NR. 10: Primary Colors (Mike Nichols). John Travolta's performance (based on Joe Klein's novel loosely based on President Clinton's run for office in 1992) is the heart and soul of this film. He is magnificent as the sweet-talking Southern politician who has a way of connecting emotionally in one-on-one situations. But Travolta's performance would have been wasted if Nichols' direction had not been so sure-handed and creative. I will never forget the beautiful tracking shot from the staff hotel room down to the brightly lit donut stand where Travolta heads when he needs to feed off of a representative of the people. The visual metaphor in this shot was convincing and compelling. Performances by Emma Thompson and Kathy Bates were nothing short of perfect. The screenplay made one significant shift, changing the George Stephanopolous character to a young African American man with a strong political family background. NR. 9: Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg). If I were to rate the first 15 minutes of any film from 1998, I would easily rate Saving Private Ryan as number 1 on my list. His recreation of the D-Day landing (from the point of view of Tom Hanks' character) was not just a tour de force of filmmaking--it was an heartfelt evocation of the horror, anxiety, vulnerability, and grit that make up any soldier's decision to leap into battle and confront his own death. That D-day scene was so good I will never forget it as long as I live. It gave me some idea of what going into battle must be like. But before that awful and glorious scene began, we were confronted with what I consider to be Spielberg's greatest weakness as a director--a well-intended but troubling penchant for gross sentimentality--the old man in the cemetery, the reverent family behind him, the farm woman at her kitchen window--all buttons being pushed. What made the D-day scene so refreshing was that it was a visual and visceral experience. It was FELT by the audience, and we were left benumbed by its intensity. Then, after that brutally honest testament to battle Spielberg returns to a conventional WW II story (from the 1940s or 1950s) with the requisite character-types and stereotypes and our hero emptying the clip of his 45 into the side of a German tank. Sorry, but I had checked out long before the climax.
NR. 8: I recently reviewed The Truman Show, and realized that it was a much better film than I had originally thought upon a first viewing. On the first posting of this list, The Truman Show did not appear in my top 20. On my first viewing I was disappointed with Jim Carrey's acting, and I was not inspired by the climactic action. I did appreciate the way the film began without any reference to the film itself. But on a second viewing I concentrated on Jim Carrey's work and was impressed with how Peter Weir, the director, helped him restrain his typical "wild and crazy" behavior and make his comedic abilities work in the context of drama. I was particularly impressed with the scene when he began "testing" his world and trying to figure out why everything seemed to revolve around his experiences. This time I was moved by the conclusion and particularly enjoyed the editing rhythms of the film. I can see why young viewers were so moved by his portrayal of an "everyman" character who finally figured out the meaning of his life. NR. 7: Babe: Pig in the City (George Miller). Apparently most viewers did not appreciate this film as much as Babe (1995), also directed by George Miller. I was impressed with the completeness of the imaginative city-environment Babe enters. In the background was a collage of world landmarks (Golden Gate Bridge, Sydney Opera House, etc.). Colin Gibson's art direction (he also worked on the original Babe) was a key element of the creative team. But Miller's direction was flawless--the camera angles, lighting, and script were equal to any live-action film. When Babe overcomes the hostility of the pack of dogs that roam the streets, I was overcome with joy. This film is children's literature at its best--imaginative, empathetic to those with hurt feelings, fair-minded, accepting of diversity, and supportive of moral leadership.
NR. 6: The Eel (Shohei Imamura). The director is one of the grand old men of Japanese cinema, and I was delighted to see this film from such a master. It stars Koji Yakusho, the same actor who played the lead in Shall We Dance? The main character murders his wife, who has been cheating on him, early in the film in an unrelentingly brutal scene. After serving his prison term, the man is released and finds his way to a distant community and becomes involved with a young woman after he saves her from committing suicide. The rest of the film is about his emotional and psychological journey toward wholeness. This is a masterful film, stunning in its simplicity and its ability to make us empathize with these characters. NR. 5: My Name is Joe (Ken Loach) is an excellent example of independent cinema. The documentary style of this film is overwhelming and the story rings true. Middle-aged Joe is an alcoholic and his life is desperate. How can a man with a violent past and living in an economically depressed area of Glasgow turn his life around? Not so easy. This film is an homage to the working-class stiff who faces nearly insurmountable odds in a society that values the glib and the predictable. The love story between Joe and the middle-aged woman is believable and unpredictable. Joe works hard to rehabilitate himself, but his need to save everyone eventually leads to his downfall. This film is reminiscent of Loach's earlier Ladybird, Ladybird, another film with working-class roots.
NR 4: The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick) was an interesting comparison to Saving Private Ryan. Malick's version of war, based on the James Jones novel about the taking of Guadalcanal, is much more original because it tells the story through multiple narrators whose interior thoughts guide us through the horrors of their battle experience. If the D-day segment from Saving Private Ryan could have been stitched together with the bulk of A Thin Red Line, now that would have been a movie! Malick gets right the internal musings of the soldier who is thrown into the madness of war. Some viewers complained that they could not tell the difference between narrators; but I don't think that's a problem. There is so much reverence for the psychological and moral condition of the soldier in this screenplay, so much empathy for what these men had to go through! The cinematography, the uninflected shots, the combination of music and then silence and then the human voice--it is an overwhelming experience. NR. 3: Celebration, directed by Thomas Vinterberg, uses extensively handheld cameras, and through this pseudo-documentary style places us right next to the members of an estranged and alienated family in Denmark. At a celebration of the patriarch's birthday, one of his sons toasts him thusly: he announces that the old man systematically abused his sister and himself when they were children. The sister committed suicide a few years ago, and only the brother has survived to tell his tale. Of course, the old man denies it, and the party recesses so that the family can recover from these accusations. In this film style contributed to substance.
I've seen my top two choices, Central Station and Life is Beautiful, twice. The second viewing reinforced my feelings after the first viewings. I can't really say which is the "better" film--both are--in their own ways--the top films of the year. Life is Beautiful depends on the comedic talents of Roberto Benigni, who also wrote and directed the film. NR. 2: Life is Beautiful won the Academy Award for best foreign film. The first half of the film is a delightful comic feast (with subtle overtones of impending political change). The second half of the film focuses on the unbreakable bond between father and son--a father whose will is so strong that he will not let the horrors of the concentration camp come between his son and himself. The Holocaust is respected in this film, particularly in an overwhelming dreamlike scene at the end when the father wanders far from the center of the camp and comes upon a huge stack of dead bodies--a horrifying metaphor of the way human beings come to be viewed as objects.
NR. 1: Central Station is an impressive achievement by director Walter Salles. The director captured my imagination with a simple editing pattern early in the film. An old woman writes letters for illiterate people in the vast Central Station of Rio de Janeiro. As she writes, the scene cuts to a montage of close-ups of person after person, looking directly into the camera (at the woman) as they dictate their letters. The faces are an encyclopedia of poverty, hope, and experience. Of course, the old woman, a retired schoolteacher, has to be linked to a small boy (whose mother is tragically killed in a bus accident). At first the old woman is reluctant to become involved with his story, but eventually she volunteers to take him into the interior of Brazil to find his father, who lives in one of the new settlements. The trip into the interior is a travelogue of sorts, but it functions more so as a revelation of life in a place we can barely imagine. When they reach the new city, with each house (row after row) the same, it seems hopeless that they will find the father. What they find is what the boy needs--but not what we expected when we set out with them. This film takes us to places we have never been, introduces us characters we can empathize with, and offers us a perfect bittersweet resolution of human affairs.
|1||Central Station||Brazil||Walter Salles|
|2||Life is Beautiful||Italy||Roberto Benigni|
|3||Celebration (Festen)||Denmark||Thomas Vinterberg|
|4||The Thin Red Line||USA||Terrence Malick|
|5||My Name is Joe||UK||Ken Loach|
|6||The Eel||Japan||Shohei Imamura|
|7||Babe: Pig in the City||USA||George Miller|
|8||The Truman Show||USA||Peter Weir|
|9||Saving Private Ryan||USA||Steven Spielberg|
|10||Primary Colors||USA||Mike Nichols|
|11||The Dreamlife of Angels||France||Erick Zonca|
|15||Shakespeare in Love||UK||John Madden|
|16||Little Voice||UK||Mark Herman|
|17||Waking Ned Devine||Ireland||Kirk Jones|
|18||Return to Paradise||USA||Joseph Ruben|
|19||Fireworks (Hana-bi)||Japan||Takeshi Kitano|
|20||The Horse Whisperer||USA||Robert Redford|
NR. 11: The Dreamlife of Angels (France, Erick Zonca). Another director to watch. The film is about two women whose friendship is undermined when one of the two is attracted to a man. Zonca is superb as a auteur of realistic cinema. The film is about the circumscribed nature of women's lives and the fragile nature of their bonds of friendship. NR. 12: Rushmore. Wes Anderson is a new director to watch. I loved this comic film that takes place in a boy's school--Rushmore--and focuses on the antics and adventures of a brilliant student who has a terrible academic record but is absolutely devoted to staying in school. Jason Schwartzman's role as Max Fischer represents one of the most intriguing and controlling comic characters since Bud Cort played Harold in Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude. Bill Murray is given a role worthy of his comic ability--ironic, laid back, warmhearted. I was reminded of his work in Groundhog Day. The the ending scene includes one of the most bizarre class plays I have ever seen in cinema.
NR. 13: Besieged (Bernardo Bertolucci) tells the story of a the ambivalent "love affair" between a reclusive pianist (David Thewlis) and his African housekeeper (Thandie Newton). Bertolucci used an unusual jump-cutting style throughout the film. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. But I appreciated the risk he took in using this approach. The film often was reminiscent of a silent film (without subtitles). Several minutes would pass in scenes where the two main characters said little but reacted to each other's presence. I could see them struggling to define their feelings towards each other. By the end of the film, I completely understood the motivations of these characters. NR. 14: Happiness. Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) announced another new director to watch. That film was about the horrors of junior high. Happiness is a difficult film to summarize; it portrays a number of lonely, alienated people who yield to a variety of obsessions. The most difficult scenes involve the portrayal of an ideal suburban professional father's pedophilia. The characters seem to be trapped in a 1950s "June! I'm home!" time warp. Their lives are divided between surface and subconscious.
NR.15: Shakespeare in Love (UK, John Madden). The star of this film was the clever script by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. I was unimpressed with the acting by Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes, and I thought their love affair was more lustful than romantic. But the film was fast-moving, comic, inventive and entertaining--but it offered few serious insights into character or interpersonal conflicts.NR. 16: Little Voice (Mark Herman). Jane Horrocks is a reclusive young woman, Little Voice, who spends her days listening to records of popular singers from the 1940s. Almost every character in this comic gem is either loathsome or pathetic, including Little Voice's mother (Brenda Blethyn), her mother's boyfriend (Michael Caine), and a nightclub owner (Jim Broadbent). The actors who play these seedy types are a-level actors in all respects, and they chew the scenery appropriately. This is an hilarious film, and at the core of the comedy is the fragile beauty of Jane Horrocks' voice. When she lights up the night club in the climactic scene, her voice booming out Judy Garland's sound, she takes your breath away.
NR. 17: Waking Ned Devine (Ireland, Kirk Jones). This gem of a film is a comedy about a village's response to the hope of sudden riches. Ned Devine, a member of the village, has the winning lottery ticket. But Ned Devine is dead, and one of the villagers hatches a plot to share his riches with everyone else. The title is a lively metaphor; keeping Ned Devine alive--for the sake of the plot--is one meaning. Celebrating the life of the dead man is the other meaning. NR. 18: Return to Paradise (Joseph Ruben). Character is the key to good imaginative cinema, and in this case the key characters are Vince Vaughan's reclusive hero lived out his values; and Ann Heche's performance as an imprisoned man's sister, doing anything to liberate him, was an interesting complement to Vaughan's character. The film is about spoiled American yuppies who experience a fast-paced and wild vacation in Malaysia. When one of the young men is arrested for possession of marijuana and sentenced to life in prison, the plot is sprung. The key to the resolution of this film's conflicts lies in the characters' identities and values. I was reminded of other multicultural epics like The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) and The Killing Fields (1983).
NR. 19: Fireworks (Japan, Takeshi Kitano). This director is someone who understands what a camera is supposed to do. A camera is a recording device; it does not always need to be tracking relentlessly. Shots should linger sometimes so that the emotions can be revealed through the shot. The cinematic frame captures the characters and draws our attention to their faces and gestures. Kitano's hero is a cynical man, a detective whose partner has been disabled after being shot. At the same time his wife is dying from cancer, and it is apparent that he feels estranged psychologically and emotionally from her. He is a man of few words, tougher than nails, and overwhelmed by the mix of emotions stirring him. Kitano writes, directs, and stars in the film. NR. 20: The Horse Whisperer. Sometimes it is difficult to talk about directors like Robert Redford or Clint Eastwood, who have become American icons because of their stature as actors. I admit that Redford sometimes tries too hard to make the film an epic; still, I was moved by the beautiful cinematography, the way the director showed us the experience from the point of view of the animal, the bittersweet romance of middle-aged people who are thrown together in highly-charged emotional contexts, the perfect pitch of the secondary characters. Then there is Robert Redford's leathery face--that's enough for some of us.
Beyond the twenty films on the list above there were many more that moved me, stimulated me, impressed me, or challenged me intellectually. Among these were Ronin (John Frankenheimer), a film with Robert DeNiro as a cagey CIA agent who leads a band of high-tech hitmen on a secret mission. The car chases alone (the best since Bullit) make the film worth watching. Other interesting titles include The Thief (Russia, Pavel Chukhraj), a heartbreaking story of a little boy's search for a father, Character (a fascinating Dutch film about a father-son conflict), Un Air de Famille (a French film about a dysfunctional family), and Affliction (Paul Schrader), another film about a father-son confrontation. That film was based on a Russell Banks' novel. A Simple Plan (Sam Raimi) focuses on the relationship between two brothers. These two films dealt with themes of violence in compelling ways. Neil Jordan's The Butcher Boy was another film that treats violence as arising from within the character's identity and psychological state. Smoke Signals, written and directed by American Indians (Chris Eyre, Sherman Alexie) was a moving testament to father-son conflicts.
Some may be surprised that Pleasantville does not make my top-20 list. When I viewed this film, I was disappointed with the one-dimensionality of the characterizations. The shift to the "coloreds" vs. the "black and whites" seemed a lame attempt to inject the social consciousness of the evils of racism. After the film made its point--people who are put in touch with their passions turn to color--but then the script faltered and became conventional. I was impressed with two family dramas, One True Thing and A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries--and inspired again by the acting of Meryl Streep and William Hurt. Renee Zellweger (The Price Above Rubies) again showed that her work in Jerry Maguire was no fluke. I look forward to following her work in the coming years. Another female actor, Christina Ricci, showed her growth as an actor in The Opposite of Sex. Among other highly recommended films, I would add include the compelling independent films Buffalo 66, Dark City, Hilary and Jackie, Clockwatchers, Men with Guns, Nil by Mouth, and Wild Man Blues, a documentary about Woody Allen (by Barbara Kopple). Other international films worth recommending include Capitaine Conan, Gods and Monsters, Regeneration, Run Lola Run, and Wilde. Other recommended American films include Living Out Loud, Mulan, Out of Sight, and The Spanish Prisoner--another treat from David Mamet.
Last Updated: January 29, 2002
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