With over 4000 films and videos released in 1998 worldwide, at a generous rate of five films a day, it would take 2.19 years of nonstop sitting to come up with an authoritative ranking. Barring that, here's a subjective list of what I did see, with particular attention to the work of first- and second-time directors:
1. Rushmore The most daring gamble in Wes Anderson's winningly vibrant love triangle might be its good nature. Rushmore squares the circle of Gen-X affection for the objects/victims of its own irony.
2. Happiness Forget the outré suburban confidential angle. Todd Solondz's tale of three most unpalatable sisters eschewed any pretense of simple ironization in favor of a mannered viciousness so elevated it became pure abstraction.
3. Blade Riffing undercover on everything from dual consciousness to mulatto angst, Stephen Norrington's tale of the war between made and born vampires did some heavy race-theory lifting while also delivering some of the most legit genre kicks of the year.
4. Elizabeth Shekhar Kapur's plush Queen Elizabeth I biopic not only inserted a very contemporary gender politics into a freshly imagined past, but also projected them forward, its Virgin Queen suggesting the pleasures (and penalties) of future gender benders and would-be power-tripping cyborgs.
5. Buffalo 66 So old it really was new again, Buffalo 66 aggressively mined a whole mess of canonical tropes about fucked-up homecomings while cannily revising them. Vincent Gallo produced the year's only outburst of true, angry-young-man Americana.
6 and 7. Dark City and Belly Exactly what some folks feared would happen when they started letting music-video directors make features. Alex Proyas's Dark City was a genre freak-out that ate comics for breakfast, movie noir for lunch, dined on some monumentalist science fiction, and ended up tossing and turning all night. Hype Williams's Belly not only turned a narrow patch of black male subjectivity into a lush visual hothouse, but actually taught me a lesson, i.e., that it's possible to imagine urban hard cases who grow and survive.
8. Hav Plenty Chris Cherot's unabashedly glib debut was a nationalist rallying slouch for bookish black boys with girl trouble, another admittedly narrow slice of the pie that actually exists despite the evidence of media-driven senses.
9. Saving Private Ryan10. Fireworks
Any of the following could easily have made it up top: The Thin Red Line, Beloved, Fallen Angels, The Planet of Junior Brown, , The Big Lebowski, Celebration, The Brandon Teena Story, Ronin, Enemy of the State , He Got Game, The Truman Show, Central Station, Tokyo Fist, and One True Thing, the last for no good reason really, except that I cried and cried.