5 “The 25th Hour” (2002)
This dark, cynical, yet ultimately sentimental look at a drug dealer (Edward Norton) living it up in the Big Apple on his last night of freedom before a lengthy stay in the pen is definitely a film that gets better with each viewing. Lee’s sudden bursts of NYC racial sermonizing and post 9/11 imagery make more and more sense within the film’s overall context the more you watch it.
4 “Jungle Fever” (1991)
A striking look at the ramifications of an interracial, extramarital affair (Wesley Snipes architect, Annabella Sciorra’s Italian-American office temp) from a time when such things were apparently still shocking, “Jungle Fever” coined an undying slang term with its title, and may be Lee’s quintessential nineties film. Almost more interesting than the central black-on-white liaison, however, are the characters surrounding the lives of the two leads and their own various reactions and stories. In what may be the best performance of his long and busy career, Samuel L. Jackson as Snipes’ doomed crackhead brother Gator is worth the price of admission (or Netflix) alone.
3 “Inside Man” (2006)
A rich, clever, and bracingly tough heist flick, whose many layers unfold quite expertly under a subtle layer of Lee’s jazzy, New York-centric style, “Inside Man” benefits greatly from a crack script and great cast (Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster). Lee genuinely surprised critics by offering up this entertaining popcorn procedural that also manages to deftly weave in his special brand of civic and ethnic politics without overwhelming.
2 “Do The Right Thing” (1989)
This tense, turbulent, and funny look at a Bed-Stuy neighborhood set to boil over from sweltering heat and long-simmering race relations is the film that truly cemented Lee’s name and voice. A brilliant cast including Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Bill Nunn, Danny Aiello, John Turturro, Rosie Perez, and Lee himself serves to inhabit a host of neighborhood characters sweating their way through a seemingly typical summer day destined to end in violence and chaos.
1 “Malcolm X” (1993)
This thoroughly engaging, visually opulent, and powerfully potent biopic of the controversial civil rights leader is one of the best of the 1990s, without question. Starting with his turbulent childhood in 1920s Michigan and ending with his 1965 assassination, Malcolm X is a stunning portrait of one man’s spiritual journey through the American wilderness amidst the startlingly oppressive racism of his time. The film is anchored by Denzel Washington’s mesmerizing performance, which one suspects really earned him his “Training Day” win.