Monday, October 9, 2023

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1998: The Year Begins

With this 1998 retrospective, we complete what we started over a year ago: watching every Shakespeare film nominated for Best Picture. Shakespeare in Love is not based on the Bard directly, of course, but given that it weaves Two Gentlemen of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, and Twelfth Night into a story centered on the man himself...well, come on, it belongs here. Besides, 2023 also happens to be 25 years since 1998! A whole quarter century!

I turned nine in 1998, and while I don't remember seeing a lot of releases in the theater - one was, after all, at the mercy of parents - I'm pretty sure I saw at least six. There was A Bug's Life, which I saw before they added "bloopers" to the end credits; Everest, a Father's Day treat at the local IMAX (one of the last films my dad saw in a theater, followed by lunch at Creolina's); Paulie; The Prince of Egypt; Spice World, which my sister and her then-boyfriend took me to; and The Truman Show, my first foray into "grownup" cinema. Most 1998 films I wound up seeing through the 00s on home video. Some of those I rewatched for this project, some I didn't, and therefore won't count them towards the "movie count," my memory of them being extremely vague...and 25 years old. Mostly, I took the opportunity to watch films I hadn't seen before. Not just Oscar nominees, but stuff like the Godzilla remake or Happiness or There's Something About Mary.

So, where do we start? Well, hell, where does the year usually start? It starts in January...

The Gingerbread Man
release: January 23

And, hey ho, it starts with my favorite director, Robert Altman. It's five years after Short Cuts marked back-to-back Best Director nominations and a return from the stage-to-screen indie wilderness; here he dips a toe into the popular 1990s subgenre The John Grisham Thriller. Kenneth Branagh plays a Savannah lawyer who winds up entangled with troubled waitress Embeth Davidtz, they get her loony father Robert Duvall committed but he breaks out, and now Branagh fears for their lives...and his kids'. Love Altman in crime mode, his cynicism is a perfect fit for a genre where cocky men get mixed up with some nasty people, his attention to sound particularly effective in the climactic rainstorm. Branagh's accent isn't too bad, either! Honestly a lot better than a January release would suggest.

Spice World
release: January 23

Just as A Hard Day's Night took advantage of Beatlemania, Spice World lands right at the height of Girl Power (people forget the phenomenon only really lasted two years, 1996-98, though they didn't take their "hiatus" until 2000). Directed by AbFab helmer Bob Spiers - the foggy fantasy sequences are a style straight from the show - it's self-aware nonsense as the Girls prepare for their first live television special at the Albert Hall, all while maintaining a packed schedule of appearances, interviews, rehearsals, and trying to remain, you know, grounded women. Camp fun, and my first exposure to Richard E. Grant, who plays their short-fused manager Clifford. He's the highlight...well, in addition to the songs and the costumes. Victoria gets the best lines, Geri and Emma are the best actors.

Zero Effect
release: January 30

We start with crime and end with crime, with Bill Pullman as a genius agoraphobic private detective who ventures out into the world for a case and winds up falling for his chief suspect (Kim Dickens! She's great!). A Sherlock Holmes riff with Ben Stiller as the Watson counterpart, it's an engaging mystery anchored by Pullman's performance. He's annoying, he's impossible, he's perfect, he's funny - he's great! Recommended by Ariel Schudson, worth a watch.

Nil by Mouth
release: February 6

Ariel also suggested our first February release, Gary Oldman's first, and so far only, work as a writer-director. Tough movie about working-class South Londoners wrapped up in booze, drugs, and cycles of abuse. Ray Winstone is scary here: scary good, yes, but also frightening, even before he beats the hell out of Kathy Burke (she won Best Actress at Cannes) - a scene with grandmother Kath is especially tense, you're waiting for him to lash out at any moment. Oldman sees the humanity in these desperate characters, sure, but he acknowledges the enabling nature of everyone around them. They'll scream, bloody each other up, escape the clutches of their abuser...then all it takes is one person singing, "Can't Help Loving Dat Man of Mine" and you know they're doomed to be together forever. A movie that requires a long exhalation afterward.

The Wedding Singer
release: February 13

Not so bleak: this rom-com, the first pairing of Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore. I think the 00s obsession with the 1980s and its subsequent representation as a sea of pastel and neon can be traced to this movie's over-the-top depiction of THE EIGHTIES!!!, taking place in 1985 but referencing everything that happened in the decade before and after, sets and costumes based less in reality than they are iconography. Sandler and Barrymore have great chemistry (they made two more movies together, after all), duh-duh-duh, but long undersung are the contributions by Christine Taylor and Allen Coveras their friends and confidantes - Covert particularly I love more with each watch, his is such a laidback, sweat-free comic style. I've loved this movie since middle school and I think I always will. "Grow Old with You" is a classic.

Dark City
release: February 20

Almost everything is explained in an opening voiceover: these humanoid creatures manipulate people's memories and the layout of the city, "tuning" every detail at night for purposes...unknown. But then one man wakes up during the tuning and finds himself unwrapping the mystery of who he is and what they want. Absolutely wild sci-fi-noir that asks its audience to reflect on whether what they're doing with their lives, the people they're with, the job they have - is this all really meant for them, or have we just accepted our roles? I don't know, that's what I got out of it, anyway. William Hurt and Richard O'Brien shine in supporting roles. Great sets!

The Big Lebowski
release: March 6

March now, and we start the month with a modest success that became a cult sensation inspiring annual gatherings, books of philosophy, and even references in children's cartoons. LA slacker The Dude gets mixed up in high crimes and misdemeanors after a case of mistaken identity, weaving his way through the proceedings sometimes warily, sometimes lazily, rarely taking deliberate, determined action, always high. It's pretty perfect. 

release: March 6

OK, I admit I didn't rewatch this one, having first seen it about a year ago for the Paul Newman Mini-Mega on Screen Drafts. I honestly didn't see much point in rewatching it: it's OK, I guess, your standard L.A. noir but with older stars - Paul Newman's the detective who realizes his silver screen idol friends Gene Hackman and Susan Sarandon may have killed someone decades before - but I just wasn't into it. Margo Martindale has a small role as a corrupt parole officer, she's a hoot. Don't remember much, don't want to revisit, and that to me is a sign of its quality.

U.S. Marshals
release: March 6

Spin-off of The Fugitive sees Tommy Lee Jones reprising his Oscar-winning role, this time chasing down Wesley Snipes in a case that's more complex than meets the eye. A fun enough couple of hours.

The Man in the Iron Mask
release: March 13

Umpteenth adaptation of Dumas' novel about the older Musketeers in a plot to replace the King of France with his nicer twin brother. Slightly retooled as a Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle in the wake of Romeo + Juliet and coming off the heels of Titanic (which was still the #1 film in America for the first three months of the year). He's great! Everyone's great! It plays!

Primary Colors
release: March 20
nominee: Best Supporting Actress (Kathy Bates), Best Adapted Screenplay (Elaine May)

Our first Academy Award nominee of the year, based on a roman à clef about President Bill Clinton's first campaign, and released just two months after he declared he "did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." John Travolta's character may be named Jack Stanton, but no attempt is made to pretend he is anyone other than Bill Clinton, from the hair to the accent to the easy magnetism and twinkling charm to the sincerity of connecting with "regular" people to the willingness to do bad things to good people to get ahead. Adrian Lester plays a young campaign manager, our Nick Carraway/Jack Burden - I don't know if it's the performance or the writing, but as good as the movie is, I'm not convinced that Burton is as bowled over by Stanton as he's supposed to be. It's the one thing in the movie I don't quite buy...and the movie hinges on it. Yet I don't mind! It's so well-made in every other aspect!

Wild Things
release: March 20

Set and filmed in South Florida, replete with gators, swamps, sex, and sweat. Matt Dillon is a high school teacher accused of rape by wealthy student Denise Richards, and oh-ho-ho the twists thereafter! It's a movie that just luxuriates in its sin, daring you to try to call it out for being trash when it knows it's trash, delicious trash, purposeful trash, lurid and horny. It's a thing of beauty.

The Proposition
release: March 27

The proposition of the title refers to that made by a wealthy lawyer and his hot author wife to a young guy just out law school: knock up his wife so they can have the children he cannot provide. Everything about this movie from the structure to the score is the wrong decision, and worst of all, it doesn't even have the decency to be bad, just...dull.

Tomorrow: six Oscar nominees, plus one of the Top Ten hits of the year

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