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What film should’ve made our list of the best movies of 1998?
Two middling, unnecessary sequels may have tarnished its luster a bit, but
Henry Fool remains one of Hal Hartley’s finest efforts, as well as one of
the few films from 1998 that feels genuinely prescient today. Its
absurdist disquisition on the role of the artist in society—centered on a
garbageman named Simon Grimm who becomes a celebrated but controversial poet after meeting the title character, who’s working on an epic, multi-volume “confession” of his own—anticipates the digital revolution in publishing, though Hartley couldn’t foresee that the screens in question would mostly be smartphones. An incoherently angry lout turned political activist, played by Kevin Corrigan, now reads as
proto “alt-right.” Mostly, though, Henry Fool revels in two magnificent
complementary performances, with James Urbaniak’s bone-dry passivity
ideally pitted against Thomas Jay Ryan’s aggressive, almost simian
magnetism. Together they embody the human condition at its most exalted and despairing. “It hurts to breathe,” Simon groans at one point. Henry’s unassailable reply: “Of course it does.”
While a lot of the movies I voted for on my ballot made this fine list, two of my top five choices were apparently one-vote wonders, from which I can only deduce that other contributors simply haven’t seen Zero Effect. Jake Kasdan’s comic mystery about a reclusive Sherlock Holmes figure, Bill Pullman’s Daryl Zero, and his reluctant Watson, played by Ben Stiller, certainly wasn’t widely seen at the time, receiving a limited theatrical release in January of ’98. But the lack of a splashy release for the movie makes sense, because its story has a certain timelessness. Pullman delivers a bravura performance, ditching his Baxter-y tendencies to play a part that dissects the socially maladjusted jerk genius character before it was such a network TV staple. Because Stiller is very funny as Zero’s exasperated partner, it’s easy to imagine a shtickier version of this story, one without the tentative, prickly love story between Zero and the blackmailer (Kim Dickens) he’s investigating. But this fan of offbeat detective stories is grateful that Kasdan digs into the damaged psyches that often pass through detective stories. Kasdan has gone on to make a variety of comedies, most of which I’ve liked. But Zero Effect is the kind of confident genre-mixer we don’t get nearly enough of, in his career or elsewhere.
Dark City may’ve been a box office disappointment, damning Crow director Alex Proyas to a career of middling genre fare, but don’t blame that on false advertising. The city itself is the star of the film, a sprawling Borgesian invention that reconfigures itself and its inhabitants every night at midnight. It’s an unplaceable mishmash of architectural styles and influences, all drawn in flat, mildewy browns and rusted hues. Also, it is very dark. For all the movie’s high-flying references to the allegory of the cave and human psychology, Proyas plays to his base, leaning into the horrific possibilities of his Nosferatu-in-a-trenchcoat antagonists and setting that shifting, continuous city up for some truly surreal action sequences. It’s as much Highlander and Hellraiser as it is Metropolis and Persona, a pitch-black, pulpy puzzle that has only gotten better—and more dated—with the years.
If you sat me down in front of There’s Something About Mary today, I’d probably balk; I’m a 34-year-old man, and I can’t be spending my days watching Matt Dillon scheme while Ben Stiller mutilates his beans and frank. Somewhere in the back of my heart, though, still lurks the 14-year-old who was embarrassed to love this movie to death, even as he cringed his way through that weird shot of Lin Shaye’s fake boobs, or the first time he ever saw a movie acknowledge the existence of masturbation. (It didn’t help that I saw the Farrellys’ career-making comedy in theaters with my mom. We didn’t talk about it.) But that’s the thing: There’s Something About Mary doesn’t need to “hold up” to adult sensibilities, because it’s not an adult film (despite Cameron Diaz’s choice of hair gel). It’s for dumb, immature kids, and it’s exceptional about catering to their needs. Besides: No movie that gave my young self his first non-Gargoyles exposure to the great Keith David can ever be far from my heart.
Here’s the thing: Usually, when a film is described in terms like “tender” or “moving” I can’t help but make a face, if only internally. I prefer my dramas bleak, thanks. But I’ll make an exception for Central Station, The Motorcycle Diaries’ director Walter Salles’ 1998 film about a bitter sixtysomething woman who makes her living writing letters dictated by illiterate passengers on their way into or out of the busy Rio de Janeiro transit hub of the title. The majority of the film follows that woman, Dora (Fernanda Montenegro), on a journey across Brazil to accompany 9-year-old Josue (Vinicius de Oliveira) back to his father and his rural hometown after seeing his mother get hit by a bus. Yes, the two do bond along the way, but what makes this tale of intergenerational friendship palatable even to a cynic like myself is the fact that Dora, to be perfectly honest, would rather not be on this heartwarming journey. In fact, she hates sentimentality, and initially sells the boy to an adoption agency in exchange for the money to buy herself a TV, and only rescues him and takes him home after a friend guilts her into it by saying that the agency will kill him and harvest his organs if she doesn’t intervene. In this sense, the movie is more about Dora learning to let her guard down than her relationship with the adorable semi-orphan, something to which even the most hardened among us can relate.
Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas has weathered the years better than Johnny Depp’s reputation or Terry Gilliam’s personal beliefs, a movie that doesn’t just capture the feel of a bygone era—a handful of digital effects aside, it resembles, in spirit and appearance, the rambunctious films that Hollywood was making when Hunter S. Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta lit across the desert in 1971. Grappling with the nigh-unadaptable prose of Thompson’s two-part Rolling Stone story, Gilliam poured a full briefcase of filmmaking gimmicks into a born midnight movie that’s 99.9 percent screaming, extreme close-ups, harsh lighting, and seasick cinematography. The results are as gaudy as its setting and as intoxicating as the various substances ingested by Raoul Duke (Depp) and Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro), none more so than the film’s portrait of the writer as ultimate countercultural figure and chronicler. The damn thing’s infectious, and I can’t watch any of it without having to filter bad Thompson impressions out of my prose for days afterward. It’s a great big load of bullshit, but it’s captivating bullshit, the ass end of the American dream re-created during the nation’s last widespread moment of peace and prosperity.
1998 wasn’t a particularly sterling year for documentaries, which is why I don’t feel all that guilty about us neglecting to include any on our official top 20 rundown. But I was a little tempted to abuse my sway over the results to make room for Little Dieter Needs To Fly, Werner Herzog’s nonfiction film about the incredible crucible of a Navy pilot who crash-landed in Laos during the Vietnam War, eventually escaping the jungle internment camp where he was imprisoned for months. Although Herzog allows Dieter Dengler the opportunity to recount his survival story in detail, the filmmaker seems just as fascinated by Dengler’s present, and how his past continues to inform it. In the film’s most daring and troublesome gambit—one that anticipates the approach of the Herzog-produced The Act Of Killing—the director talks his subject into returning to the site of his torture and imprisonment, where locals role-play as his captors for re-creations that seemed designed to get the survivor to engage with his story beyond the level of recited anecdote. It’s gripping stuff, especially when put in conversation with Herzog’s later Rescue Dawn, which cast Christian Bale in a dramatization of Dengler’s ordeal.
I liked Ronin a lot when I saw it in theaters 20 years ago, but not enough to put it on my top 10 list (or even in the honorable mentions). A few years later, watching the movie again on DVD—with director John Frankenheimer’s remarkably insightful commentary track—I became convinced that Ronin is one of the best of its decade, let alone its year. The masterfully shot high-speed chases through narrow Parisian streets have earned the film a reputation as an action classic (and made it a cable TV staple during the 2000s heyday of the “movies for guys who like movies”). But today I’m more impressed by the lean plotting, and the understated performances of stars Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgård, Jonathan Pryce, and Sean Bean. And then there’s the punchy dialogue, which I may not have even known back in 1998 was ghost-written by David Mamet (though lines like “Whenever there is any doubt, there is no doubt… That’s the first thing they teach you” should’ve been a tip-off). The older I get, the more I find that this is the moviemaking I enjoy most, where the storytelling’s so simple and plain that it can absorb the flavor of all its ingredients.
Granted, the Adam Sandler cinematic canon may be a low bar, but The Wedding Singer stands among his best. I liked it so much the first time I saw (rented) it, I rewound and rewatched it immediately; seeing as I usually despise Adam Sandler movies (yes, even Happy Gilmore), no one was more surprised than I was. But this particular Sandler comedy swerves toward sweet instead of his usual sophomorically savage, helped along by Drew Barrymore as the angelic waitress who’s going to help Sandler’s wedding singer Robby Hart get over a traumatic breakup. A lot of romcoms are depressingly similar, but The Wedding Singer’s 12-years-earlier nostalgia hook that sets it apart is winningly spot-on, including Hall & Oates in the soundtrack, multiple mullets, and a bad guy Don Johnson wannabe driving a DeLorean. But the movie’s startling highlight may be Sandler’s Cure interpretation in “Somebody Kill Me Please,” pulling out the limited but catchy musical talent that brought us “The Hanukkah Song” to perform a 1980s breakup rant that perfectly pours naked anguish onto squeaky guitar strings.
Mike already made the case for the eminently deserving Henry Fool—one of my favorite films of any year—so I’ll turn my attention to the quiet beauty of Bill Condon’s Gods And Monsters. It’s easy to see why most discussions of the movie revolve around Ian McKellen’s tremendous performance as openly gay Hollywood director James Whale at the end of his life: The actor brings such gravitas and tragedy to the role, while never underserving the wry humor or twinkle in Whale’s eye that makes the character of this real-life artist such an engaging, multifaceted presence. But none of it would work if Brendan Fraser hadn’t managed to locate the lonely, compassionate heart of his beefcake yardman, the object of Whale’s affections who slowly comes to know the elderly recluse in a friendship neither fully understands. Condon avoids tipping it into hokey sentimentalism, smartly incorporating flashbacks to both Whale’s dark past and his time as a tinseltown raconteur in a manner that enriches the drama in the present. It’s a deeply moving film with more on its mind than mere biopic conceits, and an empathetic depiction of a complicated gay man during a time when such characters were mostly relegated to either simplistic message movies or the sassy-best-friend margins of Hollywood cinema.