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Essays & Articles

1998 - The Best in Film
by Dustin Putman, February 28, 1999

    There was a pattern, I noticed, looking back on it now, for the 175+ motion pictures I saw in 1998. Movies were either very good (as in * * * and above) or very bad ( * 1/2 and below). I'm not sure the cause of this odd and peculiar pattern, but it just seemed like filmmakers were either immeasurably intelligent or jaw-droppingly brainless. When a movie was good, however, it more often than not was very, very good. Looking at my list of the best of 1998, a noticably large amount of the choices are either independent films, or those that might as well have been since they took risky chances at trying to be original, which was something you don't see in a Hollywood offering everyday. In 1998, I firmly believe it was the year of the "first-time director," because many fine movies were released by fresh newcomers that are certainly people to watch closely for in the future. Although not one of the absolute strongest recent years in film (that honor would have to go to 1993 and 1996), it also was not a total wash-out, and '98 passed by with a sizable collection of films that I would not have missed for anything. The following is my top eleven list of 1998. If, by chance, I later see a film deserving of going on the list, then I will just change the title to the top twelve of 1998, or top thirteen, etc.

    The Eleven Best Films of 1998

    11.) A Simple Plan, directed by Sam Raimi, was this year's "Fargo," not because it is any kind of a rip-off, but because it is a masterful, multi-layered crime thriller set in the wintry landscape of the Midwest. Bill Paxton stars in an underrated performance as a lower-middle-class man who discovers $4-million in a wrecked plane in the woods with his brother (Billy Bob Thornton) and brother's buddy (Brent Briscoe), and decides to keep it, setting off a violent and, ultimately, tragic chain of events. Raimi, whose most notable previous film is the cult horror picture, "The Evil Dead," shows us here that he is, and has always been, an incredibly talented filmmaker with his effortlessly smooth and surprising storytelling approach. And who could forget Thornton's flawless and poignant performance as Paxton's slow-witted and unhappy older brother?

    10.) Love and Death on Long Island, directed by Richard Kwietniowski, was the year's most touching and truthful, albeit offbeat, love story, about an aging English writer (John Hurt) who accidentally stumbles into the wrong movie theater and instantly becomes infatuated with one of the young B-movie actors on the screen, Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley). Hurt is humorous in his naivety of modern living and completely heartbreaking in his passion, even though it is never clear if it has anything to do with sexual or romantic feelings, for this twentysomething whom he has next to no chance of forming a relationship with. And Priestley, of TV's "Beverly Hills, 90210," also gives a solid and accurate performance as an actor not far from his own personal image.

    9.) Buffalo '66, directed by Vincent Gallo, was a true original, an alternately hilarious and quietly observational tale of an ex-con (Vincent Gallo) who gets out of prison and, in desperation to bring home a woman to his parents, who believe he is married, kidnaps a teenager (Christina Ricci) from a tap dance class. The word independent when discussing lower-budgeted films was practically invented for a movie like "Buffalo '66" which takes a number of risky chances and succeeds in creating a sort of oddball romantic comedy with serious and fantasy undertones. Gallo gives a great comic performance in the lead role, and Ricci proves once again why she is one of the best young actresses around today. Also unforgettable is the beautiful cinematography, which is filmed in washed-out colors reminiscent of a '70s picture, and paints the city of Buffalo so accurately its almost scary.

    8.) The Opposite of Sex, directed by Don Roos, was the year's best comedy, a wonderfully-written film with a pair of great, Oscar-worthy performances by Christina Ricci and, especially, by Lisa Kudrow, whose funny and touching portrayal of an embittered woman who doesn't understand sex and has never been loved, proves that she can play things other than a ditz. With every viewing of this absolute gem, it just gets better and better, and is the type of film with an enormous amount of subtlety and nuances, something you may not "get" on first viewing.

    7.) The Thin Red Line, directed by Terrence Malick, is a "war" picture that absolutely knocks the socks right off of Steven Spielberg's flawed and occasionally mawkish "Saving Private Ryan." In his telling of the WWII battle at Guadalcanal, Malick has created the most beautiful, poetic, thought-provoking, and serene war film of all time, a motion picture that has just as much to do with human nature as it has to do with the war itself.

    6.) The Celebration, directed by Thomas Vinterberg, was the year's best foreign-language film. The first film to be made under the Danish artistic organization, Dogme 95, it is a powerful, mind-blowing drama about a dysfunctional family meeting to celebrate the patriarch's 65th birthday, where a cold-hearted and shocking revelation is revealed by one of his sons. This particular film left me shaken for days afterwards, and proved that a movie does not need special effects or even music to be effective.

    5.) Clockwatchers, directed by Jill Sprecher, was a jewel of a movie, a funny, as well as deeply moving, multiple character study about the lives of office temps, with some of the year's best performances, by Toni Collette (in an Oscar-caliber performance), Parker Posey, and Lisa Kudrow. The observation of a working-class job was right on-target, and the way that the film handled the relationships between the four central characters was realistic and, in many ways, devastating.

    4.) Living Out Loud, written and directed by Richard Lagravenese, was just about as outstanding of a directing debut as there could have been by Lagravenese, primarily a screenwriter ("The Bridges of Madison County"). Holly Hunter, in her best performance to date, stars as a 40-year-old woman crushed when she discovers her husband is having an affair, and begins a sweet relationship with her apartment building's lonely elevator operator (Danny DeVito). With a wonderfully engaging screenplay, remarkable performances, particularly by Queen Latifah, and a liberating closing image of someone walking down a street, "Living Out Loud" is one of the few films of 1998 that has firmly stuck with me since I saw it months ago.

    3.) Affliction, directed by Paul Schrader, was the year's most shocking and angry motion picture, a movie that you felt more than you physically saw. In the story of a middle-aged man, living in a snowy New Hampshire town, inevitably headed down the same path as his hateful, bitter father (a frightening James Coburn), Nick Nolte gave the performance of 1998, and if he doesn't win the Oscar for Best Actor, I know of one fellow who's going to be especially unhappy. This complex, emotionally shattering film was presented in such an intense way that it occasionally became difficult to watch and, at the same time, I couldn't take my eyes off the screen for a second.

    2.) Whatever, directed by Susan Skoog, was the best film I saw in 1998 until the very end of the year, a motion picture that was so accurate and perfectly realized it more often than not seemed like a documentary. Set in New Jersey, circa 1981, about a 17-year-old girl (Liza Weil) unsure of where her life is headed, there was no other film I saw throughout the year that caused me to care as deeply about the main character as "Whatever" managed to do, and Weil, in her film debut, gave the most unaffected female performance I have seen in a long time. Director Susan Skoog is definately a filmmaker that I anticipate seeing again in the near future, and what she has made here is an important motion picture that deserves to be seen by all teenagers. I have a feeling many of them would watch the film, nod in recognition at its startling realism, and then ask themselves why they even considered liking something as idealized and false as the recent "She's All That."

    1.) Rushmore, directed by Wes Anderson, is not only the best film of 1998, but also the most effective and perfectly realized coming-of-age picture since a pair of 1986 movies, "Stand by Me" and "Lucas." "Rushmore" is a marvel of a film with performances to cherish, particularly by Jason Schwartzman as 15-year-old Max Fischer, a teenager at an exclusive private school named Rushmore who is obsessed with extracurricular activities, as well as the kind first-grade teacher, Miss Cross (Olivia Williams). Also of notice is Max's rival and confidante, Mr. Blume, played in a career-reviving performance by Bill Murray, and fellow student Margaret Yang (Sara Tanaka), who does like Max, even though he is too involved in his crush to notice her. Motion pictures like "Rushmore" is why I hold my love of movies so close to my heart; it is unlike anything you've ever seen, it is intelligent and original, and genuinely unpredictable, not to mention both very funny and sweetly poignant. That "Rushmore" was snubbed by the Oscars just goes to show what a joke the Academy really is.

    Since there honestly were a lot of great films from 1998 that I simply couldn't cram into my Top 10 List, here are 12 more films that also are definite must-sees:

    Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order)

    Celebrity, directed by Woody Allen, was his most accomplished picture since 1996's "Everyone Says I Love You" or maybe even 1992's "Husbands and Wives," in a delightful and maturely written satire about people who are all either Hollywood stars, or desperately aspire to be.

    Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, directed by Terry Gilliam, was the year's biggest visual achievement about a drug-crazed journalist (Johnny Depp) and his lawyer (Benicio Del Toro) on a whirlwind trip to Las Vegas, and not only a feast for the eyes, but a picture filled to the rim with unforgettable supporting characters (including Christina Ricci, Cameron Diaz, and Ellen Barkin).

    Kurt and Courtney, directed by Nick Broomfield, was the best documentary I saw in 1998, a truly fascinating and eerie look into the death of Nirvana lead singer, Kurt Cobain, which many believe was not a suicide, and his unstable marriage with Courtney Love.

    One True Thing, directed by Carl Franklin, was, by far, the more intelligent and effective film of the year about a family coping with a mother with cancer (the other was "Stepmom"). Meryl Streep gave a brilliant performance, as always, in her portrayal of a joyful homemaker who is struck with the terminal illness, and Renee Zellweger, as her daughter, just keeps growing and growing as an actress.

    Playing by Heart, directed by Willard Carroll, was an ensemble picture in the vein of something Robert Altman might have made, about a wide variety of people living in Los Angeles and dealing with the subjects of love and relationships. Written with a lot of care and precision, the film was also brought to life by the exact performances of its fabulous cast, particularly the radiant Angelina Jolie.

    The Prince of Egypt, directed by Brenda Chapman, Steve Hickner, and Simon Wells, was, surprisingly, the only animated film of the year that I liked, and it was a spectacular achievement as an animated showcase, as well as in its treatment of the biblical telling of Moses. Constantly leaving me awestruck, who could not be swept away by the glorious sights of the Red Sea parting and the wall of hieroglyphics that miraculously come to life.

    A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, directed by Merchant Ivory, was one of the year's most criminally overlooked films, a stunning drama of an unconventional American family during the 1970s who move back to the U.S. after living in France for several years. Leelee Sobieski gave, by far, the most mature and astounding performance of the year by an actor under the age of 17.

    The Spanish Prisoner, written and directed by David Mamet, was arguably the most flawlessly-scripted film of the year, an absolutely unpredictable "puzzle" film that managed to not only be an ingenious thriller, but also often very funny. Rebecca Pidgeon, the wife of Mamet, was a marvelous standout, as was comedian Steve Martin, in a rare serious role. And besides, how could you not love a film that includes the line, "dog my cats?"

    Twilight, directed by Robert Benton, was one of the few bright spots of the spring '98 movie season, and had arguably the best cast of the year (Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, Stockard Channing, James Garner, Reese Witherspoon, and Liev Schrieber). The story was never anything short of unpredictable and, for a film with a tight running time of 93 minutes, was amazing in how well it was able to develop the many characters into three-dimensional people.

    Urban Legend, directed by Jamie Blanks, was the best horror film that has been released since the genre-revitalizing "Scream" in 1996. Taking a highly clever and original premise (a killer murdering people based on infamous urban legends), the film featured an unusually fine cast for a horror flick and was constantly stylish and cleverly written, with a perfect mixture of laughs and chills.

    The Wedding Singer, directed by Frank Coraci, was the first film starring Adam Sandler that I have actually liked, as he was cast as a good-natured wedding singer opposite the adorable Drew Barrymore, as the waitress he begins to fall in love with. Abandoning his "idiot" image, Sandler played a more believable character here, and the film was hilarious and sweet from start to finish, not to mention a splendid throwback to the '80s.

    Your Friends and Neighbors, directed by Neil Labute (1997's "In the Company of Men"), was one of the year's most courageous and bold movies, a film set entirely in interior locations and revolving around six angry, embittered characters. Jason Patric, who flawlessly plays a heartless womanizer, just may have created one of the most horrifying characters in recent memory.

    That may be a listing of twenty great motion pictures from 1998, but that's not even the end of it. There were many more films I saw that were also quite impressive, and certainly worth your time.

    The Rest of the Best (in alphabetical order)

    The Alarmist, Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss, Can't Hardly Wait, Cube, The Faculty, Fallen, 54, Gods and Monsters, High Art, Hilary and Jackie, The Horse Whisperer, Hurricane Streets, The Last Days of Disco, Life is Beautiful, Meet Joe Black, Men With Guns, Nightwatch, Pleasantville, Return to Paradise, Saving Private Ryan, The Truman Show, Very Bad Things, and What Dreams May Come.

    So there you have it. A total of 44 motion pictures that were all what would be considered definite achievements. Of course, there were an overabundance of poorly made films to good ones, but there were nonetheless quite a few more that I would also consider marginal successes. 1998 might not have been one of the best years for film, but there is no doubt many pictures that were excellent examples of exemplary filmmaking—films that showed me exactly why I love movies so much—and I'm glad I saw them.