The Best Movies of 1998

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

 

 

The Fourth Noble Truth

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Watching “The Fourth Noble Truth” quickly reminded me of how much I personally benefit from doing meditation, and of how I need to get back into the habit of doing it on a regular basis. It’s very beneficial as it allows your brain to have a rest from all the thoughts and concerns which constantly run through it, and it helped me during a time where I suffered deeply from anxiety and depression. Gary T. McDonald’s film explores meditation from a Buddhist perspective as two people come together while searching for true happiness, and the end result feels emotionally honest about a topic some would be loath to take seriously.

Before we get to the movie’s opening title, we are introduced to movie star Aaron Redmond (Harry Hamlin) who does a Jack Nicholson and bashes another person’s car with a golf club. This is all it takes for the audience to see that this guy has serious anger management issues, and the movie wastes little time in showing him driving out to the home of a Buddhist meditation teacher named Rachel (the lovely Kristen Kerr) as it is part of his sentence for being convicted of road rage.

The way Aaron sees it, he has everything a person could ever want, so how can he be the least bit unhappy? Rachel, however, is not impressed with his bad boy movie star persona and sets about teaching him each of the noble truths while guiding him through meditations. However, his constant flirtations end up getting the best of her, and they end up spending the night together. From there they are both forced to reassess their life choices or risk losing the love and happiness they strive for.

In case you are wondering what the four noble truths are, they express the basic orientation of Buddhism which says this worldly existence is fundamentally unsatisfactory, but there is a path to liberation from repeated worldly existence. The truths are as follows:

Life is full of psychic suffering, such as stress, angst, discontent, and unhappiness.

The cause of this suffering is desire. Not the fleeting kind, but a clinging or attachment for things like material possessions, people, and validation.

If you end these fixations, you will stop suffering.

You end suffering by walking the Eightfold Path, which is a way of life embodying these virtues:

Right Understanding

Right Intention

Right Speech

Right Action

Right Livelihood

Right Effort

Right Mindfulness

Right Concentration

The Buddha taught that developing the virtues of the fourth noble truth is the key to happiness. Of course, getting to the last truth is always the hard part.

I liked how Hamlin’s character evolves throughout the film. His skepticism over meditation is understandable as most people, including myself, come into it with a lot of doubt over if it will do them any good. Also, getting the handle of meditation takes some time because you are bound to start off feeling like you’re not doing it right. His character of Aaron refuses to take meditation seriously at first, and he is mostly interested in getting the judge in his case off his back more than anything else. But while he appears to be confident in being the man he is, we can see from the start he is one seriously unhappy dude.

Hamlin has been around for a long time, and my generation knows him best for his roles in “Clash of the Titans” (the original, not the remake) and the TV show “LA Law.” These days he is better known for his work on the shows “Mad Men,” “Glee,” and “Shameless.” At 63, he still has an effortless charisma about him which makes him perfect for this role of an over the hill celebrity who has yet to realize material possessions do not equal happiness.

I’m not familiar with Kristen Kerr’s work, but she left quite the impression on me as Rachel. When we first meet her, she appears to be a master in the ways of meditation and has reached a great place in her life where everything seems balanced. But as the movie goes on, she comes to see how uncertain she is of whether or not she has reached the fourth noble truth as she makes the biggest mistake a meditation teacher can make.

It should go without saying how nobody is perfect, but this threatens to do a disservice to Rachel as she quickly realizes the errors of her ways. Kerr makes Rachel a fascinating character as a result because we really root for her to hold onto her bearings and not give up on her pursuit to achieve happiness. It’s never an easy road as life is full of endless trials and tribulations, and we come out of this movie relieved Rachel has not lost her way. Kerr is a wonderfully appealing presence from start to finish, and she makes us believe in the benefits of meditation in a way few other actors could.

McDonald’s previous directorial credits include “The Sea Wolf” and the documentary “Rape/Crisis,” movies I have yet to see. He does a commendable job of taking this relationship story and makes it feel down to earth and not the least bit contrived. When Aaron and Rachel fall for one another, I thought the movie was going to shoot itself in the foot and lose all credibility, but their relationship serves to give “The Fourth Noble Truth” more complex issues to explore. What I admired most was how the movie explored meditation and the relationship issues these two characters experience to where it feels emotionally honest in a very satisfying way.

In some ways, “The Fourth Noble Truth” is somewhat undone by its understandably low budget, and I hate to say that because movies like these are forced to deal with whatever resources they can get a hold of. I could see this script being done as a play onstage, so it doesn’t feel as cinematic as a movie should. But despite its flaws, it serves as a nice introduction to what meditation can do for your own well-being. It’s not meant to be an instructional manual on meditation, but if it were then it wouldn’t be as effective.

“The Fourth Noble Truth” is coming in well below the radar amidst all the big blockbusters which threaten to occupy our local multiplexes at the expense of everything else. My hope is more people get exposed to it on the big screen long before it becomes available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

* * * out of * * * *