Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe
5. She's Gotta Have It (1986) This inventive comedy has all the homespun charm of Lee's early work (a quality that tends to elude his lesser films), evoking the highly specific sights and sounds of Brooklyn in the 80s and giving voice to African-Americans in a manner not seen since the great Charles Burnett. It's a key installment of the American independent-film boom in the late 80s and early 90s—and among the most assured debut features you can see.
4. Jungle Fever (1991) Lee's great ensemble piece, Altman-esque in its mosaic of widespread characters, themes, voices, and emotions. The film's primary focus is the interracial relationship between various fully formed and sympathetic characters. From a distance, it all kind of looks like a mess, but Lee's instinctual style keeps things in line while permitting the film a jazzy, free-form feel.
3. 25th Hour (2002) In the wake of 9/11, films and TV shows set in New York aimed to blot out any and all evidence of the World Trade Center for fear of insensitivity, but that's not the case with this searing drama, in which the tragedy plays an integral role. To his credit, Lee doesn't dive in headfirst and exploit the still freshly opened wound the attack left behind. But in 20-or-so years, when people are curious about the fear, anger, anxiety, confusion, disillusion, and sadness that surrounded 9/11 and its aftermath, this is the film they'll turn to.
2. Inside Man (2006) Considering his sharp ear for dialogue and penchant for dynamic character interplay, I've long held the belief that Lee would have had a fantastic career making spy/heist/paranoia thrillers in the 60s and 70s, and I point to this massively entertaining riff on both Dog Day Afternoon and his own personal style as proof. The film's tightly wound plot isn't Lee's usual method—compare this to something like Jungle Fever and you'd think they were the work of two different filmmakers—but the whole thing works splendidly.
1. Do the Right Thing (1989) Predictable, I know, but Do The Right Thing remains Lee's masterpiece. It bears all his trademarks, including an ensemble cast, inventive dialogue and characterizations, trenchant (if paradoxical) political and social insight, a rich color palette, an affinity for local flavor, a fascination with hitherto underseen corners of New York City, a documentary-esque visual sensibility—not to mention the sort of youthful exuberance that's missing from his recent output. It's a true watershed moment in American independent cinema.