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A Film Snob's Favorites of '98

Favorites, mind you, not "the best of" - since only a full-time critic can pretend to make such a list. I saw fewer films this year - it seems I had less free time, but I was also pickier. Fewer foreign language films (7) made my list this year, simply because there aren't as many of them making it to screens. This is the one dreadful trend that shows no sign of abating. All I can say is, support your local "art" house. The popcorn is probably better too.

What will endure? Works of integrity, courage, beauty - films with style. There are still plenty of folks making such films, and that gives me hope for the future of movies. My criterion for considering a film was that it appeared for the first time in my town during calendar year 1998. Which explains my #2, as well as the seven other entries (including my #1) that were released in other parts of the U.S. in late '97. Chalk it up to the dsitributors' tendency to cram a lot of their best films into the month of December - which becomes January or later here in the naked pueblo.

Finally, there are no "worsts" or "underrateds" in this year's list. With all the warnings I get from you guys, I tend to avoid the turkeys anyway. Besides, those movies will get plenty of attention - at the Oscars.

1. KUNDUN (Martin Scorsese).
Scorsese's most personal film combines beauty of style with a genuine sense of the sacred. It is a portrait of the young Dalai Lama of Tibet, and an account of the crisis his country endured when invaded by China. But instead of resorting to spectacle, it seeks to actually induce a spiritual experience in the viewer, the sensitive visual rhythms translating the Buddhist teachings of compassion into cinematic terms. Blessed with fine performances from its Tibetan actors, and an awesome musical score by Philip Glass, Kundun will endure as a work of art long after the usual entertainments have faded away.

2. UNDERGROUND (Emir Kusturica).
This sprawling epic farce about the tragedy of Yugoslavia is wildly funny and compelling filmmaking. Kusturica ridicules war and politics while showing deep affection for the fools who participate in them. Even when the weirdest things are happening, the film has a complete solidity, a sense of people's ties of love to one another and the painfulness of their struggles. Very accessible, Underground could have been a cult classic - instead it's one of the least-seen masterpieces of recent years.

3. MOTHER AND SON (Alexander Sokurov).
In a cabin in the midst of a vast wilderness, a son takes care of his old mother, who is dying. More like a painting than a narrative, the film uses amazingly original photographic effects to create a dreamlike, transcendent quality. Sukorov presents directly the togetherness and aloneness of people within an immense and awesome world. It looks like no film ever made - just 73 minutes long, enough time to express a sense of eternity.

4. NIL BY MOUTH (Gary Oldman).
An intense and disturbing film about the harsh life of a working class family in London. Oldman is unrelenting and unflinching in his depiction of the truth about people's lives. The acting is superb - especially Ray Winstone as an abusive husband and Kathy Burke as a wife who can only take so much. The raw immediacy of the style, the life-like overlapping dialogue, and, most of all, the strong vision of endurance and compassion, make this one of the more impressive directorial debuts ever.

5. OSCAR AND LUCINDA (Gillian Armstrong).
Two misfits with a gambling addiction (Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett) cross paths in 19th century Australia. The result is a passionate, humorous, moving film, directed with grandeur and great finesse by veteran director Armstrong. The two leads are wonderful, and the picture has a rare feeling of total love for its struggling, fallible characters.

6. THE SWEET HEREAFTER (Atom Egoyan).
Past and future coalesce around a school bus driving to its doom. This intricate film about the denial of grief and the abandonment of children is rigorous and haunting. Egoyan knows how to provoke the darker corners of the psyche - and there is a very fine performance from Ian Holm as well.

7. THE BUTCHER BOY (Neil Jordan).
A childhood story from the bully's point of view. Eammon Owens is astonishing as an Irish boy whose mind and life disintegrate into murderous rage and despair. Jordan's bizarre, wildly comic style dares to be different - it takes to you the darkest places and leaves you there.

8. THE BIG LEBOWSKI (Joel Coen).
The Coen brothers are utterly relaxed and self-assured in this shaggy dog parody of film noir. Slyly funny from beginning to end, the picture is something of a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the art of moviemaking. The kind of film that made me break out laughing weeks later just thinking about it.

9. HAPPY TOGETHER (Wong Kar-Wai).
The relationship of two gay men (Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung) slowly fades away in Buenos Aires. This film is a sorrowful meditation on the agonizing difficulty of two human beings trying to connect. Wong's intensely beautiful, experimental style serves a strong personal vision. The world looked different when I left the theater.

10. UNDER THE SKIN (Carine Adler).
Samantha Morton, in a performance of amazing vulnerability, plays a young woman who gets lost in a maze of sexual acting out before she can accept her mother's death. A fine, harrowing debut by Adler. In a movie world where most of the stories are about young men, a film like this should be welcomed.

And now for the B-sides:

11. THE BOXER (Jim Sheridan).
A former IRA man renounces violence. Dark and deeply felt, the silences speaking louder than words. Daniel Day-Lewis continues to prove he's one of the world's best film actors.

12. TASTE OF CHERRY (Abbas Kiarostami).
A man asks a series of strangers to do him an unpleasant favor. The Iranian director's austere aesthetic is undimmed by illusions. For those who like their compassion straight, no sweeteners.

13. ELIZABETH (Shekhar Kapur).
A young queen faces and overcomes peril on her way to the throne. The visual style is compelling, and the marvelously expressive Cate Blanchett was the perfect choice for the title role.

14. MA VIE EN ROSE (Alain Berliner.)
Gender confusion in a young boy, but it's the grownups' reactions that are the real problem. Surprisingly insightful, the film mixes natural and fantasy elements with a light touch.

15. HE GOT GAME (Spike Lee). Basketball and the American dream. Lee mixes sharp social observation with visual poetry (and Aaron Copland) to produce one of his best films. Denzel Washington is great as an erring father seeking redemption.

16. THE THIEF (Pavel Chukhrai).
It's about a con-man coming between a boy and his mother. It's also about Russia's need to exorcise Stalin, and the psychic price it still pays. Solid, steady work with a real point.

17. PI (Darren Aronofsky).
That rarity - a film about ideas. A math genius must go to the farthest reaches of number theory (and psychosis) to find that the mind is not enough. Wildly innovative visual style, with great b&w photography and electronic soundtrack.

18. OUT OF SIGHT (Steven Soderbergh). Professionalism as it ought to be in genre filmmaking. The Elmore Leonard story (about a bank robber who loves a U.S. Marshall) flows along with seeming effortlessness, and the look of the picture is as crisp and clear as can be.

19. GODS AND MONSTERS (Bill Condon).
Ian McKellen puts on an acting clinic in this wistful imagining of director James Whale's last days. The film has some nice ideas - McKellen raises it all to another level.

20. MY MOTHER'S COURAGE (Michael Verhoeven).
I was torn between this and Mr. Spielberg's latest opus. But while Pvt. Ryan boasts truly spectacular battle scenes, this little film about the day a town's Jews are sent to the camps, with its deceptively comic tone, has more heart and much more wisdom.

1998 was quite a year. Not a good year for lovers of singing cowboys. But not a bad year for movies, unless you count Hollywood ones. (Oops, I promised I wouldn't go there.) For myself, though, looking ahead to 1999, I take to heart the advice given to Orson Welles by Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil: "You're a mess, honey. You'd better lay off those candy bars."

 

Chris Dashiell, 1999