodie Olmos, Carmen Argenziano, Edward James Olmos, Estelle Harris, Ingrid Oliu, Irene Olga López, Karla Montana, Lou Diamond Phillips, Manuel Benitez, Mark Phelan, Rosanna DeSoto, Vanessa Marquez, Virginia Paris

Director: Ramón Menéndez

Rating: PG

Leave it to a master filmmaker like Krzysztof Kieślowski—known for the Three Colours Trilogy, The Double Life of Veronique, and the miniseries Dekalog (whose sixth episode was expanded into this film)—to take a premise as banal as that of a peeping tom and to turn it into something mysterious and poignant. There are definitely still parts to this story that may not hold up to scrutiny, like its belief in a romantic/spiritual connection that rewards the immature man for barging into a woman's life. In different hands, this subject matter would just be creepy. In Kieślowski's, the loneliness of these characters takes full shape.

As young postal clerk Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) quickly admits his spying to the older and more jaded Magda (Grażyna Szapołowska), the two are drawn to each other with a combination of fear, pity, and lust. And what Kieślowski does—with the help of cinematographer Witold Adamek's stunning, intimate frames; and his cast's subdued sorrow—is move the film away from concerns about consent and control, and to tell a story about what it means to truly be seen and acknowledged by another person. In an existence made up of meaningless routine and temporary relationships, seeing someone else at their most vulnerable feels like lightning.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: Artur Barciś, Grażyna Szapołowska, Olaf Lubaszenko, Piotr Machalica, Stanisław Gawlik, Stefania Iwińska

Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski