My editor wants me to cull my list. It’s not fair, she says, for you to get 14 when everyone else gets only 10. But I can’t choose between films that set limits and achieve them to near perfection (Sonatine) and messy overreaching films that jam stuff together in thrillingly different ways (Velvet Goldmine). Nineteen ninety-eight was a year of unusual abundance with more bad films and more good films than ever before. Since almost none of the good ones made money, they’re part of an endangered species. Hence my desire to acknowledge their existence while there’s still time. (I’m not completely without hope, however, about 1999. Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai, the greatest film on this year’s festival circuit, will be included in the Hou retrospective at the Walter Reade in September.) The first six, by the way, are tied for first place:
Fallen Angels (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong) Delirious but oh so tender, it’s an elegy for lost youth in a vanishing city.
Affliction (Paul Schrader, U.S.) Schrader’s chilled-to-the-bone adaptation of Russell Banks’s novel about the heritage of male violence is already an American classic, as is Nick Nolte’s huge, raw, shambling performance.
Velvet Goldmine (Todd Haynes, U.S/U.K.) Intoxicating, messy, sexually subversive, and superbrilliant, Haynes’s glam-rock opera–à-clef is like five movies fighting it out not to
Mother and Son (Alexander Sokurov, Russia/Germany) Time does not stand still in this ghostly, wrenching film about symbiosis and separation anxiety.
Sonatine (Takeshi Kitano, Japan) Kitano’s Fireworks, also released this year, is a more mature film, but I can’t resist the formal perfection of this claustrophobic gangster flick.
Outer and Inner Space and Restaurant (Andy Warhol, U.S.) Newly restored under the expert supervision of Callie Angell, these 1965 Edie Sedgwick vehicles are among Warhol’s great works.
Flat is Beautiful (Sadie Benning, U.S.) Benning is a poet of liminal states. Strictly speaking, this slice of midwestern teenage girl life is a video, but what it feels like is a movie on the verge of becoming.
He Got Game (Spike Lee, U.S.) Mixing Aaron Copland and Chuck D., realism and allegory, Lee’s basketball musical is a meditation on Americana and how it is shaped by the culture and fantasies of outsiders.
The Butcher Boy Neil Jordan, Ireland) Eamonn Owens’s relentless, fierce, rubber-face performance as a child
driven into psychosis by loss, bad parenting, body chemistry, and Cold War culture elevates an extremely interesting film to near greatness.
Bulworth (Warren Beatty, U.S.) Beatty’s desperate redemption fantasy of a ’60s sellout on the verge of suicide is a bit naive, a bit nutso (Reichian sexuality as the cure for racism?), but it sure has the courage of its political convictions; and the dialogue it generated about power, satire, and the representation of race was even better than the movie itself.
Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, U.S.) Sexy and generous, Soderbergh’s Elmore Leonard adaptation sashays around in time, holding fast to a romantic humanism that puts character front and center.
The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, U.S.) It’s Days of Heaven in Guadalcanal I don’t buy Malick’s worldview, but I’m knocked out that he consciously holds one.
Illtown (Nick Gomez, U.S.) Gomez crosses Cocteau with Kitano in a trance dance about young Florida dope dealers who haunt each other’s waking dreams like the ghosts they already are.
Buffalo 66 (Vincent Gallo, U.S.) Burrowing deep into his creeped-out psyche, Gallo also makes the outside world a pleasure to look at. The cinematography is ravishing, and so is Christina Ricci
The B sides (which in a less prolific year would have been in the top bunch): La Sentinelle (Arnaud Desplechin), Next Stop Wonderland (Brad Anderson), Babe: Pig in the City (George Miller), I Went Down (Paddy Breathnach), Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami), Happiness (Todd Solondz), Snake Eyes (Brian De Palma), Nil by Mouth (Gary Oldman), Life of Jesus (Bruno Dumont), The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen), There’s Something About Mary (Peter and Bobby Farrelly), and for showing the expressive range of digital-8 video, Celebration (Thomas Vinterberg).
Most Promising Debut: Lynne Ramsay’s short Gasman.
Very Promising: Lena’s Dreams (Heather Johnston and Gordon Eriksen), Slums of Beverly Hills (Tamara Jenkins), Hav Plenty (Christopher Cherot), š (Darren Aronofsky), Parallel Sons (John Young), Under the Skin (Carine Adler), First Love, Last Rites (Jesse Peretz), Moment of Impact (Julia Loktev), and Shulie (Elizabeth Subrin).
Bits and Pieces: Purely for the way they look, sound, and move, the first hour of Belly (Hype Williams) and the two big battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg).
Most Moving Revivals and Restorations: The Leopard (Luchino Visconti), Shivers (David Cronenberg), Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese).