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Bad things came in twos to America’s moviehouses this year: two disaster movies about the imminent destruction of Earth by a space projectile (Deep Impact, Armageddon), two cartoon features in which animated ants discover individualism (Antz, A Bug’s Life), two music-driven flashbacks that failed to spark a disco revival (The Last Days of Disco, 54), two inexplicable Adam Sandler hits (The Wedding Singer, The Waterboy), two pseudo-Victorian pseudodramas about governesses who defy the social order only to end up well-rewarded for their uppityness (The Governess, Firelight). But there was one duo most filmgoers probably didn’t anticipate when the year dawned: two bleak comedies in which characters glowingly extol anal rape.
Films like Your Friends and Neighbors and Happiness, apparently, are what it takes to get a rise out of sophisticates these days: They depict (homo)sexuality candidly just so they can deplore it with the same puritanism that has characterized American culture ever since the arrival of the Mayflower. (I wasn’t the first to note the similarity between these two flicks and the year’s most publicized work of popular pornography, the Starr Report.) Compared with these two phony satires, the bombastic, dishonest American History X was almost welcome, if just for the scene in which it was demonstrated that anal rape is not something everyone enjoys.
The two meteor flicks were among Hollywood’s highest-grossing products this year, but that doesn’t mean that moviegoers fell for everything with a multi-million-dollar ad campaign. The Spice Girls couldn’t sell Spice World, Leonardo DiCaprio couldn’t sell The Man in the Iron Mask, John Travolta couldn’t sell Primary Colors, Brad Pitt couldn’t sell Meet Joe Black, basketball couldn’t sell He Got Game, sex couldn’t sell Lolita, Godzilla couldn’t sell Godzilla, and Sandra Bullock couldn’t sell anything. Judging from There’s Something About Mary, though, perhaps it’s best not to contemplate what did move tickets this year.
As crass as Hollywood merchandising has gotten, some studio filmmakers are sufficiently well-established that they got away with being earnest or arty. Steven Spielberg commemorated the Good War with Oliver Stone-style camera tactics in Saving Private Ryan and actually made a lot of money in the process. (This movie is also one of a twofer, since it’s about to be joined by Terrence Malick’s World War II epic, The Thin Red Line.) It remains to be seen if Dreamworks’ equally solemn Biblical epic, The Prince of Egypt, will draw crowds.
Several big-time Hollywood directors made Euro-style visual rhapsodies, but the only one that connected with audiences was Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer, which combined its slo-mo images with a conventional weepie plot. Jonathan Demme’s Beloved flopped, perhaps because of its arcane art-thriller style, but maybe just because of its traumatic subject matter. Martin Scorsese’s sumptuous Kundun also turned on a people’s tragedy, but it probably turned people off because it was mostly a lapsed Catholic’s celebration of intricate Tibetan ritual and ornamentation.
Commercially, the romance-plus film dominated, not only in the form of ongoing 1997 success Titanic, a romance-plus-disaster movie whose formula was adopted by Armageddon, but also as There’s Something About Mary, the romance-plus-gross-out hit whose success augurs a noxious trend. It was Amerindie film’s fallow year, however, that really disappointed. With Woody Allen overwhelming Quentin Tarantino as the most influential American maverick directorwhich is not to say that Tarantino wannabes like The Big Hit, Clay Pigeons, and Very Bad Things were not drearysour sanctimony replaced curdled blood as Amerindie cinema’s beverage of choice. This had a numerical result: Last year, I put four U.S. films on my top 10; this year, there are none.
As in previous years, this list is selected from films that made their Washington commercial debuts in 1998 and ran for at least a week. It doesn’t include “1998” films that won’t actually open in Washington until next year (among them such highly touted releases as Affliction, Central Station, A Civil Action, Hilary and Jackie, Rushmore, and The Thin Red Line). In a small gesture against the crypto-precision of determining the 10 best of anything, the list is alphabetical.
The Celebration Nervy camera pyrotechnics keep pace with stunning family revelations in Danish director Thomas Vinterberg’s guerrilla-cinema coup.
Chinese Box Wayne Wang’s sensual, street-level ode to Hong Kong, his lost hometown, is simultaneously frantic and elegiac, heavily plotted and winningly improvisational.
Dancing at Lughnasa A series of quiet epiphanies and Chekhovian moments illuminate Pat O’Connor’s tale of an Irish family’s dissolution.
The Eel Japanese new-wave master Shohei Imamura, also the subject of a fine National Gallery/Freer retrospective this year, shifts from violent to meditative to farcical in this rich tale of a paroled murderer and his pet eel.
Fireworks (Hana-Bi) In the first of his austerely stylish gangster movies to receive American distribution, Takeshi Kitano offers a characteristically Japanese mixture of brutality, slapstick, sentimentality, and contemplation.
The Inheritors That it’s set in the 20th century is just one of the many surprises of Stefan Ruzowitzky’s almost-silent semicomedy about peasants who inadvertently threaten the Austrian social order.
Lisbon Story A welcome return to Wim Wenders’ early style, this is an offhand yet ultimately exuberant celebration of cities and cinema (and music).
Nil By Mouth Gary Oldman’s directorial debut is an unflinching depiction of an alcoholic bully that would be horrific even if Oldman hadn’t admitted that it’s partially a self-portrait.
Post Coitum Actress-director Brigitte Roü#an contemplates amok middle-aged passion in a film in which her character’s romantic distress is balanced by her chronicler’s narrative playfulness.
A Taste of Cherry A potential suicide seeks someone to bury him in Abbas Kiarostami’s rigorous yet wry meditation on alienation in one of the world’s most regimented societies.
It would be just as easy, if not easier, to assemble a top 10 from the films that premiered this year at the National Gallery, the (sadly diminished) American Film Institute, the Hirshhorn, the Freer, and the various local film festivals, including Filmfest DC, Reel Affirmations, the European Union Showcase, and the Jewish Film Festival. Such a list would include several films that have played commercially in other cities, but failed to find a venue in severely underserved Washington: Wong Kar-Wai’s hyperstylish Fallen Angels, Jafar Panahi’s Brechtian The Mirror, Yoichi Higashi’s evocative Village of Dreams, Jacques Audiard’s devastating A Self-Made Hero, and Werner Herzog’s intense Little Dieter Needs to Fly.
That would still leave another 10 that have yet to surface commercially at all: Nanni Moretti’s poignantly comic Aprile, Jeremy Thomas’ darkly mythic All the Little Animals, Andreas Gruber’s existential The Debt of Love, Ringo Lam’s kinetic Full Alert, Mani Ratnam’s delirious The Duo, Vladimir Levin’s wrenching My Love Mary Pickford, Edward Yang’s multilayered Mahjong, Olivier Assayas’ harrowing Cold Water, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s humorous yet devastating A Moment of Innocence, and Paul Wagner’s powerfully outraged Windhorse.
The movies I found compelling but deeply flawed were Afterglow, The Boxer, Life Is Beautiful, Love Is the Devil, Men With Guns, A Price Above Rubies, and Velvet Goldmine. The ones I found well-made but ultimately underwhelming were The Apostle, Capitaine Conan, Character, The Emperor’s Shadow, Gadjo Dilo, Gods and Monsters, The Hanging Garden, High Art, The Impostors, Love and Death on Long Island, Marius and Jeanette, Slums of Beverly Hills, Smoke Signals, A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, and The Thief. The films I watched happily for their visual appeal (and little else) were Belly, Blade, Dark City, Kundun, and The Replacement Killers.
Happiness and Your Friends and Neighbors were just two in an unusually large bloc of critically overrated films this year. The others include Buffalo ’66, The Butcher Boy, Henry Fool, Mrs. Dalloway, Pleasantville, The Spanish Prisoner, The Truman Show, and Welcome to Sarajevo, all of which either insulted, bemused, or bored me.
The year’s most painfully incompetent major release was Lost in Space, although I’ll Be Home for Christmas was almost as squirm-inducing. The most repulsive 1998 release, however, was You’ve Got Mail, the latest valentine to the status quo from ex-feminist Nora Ephron. In this film, a woman who owns a small business must not merely accept having her livelihood destroyed by a corporate behemoth but must also fall in love with the corporate villain who crushed her dreams. This could be a metaphor for Ephron’s own evolution into a calculating Hollywood hack, but perhaps it’s really an S&M allegory. CP