Roll the Credits

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Kids still rule.

That's the lesson that most clearly emerged from Hollywood in 1998, and there's no doubt movie executives took it to heart. The throbbingly illogical "Armageddon" and similarly themed "Deep Impact," followed by the surprise comedy hits "There's Something About Mary" and "The Waterboy," double-teamed to win the day. (Can the action-comedy "Kick My Asteroid" -- with Cameron Diaz as a rocket scientist who gets into lewdly comic trouble with an errant ejector seat -- be far behind?)

A flotilla of family movies -- including "Antz," "A Bug's Life," the re-release of "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Rugrats Movie" -- coaxed little ones into theaters. Even such adult thrillers as "Enemy of the State," "Ronin" and "The Siege" had to have the obligatory sub-adult car chase and/or big explosion.

But even if special effects, sophomoric humor and animated bugs ruled the day in 1998, the year had its share of other moments, some auspicious, others less so. Herewith, a highly subjective, and throbbingly illogical, compendium of the movie year's high points, low points and points worth noting in between: There was something about the 1940s and 1970s.

Between "Saving Private Ryan" (itself a surprise box-office hit), "Life Is Beautiful" and "The Thin Red Line" (coming to Baltimore Jan. 12), World War II was hot, hot, hot. Spliced in among the war pictures were reminiscences of the 1970s, with "54" (featuring an outstanding performance by Mike Myers as disco impresario Steve Rubell), "The Last Days of Disco" and Todd Haynes' trippy ode to glam rock, "Velvet Goldmine." Chalk it up to -- who else? -- the Boomers, who seem permanently torn between the moral ideals of their parents and the narcissism, overindulgence and sexual freedom they miss so badly. Mr. Reaper, call your agent.

This is the last time we mention the Baby Boomers, promise, but who could miss the cardinal theme of mortality-anxiety that draped over 1998 like a pale shroud? First we had to suffer through "City of Angels" (the pointless re-make of the much better German film "Wings of Desire"), which proved definitively that something can be leaden and sudsy at the same time.

Pretty soon, it seemed that every Friday brought some permutation on death, dying and the afterlife. If it wasn't Robin Williams beaming earnestly in the muddle-headed "What Dreams May Come," it was Brad Pitt looking like a stoned Kewpie Doll in "Meet Joe Black."

Of course, these were only the most cosmeticized versions of Reaper Chic; if you wanted real suffering, you could watch Meryl Streep succumb to cancer in "One True Thing," or another character do the same thing (albeit with fewer ghastly touches) in "Stepmom."

Even the kiddies had their own mortality plays, with "Simon Birch," starring as a precocious moppet with Marquito's Syndrome, and "The Mighty," about a moppet with Marquito's Syndrome. Blame the Boomers again: Now that they're considering their own deaths, suddenly everybody has to. Every family is happy in the same way: They're in deep, deep denial.

Dysfunction was all the rage, especially in art houses, where Todd Solondz's "Happiness," a dark comedy about three sisters coping with sexual predators, compulsive promiscuity, pedophiliac husbands and sundry other perversions, was a huge hit. Solondz's movie, a masterpiece of restraint, technical control and searing wit, followed fast on the heels of Neil La Bute's "Your Friends and Neighbors," an orgy of misbehavior that showed all and observed nothing. Always good for a gritty family portrait, indie godlet Hal Hartley turned in "Henry Fool," featuring a title character who takes honors as the year's most lovable misanthrope.

The best of the lot, Thomas Vinterberg's "The Celebration," about a young man who confronts his father on the elder's 60th birthday, is still at the Charles. And rest assured, the mean season isn't over yet: Look for "Hurlyburly," a dark-toned Hollywood fable starring Sean Penn, in Baltimore theaters soon. Hype wasn't everything.

Well, not completely everything: "Godzilla," this year's biggest disappointment, which should have been hoist on its own marketing petard, still managed to come in seventh at the box office. But some other over-hyped movies failed (deservedly) to gain audiences, among them Nick Broomfield's non-movie "Kurt & Courtney" and La Bute's "Your Friends and Neighbors," which proved to be a letdown after his directorial debut, the highly promising "In the Company of Men." Somebody get a doc!

Most every year, at least one nonfiction film tops our 10 best list, but in 1998, nonfiction was a non-starter. With the exception of "The Big One," Michael Moore's trenchant comment on the current economic "boom," and the controversial, highly absorbing "Waco: The Rules of Engagement," there weren't many documentaries to crow about. (Although deeply interested Woody Allen fans were no doubt riveted by "Wild Man Blues," a pseudo-intimate portrait of Allen's relationship with Soon-Yi Previn.) This critic's unlikely favorite of the year: "Shooting Porn," Ronnie Larsen's surprisingly engaging and affecting glimpse into the world of gay X-rated films. Eurotrash? Mais non!

If 1998 was a poor year for docs, it was banner for foreign offerings, from the touching and wildly imaginative "Ma Vie en Rose," by Belgian director Alain Berliner, to the deeply affecting political allegory "The Thief," to Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami's "A Taste of Cherry," to Roberto Benigni's devastating Holocaust fable "Life Is Beautiful." Most recently, "The Celebration," from the Danish film collective Dogme 95, has proven that reports of the death of European film have been greatly exaggerated. The movie was mediocre. The performance wasn't.

You may have understandably skipped them in theaters, but some movies of 1998 are worth renting for the outstanding performances buried within them. Robert Downey showed his prodigious and protean gifts with stunning force in the otherwise forgettable "Two Girls and a Guy"; Thomas Jay Ryan made an extraordinary debut in "Henry Fool"; and Lisa Kudrow stole two shows, first in the neo-noir yawner "The Opposite of Sex" and then in "The Clockwatchers." More good performances in so-so movies: Minnie Driver in "The Governess," Kerry Fox in "The Hanging Garden," Chris Eigeman and Kate Beckinsale in "The Last Days of Disco," Stephen Fry in "Wilde," Cate Blanchett in the over-touted "Elizabeth" and Catherine Keener in "Your Friends and Neighbors." You would have loved it if you'd seen it.

Every year the studios trot out a number of movies that open and close in a weekend, never making it to the hinterlands. Usually this is a function of Darwinian logic and a blessing to beleaguered filmgoers who can gratefully scratch at least one dog off their list. But sometimes a good movie slips through the cracks.

The best movie you never saw: "Without Limits," Robert Towne's film about 1970s track star Steve Prefontaine. Billy Crudup turned in a steady, charismatic performance as the talented, temperamental runner, and Donald Sutherland was quietly commanding as his coach (and Nike founder) Bill Bowerman. Towne -- best known as the screenwriter of "Chinatown" -- made the film with an assured hand, resulting in a compelling personal story as well as a deeper portrayal of the competitive spirit.

"Without Limits" opened to positive reviews in New York and L.A., only to be taken out of circulation by Warner Bros. Reprisals for the famously cranky Towne? Bad box office, as the studio contends? We'll never know, but don't miss this one on video. Black film is ...

The year was a pretty good one for African-American films, although once again they had trouble busting the $20 million budget ceiling. The most pedigreed among them, Spike Lee's basketball drama "He Got Game" and Oprah Winfrey's "Beloved," sank at the box office, whereas more modestly budgeted (and lightly themed) romances and comedies, such as "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" and "Dr. Dolittle," with Eddie Murphy, were hits. Reasons for hope: black artists, such as Wesley Snipes and Alfre Woodard, taking the production reins in films like Maya Angelou's "Down in the Delta"; strong indie outings like "Hav Plenty"; more black directors making race-neutral movies like "One True Thing," "The Negotiator" and "Hope Floats"; and white directors taking on black-themed films, such as "Slam." Along with such action comedies as "Rush Hour," crime dramas like "The Players Club" and "Belly" and sci-fi thrillers like "Blade," black film is ... all of the above. The envelope, please.

Oh, all right. We couldn't put it off forever. Here's the 10-best list, in chronological order, resulting in an index as back-loaded as the year itself. But remember, we haven't even seen such anticipated movies as Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line," "A Simple Plan" or "A Civil Action," all of which have opened in New York and Los Angeles.

There was a moment last January -- somewhere between "Firestorm" (Howie Long, go back to your day job) and "Mercury Rising" (Bruce Willis, open another restaurant) -- when despair set in. The year looked like a sere and rocky terrain of over-budgeted, over-hyped, middlebrow claptrap.

The first bright spot was "Wag the Dog," Barry Levinson's crazily prescient political satire starring Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman. This modest but well-made comedy opened elsewhere in December, but for Baltimoreans, it offered some solace in an otherwise gloomy January season, as did "The Apostle," Robert Duvall's unforgettable portrait of a Pentecostal preacher who undergoes a conversion. (It also opened elsewhere in late 1997.)

Slowly the tundra of winter gave way to the plashy fens of spring, and the horizon started to brighten in earnest. The first movie truly to take the breath away with its audacity, energy and commitment was "Bulworth," Warren Beatty's comic cri de coeur about race and class in contemporary America. In the year's most courageously un-vain performance, Beatty laid his heart out on the screen to mixed reaction, but you've gotta give him props for honesty. And how cool was it to see a white guy tackle the issue of race so personally?

The year's first perfect movie experience was "The Truman Show," Peter Weir's ingenious comedy-drama starring Jim Carrey as the unwitting subject of a 24-hour-a-day television show of his life. Beautifully filmed, expertly paced, with unforgettable performances, "The Truman Show" was even the ideal length: 100 minutes exactly. Best line: Ed Harris, "Cue the sun."

Summer is usually a time for grown-ups to go into hiding and let the kids have their bonehead comedies, gore-fests and three-dimensional comic books. But there were actually movies for adults last summer. "The Truman Show" made theaters safe for "Saving Private Ryan," Steven Spielberg's epic World War II ,, drama starring Tom Hanks as an embattled Army captain. Deeply influenced by the work of war photographer Robert Capa, "Saving Private Ryan" took the conventional war narrative -- group of guys get a mission, go on the mission, accomplish the mission -- to new heights, thanks to a newfound restraint on the part of Spielberg, smashing photographic techniques and terrific performances from an able ensemble.

If the summer seemed given over primarily to fending off the predations of asteroids ("Deep Impact," "Armageddon") and ,X body fluids (that something about Mary), it also had its quieter pleasures, chief among them "Smoke Signals," Chris Eyre's buddy comedy about two Native American "brothers" who embark on a journey to mutual discovery. The pyrotechnics of "Smoke Signals," written with poetry and rueful humor by Sherman Alexie, were chiefly the product of words and the unforgettable characters who spoke them.

"The Thief," written and directed by Russian filmmaker Pavel Chukhrai, was a small film whose strength resided in its devastating metaphorical power and haunting performances. The story of a young boy leading a nomadic existence with his mother in 1950s Russia, this deceptively simple tale of loss, love and betrayal resonated far beyond its Stalinist context. Ten-year-old Misha Philipchuk made a gently indelible screen debut as a boy buffeted by the powers carelessly wielded by his elders.

After a storied life on the festival circuit, where it won awards at Cannes, Toronto and Israel, "Life Is Beautiful" finally opened in Baltimore in October and proved well worth the wait. Directed by Roberto Benigni, who also stars, this grave fable, infused with romance and humor, disturbed some viewers who thought it trivialized the Holocaust. But others, this critic included, were deeply moved by the story of a man who desperately tries to save his young son's life -- and preserve his own humanity -- inside a concentration camp.

Some howled at the bonehead antics in "There's Something About Mary" and "The Waterboy." The rest of us giggled through "Shakespeare in Love," Jonathan Madden's flight of fancy speculating that "Romeo & Juliet" was the product of the Bard's unrequited love for an unattainable woman. As the object of Will's affection, Gwyneth Paltrow is sheer beauty and bliss, and the script -- by playwright Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman -- celebrates love, longing and language measure for measure.

In the family psycho-drama sweepstakes, Todd Solondz's "Happiness" has been the critical winner, but Thomas Vinterberg's urgent, funny and engrossing "The Celebration" wins by an out-of-joint nose. Filmed in natural light with no makeup, this experimental movie lights its fire the low-tech way, with taut human drama. The naturalistic performances of the film's accomplished ensemble cast lend "The Celebration" the voyeuristic feeling of a keenly observed home movie. Thrills, chills and just a shudder or two of recognition.

That's entertainment.

Pub Date: 1/01/99

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