A Slightly Dirty Dozen

The past year has been filled with good films... interesting films... worthwhile films. In fact there were many that I think of as being wonderful or droll or whatever. But 1998 failed to produce a single film to which the term "great" might be applied. Most years have at least one great movie: Pulp Fiction in 1994, for example. And some years, like 1992, have several: Toto the Hero, Delicatessen, The Crying Game, Unforgiven, and, arguably, Aladdin.

This year I had more than the usual number of contenders for my top ten, but no clear contenders for number one. For the first time in the 15 years I've been making these lists, it doesn't seem worth trying to place my picks in qualitative order -- always a frustrating task, but this time around particularly meaningless. So instead of the usual ranking, below you'll find a dozen films that made life in the Year of Zippergate more endurable -- titles the intentional entertainment value of which provided distraction from the grim and unintentional entertainment that dominated all other media.

More so than in the past, my list is dominated by commercial studio releases. That reflects, in part, the major studios' response to the indie challenge of the late '80s and early '90s: Buy 'em up. As yet, despite occasional skirmishes, the indies' corporate masters have allowed them to continue to make the sorts of films that got them noticed in the first place.

The standard cautionary note: Each year someone asks me, "How can you see all the eligible films?" The answer, of course, is "I can't." In one of life's little inequities, critics compiling top-ten and best-of lists can't possibly see everything. Oh, we try, but it's just not possible. So if I've overlooked your favorite, I'm sure that's only because it's one of those that, lamentably, I missed. Someday I'll catch up with it, recognize its brilliance, and curse deaf heaven for my own shortcomings.

And now, to the strains of a vaguely lackluster fanfare...

The Best Movies of 1998! (in alphabetical order):

The Butcher Boy. Neil Jordan's best film since The Crying Game, this bizarre portrait of a terminally antisocial misfit growing up in Ireland in the '60s got great reviews but managed to slip under the public's radar. It's a daringly perverse, uncompromising piece of work, with a terrific score by Elliot Goldenthal and a chillingly believable lead performance by Eamonn Owens.

Dark City. Nothing is what it seems in this science fiction film noir from director Alex Proyas (The Crow). Its script -- by Proyas, Lem Dobbs, and David S. Goyer -- is an inventive thematic blend of amnesia, paranoid conspiracy, possession, and confused identity. (It owes a huge debt to writer Philip K. Dick.) More important, Proyas' visual imagination is so prodigious that Dark City should take its place alongside the estimable Blade Runner and The City of Lost Children. The one big misstep is Kiefer Sutherland's arch performance in a supporting role, but if you can get past that, this is the trippiest film of the year.

The Impostors. Stanley Tucci's followup to Big Night is a totally different bag: a madcap screwball farce reminiscent of the work of the Marx Brothers and Preston Sturges. Tucci and costar Oliver Platt are hilarious as two starving actors in New York City in the '30s. As a writer Tucci comes up with some genuinely funny dialogue and situations, but this is one of those films that doesn't read nearly as well as it plays: He may be a good writer, but he's a much better director. Nearly all the movie's biggest laughs come from performance rather than material: Tucci, Platt, and Campbell Scott stand out, but everybody in the cast -- which includes Alfred Molina, Dana Ivey, Hope Davis, Steve Buscemi, Allison Janney, Isabella Rossellini, Billy Connolly, Tony Shalhoub, Lili Taylor, and (briefly) Woody Allen -- gets his or her moment. Despite a flagging final act, this is the funniest film of the year.

The Kingdom II. Episodes five through eight of Lars Von Trier's intermittent TV series were released as a five-hour sequel to 1995's equally long The Kingdom. Like its predecessor it's a remarkable fusion of broad comedy and genuinely creepy supernatural stuff -- sort of a cross between E.R. and Twin Peaks -- set entirely within the huge Copenhagen hospital from which the show takes its name. This is one of those rare cases where it's ill-advised to watch this release without having seen the original; and it's one of those rarer cases where the investment of ten hours of your life is well worth the time.

Out of Sight. In recent years Elmore Leonard books have yielded both a perfect, lightweight commercial confection (Get Shorty) and a less-than-perfect, but more ambitious, Tarantino thriller (Jackie Brown). Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight may be the most satisfying Leonard adaptation yet: Humor, romance, thrills, and acute character observation are perfectly intertwined. George Clooney finally got to prove his star quality, with healthy assists from leading lady Jennifer Lopez and an especially strong supporting cast that includes Ving Rhames, Albert Brooks, Don Cheadle, Steve Zahn, and Dennis Farina.

Pleasantville. Gary Ross' directorial debut is wildly overreaching -- it overloads its setup with more thematic threads than it can handle -- but its initial shift from sheer gimmickry to serious commentary on fascism's roots within American cultural conservatism was one of the year's most thrilling surprises. In addition to Ross' inventive script, the movie featured brilliantly controlled use of color and black-and-white cinematography and benefited from a fine Randy Newman score.

Rushmore. While not as fully satisfying as his earlier Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson's new film (written in collaboration with Owen Wilson) embroiders, more or less, on the same subject -- the horrible results when the fantasies of a charmingly indefatigable nutcase run up against the real world. Anderson continues to be one of the most original new voices in American film. A perfectly cast Bill Murray, once again in the sort of supporting role that brings out his best, gives a wonderful performance.

Saving Private Ryan. Steven Spielberg's World War II epic is no Schindler's List, but it's probably his next-best "serious" film. As has been pointed out repeatedly, the opening 22-minute battle sequence is one of the most brutal and (apparently) realistic ever filmed. The picture is also one of the few instances in which Spielberg doesn't overplay his hand by using John Williams' music to underscore and thus spoiling points already effectively established. But the morphing sequence near the end, no matter how justified by the narrative, feels out of place and even a little, well, cheap.

Shakespeare in Love. As realized by director John Madden, this comedy-drama -- scripted by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard -- about young Will Shakespeare grappling with romance and writer's block is wonderfully constructed and much broader in its humor than one might have expected. Many of the wittiest jokes are at the expense of Hollywood, for which the Elizabethan theater serves as a metaphor.

A Simple Plan. Sam Raimi, whose Evil Dead trilogy was enormously influential on modern fantasy and horror films, gets serious with this taut reworking of the core story from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The plot is not always airtight, but its little lapses are more than compensated for by a downright amazingly nuanced performance from Billy Bob Thornton and nearly equal work from the frequently excessive Bill Paxton. The characters stay with you, heartbreakingly.

The Thin Red Line. Terrence Malick's adaptation of James Jones' World War II bestseller about the battle for Guadalcanal can be frustrating for unprepared viewers. It has thrilling battle scenes but doesn't approach the pacing or goals of traditional war films, including Saving Private Ryan. The structure is off-balance, and it is sometimes hard to keep track of the raft of characters. But if you clear your mind of the usual genre expectations and simply experience the film, its images and performances create a powerful experience that sticks with you.

The Truman Show. Andrew Niccol's incredibly clever script is perfectly realized by director Peter Weir, with a likewise perfect central performance from Jim Carrey. The paranoid-megalomaniac story line -- your whole life consists of a huge conspiracy that everyone is in on but you -- has been rendered several times before, but never this convincingly. While keeping things swiftly entertaining, the filmmakers milk the premise for all its satirical and metaphorical value. If there's a flaw, it's that the movie is so clever that it feels shallower than it may really be.

Among the other films that gave me great pleasure this year were Adam Sandler's atypical The Wedding Singer; Rush Hour, which, while failing to capture all of Jackie Chan's genius, came far closer than any of his previous Hollywood efforts; Bad Manners, Jonathan Kaufer's wicked look at sex and lies among academics; The Celebration, Thomas Vinterberg's excoriating Danish comedy about an unusual family reunion; A Bug's Life, the Pixar-Disney production that won the computer-animated-bug-film wars; and the commercially catastrophic Babe: Pig in the City, in which one of the world's greatest directors, George Miller (Road Warrior), takes the more interesting, intrepid path at every fork.

In the same class were Chilean veteran Raul Ruiz's metaphysical thriller Shattered Image; Paul Schrader's adaptation of Russell Banks' Affliction, featuring great work from Nick Nolte and James Coburn; Warren Beatty's deeply flawed but politically daring Bulworth; and Takeshi Kitano's two existential crime films, Sonatine and Fireworks.

Also highly entertaining were Peter Jackson's droll pseudodocumentary Forgotten Silver; Peter Chan's Hong Kong melodrama Comrades, Almost a Love Story; the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski; Dutch director Mike van Diem's Oscar-winning Character; Abbas Kiarostami's A Taste of Cherry; Kirk Wong's nasty crime comedy The Big Hit; Richard Donner's Lethal Weapon 4; Shunji Iwai's 1995 melodrama When I Close My Eyes, only now arriving in the United States; the Farrelly brothers' There's Something About Mary; Manuel Poirier's picaresque Western; Spanish auteur Bigas Luna's The Chambermaid; Mexican director Jaime Humberto Hermosillo's Esmeralda Comes by Night; John Waters' Pecker; Antz, the other computer-animated bug film; Trey Parker's funky student feature Cannibal! The Musical; Ronny Yu's ingenious Bride of Chucky; and Celebrity, which, though nearly ruined by Kenneth Branagh's imitation of writer-director Woody Allen's mannerisms, was redeemed by the acute wit that distinguishes even such minor Allen efforts.

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