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Acting Roulette: Clockwise from upper left, Ian McKellen in 'Gods and Monsters,' McKellen again in 'Apt Pupil,' Janet Leigh in 'Touch of Evil,' Joseph Fiennes in 'Shakespeare in Love,' Jessica Walter and Natasha Lyonne in 'The Slums of Beverly Hills' and Edward Norton in 'American History X.'

From 'Godzilla' to the indie mice of Sundance, 1998 was a year to forget--with a few brave exceptions

By Richard von Busack

THE BIG LIZARD MOVIE, Godzilla, turned the tide in 1998. The studio made all the right choices. It used a title with name recognition. It cultivated a buzz with careful, teasing promotion. It spent millions on advertising--and yet, for once, all that effort came to relatively nothing. For once, audiences and critics were united in contempt for the hype. It seemed a triumph, however temporary, over the forces of marketing.

The American Film Institute's list of the 100 best films in English was a more successful marketing coup, even if the list suffered from serious omissions and favored epics over classic comedies and drama (as if the films were graded for sheer wideness instead of for depth). Still, 1998 was more notable for what was retrieved than for what was achieved.

New prints were released of Mean Streets, Nights of Cabiria, The Bicycle Thief, Bride of Frankenstein, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. Best of all, there was more Orson Welles--especially the corrected Touch of Evil--available in 1998 than in any other year in recent memory.

These acts of retrieval, as well as the industry's reliance on sequels and remakes, proves what movie lovers and critics have been saying for years: movies are in a continuing state of artistic decline. The emphasis on sequels and remakes cannibalizes old films. Take, for instance, Meet Joe Black, which transformed a 68-minute 1934 fantasy into an almost three-hour white elephant.

Most contemptible of all was Gus Van Sant, who wasted his time retracing Alfred Hitchcock's steps in his color remake of Psycho. The film is dedicated "to the memory of Hitchcock"--to preserve that memory Universal has frozen the release of the original Psycho for a year. Thanks, Gus.

The Psycho remake exemplifies everything retrograde and exhausted in the movies of 1998. Worse, it perpetuates the "wisdom" that young people won't watch black-and-white films. (It's not as if the original Psycho were Robert Bresson!)

Maybe black-and-white photography--like Shakespeare, Charlie Mingus and single-malt Scotch--is a pleasure best savored later in life. Here's hoping, because ignorance of pre-color cinema is a large factor in the encouragement of bad movies. And the only unshakable law in the cinema business is No matter how bad the movies are, they can only get worse.

No one expected quality from Godzilla, but the little movies that flooded the art houses were often not much better. And, proportionally, they were just as overrated and overpromoted.

"Applaud if you look through the wrong end of the binoculars," reads one of those silly surveys (you've seen them, those soft-drink ads flashed on the naked screen between shows at the cineplex). I felt as if I had spent this year looking through the wrong end of binoculars, seeing the latest "independent" picture, released by a subsidiary of Big Hollywood and coated with a layer of praise from Roger and Gene and Entertainment Weekly.

"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 rumbled and blew a lot of smoke--and every week for a few months thereafter, yet another singed mouse crept into the theaters.

Be Afraid, Very Afraid

A YEAR THAT began with the remarkably hammy The Apostle continued to the single most overpraised movie of 1998, Happiness. (Next year, let's ask that there be 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, the most beautifully photographed after-school special ever made. And since the Academy Awards deadline is nigh, look out for the pack of Oscar-caliber pictures released Christmas Day. Let's pause for a moment, then, to remember the serious losers released in this area in 1998 one last time--because they're in the video stores now, waiting like bear traps for the unwary.

Simon Birch
The film was savaged for faults contained within its source novel, but it deserved praise for ditching some of John Irving's dandier ideas in A Prayer for Owen Meany. At least Simon Birch (the renamed Meany character) wasn't blown up with a grenade as he was in the book. Or maybe that would have been an improvement.

First Love, Last Rites
Nominated for the year's suavest romantic line (spoken by Natasha G. Wagner): "I like your class; I like your ass." By the way, Wagner also had one of the title roles in Two Girls and a Guy--haven't we paid for enough of Robert Downey Jr.'s therapy yet?

Digging to China
Kevin Bacon played a mentally handicapped man with a mother dying of cancer; it seems like one or the other of these plot elements would have been enough for any given movie.

Marie Baie des Anges
Bleu cheesecake from France. In the Three Stooges short "Sing a Song of Six Pants," Larry Fine played a tailor trying to sell a used coat to a sucker: "It's imported! Smell the ocean?"

An Alan Smithee Film: Burn, Hollywood, Burn
You could tell it was spurious--the real Smithee would have disowned it.

Where was the Whore of Babylon? Where were the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Not enough action and too much passionate love story between a father (Bruce Willis) and his daughter (Liv Tyler).

Permanent Midnight
The old story of the needle and the camel (Ben Stiller).

The Impostors
The most profound case of sophomore slump in years (the slumpee was Stanley Tucci of Big Night--better luck next time).

Clay Pigeons
The Eeyorish Janeane Garafolo stars as a Gen-X FBI agent clumping around with her hair in her face.

Concession Stand of Shame:
Niagara, Niagara, Safe Men, Ten Benny, Dead Man on Campus.


EVEN IN THE lowest of years, a handful of filmmakers continue to do good work. The list of achievement for 1998 offers some serious pleasures worth remembering:

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.

Gods and Monsters/Apt Pupil
Recommended as one unit 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 McKellen's tenderer performance; Apt Pupil is an underrated and classy bit of horror that may get its due on video.

A Bug's Life
The film didn't try to make wide-eyed little children out of us. A Bug's Life suggested that it was made for a viewer at least as sharp as the irritated fly in the audience of that bad flea circus who protests, "I only got 24 hours to live, and I ain't gonna waste 'em here."

The Butcher Boy
Speaking of bugs, the larval psycho Francie the Bad Bastard (Eamonn Owens) was an superb example of how to portray a violent rebel without endorsing his egotism and pathology.

The Big Lebowski
Jeff Bridges stars as the holy fool Lebowski in a startlingly original parody of tough-guy L.A. writing. The Big Lebowski was the only well-timed slapstick made this year.

The Truman Show
As a TV parody, it wasn't much. The Truman Show works best as a metaphor for the Enlightenment: the turning of the Western mind from a God-centered universe toward the unknown.

Out of Sight
Of all the fluffy crime dramas of 1998, Out of Sight 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).

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

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. Director Steven Spielberg tries to smooth over our feelings about what we've seen. He tells us war is a noble thing, that it's an adventure, that it was all for the best. The problem is that one Good War leads to another.

Shakespeare in Love
Yes, Gwyneth Paltrow is the cinematic equivalent of Wishbone the Dog, always dressed up for one historical era after another, but the slow build of this farce into Romeo and Juliet itself is one of the prime delights of the year.

Nearly There:
Post Coitum, Shopping for Fangs, The Slums of Beverly Hills.

Looking Ahead

WITH MOVIES, the anticipation is so much better than the experience, and already the anticipation is in full rumble for Star Wars: The Phantom Empire ("The most eagerly anticipated movie of this, or any, eon"[email protected], all blurbing rights reserved).

Also due up: Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, the new 007 (which has the Douglas Sirkian working title The World Is Not Enough); Stephen Frears' unwieldy but inspiring western The Hi-Lo Country; and John Boorman's intoxicating crime thriller The General, which, were it not waiting in the can for a February release, would have easily fit into my Top 10.

Beware--it's black-and-white!

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From the December 31, 1998-January 6, 1999 issue of Metro.

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