A lifetime ago, when I scribbled for the Village Voice, I used to rail against 10-Best lists as little more than the industrial byproducts of criticism, consisting of onanistic rankings and highly perishable assertions of opinion. In the form of an e-mail exchange, however, such listmaking seems less imperious and more open to challenge–the basis for a jolly debate instead of a series of pronouncements from on high. And I am honored, Jonathan, to have you as my correspondent. Although I sometimes find your opinions wacko and your style unduly belligerent, you’re one of a handful of critics in this country of real stature, and one of the few perennial antagonists for whom I can muster a lick of respect. Not to mention that you’re partly responsible for one of the cinematic highlights of 1998, the restoration of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil: a different and significantly greater film than the studio-mandated recut released over Welles’ weary objections.
Touch of Evil, an essay in physical and moral cacophony that’s now almost suffocatingly pure, shares something with my choices for the best wholly new films of 1998: It’s sui generis. While I’m not about to proclaim any masterpieces (there’s no movie here that I like as much as my 1997 favorite, Robert Duvall’s The Apostle), there are a thrilling number of pictures that succeed in creating their own grammar and syntax–from the febrile flurries of talismans in the zero-budget Pi to the pop-paranoia satellite montages in the zillion-dollar Enemy of the State. No narrative on this list could have been told in the borrowed vocabulary of any other.
Here, then, are my choices for the ten best films of 1998, in the approximate order of preference.
1. There’s Something About Mary (Peter and Bobby Farrelly)
2. Velvet Goldmine* (Todd Haynes)
3. The Butcher Boy (Neil Jordan)
4. Happiness* (Todd Solondz)
5. Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh)
6. Saving Private Ryan–first 30 minutes only (Steven Spielberg)
7. Enemy of the State (Tony Scott)
8. Buffalo 66 (Vincent Gallo)
9. The Opposite of Sex (Don Roos)
10. Living Out Loud (Richard LaGravenese)
Had I more room, I’d have happily added The General, The Gingerbread Man, Without Limits, The Celebration, The Wedding Singer, Home Fries, and possibly The Thin Red Line, about which I’m still trying to make up my mind.
The asterisks are beside movies produced by Christine Vachon, with whom I collaborated on a book about independent filmmaking, Shooting to Kill. I had nothing to do with her pictures and have no financial stake in their fates, but one could argue that I approached them in a not-disinterested state, hoping to like what I saw. (Of course, I’d hoped to like two other recent Vachon movies, Kiss Me, Guido and Office Killer, and don’t mind saying I think they reek.) Most critics have shared my admiration for Todd Solondz’s deadpan roundelay of sexual obsession, Happiness; fewer, I’m sad to say, have agreed on the splendors of Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, which seemed to me one of the most potent evocations of the liberating power of popular culture (in this case, glam rock) ever made. Perhaps posterity will have a different view, as it already has about Haynes’ Safe.
The best movie of the year is There’s Something About Mary?!! Uh-huh. The funniest, the most daringly out-there, and the most consistent. The Farrellys’ picture is all of a piece, its slapstick grounded in an excruciating vision of everlasting adolescence, its male characters in a constant war with their own surging hormones and sexual appendages. If David Cronenberg had been the director, the surreal eruption of pustules on Chris Elliot’s face would have been given its artistic due. And what other director would have had the audacity to make such (loving, inclusive) sport of the physically and mentally challenged? Maureen Dowd and others have tsk-tsked about our increasingly scatological culture, but I’ll take There’s Something About Mary and the sublimely infantile South Park over Reagan-era swill like Porky’s any day. If mainstream American culture has grown progressively more adolescent, then adolescent culture has grown progressively more sophisticated.
What else to say at this point? That I’ve put the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan on my 10 Best list and the last 30 minutes on my 10 Worst list. Like many others, I was so pummeled into submission by the masterful opening barrage that I failed to summon up sufficient outrage over the morally dubious and dramatically ham-handed resolution of the captured-and-freed-German-soldier subplot–which carries the implicit message that you’d better shoot your prisoners of war or they’ll come back and disembowel you. It’s worth saying that Terrence Malick’s meditative The Thin Red Line–which I plan to see again before I review it next week in Slate–is a true anti-war movie; Saving Private Ryan suggests that war is only hell if it’s your head getting blown off instead of your enemy’s.
Readers of my column will be surprised to find the inclusion of a movie produced by the corporate schlockmeister Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Tony Scott, who has previously shown less true film sense than the average NYU undergraduate. I’m surprised, too. Enemy of the State might not be The Conversation, but in its own hyperbolic way it illustrates everything we’ve come to fear about the invasion of cyberspace by the military-industrial complex. Most disturbing, the genius computer geeks, usually countercultural/anarchist heroes, have here been convincingly co-opted by the bad guys. The farcical windup shows a clear Tarantino influence but is actually more satisfying than the one in True Romance.
I’d love to discuss the Christina Ricci double-bill (Buffalo 66 and The Opposite of Sex) as well as my other selections and omissions, but it’s time to pull out the big guns. I learned from my first professional editor, Stephen Schiff, that there’s no point in putting movies on your 10 Worst list that everyone agrees are duds. You have to go after stuff that some people care about. Actually, I dream of the day when my 10 Best list is synonymous with Roger Ebert’s 10 Worst–and vice versa.
Here are my choices for the ten worst movies of 1998:
1. Primary Colors (Mike Nichols). The reality was so much more interesting–not to mention more trashy fun.
2. Life is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni). Or, The Little Tramp Gets Machine Gunned by the Nazis.
3. Your Friends and Neighbors (Neil LaBute). No, yours, buddy.
4. Unmade Beds (Nicholas Barker). Disguised as a documentary, this offers more of Neil LaBute’s friends and neighbors.
5. Godzilla (Roland Emmerich). A crime against Nature and, more important, against Japanese monster movies.
6. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg)–last 30 minutes only (see above).
7. One True Thing (Carl Franklin). The one false move in Franklin’s career.
8. Little Voice (Mark Herman). Not little enough.
9. Patch Adams (Chris Columbus). The preview only–I couldn’t bring myself actually to see the film.
10. Batman and Robin (Joel Schumacher). I know, this was released last year, but it has been all over cable, where I just caught it, and it’s one of the most godawful things ever made.
OK, Jonathan, take your best shot.