The Best Movies of 1998

1998 logo

Now it’s time to go to take a look back at the movies of 1998, the same year when California started the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. What else happened that year? John Glenn became the oldest astronaut to go into space, and it gave us a reason to watch the space shuttle launch on television for the first time in years. The Denver Broncos became the first AFC team in 14 years to win the Super Bowl when they beat the Green Bay Packers (I’m so glad I didn’t bet on that game). The whole controversy of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky exploded, which the President’s enemies seized upon like teenagers going through their dads’ Playboy magazine issues while he is out of town. And, most ironically, a court in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan ruled Osama Bin Laden was “a man without a sin” in regard to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Well, we knew better.

As for myself, I was in my second year at UC Irvine and my fourth year in college. I still had a dorm room all to myself, and I was busy with school work and appearing in plays like “Enrico IV,” “The Scarlet Letter” and “Twelfth Night.” Of course, I tried to get out to the movies as much as humanly possible. Many of the movies on this list were ones I actually didn’t get around to seeing until years later, so it’s probably best I am giving you this list now.

10) There’s Something About Mary

Theres Something About Mary poster

Bobby and Peter Farrelly gave us one of the most gut bustlingly hilarious movies ever made with “There’s Something About Mary.” I was dying with laughter while watching this, and I wasn’t expecting to. In retrospect, I should have though since this came from the same directors who gave us “Dumb and Dumber” as well as “Kingpin.” On top of having so many funny moments, the movie also has a lot of heart in the way it portrays the two main characters played by Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz. Those of you who think Diaz can’t act need to revisit this one because she is so good at playing a teenager who we later see as a well-meaning adult with a few too many stalkers.

9) American History X

American History X poster

So much has been said about the making of “American History X” and the bitter disagreements between director Danny Kaye and actor Edward Norton. Regardless of whoever deserves the majority of the credit, there is no denying this is a powerful and unforgettable motion picture. Norton gave one of his very best performances as white supremacist Derek Vineyard, and the look he gives the camera after killing two people is a very chilling moment which is not easily erased from the conscious mind. Norton also gets great support from Edward Furlong who plays Danny, Derek’s brother, who threatens to tread down the same hateful path Derek has. Kaye, even if he didn’t get final cut, gives the movie an amazing look in black and white which captures the escalating tension of Derek’s journey from a world of hate to a place of compassion.

8) Dark City

Dark City movie poster

Alex Proyas followed up his brilliant adaptation of “The Crow” with this visionary sci-fi epic about a man who wakes up not knowing who he is, and of those who seek to capture him for their own twisted experiments. Like many great sci-fi movies “Dark City” was a box office flop upon its release, but it has since found an audience to where there’s no denying it is a cult classic. You’re along for the ride with Rufus Sewell as he tries to understand his place in a world ruled over by the Strangers. This movie remains suspenseful to the very end, and the look of the movie feels like no other I have ever seen. Jennifer Connelly also stars in the film and looks beautiful as always, and it is interesting to watch Kiefer Sutherland play a complete wimp after watching him for so long on “24.”

7) Out Of Sight

Out of Sight movie poster

Here’s the film which brought Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney together, and it also serves as one of the very best adaptations of an Elmore Leonard novel. With “Out of Sight,” Clooney proved without a doubt there was going to be life for him after “ER” with his performance as Jack Foley, the most successful bank robber in America. When Jack escapes from jail, he ends up sharing some trunk space with Federal Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). “Out of Sight” also marked the beginning of a career resurgence for Soderbergh, and he got to work from a truly great screenplay written by Scott Frank. Also starring is the fantastic Catherine Keener, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Dennis Farina, Isaiah Washington, and the always reliable Don Cheadle. This movie was a lot of fun, and Clooney and Lopez had such great chemistry together.

6) Rushmore

Rushmore movie poster

This was my introduction to the highly creative world of Wes Anderson. “Rushmore” is an instant comedy classic with more depth to it than many others of its genre at the time. Max Fischer is an original eccentric character; a young man involved in just about ever extra-curricular activity at school, all at the expense of his report card. Jason Schwartzman is great fun to watch as Max, and Bill Murray gives a performance which damn well should have earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. With Anderson, his comedy is fueled by the sadness and isolation of his characters, and of the things they desperately want in life. “Rushmore” is filled with as much meaning as it does laughter as both Schwartzman and Murray battle over the same woman played by Olivia Williams. It also owes a lot to the late Mike Nichols’ enduring classic “The Graduate.”

5) Happiness

Happiness movie poster

Todd Solondz’s follow up to “Welcome To The Dollhouse” may very well be the most ironically titled film in cinema history. Controversy followed “Happiness” all the way to its release, and the MPAA of course just had to give it an NC-17 (it ended up being released unrated). One of the blackest of black comedies ever, it follows the lives of three sisters and the various people who are a part of their fragile lives. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a frighteningly memorable performance as an obscene phone caller, and it was one of the first real examples of the brilliant character actor we came to see him as. But the bravest performance comes from Dylan Baker who plays Bill Maplewood, a psychiatrist, husband and loving father who, unbeknownst to his family, is a pedophile. Baker ends up making you empathize, but not sympathize, with a man who we would instantly despise once we discovered his terrible secret. As unappealing as these characters may seem, Solondz makes us see ourselves in them and to where we cannot see we are not all that different.

4) The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski movie poster

I didn’t get to see this when it first came out in theaters, but my parents did eventually strap me down in a chair to watch it, and this should give you an idea of how much they love it. The Coen brothers follow up to “Fargo” did not get the same reception when originally released, but it has since built up an amazing cult following. Much of this is thanks to Jeff Bridges’ brilliant performance as Jeffrey Lebowski, aka “The Dude.” What could have been a performance built on stereotypes of the slackers we know in life turns out to be perhaps the most memorable character in Bridges’ long and underappreciated career. It’s an ingenious comedy with not so much a plot as a connected series of events which start with the theft of Lebowski’s carpet which he says “tied the whole room together.”

3) The Truman Show

The Truman Show movie poster

It still seems criminal how Peter Weir’s film was surprisingly, and infuriatingly, snubbed for a Best Picture nomination. Jim Carrey gives a truly astonishing and powerful performance as Truman Burbank, a man who slowly becomes aware he is the star of a reality show about his life. Yes, he should have been nominated for an Oscar alongside his co-star Ed Harris, but there will always be the unforgivable snubs. “The Truman Show” has become a prophetic movie of sorts as reality shows are the norm in today’s culture, and this obsession we have over them remains very strong to this day. Andrew Niccol’s screenplay was a brilliant examination of how we might view our own life if we found out it was based on a lie, and that everything we know is actually wrong. This stands as one of Weir’s best American movies in a long and justly acclaimed career.

2) Shakespeare In Love

Shakespeare in Love movie poster

While it may have gotten overwhelmed by Miramax’s Oscar campaign, there’s no denying “Shakespeare In Love” is a brilliant and highly entertaining romantic comedy. The film tells the story of how Shakespeare goes about writing “Romeo & Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter” which eventually evolves into “Romeo & Juliet.” Gwyneth Paltrow gives a most entrancing performance, and I loved watching her every second she appeared onscreen. Joseph Fiennes is perfectly cast as Shakespeare himself, a passionate writer who is hopelessly enamored with Paltrow’s Viola. I also got a huge kick out of Geoffrey Rush’s performance as theater manager Philip Henslowe, a brilliant comic creation who steals every scene he is in. “Shakespeare In Love” serves as not just a great story of how Shakespeare may have written one of the most immortal plays ever, but also as a great satire of the film industry and how it deviously profits from unsuspecting participants.

And now, drum roll please…

1) Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan movie poster

It would be so easy to put this as my top choice thanks to some of the greatest and most vividly realistic depictions of war ever put on film. Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the landing on D-Day is nothing short of amazing, and it was one of the reasons why I saw this film five times before it came out on DVD. But moreover, it is a deeply respectful salute to those war veterans who served in the armed forces during World War II. “Saving Private Ryan” is filled with great performances from a great cast of actors including Edward Burns, Jeremy Davies, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Matt Damon, and Barry Pepper among others. But it also has one of Tom Hanks’ best performances ever as Captain John Miller, a military man who leads his men to find Private Ryan and bring him back home to his grieving mother. Just when you thought Spielberg had peaked with “Schindler’s List,” he gives us yet another astonishing piece of filmmaking which shows him at the height of his powers.

Honorable Mentions:

Primary Colors – Great Mike Nichols movie based on the book by Joe Klein. It features great performances from John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Kathy Bates as well as an extraordinary cameo from Mykelti Williamson.

Bullworth – Warren Beatty’s scathing political satire may be a bit too broad, but it is a very effective indictment of how the Democratic Party let the American people down.

Elizabeth – Definitely worth mentioning for the brilliant breakthrough performance of Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth.

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas – Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s crazy novel is a true acid trip nightmare with Johnny Depp channeling the reporter all the way to what he was famous for wearing and smoking.

God Said, Ha! – Wonderful concert film of Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show which deals with the time her brother got cancer, and of how she later got cancer herself.

Hurlyburly – Film adaptation of David Rabe’s play dealing with Hollywood players and their dysfunctional relationships with one another. Features a great cast which includes Sean Penn, Chazz Palminteri and Anna Paquin among others.

Affliction – Another emotionally bruising movie from Paul Schrader which is based on the novel by Russell Banks. Features career high performances from Nick Nolte and the late James Coburn who deservedly won an Oscar for his work.

Next Stop Wonderland – An eccentrically unusual kind of romantic comedy which helped introduce actress Hope Davis to a wider audience.

Ronin – One of the last films from the late John Frankenheimer which stars Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, and Jonathan Pryce among others. It also features some of the very best car chases of the 1990’s.

Run Lola Run – Kinetic German thriller with Franka Potente that views her attempts to save her boyfriend’s life in three different ways. This was a great teaser for what would come in 1999, when movies of different kinds proceeded to change the rules of where a story could go.

The Thin Red Line – Terrence Malick’s first movie in over 20 years threatened to be more meandering than anything else, but it is filled with such powerful imagery and to where many considered it more anti-war than “Saving Private Ryan” was.

John Carpenter’s Vampires – It was advertised as a horror movie, but it is really a more of a western and the closest John Carpenter has ever come to making one. James Woods’ performance alone is worth the price of admission as he plays the most badass of vampire hunters, Jack Crow.

Star Trek: Insurrection – Much better than its reputation may suggest, being an odd numbered Star Trek movie and all.

 

 

Godzilla (1998)

godzilla-1998-poster

I originally wrote this review on May 20, 1998, not long after I watched this “summer blockbuster.”

The momentous day has finally arrived! Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla” has finally hit the big screen in all of its reptilian glory. Trailers for this movie have been up and running for over a year now, and the past few weeks have had us bombarded with television commercials from Taco Bell with the Chihuahua, hoping to cash in on this film’s predicted box office success. But now the wait is over and the film has finally hit the big screen. Everyone is waiting to see if the movie will suck in the biggest opening in box office history and outdo “Titanic” as the highest-grossing movie of all time…

What can I tell you? “Godzilla” sucks! I even wrote it up on the dry erase board in the main hall of my college dorm for everyone to see:

GODZILLA SUCKS!!!

People need to be warned because, unlike “Titanic,” this was not worth the wait. For me, this was a very depressing cinematic experience and one of those movies where the trailers for coming attractions, in this case “X-Files – Fight the Future,” “Lethal Weapon 4” and “The Mask of Zorro,” were far more entering than the main event. I read a review somewhere which quoted one patron as saying it made “Jurassic Park: The Lost World” look like “Citizen Kane.” I couldn’t agree more, and I liked “Jurassic Park: The Lost World,” a movie many consider to be one of the worst Steven Spielberg has ever directed.

Where do I start? The characters were all clichés, barely registering as humans. Kevin Dunn plays the military commander who is always in a bad mood and barking out orders, Michael Lerner is your typically clueless mayor, and Matthew Broderick portrays the nerdy scientist who is the polar opposite of Ferris Bueller. Maria Pitillo, who looks a lot like Heather Graham, was cute, but her television reporter character really belongs in a sitcom instead of a movie like this.

I blame this all on the direction of Roland Emmerich, a director who never seems to understand just how cheesy his movies are. “Independence Day” tried to be the next “Star Wars,” but it ended up being an overproduced B-movie. Still, it’s a classic of American cinema when you compare it to this overhyped mess.

There’s a scene in the beginning of the movie where three fishing boats are pulled backward underwater into the water – a direct rip off of “Jaws.” Now on one hand, I liked how Emmerich was never quick to show the giant mutated lizard, but on the other the “Jaws” reference came to illustrate all the things that “Godzilla” unforgivably lacks: great actors, strong characters, and a good storyline. Special effects by themselves can’t save a movie, especially one as crappy as this one.

Furthermore, the music score by David Arnold was way too much, and less could have been a lot more. In fact, everything about this movie was overblown, robbing it of whatever suspense it could ever have hoped to generate. There were moments where things did quiet down, and that was a relief and also showed some promise this movie might actually become exciting to watch. But then the screen became overwhelmed with countless explosions and massive destruction which we have seen in far too many movies to keep track of. Heck, the special effects in those movies are infinitely better than any in “Godzilla.” Trust me; the money is not up there on the screen.

Producer Dean Devlin and Emmerich appear to be big New York haters as they again lay waste to the city’s most famous monuments just like they did in “Independence Day.” But then again, New York seems to be the target of destruction this summer judging from the trailers I have seen for “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon.”

Now for Godzilla himself (or herself if you are not sure). When we do finally get to see the big lizard, it really proves to be nothing more than a big special effect. The more you are aware of this, the less threatening Godzilla becomes, and the action sequences end up lacking a lot of friction. I really loathe digital imaging and effects because they are too obvious on the big screen. In retrospect, I would have preferred seeing a guy in a suit instead.

There’s one moment where Godzilla jumps into the ocean, and it looks like it was lifted directly from a scene in “Alien Resurrection.” Originality is not in existence in films these days, but what else is new? I did not go in expecting a great movie, but I was at least hoping it would be exciting and intense. It was neither.

Furthermore, the look of Godzilla was nothing particularly impressive or horrifying. It looked like a cross between a Tyrannosaurus Rex that had an amazing growth spurt and the kind of lizard I saw crawling all over the place in Ibiza. Once again, originality is nonexistent and we have “Jurassic Park” all over again.

The only part that really scared me some was when the main characters discovered all the eggs Godzilla had lain in Madison Square Garden. What could we expect to see when they hatched? But hatched they did, and they all came out looking like Velociraptors or Velociraptor wannabes.

You’d think after a film like “Independence Day,” which was a huge hit worldwide but not exactly a critical success, that the filmmakers would learn from their mistakes and make a better movie. But no! We get one which is even worse and yet is still bound to make tons of money. But having seen “Godzilla,” I am more than confident that it will not dethrone “Titanic” as the all-time box office champ. Hey Tri-Star Pictures! Don’t count your chickens before they hatch!

A lot of people say that James Cameron is a big egomaniac and a jerk to his cast and crew on each movie he has directed. Maybe he is, claiming he can make these kinds of movies better than everyone else. But after “Godzilla” ended, I think Cameron can brag all he wants until he makes a tremendously crappy movie like this one. I don’t care how bad you thought the dialogue was in “Titanic;” “Godzilla” is the bottom of the barrel in the screenplay department. How many writers did it take to come up with this script anyway?

And, of course, we have the obligatory ending where Madison Square Garden is destroyed, but for some bizarre and unexplained reason there’s an egg which was somehow undamaged (go figure). The baby burst out of the egg just as the movie faded to black, and I imagined a lot of audience members probably thought the following when they saw it:

“Oh no! It’s a baby!!!”

But I just stared at the screen and thought to myself:

“Oh no! It’s a set up for a sequel!! SAVE US NOW!!!”

Just how many times can you destroy New York in the movies anyway?

½* out of * * * *