For the past two weeks, we’ve been looking back at the ’90s, with our year-by-year rundown of the decade’s best movies. Right now, we’re hurtling toward the millennium and are up to 1998 (you can check out 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1997 at your leisure), the year in which not one but two meteorites threatened to wipe out humanity but obliterated the box office instead (“Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” were the number 1 and number 6 highest-grossing films that year).
“Shakespeare In Love” snaffled Best Picture to the eternal chagrin of some of the film world’s sniffier commentators, and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett welcomed their son Jaden into the world in July, which makes him almost certainly the reincarnation of Frank Sinatra, who died two months prior. Yes, 1998 was a spunky time at the movies, which is appropriate for a year when the news was dominated by the stains on Monica Lewinsky’s clothing, and in which the FDA finally approved Viagra. 1998 gave America its boner back — here are the 10 films that most did it for us.
10. “Saving Private Ryan”
Steven Spielberg‘s Best Director-winning film unfolds on such a grand scale that its flaws, such as a slackening of pace after the first act, some rather simplistic characterizations and those semi-infuriating flash-forward bookends, feel similarly magnified. But one’s recall of those disappointments tends to be obliterated by the almost palpable sense-memory of that opening act, in particular the unforgettable first 20 minutes or so in which the landing on Omaha Beach is summoned with electrifying, terrifying immediacy. It’s a single scene that merits the film’s place here all by itself, and as for the throttling down that happens after? Perhaps Spielberg was simply aware that we’d need the entire rest of the film to recover. Also, amid the ensemble, Barry Pepper’s bible-quoting sniper steals most of his scenes, while Tom Hanks gives one of his most memorable turns as the good Captain, broken down and morally exhausted by the exigencies of war. His performance, in fact, is so nuanced in its portrayal of the gradual erosion of certainty and the ethical ambiguity that life on the frontlines dictates, that it almost compensates for the unsubtle flag-waving elsewhere. Ultimately, whatever one’s hesitation, the eminently compelling filmmaking craft on display here shows a great American showman at the height of his powers.
9. “The Truman Show”
There was a time, not so long ago, when Peter Weir‘s terrifically inventive and offbeat film, based on a tight, witty script by Andrew Niccol, felt like science fiction. But like half of Philip K. Dick and a whole host of “Twilight Zone” episodes, its high-concept premise now seems uncomfortably close to the reality of our infinitesimally surveilled lives and our culture’s generalized obsession with celebrity and TV-as-“reality.” So perhaps even more than its topicality, we can now appreciate the film for its high-wire, high-risk balancing act: it walks a delicate tightrope of tone between the satirical and the sweet-natured, the indignant and the goofball, but it never wavers. A cunning mix of “Network” and “It’s A Wonderful Life,” giving us the first glimpse of a Jim Carrey who could be a legitimate leading man and not just a rubber-faced physical comedian, “The Truman Show” is most impressive for never selling out the darker aspects of its allegorical story, while keeping the register buoyant, afloat on whimsical and breezy currents — right until it bumps into the edge of the world and Truman gets to make one of the most heart-stirring and uplifting escapes since “The Shawshank Redemption.”
8. “He Got Game”
Spike Lee has a way with Denzel Washington: in each of their four collaborations to date, Lee has got something special from the megastar — perhaps because he has the confidence to cast Washington in the kind of roles he rarely takes elsewhere, and Washington has enough trust in Lee to take them. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in “He Got Game,” which is rarely counted among the top-tier Spike Lee films (which is wrong anyway), and which also features arguably Washington’s most atypical performance, and one of his very best. As the deadbeat dad temporarily released from prison on condition he get his basketball-star son (a convincing turn from NBA player Ray Allen) to sign with the warden’s alma mater, there are no action-movie histrionics or broad, simplistic hero arcs here. Washington, who still exudes that innately likable charisma, doesn’t hold back in mining his character’s darker side: we often see him play men who are at war with their own worse nature, and here that battle rages as he juggles a lifetime of selfishness against the chance to reconnect with his children. This time, however, his worse nature often wins, yielding one of Washington’s most multifaceted and nuanced turns, and one of Lee’s most humane and emotionally honest films.
7. “The Big Lebowski”
We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t with the cultural institution that now is the Coen Brothers‘ “The Big Lebowski”: critics of the film’s looseness, its culty unevenness (which hampered its reception on release) will wonder why it’s here at all, while its much more vociferous contingent of diehard fans will find it unforgivable that it’s not higher. So let’s state our case for the record: while not, in fact, our favorite Coens film, “The Big Lebowski” has enough genuinely inspired sequences and homages that even if we weren’t afraid of the the death threats (or at least the rug-napping threats) we’d get if we left it off, we’d include it. Like any film that has spawned a cult so big it can presumably at this stage be termed a religion, it’s endlessly quotable, but above the epithets, this is maybe the most accomplished seven-car genre pile-up of the modern era. The Coens take elements of detective noir, stoner movie, melodrama, western and Busby Berkeley musical, liberally sprinkle some genial profanity (its 292 “fuck”s make it more foulmouthed than “Scarface“) and populate it with an ensemble of the most eccentric and colorful characters in the Coensian pantheon, most importantly Jeff Bridges‘ indelible, cardigan-sporting, White Russian-swilling, ever-abiding Dude.
6. “Out Of Sight”
Steven Soderbergh, for a good portion of his career, was one of the foremost proponents of the “one for them and one for me” ethos whereby he’d alternate studio commissions with smaller, more personal projects. But what makes him great is just how adept he was at bringing something of the one-for-me passion and eccentricity to the ones-for-them. This is particularly well exemplified by “Out Of Sight,” his Elmore Leonard adaptation, which, sandwiched between “Schizopolis“/a Spalding Gray documentary and 1999’s terrifically lean “The Limey,” and budgeted at a relatively high (for Soderbergh) $50m by Universal, should really have been a paycheck gig. Actually, it’s a sultry, sexy delight, as a pre-megastardom George Clooney and a pre-never-making-another-good-movie Jennifer Lopez spark and fizz off each other through one of Leonard’s labyrinthine plots. Also featuring stellar support from Don Cheadle, Albert Brooks, Isaiah Washington, Steve Zahn, Catherine Keener, Dennis Farina, Ving Rhames and Luis Guzmán, as well as an uncredited turn by Michael Keaton reprising his “Jackie Brown” role, “Out of Sight” might not have broken the box office when it opened, but it was built to last and all these years later, it’s still a sly, smoldering pleasure.
5. “The Apple”
This astonishing debut from Samira Makhmalbaf, daughter of pioneering Iranian auteur Mohsen Makhmalbaf, is probably the most provocative and difficult film here, but however much queasiness its approach engenders, its effectiveness cannot be denied. It’s a docudrama based on the true, deeply upsetting story of twin sisters who have been kept inside all their lives by their blind, religiously paranoid mother and poverty-stricken father, a unemployed man who barters prayers for bread. After 11 years, with the girls so unsocialized that they communicate in guttural grunts and whines, neighbors file a complaint and a social worker comes to investigate, shooing the girls out into their first taste of freedom, while imaginatively punishing their father by locking him inside instead. The film is an extraordinary mixture of heightened allegory and visceral social realism, made borderline exploitative by the casting of the real family, including the two girls, as themselves: the meta-project of them reliving their story for the camera, and the way the presence of a camera in turn affects their lives, makes “The Apple” uncannily immediate. There is humor and mischief here, too, in this story of tentative liberation, but the depiction of the self-cannibalizing inhumanity of religious extremism is what cuts deepest.
4. “Buffalo ’66”
It can be a challenge to retain the same love for a film once its maker has gone on to more dubious projects, but the charms of “Buffalo ’66” are so fresh even today that it fizzily challenges the later conception of star and director Vincent Gallo‘s rather insufferable self-regard. That’s not to say it doesn’t display all the affectations that would immediately become irritating soon after, but there is a sincere exuberance to their execution here that Gallo never recaptured. Greasy-haired, wild-eyed Billy (Gallo) kidnaps tap dancer Layla (Christina Ricci) and forces her to pretend to be his girlfriend on a trip home to meet his parents (a brilliant Anjelica Huston and Ben Gazzara), but the unreconstructed narrative is offset by a cock-eyed dose of genuine sweetness. That quality is all the more miraculous because apparently everyone, including cinematographer Lance Acord — whose gorgeous, pre-Insta, ’70s-Polaroid-inflected photography is such an indelible part of the film — had such an unpleasant experience that they vowed never to work with him again. Separate the art from the artist (even though here the artist is the writer, director and star of the art) and “Buffalo ’66” remains a lovely, against-all-odds heartwarming film and an inspiringly vivid indie debut.
Delicately balanced between the arch, symmetrical perfection of Wes Anderson‘s more recognized style, and the loose-limbed loopiness of his debut “Bottle Rocket,” the director’s sophomore film still takes some beating as the most lovable, if not the absolute best, movie he’s ever made. Really a skewed, precocious take on the teen movie, it centers on a weird, contradictory love triangle between weird, contradictory characters. Jason Schwartzman‘s iconic Max Fischer is the teenaged codger attending a posh private school despite limited means, whose academic pretensions outstrip his abilities; his wealthy friend Herman Blume (Bill Murray) is his mentor, father figure and love rival; and Olivia Williams‘ widowed schoolteacher Rosemary is the no-nonsense object of both their affections. Really, it’s the silly/sweet/sad relationship between Max and Herman that emerges as the film’s defining strand, and they way they reflect each other’s neuroses and insecurities despite the vast disparity in age suggests that while the film is, loosely speaking, a peculiarly inventive and idiosyncratic coming-of-age story, coming of age is something that doesn’t just happen once but repeatedly, at different life stages. Or maybe that’s only the case for characters as endearingly flawed and fumbling as these ones.
2. “The Celebration”
Assured of its place in film history because of being the first feature shot under the then-newly-founded rules of Dogme 95, “The Celebration” was a terrific calling card for the movement. Its naturally lit, handheld camerawork gave it an instantly influential and dynamic aesthetic, but, as a pleasant surprise, director Thomas Vinterberg‘s “vow” of cinematic “chastity” did not extend to the narrative, which is as full-bloodedly dramatic and high-tension as any classic melodrama. Set during the 60th birthday party for the patriarch of a family in the country hotel he owns and runs, it’s a joltingly energetic rollercoaster ride that careens from revelation to revelation with the immediacy of the style contributing to a sense of peril, like the whole film could derail at any moment. Following the birthday boy’s grown children, in particular his son Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), who announces during a speech that his father molested both him and his recently deceased twin sister as kids, the film is riveting and kinetic, but what’s most interesting about it now is the contrast between the austerity of its form and the classic craftsmanship of its content. In the end, content “wins” as the film sacrifices a little verisimilitude in the name of neatness, but that does make it an immensely satisfying and strangely cathartic experience.
1. “The Thin Red Line”
There are ardent fans of late-period Terrence Malick as the preeminent cinematic poet-philosopher of our times. But what those spirited defenses tend to gloss over is the value of a dramatic setting or storyline, to give shape and purpose to his more diaphanous tendencies. And that’s why, to many of us, his greatest film is the one that achieves this balance most perfectly: “The Thin Red Line” contains all the hazy intangible wonder and heavenward glances of his later work, yet here it’s all given meaning and a fine, sawtooth edge by being placed in the context of war. Here, the life-or-death realities of soldiering, and the long periods of torpor and stasis in between, are spun into a grand metaphor for life, without ever losing their pointed, painful specificity as commentary on the futility and horror of war. In the pressure-cooker heat of the explosively verdant jungles of Guadalcanal, among taciturn men whose interior lives are battlegrounds as bloody as those they fight on, Malick’s preoccupation with spirituality, innocence, hope and existential despair is thrown into high, thrilling relief. It is less a standard war movie than a desperately beautiful hymn to the broken hope that there is peace to be found, not just between battling nations but in the souls of individual men, lit blue and piercing like Jim Caviezel‘s unfathomable stare.
So arriving at this list was like pulling teeth (again with the exception of the number one spot) — if you really want to test the limits of collegiality within any group of acquaintances, we recommend trying to agree on a list of the 10 best films from any given year. The outside contenders that caused the biggest strops were: Whit Stillman‘s well-loved “The Last Days Of Disco“; Don McKellar‘s terrific and underseen “Last Night“; Terry Gilliam‘s berserker “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas“; Walter Salles‘ acutely touching “Central Station“; Todd Solondz‘s ironically titled “Happiness“; Lisa Cholodenko‘s impressive feature debut “High Art“; and Theo Angelopoulos‘ Palme d’Or winner “Eternity And A Day.”
We also considered Tony Kaye‘s fraught, visceral “American History X“; Lukas Moodysson‘s sweet-and-sour “Show Me Love“; Tom Tykwer‘s cooly kinetic “Run Lola Run“; Hideo Nakata‘s franchise-spawning, genre-defining J-horror “Ringu“; Darren Aronofsky‘s tangly, scratchy debut “Pi“; Sam Raimi‘s underrated low-key thriller “A Simple Plan“; Lars Von Trier‘s iconoclastic, messy Dogme title “The Idiots“; and the acknowledged masterpiece of the Farrelly Brothers‘ oeuvre, “There’s Something About Mary.”
Bristling that the ’98 movie you love isn’t mentioned? That’s what the comments are for. And in the meantime, if you fancy, here are the rest of the ’90s lists, (1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1997) and, what the hell, our 2000s series too: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. And tune back in tomorrow, when we’ll be wrapping up this two-week project with the last year before the Millennium Bug hit and humankind reverted to a feral state — that’s right, we’re finally gonna party like it’s 1999.