10 Best Movies & Shows Released in 1989

Staff & contributors

Find the best movies and show to watch from the year 1989. These handpicked recommendations are highly-rated by viewers and critics.

A City of Sadness is a film set in 1945, after Japan is defeated in the war and Taiwan is subject to uncertainties of a changing sociopolitical landscape. It follows the four Lin brothers, who each struggle in this tumultuous period — from Wen-heung, the eldest who gets on the bad side of a local gang, to Wen-ching, who chooses to stand against the Chinese Kuomintang government despite being deaf-mute. 

Instead of turning to the usual machinations of a historical family drama, director Hou Hsiao-hsien shows the vast expanse of Taiwanese countryside through steady, beautiful cinematography. In urban areas, the camera moves in scenes of sudden violence, which it pans toward until it exits frame for us to only hear the screams of people offscreen. There are also quiet interludes that barely last a minute, where dynamics between characters depict the anxiety of the times. Tony Leung, who plays the deaf-mute brother, hasn't refined the craft of subtle acting with his eyes yet, but traces of brilliance are already there. 

The trauma of rapidly changing times, as a nation is exploited from one war to the next, is depicted so clearly. The authoritarian state erodes families, and Hou paints a picture of a society on the brink, a representation of 1940s Taiwan that feels more like a tragic poem than a film.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Chan Chung-Yung, Grace Chen Shu-Fang, Hsin Shu-Fen, Jack Kao, Kelly Ko, King Shih-Chieh, Li Tian-Lu, Mei Fang, Su-Yun Ko, Tai Bo, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Tsai Chen-Nan, Wu Nien-Jen, 吴念真

Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien

Hayao Miyazaki is no stranger to the fantastical. Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away conjure worlds of spirits and demons, monsters and witches, imaginary wars and extraordinary heroes. But in Kiki’s Delivery Service, the real magic arises from the mundane.

The titular teenaged Kiki leaves home, setting out to become a better witch. She arrives in the idyllic seaside town of Koriko with only her broom and best friend, a black cat named Jiji. When she serendipitously meets Osono, the gentle owner of a bakery, Kiki begins a delivery service as part of her training.

Kiki’s Delivery Service may be one of Miyazaki’s more understated films, but it’s a beautiful reminder that believing in oneself is a magical act of courage that we should all undertake.

Genre: Adventure, Animation, Drama, Family, Fantasy

Actor: Akio Otsuka, Chika Sakamoto, Haruko Kato, Hiroko Maruyama, Hiroko Seki, Kappei Yamaguchi, Keiko Toda, Kikuko Inoue, Kôichi Miura, Koichi Yamadera, Michihiro Ikemizu, Mieko Nobusawa, Mika Doi, Minami Takayama, Rei Sakuma, Shinpachi Tsuji, Takashi Taguchi, Takaya Hashi, Tomomichi Nishimura, Yoshiko Asai, Yoshiko Kamei, Yûko Kobayashi, Yûko Maruyama, Yuko Tsuga, Yuriko Fuchizaki, Yuuko Kobayashi, 丸山裕子

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

The '80s saw an influx of coming-of-age dramas, with John Hughes’ “Brat Pack” films reigning supreme. For better or worse, their most iconic scenes are embedded in pop culture, like students dancing in detention in The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles’ belated birthday cake. Perhaps the most iconic '80s movie moment comes not from Hughes, but from Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything…: Lloyd Dobler (John Cusak) in a trenchcoat, blue Malibu parked behind him, boombox raised over his head in defiant loyalty.

On their last day of high school, Lloyd Dobler resolves to ask out the class valedictorian Diane Court (Ione Skye). Their summer-long relationship is awkward, intense, tender—and familiar to anyone who has ever opened themselves up to falling in love. Say Anything… emotionally outclasses its contemporaries, as Crowe’s writing lends itself to two authentic characters fleshed out beyond caricatures. And as Lloyd crushes hard on Diane, it’s hard not to feel like you’re falling in love with each of them, too.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Amy Brooks, Bebe Neuwirth, Bill Stevenson, Chynna Phillips, Dan Castellaneta, Don Wilson, Eric Stoltz, Glenn Walker Harris Jr., Gloria Cromwell, Gregory Sporleder, Ione Skye, Jason Gould, Jeremy Piven, Jerry Ziesmer, Jim Ladd, Joan Cusack, Joanna Frank, John Cusack, John Hillner, John Mahoney, Johnny Green, Jonathan Chapin, Judy Prescott, Kim Walker, Lili Taylor, Lisanne Falk, Lois Chiles, Loren Dean, Montrose Hagins, Pamela Adlon, Patrick O'Neill, Philip Baker Hall, Polly Platt, Richard Portnow, Stephen Shortridge, Stone Gossard

Director: Cameron Crowe

Remarkably, Steven Soderbergh was only 26 years old when he directed this coolly assured debut, the searingly candid script of which he also wrote in just eight days. Despite the pornographic implications of its title, this is more concerned with exploring whether honesty — not sex — is the means to real intimacy. In fact, the only nakedness glimpsed here is of the emotional kind, as twenty-something drifter Graham’s (James Spader) total aversion to lying has an infectious influence on everyone around him.

The primary recipient of that disarming effect is Ann (Andie MacDowell), the wife of Graham’s old college buddy who is blasé about sex and neurotic about everything else. Talking to Graham has a therapeutic effect on her, but he takes something else away from conversation: chronically impotent, he simulates the sexual experience by conducting erotically themed interviews with women on videotape. Preferring to sublimate his desires through his camcorder, Spader’s physically aloof character is a disturbingly prescient one for what it suggested then about technology’s future impact on human relationships. That Soderbergh managed to conduct such a complex psychosexual drama all through dialogue — on his first feature, no less — makes him exceedingly worthy of the record this earned him of the youngest solo Palme d’Or-winning director ever.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alexandra Root, Andie MacDowell, David Foil, Earl T. Taylor, James Spader, Laura San Giacomo, Peter Gallagher, Ron Vawter, Steve Brill, Steven Brill

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Rating: R

You can tell Drugstore Cowboy was written by someone who has been through drug abuse and incarceration himself. This is the kind of film that has to be lived, not researched. It’s realistic, sure, and it gets at the interiority of a drug user with ease. But there is no judgment to be found here, no preachy criticism or misguided glorification of a hardened lifestyle. Bob (Matt Dillon) and his wife Dianne (Kelly Lynch) have created a nomadic, transient life that allows them to live on drugstore lootings one district at a time, while looking out for each other and the other couple they live with, Rick (James LeGros) and Nadine (Heather Graham). They chose this outlaw life, and because of the agency the film affords them, there is joy to be found despite their difficulties. It’s an authentic story, elevated by imaginative editing, a jazzy, heart-thumping score, and believable performances by a quartet of capable actors.

Genre: Crime, Drama

Actor: Beah Richards, Eric Hull, George Catalano, Grace Zabriskie, Gus Van Sant, Heather Graham, James Le Gros, James Remar, Kelly Lynch, Matt Dillon, Max Perlich, Michael Parker, Ray Monge, Ted D'Arms, William S. Burroughs

Director: Gus Van Sant

Rating: R

An eye-opening 1989 American documentary that boldly explores the experiences of Black gay men in America. Directed by Marlon Riggs, this film challenges societal norms and sheds light on the intersections of race, sexuality, and identity. Through a mix of personal testimonies, poetry, and distinctive visuals, Tongues Untied captures the struggles and resilience of its subjects, offering a raw and honest portrayal of their lives. Riggs' poetic approach and unflinching storytelling create an immersive experience that will leave a lasting impact. The film confronts issues of homophobia, racism, and social exclusion but also celebrates the strength and beauty of self-expression.

Genre: Documentary, Drama

Actor: Eddie Murphy, Marlon Riggs, Michael Bell, Willi Ninja

Director: Marlon Riggs

With an acrobat in a sanitarium, elephant trunks spouting blood, and a religious cult whose patron saint is a rape victim, Santa Sangre isn’t going to be an easy watch, especially with the avant-garde direction of the iconic Alejandro Jodorowsky. It’s tough to watch the explicit scenes, both of Fenix’s childhood circus reality and his adult hallucinations, with the hallucinations visually recalling his childhood trauma. But through these terrifying, freaky images, Jodorowsky takes his own memories and crafts it into a twisted, but deeply personal psychosexual nightmare, confronting the exploitative nature of faith and family through various circus acts. Santa Sangre is one of its kind.

Genre: Drama, Horror, Thriller

Actor: Adan Jodorowsky, Axel Jodorowsky, Blanca Guerra, Brontis Jodorowsky, Faviola Elenka Tapia, Gustavo Aguilar Tejada, Guy Stockwell, Héctor Ortega, Hilario 'Popitekus' Vargas, Jacobo Lieberman, Jesús Juárez, Joaquín García Vargas, Sabrina Dennison, Sergio Bustamante, Teo Jodorowsky, Teo Tapia, Thelma Tixou, Valérie Crouzet, Zonia Rangel Mora

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Rating: NC-17

Ben du Toit (Donald Sutherland) is a patriarch of an upper-class white family insulated from the roiling protests and violence in their suburban household outside of Johannesburg. When his gardener’s son is arrested, du Toit’s complacency is tested and he becomes embroiled in the devastating political reality outside the comforts of his gated world. 

Although it falls into the somewhat blemished category of films that center white protagonists when covering Black struggle, it does so with a piercing critical lens that confronts white denial and complicity. Euzhan Palcy’s direction is striking, depicting racism and violence with uncompromised clarity, while her unfettered dedication to getting this made even brought Marlon Brando out of retirement. Keep an eye out for him playing a beleaguered civil rights attorney - a role which notched him his final Academy Award nomination. 

Genre: Drama, Mystery

Actor: Andrew Whaley, Charles Pillai, David de Keyser, Donald Sutherland, Ernest Ndhlovu, Gerard Thoolen, Janet Suzman, John Kani, Jürgen Prochnow, Kevin Johnson, Leonard Maguire, Marlon Brando, Michael Gambon, Paul Brooke, Richard Wilson, Ronald Pickup, Rosemary Martin, Sello Maake Ka-Ncube, Susan Sarandon, Susannah Harker, Thoko Ntshinga, Winston Ntshona, Zakes Mokae

Director: Euzhan Palcy

Robert Downey Jr. and James Woods star in this movie about a Lawyer who, along with his staff, attempt to get an Asian man out of jail after their office is visited by the convicted man's mother. In my opinion, this is one of the best performances by James Woods in his entire career. This film went unnoticed by many, however it stands among some of the best films I have seen over the years.

Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery

Actor: Charles Hallahan, Deborah Offner, Gerry Bamman, Graham Beckel, James Woods, Joel Polis, John Snyder, Kurt Fuller, Kurtwood Smith, Luis Guzman, Margaret Colin, Miguel Fernandes, Richard Fancy, Robert Downey Jr., Sully Díaz, Thomas Wagner, Tom Bower, Woody Harrelson, Yuji Okumoto, 柯特伍德·史密斯

Director: Joseph Ruben

A deadpan anthology of three interconnected stories set in a run-down hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. The film's deliberate pacing, minimalist approach, and observational style are present throughout, capturing the essence of each character and their encounters with the city. 

Director Jim Jarmusch's indie film displays its characters' quirks and desires, all underlined with a love letter to Elvis Presley. Each unique segment has some charm, humor, and soundtrack that creates a palpable sense of time and place even if the sum displaces the overall narrative.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Calvin Brown, Cinqué Lee, Elizabeth Bracco, Jim Stark, Jodie Markell, Joe Strummer, Masatoshi Nagase, Nicoletta Braschi, Richard Boes, Rick Aviles, Rockets Redglare, Rufus Thomas, Sara Driver, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Steve Buscemi, Sy Richardson, Tom Noonan, Tom Waits, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Youki Kudoh

Director: Jim Jarmusch