Dead Calm - A wonderfully entertaining psychological thriller from Australia's Phillip Noyce, which significantly boosted the careers of everyone involved. Sam Neill was already fairly well established as a leading man, but this was many viewers' first introduction to Nicole Kidman and a devilish young Billy Zane. Full of lurid thrills, wild twists, and nautical misadventures, the film is unrestrained in the best way. Yes, it's blatantly exploitative and some parts are in very bad taste, but I was having too much fun to care. The final sequence in particular is just delightful in its outrageousness.
Kiki's Delivery Service - Hayao Miyazaki's lovely chronicle of a little girl's growing pains. That little Kiki happens to be a witch is incidental, though it does allow for some lovely flying scenes and a charming talking cat to tag along on adventures. Miyazaki's slice-of-life storytelling is such a joy to experience, especially the way it takes its time to appreciate the little things, and creates such a peaceful, pastoral atmosphere. There are few cinematic fantasy worlds as inviting as the seaside town of Koriko, and even fewer that feature a child heroine as realistically complicated and imperfect as Kiki.
Dekalog - Technically a series of television films, but they're as effective as anything ever shown in a movie theater. My favorite of the set is the fifth installment, the one that Krzysztof Kieślowski would expand into "A Short Film About Killing." However, all ten episodes of the "Dekalog" are worth a watch, especially for fans of the director. Themes of morality and personal responsibility are explored thoughtfully and intelligently. The goal was to have the dilemmas of the characters reflect modern Polish life, but there's an enduring universality to the stories that is extraordinary.
Roger & Me - Michael Moore wasn't the first to examine economic downturns and corporate greed through the documentary format, or the first to use film for political and social activism. However, he was the first to put forth his grievances in such human, relatable terms. The sad saga of Flint, Michigan is fascinating to see unfold, but Moore adds a personal element that helps it to hit much closer to home. The film now serves as a time capsule of the failures of American capitalism in the late 1980s, and its influence on subsequent documentary filmmaking has been immeasurable.
Steel Magnolias - Captures the contentious, dramatic world of a certain breed of Southern women and all the various relationships that they maintain. I love the whole cast, but especially Olympia Dukakis and Shirley MacLaine as duelling grand dames. And no one sells a tearjerker like Sally Field, whose performance is the backbone of the whole enterprise. There are very few films that capture the culture and the inviting intimacy of small town life in the South. So it's no wonder this has been a cult classic for ages, much copied over the years, but never successfully duplicated.
When Harry Met Sally - Can men and women ever just be friends? Sure, but Harry and Sally can't. Instead, they're destined to be the iconic pairing in the most famous romantic-comedy of its era, forever marking the genre as the natural domain of neurotic New Yorkers. Full of witty banter and wry observations about the complicated state of modern romance, this was very much a film of it's time. And yet it's aged beautifully, thanks in large part to Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal having terrific chemistry together and being very easy to root for - both together and separately.
Crimes and Misdemeanors - One of the most cynical of Woody Allen's films juxtaposes a crime drama with a black comedy in a morally ambivalent universe, where there's no justice except what the characters mete out to themselves. Allen would revisit these themes many times in many other films, but rarely with so much success. There's a painful honesty to the writing, a sense of deep self-reflection and bitter self-criticism. The excellent ensemble also helps to elevate the material, particularly Martin Landau as a desperate man who is able to justify terrible acts to himself.
Do the Right Thing - Still one of the most famous and controversial films about race in America, probably because it's so confrontational about its subject matter. Spike Lee literally gets in the audience's faces to drive the point home, letting the characters speak their minds directly to the camera. In retrospect, "Do the Right Thing" touched off a new wave of American independent filmmaking, marked by racial, sexual, and other social minorities making waves both in front of and behind the camera. The jury's still out on Mookie and company, but Spike Lee certainly did everything right.
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover - The most notorious of Peter Greenaway's films, though it's not his most sexually explicit or even his most violent. I think it's the Grand Guignol depravity of the story, executed with such grandiose production values, and the participation of celebrated actors like Michael Gambon and Helen Mirren that really got people's attention. It's an art film with a capital A, and yet such a deliciously venal, outrageous one. Sometimes you need a classically inclined artist to really dig into this kind of Grand Guignol subject matter.
Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure