More than anything, the movies of 1998 walked the thin (red) line between authenticity and artifice. Whether it was the Psycho replica, the Lolita update, the Touch of Evil restoration, the Kurt and Courtney controversy, the meta-fictions of Pleasantville and The Truman Show, the uncanny resemblance of Wild Man Blues to Woody Allen's own oeuvre, or the screen-version-of-an-anonymous-fictionalization-of-the-CNN-sitcom known as Primary Colors, the operative film question remained: How faithful is this or that rendition of some event that either really happened or only appeared to happen in the media?
To be a movie lover in '98 was to be in a perpetual state of dizziness brought on by enough funhouse reflections to make the climactic shootout in The Lady From Shanghai look like a work of neorealism. Below are some notes on that vertiginous condition called cinephilia, as well as a few recommendations of films that either met the meta-ness head-on or embraced Mother Nature--who, as we all know, is a formidable auteur herself.
1. Taste of Cherry. In a year when most other directors strained to make themselves heard, the most contemplative filmmaker in the world delivered a quiet ode to the beauty of nature. As a forlorn Teheran man (Homayon Ershadi) searches for someone to assist him with his plans to commit suicide, director Abbas Kiarostami appears to devote his minimalist style to changing the man's mind. One character explains that his life was saved by the taste of cherry; so too Kiarostami reminds us that in cinema, as in life, meaning is found in the littlest details. Taste of Cherry screened twice last February as part of the Walker's Kiarostami retrospective; with any luck, it'll return this year for the longer run it richly deserves.
2. Fallen Angels. Wong Kar-Wai's exhilarating pseudo-sequel to Chungking Express is his crowning achievement: an alternately jagged and seamless mix of romantic melancholy, shoot-'em-up mayhem, screwball consumerism, futuristic dystopia, and mid-'90s Hong Kong travelogue, all of it impeccably timed to another of the auteur's sexy jukebox compilations. Asian Media Access will play the film twice this month (January 14 and 29) as part of its wonderful Wong retro at Metro State University in St. Paul.
3. Velvet Goldmine. What a brilliant disguise. Giving the outward appearance of a commercial filmmaker, writer-director Todd Haynes appropriated a handful of marketable elements--Ewan McGregor, "David Bowie," the '70s, sex/drugs/rock 'n' roll, the (would-be) Glam Revival--to secure Miramax financing for a $7-million headphone movie. Although Haynes's ostentatious tribute to the transformative power of art looked absolutely gorgeous on the big screen, it was also too damn good for this world of pre-fab indies like Waking Ned Devine--which is to say that the forthcoming videotape will make the ideal fetish object to be taken out and toyed with as the fan sees fit.
4. Fireworks/Kids Return/Sonatine. Newcomers to Japanese sensation "Beat" Takeshi Kitano had three chances to get acquainted with him this year, as his most recent pair of neo-yakuza thrillers--plus one gently cruel story of youth (Kids Return)--managed to break through a veritable distribution embargo. (Kudos to Asian Media Access and the Parkway Theatre; no thanks to Miramax.) Just as Kitano's deadpan acting and elliptical edits complicate narrative causality, this unintended triple bill--spanning the period around the auteur's near-fatal motorcycle accident in '94--offers a provocative case of before-and-after transformation and ample proof of a consistently rigorous intellect. (AMA screens Sonatine at the Riverview on January 15 and 16, and at Oak Street on January 23.)
5. Affliction. Auteur of machismo Paul Schrader merges with novelist Russell Banks to devastating effect in this wintry howl of a movie. Like Banks's The Sweet Hereafter, it uses a snowy accident as a foil to reveal the subtler chill in family relationships; and the scene in which Nick Nolte's booze-swilling sheriff tears an aching tooth out of his head with a pliers is as vivid an image of tough-guy masochism as anything in the Schrader-penned Raging Bull. Opens January 29 at the Uptown.
6. The Butcher Boy. Happiness be damned: This anti-coming-of-age comedy was the year's strongest example of the new cinema of cruelty. As it charts the everyday oppression and escalating rage of a 12-year-old Irish boy (played with shocking force by young Eammon Owens), Neil Jordan's sharpest film passes a fair amount of brutality onto the viewer; nearly every shot choreographs some casual act of violence that threatens to erupt into all-out butchery. That Jordan regularly attributes this horror to a myriad of forces (e.g., popular culture, poverty, alcoholism, Catholicism, domestic abuse) makes The Butcher Boy far more lacerating than a mere slasher. Indeed, it's no faint praise to say that the film evokes Naked and Heavenly Creatures in its subject matter and GoodFellas in the density of its images and the acuity of its cuts.
7. The Thin Red Line. "Every man fights his own war"--and so does every bird and every blade of grass in Terrence Malick's delicately fractured Guadalcanal epic, which is as much a study of the many sides of nature as of war. The movie differs in every conceivable way from Saving Private Ryan, but most significantly in its determined lack of authoritative "realism" or a single, central character. Cast mainly for their evocative faces, Malick's warriors (Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Ben Chaplin, Woody Harrelson, Jim Caviezel) take turns narrating the story, and the differences between their philosophies speak volumes about the filmmaker's. Opens January 15.