Except for Rushmore, which won’t hit Colorado theaters for another month, I have finally seen the last of the 1998 indie films making many of the “ten best” lists. I now feel comfortable in releasing my own list, knowing that it’s safe to leave off such films as “A Simple Plan” and “The Thin Red Line” (good as they are).
A good top ten list will do more than just rehash the year in movies. It will make you reconsider some films you didn’t realize were good, and it will introduce you to some that you missed. I hope you are surprised with at least one film on this list, and I hope there’s at least one you haven’t seen yet.
Here they are, the ten best films of 1998.
10. The Impostors, Stanley Tucci...because it was so much fun and because it captured the style it was going for.
The Big Lebowski
...because it's a successful, good-looking comedy.
A Bug's Life
...not just because of the computer graphics, but because the screenplay was innovative and fresh
...because of the solid, mythical story and because of the dark, malleable art direction.
...because it's as hard-hitting as an action movie, while still being a costume drama.
...because of Drew Barrymore's confident, strong Cinderella and because the story did not devolve into saccharine love or thin, brittle villains.
...because of the cinematography and because of the (temporarily) thought-provoking parable
A Simple Plan
...because it is a beautiful tragedy in this medium where tragedy isn't done, and because of Danny Elfman's haunting, perfectly twisted score.
Slums of Beverly Hills
...because of the cast, particularly Natasha Lyonne., and the insightful writing.
The Spanish Prisoner
...because of the wonderfully twisted plot and the odd but deliberate choice of a deadpan acting style.
This wonderful 1930s-style comedy was overlooked at the box office. Since it was so obscure, I’m using slot number ten as a bully pulpit to tell you about it. The thirties gave us some of the best comedy on film, most notably the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy. Tucci wrote himself an old-fashioned comedy with a setup right out of the thirties: two starving, scheming actors stow away on a cruise ship peopled with celebrities and scoundrels. The plot is not too far from the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business, and it is an odd coincidence that “Stan & Ollie” are the stars (Stanley Tucci and a wonderful Oliver Platt). Everybody gets to overact and, more importantly, everyone looks like they’re having the time of their lives.
9. There’s Something About Mary, Bobby and Peter Farrelly...because it was the most entertaining movie of the year.
Everyone saw this movie, and everyone had a great time. It is extremely rare for a comedy to last more than a few weeks at theaters, but this one lasted for almost half a year. True, this movie was crude — you had to get a little dirty to fully enjoy it — but you can’t say it wasn’t well made. In particular, Ben Stiller did a great job getting into his role. It would have been so easy for an actor to distance himself from the humiliation of this character, but that would have ruined the comedy. Stiller stuck it out and made us laugh.
8. Junk Mail, Pål Sletaune...because it never loses control or focus of its unbelievably tight, spiraling plot.
Watching this movie is like watching someone high on caffeine solving a Rubik’s Cube. The flying fingers make it look like chaos, but the sides keep coming together. Junk Mail (don’t let the title turn you away) is a Norwegian neo-noir, a black comedy along the lines of Pulp Fiction (only less violent). Our hero is a mailman and a compulsive invader of other peoples’ privacy. There’s no meanness to him, just a neurotic impulse to see how people live. His neurosis ultimately gets him caught up in one of the tightest, most amazing plot spirals I’ve ever seen. Each time a loose end is tied up, it unravels two new threads. Nevertheless, the film keeps weaving them together and tying them up, which means the complexity and pace increase as the film goes along. By the end, only one thread remains, and after taking a breath, it becomes clear that the last one is left deliberately untied. Junk Mail is an amazing, satisfying puzzle of a movie, deftly written and directed by a master.
7. Babe: Pig in the City, George Miller...because of the amazing art direction (set design, costumes, props, etc.).
The original movie had a great look. The idyllic Hoggett farm came right out of a story book or a Thomas Kincade painting. Producer/Director George Miller takes that same vision and makes a city, exaggerated by the point of view of simple country folk. The result is a larger-than-life, sometimes glamorous, sometimes scary vision of a mythical All-City. (In fact, one oddly appropriate composite shot blends the landmarks from many of the world’s foremost cities: the Sydney Opera House, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Hollywood sign, etc.) In addition, the film has some clever, interesting characters that aren’t just pap. The idea that this film is too dark for kids is hogwash. The scary scenes are nothing worse than those in A Bug’s Life or Prince of Egypt.
6. Gods and Monsters, Bill Condon...because of the tight, crisp, prim storytelling.
Ian McKellen is outstanding in Gods and Monsters (see also: Richard III (1996)). McKellen plays aging homosexual James Whale, director of the 1930s versions of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Brendan Fraser is the straight gardener who catches Whale’s eye. The tightly controlled, simple story of their friendship is captivating. Gods and Monsters is a very talky movie. That is, most of the “action” consists of the characters talking and interacting. It takes a talented director and some very good performances to make such a movie work. This movie has them all.
5. The Horse Whisperer, Robert Redford...because of the acting, direction, writing, and cinematography.
There are a lot of things right with this movie. One is its positive message: that unconditional love and patience will heal emotional wounds. Another is the great acting: the friction and frustration between Kristin Scott Thomas and Scarlett Johansson (mother and daughter) is palpable. Another is the great dialogue: when mother and daughter argue, you can see both sides without seeing the solution, and when Redford speaks he has charm, wit, and wisdom. Still another is Redford’s patient, persistent direction: he allows the story to take shape in its own time. The Horse Whisperer is an excellent, well-rounded movie.
4. American History X, Tony Kaye...because it introduces, without flinching, a brand-new subject into mainstream movies.
Director Tony Kaye delves into the culture of white supremacists. Some are attracted by the ideology, some by the symbols of intimidation, some out of resentment, and some because of peer pressure. Though the film does ultimately speak against racism, it doesn’t come across as preachy. Nor does the film cheaply exploit cultural fascination with hate and violence. Edward Norton gives a very good performance as Derek, the ideological racist and nurturing older brother.
3. The Celebration, Thomas Vinterberg & Morgens Rukov...because it is uncannily realistic (an adjective I ordinarily try very hard to avoid) in its look at a severe family crisis.
Extreme, but not exaggerated. Hard-hitting drama, but not melodrama. The Celebration is a Danish film set at a family reunion. At first glance the family is quirky and funny. But look deeper and you see real wounds, scars, and pain. After the surface is scratched the darkness bleeds out faster than the family can cover the wound, try as it might. The Celebration has an excellent screenplay, well-written characters, and very good acting. The documentary-style filmmaking (which goes well with the story) will have you on the edge of your seat.
2. Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg...because of its well-developed sense of place and its well-thought out thematic coherence.
The plot seemed almost an afterthought to Spielberg’s journey through World War II. A group of soldiers is sent on a dangerous PR mission to bring back a single soldier alive. After the gripping scene of the storming of Normandy, the movie wanders through the war zones of western Europe. In each vignette, in each new setting, Spielberg finds another way of exploring the value of a single human life.
1. Life is Beautiful (La Vita É Bella), Roberto Benigni...because the film actually believes that life is beautiful.
Roberto Benigni’s emotional masterpiece is a bold and daring mix of comedy and horror. Guido (Benigni) falls in love and charms his Dora with some of the best comic setups on film. They have the misfortune to be Italian Jews in the late thirties, and they are shipped off to a Nazi Concentration camp. Guido devotes his life to protecting his son’s soul in this living hell. The film has earned some healthy skepticism, but its forceful message — that life is beautiful — shines through.