10 Best Films of 1998: Lisa Schwarzbaum's picks
10 Best Films of 1998: Lisa Schwarzbaum’s picks
1 The Truman Show
Peter Weir’s elegant, inventive, and dazzling fantasy is a triumphant match of superior filmmaking skill and irresistible subject matter. Visual style, performance, and Andrew Niccol’s smart script come together perfectly in the service of great, big ideas — timely ideas, too, about serious issues like, How much privacy do we have as citizens of a universe dominated by the big business of entertainment? The movie sparkles, it provokes, it entertains all-consumingly while questioning just how all-consuming entertainment should be. And it frees Jim Carrey to convey the existential loneliness he has always hinted is the source of his comic brilliance.
For its exuberant originality, for its off-the-wall sense of humor, and for the artistic integrity with which young filmmaker Wes Anderson sustains his quirky material (rarely has so droll a coming-of-age story been so affecting), this baby is an American beaut: an unlikely fable about a refreshingly self-confident nerd. Besides, just for giving Bill Murray an Oscar-worthy Murraysian role, Anderson deserves some kind of prize.
All that stuff about 1998 being the year of dark movies? This one — Paul Schrader’s best, based on a Russell Banks novel — is wrenching. Bleak as hell. It’s also a beautifully framed, deeply felt meditation about midlife regrets, rages, and limitations. And as a man grappling with the same demons of drink and meanness that undo his father, Nick Nolte burns. (He’s also on fire in The Thin Red Line; it’s Nolte’s prime time.)
Whatever else the New Jersey drinking water did to Todd Solondz when he was growing up, it’s made him a helluva chronicler of family malaise. How else to explain the way this creepy tour de force rouses and disturbs everyone who watches Solondz’s shocking dissection — without anesthesia — of a bunch of ”average” suburbanites, each of whose search for personal fulfillment goes so matter-of-factly, horribly astray?
5 Saving Private Ryan/The Thin Red Line
Two superior World War II sagas from two wildly different storytellers. Steven Spielberg made hearts thump with a soldier’s-eye-view epic about honor and bravery (then clinched the deal by casting Citizen Tom Hanks in the lead); Terrence Malick created an exquisite, Zen-like anti-epic in which ally and enemy, living man and dead, leaf and bird, are all part of the same moment, always, and scenes of combat are no less thrilling than scenes of grass blowing in the wind.
6 The Butcher Boy
Neil Jordan’s best movie showcases his strengths as a storyteller with a singular talent for mucking around in mordant, psychologically perverse territory. This ravishing adaptation of Patrick McCabe’s disturbing novel, about a 12-year-old Irish boy who slips from manic high spirits to grotesque violence, builds to a brutal climax. But what with Jordan’s taste for misfits, the road to mayhem is also a bloody lark.
7 A Simple Plan
Scott B. Smith’s gangbusters novel about greed in snowy Norman Rockwell country has become Sam Raimi’s delectable, expertly modulated thriller (anxiety! moral ambiguity! black crows on bare tree branches!), in which one bad deed tumbles after another in an unstoppable avalanche of disaster. Especially great: Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton as brothers caught in a complicated moral thicket you’d never see in, say, Fargo.
8 Out of Sight
Steven Soderbergh’s cool-yet-hot adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel is the snappiest, sexiest, most undervalued crime caper of the year. The most grown-up caper, too: The chemistry between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez is blessedly more Nick and Nora than Hanks and Ryan, and the sophisticated story structure is a high compliment to adult attention spans (Clooney should have nailed leading-man stardom with this one.)
Takeshi Kitano, known as ”Beat” Takeshi, demonstrates why he’s Japan’s one-man multimedia source of artistic fireworks: This daring, ultrahip, completely unclassifiable example of his prodigious talent is violent but beautiful; a heist drama that’s also a story of quiet, married love; a zigzag of time frames that’s also capable of moments of deep stillness, when the discipline with which Kitano composes his wild rides pays off most movingly.
10 Gods and Monsters
Hooray for Bill Condon’s poignant, knowing love letter: to the classical love between old men and young protégés; to the mysterious sources of creative inspiration; indeed, to the whole history of Hollywood movies — all of it contained in a biographically inspired fiction about gay, British Frankenstein director James Whale, played with heartbreaking dignity by Ian McKellen.