Sunday, November 5, 2023

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My Top Ten of 1998

I watched 75 films, whittled that down to a list of 21 favorites, came to a final 13, and now - with apologies to the three almost-made-its, The Last Days of DiscoPleasantville, and Spice World - I present my Top Ten Films of 1998:

dir: Jonathan Demme
pr: Jonathan Demme / Kate Forte / Gary Goetzman / Edward Saxon / Oprah Winfrey
scr: Akosua Busia and Richard LaGravenese and Adam Brooks
cin: Tak Fujimoto

At almost three hours, it better be interesting - but do you know of any other adaptation of Great American Literature that is both a supernatural horror film with poltergeists and demons and a reckoning with the country's history of slavery and racism and a family drama about motherhood and what it means to be one and the trauma of losing a child? Yes, that's what Toni Morrison already offered, but the filmmakers are up for the challenge, from Tak Fujimoto's cinematography to Oprah Winfrey's incredible performance. A human film in every way: unexpectedly horny, genuinely spooky, incredibly caring, often sad but not morose.

The Big Lebowski
dir: Joel Coen
pr: Ethan Coen
scr: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
cin: Roger Deakins

A noir unlike any other - chiefly comedic, simple answers, a gumshoe who would rather nap than fight it out. It's a perfect LA slacker flick, the answer to the question, "Well, what do all these suburbanites outside of the industry do?" while still wrapping itself around community theatre, the porn industry, and the downtown art scene. Every revisit promises a new joke, be it visual or verbal, to discover. Every element, down to the overly-philosophical narrator, points to a cosmic shrug that wiould later be more explicitly devloped in A Serious Man and subsequent works. But here? Just a perfect blend of LA culture, noir elements, and slacker '90s sensibility.

The Celebration
dir: Thomas Vinterberg
pr: Birgitte Hald
scr: Thomas Vinterberg & Mogens Rukov
cin: Anthony Dod Mantle

The commitment to Dogme '95's, uh, dogma, makes for an unsettlingly intimate experience. You are at this birthday party, forced to see the festivities through to the end, despite the one son's revelation. The insistence on maintaining "normalcy" thereafter, the refusal of anyone to acknowledge or, when they do, to deny to the point of violence, the way the tense situation brings out everyone's worst traits, from sycophancy to casual racism...whew! What a statement on familial toxicity! On abuse and denial! It's all great.

Ever After
dir: Andy Tennant
pr: Mireille Soria / Tracey Trench
scr: Susannah Grant and Andy Tennant & Rick Parks
cin: Andrew Dunn

All fairy tales are borne of some truth. Ever After posits that the truth behind Cinderella is a Renaissance romance where position does not mean security, and where a well-read woman can win the heart of a prince. Amidst the crowd-pleasing gags (that chicken!) and smirks are a number of well-observed moments that speak to the plight of women of the age ("Why, I barely knew him"), the inequity of the class system ("What else is to be concluded, sire, but that you first make thieves then punish them?"), and the stuff of myth-making ("The point, gentlemen, is that they lived"). It is still a fairy tale, and oh, how magical it is!

dir/scr: Todd Solondz
pr: Ted Hope / Christine Vachon
cin: Maryse Alberti

How does this movie exist? I'm still not entirely sure, I don't even know if I approve fully, but here it is, exposing the uncomfortable underbelly of comfortable living: PTA pedos, middle-class masturbators, senior swingers...oh, it's all out there, buddy, and with no direct "This is bad!" statement other than the morals you yourself bring into it. Can you stomach their sins, or do you sympathize, identify? Hopefully, it's a little bit "Ah-ha," and a little bit "Oh my GAWD," as you're forced to reckon with seeing your neighbors and yourself in the worst light. Courageous performances, great great great writing/directing.

dir: Tony Bancroft / Barry Cook
pr: Pam Coats
scr: Rita Hsiao & Christopher Sanders & Philip LaZebnik & Raymond Singer & Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, story by Dean DeBlois & John Sanford & Chris Williams & Tim Hodge & Julius Aguimatang & Burny Mattinson & Lorna Cook & Barry Johnson & Thom Enriquez & Ed Gombert & Joe Grant & Floyd Norman, add'l story material by Linda Woolverton & Jodi Ann Johnson & Alan Ormsby & David Reynolds & Don Dougherty & Jorgen Klubien & Denis Rich & Joe Ekers & Theodore Newton & Larry School & Daan Jippes & Frank Nissen & Jeff Snow

Gosh, I just think about the final battle where "Be a Man" plays as Mulan leads three of her cohorts into dressing and behaving as women, using a combination of femininity and masculinity in order to fight back against the Huns and save the Emperor and, therefore, China. I think about Mulan wiping her makeup off, her face reflected in the stones of her ancestors, one of many visual references to personal identity continuing family history, but none, I think, so poetic, so breathtaking, so relatable. In under 90 minutes, it delivers on gender, family, patriotism, strength, and music.

Saving Private Ryan
dir: Steven Spielberg
pr: Ian Bryce / Mark Gordon / Gary Levinsohn / Steven Spielberg
scr: Robert Rodat
cin: Janusz Kaminski

This is audacious filmmaking, at least in terms of scale. The specificity of the chaos experienced on D-Day, the vulnerability soldiers faced in those open spaces in strange lands, the rubble and ruin of these former towns and villages where people still live, their home an open dollhouse. And great attention paid, too, to the soldiers, from the sniper resigned to his gift to the medic thinking more and more on the mother at home to the Jewish soldier whose discovery of a Nazi blade opens up a torrent of feelings in him. I don't believe it's as uncomplicated in its feelings of war and this war as people suppose: it is brutal to the people who fought it, people who clearly thought there is no alternative, this will really be the one to end it all...and yet, now face to face with what people can do, knowing that that's not true, wondering if it's all really worth it. Yes, a masterpiece.

There's Something About Mary
dir: Bobby Farrelly & Peter Farrelly
pr: Frank Beddor / Michael Steinberg / Bradley Thomas / Charles B. Wessler
scr: Ed Decter & John J. Strauss and Peter Farrelly & Bobby Farrelly, story by Ed Decter & John J. Strauss
cin: Mark Irwin

God, I just laughed so much watching this movie. It's marvelous, the outrageous humor it gets away with without seeming like they're having it both ways - the scumbags are never the heroes, never even remotely likable, they're just watchable. You know they're not as brilliant as they think they are, you're just waiting for it all to come crashing down around them. Takes rom-com trappings we all know and recognize and makes them into something sleazy. Hilariously so. 

Wild Things
dir: John McNaughton
pr: Steven A. Jones / Rodney Liber
scr: Stephen Peters
cin: Jeffrey L. Kimball

The other movie featuring Matt Dillon's escapades in South Florida. One of the best South Florida movies, actually, with its ├╝ber-wealthy shoulder-to-shoulder with swamp folk, its dive bars off the beaten path, its heat andf humidity getting everyone sweaty and riled up - enough to commit the crime Dillon's guidance counselor is accused of committing? Baby, that accusation is just the tip of the iceberg. The actors play it straight, but the filmmakers know they have a camp classic on their hands. This isn't the thinking man's erotic thriller, this is the sleazeball's. Endlessly rewatchable, constantly shocking.

You've Got Mail
dir: Nora Ephron
pr: Nora Ephron / Lauren Shuler Donner
scr: Nora Ephron & Delia Ephron
cin: John Lindley

What is this magic Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, and the Ephrons have together? From "I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils..." to "I wanted it to be you so badly," every line as written and delivered is perfect. You believe the romance between two business rivals who don't know they're each other's online crush, you know they're gonna get together somehow, and that they forgive and move on so that they can get together isn't so far-fetched because, goodness, who can deny that chemistry? Also, a rom-com based around bookstores? Yes, please.

Tomorrow, my personal nominees! 

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