Maybe 1998 was payback time for some unpunished youthful sin. The 60-plus features I covered this year included an inordinate number of piffling pictures. I don’t mean ludicrously overblown vanity productions (The Horse Whisperer, The Apostle) or nose-stinging stinkers (Hush, An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn); these are every bit as memorable as masterpieces. I’m referring to movies of such little consequence that it takes a moment or two to recall that one has seen, let alone written about, them: Kissing a Fool, No Looking Back, Sour Grapes, Woo, Dirty Work, Hav Plenty.

I’ve laid down two ground rules for recapping the passing year’s movies:

1) To avoid stepping on my colleagues’ toes, I’ll confine myself to films I reviewed, and 2) I will include only movies that premiered locally during the calendar year. During the past month, distributors and publicists have scheduled a flood of screenings of productions that won’t open here until 1999. The invitations urge reviewers to consider these efforts when compiling their end-of-the-year lists, but I’m not buying into it (even though I’ve already seen The General, Affliction, The Theory of Flight, and Arlington Road). If local critical endorsements are so precious to producers, they can open their films here as well as in New York and Los Angeles. Just because D.C. is politically regarded as a colonial outpost doesn’t mean that movie moguls have the right to treat us like a Third World country.

The year was notable for showcasing a number of first-rate performers in projects unequal to their talents. Think of Julie Christie’s radiance and her cello-tone voice spinning bewitching changes on writer-director Alan Rudolph’s dialogue in the half-poetic, half-inane Afterglow. Dustin Hoffman’s comedic spark, dormant since Tootsie, re-ignited in Barry Levinson’s toothless Wag the Dog, a premise in search of a picture. Robert Benton’s Twilight offered yet another trudge down Raymond Chandler’s mean streets but functioned as an effective vehicle for the seasoned eloquence of Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, and James Garner. In the film noir junior division, quirky Joaquin Phoenix and Vince Vaughn illuminated their corners of the otherwise callous, dimwitted Clay Pigeons. Lisa Kudrow’s withering portrait of a bitter spinster fag hag added a special dimension to The Opposite of Sex, as did Christina Ricci’s razor-tongued nymphet. (A fresh force of nature, Ricci also breathed life into her few scenes in John Waters’ otherwise dead-on-arrival Pecker.) Speaking of nymphets, the Nabokov-monikered Dominique Swain gave the year’s most extraordinary performance in Adrian Lyne’s competent but disappointingly humorless Lolita. In a role filled with seemingly insurmountable hurdles for an adolescent performer, Swain nimbly and magically cleared them all.

Only a handful of last year’s films proved as memorable as these performances. My sole criterion for placing a movie on this year’s best list is whether, having discharged my professional obligations, I plan to watch it again for my own gratification. Here they are, in chronological order:

Lilies Canadian filmmaker John Greyson incorporates devices from Shakespeare, Wilde, Genet, and Peter Weiss in this reflective drama about a Catholic bishop summoned to a prison chapel to hear the confession of a childhood acquaintance with a 40-year-old score to settle. Fluidly cutting from the claustrophobic jail to an idealized autumnal Quebec village, Greyson constructs plays within plays and, abetted by an all-male cast, addresses an array of complex themes (the homoerotic underpinnings of Catholicism; sexual and religious hypocrisy; class, race, and gender conflicts) with sensitivity and wit.

Wilde A sumptuously produced, superbly acted adaptation of Richard Ellmann’s exhaustively researched 1987 Oscar Wilde biography, written by playwright Julian Mitchell and directed by Brian Gilbert. Stephen Fry’s huge head, saucer eyes, plummy voice, and air of amused self-regard are perfectly suited for capturing the Dublin-born aesthete’s creative genius and generous spirit. A lively, empathetic portrait of a gifted nonconformist brought down by the priggishness and envy of a philistine society.

The Hanging Garden Writer-director Thom Fitzgerald, another Canadian, makes a remarkable feature debut with this offbeat comedy-drama about a 25-year-old man returning to visit his dysfunctional Nova Scotian family after a decade’s absence. Fitzgerald blends slice-of-life realism with surrealistic touches, conflates time by showing characters at different stages of their lives within a single frame, and, in a breathtaking sequence, uses time-lapse photography to animate flowers weeping and withering as they witness the protagonist’s adolescent suicide attempt.

Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog In its opening reels, Don McGlynn’s cine-biography of the Promethean bassist-composer (shown at Filmfest D.C.) is deceptively conventional, the usual mix of performance clips and talking heads. But as the film progresses, Mingus’ indomitable spirit fires the filmmaker’s vision, inspiring him to devise fresh formal solutions to the challenge of capturing and conveying the mercurial musician’s artistic innovations and psychological contradictions. One of the handful of great jazz films.

High Art Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko’s feature debut is a muted chamber piece about the emotional and physical relationship of a dissipated art photographer (Ally Sheedy, in a riveting performance that resurrects her stalled career) and a young, unfulfilled magazine staffer (Radha Mitchell.) Despite its rib-nudging title and contrived melodramatic ending, High Art is a smart, genuinely erotic mood piece, with still, narcotic rhythms (half-whispered dialogue, ambient musical score) that cast a mesmeric spell.

The Young Girls of Rochefort The late Jacques Demy spent three years writing and filming this Mozartian 1968 song-and-dance fable about love and art. The restoration of his heady, one-of-a-kind fantasia, filled with star-struck homages to American movie musicals, features a stellar cast (Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Dorléac, Danielle Darrieux, Michel Piccoli, George Chakiris, Gene Kelly), Michel Legrand’s lively jazz-inflected score, and dazzling wide-screen images awash with Easter-basket pastels. Despite the persistent annoyance of Norman Maen’s lame choreography, The Young Girls of Rochefort is a triumph of stylized filmmaking.

The Human Race Robert Houston’s stirring, expertly photographed and edited film, shown at this year’s Reel Affirmations festival, documents the real-life adventure of nine HIV-positive men competing in the Trans Pacific Yacht Race from San Francisco to Hawaii. Aboard a rickety vessel, its hull emblazoned with the names of lovers and friends lost to AIDS, the game but largely inexperienced crew members confront health and morale crises, equipment failure, and Hurricane Dolores. Proof that truth can indeed be more exciting and affecting than fiction.

Pleasantville Writer-producer-director Gary Ross’ directorial debut is the rarest of mainstream movies, a substantial work of art accessible to everyone. In this comic allegory, contemporary teenage twins (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) are transported to, and become trapped in, a ’50s black-and-white television family sitcom. Their colorful presence awakens safe, insular Pleasantville to the realization that life cannot be fully experienced in simplistic monochrome. Intelligent, funny, and touching, Pleasantville’s observations about gender roles, politics, religion, and art are imaginatively expressed in fresh cinematic forms. CP

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