From Japanese cops to American robbers, the best films of 1998
By Jim Ridley, Noel Murray, and Donna Bowman
JANUARY 11, 1999: 1998 was the year Nashville movie nuts always hoped for--a flood of fine revival programming, foreign films, and indie releases, not to mention a steady flow of provocative mainstream movies. Unfortunately, it won't be repeated. Last year was amazing because we got to see most of the movies that ordinarily skip Nashville--because we had a theater that would show them. When the Watkins Belcourt shuts down on Jan. 28, so will your chances to see all but the slimmest few indie and foreign releases. Therefore, we take this time to reflect on 1998's best films. Because in 1999, we're going to have lots of time to read.
The top 10Jim:
1. Taste of Cherry. In his somber, extraordinary film, the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami asks the question: Can you take your own life knowing you'll never again sample even the most basic of pleasures? His answer, both simple and simply profound, isn't what you'd expect--and neither is his visionary ending, which sparked more debate among friends than anything else I saw. In a year congested with mass distractions, this was an oxygen tank in a smoke-filled room.
2. Fallen Angels. Like watching the best trailer you've ever seen for two hours. The (unwarranted) rap against Hong Kong cinemagician Wong Kar-wai is that his pinball-wizard fantasias are all style and no soul. But his split-level reverie about a lonesome hit-man and a lovesick ex-con is as life-affirming in its glorious excess as Taste of Cherry is in its austerity.
3. Velvet Goldmine. Ziggy Stardust morphs into Charles Foster Kane in Todd Haynes' glam-rock musical, an elegy for gender-bending hedonism--and a fever-dream contemplation of image and identity. No wide release this year showed more narrative daring or cinematic panache.
4. Buffalo 66. Marked by daredevil mood swings and a Bukowski acolyte's affinity for the gutter--bowling, that is--this fluky, audacious road movie by actor/writer/director Vincent Gallo was the only independent American film I saw this year that deserved the term.
5. Rushmore. From Bottle Rocket's Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson, an exuberantly odd, enchanting comedy about a teenage megalomaniac (Jason Schwartzman), his millionaire benefactor (a wondrous Bill Murray), and the first-grade teacher (Olivia Williams) who comes between them. Now in limited release, it should arrive here in February.
6. Fireworks (Hana-Bi)/ Sonatine. These two poetic, elliptical, deeply affecting crime dramas from Japanese writer-director-TV comic "Beat" Takeshi Kitano arrived on Western shores almost simultaneously last spring. Now let's have his Violent Cop and Boiling Point.
7. Bulworth. After the glib insiders-only shtick of Wag the Dog and Primary Colors, Warren Beatty's satire came as a welcome shock: a fanged, funny, of-the-moment nightmare comedy that treats politics as something more than spectator sport.
8. Live Flesh. Smashing film noir bathed in heat, sweat, and lust by the prankish Pedro Almodovar, who played his lurid material straight for once and delivered his most deliriously entertaining movie to date.
9. A Bug's Life/Small Soldiers. The former sustains the belly laughs and careening momentum of a Friz Freleng short for almost an hour and a half; the latter wreaks havoc on war movies--and war--better than anybody since the salad days of Mad magazine. There wasn't anything this cool when I was a kid.
10. Beloved/He Got Game/Saving Private Ryan/Snake Eyes. Four good-to-brilliant movies whose serious flaws couldn't obscure passages of astonishing beauty, power, and invention, zooming from slavery and world war to post-Watergate/civil-rights disillusionment. Put 'em together, and you've got the real American History X.
Honorable Mention: Babe: Pig in the City, The Big Lebowski, Blade, The Butcher Boy, The Celebration, The Eel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Frat House, Hands on a Hardbody, High Art, Life Is Beautiful, The Long Way Home, The Mask of Zorro, Out of Sight, See the Sea, Slums of Beverly Hills, Storefront Hitchcock, Tokyo Fist, The Truman Show, Zero Effect.
1. The most imagination, emotion, and sheer delight in '98 came from so-called "kid's movies." George Miller gave us the ingenious, stirringly soulful contraption Babe: Pig in the City. Disney reclaimed some of its animation supremacy with Mulan, then promptly ceded it to DreamWorks' ambitious, innovative Prince of Egypt. And Pixar's A Bug's Life displayed all the wit, invention, and panache of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, combined with the rollicking adventure of Howard Hawks.
2. Fireworks. The central image of this oft-brutal, oft-tender Japanese crime melodrama is of a couple shuffling wooden puzzle pieces, trying to find a design; similarly, this movie is a puzzle that slowly resolves into the resonant story of a man using violence to gain a moment of peace for himself and his dying wife.
3. Out of Sight. The most artfully made pop junk of the year--slick thuggery laced with winsome regret and populated by one-dimensional pulp characters shot from striking new angles.
4. The Big Lebowski. This shaggy-dog comedy not only gets funnier with each viewing, it reveals profound compassion for its lead character--a man out of time, trapped in a plot he never made.
5. The Spanish Prisoner. David Mamet revisits his standard themes of subtle masculine conflict and the desire to belong, while recreating a style and patter that could have been lensed in 1946.
6. Men With Guns/Saving Private Ryan. The latter explicates war as a series of gripping life-or-death choices. The former examines battle-zone bystanders unable to construct useful narratives out of random bloodshed.
7. Hard Core Logo. Not a dead-on parody like Spinal Tap, but something much richer: a riotously funny and insightful portrait of the collaborative creative process that leads to rock and/or roll.
8. Slums of Beverly Hills. Like an R-rated Judy Blume novel, this fresh and winning coming-of-age tale shows how the grotesque side of growing up can also be sweet.
9. The Truman Show. Overhyped early, this clever fantasia endures not because of its commentary on TV culture, but because, at its core, it's a story about feeling confined by the limits of your own life.
10. The Celebration. A "you are there" depiction of the wince-inducing reunion of a wealthy Danish family, this uniquely entertaining picture treats verité drama as if it were white-knuckle suspense.
Honorable Mention: Celebrity, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Impostors, Life is Beautiful, Living Out Loud, Love and Death on Long Island, The Mask of Zorro, Shakespeare in Love, Snake Eyes, Zero Effect.
1. Men With Guns. With a straightforward honesty that hides subtlety worthy of Tolstoy, John Sayles creates a modern myth of death, politics, and paradise. The movie's stories weave among the deepest themes in Western thought, while Sayles' triumphal vision breaks through cinematic cages and political boundaries.
2. Fireworks. The intensity of emotion in this near-perfect work is only magnified by the fact that the characters, bound by the conventions of their culture, are unable to express it. It's as heartbreaking a film as it is aesthetically majestic.
3. Windhorse. This first film treatment of modern-day Tibet under Chinese rule is unlikely to be surpassed, no matter how much money and star power Hollywood might amass. Using untrained actors and cameras smuggled into Lhasa, Paul Wagner creates an unforgettable story of youth, identity, and the power of images.
4. Saving Private Ryan. The year's most high-profile film deserves the hype. Yes, it's the ultrarealistic Normandy sequence that people will talk about most, but the compelling themes of sacrifice, loyalty, and remembrance resonate in every scene.
5. Buffalo 66. An assured, funny, tortured directorial debut from actor Vincent Gallo, who creates a beautiful loser and makes him uniquely lovable. Gallo's inimitable style, thoughtful rather than flashy, is just the type of cinematic vision that could save independent film.
6. The Big Lebowski. After the acclaimed tragedy of Fargo, thank God the Coen brothers didn't feel the pressure to repeat themselves. This loving, hilarious portrait of the accidental hero crams a world of pulp antecedents into a bowling bag of warmhearted, observant characterizations.
7. The Spanish Prisoner. The year was full of entertaining little movies, but none more delightful than this subversive gem, in which that master of the con, David Mamet, pulls another fast one on the audience. What looks like mannered affectation turns out to be deceit of the most accomplished and delicious variety.
8. Out of Sight. It may not be an auteur project for director Steven Soderbergh, but as usual, he brings style and wit to this Elmore Leonard tale of crooks in love. George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez ignite the screen with the subtlest of cocked eyebrows, while Soderbergh keeps the camera close and the dialogue dry.
9. A Bug's Life/Mulan. Despite DreamWorks' and 20th Century Fox's sorties into animation this year, these two films prove that Disney still sets the pace. Judging from the relentless inventiveness of Pixar's computer creation A Bug's Life, and the stylish, emotionally sophisticated traditional animation of Mulan, nobody's gaining on the Mouse yet.
10. The Last Days of Disco/Mr. Jealousy. Whit Stillman and Noah Baumbach locate the fun in stories of insecure, upwardly mobile types. Stillman shepherds his usual flock of rich social dilettantes through the late '70s in Disco, while Baumbach lets the college slackers of Kicking and Screaming grow up neurotically in Mr. Jealousy.
Honorable Mention: Beloved, The Celebration, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Love and Death on Long Island, The Mask of Zorro, Ma Vie en Rose, Shakespeare in Love, Slums of Beverly Hills, The Truman Show.
Great performances, maleJim: Edward Norton expanded his already wide range as the reformed skinhead of American History X and the weaselly card shark of Rounders. As the preteen psycho of Neil Jordan's unfairly neglected The Butcher Boy, young Eamonn Owens gave a chillingly jocular performance. Bill Pullman created the year's most memorable character, the freaky master detective Daryl Zero in Jake Kasdan's nifty Zero Effect, while Antonio Banderas and George Clooney came through with megawatt star power in The Mask of Zorro and Out of Sight, respectively.
Noel: As "The Dude," an aging hippie coasting on his imaginary rep, Jeff Bridges hilariously tries to stay alert long enough to solve a mystery in The Big Lebowski. In Wilde, Stephen Fry shows us the Victorian writer's real charm, not his legendary, now clichd bitchiness. Richard E. Grant rebels against the upper classes while envying their impeccable style in A Merry War. When Pi works at all, it's because of the sweaty paranoia of Sean Gullette. Finally, Joseph Fiennes shows us a clever, tortured, horny, and handsome Shakespeare in Love.
Donna: Anthony Hopkins was our acting master this year, exhibiting both dazzling surface effects (The Mask of Zorro) and deep introspection (Meet Joe Black). But he has a young challenger in Ben Stiller, who excelled as a dissipated artist in Permanent Midnight, an analytical adulterer in Your Friends and Neighbors, a frustrated handler in Zero Effect, and a slapstick lovebird in There's Something About Mary. And Robert De Niro got back in the cool tough-guy method-acting groove with a laconic turn in Ronin.
Great performances, femaleJim: Oprah Winfrey deserves triple props: for getting Beloved to the screen; for filling its central role so eloquently; and for gracefully enduring the entertainment media's moronic hooting about its grosses. Lisa Cholodenko's bracingly adult drama High Art contained impressive work from Radha Mitchell, Patricia Clarkson, and especially Ally Sheedy as the Nan Goldin-inspired spectator of depravity. The great Maggie Cheung lent rage and dignity to a standard Madame Butterfly role in Chinese Box. And Toni Collette did right by Angela Bowie and Dorothy Comingore both in Velvet Goldmine.
Noel: Cate Blanchett carries Elizabeth with humane self-doubt and budding regal authority. In Living Out Loud, Holly Hunter struggles to experience the secret world going on behind darkened doors. Catherine Keener is the smartest (and most dangerous) woman in Your Friends and Neighbors and The Real Blonde. Natasha Lyonne is the living embodiment of teenage angst, oversized breasts and all, in The Slums of Beverly Hills.
Donna: Two great, old-school performances by leads in romantic comedies: Anne Heche was hopelessly, ditheringly lovable in Six Days Seven Nights, while Jennifer Aniston, in The Object of My Affection, displayed comic gifts that continue to go unappreciated because of her TV pedigree. And Christina Ricci brought her girlish pout and "Precious Moments" eyes to the coy schemer of The Opposite of Sex, the shy Baltimorean of Pecker, and the star-crossed dreamer of Buffalo 66.
Scene stealersJim: Let us now praise indie utility man Kevin Corrigan, who scored as a right-wing hooligan in Henry Fool, a bashful dealer in Slums of Beverly Hills, and Vincent Gallo's slow chum Rocky in Buffalo 66. Steve Zahn's pot-addled wheelman provided the biggest laughs in Out of Sight, while Bebe Neuwirth demonstrated impeccable technique on a banana in Celebrity. Beah Richards' Baby Suggs was a tower of strength at the heart of Beloved, and Bill Murray's poker-faced shyster added zing to the dopey Wild Things. But nobody chewed the scenery with more zest than John Turturro, The Big Lebowski's flamboyant Latino pedophile/bowler.
Noel: Boo him or secretly empathize with him, Jeremy Davies' Upham may be the harshest reality to face in Saving Private Ryan. For 10 minutes of Celebrity, Leonardo DiCaprio comes in swearing and smashing and electrifying everything he touches. Carlos Jacott in Noah Baumbach's Mr. Jealousy is too paralyzed by doubt to make a decision, except to switch to a British accent arbitrarily. Steve Martin is the man who appears to have everything in The Spanish Prisoner, and we all want to get a little closer to it. No matter the era, William H. Macy looks perpetually bewildered by modern life in Pleasantville and Psycho.
Donna: Joaquin Phoenix's gentle, eccentric innocent made the ethical dilemma of Return to Paradise more than an academic exercise. As teenage outcasts in Can't Hardly Wait, Seth Green adopts an alien pose and Lauren Ambrose makes it her mission to mock conformity; when they find each other, the movie finds a heart. Lethal Weapon 4 is strictly a snoozer until high-flying Jet Li kicks some good-guy tail in slow motion. In a perfect world, he'd take over the franchise.
* Two opening shots worth the price of admission: the restored beginning of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, looking younger than ever at age 40, and the swaggering 12-minute feat of logistics that kicks off Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes--a tip of the hat to master Welles.
* A roomful of gunmen dissolves into squiggles of faint light: an assassin finally gets outdrawn in Fallen Angels.
* The "frozen" bloodshed at the wonderful climax of Buffalo 66, a goofy screw-you to years of cool indie gunplay.
* A Bug's Life's ultimate terror rears its head in the form of...a cute Disney-esque songbird and three cuddly chicks.
* The school play that the Max Fischer Players produce for the students of Rushmore: a stage adaptation of Serpico.
* Why We Fight: In Saving Private Ryan, Adam Goldberg breaks down crying at the sight of a Hitler Youth knife.
* A dignified orangutan in Babe: Pig in the City can't let himself be seen without his human clothes.
* Jim Carrey's Truman pieces together an ideal woman out of body parts torn from magazines.
* In his one moment of "detecting" in The Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridges rubs a pencil over a used notepad--only to find out that the big clue is a doodle of an oversized penis.
* Tourists don't know what to make of their twisted reflection: two drug-fueled maniacs in a vomit-streaked convertible feeling maximum Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
* An avalanche of Mongols sweeps over a snow-covered rise and descends on a terrified Chinese girl in Mulan.
* While Anthony Hopkins stalks his enemy, Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones set the dance floor aflame in The Mask of Zorro.
* The world's greatest detective, Daryl Zero, deduces a crime from the way a hotel bed is placed in Zero Effect.
* Jan-Michael Vincent tells Vincent Gallo he's always got a home at the bowling alley in Buffalo 66.
* Stanley Tucci and Oliver Platt hone their thespian art with earnest, rubber-faced exercises in The Impostors.
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