best film:  A Short Film About Killing from Krzysztof Kieslowski

  • A severe 84 minutes shot through a hazy green/yellow filter with heavy shadows. It is some of the best 84 minutes of cinema in the 1980s—pure and perfect.
  • This is episode V in Kieslowski’s Dekalog series. It and episode VI (A Short Film About Love) were made into longer films. They work  both as standalone films and as part of the greater context of the whole.

Slawomir Idziak is the DP- he’d go on to make Blue and The Double Life of Veronique with Kieslowski. Their achievement here cannot be overstated. The filter idea is genius (apparently, they tried about 600 filters to get the right look). It isn’t just the lighting though—green is peppered throughout the mise-en-scene here. Jacek’s motorcycle is green of course. There is green transparent tape on the windows of the taxi—stunning.

  • The grisly murder is half-way through the film- which is no accident. Kieslowksi has the precision and formal rendering of Kubrick here. He knows exactly what he’s doing. Largely a silent film, the story of three men, the murder, victim, and the lawyer.

A haunting, enduring shot at 44 minutes. The camera looks through the open door of the car as the body is being dragged down the hill. The camera is fixed and the door slowly swings shut.

Starts with a dead rat, a cat hanging by a noose, a shrunken head in a rearview mirror—this is an unnerving dystopia—ugly, cruel—fitting for this subject (and the level of detail in the décor is on par with Stalker or Nostalgia– a world of dark clouds and mud). Miroslaw Baka’s Jacek character is a monster in the first half of the film (entirely Kieslowski’s point). He chases pigeons, throws rocks at traffic from an overpass, and barks like a rabid dog at foreigners on the street. This is intercut with Krzysztof Globisz’s Piotr character being interviewed talking about why he has decided to become a public defender (with palpable enthusiasm and optimism) – this is where we get the Cain and Abel quote.

  • Another jaw-dropper of a frame when Piotr is talking to the judge with the green pouring in from the windows
  • The harsh ugly oppressive prison in the second half mirrors the sky in the first half. And of course, Kieslowski changes Jacek- 180 degrees—he talks about the devastation of losing his sister and wanting to be buried next to her. This is a film about two killings—both involving Jacek and again- that is precisely the point.
  • It is both rendered with a staggering amount of cinematic beauty—and a punishment to watch at the same time



most underrated:   A Short Film About Killing is at # 762 on the TSPDT consensus top 1000 list and that is wrong- this is one of the greatest works of the 1980s. However, because of its relationship to Dekalog (is it one film?, etc) you can forgive the consensus. Who Framed Roger Rabbit needs to be somewhere on the top 1000 at least and it isn’t. From the great David Thomson and his “Have you Seen… ?” book- “one of the last great works of wit and beauty, magic and terror, to come out of the Hollywood studio”   Also, it isn’t Brazil, but add The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to the list of highly ambitious follow-up films to masterpieces that are now underrated (Juliet of the Spirits is another like this- and these two films have a ton in common).

from Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen-– even detractors of the film have to be blown away by the visual spectacularism—this is the final leg of the imagination trilogy from Gilliam—a boy (Time Bandits), man (Brazil) and elderly (here)

Gilliam has certainly confirmed Brazil was no fluke accident in 1988. He has a remarkable vision—endless ambition and inventiveness. He is taking on works that seem unfilmable if you read them on the page (he clearly needs a big budget to pull this all off and this is where art vs. commerce collide) like Dr. Seuss, Alice or The Wizard of Oz (that film in particular is very comparable to Baron Munchausen with the sort of crew of his playing dual roles and he’s gathering them up one by one as he travels back to the city)

Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a wildly entertainingly technical marvel. It is a superbly crafted detective film, murder mystery and comedy. Thomson and others would argue it also works as a profound social statement as well. Of course, it is not the first film to utilize live actors with animation (I’m not sure of others but I know Gene Kelly was dancing with Jerry in Anchors Aweigh in 1944) but not to this level. After coming on the scene taking nearly directly from Spielberg (his Romancing the Stone in 1984 borrows heavily from Raiders of the Lost Ark) his work here in 1988 and Back to the Future in 1985 put him on the map as one of the better directors of the era and certainly, along with Cameron and a few others, proof that the post-Spielberg and post-Lucas world of Hollywood was not all in for naught.


most overrated:   I have still only seen Cinema Paradiso once (never enough for any great film) so it is not shocking that I am much lower than the consensus TSPDT #267. Upon first viewing, I found it to be irresistible for lovers of film and certainly sentimental- but not sure it has the artistic brilliance to warrant a ranking in the top 300. Also, though I am a great admirer of Hayao Miyazaki, his My Neighbor Totoro sits at #227 on the consensus top 1000 list and that is at the masterpiece level—and good enough for #2 of 1988. I can’t quite find a spot for it in an admittedly strong top 10 of the year below.


gems I want to spotlight:  For a break from the norm, and a good laugh, try either Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or A Fish Called Wanda (or both!).  Scoundrels features excellent script and lead performances from Steve Martin and Michael Caine. Wanda is more of an ensemble film, but Kevin Kline won the best supporting Oscar for his work. Ultimately though, if you have yet to see Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons it is the gem to seek out. It is so deliciously wicked. I am not sure Lanthimos’ The Favourite (2018) exists without this film.

Dangerous Liaisons may be known for the acidic dialogue and acting duel- but one of 1988’s greatest compositions resides in the film as well


trends and notables:

  • Kieslowski is the biggest story in the world of cinema in 1988 and bleeding into 1989 when Dekalog appears on Polish television. A Short Film About Killing debuts at Cannes in May of 1988 and A Short Film About Love debuts in the fall.

A Short Film Above Love -the sixth film in Kieslowski’s Dekalog – a series of ten moral tales about or surrounding each of the ten commandments. This is a companion to episode five- A Short Film About Killing and both were expanded from the normal 55-60 minutes to a longer 80-90 minute format. This is “thou shalt not commit adultery”, The standout visual in Kieslowski’s work here is the red-stained window pane background first shown at the 23 minute mark. He goes back to it and holds it for a sustained stunning shot at the 43 minute mark as both Grazyna Szapolowska’s Magda and Olaf Lubaszenko’s Tomek (a very rich character) are framed by the window

  • 1988 marks an important year for animation, Japanese animation, and, specifically, Studio Ghibli. Three of the best fifteen or so films are Japanese animation—Akira and then both My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies are from Studio Ghibli.

Grave of the Fireflies is a meditation on grief- it could easily be a live action film- feels neo-realistic—a change for animation—80% of the film is straight (part neo-realism, Empire of the Sun the year before from Spielberg) but the imagery (fireflies and firebombs), flowers to rice transition, the fireflies again from the war show surrealism with aching beauty

Grave of the Fireflies is nearly unbearably tragic. It’s a gut-punch that wallops you like a Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero or Schindler’s List. 

  • 1988 marks the third top 10 film in six (6) years for David Cronenberg

Cronenberg is at the height of his powers in 1988- every stitch of Dead Ringers is in place- including the inspired opening credits.

David Cronenberg is currently listed as the 36th  best director of all-time  and Dead Ringers is his best film. Cronenberg’s modern day Jekyll and Hyde comes complete with existential angst, raging ego, and drug addiction paired with twin synergy driving the Mantle twins (both played to perfection by Jeremy Irons). It ends in self-destructive body horror -as always with Cronenberg’s oeuvre. It is more polished and beautiful than Videodrome and when you combine those two films with The Fly from 1986 you have perhaps the greatest filmmaker on the planet in 1988.

the coloring from Cronenberg is essential to the icy mood and detachment– an immaculate frame here

  • Zemeckis has his second major hit on his hands following Back to the Future in 1985—Who Framed Roger Rabbit is actually the biggest box office hit in the US in 1988.
  • 1988 is a strong year for directors’ firsts. Terrence Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives– a sneaky good candidate for greatest debut film ever made). Tarkovsky’s lineage is picked up by Bela Tarr here in 1988 with Damnation– his first archiveable film. Tim Burton also made his maiden voyage into the archives with Beetlejuice—certainly a great blend of expressionism and Hollywood filmmaking. Chinese auteur Yimou Zhang comes onto the scene here with Red Sorghum. With him he would bring the talented Gong Li who would be his muse for a total of six archiveable films including Raise the Red Lantern, Ju Dou, and Shanghai Triad.

Hungarian and future master Bela Tarr is only 33-years old at the time of 1988’s Damnation

the world of Tarr’s films are brutal, merciless, but the compositions are certainly rich

first using the window as a frame within a frame, then the doorway (marvelously lit in the background for juxtaposition of both color and depth)

a budding late 20th century version of von Sternberg and Dietrich here with Yimou Zhang and Gong Li– this from Red Sorghum

  • 1988 would mark the arrival of Tom Hanks in Penny Marshall’s Big. It is a star-making role. Bruce Willis would probably become an even bigger star in 1988 with Die Hard– his first archivable film. Both Hanks and Willis got their start on television earlier in the decade. Kevin Spacey has a very memorable scene in the limo with Melanie Griffith in Working Girl– his first foray into the archives. It would be another eight years before he would be in Breaking the Waves but Stellan Skarsgård gets his first archiveable film in Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  Winona Ryder gets her start in Beetlejuice and Uma Thurman has two films that break her into the archives (Dangerous Liaisons and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). They are both extremely young here but would go on to become some of the bigger actresses and “It”-girls of the era in the early 1990s.

Winona Ryder in a great low-angle fill up the frame composition in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice

Terrence Davies’ debut feature after three short films is a stunner. Distant Voices, Still Lives is both a bold stab at realism (content) and achingly beautiful compositions.

Davies has such a rigorous minimal style- Dreyer’s work- Ordet and Gertrud 

But at the same time Davies seems entirely self-taught and wholly singular and distinctive.

The story blends nostalgia and bitter realism—the film’s running time consists of nearly wall-to-wall drinking songs being sung by the characters. It is poetic and poignant- a stunning first film from a new voice in British and world cinema.



best performance male:  As revelatory (such command and presence for a newcomer) as Bruce Willis is in Die Hard, he is the runner-up to Jeremy Irons’ tour de force in Dead Ringers. Irons depicts such rich complexity in his portrayal(s) of the Mantle twins. Pete Postlethwaite cuts through architypes playing simply “father” as the most indelible character in Davies’ masterpiece. John Malkovich is one-half of the greatest acting tandem in 1988 opposite Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons. Their verbal jousting is a pleasure to watch. Bob Hoskins has a very tall task here in Who Framed Roger Rabbit acting alongside cartoons along with tacking the 1940s Los Angeles accent and comes away from it all standing tall in one of the year’s best films. There is also room aboard the top performances of the year for two very notable diabolically performances.  Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber is a more than worthy adversary for Wills’ John McClane. Lastly, Christopher Lloyd (excellent in a pair of Zemeckis films at this point- also playing Doc Brown in Back to the Future) is a clear standout in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.


Like McTiernan’s 1987 entry the year before, Predator, Die Hard is an updated (and modified) western. Instead of The Magnificent Seven (Seven Samurai) it is Shane here in many ways.

Willis is film’s revelation — but Rickman (in his big screen debut believe it or not) is equally masterful—the film doesn’t work  without those two in the leads. Gorgeous use of 65mm for special effects in the beautiful slow-motion death from falling shot (so well done) with Rickman.

Postlethwaite as the austere father– maybe a companion to Malick’s use of Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life decades later


best performance female:  Glenn Close does the best work of miraculous career in 1988. She is a viper in Dangerous Liaisons and she is due here after Fatal Instinct in 1987 here anyways.  Her 1982-1988 run includes five Oscar noms (she has eight now total as of 2021). Carmen Maura is wonderful in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. She won the best actress awards at many of the international awards and rightly so. This is just the first of many Almodovar’s muses to get mentioned or praised in this category.


top 10

  1. A Short Film About Killing
  2. Dead Ringers
  3. Distant Voices, Still Lives
  4. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
  5. Die Hard
  6. Who Framed Roger Rabbit
  7. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
  8. Grave of the Fireflies
  9. Red Sorghum
  10. Dangerous Liaisons


venetian blind shadow perfection here- there are really three signature frames from Die Hard— the slow-motion 65mm falling shot, the claustrophobic air vent shot, and this one here

Pedro Almodóvar’s greatest work to date so far in his career in 1988 – Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Almodóvar’s arresting use of color and décor in

The “Heart and Soul” piano scene featuring Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia in Penny Marshall’s Big.

Dutch director George Sluizer’s The Vanishing– a haunting film- superior to the future Hollywood remake.

Rain Main marks another feather in the cap for Barry Levinson, Tom Cruise, and Dustin Hoffman


Archives, Directors, and Grades

A Cry in the Dark- Schepisi R
A Fish Called Wanda- C. Crichton R
A Handful of Dust- Sturridge R/HR
A Short Film About Killing – Kieslowski MP
A Short Film Above Love – Kieslowski HR
Akira – Ôtomo R
Another Woman- Allen R
Ariel – Kaurismäki R
Beetlejuice- Burton R
Big- P. Marshall R/HR
Bird- Eastwood R
Bull Durham – Shelton R
Cinema Paradiso – Tornatore R
Colors- Hopper R
Damnation- Tarr HR
Dangerous Liaisons- Frears HR/MS
Dead Ringers- Cronenberg MP
Die Hard – McTiernan MS
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – Oz R
Distinct Voices, Still Lives- Davies MP
Drowning By Numbers- Greenaway
Eight Men Out- Sayles R
Frantic- Polanski
Grave of the Fireflies – Takahata HR/MS
High Hopes – Leigh R
Landscape in the Mist- Angelopoulos R
Married To the Mob- Demme R
Midnight Run- Brest R
Mississippi Burning- A. Parker R
My Neighbor Totoro- Miyazaki HR
Patty Hearst – Schrader R
Pelle the Conqueror-August HR
Police Story 2 – Chan R
Rain Man- Levinson R
Red Sorghum-Yimou Zhang HR/MS
Running on Empty- Lumet R
Salaam Bombay! – Nair R
Stormy Monday- Figgis R
Talk Radio – Stone R
The Accidental Tourist- Kasdan R
The Accused- Kaplan R
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – Gilliam MS
The Chocolate War – Gordon R
The Last Temptation of Christ – Scorsese R/HR
The Story of Women- Charbol R
The Unbearable Lightness of Being-P.  Kaufman
The Vanishing – Sluzier HR
They Live – Carpenter R
Tucker: A Man and His Dream- F. Coppola R
Who Framed Roger Rabbit- Zemeckis MS
Willow – Howard R
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown- Almodovar
Working Girl- M. Nichols R



*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives