Especially for comedies, 1998 was a year of first-rate flicks

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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:

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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.

La Sparation, directed by Christian Vincent. The year's most touching overseas import is this deftly directed drama about a couple sadly realizing their marriage is coming to an end. The tastefully written screenplay allows us to probe the characters' emotional lives in extraordinary depth, using our own imaginations to understand what went wrong and how or if the relationship might be patched up again. Isabelle Huppert shows once more that she's a superbly gifted actress as well as a radiantly charismatic star.

A SOLDIER'S DAUGHTER NEVER CRIES, directed by James Ivory. This heartfelt drama marked a striking comeback for Merchant Ivory Productions after its earlier "portrait movies" about Thomas Jefferson and Pablo Picasso met with weak receptions. Loosely based on the life of novelist James Jones, it views the household of an American author through the eyes of his daughter as she grows from a curious child to a sometimes unruly but wonderfully promising young woman.

The film contains far more drinking, four-letter language, and frank sexual discussions than some viewers will put up with, but below this scruffy surface lies one of the most sensitive and imaginative family portraits we've ever had.

Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Hershey are excellent as the unconventional parents, with the extraordinary Leelee Sobieski as their daughter, Jesse Bradford as their adopted son, and Anthony Roth Costanza as a one-of-a-kind family friend.

THE SPANISH PRISONER, directed by David Mamet. Mamet sees our world as a giant house of games, to quote the title of an early film he directed, and he's never expressed this sardonic view more cleverly than in this crisp comedy about a man falling into what may or may not be the most elaborate hoax you ever dreamed of.

Steve Martin does the most memorable acting, flanked by Campbell Scott and a generally superb cast. Enticing camera work and an absorbing story recalling Mamet's play "The Water Engine," among other sources, are the picture's most persuasive selling points. Mamet moves effortlessly between "art" productions like "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "commercial" works like "The Edge," and occasionally he brings both styles together in a single seamless package. This is one of those times, and it's a pleasure to behold.

THE THIN RED LINE, directed by Terrence Malick. Many will insist that "Saving Private Ryan" is the year's most groundbreaking World War II movie, but Malick's somber excursion through the Guadalcanal campaign is - while significantly flawed - more ambitious and, at times, profound. Its subject isn't so much the physical or psychological suffering of combat as the awful fissures of war as it tears through people's understanding of their own oneness with humanity and with the potentially radiant world in which we live.

Equally bold is Malick's radical reworking of the Hollywood star system, relegating some of today's most popular actors to virtual walk-ons while luxuriating in superb performances by newcomers. Add the film's magnificent camera work, and you have an imperfect but unforgettable screen experience.

THE TRUMAN SHOW, directed by Peter Weir. One of the year's most boldly unusual pictures is a Jim Carrey comedy? It's unlikely but true, indicating that Carrey may yet inherit Jerry Lewis's mantle as a seemingly out-of-control comic with important things to tell us about our world and ourselves.

Credit also goes to screenwriter Andrew Niccol, and to the producers who realized Carrey would be the ideal actor for this funny-sad allegory about a man slowly realizing he's the unwitting star of a long-running TV show that displays his life to a worldwide audience. It's been years since director Weir left behind the jolting inventiveness of pictures like "The Last Wave" and "The Year of Living Dangerously," but here he recaptures all his old originality. Ed Harris stands out, too, as the mysterious mogul who runs the show from his cosmic control booth.

Runners-up include HAPPINESS and LOLITA, heart-rending pictures blowing the whistle on psychosexual evils; SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, for the unsparing honesty of its first battlefield scene; AFFLICTION, for its compassionate view of an unhappy family; A SIMPLE PLAN, for its moody plot and on-target acting; DARK CITY, for its astounding special effects; PRIMARY COLORS, for its fine performances and political intelligence; the reissues of TOUCH OF EVIL and THE LAST EMPEROR, for putting certified classics back in the public eye; THE BIG ONE and THE CRUISE, as the best of an impressive documentary crop; and PLEASANTVILLE and VELVET GOLDMINE, for their eye-filling portraits of the '50s and the '70s, respectively.

It was a good year at the movies!

* David Sterritt's e-mail address is sterrittd@csps.com

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