"Shakespeare in Love"
Standouts hard to come by in best and worst of '98 film
In a movie year as lean as 1998, a 10 best list seems almost insincere, while limiting myself to only 10 in the worst category feels like wearing a straight jacket.
Largely dominated by plotless wonders ("Armageddon"), sleeper hits ("There's Something About Mary," "Next Stop, Wonderland") and high profile flops ("Babe 2," "Beloved," "Bulworth") -- and or course, "Titanic" -- summing up the year in film is a nebulous process at best.
While the list that follows consists of great and memorable movies, only the first four films here left me floored and flushed with admiration for the filmmakers. The rest are dazzling pictures that I will definitely add to my video collection as soon as they're available, but they just didn't knock me out of my seat, which is what I expect from a movie that winds up on my list of best movies for the year.
So let me break it down as follows...
The four that floored me:
1) "Buffalo '66," a seedy, apparently autobiographical slice-of-life dramedy about a born-to-lose parolee (writer-director Vincent Gallo) desperately grasping for any semblance of stability in his life. An embittered but somehow endearing creep visiting his horribly dysfunctional folks for the first time in five years, he kidnaps innocently voluptuous Christina Ricci to pose as his wife in a pathetic attempt to prove he's beaten the odds of his upbringing. The characters are often repugnant and sometimes ridiculed, but Gallo lays bare their souls and they become sympathetic in naked, honest and awkward moments that ring uncomfortably true. Visually pioneering, emotionally revealing and just bloody brilliant.
2) A "what if" romantic comedy about a dashing young William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) discovering that Gwyneth Paltrow is a great cure for writer's block, "Shakespeare in Love" is a sharp, classy, beguiling, endlessly entertaining satire that borrows knowingly from the Bard as it follows his fictional struggle to write a comedy called "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter."
Co-written by Tom Stoppard ("Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead") the story finds the playwright and this girl love-struck, but ultimately doomed (she's about to be married and he is already), inspiring "Romeo and Ethel" to become something all together different, and leading to a rash of re-writes, confused actors, dubious producers and one red-faced fiancee. Oscar-baiting, pedigree cast (Geoffrey Rush, Judi Dench, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck) is clearly having a ball in this astute but accessible stroke of mock-Shakespearean genius.
3) Festival circuit sensation "Pi" follows a genius mathematician who grows more delusional as he verges on solving a formula that he's sure will make sense of universal chaos. Inspired, highly symbolic storytelling makes infinitely complex concepts lucid and fascinating without dumbing them down, then adds a level of intrigue by introducing shadowy Wall Street industrial spies and Jewish fundamentalists who try to exploit the hero's ability to manipulate the science of math. A Kafka-esque, cerebral, minimalist thriller all the more amazing for being made on the cheap for $60,000. This is a movie nothing but math, and yet it's so mesmerizing it welds you to your seat, eyes locked on the screen.
4) "Ever After." I was highly dubious when I went to see this brilliantly inventive updating of "Cinderella," starring Drew Barrymore, of all people. But I was won over by the marvelous twists and ingenious alterations that bring the story in line with more modern thinking about sex roles while staying perfectly loyal to the spirit of the story.
A cagey and lightly comedic story with (another) "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern"-like perspective, it fleshes out shallow characters like the prince and the wicked stepmother (played deliciously by Angelica Huston) and enlivens the dewy heroine (here named Danielle) with smarts, independence and a charmingly pointed persona. You probably won't find this picture on anyone else's top 10, but this one is here because it's more fun than any other movie this year.
The rest of the best:
"The Governess." A Victorian melodrama with depth, sexuality and moral complexity that Jane Austen would never have been so gauche as to write about, this intellectual and emotional film stars Minnie Driver as a young Jewess who poses as a gentile to find work as a governess in 19th Century England.
Driver's multi-faceted character is a brilliant and impassioned girl with an ironic sense of humor rare to women in period pictures, but she becomes deeply conflicted after embroiling herself in a torrid, doomed affair with her employer that begins over their mutual enthusiasm for the dawning art and science of photography. Picturesque and engrossing, in large part due to magnificent performances from Driver and Tom Wilkinson, as her lover.
"Velvet Goldmine." Marrying the narrative structure of what is arguably film's greatest achievement with the life of rock'n'roll's most consummate showman, "Velvet Goldmine" is an ingenious, glam rock version of "Citizen Kane," with the fictionalized spotlight turned on David Bowie instead of William Randolph Hearst.
Writer-director Todd Haynes created a remarkable, fabricated history of a moment in rock music that looks, feels and tastes like the real thing. A potential cult favorite, it's packed with great music, inventive storytelling, multiple metaphors, and manifold performances from Jonathan Rys Meyers as the fey, pouty Bowie-as-Ziggy Stardust character and Ewan McGregor in the Iggy Pop role.
"The Truman Show." Jim Carrey, in a astute and subtle breakthrough performance, stars as Truman Burbank, the world's biggest television star who is entirely unaware his entire life is a fiction in this disturbing and darkly funny cautionary tale that questions society's lust for "reality" programs. An upstanding, innocent rube who lives in an artificial sound stage world created just for him, Truman is manipulated by an unseen director for the sake of a live soap opera broadcast 24/7 until he begins to realize something is amiss, and challenges his reality, putting his life in danger. A daring, wholly original film that is unique in American cinema.
"Two Girls & A Guy." The best performance of Robert Downey, Jr.'s career highlights this emotionally and sexually charged roundelay about a two-timing actor confronted by his two girlfriends, who arrive at his apartment at the same time to surprise him. Driven entirely by conversation, which was largely improvised by Downey, Heather Graham and Natasha Gregson Wagner, this movie is so remarkably honest that it feels like you're watching the events unfold live. Writer-director James Toback must have been positively giddy watching this film evolve before his camera.
"Marie Baie Des Anges." A mesmerizing teenage beauty, percolating with ripe, unexplored sexuality, experiments with her recently-discovered power over men until she finds herself intoxicated with infatuation for an dangerous young hooligan and runs away with him, tempting tragedy. French writer-director Manuel Pradal spins a haunting, vital fable that captures the imprudent nature of adolescence with feelings and images that are much more important that words. 16-year-old star Vahina Giocante gives a sublime performance that is at once coy, seductive and vulnerable.
"The Opposite of Sex." A darkly comic romp through the tangled, hapless life of a manipulative teenage tramp. played by the enormously talented and adolescently sexy Christina Ricci, who also helped make "Buffalo '66" my #1 film of the year. Ricci plays a 16-year-old runaway, taken in by her gay half-brother, who gleefully seduces his lover, runs off with his savings and generally wreaks havoc on the lives of everyone she comes in contact with. Devilishly clever writer-director Don Roos infuses the story with honest and layered emotional drama but mocks the serious developments by tinting everything with Ricci's constantly tart, sarcastic narration.
And in a category by itself is the newly restored "Touch of Evil." Arguably the best B-grade movie ever made, this deliberately bawdy tale of the drug trade and police corruption in a seedy border town was re-released in 1998 better than ever now that it's been re-edited to conform with director Orson Welles' original notes.
A film noir pressure-cooker, overflowing with tension, fear and deception, it stars Charleton Heston as a Mexican narc who gets underfoot in an American homicide probe, becoming obsessed with exposing the crooked local police chief (Welles himself, at his most menacing and repulsive). Forceful, gritty, unnerving, powerfully cinematic and all the more brilliant for being unadulterated.
"Character," "Little Voice," "Down in the Delta," "Slam," "Saving Private Ryan," "There's Something About Mary."
The worst films of 1998 were lead by the $90 million disaster "Babe: Pig in the City," the most appallingly inappropriate "children's" movie I can ever remember seeing. Not remotely in the spirit of the cheerful 1995 sleeper hit about a an adorable sheep-herding swine, this sequel finds the talking pig venturing to the big city where he is constantly faced with over-the-top terror and death. Closely resembling a surrealistic horror movie, this joyless, black travesty is simply reprehensible for being aimed at families.
Then there was "Armageddon," the tedious, tiresome, action movie equivalent of a porno flick: 145 minutes of back-to-back vignettes that each begin with inane, arbitrary dialogue, move on to an effects-laden adrenaline sequence (the bump and grind) and ending in a very large explosion (the "money shot").
The second movie of the summer involving space debris on a collision course with Earth, "Armageddon" doesn't bother with developing characters or tapping into their feelings about their impending doom like "Deep Impact" did. This movie is just a bunch of monosyllabic grunts who go into space and blow stuff up.
Other big-budget losers:
"Lost in Space." Written by Akiva Goldsman -- the contemptible pen behind "Batman and Robin", last year's worst movie -- this obtuse, prefabricated video game masquerading as a feature film is every bit as cheesy and contrived as its TV inspiration, but the movie takes itself seriously. $100 million worth of special effects can't hide the fact that there's no real plot -- just the space-faring Robinson clan stumbling through coincidental run-ins with derelict space craft and convenient "time-bubbles" while they face generic dysfunctional family issues and play with their poorly-animated space monkey, a blatant toy tie-in designed by Jim Henson's Creature Shop.
"The Avengers." A series of unintelligible, cartoon-quality capture-and-escape sequences in which a very cardboard John Steed (Ralph Fiennes) and Emma Peel (Uma Thurman) return from '60s television to battle giant robotic attack bugs and meet invisible men. This disaster doesn't even have a plot until the last 20 minutes when a nefarious Scottish lord played by a scenery-chewing Sean Connery holds the world ransom with a weather machine (an idea that betrays a certain contagious idiocy at the screenplay level). Handsome production design and costumes, but so busy being slick, stylish and surreal it doesn't even try to make sense.
"Holy Man." I walked out on this new Eddie Murphy movie, in which he plays a vaguely spiritual apostle who becomes the product-hocking hit of a TV shopping network. To even call it an Eddie Muprhy movie is misleading. He is so understated here in his attempt to portray a sense of oddball enlightenment that he forgoes personality all together, and without his usual spark the movie lurches along via the most meager of sit-com coincidences and misunderstandings. Co-starring Jeff Goldblum and Kelly Preston (who do little more than read their lines) as a pair of desperate producers for the failing retail cable channel, "Holy Man" is lifeless to the point of inducing narcolepsy.
"Practical Magic." Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock play sibling sorceresses unlucky in love in this inconsistent, contradictory story that assumes the audience much too dim to catch yawning chasms in the plot. Example: Reluctant sorceress Bullock often stirs her coffee by telekinesis, but when her sister's serial killer boyfriend is holding a gun to her head, neither of them has the presence of mind to use their powers against him. If "Practical Magic" were going for a check-your-brain-at-the-door feel, these scores of idiocies could be overlooked, but when a story this tedious and transparent takes itself seriously there's nothing to do but leave and sneak into something better at the multiplex.
And a few small budget bombs that met the fate they deserved, lasting only about a week in theaters:
"Sour Grapes." Written and directed by Larry David, the creator of "Seinfeld," the only explanation for a movie this bad is that Castle Rock, the distributor of both the movie and "Seinfeld," felt obliged to David for the hit show. Over-acted, under-produced and entirely insufferable bomb about two cousins fighting over a slot machine jackpot is nothing but wild gestures, bug-eyed double takes, arguments and rim shots.
"Phantoms." Alleged thriller in which two lipstick-doll sisters, a sheriff and a tabloid reporter are the only survivors in a Colorado mountain town being haunted by a morphing, sociopathic, subterranean oil slick with delusions of grandeur. (It thinks it's Satan. No kidding.)
"Broadway Damage." Two (unintentionally) bad gay actors and their Long Island gal pal just out of NYU look for jobs, love and apartments in The Village after college. An amateurish, under-rehearsed, low budget calamity with a no-name cast who did little more than memorized their lines. Dogged by the callow, shallow flavor of a student film by a aspiring auteur who is about to get an F.
"Wrongfully Accused." What passes for plot in this sorry spoof is a take-off of "The Fugitive," with a concert violinist (Leslie Nielsen) framed and convicted of murder, who escapes from a prison bus wreck (the bus slips on a banana peel in the road) and tries to find the real killer -- a one-armed, one-legged, one-eyed man. A weak mockery that is such a mess it only occasionally visits anything resembling storyline and instead busies itself with a parade of flat, unconnected slapstick bits almost completely devoid of comedy. Apes "The Usual Suspects," "Baywatch" and "Mission: Impossible" for a few laughs, but otherwise is dead on arrival.
"The Rugrats Movie," "The Man in the Iron Mask," "Blade," "Simon Birch," "Let's Talk About Sex."