Rewinding 1998 -- The Year in Film

Commentary by James Berardinelli
December 31, 1998

Go Directly to the Top 10

Go Directly to the Bottom 10

Common wisdom has it that the overall quality of movies has been in a sharp decline over the last five years. At the end of 1997, I encountered several "Top 10" lists with less than 10 entries. The reason? The critics compiling the lists didn't think there were 10 titles worth honoring. That certainly wasn't my position last year, nor will it be in 1998. As always, there are worthy candidates that miss the Top 10 - that's why there's an "honorable mention" section.

Back to the question at hand - Is there a meltdown of movie merit? For handy reference, here's a compilation (presented in percentages) of how I rated films over the last five years:

Rating/Year 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 5-Year Average
4 Stars 3% 4% 2.5% 2% 1% 2.5%
3.5 Stars 16.5% 18.5% 16.5% 14% 13.5% 16%
3 Stars 24.5% 23.5% 30% 32.5% 37% 29.5%
2.5 Stars 19% 20.5% 21% 20% 17% 19.5%
2 Stars 26.5% 23.5% 16.5% 19% 17% 20.5%
1.5 Stars 7.5% 4.5% 8% 6.5% 9% 7%
1 Star 1.5% 2.5% 3.5% 4% 4.5% 3%
0.5 Stars 1.5% 2% 1.5% 1% 0.5% 1.5%
0 Stars 0% 1% 0.5% 1% 0.5% 0.5%

What this breakdown shows is a trend away from "great" films and "marginal" films towards "good" films. The number of 4-star and 3 1/2-star movies has been decreasing, but so has the number of 2-star and 2 1/2-star movies. The only category with a consistent increase has been the 3-star category, which has absorbed the losses from the others. Consequently, the number of "recommended" films (3 stars or better) has increased slightly. It's also worth noting that the number of "really bad" films hasn't varied much.

Overall, 1998 looks much the same as 1997. There were fewer 3 1/2-star and 4-star films, but more 3-star offerings. The same was true of 1997 with respect to 1996. The industry may be slipping a little, but it's not careening out of control on a runaway course with disaster (at least as far as quality is concerned). So, the next time I start moaning about the collapse of modern cinema, it probably just means that I have had a bad week.


Regardless of what film quality is doing, one thing is clear: revenue is going up. 15 films made more than $100 million during the 1998 calendar year. This includes twelve 1998 releases and three holdovers from 1997 that made the bulk of their money during 1998. It does not include possible late-year 1998 contenders like You've Got Mail that could reach the Promised Land in 1999. (By comparison, 10 movies topped the $100 million mark during 1997.)

Goliath was, of course, Titanic. Released the weekend before Christmas 1997, it amassed a gross of about $75 million before the new year, on its way to setting a new domestic box office record of $600 million and collecting the rewards of an Oscar avalanche. $525 of Titanic's take was gathered in 1998. (Question for prognosticators: Will the new Star Wars movie, The Phantom Menace, exceed Titanic's overall North American gross? Based on an analysis of why Titanic made what it did, my guess is "no.")

The two other 1997 films getting rich in 1998 were As Good as It Gets and Good Will Hunting. Both were helped immeasurably by Oscar nominations. Here's the 1998 roster: Armageddon ($201 million), Saving Private Ryan (about $190 million - it's still in theaters), There's Something about Mary ($173 million), Dr. Dolittle ($144 million), Deep Impact ($140 million), Godzilla ($136 million), Rush Hour (about $132 million), The Waterboy ($131 million and climbing), Lethal Weapon 4 ($130 million), The Truman Show ($125 million), Mulan ($120 million), and A Bug's Life ($120 million and climbing rapidly).

As one can tell from glancing at the titles, there's not necessarily a correlation between quality and box office victory. The two "space debris on a collision course with Earth" (Deep Impact and Armageddon) both did quite well despite being deservedly panned by critics (intelligence was not a criterion embraced by either script). Semen went mainstream in There's Something about Mary. Eddie Murphy still proved he has drawing power (Dr. Dolittle). Jackie Chan and Adam Sandler staked their claims to superstardom (Rush Hour, The Waterboy). Steven Spielberg made a gut-wrenching war movie that came close to being the highest-earning 1998 release (Saving Private Ryan). Despite challenges from Dreamworks, Disney rebounded from a less- than-stellar 1997 (Mulan, A Bug's Life). And Jim Carrey showed he can act, not just posture (The Truman Show).


Paradoxically, one of 1998's biggest money makers was also one of its biggest disappointments. Godzilla, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin's followup to Independence Day, was easily the most hyped movie of 1998, and, when all the tickets were counted, it made more than $130 million. However, that was about half of what many pundits had been predicting. It's not hard to understand why the film underperformed - no story, no characters, no tension. Critics hated it and "regular" audience members weren't much kinder.

There were some other stunning box office disasters, as well. Despite being relentlessly hyped by Oprah Winfrey, Beloved failed to make much of an impact, proving to be (a) too long, (b) too confusing, and (c) too depressing for most viewers (the lack of audience recognition doesn't detract from the film's bruising power). Babe: Pig in the City suffered for different reasons: poor publicity and marketing by Universal Pictures, and being released on the same weekend as A Bug's Life. This summer's The Avengers died a deservedly quick death. Despite the participation of Sean Connery, Ralph Fiennes, and Uma Thurman, the movie proved to be a critical and popular failure. Primary Colors, U.S. Marshals, Meet Joe Black, and The Siege all produced the kind of anemic returns that studios dread. Then there was Psycho, the much maligned shot-by-shot "re-creation" of the Hitchcock classic. After a respectable opening weekend, the movie thankfully took a sharp nosedive. After this debacle (one of many to be laid at Universal's feet this year), it's not likely that anyone will follow in Gus Van Sant's remake footsteps any time soon.

Take Two, or Three, or Nine

This was an especially busy year for sequels, few of which made much of an impact. Only one (Lethal Weapon 4) broke the $100 million mark, and most performed so poorly that they effectively killed off whatever series they were representing. The only exceptions were Star Trek: Insurrection (it would take a cataclysm of galactic proportions for Paramount to shut down their cash cow) and the aforementioned Mel Gibson/Danny Glover buddy film.

The worst sequels were easily I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Species 2, The Odd Couple 2, and Major League: Back to the Minors. Halloween: H20, which put an end (once and for all) to the Michael Myers slasher saga, had an okay box office showing. Blues Brothers 2000 and U.S. Marshals, both of which were missing key characters (John Belushi from The Blues Brothers and Harrison Ford from The Fugitive), arrived in theaters - and promptly bombed. Then there's the sad tale of Babe: Pig in the City, a movie that should have gotten more exposure than it did, but, because of bungling by the distributor, became of one 1998's best- kept secrets.

Deja Vu All Over Again

Sequels aren't the only way to give audiences that feeling of comfortable familiarity. Another tried-and- true path is the re-release. 1998 saw the return of a few older titles. The biggest splash was made by Grease, which, having been cleaned up and remastered, took advantage of the '90s infatuation with all '70s things. (Ironically, Grease was originally an example of a movie that took advantage of the '70s infatuation with all '50s things.) Gone with the Wind returned in a Technicolor restoration, as did The Wizard of Oz. Oddly, both films were re-released for their 59th anniversaries. (Is 59 a special number?) Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria and Orson Welles' reconstructed A Touch of Evil (which was re-edited using a lengthy memo prepared by the director after the studio butchered his cut) both received distribution in select art houses, and The Big Chill came and went to a decidedly frosty reception.

Then there are TV shows remade as movies. The worst wasn't The Avengers, although it was close. That honor went to A Night at the Roxbury, a hideous Saturday Night Live skit that made an even worse feature-length motion picture. Ringmaster took a fictional look behind the scenes of Jerry Springer's talkshow circus. The Rugrats Movie brought the popular cartoon series to the big screen. The once-campy Lost in Space received a special effects-laden, serious movie treatment. And both The X-Files Movie and the ninth Star Trek feature offered fans new stories with familiar characters.

Movie remakes included a pair of Hitchcock masterpieces - Psycho and A Perfect Murder, based on Dial M for Murder. (I'm not counting Rear Window, since that was made for TV.) Six Days, Seven Nights , a marginal romantic comedy with Harrison Ford and Anne Heche, bore a striking resemblance to The African Queen. Mafia! (originally called by the more witty moniker, Jane Austen's Mafia) limply spoofed The Godfather, while Leslie Nielsen's Wrongfully Accused tried, with no success, to cull laughs out of a parody of The Fugitive. Disney pulled out new versions of The Parent Trap and Mighty Joe Young. Dreamworks gave us The Prince of Egypt, an animated interpretation of The Ten Commandments. Wim Wenders' glorious The Wings of Desire was re-worked as the more mainstream City of Angels, with Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage. And the latest attempt at telling the Cinderella story was called Ever After, featuring Drew Barrymore cast against type, and Leonardo Da Vinci replacing the fairy godmother.

Parlez-Vous Francais?

1997 was not a good year for foreign-language films, but 1998 was. More than a dozen high-quality non- English films made their way across North America in limited distribution, and one (Roberto Begnini's Life is Beautiful) began making cameo appearances in multiplexes towards the year's end. And, while French films still dominated the imports, they comprised a smaller portion of the market than in the past. Notable by their absence were any Chinese offerings.

The best of all the foreign entries was the German Beyond Silence, a brilliant, heartbreaking look at the life of a hearing young girl who is raised by deaf parents. The Celebration, the first release made under Dogme 95, dissected a dysfunctional family. Character, 1998's Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, was a Dickensian offering. The Dress was an offbeat comedy that follows a dress from person-to-person. The Thief, a Russian feature, examined a child's hero worship of an undeserving man. Four Days in September, featuring Alan Arkin, explored the relationship between a hostage and his captors. The Inheritors was a grim fable about the price of autonomy. Junk Mail followed the life of a twisted, thoroughly dislikable postman. And the aforementioned Life Is Beautiful, which Miramax is pushing for Best Film, starred Italian sensation Roberto Begnini as a concentration camp internee who shields his son from the brutal realities of life as a Jew in World War II Italy. The movie has unjustly come under fire for its depiction of the Holocaust - a more reasonable criticism is that the first hour wasn't as light and funny as it was supposed to be.

That leaves the five French films. There was Artemisia, a biography of the famous artist. Seventh Heaven, from director Benoit Jacquot, autopsied a collapsing marriage. Marie Baie des Anges was all images with little substance - a beautiful film to look at for those that don't demand a solid or coherent narrative. Post Coitum was an over-the-top melodrama about the obsessive relationship between an older woman and a younger man. Finally, Un Air de Famille, the best French film to grace these shores this year, presented an uncompromising, acidly funny look at the struggles of an antagonistic family about to blow apart.

Real Views

As good as 1998 was for foreign language features, that's how bad it was for real stories. For anyone living outside of the New York or Los Angeles area, the year offered only two genuine documentaries, along with a pair of pseudo-docs. Both of the legitimate films were character portraits. The first, Wild Man Blues, followed Woody Allen on a saxophone tour of Europe and showed a more private side of the public figure. The second, Bennett Miller's debut, The Cruise, shone the spotlight on talkative Manhattan tour guide Timothy "Speed" Levitch.

For those who don't mind a little fiction mixed in with their facts, there was Michael Moore's The Big One, a sometimes-hilarious condemnation of big business. The problem with this movie, as with all of Moore's work, is that the film maker's ego interferes with the material, and he has a tendency to stage scenes. However, while Moore kept up the pretense of making a documentary, director Nicholas Barker did no such thing. He readily admitted that the brilliant, entertaining Unmade Beds (about New York residents using dating services) was 90% made up, even though it seemed strangely real.

Christmas Leftovers

Every year during the last week of December, as regular as clockwork, studios open a handful of "prestige" films in New York and/or Los Angeles. After running exclusively there for a limited period of time, the movies begin to snake their way to other cities, often by strange and unpredictable routes. Big budget releases are typically everywhere within one-to-two weeks; smaller movies may take months to reach smaller markets (if they ever get there). If you happen to live in or around one of the United States' two most populous cities, you can see these films before December 31. Otherwise, prepare to wait until winter is at its most brutal. And, while this is not intended to be a comprehensive list of these "Christmas leftovers," it hits the highlights.

The best of the bunch is Hilary and Jackie, the brilliant exploration of the relationship between celebrated cellist Jacqueline du Pré and her sister, Hilary. This October Films release, opening in NY and LA on December 30, will gradually spread wider throughout January and February. Affliction, a Lions Gate picture starring Nick Nolte and based on the novel by Russell Banks, has the same opening date, but an even less ambitious release strategy. Those not living in the top 20 or 30 markets may never see this movie unless it captures an Oscar nomination or two. The General, John Boorman's Cannes-honored film about an Irish gangster, opened on December 18 in New York. Sony Pictures Classics is distributing this movie, so it may take six months before it reaches certain areas.

There are a trio of big names. The first, Paramount's A Simple Plan, opened in about a dozen select markets in mid-December (including a couple of small locales). The mystery/thriller, about men fighting over money found in a crashed plane, should be available everywhere by the end of January. Then there's The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick's long-awaited return to cinema. This visually stunning three- hour war epic (based on James Jones' autobiographical 1962 novel) opened in New York and Los Angeles on December 23; it goes wide on January 8. A Civil Action, the Steven Zaillian courtroom drama featuring John Travolta as a lawyer who grows a conscience, follows a similar plan of action by opening in NY/LA on Christmas Day, then spreading nationwide two weeks later.

Seeing Double, Seeing Red

The Thin Red Line gave three prominent actors the opportunity to be in two movies simultaneously. Sean Penn, often cited as the best American actor of his generation, had a key role in The Thin Red Line as a sergeant in the middle of the action. At the same time, he could be seen in the limited distribution feature Hurlyburly, where he gave an astonishing performance as a cocaine-addicted casting agent. If there's any justice in the world (which there isn't), Penn will get a nomination for Hurlyburly. Hopefully, his exposure in The Thin Red Line will increase his chances.

Nick Nolte is the second actor. In The Thin Red Line, he did a credible impression of George C. Scott's General George S. Patton. Meanwhile, in Affliction, he gave what may be the best performance of his career as a man on the edge. Affliction has deservedly made an appearance on a number of prominent Top 10 lists (it's not on mine, but it is an "honorable mention"), and Nolte is one of the reasons for this. Like Penn, he deserves to be recognized by the Academy.

Finally, there's John Travolta. His role in The Thin Red Line was only a cameo (and an ill- advised one, at that), but he had a significantly larger part in A Civil Action, the true story of a lawyer's struggles on behalf of a small town with polluted water. Although Travolta was not great in the film, he did a passable job. This is not the kind of performance that deserves even cursory consideration for an award. (Therefore, Travolta will probably get a nomination while both Penn and Nolte are passed over.)

Family Treasures

1998 was the best year in recent memory for family movies. Oh, there were some crummy features (Simon Birch, The Quest for Camelot, The Rugrats Movie, The Parent Trap), but, overall, this was the kind of year when a parent didn't have to dread being dragged to a theater by their young offspring. Most of the kids' films held their share of pleasures for adults.

Leading the way, as one might expect, was Disney. While the Magic Kingdom's live action efforts were predictably awful, their two animated features, Mulan and A Bug's Life, were top of the line (and both made more than $100 million). Dreamworks SKG, which has set itself up as a direct competitor to Disney, served up The Prince of Egypt and Antz, both of which were as good as the Disney animated offerings. All together, these two rival companies provided four high-quality animated pictures.

In the live-action department, there was an additional quartet of fine movies. The best was Miramax's The Mighty. Based on the novel Freak the Mighty, this movie told the story of two physically and mentally mismatched young boys who became best friends and learned to use their imaginations to take them on strange and wondrous adventures. Babe: Pig in the City was the delightful followup to the Oscar nominated Babe. Contrary to early rumors, it wasn't too dark for children. In fact, it was the kind of movie that viewers of all ages will love. The Borrowers and Madeline, both based on popular book series, were faithful to the spirit of their source material.

Quirky, Obscure, and Generally Worth Seeing

Here are some films worth a look either in theaters (if they're still playing) or on video. None of these made the Top 10, but they all have qualities that make them interesting and/or enjoyable.

If you're in the mood for a comedy, here are some suggestions. Bulworth, starring Warren Beatty, took the year's most vicious swings at politics, topping both Wag the Dog and Primary Colors for candor and cynicism. The movie got a little silly towards the end, but, overall, it represented a brilliant, scathing attack on the process of running for office. The Big Lebowski was one of several memorable, twisted comedies. From the Coen Brothers, the creators of Fargo, Lebowski used a mistaken identity to send Jeff Bridges' dope-smoking loser on a series of hilarious misadventures. Don't miss the John Turturro cameo (not that you can, unless you're asleep). Another warped 1998 offering was Orgazmo, a movie definitely not designed for everyone. However, anyone looking for an openly-campy parody of really bad movies should enjoy this NC-17 romp. For a much lighter choice, try Waking Ned Devine, an Irish comedy about a group of villagers who got together to pretend that a dead man was still alive so they could collect his lottery winnings. The film was likable if not brilliant. Then there was Shakespeare in Love, which toyed with historical facts to create a romantic comedy about how the Bard was inspired to write "Romeo and Juliet." Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes star.

If thrillers are more to your taste, try the brilliant Insomnia, about a police officer investigating (and covering up) a murder he committed. Taut and suspenseful, it was the opposite of film noir, taking place in the Land of the Midnight Sun. For something a little more mainstream, try Ronin (with Robert De Niro), about a group of unemployed ex-Cold warriors becoming mercenaries, or The Siege (with Denzel Washington), which postulated what might happen if New York City became the target of frequent terrorist attacks. Then there's The Negotiator, which featured a tense cat- and-mouse game between hostage negotiator Kevin Spacey and negotiator-turned-hostage-taker Samuel L. Jackson, or Out of Sight (with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez), which had games of a different kind. Finally, if you're in the mood for something offbeat, look up Pi, the low-budget science fiction thriller about a math genius who invented a supercomputer capable of predicting the future.

For drama fans, here are a few suggestions. If you're partial to Hal Hartley, check out Henry Fool, the story of a socially-inept savant. Live Flesh, from Pedro Almodovar, was among the Spanish Bad Boy's most remarkable films. Sliding Doors, with Gwyneth Paltrow, could be considered a drama, a comedy, or a science fiction tale. It was about how blind chance can affect the progression of a life. A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, from Merchant-Ivory, was a poignant and insightful story of an American family living in Paris. Central Station was a Brazilian "buddy film" about how a childless old woman and a motherless boy bonded with each other while on a journey together. Gods and Monsters told of a fictional friendship between film director James Whale and his lawn cutter. Ian McKellan and Brendan Fraser star. Men with Guns, directed by John Sayles, transported us into the jungles of Central America where guerrilla warfare was destroying a culture. Then, for those who don't mind challenging motion pictures, there was Under the Skin, about feuding sisters trying to cope with their mother's death, and Your Friends and Neighbors, about a group of eight vile, clueless losers.

The Dregs (The Bottom Ten)

These are presented in "reverse order" (the absolute worst, #1, is presented last):

10. Hush: Chock full of bad acting (Jessica Lange's worst performance since King Kong), dumb dialogue, and stock plot "twists," this sorry excuse for a psychological thriller is more likely to put viewers asleep than keep them on the edges of their seats. And don't think the ending redeems the rest of the film -- because there isn't one.

9. Ringmaster: Those who find Jerry Springer's TV program to be offensive will go ballistic over this movie, where the "Ringmaster" attempts a heartfelt defense of the morality of his talkshow. Even Springer fans may be discouraged by this amateurish production, which focuses on the pathetic and uninteresting lives of several would-be guests. As for the star, it's clear that he has no future on the big screen. He wins the year's Steven Seagal award for Best Imitation of Firewood.

8. Almost Heroes: Chris Farley's last movie is also arguably his worst (not that any of his films were classics). Painfully dumb and unfunny, it's about the last thing any self-respecting comedian would want as his parting gesture.

7. Deep Rising: The story -- bad special effect attacks cruise ship -- is stupid, the characterization is non-existent, and the acting is terrible. The gore level is extreme; the film makers were probably hoping that the on-screen carnage would make audience members sick before the production values did. Deep Rising would have been eligible for the year's high camp award if it weren't so monotonous.

6. I Still Know What You Did Last Summer: ...But I wish I didn't. This series is beginning to make the Friday the 13th movies look like passable entertainment. Hopefully, the low box office take will preclude the possibility of a third installment.

5. Let's Talk about Sex: Despite the salacious title, Let's Talk about Sex fails as effective exploitation fare. It is, however, incredibly stupid and unbearably melodramatic. There's no evidence of talent -- the writer/director can't write or direct, the actors can't act, and the editor can't edit. See this movie if you're interested in observing just how inept a film can be.

4. The Avengers: Speaking of inept, that's just one word that can be used to describe The Avengers. Others would be "agonizing," "boring," and "pointless." If you thought Sean Connery, Ralph Fiennes, and Uma Thurman couldn't combine for a first-class bomb, you were wrong. The movie is so bad that Diana Rigg refused to make a cameo, and Patrick Macnee only lent his voice to the proceedings. Not even worth a look on video.

3. Firestorm: Possibly the most entertaining bad movie of 1998, Firestorm is a hoot for those who love terrible acting. Howie Long, one of FOX's NFL pregame team, tries his hand at being an action hero, but fails because he can't quite match Steven Seagal's stoic demeanor or Jean Claude Van Damme's accent. If not for some nicely- staged forest fire sequences, this would have been a complete waste of celluloid. It is a complete waste of time.

2. A Night at the Roxbury: Saturday Night Live has sunk to new lows. Compared to this, The Coneheads and It's Pat are prime entertainment. There's not one laugh in the whole of this supposed comedy. Coupled with two unbearably irritating lead characters, that makes A Night at the Roxbury unbearable.

1. Knock Off: What can I say about this movie other than that it's the only zero star film of the year? Jean Claude Van Damme proves that he may be the most incompetent mainstream actor working today (worse than **gasp** Steven Seagal), but it doesn't really matter, because the plot is so incoherent that viewers are too busy trying to figure out what's going on to notice his performance. Here's the conundrum: the movie is so bad it has to be seen to be believed, but it's unwatchable.

The Acme (The Top 10)

These are presented in "reverse order" (saving the best for last):

Honorable mention: Affliction, Beloved, Down in the Delta, Insomnia, Men with Guns, The Mighty, Mulan, Out of Sight, Ronin, Sliding Doors

10. Little Voice: It's a small film with a big heart and a trio of tremendous performances. Little Voice, which tells the story of a shy young woman who can perfectly match famous singers, is a character-centered (as opposed to a plot- centered) movie, and there isn't a moment of interpersonal interaction that doesn't work. Jane Horrocks, Brenda Blethyn, and Michael Caine are all superlative. The musical sequences are grand, the romantic aspects are understated, and the climax is cathartic without going over-the-top. Little Voice is a marvelous drama that puts pretenders like Stepmom and Patch Adams to shame.

9. The Opposite of Sex: If not for Happiness, The Opposite of Sex would have captured the title of 1998's Most Audacious Comedy. With a flawless performance by Christina Ricci and some of the sharpest, most intelligent dialogue in any film this year, The Opposite of Sex is hilarious and potentially offensive, but never dumb. Although it's raunchier, funnier, and smarter than There's Something about Mary, The Opposite of Sex isn't all gags, jokes, and satirical voiceovers. Director Don Roos throws in a few effective dramatic moments that, in concert with everything else, make this movie a complete package.

8. Dark City: This movie came and went quickly, never making more than a fading death rattle at the box office. That's too bad, because it was the year's most intriguing and stylish science fiction thriller. The set design alone is reason enough to see the movie, but the convoluted, Machiavellian plot will keep even the most savvy viewer intrigued and involved. The storyline involves a man searching for a key to his own identity in a nightmare world of sinister figures, femmes fatales, and strange creatures. Dark City is a glorious, engaging motion picture that demands to be seen more than once. And, if you have a DVD player, you're in luck. Roger Ebert's commentary track is not to be missed.

7. The Horse Whisperer: Robert Redford's much-anticipated adaptation of Nicholas Evans' book takes a melodramatic story and turns it into a masterful meditation on grief, loss, and healing. Redford and writer Richard LaGravenese understood exactly which elements of the narrative to change for maximum effect. The result is a beautifully constructed, visually stunning, emotionally poignant motion picture that touches the heart without cranking up the manipulation to an unbearable level. Young actress Scarlett Johansson outacts co-stars Redford, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Sam Neill in a performance that's worthy of an Oscar nomination.

6. The Celebration: Dogme 95 may be little more than a publicity stunt by a group of Danish directors, but, in The Celebration, it has produced one stunningly powerful motion picture. The story, about dark family secrets emerging during a celebratory birthday party dinner, isn't unique, but the presentation is. Director Thomas Vinterberg's approach creates a claustrophobic atmosphere that seeps into the viewer's bones. The Celebration's climax has a forceful impact because the characters and their situations have become real to us.

5. Happiness: Todd Solondz's followup to Welcome to the Dollhouse is, without a doubt, the year's most controversial film. It is also one of 1998's most challenging and rewarding cinematic experiences. Happiness is a dark, dark comedy about emotional alienation and family dysfunctions. Mainstream movie-goers looking for a good time out will be shocked, appalled, and offended. However, those who approach the film with an open mind and appropriate expectations will find a motion picture that is as brilliant as it is disturbing.

4. Pleasantville: If Happiness isn't to your taste, perhaps Pleasantville, a tale of two '90s teens traveling into the world of a '50s sit-com, is. One of 1998's most innovative movies, this is the best of several Twilight Zone-like offerings. Regardless of whether you see this movie as a gentle dramatic comedy, a blistering satire, or some combination of the two, there's no denying its universal appeal. With cutting edge special effects that seamlessly blend black-and-white and color images, Pleasantville is a visual marvel.

3. Beyond Silence: The German nominee for the 1998 Academy Awards, this film was not released in the United States until early this year, and proved to be worth the wait. A story about a young musician growing up with deaf parents, Beyond Silence has an emotionally-rich tapestry that is made vivid by the three-dimensionality of the protagonist. Brilliantly portrayed by Sylvie Testud and Tatjana Trieb, Lara is one of the year's best developed characters. As a whole, the movie delivers a powerful dramatic punch and offers an ending that, while satisfying, does not betray all that precedes it.

2. Hilary and Jackie: Like Beyond Silence, Hilary and Jackie uses classical music to excellent effect. A dramatization of the tempestuous relationship between cellist Jacqueline du Pré and her sister, Hilary, this complex, heartbreaking motion picture was the only 1998 movie to coax a tear from me. With a structure that repeats scenes from different points-of-view, Hilary and Jackie shows both sides of the central relationship. The script is virtually flawless, the soundtrack is spectacular, and Emily Watson (as Jackie) gives the best female performance of the year.

1. Saving Private Ryan: So many plaudits have been heaped upon this film in the last six months that there's little I can add here. Saving Private Ryan is the most devastating film ever made about war, and contains the most intense 30 minute sequence (the Omaha Beach invasion) that I have ever experienced in a movie theater. Consistently compelling and, by turns, wrenching and touching, Saving Private Ryan presents the reality of war, not the romanticizing of it. There's no good and evil here; there are no heroes and villains. The characters are just men trying to win battles so they can go home, and the tragedy is that, as in real life, many didn't make it. Of all the movies of 1998, Saving Private Ryan had the greatest impact and will long be remembered as the standout of the class.

For those who like looking ahead, 1999 offers some intriguing titles. The early part of the year will see the release of two promising motion pictures, the Spanish thriller Open Your Eyes, and Joan Chen's affecting directorial debut, Xiu Xiu. With the onset of summer, audiences will be treated to George Lucas' overhyped, much-awaited Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace. Stanley Kubrick's latest, Eyes Wide Shut, reaches screens (tentatively, as is everything with Kubrick) in July. And the end of the year will see the 19th Bond outing, The World is Not Enough.

Next: "Who Should Be Nominated"

© 1998 James Berardinelli

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