John's Top 10 of 1998

#1 & #2: Shakespeare in Love/Saving Private Ryan
Sorry to be so conventional, but they're both sensational. My colleagues at Split Screen will only give credit to the screenplay of Shakespeare, and my friends at View Askew will only give credit to the first thirty minutes of Ryan. I loved them both from beginning to end and will be happy to see them both vacuum up the Oscars. Oh, and show me an 'independent' director who experiments more boldly than Spielberg (when he's not being maudlin.)

#3 Hands on a Hardbody
It was on the list in '97 when it hadn't opened anywhere. In '98 it had a boffo thirty week run in Austin - so it's back on the list as the year's best documentary. And now that it opened in NYC in January '99, it will probably return on next year's list. 'It's a human drama thing.'

#4 Selective Service System
This is a six minute short from 1970 available through the Canyon Cinema Coop for all these years, but really rediscovered by the incomparable Austin Film Society. It's real violence for a real purpose. SSS became the foundation for Bill Daniel's excellent Split Screen segment.

#5 An American Love Story
This is Jennifer Fox's ten hour (nine showed at Sundance) intimate family epic for American Playhouse/to be broadcast on PBS later in '99. If you want to use anything in the media to understand family, couples, parenting, racism, the blues, in a word, America, this is it.

#6, #7, #8, #9
In no particular order, these entries all came from the 1998 NY Film Festival - a godsend that restored my faith in movies this year. Now I liked Gods and Monsters, My Name is Joe, The General, and The Dreamlife of Angels a lot. But the Top 10 keepers are Eric Rohmer's A Tale of Autumn, Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration, Todd Solondz's Happiness, and, naturally, Rushmore. Not having been a Bottle Rocket fan in the slightest, Wes Anderson's delightful second feature was a shock. Unfortunately it's also shocking that Bill Murray didn't score the Oscar nod.

Now I'm going to play games with the last spot and talk about the flaws that kept a half-dozen films from making the last slot.

  • Your Friends & Neighbors -- In the Company of Men was calculated; this feels mechanical and actually much meaner.

  • Touch of Evil (reissue) - Without knowing the iconic context, this classic is quite cheesy.

  • There's Something About Mary - I really like all three of the Farrelly's films, but Dumb & Dumber remains my favorite. Jeff Daniels and Jim Carrey are better comic actors than Ben Stiller and Matt Dillon.

  • Affliction - I penalized The Sweet Hereafter last year for not being as good as the Russell Banks novel, so I have to be consistent. Incidentally his 1998 novel Cloudspitter was very heavy going with much repetitious oral storytelling...so the movie could be an improvement.

  • The Spanish Prisoner - A very pleasurable movie until Boston. Then a plausibility collapse not unlike House of Games.

  • The Thin Red Line - So it's been twenty years in between, but now Terrence Malick has made consecutive films about the quality of light dominated by voiceover. He simply lost all faith in dialogue, but still gets a screenplay nomination. I'm working my way through the James Jones source novel now with no better adaptation solution to offer.

So this year there's no real family movie to fill the '97 Austin Powers slot. I wasn't about to have you all throw tomatoes at me by naming The Waterboy. Even the great Bill Murray said he just doesn't find Adam Sandler funny. Anyway the Pierson family saw Waterboy multiple times around the same time that Antz, Rugrats, and A Bug's Life were released. It was indisputably the cream of the crop.

For those of you who took my self-improvement instructions to heart and started reading one book for every four movies, congratulations. Here's some more suggestions by category.

The Ecology of Fear by Mike Davis - a splendidly contentious book about a disaster waiting to happen: Los Angeles.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind - easily the film book of the year. Altman, Bogdanovich & Schrader are not happy. Biskind's poaching on my indie turf for his next release.

Titan by Ron Chernow - an exhaustive story of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., the man who invented the modern capitalist worldwide economy.

The Ax by Donald E. Westlake - You know his film credits (The Grifters, The Stepfather, the source book for Point Blank/Payback), but he also writes a ton of fiction. This one is a diabolical discourse on downsizing.

Freedomland by Richard Price - This goes hand in glove with Clockers. I'm not crazy about Price's highly paid screenwriting, but he is our foremost creator of contemporary, social issue fiction.

Hip Hop America by Nelson George - Music book/argumentative essay of the year. Is it the Spike, Mike of the rap era?

Bleak House by Charles Dickens - One of Dickens' least read novels, it is so rich and so satisfying in both narrative and characters as only a teeming 19th century novel can be. (Thanks to Next Wave's Peter Broderick for the recommendation.) Too many character-driven indie films are practically devoid of any story - a disappointing trend.


Janet's addendum to John's 1998 Top 10

I'm not big on Top Ten Lists in general, but since they exist I can't help but add in my two cents. While there's much common ground with John - Happiness would top my list and I'd add in two others: - Lisa Cholodenko's High Art and Susan Skoog's Whatever. High Art was generally acclaimed for it's smart story and masterful acting. Whatever, which struck me as a surprisingly true girl's coming-of-age story was definitely overlooked. I thought it was dead-on.



Please also see John's Top 10 for 1997


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