Top 10 Films of 1998
By Devin D. O'Leary
JANUARY 11, 1999: Babe: Pig in the City
This is the kind of movie that drives critics nuts--a wonderful little gem that just tanks at the box office. I felt like The Boy Who Cried Wolf talking about this movie. Director George Miller (The Road Warrior) crafted a darker, denser and more aggressively cinematic follow-up to 1996's dark horse hit. But no matter how charming, funny, clever and downright great I told people Babe 2 was, the response was invariable, "What? That talking pig movie? No way." Your loss, people.
Creepy Calvin Klein poster boy Vincent Gallo eerily dissected his own image with this wunderkind writing/directing/editing/acting/and scoring effort. Gallo played a weirdly introverted ex-con who kidnapped a hapless gal (Christina Ricci, achieving bonafide indie goddesshood) so he'd have a "bride" with which to greet his hyper-dysfunctional parents. This year's strangest, sweetest, most unexpected romance established Gallo as 1998's most innovative new filmmaker. His remarkable use of split screen showed both a newcomer's moxie and an old-timer's deep understanding of the filmic language.
Some people dismissed this as just another eye candy sci-fi film. Some people weren't paying very close attention. Director Alex Proyas (The Crow) took this film noir fever dream and created, perhaps, the definitive work of science fiction for the '90s--a world where speculative elements weren't mere window dressing, but an integral part of the story. This wasn't just a film about an amnesiac trapped in a surreal city where the night never ends, where architecture changes in the blink of an eye and where no one has any memories of the past. In the 1980s, people weren't ready for a film like Blade Runner, which told us that technology was so far outpacing us that it was becoming "more human than human." Maybe, in the '90s, people aren't ready for a film like Dark City, which asks us what--in this ever-changing world--truly defines us as human.
Japanese auteur Takeshi "Beat" Kitano isn't very well known in America. Our loss. This recent Takeshi effort was a flawless representative of his brilliance. Takeshi wrote, directed and starred in this crushingly melancholy crime film about an emotionally withdrawn police officer whose wife is dying of leukemia, whose partner has just been crippled and who owes a small fortune to some nasty loansharks. The fractured narratives were packed with crisp sadness, haunting violence and masterful cinematography.
Indie hero Hal Hartley has been slaving away for years on films like Trust, Simple Men and Amateur. This year saw his most ambitious work, however--a claustrophobic epic about the vagaries of creative genius. On one side of the coin, we had Henry Fool--an extroverted, but talentless prick of a writer. On the other side of the coin, we had Simon Grim--a socially retarded, but secretly talented garbageman. Between these two extremes, Hartley wove a viciously comic parable about jealousy, wounded intellectual pride and the rough power of artistic inspiration.
Life is Beautiful
Italian comic Robert Benigni performed this year's deftest tightrope act by writing, directing and starring in this jaw-dropping "comedy" about life in a Nazi death camp. Many have tried, but few have pulled off this oil-and-water mixture of pathos and comedy so perfectly. Watching Benigni's rakish character shield his young son from the horrors of reality by pretending their entire predicament is some elaborate game was both joyous and heartbreaking.
Saving Private Ryan
Insult Steven Spielberg all you want (it's easy after Jurassic Park 2), but when this boy sets out to make a good movie, he succeeds. I'm not the first one to say it, but I'll gladly second the motion: The first 20 minutes of this film rank right up there with Picasso's Guernica as the most brutal artistic examination of war ever created. Spielberg's genius is in creating unequivocally "Hollywood" films that make audiences think. Ryan's "rescue the young paratrooper from behind enemy lines" plot could have served as the backbone for the most commercial of 1950s action films. The level of scary reality and soul-plumbing emotion that Spielberg was able to graft onto that plot, however, is what makes Spielberg so damnably Oscar-worthy.
Shakespeare in Love
It's hard to do Shakespeare without the pretension. This loving farce certainly doesn't suffer from that malady. Casting Willy the Shake (peppy Joseph Fiennes) as a penniless, conniving Lothario romancing his way through Elizabethan England was inspired. The supporting cast (including Geoffrey Rush, Ben Affleck and Tom Wilkinson) rose to the occasion, contributing some hilarious characters and some memorable Shakespearean thesping. Gwyneth Paltrow finally got a role worthy of her charisma as a smitten society dame who disguises herself as a boy so she can audition for Shakespeare's latest opus (the still unwritten Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter). This swooningly romantic, irreverently funny film was a welcome surprise in our Christmas stocking.
A Touch of Evil
It was made in 1958, but it took 40 years for Orson Welles' misunderstood film noir masterpiece to reach the big screen in the manner he intended. Intrepid producer Rick Schmidlin found Welles' original notes and re-edited the entire film, creating a true director's cut. As if we needed any further proof of Welles' genius, this 40th anniversary re-release was seedier, funnier and creepier than ever before.
The Truman Show
Australian director Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, Dead Poets Society) has always been a filmmaker on the edge--of madness, of greatness, of commercial success. Last summer, he managed all three with this Kurt Vonnegutesque mind fuck about a clueless schlub (stellar Jim Carrey) whose entire life has been the subject of the world's most popular TV show. Weir (with the help of screenwriter Andrew Niccol) exposed not merely our modern obsession with video voyeurism, but the creepy homogenization that the information age has imparted on us. Truman Burbank was the perfect hero for the '90s--a completely manufactured good guy living in an artificial world of force-fed values and phony relationships.
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