Talking ants. Unlikely detectives. Pigs in the city. Shakespeare in love. In 1998, the movies found room for all of the above and more. Nothing made the kind of impact that Titanic had the previous year. In fact, there’s a case to be made that James Cameron’s disaster epic about the doomed ocean liner was really the biggest movie of 1998, too, given how thoroughly it dominated the box office (and movie culture in general) for the first few months of the year. But there were plenty of triumphs to savor. Below, we’ve singled out the 20 best movies that opened in American theaters in 1998, from the multiplex hits to the indie sensations to the international gems. Two decades later, they still shine, if only a little less bright than a diamond necklace dropped to the bottom of the ocean.


20. Fallen Angels

Fallen Angels
Photo: Trailer screenshot

Wong Kar-wai originally conceived his breakup-blues masterpiece Chungking Express as a triptych instead of a diptych, before excising the third vignette and expanding it to feature-length. The resulting standalone movie, Fallen Angels, is one of cinema’s most seductive B-sides. Riffing on and refracting the themes of its predecessor, the film offers an even more nocturnal vision of Hong Kong heartache, loosely connecting the love lives of a hit man, his handler, a prostitute, a flight attendant, and a mute burglar. The Chungking echoes are undeniable, but the more noir-inflected Fallen Angels has its own impossibly magnetic sense of style: smears of neon color, fisheye close-ups, shots of (and from) speeding metro trains, sudden switches to black-and-white, sultry jukebox torch songs, dreamy slow-mo shoot-outs. Think of it more as a companion piece than a leftover collection, like Wong’s Amnesiac, just with canned pineapple instead of sardines packt in a crushed tin box. [A.A. Dowd]


19. Shakespeare In Love

Shakespeare In Love
Photo: Trailer screenshot

One of the most satisfying romantic comedies of the 1990s isn’t a contemporary-set romance at all but an imaginary playwright biopic from Tom Stoppard and John Madden. The story of William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) tripping over all manner of farcical and dramatic complications during the writing and performing of, um, Romeo And Ethel, The Pirate’s Daughter pays tribute to the multitudes contained by Shakespeare’s own work, and generates real electricity between Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow, in her definitive movie-star performance. Because it upset the technically accomplished Saving Private Ryan for the Best Picture Oscar, the nimbleness of Shakespeare In Love’s filmmaking is not always fully appreciated. But it has enough sneaky dramatic heft to pull off a lovely tearjerking ending, and it’s also funny enough to redeem Ben Affleck’s animal-crackers nonsense from Armageddon (earlier in ’98) with one of his best supporting terms, goofing on actorly vanity. [Jesse Hassenger]


18. The Spanish Prisoner

The Spanish Prisoner
Photo: Trailer screenshot

Advertisement

Compared to David Mamet’s earlier, more thematically dense films (not to mention his provocative plays), The Spanish Prisoner originally seemed somewhat trifling. It’s a slick, cleverly twisty mystery-noir, anchored by three lightly enjoyable performances: Campbell Scott as an indignant engineer looking for the best way to monetize his latest innovation; Steve Martin as an ingratiating hustler whose offer to help may come with too many strings; and Rebecca Pidgeon as a stylish young woman so upbeat and earnest that it takes a while to figure out she’s the femme fatale. The intricacy of the plot and the punchy vigor of the performances make The Spanish Prisoner one of Mamet’s most rewatchable movies. And somewhere around viewing number three or four, the picture starts to deepen, becoming a subtly shaded portrait of how easy it can be to dupe people just by making them feel valued. [Noel Murray]


17. Pi

Pi
Photo: Trailer screenshot

Darren Aronofsky burst onto the scene with one of the most visually arresting debut features of all time, even if its blend of the organic and the mechanical (alternate title: Insects And Transistors) does owe a significant debt to Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Shot in high-contrast black-and-white by then-unknown cinematographer Matthew Libatique (who’s since worked on everything from Spike Lee joints to Iron Man), Pi frequently and boldly flirts with illegibility; close-ups of an old-school IBM-style keyboard, for example, are so blown out that none of the letters are visible, making the keys look like a collection of bleached bones. It’s the ideal approach for a narrative whose protagonist obsessively seeks out information within apparent randomness. Aronofsky does eye-popping end runs around the budgetary restrictions he’s stuck with here, creating nightmare fuel from such simple yet haunting images as a human brain on a subway platform, being gently poked with a ballpoint pen. Nowadays, it’s our brains the director pokes. [Mike D’Angelo]


16. A Bug’s Life

A Bug’s Life
Photo: Trailer screenshot

Back in 1998, there was a notion that Disney and Pixar’s family-friendly A Bug’s Life wasn’t as sophisticated as Antz, the competing bug cartoon from then-upstart DreamWorks Animation, with its unprecedented Pulp Fiction references and witty transpositions of the word “man” with the word “ant.” But time has been kinder to A Bug’s Life, especially its central parable about exploited worker ants rising up against their grasshopper oppressors with the help of circus bugs mistaken for warriors. Other Pixar bona fides—expressive vocal performances (in this case from a surprising number of NBC sitcom stars), hilarious side characters (the pill bugs!), and ingenious small-scale action sequences—were all in place for their first non-Toy Story feature. Even the computer animation, once cutting-edge and significantly cruder-looking now, still pops with enough glorious color to grab audiences born years or decades later. [Jesse Hassenger]


15. A Simple Plan

A Simple Plan
Photo: Trailer screenshot

Advertisement

In the snowy backwoods of the Midwest, three ordinary men (Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, and Brent Briscoe) find a satchel of dirty money shoved inside a downed propeller plane. Dollar signs in their eyes, they hatch a foolproof scheme to squirrel away and divvy up the $4 million. What could possibly go wrong? Working from a novel by Scott B. Smith, who adapted his own ruthless bestseller for the screen, director Sam Raimi trades the cartoon mayhem of his Evil Dead series for an escalating moral horror, as his amateur crooks slide down a slippery slope into desperation, distrust, and violence. A Simple Plan works like gangbusters as a wintry, crime-doesn’t-pay thriller. But beyond its queasy suspense, the film begins to take the shape of Shakespearean tragedy, too, with Thornton doing heartbreaking wonders as the halfwit brother not too dense to see how far he’s strayed past the point of no return. [A.A. Dowd]


14. Buffalo ’66 

Buffalo ‘66
Photo: Trailer screenshot

On its surface, Vincent Gallo’s debut feature looks irredeemable: yet another story about a sensitive man-child redeemed by the unconditional adoration (despite his copious verbal abuse) of a fantasy babe. No “normal” filmmaker could make this noxious dynamic work. Gallo, however, lacks any sort of filter, in art or in life, and his willingness to splatter his id all over the screen proves bizarrely disarming. He plays Billy Brown—an ex-con who more or less abducts a random young woman (Christina Ricci) and asks her to pose as his wife on a visit to his parents (Anjelica Huston and Ben Gazzara)—with a child’s destructive narcissism and no cuteness whatsoever. If the performance isn’t actively self-critical, it’s at least startlingly honest, and beautifully counterbalanced by Ricci’s canny emotional abstraction. And even those who find Buffalo ’66 too obnoxious to enjoy must concede its formal ingenuity, with Gallo demonstrating instinctive mastery of color and its absence, movement across multiple axes, and the contrapuntal use of prog rock. [Mike D’Angelo]


13. Babe: Pig In The City

Babe: A Pig In The City
Photo: Trailer screenshot

It’s a minor but blessed miracle whenever a filmmaker takes advantage of an unexpected blockbuster hit to make a follow-up that’s boldly weird. In writer-director-producer George Miller’s sequel to the adorable Oscar-nominated family film Babe, a plucky pig takes a trip to a hellish metropolis, intending to win a competition and save his owners’ farm. Instead, he ends up stranded at a hotel filled with damaged animals, and through a combination of optimism, will, and divine luck, becomes their champion—or, for the religiously inclined, their messiah. Visually dazzling and at times uncompromisingly bleak, Babe: Pig In The City challenges the “anyone can succeed if they believe in themselves” message of the original, suggesting that sometimes “the system” is just too stacked against the underpig. [Noel Murray]


12. Happiness

Happiness
Photo: Getty

Advertisement

Todd Solondz is an auteur of the uncomfortable, and he outdid even himself with this ensemble drama, which encourages viewers to abhor, pity, and sympathize all at once with an interconnected group of extremely fucked-up people. In his review, Roger Ebert wrote, “Happiness is a movie about closed doors—apartment doors, bedroom doors, and the doors of the unconscious,” and the things that happen behind those doors in the film range from wickedly comedic to severe tests of our capacity for empathy. The latter comes in the film’s themes of child sexual abuse, peaking with a profoundly disquieting scene where a young boy asks his father if the rumors he’s heard at school about his dad being a “molester” are true. They are. The way Solondz plays with identification throughout Happiness is both masterful and extremely challenging; he neither judges his characters nor absolves them of the consequences of their pathetic attempts at human connection. [Katie Rife]


11. Fireworks

Fireworks
Photo: Trailer screenshot

Existential cop movies existed before Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks—Jean-Pierre Melville, for one, was a master of the form—but few films before or since have depicted the emotional toll or the ethical ambiguities of police work with as much sensitivity (some might even say sentimentality). Takeshi, a famous Japanese comedian then seven films deep into his second career as a film director, stars as Nishi, a cop overwhelmed by guilt and sorrow after his wife is diagnosed with leukemia and his partner is paralyzed by a bullet from a perpetrator’s gun. Unable to stoically endure any longer, Nishi makes a series of increasingly rash decisions that will jeopardize his career as a cop, but will make his existence as a human being far more bearable. Like the fireworks that symbolize the ephemeral nature of human life, the violence in Fireworks is brief and explosive, which makes it stand out in this otherwise patient and even meditative film. But unlike those beautiful flashes of colored light, the psychological effects of violence tend to linger, long after the physical wounds have healed. [Katie Rife]


10. The Truman Show

The Truman Show
Photo: Trailer screenshot

In retrospect, it’s a brilliant reversal: Jim Carrey, the comic performer who seemed perpetually in search of attention, cast as a man who unwittingly stars in a lifelong television program, enrapturing audiences across the globe without giving his consent to the project. As Truman Burbank, the not-quite-fake main character of The Truman Show, Carrey gives one of his best performances, hinting at the ways the cameras have skewed Truman’s personality toward TV-friendly gestures without him even realizing he’s being filmed. Peter Weir’s movie, of course, turned out to be prescient. The Truman Show may be an absurdly wholesome soap opera, but the notion of audiences hanging on every turn of a show where very little of consequence actually happens anticipates everything from MTV’s Laguna Beach to the Japanese show Terrace House. The Truman Show is also a trim, fleet bit of mounting-paranoia entertainment, showing climactic good sense about when to let Truman finally disappear from view—and how to exit on a sharp, pitiless last line. [Jesse Hassenger]


9. The Last Days Of Disco

The Last Days Of Disco
Photo: Trailer screenshot

Advertisement

By 1998, Whit Stillman had firmly established his reputation as indie cinema’s foremost chronicler of the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie (to use the ridiculous designation coined by one of his characters). Anyone who’d seen Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994) could confidently anticipate that Stillman’s third feature would serve up lots of hilariously mannered dialogue and charmingly awkward romantic overtures. But there was something tantalizing about the prospect of seeing his hyper-articulate, self-analytical social climbers proceed to boogie-oogie-oogie till they just can’t boogie no more. Set in the early ’80s, The Last Days Of Disco revels in the comic juxtaposition of uptight neurotics and get-down decadence; it’s as if the cast of a Jane Austen adaptation somehow wound up in Saturday Night Fever. (Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny, playing yin/yang best friends, are standouts in the ensemble cast.) Stillman wouldn’t make another movie for 13 years, but his anachronistic sensibility, like disco, lingered in the hearts of devoted fans. [Mike D’Angelo]


8. The Thin Red Line

The Thin Red Line
Photo: Trailer screenshot

After a 20-year hiatus, Terrence Malick made his triumphant return to filmmaking with this long, majestic adaptation of James Jones’ 1962 novel, enlisting a whole platoon of Hollywood stars (many excised from the final cut) to fight and die in the Pacific theater of World War II. In many ways, it’s the anti-Saving Private Ryan: more tone poem than action movie, and legitimately anti-war in its meditative vision of a natural world poisoned by man’s violence. But Malick, too, knows how to thrust audiences onto the frontlines, locking us into the emotional duress of his beleaguered grunts. And like Spielberg, he crystallizes moments of horror, sacrifice, and senseless loss, like the awful way that Woody Harrelson makes his exit from the film. Ultimately, The Thin Red Line offered more than just an artful alternative to the year’s other major vision of World War II. In its hushed beauty, voice-over introspection, and sometimes-abstract communion with nature, it also hinted at the boldly un-commercial path its back-in-action director would soon take. [A.A. Dowd]


7. Funny Games

Funny Games
Photo: Trailer screenshot

The content of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is disturbing. But even more disturbing is the coldness with which Haneke depicts that content: the torture and emotional terror inflicted upon a bourgeois Austrian family by a pair of unnervingly dapper, seemingly motiveless psychotics. Filming in long, unbroken wide shots similar to those with which he depicts the quotidian rhythms of the family’s everyday life, Haneke watches this suffering with the omniscient, dispassionate eye of a merciless god. Even more unsettling is the way he implicates the viewer, as the killers break the fourth wall to address the audience directly and even “rewind” the film at one point to fix a flaw in their diabolical plan. If all this makes you feel vaguely guilty for watching the film at all, that’s by design: Haneke’s intent for Funny Games was to condemn the violence in Hollywood movies, and he felt strongly enough about this message that he remade the film in English 10 years later in order to reach a wider audience. Whether the director himself was engaging in sadism by making a film that essentially amounts to psychological torture remains up for debate. [Katie Rife]


6. Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan
Photo: Trailer screenshot

Advertisement

Even those who find Saving Private Ryan to be corny or, worse still, an especially intense recruitment pitch from Uncle Sam tend to grant that its D-Day sequence is a milestone moment for American movies: a hellishly immersive vision of modern combat, orchestrated by a director drawing on all his talent for spectacle to put audiences right there on the blood-soaked beaches of France. But Steven Spielberg’s graphically violent, massively popular WWII epic is more than just one or two incredible battle scenes with some dirty-dozen clichés stuffed in between. The film’s most ingenious trick is the way it uses its nightmarish opening half-hour as a kind of instant shortcut to empathy, bonding us to its central soldiers as surely as battle (and unlikely survival) has bonded them to each other. And like the shark from Spielberg’s Jaws, the specter of Normandy looms menacingly over the whole movie, infusing even the most rousingly old-fashioned and (okay, sure) corny passages of this wartime adventure yarn with a primal, existential dread. [A.A. Dowd]


5. Taste Of Cherry

Taste Of Cherry
Photo: Trailer screenshot

A middle-aged man drives his Range Rover through forbidding landscapes, picking up strangers and engaging them in conversation. That’s all there is to Abbas Kiarostami’s Palme d’Or winner—the film that belatedly put Iran on everyone’s world-cinema map—yet drama doesn’t get much more searchingly existential. Gradually, it becomes clear that the man is contemplating suicide, and seeks someone to either bury or rescue him, depending upon whether or not he follows through. One passenger gamely tries to talk him out of it (citing cherries’ tastiness, among other pleasures, as a reason to go on living), but Kiarostami has little interest in a facile right-to-die debate. Instead, he orchestrates a series of oblique encounters that collectively suggest humanity’s sheer messiness, using abstract imagery to externalize his protagonist’s tortured psyche. And whether you’ve dared to hope for optimism or braced yourself for a climactic bummer, Taste Of Cherry’s singular coda offers a startling, oddly cathartic alternative. [Mike D’Angelo]


4. The Celebration

The Celebration
Photo: Trailer screenshot

It’s telling that the first Dogme 95 movie broke its own rules. Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, one of the architects of this back-to-basics filmmaking movement, used artificial lighting techniques—a major no no, according to the “vow of chastity” he helped write. (Also, there’s a ghost. Maybe.) Yet The Celebration stays true to the essential Dogme principles, baking a focus on truth right into its profoundly affecting plot, in which three adult siblings return to their family home for a birthday party that becomes a crucible of confession. With its scraggly handheld camerawork, lo-fi sound, and unglamorous performances, The Celebration seems even more radically unpolished today than it did two decades ago. But time has also lent powerful new resonance to the plight of Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), a favorite son refusing to stay quiet any longer about the abuses he’s suffered, even as those around him attempt to ignore, discredit, or willfully mistake as jokes his shocking revelations. Dogme 95 may (basically) be dead, but its insistence on truth telling, no matter how painful, is as vital as ever. [A.A. Dowd]


3. The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski
Photo: Trailer screenshot

Advertisement

Few films outside of the sci-fi genre can boast their own joke religions or fan conventions. The Big Lebowski has both, branching off from the original Lebowski Fest in 2002, where fans first got together to don chunky knits and sunglasses and sip white russians in honor of alpha stoner Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski. But that wasn’t always the case for Joel and Ethan Coen’s loose, loopy, endlessly quotable stoner comedy, which essentially takes a Raymond Chandler mystery, in all its convoluted noir glory, and substitutes the hard-boiled detective for a complete fuckup in a bathrobe. The film bombed at the box office and didn’t fare well with critics upon initial release, slowly building its fan base on VHS and later DVD. Like the aging hippie at its center, The Big Lebowski abides, only gaining in reputation with every passing year. The Coens themselves don’t really get the cult of Lebowski—“That movie has more of an enduring fascination for other people than it does for us,” Joel said in a 2009 interview with Cinemablend—but star Jeff Bridges, whose image has become inextricable from that of The Dude, doesn’t seem to mind, amiably posing for cardigan photo shoots and repeating lines from the film to starstruck fans. [Katie Rife]


2. Rushmore

Rushmore
Photo: Trailer screenshot

Wes Anderson’s second movie properly introduces the self-consciously theatrical style that hundreds of indie films and twee TV series still rip off. But Rushmore itself only looks artificial, with its thrift-store decor, British Invasion score, and comic-book compositions. Beneath the surface, this wistful, arch high-school romance—about an over-scheduled prep school student, a lonely middle-aged millionaire, and the heartbroken teacher they both adore—is filled with Anderson’s and cowriter Owen Wilson’s deeply personal observations. Despite the dry dialogue and retro affectations, actors Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, and Olivia Williams are all playing multi-dimensional characters, who ache as big as they dream. Even in a post-Wes Anderson era, it’s rare to see a quirky American comedy with such a strong point of view, expressing the filmmakers’ observations about the similarities between adolescent frustration and adult melancholy. [Noel Murray]


1. Out Of Sight

Out Of Sight
Photo: Universal Pictures/Getty

Six months after Quentin Tarantino adapted an Elmore Leonard crime lark into the best movie of the year, another gifted golden boy from the Miramax stable repeated his feat. Out Of Sight, Steven Soderbergh’s own funky, talky take on one of the author’s underworld picaresques, is a breezier contraption than Jackie Brown, with a cast sprawling (and funny) enough to fill out one of his Ocean’s movies. Yet Soderbergh, an ambassador of cool who’s also a master craftsman, locates more than just effortless fun in the cat-and-mouse courtship that develops between an escaped bank robber (George Clooney) and the U.S. Marshall (Jennifer Lopez) chasing him across the country. Like Tarantino before him, he amplifies the romantic heartbeat of his source material, feeding off the electric chemistry between Clooney and Lopez, both new to movie stardom and neither ever better, before or since. Have the last 20 years of studio movies offered a sexier sex scene than the “time out” that the two share at a Detroit hotel, where Soderbergh uses freeze frames, jumbled chronology, and asynchronous editing to enhance the seductive charge of his lead performances? It’s Out Of Sight in a nutshell: shit-hot modern style in service of timeless, impeccable Hollywood entertainment. [A.A. Dowd]