The Ten Best Movies of 1998
Feature by Eddie Cockrell, Posted 1 January 1999

Maybe that headline should be changed to read ten favorite movies: in a year where the return of the cool tough guy ran a distant second to lowest common denominator comedy in the hearts, minds and wallets of most American moviegoers, this list opts for the likes of Ronin and Out of Sight over There's Something About Mary and The Waterboy (not that the latter pair -- huge box office champs -- made a lot of ten best lists, but the former aren't on many either). Even Saving Private Ryan and The General fit the concept of cool, although the former features a reluctant and ultimately tragic protagonist and the latter profiles the odd life and loves of a bonafide non-conformist. On so on, down the list: The Opposite of Sex features not one, but two, cool tough gals (both Oscar-worthy), while the sublime Brazilian import Central Station swaps cool for dignified but retains the toughness of character in its intrepid senior citizen (and should leap the language barrier to garner major Oscar nods). In The Mighty, A Simple Plan and The Spanish Prisoner, characters work vigorously to get in touch with their elusive coolness, with results that vary wildly. Shakespeare in Love presents the smitten playwright as the king of panicked cool, composing one of his most beloved plays on the fly while caught up in a vortex of royal and theatrical intrigue. Finally, in the restored and slightly re-edited Touch of Evil -- this year's bonus choice -- Orson Welles is reborn as dissolute bordertown cop Hank Quinlan, an operatically doomed character of flawed toughness in a movie that is the slovenly epitome of 1950s cool (and runs circles around most of the other 1998 releases).

The Ten Best Movies of 1998:

1) Saving Private Ryan

Although the midsection of this emotionally devastating summer triumph (second only to Armageddon in the year's box office tally) sags alarmingly, Steven Spielberg's unabashedly patriotic ode to the men who stormed Omaha Beach and the unwavering sense of duty that carried them through that horror would not -- could not -- be the same without the even-keeled, everyman performance of his friend Tom Hanks, who seems to be able to form a fast friendship with even the most cynical moviegoer.

2) The Opposite of Sex

The year's funniest movie is a triumph of intuitive acting and spectacularly witty writing, as first-time director Don Roos muscled his screenplay into life with the collaboration of a uniformly fine cast in top ensemble form. Christina Ricci and Lisa Kudrow are both Oscar-bound as headstrong women who lock horns over the pertinent issues of the day, as the former schemes her way through shocked family and friends to the constant and imaginative disapproval of the latter. With a refreshingly self-deprecating commentary by Roos, the newly-released DVD is a must-have for fans with an interest in how movies are put, or sometimes fall, together.

3) A Simple Plan

This complex and satisfying morality plays continues Billy Bob Thornton's dark exploration of the rural psyche, proclaims Bill Paxton a leading man of vulnerable charisma and marks an exhilarating shift of focus for director Sam Raimi, who brings to novelist Scott Smith's shrewd and brave adaptation of his book an icy authority far removed from his pulpy genre roots in execution, if not spirit. Ultimately, A Simple Plan is a movie about the dangers of financial pressure and the lure of easy money -- a subject that resonates with profound moral implications in today's world.

4) Ronin

Veteran director John Frankenheimer's action thriller came from nowhere to do for chase movies what Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown did for lowlife caper films. Sadly, Frankenheimer's movie, anchored by one of Robert De Niro's best performances ever, seems to be as profoundly misunderstood and underappreciated as Tarantino's was in late 1997, although both should have long, happy lives on tape and DVD -- where they can be cherished by those who like their genre exercises neat.

5) Central Station

Like Kolya in 1997, Central Station exhibits a filmmaker in supreme control of the medium telling a universally affecting story, as director Walter Salles takes a young boy, an old woman and the audience to the heart of Brazil in a tale of poverty, deceit and an ultimate redemption that is both graceful and cleansing.

6) The Spanish Prisoner

A malicious masterwork from the sword, uh, pen, of playwright/screenwriter/director David Mamet, this pleasing puzzle of a movie about corporate skullduggery features the dramatic high water mark of Steve Martin as a shadowy player who may or may not be loaded, superbly calibrated work from Campbell Scott as the fragile creator of a much sought-after formula for business success and Rebecca Pidgeon -- Mrs. Mamet -- as what Mamet himself might call "the dame."

7) The General

John Boorman is one of the great living filmmakers, and this impressionistic, often impish biography of Irish criminal and all-around rogue Martin Cahill -- filmed in bracing widescreen black and white and set to the music of saxaphonist Richie Buckley and singer Van Morrison -- is his freshest, most accessible work in years.

8) The Mighty

From Peter Chelsom, director of Hear My Song and Funny Bones, comes a first American film, adapted by Rodman Philbrick from his young adult novel, with the same affection for the disaffected shown in his previous work. The medium-sized cast is good down the line (a Chelsom hallmark), but the movie is really about the unlikely friendship of Kieran Culkin's Kevin (as a whiz-kid suffering from Morquio's Syndrome) and learning disabled hulk Max (Elden Henson), who team up when Kevin logically points out "you need a brain, I need legs." Later, someone says the boy has a "heart too big for his body," and that is a mighty good description of this movie as a whole.

 9) Out of Sight

From the producers of Get Shorty, a textbook example of how to do Elmore Leonard right. From the faded honor of George Clooney to the exquisitely calibrated direction of Steven Soderbergh, every note rings true -- and cool. And the nearly fatal attraction between Clooney and Jennifer Lopez was the high point of heat in a 1998 film.

10) Shakespeare in Love

The year's most literary movie. The sly and intricate script by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard posits a bard so smitten with a soon-to-be-married noblewoman and harried by the pressures of the theatrical world that one of his most popular plays is created literally on the run, as episodes from his own passionate affair and the demands of the creditor are pressed into service as part of the drama (which he'd sold as a lowbrow comedy improbably christened "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter"; "nice title," says a clearly unimpressed Christopher Marlowe). As the object of his affection, Gwyneth Paltrow is luminous, combining her second English accent of the year (as in Sliding Doors, she sounds a bit like "Avengers"-era Diana Rigg) with an unbridled yet serene passion.

11) Touch of Evil

Orson Welles' late-career potboiler is a masterpiece of self-referential noir, a gothic stew of murder, lust and corruption that was restored and slightly re-edited into a more Wellesian form by a team including Oscar-winning sound editor Walter Murch and Welles scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum. On tape or DVD (a March 1999 release has been discussed), this bonus selection is destined to be a keeper in any collection.

Honorable mention:

Gods and Monsters, Waking Ned Devine, Funny Games, Love and Death on Long Island, BASEketball, Unmade Beds, The Inheritors, Fireworks, The Celebration, Psycho (yes, the remake), Inside/Out, Frogs for Snakes

The Ten Worst Movies of 1998:

1) Antz

Forced, unfunny and often genuinely creepy, this animated oddity is a real ordeal. And the gambit of animating insects to look like the actors who voice them

2) The Big Hit

The downside of cool, when a concept just doesn't work and isn't helped by petulant, pushy acting. Mark Wahlberg's follow-up to Boogie Nights confirms that Paul Thomas Anderson's porno epic may have been it for the former underwear model, credibility-wise.

3) The Big One

Michael Moore isn't funny, period.

4) The Cruise

The praise for this manipulative and exploitative "documentary" was both incessant and mysterious, elevating a motormouthed New York City tourguide with apparently profound emotional problems to cult status. That'll help him deal with his demons.

5) First Love, Last Rites

The downside of the new American independent movement, a slow and obtuse meditation on young love in the bayou redeemed only by a novel soundtrack from Shudder to Think.

6) Godzilla

The downside of summer blockbusters, an effects-heavy chunk of inertia redeemed only by that genuinely scary sequence in Madison Square Garden.

7) I Still Know What You Did Last Summer

This movie will serve nicely as poster child for all those exasperating and wretched teen horror films; to their credit, they pay for themselves and exit quickly, leaving only a few interesting cover versions of classic rock songs in their wake.

8) Lost in Space

Even worse than The Avengers, this oddly-cast (Gary Oldman? William Hurt?) and perfunctory cavalcade of special effects does feature a fine, square-jawed performance by friend Matt LeBlanc but will forever be known as the film that knocked Titanic out of first place at the box office -- and sank even quicker than the boat it displaced.

9) Suicide Kings

Any movie that duct-tapes Christopher Walken to a chair deserves what it gets, which in this case was nothing. Denis Leary is a scream in one of those small supporting roles that you wish the filmmakers had built the movie around.

10) Your Friends and Neighbors

Alongside Happiness and The Last Days of Disco in the sad genre of movies making fun of disaffected and grotesquely flawed young people, individually and collectively these movies registers more as disappointments, as dyspeptic young hyphenate filmmakers vent their spleens against societies that they find self-indulgent and suffocating -- in works that are self-indulgent and suffocating.

The Ten Best Movies of 1998 that Weren't Distributed in the United States:

Yet; watch for them on film or tape in 1999

Be sure to read the Online Film Critics Society's 1998 Awards.  Copyright 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.