20/20 Hindsight: The Best Movies of 1998

As we start to close out on the decade, so much of what made it unique started to fall by the wayside.  Disney-branded animation, truly independent indies, 1980s holdovers and an incredible run of comedies all began to falter at the close of the 90’s.  At the same time, much of what would become dominant in cinema over the following decade – Christopher Nolan, J-Horror and ‘realistic’ blockbusters – all began to take shape here.  The result was a wonderfully tumultuous year that acts as a cross-section of not just two decades, but two centuries of entertainment.

10. Mulan

By this point, the Disney Renaissance, which began with 1989’s The Little Mermaid, was well and truly over.  The likes of Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992) had already been replaced with movies like Pocahontas (1995) and Hercules (1997), movies like The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) and Home on the Range (2004) weren’t all that far off and, even with only one movie under their belt at this time, Pixar had already picked up the torch that Disney had fumbled to the ground.  That didn’t mean that the company didn’t have one last great movie in them, however, which was nothing short of an anti-patriarchal epic about the woman who saved China.  With endlessly excellent musical numbers, crisp animation, endearing characters and particularly stand-out action sequences, Mulan genuinely holds up even today, especially as the rare Disney movie not centered on the comings and goings of the exceedingly familiar, White, European fairy tale princesses.

9. Ringu

At the turn of the last century, J-Horror – a particular strain of Japanese-produced horror movies that typically dealt with spooks, specters and other phantasmal antagonists – quickly became all the rage.  Although the subgenre emerged with a number of classic films all the way back in the 1950s and 60s, these latter-day entries hit ignorant Western audiences incredibly hard, leading to some fascinating crossover careers and unlikely franchises.  Although certainly not the best of this cycle of horror films, Ringu is easily the most emblematic of the movement.  Wickedly inventive and incredibly well-executed, this is a must-see for horror fans and a fascinating artifact of what was cloying at the minds of moviegoers in the late 90s.

8. Following

Although Christopher Nolan is known today as one of the undisputed masters of the modern blockbuster, that couldn’t be further from the kind of director he started out as.  First hitting the scene with Following, and later with Memento (2001), he fast made a name for himself as an independent, arthouse director of tightly-woven, high-concept crime thrillers.  While his taught, no-nonsense style of direction became an unlikely hallmark of the studio-produced crowd pleasers that have come to define his filmography, it was a carry-over from early films like Following: a barebones, high-minded, black-and-white neo noir that, in its raw, unadulterated form, is likely unlike anything that his fans have seen before (even those who saw Memento).

7. Pleasantville

Tobey Maguire is such an innately dopey actor to watch perform, and Pleasantville is, by design, plays off of such a hokey premise, that it’s easy to understand why most people forget or forgo this movie years after the fact.  It’s on-the-nose earnestness is something that we just don’t see these days, and its reference points are understandably dated at this point.  After all, I might have grown up on my dad’s lap watching old reruns of The Andy Griffith Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show, but that’s hardly a typical experience for cineastes of my generation.  But if you can lean back and groove on this movie’s uniquely retro vibe, there’s actually a pretty wonderful story here, populated by some richly drawn characters and playing with some too often taken-for-granted conventions of cinema.

6. You’ve Got Mail

Like Penny Marshall, Nora Ephron is one of the great, mostly unsung filmmakers of her incredible generation.  Not only is she the women behind the camera in You’ve Got Mail, but she’s the woman who penned the script for When Harry Met Sally… (1989) and the woman who directed Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and Julie & Julia (2009).  And of her sterling filmography, this is understandably the best thing she’s ever worked-on: a clever update to the classic Shop Around the Corner (1940) with two of the decade’s biggest stars and her trademark, crackling dialog.  Although it might suffer from some unfortunate narrative implications toward its third act and is oftentimes better in-the-moment than it is in retrospect, it is a resplendent example of what Romantic Comedies can become when people with talent and vision are allowed to make them.

5. The Wedding Singer

It is often a case that big-name comedians’ best movies aren’t their typical comedies, but their a-typical branching-out into dramas.  It’s not that they’re unfunny people (although they sometimes are) nor that the genre often leans into some rather lackluster material (although that certainly is also sometimes the case).  I think the reason is that these men and women are considerably better actors than we give them credit for, and can finally show off what they’re really capable of when they’re given a project worthy of their abilities.  This is why, for instance, Good Will Hunting (1997) is my favorite Robin Williams movie and The Truman Show (1998) is my favorite Jim Carrey movie (but more on that one in just a moment).  Although Adam Sandler had a genuinely remarkable run throughout the 90’s, it’s this off-kilter romantic dramedy about a down-on-love wedding singer who works for meatballs that is the real standout of his career.  At times sweet, heart-breaking and hilarious, the film mixes up the story just enough to keep us guessing what may happen next, and nails every single beat in its script that it needed to in order to deliver this truly exceptional film.

4. The Truman Show

One of the most inventive dramas I have ever seen, The Truman Show displays the kind of madcap imagination that we more often expect from the “low” genres of Sci-Fi and Fantasy, but the talent, sensibilities and execution of a prestige drama.  Combining the same high and low sensibilities that catapulted Clerks (1994) to the cultural stratosphere, The Truman Show explores the idiosyncrasies of our reality TV-obsessed society and the endearing characters depicted herein.  It’s a charming drama that handily wins out against more traditional dramas of supposedly better quality.

3. Bride of Chucky

Not only am I a sucker for a good horror movie, I’m a sucker for a good comedy.  And while both genres have their unique, private troubles when it comes to making a good movie, when they get it right, they get it right.  The unique combination of the two, in fact, is one of the most satisfying kinds of stories to watch unfold on the big screen, as both deal directly with the heightened, visceral emotions that more subdued features can never touch on.  Bride of Chucky serves as one of the peerless greats of this rarified genre, acting at once as a take-no-prisoners deconstruction of both the Child’s Play franchise and the larger slasher genre as well as fairly straitforward follow-up to the events of Child’s Play 3 (1991), there’s considerably more going on with this bizarre little horror oddity than people give it credit for.

2. Saving Private Ryan

Widely considered the best movie of the year (and the rightful winner of the Best Picture Oscar that Shakespeare in Love ultimately walked away with), it’s hard to argue to the contrary.  After some awkward, present-set bookmarks that frame the story, the rest of the film is a relentless, no-holds-barred period action drama set in the bombed-out villages and blackened fields of World War II.  Avoiding many of the Spielbergian flourishes that have demarked the director’s larger career, Saving Private Ryan – with its stellar cast, powerful script and gob-smacking cinematography – is quite simply the best version of the exact kind of movie that it’s trying to be and handily puts all other war movies to shame.

1. The Celebration

It wouldn’t be a list of mine if I didn’t include something weird and obscure somewhere on it, and the list was more-or-less predictable up to this point.  Maybe I liked Bride of Chucky more than most people and maybe I got onboard the Nolan bandwagon a little early, but something batshit insane and out of left field like this was going to happen.  It was simply a matter of when.  In this case, the movie is one of the founding entries in the Danish-fronted Dogme 95 movement, which sought to combat the commercial artificiality of late twentieth century movies by producing movies made in fierce opposition to it.  Forbading everything from genres to unnatural lighting, the Dogme 95 movies are a strange and exciting bunch, none more so than The Celebration which tracks a family’s descent into madness when, during a patriarch’s birthday celebration, his son accuses him of raping him and his sister as children.  It’s a remarkable achievement in film, both aesthetically and narratively, and unlike anything most people are bound to have seen thus far.



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