Met expectations

The 10 best movies of 1998

Published November 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

If pleasure and drama and emotion are what draw us to the movies -- and, finally, I believe that's why anybody goes to the movies -- then it always seems a little strange to me to sum up the year past by talking only about movies when those qualities were also present elsewhere. For me the most dramatic and affecting moments of the year would include Victory Gallop snatching the Triple Crown away from Real Quiet in the final seconds of the Belmont Stakes; the perverse Gothic romanticism of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which has been as thrilling and affecting as anything at the movies this year; the stubborn principled defiance of President Clinton's grand jury testimony; the inexplicably moving juxtaposition of Jay-Z's boasting with the sample of the little orphan girls from "Annie" on the single "Hard Knock Life."

But the list that follows has to concentrate on the movies, for which it's been a pretty good year. The fall's sparse pickings did sometimes make it seem that we were paying the price for a summer in which there was always something to go see, if not top-notch pictures like "The Truman Show," "Out of Sight" and "The Mask of Zorro," then pleasing diversions like "Six Days, Seven Nights," "Dance with Me," "Blade" and "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." Unlike in some years, I actually had to winnow down my list. The movies I've regrettably left off are Lisa Cholodenko's impressive debut "High Art," Richard LaGravenese's lovely, melancholy comedy "Living Out Loud," Nick Gomez's startlingly original "illtown" and Andy Tennant's Cinderella charmer "Ever After." Their absence is entirely due to the arbitrary number assigned to 10-best lists; all those films certainly deserve mention with the best of 1998.

I think it's fruitless to attempt to divine overall trends from a list, and so I won't try. I'm grateful that good work continues to get made and disappointed that, far too often, it doesn't manage to get seen. There's no point in claiming we are in a golden age of moviemaking, and equally little point in proclaiming, Sontag-like, the death of the art. The movies below, and numerous moments and performances in others not mentioned here, are what made me feel privileged to be a film critic.

1. "The General"
John Boorman's dark, searching portrait of Dublin career burglar Martin Cahill paints him as a disruptive force sprung full-blown from the collective Irish id. Refusing to either deny Cahill's tenderness and loyalty or shield us from his brutality, Boorman willingly complicates our responses, nowhere more so than in the casting of Brendan Gleeson as Cahill. Teddy-bearish and terrifying, Gleeson radiates both largeness of spirit and pettiness of purpose. The master of visionary go-for-broke filmmaking has become a spellbinding storyteller of enormous warmth and humor, a master of characterization. In many ways a prickly tribute to the country Boorman has called home for the last 30 years, "The General" embodies Ireland's sentimental and black-humored hard-luck soul.

2. "Babe: Pig in the City"
Seeing that George Miller's sequel to his worldwide hit was a wilder, darker film than the original, Universal canceled the premiere claiming the director needed more time to finish it (translation: It's in trouble). And the studio has made scant use of the raves the movie has received. In other words, Universal gave the impression that this little piggy was a stinker. What it is is the single most inventive and magical piece of filmmaking of the year. This "Babe" isn't the soothing rural idyll the first film was. It's a dark and wondrous fairy tale set in a world run amuck -- a pipe dream of the big city where Venetian canals are within a stone's throw of the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower. Miller, constantly pushing himself and his material further and further, has made one of those rare movies that has more imagination than at times it knows what to do with. Wonders are scattered through every frame. The movie's buzzing energy puts you right on the director's wavelength, makes you hungry for every delight he's eager to give you. Perhaps more than any of the other of the films on this list, this flawed masterpiece exudes a boundless fervor for filmmaking.

3. "Great Expectations"
The heart of Dickens' novel beats strong and true in Alfonso Cuaron's strange, breathtaking and rapturous updating (adapted by Mitch Glazer). The movie offers the thrill of people taking beautifully reckless chances that all pay off by a combination of confidence, skill and daring. Working with production designer Tony Burrough, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and the great Italian artist Francesco Clemente (who did the spare, delicate charcoals and watercolors for Ethan Hawke's artist-hero), Cuaron has made a movie in which the emotions are inseparable from the visuals. In her best work to date, Gwyneth Paltrow makes us grieve for a girl incapable of grieving for anything, even herself. And as Hawke's secret benefactor (the role Finlay Currie immortalized in the David Lean version), Robert De Niro does some of his most complex acting, and certainly his warmest.

4. "Two Girls and a Guy"

James Toback's film (released after being the subject of ratings board harassment for months -- and now uncut on video) begins as a hip little urban sex farce and builds to a bittersweet wallop. Toback is trawling his favorite territory here: the irresistible, unresolvable, maddening tension between men and women. But there's a new confidence to his approach. And the acting couldn't be better. Heather Graham and Natasha Gregson Wagner play off each other expertly. And as the boyfriend they discover they share, Robert Downey Jr. is astonishing. Drawing on the personal hell he's been through in the last few years, the most gifted farceur of his generation switches gears to reveal the emotional wreckage of a young Lothario who no longer has his seducer's bag of tricks to fall back on. This is the performance of the year.

5. "Out of Sight"

What more could the audiences who ignored this funky,sexy entertainment have wanted? Scott Frank wrote a sharp, tricky adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel; Steven Soderbergh directed it with
sly, relaxed confidence; George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez brought a mixture of lust and longing as flawlessly proportioned as the ingredients in a perfect cocktail, and they were backed up by a sprightly pack of jokers: Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle, Viola Davis, Katharine Keener, Luis Guzman, Dennis Farina, Albert Brooks, Nancy Allen and the inimitable Steve Zahn. The joke is on everyone who missed out. Put it this way: "Out of Sight" may have an afterlife akin to Woodstock. Years from now you'll be running into people who'll assure you they were hip enough to be there the first time.

6. "A Simple Plan"

Devastating. Sam Raimi's snowbound Midwestern noir about three men trying to keep a secret that won't stay hidden holds you in a state of horrified empathy. Rejecting the shallow cartoon misanthropy that's fashionable in movies right now, Raimi has made a tragedy in which the violence is a betrayal of the characters' humanity, not a blasi confirmation that they're scum. As the everyman lead, Bill Paxton plunges us into the horror of a decent man realizing just what he is capable of doing. And Billy Bob Thornton is heartbreaking as Paxton's brother, a man with a painful awareness of his limitations, and a rock-solid, tragic knowledge of exactly who he is.

7. "The Truman Show"

The backlash had set in almost before Peter Weir's film had opened. And then it was misread as merely a satire on the media, or on suburbia. But the soul of this movie lies with ranters and visionary crackpots, not satirists. Within the frame of their perfectly worked-out premise, Weir and screenwriter Andrew Niccol made a movie that encouraged the audience to question every assumption of their culture, and finally everything we assume to be unchangeable. Jim Carrey, in the role he was born to play, channels his usual freneticism into something like ardor. By the end of the summer, the joke of the movie was undeniable. With Ken Starr, the punditocracy and the Republicans of the House Judiciary Committee insisting, Christof-like, that their version of morality and law was "the way the world should be," and the public insisting that there was something beyond what we were being told, we all had a taste of what it is to be Truman Burbank.

8. "Under the Skin"

Made with a novelist's eye for detail and a quietly impassioned visual flair, Carine Adler's film about a young woman who mourns her dead mother by embarking on a self-destructive odyssey features a harrowing performance by 20-year-old Samantha Morton in her film debut. She's in almost every scene, and she's phenomenal, completely unprotected without once losing her control as an actress. Though at times, Adler relies on her whirling camera to do the work of the script, she matches her leading actress for sheer bravery, and her taste for expressionism defeats any potential kitchen-sink dreariness. This is the most aptly titled picture of the year, alive with an overwhelmingly physical sense of peril and exhilaration.

9. "The Mask of Zorro"

Eschewing action-movie bombast for wonderfully staged sequences featuring some doozies of stunts,director Martin Campbell gets exactly the right mixture of seriousness, frivolity and sexiness. In the title role, Anthony Hopkins has never shown the sheer joy in performing that he does here. And as the bandit to whom he passes on the role of Zorro, Antonio Banderas recovers the knockabout humor that made him so sexy to begin with. Stunningly beautiful Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones is an impassioned match for the pair of them. Enthralling in ways we don't expect movies to be anymore, "The Mask of Zorro" makes the very idea of movie heroes seem possible again.

10. "I Went Down"

Director Paddy Breathnach and screenwriter Conor McPherson are the talent behind this warm, hard-nosed Irish comedy -- half road-movie, half noir -- about two ex-cons who undertake a shady errand to get themselves out of a gangster's debt. The heart of the movie is the relationship between the young Git (Peter McDonald) and the older Bunny (Brendan Gleeson), two men so mismatched they're bound to be friends. Breathnach's relaxed, anecdotal approach catches you by surprise again and again.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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