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The Best and Worst Films of 1998

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 1, 1999

   


    Truman Show Jane Adams finds that "Happiness" can be elusive. (Good Machine Releasing)
After much soul-searching (and deadline pressure), here is a highly unscientific list of my favorite films of 1998, in descending order of preference. It includes an Elizabethan love story, a political satire, something for the kiddies plus several dark gems. The most glaring omission is Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" – by any measure a very good movie, but one whose undeniable virtues (particularly its nearly perfect opening half-hour) just didn't transcend the overtly manipulative pushing of this audience of one's emotional buttons.

"Happiness." Not! Todd ("Welcome to the Dollhouse") Solondz's sophomore feature about pedophilia, dismemberment and romantic dysfunction is disturbing enough to leave you with a permanent facial tic. It's also excoriatingly funny, smart, bravely acted and has a great theme song written by Eytan Mirsky and sung by Michael Stipe and Rain Phoenix.

"The Celebration." Mama told me not to come. This Danish corker about a 60th birthday party gone very, very awry was shot with a hand-held video camera by director Thomas Vinterberg, so it feels like watching a home movie of the party from hell. You may squirm along with the on-screen guests, but the riveting script, arresting visual style and shocking parade of family secrets will keep your rear end glued to the seat.

"Life Is Beautiful." Italian clown Roberto Benigni pulls off an achingly brilliant blend of Buster Keatonesque farce and Holocaust drama. Set during World War II, the first half is a goofy love story of Jewish waiter Guido (Benigni) and gentile schoolteacher Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), while the last hour details his family's imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp and his efforts to convince his young son that it is all a game.

"The Truman Show." As Truman Burbank, a man whose entire life is the subject of a 24-hour television show, Jim Carrey proves he can do more than just make funny faces. Director Peter Weir and writer Andrew Niccol have come up with a sweet and sour media satire whose elaborate construction is as airtight as a hermetically sealed jar of orange marmalade.

"Buffalo 66." The year's most audacious debut – an inventive and offbeat hymn of praise to sappy romantic love and Buffalo, N.Y., from former painter and Calvin Klein model Vincent Gallo, who directed, co-wrote, starred in and composed the music for this story of an ex-con who falls in love with his kidnapping victim (Christina Ricci).

"Mulan." Nobody does old-fashioned animation like Disney. Based on the Chinese legend of Mulan, a girl who joins the army to save her father from fighting, the film is touching, funny, exciting, inspirational and beautifully drawn. It's an adventure for all generations and genders.

"Lawn Dogs." The largely overlooked treasure directed by John Duigan ("The Year My Voice Broke") and written by poet Naomi Wallace concerns the potentially volatile but oddly appropriate friendship between a little rich girl (Mischa Barton) and the young man who mows her lawn (Sam Rockwell). It has the turbulent underpinnings of a Southern Gothic novel and the mystical flavor of a fairy tale.

"Shakespeare in Love." Don't be put off by the highfalutin name. The whip-smart script (co-written by playwright Tom Stoppard) and the lively direction by John Madden ("Her Majesty Mrs. Brown") combine to make a surprisingly accessible, fanciful and moving romantic comedy about the Bard of Avon (Joseph Fiennes) and the muse (Gwyneth Paltrow) who might have inspired him to write "Romeo and Juliet."

"Bulworth." Further out than "Primary Colors" and "Wag the Dog," Warren Beatty's frothy and acidic mockery of statecraft features a rapping U.S. senator (Beatty) in the midst of a nervous breakdown and always two steps ahead of his apoplectic aide (Oliver Platt). Forget spin control. Beatty is one whirling dervish.

"The Butcher Boy." Based on the novel by Pat McCabe about an Irish lad who is equal parts charmer and utter maniac, the gristle of this darkly comic Neil Jordan-directed drama is not easy to swallow but well worth gnawing on, thanks to a compelling performance from young Eamonn Owens as the freckle-faced time bomb, Francie Brady.

The Worst Is Yet to Come
Many of you will look at the stinkers that follow and wonder about the inclusion of certain titles, perhaps not because you disagree with my choices, but because in some cases, you never even heard of them. See, folks, I have to see everything, including "Bride of Chucky" – which, truth be told, was far more enjoyable than any of the following, randomly ordered Very Bad Things.

    Truman Show Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes star in "The Avengers." (Warner Bros.)
"The Avengers." Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes try – and fail – to impersonate Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg as urbane spies Emma Peel and John Steed. Even if you know nothing of the cult British TV series on which this abomination was based, you might still be offended by this incomprehensible and witless film about a plot to control the world's weather by an evil maniac (Sean Connery). One audience member was snoring audibly at the thriller's narcoleptic climax.

"Dee Snider's Strangeland." People, this isn't just anyone's "Strangeland," but Dee Snider's "Strangeland." The hatchet-faced, adenoidal lead singer of mercifully defunct metal band Twisted Sister wrote, produced and starred in this murky mess of a slasher flick about a schizophrenic who lures victims through the Internet into his neo-Goth torture chamber. Boo!

"Orgazmo." It's "Boogie Nights" for cretins. This satire of the porn industry was written and directed by its star, "South Park" co-creator Trey Parker, who plays a Mormon seduced into making dirty movies by the easy money. It's neither funny nor sexy, and the scariest thing about it is real-life smut-star Ron Jeremy exposing a gargantuan and hirsute beer belly.

"I Got the Hook-Up." Funnyman A.J. Johnson is not funny enough to save writer, producer and star Master P from himself. The gold-toothed rapper has all the on-screen electricity of a truckload of dead cell phones, which is exactly what he and Johnson are hawking in this mean-spirited comedy about a pair of inner-city hucksters.

"Tarzan and the Lost City." Hunky Casper Van Dien as Tarzan is prettier to look at than simian costar. Jane March as Jane, but the story about the smooth-chested ape-man's battle to save an ancient African city from mercenaries is as limp as a broken jungle vine.

"BASEketball." The "Airplane!"-style parody of professional sports starring "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone has only two good jokes that I recall – one in the film's first few minutes and another close to the end. The rest of its unsophisticated humor consists chiefly of repeated references to homuncular costar Dian Bachar as a "little bitch."

"The Opposite of Sex." This was a hard one. Virtually all of my friends loved this bilious comedy about a foul-mouthed teenage strumpet (Christina Ricci) who runs off with her gay brother's lover (Ivan Sergei) – which means either that I was just not in the mood for an unrelentingly sour and misanthropic yuk-fest that day or that I need to find a new set of friends.

"Dirty Work." How many times can former "Saturday Night Live" comedian and fired "Weekend Update" anchor Norm Macdonald do that lame "note to self" memo bit with the hand-held tape recorder? The answer is: a lot. It doesn't get any funnier either in this thin farce about an unemployed loser who makes a career out of helping other losers exact revenge upon their tormentors.

"Ringmaster." Jerry Springer. Bare breasts. Cussing and hair-pulling. Trailer trash and ghetto garbage duke it out for the attention of a voyeuristic nation in this all-too-accurate facsimile of Springer's grotesque television talk show.

"Living Out Loud." It sounded good on paper. Acclaimed screenwriter Richard ("Beloved") LaGravanese's directorial debut stars the great Holly Hunter and the decent Danny DeVito in the story of an unhappy divorcee and her friendship with a doorman. On celluloid, Hunter and DeVito have zero chemistry, and LaGravanese learns that a camera is a lot harder to operate than a word processor.


Rita Kempley's Top 10 Movies of 1998:
1. "The Truman Show"
2. "Gods and Monsters"
3. "Saving Private Ryan"
4. "Shakespeare in Love"
5. "Primary Colors"
6. "Waking Ned Devine"
7. "Pi"
8. "One True Thing"
9. "Ever After"
10. "Life Is Beautiful"
Worst: "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"

Stephen Hunter's Top 10 Movies of 1998:
1. "Saving Private Ryan"
2. "Touch of Evil"
3. "Little Voice"
4. "The Last Days of Disco"
5. "The Opposite of Sex"
6. "Shakespeare in Love"
7. "A Simple Plan"
8. "Happiness"
9. "Love and Death on Long Island"
10. "The Prince of Egypt"
Worst: "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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