Combustible Celluloid

1998: The Year in Film

What Happened to Me in the Dark

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

December 31, 1998—I look forward to making lists of the best movies. It's like a clean-up after littering the shop with bits, and parts, and sawdust all year.

Unfortunately, the end of a year is much too soon for me to be singling out "great" movies. It takes years, and decades, before a great movie can really be judged. Movies that I loved this year barely played a week, and movies I didn't even bother to see made fortunes. The only thing I can do is tell you about the movies I fell in love with, the movies I couldn't stop thinking about all year, and the movies I will want to see again and again.

The Top Ten

1. The Butcher Boy.
Neil Jordan's The Butcher Boy makes number one on my list because no other movie this year was so miraculously alive, so painfully truthful, so piercingly funny, and so brutally horrifying. Eamonn Owens perfectly embodies Francie Brady, an Irish boy who goes a little mad after losing his best friend, and then his family. If he does not win the Oscar for Best Actor, then we know the Academy Awards are a fraud.

2. Gods and Monsters.
Any movie about film director James Whale is okay by me, but Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters was much better than I could have hoped for. Leaving behind stories of Hollywood scandals and gossip, the movie focused on two lonely outcasts -- Ian McKellen as Whale and Brendan Fraser as his gardener -- with absolutely nothing in common, much like the Frankenstein monster and the blind old hermit in The Bride of Frankenstein.

3. Babe: Pig in the City.
George Miller's Babe: Pig in the City moved and excited me to my very foundations with its amazing vision and extraordinary imagination. In order to save the farm, Babe journeys to a miracle metropolis to enter a county fair, but everything goes wrong. Babe brings heart and truth to this awesome setting, and other animals begin to follow him. This movie was immediately tagged as being too dark and expensive, chasing away the audience it deserved.

4. The Thin Red Line.
It's too bad that Terrence Malick's WWII movie The Thin Red Line (based on James Jones' novel) came out so soon after Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Both movies have the same powerful, sensational, horrifying battle scenes, but The Thin Red Line uses these as metaphor only. The message of Saving Private Ryan was simply "war bad... family good". In The Thin Red Line however, Malick and cinematographer John Toll beautifully show us the duality of man and nature and an extraordinary vision of the nature of the world.

5. Taste of Cherry.
This movie, by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, tied for last year's Palm D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. A mysterious suicidal man drives around the hills outside of Tehran looking to hire someone to bury him after he succeeds. He meets and talks with several candidates, and a taxidermist finally agrees to do the job. The ending of the movie left me flabbergasted, but hopeful.

6. Fireworks.
Japanese director Takeshi Kitano's Fireworks (a.k.a. Hana-bi) was a huge hit in Japan, and is an unforgettable work. Takeshi also stars as a hitman trying to raise enough money to take care of his sick wife. It swings from sudden and explosive violence to quiet moments of enchanting beauty.

7. Out of Sight.
Thrillers are a dime-a-dozen, especially today, but Out of Sight ranks with Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and John Boorman's Point Blank for its style and perfection. It makes every other Elmore Leonard adaptation look dull in comparison, and is Steven Soderbergh's best movie since sex lies and videotape. Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney are both outstanding as a thief and a lady cop entwined in an illicit romance.

8. The Truman Show.
Peter Weir's The Truman Show is the only unqualified blockbuster on my list. Jim Carrey's star power was the attraction. But were audiences ready for the depth and passion of his performance as Truman Burbank, the man whose whole life has been shown on television? With Ed Harris as the God-like Christof, The Truman Show gives us the battle of God (dressed in black) and Man (in a city of white) broadcast 24 hours a day.

9. A Simple Plan.
Thanks to a brilliant screenplay by Scott B. Smith (based on his own book), and directed in a surprising turn by Sam Raimi, A Simple Plan thoroughly explores greed, darkness, and fate, as two brothers and a friend discover $4 million in a crashed plane. It's a movie Fritz Lang would have been proud of.

10. Little Voice.
The secret of Mark Herman's Little Voice lies in its song selection. Jane Horrocks plays a shy woman who, in order to connect with her dead father, does vocal impressions of Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Shirley Bassey, and others. Horrocks perfectly captures the sadness of these singers in her performance, and I was moved to tears during one number.

Runners Up

Selecting the list is not always painless, as one must leave off little treasures. Runners-up that I also recommend are: Beloved (Jonathan Demme), Dark City (Alex Proyas), Gummo (Harmony Korine), Pi (Darren Aronofsky), Rushmore (Wes Anderson); not opening in the Bay Area until Febraury, Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg), Shakespeare in Love (John Madden), There's Something About Mary (Bobby & Peter Farrelly), Twilight (Robert Benton), Voyage to the Beginning of the World (Manoel de Oliveira)

Honorable Mention

The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen), Bulworth (Warren Beatty), Chinese Box (Wayne Wang), Down in the Delta (Maya Angelou), The Eel (Shohei Imamura), Fallen Angels (Wong Kar-wai), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam); Small Soldiers (Joe Dante), Smoke Signals (Chris Eyre), Two Girls and a Guy (James Toback)

Guilty Pleasures and "B" Movies

An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn (Alan Smithee/Arthur Hiller), Blade (Stephen Norrington), Bride of Chucky (Ronny Yu), Dream for an Insomniac (Tiffanie DeBartolo), First Love, Last Rites (Jesse Peretz), Following (Christopher Nolan), The Gingerbread Man (Robert Altman), Pecker (John Waters), Rounders (John Dahl), Space Truckers (Stuart Gordon), Spice World (Bob Spiers), Vampires (John Carpenter), Wild Things (John McNaughton), Zero Effect (Jake Kasdan)


1998 was also an amazing year for revivals. Studios realized that good money could be made cheap by dragging older movies out to the theaters. My special thanks for: The Universal Horror Series (Castro), tributes to Robert Bresson and Samuel Fuller (PFA), the re-release of three Orson Welles films, Citizen Kane, The Lady from Shanghai and the re-edited Touch of Evil, Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini), Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming), Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese), Badlands (Terrence Malick), Grease (Randal Kleiser), Enter the Dragon (Robert Clouse), The Young Girls of Rochefort (Jacques Demy), Repulsion (Roman Polanski), The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci), and The Beyond (Lucio Fulci).

I Am Also Thankful For:

  • The first 30 minutes of Snake Eyes
  • J.T. Walsh's final performances in The Negotiator and Pleasantville
  • Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey just talking in The Negotiator
  • Jet Li kicking ass in Once Upon a Time in China and America and Lethal Weapon 4
  • The Simpsons, Maximum Bob, and Sports Night -- a good year for television.

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