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Best Movies of 1998

By Eric Beltmann

I saw more than 170 movies released last year. Most of them, of course, were inconsequential diversions, or something worse. But movies can also affect our senses in ways no other art form can, arousing secret passions, overwhelming us, and supplying a marvelous kick. Therefore, here are the films that meant the most to me in 1998, in rank order.

1. The Truman Show. No other American film this year mixed the joy of making movies with such elegant, poetic skill. Peter Weir's genius parable, about a man unaware his entire life has been exploited for nonstop live broadcast, is more culturally relevant than any other picture this decade. Jim Carrey's Truman Burbank represents a new species, a media-mutation: he's a synthetic creature whose truth has been created strictly out of fiction. Yet The Truman Show is not about the media, it's about the way we respond to the media and become willing accomplices in making America the land of artifice.

2. Rushmore. Scene for scene, the most original film of 1998. Director Wes Anderson wonders what it must be like to have genius but lack maturity, and joins his characters as a blood brother of eccentricity to find out. Operating on that bizarre level of examination, Anderson grooves visually and verbally -- nearly each shot contains a marvelous joke -- to shape some kind of giddy masterpiece.

3. A Simple Plan. Viewers may be tempted to shrug off Sam Raimi's modern variant of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as a genre thriller -- but this melancholic story of greed, betrayal, and consequence is loaded with disquieting moral conundrums. Through intelligent dialogue, subtle performances, and truly expert suspense, Raimi affectingly dramatizes how grievous opportunism drifts over good men.

4. Shakespeare in Love. Literate, broadly witty, and genuinely romantic. Conceived as a clamorous comedy about Elizabethan gender politics, it finds joy in young Will Shakespeare's love life and cleverly takes on the screwball characteristics of the Bard's most enjoyable farces. Ultimately, this film is a passionate, shrewd play about love and art, and how they mutually inspire one another.

5. Life is Beautiful. An eccentric Italian Jew shields his young son from the Holocaust by explaining it's all just an elaborate game. Contending with evil on his own terms, Roberto Benigni deftly balances romantic jocosity with painful sorrow. If laughter is the last defense against tragedy, then this Chaplinesque fable, styled with an exciting, boisterous charm, provides us with sweet and graceful armor.

6. Saving Private Ryan. Brilliant in rather conventional ways, but the wrenching combat scenes rank among the greatest ever staged. Spielberg records the horror of battle with such shell-shocked clarity that his bloodletting takes on a visceral, chaotic grandeur. Working with the lightning-quick violence of a director-sniper, he shows veteran appreciation by depicting terror and heroism as the same thing.

7. Dark City. Not just the best comic-book evocation yet produced, but a remarkably satisfying science-nightmare about distortion and manipulation. What if all our memories were completely fabricated? Alex Proyas addresses that question with a thoughtful, visionary imagination. More alive than the usual special effects carnival, this expressionistic fantasy creates a mind-bending sense of dread.

8. Happiness. A delicate alchemy of depravity and compassion. Todd Solondz aims his sights at our fringe element, searching to understand degeneracy. He only comes so close to human ugliness by removing the crass sensationalism from sexual dysfunction, pedophilia, and general obscenity. I must ask: How can the most intelligently empathetic film of the year also be the most controversial?

9. The Butcher Boy. The way Neil Jordan fearlessly embraces the irrational logic of his violent protagonist may appear perverse, but this rough-edged comedy only seems like a mad fairy tale. Both realist and surreal, this sophisticated, demented film looks at the spiraling sanity of a tormented Irish boy. The result is a scary, psychologically accurate depiction of emotional disturbance that's unexpectedly tender.

10. A Bug's Life. Pixar's merry, dreamlike spectacle doesn't quite have the script that Toy Story did, but visually it's an astonishment. Directors John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton let you peek at an insect reverie underfoot, and there's a shocking, technically complex scene near the end involving raindrops that will make you reconsider the cinematic possibilities of computer-generated animation.

Honorable Mentions: Antz; Babe: Pig in the City; Beloved; Buffalo 66; Celebrity; The Dreamlife of Angels; Elizabeth; Hana-Bi; The Last Days of Disco; The Object of My Affection; Out of Sight; Pi; The Prince of Egypt; The Spanish Prisoner; The Thin Red Line.

Guilty Pleasures: Armageddon; The Big One; Can't Hardly Wait; Kissing a Fool; The Wedding Singer.

The Worst

1. The Avengers. In Hollywood studio product, the syntax of film has rarely been so violated. Director Jeremiah Chechik throws basic editing continuity to the wind, right along with narrative coherency. His dedication to bombastic folly causes the actors to barely register, and turns the action amazingly tiresome and inconsequential. Like a cloudy afternoon, it dulls out depressingly.

2. Krippendorf's Tribe. An anthropologist dresses up his kids as a "lost tribe" to fake his grant research. He forces them into morally offensive situations, and we're supposed to cheer?

3. The Newton Boys. Richard Linklater's 1920s period piece, and his first failure as a director. These four thieving brothers are bland pin-up drones, and Linklater's glossy tone eliminates all dramatic tension.

4. Great Expectations. Trumped-up Dickens, but the high style can't mask crude development and sophomoric dialogue. Sexual in a childish way, it moves forward like a steamroller, utterly graceless.

5. Psycho. Gus Van Sant's nearly shot-for-shot "replica" of the seminal 1960 thriller must contend with a major Hitch: this misguided gimmick is like watching a skeleton of the original.

Dishonorable Mentions: Almost Heroes; Blues Brothers 2000; Desperate Measures; Dirty Work; Disturbing Behavior; The Players Club; Practical Magic; Tarzan and the Lost City; The Waterboy; Your Friends & Neighbors.

Most Overrated: Bulworth; Gods and Monsters; The Horse Whisperer; Primary Colors; Waking Ned Devine.

Article published 03.31.2002.


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