Especially for comedies, 1998 was a year of first-rate flicks
It was a good year at the movies! High quality showed up in films of many different kinds, from Hollywood haymakers to independent projects and international imports. No one category held a monopoly on first-rate filmmaking although comedy came close, scoring a surprising number of hits in a year that didn't seem conspicuously funny off the screen.Skip to next paragraph
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The movies named here were chosen not because they're all masterpieces, but because in various ways they provoked thought, stimulated reflection, or provided fresh perspectives on noteworthy issues. Not all are appropriate for
all audiences, so these selections aren't meant as blanket endorsements. Choose carefully when deciding whether to catch up with the ones you haven't seen. The 10, in alphabetical order:
HE GOT GAME, directed by Spike Lee. Lee often bites off more sociological subject matter than he can cinematically chew, and he may never equal the brilliant "Do the Right Thing," still his masterpiece. Yet this sweeping melodrama whisks you off your feet with the sheer magnitude of its ambition, turning the family-centered story of a young basketball player and his father into a parable about the African-American dream and the countless obstacles that loom before it.
Denzel Washington heads a solid cast wrestling with a sometimes unmanageable screenplay, but Lee is the real star as he fills the screen with stimulating ideas and invigorating style. The movie is sometimes flat, often flawed, occasionally infuriating. It's as deeply felt as any picture in sight, though, waving a banner for the ongoing health of minority filmmaking in a culture that remains only grudgingly receptive.
HENRY FOOL, directed by Hal Hartley. One of the year's most challenging movies, this hotly debated tragicomedy won best-screenplay from the Cannes film festival jury while being denounced by critics who found it boring, offensive, or both.
There's no denying that the picture contains deliberately disagreeable moments as it spins the story of a sleazy drifter who encourages a garbage collector to become a poet, resulting in everything from a Nobel Prize to pornography charges. But the movie has a serious message about how hard it can be to disentangle the highest and lowest impulses of human nature, which often reside disconcertingly close together in private and public lives.
THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO, directed by Whit Stillman. This marvelously smart comedy follows "Metropolitan" and "Barcelona" in Stillman's witty exploration of the yuppie subculture, populated by well-bred young people who suspect deep in their pampered hearts that they're not quite worthy of the privileges life has showered upon them. Stillman understands these folks down to their bones, but his hilarious jokes at their expense are balanced by sympathy for their failings and compassion for their plight.
Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale join Stillman regular Chris Eigeman in the outstanding cast, which tunes into the filmmaker's vision with a precision that borders on the uncanny.
LOVE AND DEATH ON LONG ISLAND, directed by Richard Kwietniowski. John Hurt gives an incredibly touching performance as a brainy old widower who wanders into a multiplex one rainy day and becomes instantly transfixed by the star of a brainless little movie he sees there.
At once quietly hilarious and resonantly poignant, this Canadian comedy says more about loneliness and longing than any picture in recent memory. And few movies have commented with more withering wit on the perilous state of contemporary pop culture.
RUSHMORE, directed by Wes Anderson. How many uproarious comedies are named after prep schools? Probably none before now, but Anderson may start a trend with this razor-sharp farce about a precocious pupil named Max who juggles a ridiculous number of extracurricular projects while wooing an attractive teacher and battling his romantic rival, a sleazy-smooth businessman who's accustomed to getting what he wants.
The action gains much of its comic flavor from star Bill Murray, in one of his most perfectly calibrated performances since the great "Groundhog Day." But it also reflects the unique sensibility of director Anderson, who debuted with the wonderful "Bottle Rocket," about a gang of would-be criminals tripped up by their own honest personalities. The climax is a high-school production of Max's version of an Oliver Stone sizzler about the Vietnam War, as wild and wacky as anything the screen has given us this year.