Best Films of 1998

Jean-Luc Godard and Marina Vlady

Jean-Luc Godard and Marina Vlady

"Memory, then, is not only a backward retrieval of a vanished event, but also a posting forward, at the remembered instant, to all other future moments of corresponding circumstance."

- Richard Powers

Taking Powers’s comments on the relationship between remembered moments and the posting forward of memories for later retrieval and correspondence as my cue, I sit down and offer you what I believe to be the best films of 1998. I offer these few movies, culled from nearly 100, as my own sort of posting and a beginning to something, a starting point perhaps for future discussion, not simply a wrap-up indicating it’s time to go home now that the show is over.

Best Video Viewing:

Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her. A film-essay I couldn’t recommend to most, yet I find utterly compelling. Nothing less than a meditation on the nature of knowledge, Two or Three Things offers both an aesthetic and political critique of the image and the slippage between what we see and what we know. Increasingly didactic and less playful by 1966-67, Godard never fails to remind us that the sounds and images we witness are both over-determined (corrupt?) yet strangely devoid of any consistent, self-evident meaning. Because of the political fervor of the period and the inscrutability of many of Godard’s reference points, Two or Three Things asks a lot of — but doesn’t insult — its viewer.

Best Trailer:

The Thin Red Line. I look forward to seeing this film in the next couple of weeks when it finally reaches Chicago. The trailer includes one particularly amazing shot depicting a woman swinging back in a swing from right to left. As she sweeps across the screen, with her head titled back, the scream of incoming artillery assaults one’s senses from the right. The juxtaposition produces a unique sense of abstract vertigo.

Guilty Pleasures:

Wild Things, for all the wrong reasons, including a Morphine-induced soundtrack.

Out of Sight. Soderbergh may be slumming in Hollywood here (as Rosenbaum laments), but this unassuming genre piece is well-shot (especially a seduction scene between George Clooney (never a favorite) and Jennifer Lopez), has an inspired soundtrack and provides a thrilling two-hour cat-and-mouse chase mixed with a surprising dose of chemistry.

Disappointments:

Mamet’s Spanish Prisoner. While I was impressed with Mamet’s latest, especially his signature sharp-tongued rapid-fire dialogue and intricate plotting, I found myself wanting more. And though it was a ready-made addendum to my ‘Fallen Women/Con Men’ series at Doc this fall, the themes of chance, and the manipulation thereof, lacked a sense of purpose beyond the paranoid’s cry “no one [and no thing] is what they seem.” I was reminded of Linklater’s Before Sunrise as Mamet takes us back through scenes (of the crimes), revealing to us the cracks and visual sleights of hand that we had missed the first time around. In Sunrise, during a similar return visit through previous ‘sets,’ Vienna no longer appears quite as indifferent; instead, the city is invested with the private history just played out in the film — a history that we share in some small part. Mamet leaves you feeling cheated, robbed, suspicious, while Linklater leaves you feeling nostalgic and strangely hopeful despite everything.

Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Johnny Depp is great, the visuals are great, even the Ricci cameo isn’t bad. But again I was hoping for more. (I don’t know, maybe a tighter script?) and not because the film didn’t live up to Thompson’s book. Did I mention that Depp was great?

Spike Lee’s He Got Game. Never one to shy away from hypocrisy, Lee serves up a double-d dose of it here.

Godard’s For Ever Mozart, Kieslowski’s No End, and Olivera’s Inquietude/Anxiety. Three films from three accomplished directors that never achieve the grace and impact I’ve come to expect from their work.

Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry. I am embarrassed to admit that this is the first Kiarostami film that I have seen. I admired his sincerity, grace, measured pacing, and austere visual style. Despite the heavy symbolism and seemingly quaint response to the protagonist’s cynical (and largely unexplained) world view, the film provides an enigmatic ending that I found both frustrating yet appropriate. Raising issues regarding faith, nationality, occupation, and shared experience, Kiarostami provides few answers and therefore can seem elusive (though I felt my own cultural ‘distance’ didn’t help much). In other words, Taste of Cherry may have been a richer experience had I been able to engage the film in less abstract terms.

Films I wish I hadn’t seen:

  1. Great Expectations (put your clothes back on Gwen)
  2. X-Files (Mulder, go home)
  3. Lost in Space (indeed)
  4. Rounders (John Malkovich rescues an otherwise shoddy effort)
  5. Happiness (if for no other reason than Solondz’s ironic detachment and unmerciful mean-spiritedness)

Films I wish I hadn’t missed:

  1. The Celebration
  2. Fireworks
  3. The Disenchanted
  4. Nights of Cabiria

Top 5 Repertory:

  1. The Hustler. I have seen bits and pieces of Rossen’s masterpiece over the years, but nothing prepared me for the inspired wide-screen screening I was fortunate enough to see this year; Rossen, with the help of cinematographer Schufftan, manages to turn formulaic plotting and wince-worthy dialogue into something fresh and original (even after all these years).
  2. Touch of Evil. Welles re-cut, re-assembled, re-stored, re-deemed.
  3. Next of Kin. Atom Egoyan’s first feature confirms his long-standing fascination with technology(ies of reproduction), the vicissitudes of identity, and, yes, familial relations. Egoyan’s formalism often masks an underlying warm-heartedness, but here he manages to have his cake and eat it too.
  4. Latcho Drom. Tony Gatlif’s quasi-narrative of gypsy culture’s migrations from South Asia to Eastern and Western Europe told in song, dance, gesture, color, and underlined by a bittersweet sense of preservation and loss. I can’t decide which episode I liked most in this rich tapestry of a movie. Like his more recent release, Gadjo Dilo, one feels transported, alive, and a little guilty for peering so close.
  5. La Chienne. Vintage Renoir. Maybe not his best, but for my money still better than most of what I’ve seen this year, or any year.

Top 5 Films of 1998:

  1. Wind of the Gone. I admit that my choice for the best film of the year is a little unfair, since I saw Wind of the Gone at the Chicago International Film Festival and I don’t know what its release status is. Given the attention that Central Station has received, I’m hopeful that Wind can seduce some of the same (fiscal) courage. The film offers a creative blend of genres and rhythms, (bitter) humor, sentimentality, (at times clunky) philosophy and politics, feigned innocence, a nostalgic love and playful critique of cinema, and a giddy pace that knows when and how to slow down to take in the scenery. It isn’t designed to define an age or national cinema, to change the course of the history of world cinema, or to make a billion. Set on the edge of civilization (or our idea of the edge of civilization), it is much less polished and grandiloquent than my pick for last year’s best, Egoyan’s Sweet Hereafter, but nonetheless equally profound.
  2. Tie: The Eel / Henry Fool. Also set “on the edge of things,” The Eel was an enchanting surprise. Many weeks after seeing it, the film’s gentle humor, moral depth and striking imagery continue to resonate. I hope to see Henry Fool again so I can decide if I am giving it too much credit. From the opening scene and first words, I found it to be one of Hartley’s best. Replete with many of the ingredients we come to expect from his films (including whatsherface), Fool was maybe the best written and most (self-consciously) contradictory film I’ve seen this year — tidy in its untidiness, well-scrubbed and unkempt, grandiose and mundane.
  3. Flowers of Shanghai. Having seen Hsiao-hsien Hou’s Goodbye South, Goodbye, and having emerged from the theater as one of the few who seemed to like it, I was anxious to see what he would make of the secluded world of turn-of-the-century Shanghai “flower houses,” in Flowers of Shanghai. Like Goodbye South, Goodbye, the camera lingers over the everyday (if not commonplace) lives of Hou’s characters — this time rich gentlemen and their concubines — and thus creates an absorptive, hypnotic relation between viewer and screen. We get all the trimmings: slack-jawed opium rapture, beautiful, young courtesans, highly codified social practices, and a pervading corruption of both flesh and spirit. Bordering on claustrophobic in its unrelenting restraint, as might be expected, it is what isn’t said or shown as much as what is that makes this film so remarkable.
  4. Un Air de Famille. While I found Klapisch’s When The Cat’s Away instantly charming, after much reflection I feel that his latest effort, Un Air de Famille, edges out as the better film. In each, Klapisch is both ambitious, anxious to comment on what he sees as a breakdown in traditional social and familial relations, and is also quite humble, choosing not to unleash a one-sided treatise, instead offering an equivocal portrait of human frailty, pettiness, and hypocrisy. Unlike Todd Solondz with Happiness, Klapisch launches his criticisms without losing a sense of perspective and, crucially, without relying on the cheap safety of irony. Klapisch’s characters can be and are just as brutal or uncaring (though Solondz ups the ante with a quasi-sympathetic portrait of a pedophile), but they are at the very least afforded the freedom to choose to learn from their mistakes and shortcomings. Solondz purposefully doesn’t offer such forgiveness (maybe this is the stroke of worldly-wise brilliance everyone is so pleased with), instead damning his characters to remain isolated, unfulfilled and laughable. But who is laughing? and why?
  5. Calling the Ghosts. This documentary on the current conflicts in the Balkans is one of those rare films most people will probably never get to see, and for this reason alone is a reminder of just how narrow American (or any) film culture can be (it was originally released in 1996). I sat speechless, as I listened to a group of women reluctantly tell their stories of the grim realities of war and the particular burden it places on women. A sobering experience.