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[whitespace] The Truman Show
The New Prometheus: The life of one man (Jim Carrey) and one TV program coincide in one of the year's best films, 'The Truman Show.'

Richard von Busack highlights the 10 best flicks of '98

By Richard von Busack

Godzilla turned the tide in 1998. The studio made all the right choices. They used a title with name recognition. They cultivated a buzz, with careful, teasing promotion. They spent millions on advertising ... and yet all of that unholy effort came to relatively nothing. For once, audience and critics were united in contempt against the hype. It seemed like a triumph.

At the same time, the little movies that flooded the art-house theaters were often not much better--and just as overrated and over-promoted. "A volcano labors and produces a mouse"--that's the ancient Roman expression for underachievement wrung out of much noise and fury.

In the Rockies last winter, Mt. Sundance had its annual winter eruption; it rumbled, blew a lot of smoke and then, a few weeks later, yet another singed mouse crept into the theaters. "Clap if you look through the wrong end of the binoculars" read one of those peppy soft-drink ads, flashed on the naked screen in between shows at the cineplex. I felt like I spent this year looking through the wrong end of binoculars, seeing the latest "independent" picture, released through a subsidiary of Big Hollywood and praised everywhere from Roger and Gene to Entertainment Weekly. Too often, the buzz was nothing more than the hum of flies hovering over their favorite food.

A year that began with the remarkably hammy The Apostle progressed to the single most overpraised movie of 1998, Happiness. (For next year, let's hope there's a boycott on ironic titles: The Celebration, Life Is Beautiful, Your Friends and Neighbors.)

In the fall came another critically acclaimed calamity, American History X, an after-school special with sodomy. And since the Academy Awards deadline is nigh, here comes a pack of "Oscar caliber" pictures bedecked with a few rave reviews and filled with actors chewing the scenery, their co-stars, even the lens of the camera itself.

This was also the year of the American Film Institute list of 100 Best Films, which began an effort by the industry to repackage its old classics for wide distribution. New prints of Mean Streets, Touch of Evil, Bride of Frankenstein, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind were made available. The industry's reliance on sequels and remakes proves what's common knowledge to regular movie lovers: the picture business is in a state of artistic decline. The industry is in the hands of megalomaniac communication companies with zero sense of the mechanics of a worthwhile movie. The emphasis on sequels and remakes cannibalizes old films, as Meet Joe Black did--turning a 68-minute 1934 fantasy into a three-hour-long white elephant. The business also encourages a gifted filmmaker like Gus Van Sant to waste his time retracing Hitchcock's steps (and shots) in his color remake of Psycho.

Psycho Redux exemplifies everything retrograde and exhausted in the movies of '98. Worse, it perpetuates the "wisdom" that young people won't watch black-and-white films. (C'mon, it's not like Psycho was a Robert Bresson flick!) Maybe black-and-white photography, like Shakespeare, Mingus and single-malt Scotch, is a pleasure for later on in life. Here's hoping, because public ignorance of precolor cinema is a large factor in the encouragement of stupid movies. And the only unshakable law in the cinema business is: No matter how stupid the movies are, they can only get stupider.

And now for the 10 best of this year:

  1. High Art--If it were the most interesting movie about heroin this year, that would be enough. More than the inexplicably praised Celebrity, High Art knowingly discussed the parasitic side of fame--and that might also be enough, too. But High Art was sexy as well; the courtship of Ally Sheedy and Radha Mitchell was devilishly intense.

  2. Gods and Monsters/Apt Pupil--Recommended jointly for the perfumy decay of Sir Ian McKellen. The old spider reminds us that evil wasn't always banal--that it once had sparkle to it. Gods and Monsters is a more tender performance; Apt Pupil is an under- rated and classy bit of horror that may get its due on video.

  3. A Bug's Life--The film didn't try to make wide-eyed little children out of us. The best spectacles presume that there's a smart audience that has been around the block before and has seen a few shows and is rightly jaded by slapstick and fire--that there's a viewer at least as sharp as the irritated fly in the audience of that bad flea circus protesting: "I only got 24 hours to live, and I ain't gonna waste 'em here." So many details here to remember with pleasure: Hopper the grasshopper (voiced by Kevin Spacey) with his chitinous shoulder carapace that looks like the collar of a Nazi greatcoat, or that terrifying bright-eyed goldfinch that must have fluttered into a nightmare or two.

  4. The Butcher Boy--Speaking of bugs, the larval psycho Francie the Bad Bastard (Eamon Owens) was a superb example of how to handle the dramatic problem of a violent rebel--how to portray him without endorsing his egotism and pathology.

  5. The Big Lebowski--The holy fool Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) in a bizarrely humorous parody of tough-guy L.A. writing, containing the only well-timed slapstick made this year.

  6. The Truman Show--As a TV parody, it wasn't much. The Truman Show worked best as a metaphor for the Enlightenment--for an individual turning toward the unknown, away from a God-centered universe.

  7. Out of Sight--Of all the hundreds of fluffy crime dramas in 1998, this one had the most energy, the most warmth and the most common sense. The contrast between summery Miami and iron-cold Detroit was reflected in the attraction between Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney. A great Hollywood romance (an endangered species).

  8. Snake Eyes--There's something to be said for a virtuoso playing even familiar material, and this film had a few maestros: Nicolas Cage, Gary Sinise (who had the best death scene of the year), composer Ennio Morricone and director Brian De Palma.

  9. The first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. As raw war footage, the opening conveys the terrors of D-Day with a handful of words. The rest of the film is, except for a few brief scenes, an anticlimax. Spielberg tries to smooth over our feelings about what we've seen. He tells us war is a noble thing, and it's an adventure.

  10. Deadlines being what they are, I have a month's worth of movies to see before Dec. 31. So as a place holder, let's put down the first two hours of The Mask of Zorro. There weren't many dance movies in 1998; California has always been a misruled country and it's fun to have that acknowledged on screen; and most of all Antonio Banderas savors the idea of being a larger-than-life hero more than any of his fellow actors today. (Bruce Willis, for example, treats heroism as a pinched, painful civic duty.)

John Boorman's intoxicating crime thriller The General, which is waiting in the can for a February release, would have fit here. But that's for next year. It's in black and white--beware!

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From the December 21, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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