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.