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.
8. The Eel. Is this mysterious Japanese masterpiece a lurid film noir, a droll comedy, a romantic melodrama, a savage farce? Yes, and more. Indeed, this tale of a wife-killer's redemption after eight years in stir might even be a sort of metaphoric autobiography, as about that much time has passed since director Shohei Imamura made his previous movie Black Rain (not to be confused with Ridley Scott's soggy thriller of the same name). Suffice it to say that Imamura is back: His equally beguiling Dr. Akagi is due in '99, and The Eel is playing one more week at the Parkway.
9. Buffalo '66. If Martin Scorsese, John Cassavetes, and Abel Ferrara took turns directing scenes of a film written by and starring Jerry Lewis, it might resemble this wonderfully perverse story of a beautiful loser who behaves like a jerk until, suddenly, he finds salvation. Writer-director-star Vincent Gallo borrows from the best while adding his own bestial screen presence to charm Christina Ricci's beauty--and, in turn, us.
10 (tie). Beloved/The Big Lebowski/Fear
and Loathing in Las Vegas/Out of Sight/Rushmore/Snake Eyes/There's Something About Mary/Without Limits. Forgive the eight-way tie: I just couldn't bear to leave any of these jewels out of my Top 10. All of them are classic, consummate entertainments (excepting Beloved, which is as tough as its material demands); all represent the well-honed work of veterans (excepting Wes Anderson's Rushmore and the Farrelly Brothers' Mary, which offer freshly bent perspectives on the old love-triangle setup); and all are criminally underrated (excepting the much-loved Rushmore, due here in February). Oh, yeah--and they're all studio films. Hooray for Hollywood!
The Rest of the Top 40(in order of preference). Public Housing; Driver 23; Mother and Son; Licensed to Kill; Two Girls and a Guy; The Celebration; The Farm: Angola, USA; The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender; Clockwatchers; The Saltmen of Tibet; The Disenchanted; Melvin van Peebles: Classified X; Unmade Beds; Little Dieter Needs to Fly; The Last Broadcast; The Mighty; A Simple Plan; The Hanging Garden; The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III; The Cruise; Primary Colors; Central Station; Live Flesh
Better Than You Heard(a.k.a. No. 41 to No. 50). These 10 got a rather bum rap, critically and/or commercially: The Faculty; Ringmaster; Small Soldiers; Pecker; High Art; Regeneration; Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss; Slums of Beverly Hills; He Got Game; The Gingerbread Man.
Musts to Avoid(alphabetically). Let's not bother with the likes of Krippendorf's Tribe and Bride of Chucky--these 10 offended the most while making the very least of their ample talent or their sizable resources:
American History X. Music video with a message: The noble young skinhead's conversion to pacifism can't always save him from the black gangbanger's bullet.
Firelight. This ridiculous costume melodrama abundantly bears out Hollywood Pictures' unofficial motto: "If it's the Sphinx, it stinks."
Godzilla. Blockbusters of this size are designed to be dumb--but do they have to be mean, too?
Knock Off. As the most personable of meathead action dudes, Jean-Claude Van Damme deserves better than this miswired bomb.
Next Stop Wonderland. A "feminist" indie about Fate, celebrating a woman's right not to choose.
The Siege. Notall Arab Americans are terrorists.
Simon Birch. The precocious young dwarf of the title is a cross between E.T., Tattoo, and the baby Jesus. Alas, no Happy Meal tie-in on this one.
Sliding Doors. The moral of this double-life women's picture soaper: Having a career will kill you.
You Must Remember These. In another strong year for local repertory programming, the standouts included: the Mpls./St. Paul, Jewish, and LGBT festivals at U Film Society; Asian Media Access's "Contemporary Japanese Film Series," "Chinese Film Showcase," and "Asian Children's Film and Video Festival" at Metro State University in St. Paul; the Abbas Kiarostami, Claire Denis, Arthur Dong, Jack Smith, and Terry Gilliam retros at Walker Art Center (plus the Walker's "Women in the Director's Chair" and Juneteenth Film Festival); the Red Eye's "Distributor Free Weekend" and its "Everyday Heroes" movies-and-music series in Stevens Square Park; dejunius hughes's Twin Cities Black Film Festival at the Parkway Theatre, et al.; the Weisman's "Wiseman at the Weisman"; Lilies and I Went Down at St. Anthony Main; Fireworks and Unmade Beds at the Parkway; "Warner Bros. 75th Anniversary Festival of Film Classics" and The Beyond at the Uptown; White Dog as part of the "Seeing Whiteness" series on the West Bank campus; the "Multiplex" meeting of indie reelers at the Soap Factory on July 4; and damn near everything at Oak Street Cinema, but especially Mother and Son, McTeague, DDS, Two-Lane Blacktop, Blast of Silence, The Crimson Kimono, Intolerance (with live accompaniment by John Eric Thiede), "Hindi First Fridays," and the in-person appearances of Albert Maysles and Terry Gilliam.
Local Heroes.The following Minnesotans (current or former) premiered worthy indie work in '98: Wendell Jon Andersson (With or Without You); Garret Williams (Spark); Eric Tretbar (Snow); Ben Riesman (McTeague, DDS); Roger Nygard (Trekkies); Steven Greenberg (Funkytown); David Mackay (The Lesser Evil); and Rolf Belgum (Driver 23).
Ten Great Ones to Watch For (or Hope For) Next Year:Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flowers of Shanghai; Jean-Luc Godard's Histoire(s) du cinema; Ingmar Bergman's In the Presence of a Clown; Samirah Makhmalbaf's The Apple; Lodge Kerrigan's Claire Dolan; Gaspar Noe's I Stand Alone; Shohei Imamura's Dr. Akagi; Abel Ferrara's The Blackout; Vin Diesel's Strays; and, needless to say, Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.
Best As-Yet-Unreleased Movie of the Year:Angel on My Shoulder. Exploring the limits of documentary as therapy and dying as a kind of performance art, filmmaker Donna Deitch (Desert Hearts) trains a video camera on her best friend, the actress Gwen Welles (Nashville), as she battles a terminal case of anal cancer. (The movie played but once at U Film's LGBT festival in October.) A self-diagnosed obsessive-compulsive even when in good health, Welles constantly philosophizes her condition ("We're all dying, every one of us") and is eventually faced each waking day with the decision of whether to let herself bleed to death. One of the things that seems to keep her going is the movie: There's always another (near-)death scene to play. Deitch's devotion to the work is equally remarkable as, watching her friend's struggle through the lens, she gives Welles free reign to dictate the terms of her demise.