The Best of 1998


Every year, like lemmings, we tumble over the cliff toward that final gathering place where critics' early choices ('Sure to be one of the year's best,' 'Must be recognized at Oscar time') lie broken and bleeding in the light of a little better perspective.

So as I combed my list, looking for crumbs of value, discarding the execrable (remember "The Horse Whisperer?" Don't pretend you didn't see it; it's too late for denials now), worrying about the marginal ("Ronin" had some nice lines and three great car chases), I came up with exactly ten films I thought worthy of further notice. A couple are simply wonderful, and would be so in any year; a few have elements of one sort or another that make it important that they be seen and communed over; and the rest I simply liked a lot.

The most important fact is that this was not a very good year for movies, certainly not mainstream movies. It wasn't all that bad, exactly, but by the end of November we all were crossing our fingers and hoping that January would come a little early this year. It didn't, of course, but wishing helped to pass the time. Nevertheless, I have a list, and will now subject you to it. The films are listed alphabetically.

Bulworth -- This brave and delicious satire came from a most unexpected source -- the mind and talent of Warren Beatty. Certainly we've known him as a liberal activist for years, and his 1981 film "Reds" was a brilliant corrective to the common habit of demonizing everything Soviet. But "Bulworth," coming with almost supernaturally perfect timing in the middle of the most horrifying year of scandal, prurience, and hypocrisy in the history of the American government, gave us a much-needed breather, and a chance to regain our sanity. It also showed Beatty as a very fine farceur, something we hadn't seen since the unfairly maligned "Ishtar." (Rent it and tell me you still hate it.)

The Butcher Boy -- Written by Patrick McCabe and directed by Neil Jordan from McCabe's novel, this is an extraordinary film by any standard. Set during the 1962 missile crisis, it gives us a 12-year-old boy in a small Irish town, played to agonizing perfection by the amazing young Eamonn Owens, who finds that the only outlet for his response to the madness and injustice of his family and his world, is to strike out at a townswoman and her son. But the town, and the world, are not able to reinvent a better world for him, and so he is subjected to the therapies and punishments that we reserve for those we cannot help. A brilliant and sad and ultimately exhilarating film.

Elizabeth -- After only a few films, is there anything the extraordinary Australian Cate Blanchett can't do? Not on the evidence of her performance as Elizabeth I. The story of the years from her imprisonment in the Tower to the consolidation of all England's power in her hands, the film combines a fascinating script with a directorial respect for the period, to give us a witty and brutal look at the times. Geoffrey Rush as Elizabeth's mature Machiavelli adds just the right touch of menace, and director Shekhar Kapur gives us one of the best visual sequences in years, with a series of jump cuts as the nervous Elizabeth prepares for her confrontation with the Catholic bishops.

He Got Game -- The in-and-out Spike Lee is back in with a vengeance this time. At the heart of the film is a moving and heartbreaking performance (almost certain to be forgotten at Oscar time) by the great Denzel Washington as the imprisoned father of a high school basketball star who's being recruited by a dozen colleges. The film also gets my vote for best cinematography, best editing, and best music of the year.

Pi -- The name is Darren Aronofsky. He's a filmmaker who seems to have arrived here directly from film school in the year 1966, which was a kind of high-water mark for the wild and woolly. Aronofsky is not concerned with stories and relationships and the well-made film. He is a man besotted with film itself -- the grain of the emulsion; the way you could say that film has a love affair with light; the fact that you can join two pieces of film together and make something thatís greater than the sum of their parts; and maybe best of all, the fact that you can do things with black and white film that you simply cannot do with color. It's high time you saw what that leads to.

Psycho -- Leave it to Gus Van Sant to think of remaking the Hitchcock classic not as a variation, not as a reworking, but as a shot-for-shot, line-for-line, edit-for-edit, music-cue-for-music-cue job. In other words, a Hitchcock film made by Van Sant. And guess what: it works. The new cast brings a fascinating new vitality to the old script, with Anne Heche much more interesting than Janet Leigh ever was. This is the kind of movie that will be cannon fodder at film schools for years to come, where it will be projected side by side with the original for students to study.

Saving Private Ryan -- Like "Schindler's List," this is a searingly powerful film whose impact is greatest on initial viewing and then somehow seems to weaken over time. Certainly the opening sequence at Omaha Beach is technically astounding -- maybe the best single piece of war footage ever shot for a movie. And the final battle in the streets of the village is even better because it adds the factor that we now know and care about each of the men in the unit. But there are stereotyped, almost by-the-numbers portions in the middle that should have been rethought and maybe even reshot before it was released. Still, not to be missed and not to be denied.

Shakespeare in Love -- Just as we thought the year would end with a whimper, this delicious film showed up to end it with a bang. Where else could we get sex with Gwyneth Paltrow, in-jokes about in-jokes, some excellently performed pieces of "Romeo and Juliet" (formerly known for purposes of this film as "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter"), and a whole melange of character actors with the comic roles of their lives? Co-written by Tom Stoppard and directed by the formerly stodgy John Madden (not to be mistaken for the football coach), this more than made up for the overhyped "There's Something About Mary."

Smoke Signals -- Critics tend to honor films from Senegal or Iran or other exotic cultures far sooner than they do a film from a much closer one, like this from the Indian writer Sherman Alexie (and director Chris Eyre). The story of two young men on the Coeur d'Alene reservation in Idaho who travel to Arizona to redeem the ashes of one's father, this film is an open and witty and moving window into a world that whites mistakenly think is just another piece of ethnic America. It came along too early in the year for awards, but it may ultimately be recognized as the most important film of the year.

Wilde -- Oscar Wilde is the mentor who stands and looks over the shoulders of everyone who writes for a living. Couldn't you be wiser, or wittier, or smarter, or more perceptive? he seems to be saying; couldn't you do better if you just tried harder? This film gives us the most profound insight into both his genius and his terrifying, consuming passion for young Alfred, Lord Douglas, the Bosie who condemned him to death. A great performance by Stephen Fry as Wilde, matched by Jude Law as Bosie. Directed by Brian Gilbert with a very sure hand and an open heart.