Silver lining or slender thread? That question nags at me as I go over my best-of-the-year list. There were some terrific movies in 1998 -- eight, according to my count. But the average film keeps on getting worse. If movies remain as synthetic and incompetent as they are for the most part, audience derision may become a regular part of the film experience. During a radio-promoted screening of the Kurt Russell action spectacle Soldier, the recruited teenagers groaned when the hero's battles with genetically engineered warriors didn't even have the satisfying shape of a professional wrestling match. On my way out a couple of them saw a reporter's pad in my coat pocket and asked me, as an expert, "Was that supposed to be good?" It's a typical 1998 movie puzzler: Who would hire the director of 1997's abysmal Event Horizon (Paul Anderson) to do a second sci-fi blowout?
Soldier, at least, was a deserved bomb; hordes inexplicably swarmed to the prefab shocks and yocks of Lethal Weapon 4 and Rush Hour (the latest innocuous Jackie Chan vehicle). Maybe the crowds were under the illusion that these films' respective hot young comics, Chris Rock and Chris Tucker, could rejuvenate tired action-movie tropes instead of just enlivening a spare minute or two. After all we're in an era so desperate for redemption that schlockmeisters win acclaim for reviving the slasher movies of 20 years ago with a self-consciousness that passes for postmodernism. I couldn't bring myself to see Scream 2: The first one already felt like Scream 10. But I don't begrudge the pleasure of the teen audiences who do go. They want to howl and scream and grab the shoulder next to them just like their parents did.
What's dismaying is that the year's biggest box-office hit, Armageddon, isn't more literate -- or less slipshod -- than the smaller thrill machines. It's simply noisier and more relentlessly eye-popping. If the producers require a stupendous jolt, the filmmakers oblige by offing one city after another.
The coherence of any old Charlie Chan movie outstrips most of this year's critical and popular "successes." That includes semi-art films such as Pleasantville, which doesn't give even superficial impact to a daughter abandoning her brother and mother for a world inside a video tube, and its matching paperweight, The Truman Show, which never grapples with the idea that when its hero leaves his TV-studio universe, what he finds on the outside may depress him.
In their own confused ways, these films decry TV as the electronic opiate of the masses, transforming democracy into a dictatorship of cheap celebrity and putting a video scrim between modern man and "reality." But they don't generate the authority they need as movies. They don't have the narrative flow that used to be the hallmark of commercial filmmaking. And, ironically, it's the top dramas on television that have appropriated this movie legacy and extended it with more fluid and complicated on-screen storytelling. The ABC series The Practice, about an upstart Boston law firm, has far more emotional boldness and dramatic innovation than the deluxe, uninspired A Civil Action, which is also about an upstart Boston law firm.
Personality magazines (whether broadcast, print, or online) still support the idea that movies are getting more and more glamorous (and certainly more glamorous than TV), while newsweeklies cover the workings of executives such as Michael Eisner or Jeffrey Katzenberg as if they were Disney or Griffith. But what's refreshing about a goofy sleeper like There's Something About Mary is that it scrapes away the glitz: It proves that, for $175 million-worth of ticket-buyers, a ragged film that simply meets its tickle quotient may be enough to sustain the filmgoing habit for a season or two.
The success of something as slight and cheerful as Mary should be heartening; instead it's dangerous, because of Hollywood's shifting herd mentality. Executives who were rushing to launch Titanic-like extravaganzas a few months ago have been canceling ambitious projects and searching for their own low-budget gross-out comedies. Without fluky talents like Mary's Farrelly Brothers, whose guiding principle is to go where no other gagster has dared to go before, we'll get studio films with as little zest or visual dimension as any old indie.
One of the smaller disappointments of Warren Beatty's Bulworth was how ugly it was; after all, its cinematographer is the great Vittorio Storaro. Unfortunately the film's drab, tired look was the outward expression of its depleted vitality. Beatty psyched himself up to dramatize a topic he cared about (campaign reform) in a guttural style meant to be dynamic and attention-getting. But he bet too much on the thin proposition that a white icon getting funky (and rapping badly) would amuse and enlighten an audience. And, on its own questionable terms, the film went soft. Its climactic political martyrdom was pure Tinseltown -- both sacrificial and self-adoring. It evoked more romantic melancholy than outrage; it's as if Beatty yearned to be a jiving-Jacobin version of Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two L.A.'s.
Pundits pinned the failure of Bulworth and of Mike Nichols' strident, bloated Primary Colors on Americans' distaste for political comedy. But that didn't keep moviegoers from turning last winter's wild satire Wag the Dog (one of my '97 ten best) into a modest theatrical success and huge video hit. The polite dismissal of Wag the Dog on its first release -- it was pilloried for being far-fetched -- showed how out of touch the pundits have become. They focused on the scenario of a President deflecting attention from a peccadillo by fashioning a trumped-up war; they didn't realize that Wag the Dog was largely about how gullible they were, something that's since been proved by Kenneth Starr and Henry Hyde.
No movie has entered the Zeitgeist since Wag the Dog, including Steven Spielberg's smash D-day film, Saving Private Ryan, despite the efforts of editorial writers and others to prop it up as a monument to American moral know-how. Last year Spielberg didn't get the praise he earned for Amistad, a genuinely noble film that made the strategic mistake of allying the director's usual dynamism to a thoughtful, modulated dignity. In Saving Private Ryan, he doesn't take that kind of chance: He piles on the carnage immediately and dots the attenuated narrative that follows with sure-fire "human" moments. Of course the subject gives him a great excuse. As Stephen E. Ambrose wrote in Citizen Soldiers, on the front lines, "there was no opportunity for subtlety." But the same stroke that's been hailed as a coup de cinema, staging D-day without introducing us to the characters, undermines the movie from the outset. Spielberg does contrive some jaw-dropping shots, such as the first soldiers' heads being blown off as soon as the landing craft hits the beach. Indeed, Spielberg turns this sequence into a sensation-driven miasma just as surely as studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck tried to turn it into a patriotic pageant in The Longest Day (1962). But is that a leap forward? Because John Huston in his 1945 documentary The Battle of San Pietro so judiciously set the context for a bloody fight, the sight of a real soldier tragically cut down before his camera carries far more power than Spielberg's trompe l'oeil array of corpses. And the script for Saving Private Ryan is so weak and sentimental that it can't bridge the gaps between firestorms. Even the running gags are pitiful, like the bit about the definition of the word FUBAR or the mystery of the civilian occupation of Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) -- something even the laziest viewer can guess early on. Despite its ostensible humanism, this movie devolves into its own jumpy brand of video-game violence by the second hour. Unlike Amistad this film is tainted with condescension and bad faith; it's the kind of antiwar movie in which even the weepy-eyed misfit finally gets to pull the trigger. Spielberg doesn't even allow the audience to make its own emotional connection between the young soldier who survives the film's final military clash and the veteran in the framing story. He resorts to morphing between them -- a demeaning vulgarity of the sort that rarely invades Spielberg's work when he's trusting his (and his audience's) instincts.
As this goes to press, I haven't seen a couple of best-of-year contenders, including The Thin Red Line (it hasn't screened outside of New York and Los Angeles) and Ever After. But I'd say the most hopeful signs for the millennium come from the movie past. Too many movie columnists deride the revival fever set off by Star Wars as greedy or stupid. Actually, the impulse to showcase old blockbusters from The Wizard of Oz to (God help us) The Big Chill in mainstream (not rep) theaters marks the return of a fabulous pre-home-video tradition. When Warner Bros. reissued the Errol Flynn Adventures of Robin Hood ten years after its 1938 premiere, the studio presented it (as one historian testified) in "new Technicolor prints, treating it in the manner of one of their big, fresh attractions." Latter-day rereleases like these are the only way to see many movies as they have to be seen -- not just on a big screen, but with a big, involved audience.
Unlike music critics, who seize on the continuing waves of CD reissues to wax eloquent on their favorite forms of art and entertainment, too few movie critics have taken advantage of these rereleases. They provide an opportunity journalists would otherwise lack to write at length on lasting movies, to keep some valid perspective on the contemporary scene, and to help their readers do the same. Will John Dahl (The Last Seduction, this year's Rounders) still be treated as a king of the B's after viewers have tasted what Orson Welles did on a B budget with the masterfully re-edited Touch of Evil? How could anyone who experienced the restored print of Hitchcock's Vertigo two years ago, with its exquisite use of shading and color, take seriously Gus Van Sant's amateurish color replica of Hitchcock's black-and-white Psycho -- an experiment that would fail even as a senior project in an art school? The only joke that paid off in this frame-by-frame reconstruction (give or take a couple of near-subliminal flash cuts) was that Van Sant, like Norman Bates, seemed to be in love with taxidermy. A contributor to the current issue of Civilization, Andrew Hearst, complains of "a pastiche culture awash in images of people acting stiff and foolish in black and white, a culture flooded with historical footage used without context in Nike commercials, rock videos, and Oliver Stone movies." Revivals and restorations, as opposed to pallid remakes such as You've Got Mail (1940's The Shop Around the Corner) and Meet Joe Black (1934's Death Takes a Holiday), help us keep our cultural equilibrium.
The AFI list of 100 "great American movies" and Peter Biskind's history of '70s filmmaking, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, may have been the year's most overhyped and dubious events. But they catalyzed discussion of great movies. If the discussion becomes ongoing, there's always hope it will raise expectations for new films and inspire young artists -- the way the European New Waves of the '50s and '60s and the rediscovery of classic Hollywood catalyzed Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Philip Kaufman, and so many others. Even the botched rerelease of Gone With the Wind, with its fluctuating color and wobbly image, amazed first-time viewers with the modern love-hate of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler.
In Manny Farber's just-reissued (and expanded) 1971 collection Negative Space, the most important film publishing milestone of 1998, this scarily lucid critic describes an American world "where whole eras and cultures in different stages of development exist side by side, where history along one route seems to skip over decades only to fly backward over another route and begin over again in still a different period." In 1998 old movies such as The Wizard of Oz and Touch of Evil and new ones like the following eight (listed in alphabetical order) delighted and enthralled me with their graceful light stepping through that volatile terrain.
Babe: Pig in the City. As a fairy tale of an imperiled innocent in a chaotic and threatening metropolis, George Miller's followup to Babe ranks with Carol Reed's Oliver! and is the most genuinely Dickensian film to emerge since that one did 30 years ago. It's a continually surprising and inventive call for interspecies understanding and civility. There hasn't been a scene all year to match the deep-seated humor and solemnity of a host of disenfranchised city animals lining up for food and expressing their appreciation to Babe, their provider, with the simple, resonant words, "Thank you, pig." Miller has given us a radical alternative to the moral gasbaggery of writer William J. Bennett (Death of Outrage, The Book of Virtues). In fact this film is so vital and moving that even Bennett might be compelled to say, "Thank you, pig."
A Bug's Life. In the wonderful world of Pixar computer animation, artistry and gimmickry mesh. With a lyric combination of flash and filigree, director John Lasseter and company energize this tale of a heroic young ant who enlists circus bugs in a fight against tyrannical grasshoppers. The show-biz pastiche outstrips anything else of the like this year (except for the sections of Shakespeare in Love that aren't overburdened with Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes). The slapstick recalls Chaplin and Keaton, and the luxuriant imagery makes you feel as if you're in a restorative light bath.
The General. Not content with a docudrama depiction of the notorious criminal Martin Cahill, who cut a larcenous swath through Dublin in the '80s, director John Boorman depicts him as a Jovian figure, as hearty as he is sinister. The result is a marvelous, multifaceted movie, with a savage intelligence and a core of mystery. The events are rooted, ruthlessly, in the schisms of contemporary Ireland. Yet Boorman's treatment of them is so incisive and so expansive that the movie sweeps us up in the exuberance of an archetypal chieftain, then forces us to face the consequences of his outlawry. Brendan Gleeson is the perfect actor to anchor this tumultuous saga. He's as comically self-contained as he was in the bravura, self-destructive The Butcher Boy, and as salty as he was in the slight, entertaining I Went Down (both released earlier this year). But he's also wily and charismatic -- a performer on the crest of a roiling wave.
Home Fries. I don't know when writer Vince Gilligan (a contributor to TV's The X-Files) first dreamed up this delicious deadpan farce about an unmarried burger-joint worker (Drew Barrymore) and the family of the man who impregnated her. But coming when it does, it's a great relief -- a big-studio release that blows away a whole spate of independent dysfunctional-clan comedies, including the frantically overrated The Opposite of Sex. Luke Wilson and Jake Busey conjure a hilarious, itchy intimacy as mismatched brothers, and Catherine O'Hara gets laughs where you least expect them as their peerlessly manipulative mom. Under Dean Parisot's deft, unforced direction, Barrymore has never been more adorable. And when the besotted Wilson is with her, his steady, intent attempt to work things out brings the film a quality similar farces desperately need: an uproarious, stalwart sanity.
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The Mask of Zorro. In part this is an exciting throwback to the days when action sequences were splashily choreographed, not spliced together in the editing room, and when swashbucklers stressed (in the words of film historian Brian Taves) "the purity of the hero's motives, his physical and mental agility, impeccable manners, and often witty speech." But it's also an ingenious update, since in this film the original wearer of the Mask of Zorro (Anthony Hopkins) must instruct his successor (Antonio Banderas) in agility, manners, and wit -- bringing audiences up to speed at the same time. Hopkins and Banderas have a joyous old pro/upstart chemistry, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, as Hopkins' daughter and Banderas' lover, has the sparkling, mischief-tinged beauty of every boy adventurer's dreams.
Out of Sight. Ever since the Sexual Revolution, the makers of romantic comedies have twisted themselves into pretzels trying to concoct new reasons for their would-be lovers to delay gratification. (For the latest contortions, see You've Got Mail.) But this adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel pulls off these curlicues without breaking a sweat: The hero (George Clooney) just happens to be a handsome bank robber, the heroine a dishy cop (Jennifer Lopez). Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Frank understand that the secret of lasting movie romance lies in putting appealing personalities to the test; they show us how, under pressure, an attractive man and woman become formidable characters. We don't merely hope that these two get together; we hope they do so without violating the best parts of themselves. With Ving Rhames as Clooney's standup partner, Don Cheadle as a gutless boxer turned manager-thug, Albert Brooks as a smarmy Michael Milliken-like financial wizard, and Wendell B. Harris, Jr. as an officious FBI man, this movie has star power and bench strength. It's an elegant entertainment -- it transforms affectation into artistry.
A Simple Plan. Adapted by Scott B. Smith from his own best-selling novel, this tale of greed and skullduggery in wintry Minnesota harks back to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but it is truly a story for our time. A proper, educated small-town citizen (Bill Paxton) discovers how relative morality can become when he, his unemployed brother (Billy Bob Thornton), and his brother's hard-drinking best friend (Brent Briscoe) stumble upon a downed plane carrying filthy lucre. Director Sam Raimi and his cast (including Bridget Fonda as Paxton's surprisingly avid librarian wife) come up with feats of imaginative empathy. Unlike Linda Tripp, even when they do their worst, they are us. Thornton, in particular, is nothing less than astonishing. With a naturalness that comes from intense artistry, he brings his deceptively slow character into an unflinching focus. By the halfway point we see, with heart-rending clarity, which brother is humane and wise.
Without Limits. The second screen biography in as many years of the late Steve Prefontaine, the legendary distance runner often called the James Dean of track, is that rarity: an edgy inspirational movie, no goop allowed. Pre, as he was nicknamed, was a notorious front-runner -- he would race full-tilt from the starting line rather than strategize his way to victory. Director Robert Towne (who cowrote the script with a friend of Pre, Kenny Moore) depicts his rebellious hero as an icon of youth who shows he has the mettle to grow up, then dies before he gets the chance. With the supernally intense Billy Crudup in the central role, it's almost a secular Passion play. Pre nails himself to a cross of his own making: his belief that he can achieve anything through resolve alone. The movie develops its own nonmoralistic trinity, with Pre as Will, his University of Oregon coach Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland) as Reason, and Pre's Catholic girlfriend Mary Marckx (Monica Potter) as Faith. Their conflicts get articulated in dialogue but played out in motion, usually on the track; you might say that Pre's Gethsemane comes after a heartbreaking loss in the 1972 Munich Olympics. Without sentimentalizing runners Towne treats their eagerness to push past the boundaries of known pain as the purest of quests. Crudup and Sutherland are extraordinary -- they remove any hint of cliche from the student-mentor relationship. This movie gives us sport not just as competition or as spectacle, but as existential ballet.