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The Best Movies of 1998

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By Jonathan Rosenbaum

What do we mean when we declare something or someone "the best"? Last month, during my first visit to Tokyo, I served on a panel about the late Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu along with director Hou Hsiao-hsien, Hou's principal screenwriter, the president of Tokyo University, and two French critics associated with Cahiers du Cinema. A favorite topic of discussion during our meals together was "Who is the greatest Japanese filmmaker--Ozu, Mizoguchi, or Naruse?" I participated mainly as a listener: my French wasn't up to more, I have yet to see a single Naruse film, and I couldn't see why Kurosawa was left out of the running (the residue, it seems, of shopworn polemics launched in Cahiers du Cinema in the 50s). But with all due deference to the distinguished French critic who raised the question, it seemed a childish issue--like choosing spinach over cauliflower or Monday over Thursday.

Selecting the ten best movies of the year can be a bit of a kid's game, but it has a somewhat higher purpose. It allows us to clean house and provide an inventory (or shopping list), to slow down and survey the lay of the land. But to do all these things coherently, it has to acknowledge the reach of the audience as well as the critic.

If I simply chose the ten best new movies I saw all year, I'd be breaking my contract with Chicago moviegoers. I'd have to include, for instance, Mr. Zhao, a semi-illegal feature from mainland China directed by Lu Yue (one of Zhang Yimou's former cinematographers). Exploring adultery and using improvised dialogue, the film is powerfully performed, beautifully nuanced in its multiple ironies, and visibly influenced by John Cassavetes. It premiered on the last day of the Locarno film festival in August and deservedly won the top prize (from a jury headed by Shigehiko Hasumi--the Japanese critic and university president who hosted the Ozu panel). But since then, this extraordinary first feature has vanished; I haven't heard of it picking up a distributor anywhere.

I'd like to call attention to Mr. Zhao, but I couldn't with a clear conscience include it on my ten-best list without playing a game of one-upmanship with readers. For the same reason, I won't include movies that haven't yet opened locally. Some of my colleagues in Chicago do, but they're catering to the whims of distributors; looking for awards and ad copy, distributors screen these movies for reviewers near the end of the year and open them briefly in New York or Los Angeles to qualify for this year's Oscars. I'd rather my list contribute to an ongoing discussion among viewers than serve as a pronouncement from Mount Sinai, so I'm bypassing such worthy 1999 candidates as Rushmore and The Thin Red Line to concentrate on movies that we could all see in Chicago last year. My colleagues might argue that these 1999 features will surface fairly soon, but theoretically so might Mr. Zhao--in which case it, like those other titles, will qualify for next year's list. My bottom line, in any case, is that a best-of-the-year lineup owes more allegiance to the year and its inhabitants than to anyone else's promotional campaign.

One of my oldest and dearest friends, Meredith Brody, shares my addiction to movie lists. We met at the Paris Cinematheque in the early 70s and usually see each other every year at the Toronto film festival. She lives in Hollywood and works mainly as a restaurant critic, though she also writes about movies--including reviews for the Reader during the Chicago International Film Festival.

When I first met Meredith, she kept a list of all the films she saw in Paris. These days, in Hollywood, she keeps a scrapbook of newspaper ads for all the films opening locally that she hasn't seen; she removes the ad when she sees the picture. While I was visiting her last month, she read aloud some of the titles, all from the past six months. Most if not all of these movies had played in Chicago, so even if I hadn't seen one I'd usually read some publicity material about it, then assigned it to Lisa Alspector and read her subsequent capsule or written a descriptive capsule myself. Yet the curious and disturbing thing about Meredith's list was that whether I'd seen the films or not, and regardless of whether they'd turned up in Chicago, a good 80 percent of them were beyond my recall even after Meredith read me their ad copy.

Premature senility? I don't think so, because a random list of commercial titles from the 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, or 80s wouldn't draw the same blank from me or Meredith. The fact is, all movies could be as terrible and forgettable as most of them are without causing any sort of crisis in the film industry. No matter how incapable Hollywood is of making movies that matter to people, its capacity to advertise, market, and disseminate these movies has only improved, which from a business standpoint ultimately matters more than whether we care about them. To put it in Orwellian terms, Big Brother has won.

Given this wretched state of affairs, I'm hard pressed to explain why, of my favorite 15 movies shown in Chicago last year, 10 are American and 8 are studio releases--though I hasten to add that only 4 of these (The Apostle, Pleasantville, Bulworth, and Touch of Evil) succeeded commercially in theaters. Maybe impossible working conditions create a greater sense of urgency and determination in some filmmakers, or maybe the promotional power behind studio product worldwide is so disproportionately huge that I've been swayed along with everyone else. Yet the two best movies on my list were made almost as far from the machinations of the commercial industry as one can get these days (that's why most of you haven't seen them). Also, of the 47 notable releases cited below, 9 were shown at the Chicago International Film Festival, and most of those exclusively, which suggests that despite all my griping about the festival over the past 11 years, it's become a central resource in presenting many important works that the industry ignores.

1. Inquietude. I prefer the French and Portuguese title of this three-part feature--which my dictionary defines as "disturbed state"--to its English title, Anxiety. But whatever you call it, Manoel de Oliveira's masterpiece offers so many lingering beauties and profundities that even after three viewings I feel I've barely scratched the surface. (Also, because the New York film festival passed on it, it's one of the few major foreign films of 1998 that received a U.S. screening only in Chicago.) It features no stars (excepting Irene Papas in the third episode), and few mainstream critics are liable to support it, so its odds of getting an American distributor are just about nil. But one way or another, I'm sure, it will find its way back to Chicago.

De Oliveira, who celebrated his 90th birthday last month, is the only director working today who started out in the silent era, and while his modernist and aristocratic sensibility is steeped in the 19th century, there's nothing old-fashioned about his work. For Inquietude he daringly combines a one-act play (Prista Monteiro's The Immortals) and two stories (Antonio Patricio's "Suzy" and Agustina Bessa-Luis's "The Mother of the River") into a single narrative: the characters in "Suzy" attend a performance of the play, and one of them recounts to another "The Mother of the River." The theme of existential identity links the three works, and de Oliveira's stately, reflective style fuses them into a seamless and luminous visual poem. Comparable in its achievement only to de Oliveira's Doomed Love (1978), this can't be written off simply as a "testament" that sums up an illustrious career; de Oliveira is currently working on an adaptation of La princesse de Cleves, and he may well have other major films up his sleeve. Indeed, though The Immortals ponders the issues of old age, de Oliveira refuses the conventional pose of the old master looking back on his life and career with equanimity; Inquietude, a masterpiece with irreverent wit, ironic bite, and anger over the vagaries of self-definition, has the decanted authority of Carl Dreyer's Gertrud and the imaginative splendor of The Arabian Nights.

2. Taste of Cherry. This is the first film by Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami to get serious distribution in this country (locally it played at the Music Box). It may or may not equal his Close-up, Where Is the Friend's House? (also known as Where Is My Friend's House?), or Life and Nothing More, but at this level of achievement, making a definitive choice seems as pointless as choosing Ozu over Mizoguchi. Clearly the most severe, concentrated, and rigorous of Kiarostami's major films, Taste of Cherry follows a middle-aged man as he drives his car around the dusty outskirts of Tehran, contemplating suicide and trying to find someone who will bury him if he succeeds or retrieve him from his designated grave on a hillside if he fails. Shot exclusively outdoors and in public spaces, it's concerned mainly with internal and private questions. But it also examines the destruction of suburban landscape, a subject as universal at this stage of our global history as suicide, though only Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet's 1989 Cezanne (still unseen in Chicago) and Hou Hsiao-hsien's 1996 Goodbye South, Goodbye have addressed it as powerfully. Furthermore, by making a Kurdish soldier, an Afghan seminarian, and a Turkish taxidermist the three witnesses to the protagonist's private grief, Kiarostami gives us a more multicultural view of Iran than we might expect.

"I believe the present distance between the filmmaker and the audience is immense, and my kind of filmmaking is interested in reducing that distance," Kiarostami said to me in Chicago last March after two prerelease screenings of Taste of Cherry at the Film Center. He expresses that belief by relying on the spontaneous responses of his unprofessional actors (working as he does without a script) and the creative imagination of the audience, and the extraordinary generosity of the film's controversial and unexpectedly euphoric ending collapses his cast and audience into the same global community.

3. The Apostle. Robert Duvall's remarkable feature reveals that the United States has something resembling a global community inside its borders--an interracial gathering of Christian believers that's generally excluded from its cinema. Serving as writer, director, executive producer, and star, Duvall brought that community into the mainstream of American cinema, giving it a broad canvas without imposing the usual skeptical qualifiers--for instance, the presence of a hypocritical evangelist. His multifaceted film follows a troubled but sincere southern Pentecostal preacher as he strives to reconcile his vindictive murder of his wife's lover with his own salvation.

The film was a labor of love that Duvall nurtured for many years, in defiance of the studios' indifference. And though his own performance as the preacher is central to the film, his ensemble cast, professionals and nonprofessionals alike, gives The Apostle most of its uncommon power, above all during its extended church sequences. Duvall's storytelling may be less masterful than his orchestration of those performances, but the film demonstrates that exposing a world and a way of life can be more relevant and fulfilling than hitting the plot points on time--the principal agenda of that 80 percent of commercial cinema that no one can remember the following week.

4. Small Soldiers. Satire, according to George S. Kaufman, is what closes on Saturday night. But judging from the critical response to Joe Dante's high-spirited satire of watching wars and war movies, it's also what gets pilloried in the Friday papers. I've seen this pleasurable and highly visceral extravaganza twice in Chicago and once with thousands of other viewers at the outdoor piazza of the Locarno film festival, where it was showing on a double bill with There's Something About Mary. All three times I had the delightful experience of being surrounded by viewers of all ages who were laughing as much as I was, all of them clearly in tune with Dante's pointed but far from mean-spirited agenda. Friends who've shown Small Soldiers to ten-year-olds on video have described how much these kids love it and how none of them is so foolish as to confuse toys with human beings. Yet most adult reviewers wrote the picture off as a violent, cynical, and potentially traumatic piece of exploitation with no higher agenda than matching the high-tech shenanigans of Toy Story. The satirical intent--not to mention Dante's love for the noble Gorgonite monster toys, programmed (like so many of their real-life counterparts) to lose--clearly sailed right past them.

This isn't the first time Dante has been misunderstood, nor, I suspect, will it be the last. (His previous picture, the 1993 Matinee, was about war fever, and critics who connected its treatment of the Cuban missile crisis with our periodic eviscerations of Baghdad were few and far between.) Though all his movies are about the ethics and ramifications of spectatorship, Dante prefers to keep a low profile within the studio system and works without a personal publicist, so you won't catch many critics treating him like an auteur. For me the satire of Small Soldiers was so powerful and persuasive that when I saw Saving Private Ryan a week later, the Spielberg film seemed like derivative, warmongering claptrap. Now that Private Ryan has been hailed as the movie to end all wars, I can only wonder whether we've chosen Spielberg as our filmmaker laureate because we implicitly understand that he's every bit as innocent about his motives as we are--meaning that we can all remain children as long as he's the grown-up in charge. "I think World War II was my favorite war," the late Phil Hartman says wistfully in Small Soldiers while showing his wife his fancy new home-viewing setup--or media arsenal. Judging from the success of Private Ryan, Spielberg has lots of company, but now that the critical obfuscation has abated, I hope that home viewers able to laugh at their own worst impulses will discover the year's best studio picture.

5. Jour de fete. The posthumous processing and editing of Jacques Tati's 1947 first feature using the original and innovative Thomson-Color process was big news everywhere in the world--except, apparently, in the offices of Miramax, which distributed the film belatedly (it opened in France three years ago) and as inconspicuously as possible. (Miramax gave the same short shrift to the restoration of Jacques Demy's glorious 1967 musical The Young Girls of Rochefort--my favorite revival of the year, which like Jour de fete was shown at the Music Box. So if you're wondering why the national press ignored these two French gems, ask the Weinstein brothers, the heads of Miramax.) The first color feature shot in France, Jour de fete is arguably the least of Tati's six features, but that's like saying Ozu's Equinox Flower doesn't quite equal Mizoguchi's The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums. Tati is a key comic filmmaker in the history of cinema, and regardless of what the Weinsteins think, none of his features is expendable. Apart from offering an ideal introduction to his work, Jour de fete paints a definitive, loving, and beautiful portrait of a remote village in postwar France that's already feeling challenged and threatened by American technology. This gentle impingement is experienced by Francois, the village postman--in an athletic performance by Tati that predates his four incarnations as Monsieur Hulot--after he sees a newsreel about American postal delivery.

The precious legacy of Thomson-Color, an experimental process conceived as an artisanal invention, is that it allows us to see what the world looked like in 1947, not simply what color films of 1947 looked like. All of Tati's films are time capsules--a quality they share with Ozu's--as well as encapsulations of the world that invite us to cherish it aesthetically. Even more than Joe Dante, Tati teaches us something about the act of spectatorship, though in Tati's case the subject is how we look at the world, not at movies and TV. Maybe that's because back then we still had the world to look at; Jour de fete reminds us more than a little of what we've lost.

6. A tie between two documentaries, Public Housing and Vietnam: Long Time Coming. I mentioned the former in my top-ten roundup last year, when it didn't qualify for the list because it had shown locally only on television; in November this 195-minute in-depth look at everyday life in Chicago's Ida B. Wells housing project finally turned up at the Film Center with director Frederick Wiseman in attendance. The second film, directed by Jerry Blumenthal, Peter Gilbert, and Gordon Quinn, showed at the Chicago International Film Festival and then on public television; in between it turned up briefly in the suburbs but didn't stick around long enough for me to review it.

Insofar as any comparison is possible, Public Housing is clearly the more accomplished of the two films, an epic investigation of a major subject. Vietnam: Long Time Coming also treats a major subject, but in this case it's defined by a single event: a gathering of American and Vietnamese veterans, many of them disabled, who collectively travel on bicycles and hand cycles from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. This 1,200-mile, 16-day journey, organized by World Team Sports, has too many ramifications and disparate details to permit a unified document like Wiseman's film; all sorts of issues--from the corporate sponsorship to the music on the sound track to the status of the undertaking as a sporting event--get in the way, despite the intelligent and purposeful narration delivered by Joe Mantegna.

But I can't deny that certain moments in Vietnam: Long Time Coming brought me to tears--especially the vets' statements as they struggle to make sense of the Vietnam war and their experience of it. As an act of witness to those struggles, the film is irreplaceable, far outshining the muddled and empty rhetoric our commentators choose to dish out about that war. The only documentary on the subject that's ever affected me in a comparable way is the all-but-forgotten Winter Soldier (1972), a straight recording of American vets in Detroit confessing their war crimes while the war was still raging--but that was a highly partisan piece of agitprop, while the new film is a reflective effort to resolve the psychic and moral legacy of the war. By recording what these soldiers have to say about an experience that their respective governments foisted on them, Vietnam: Long Time Coming registers as a heroic and essential piece of filmmaking that will surely be cherished in years to come.

7. Kundun and Flowers of Shanghai. Hardly anyone in the American film industry wanted Martin Scorsese to make Kundun, about the life of the 14th Dalai Lama, but he brought it off with an admirable respect for his audience as well as his subject. Rather than condescend to the public by offering an illustrated history lesson, Scorsese and screenwriter Melissa Mathison dove into the core of the Dalai Lama's life to show us what it looked, sounded, and felt like from the inside--not simply an act of faith but a sign of trust in the audience. And as I suggested last January when reviewing Kundun and The Apostle together, both pictures succeed because they value human presence--people confronting us as other people and not as abstract concepts--over shared beliefs.

Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flowers of Shanghai, which was shown at the Chicago International Film Festival, may well be greater than Kundun and most of the other films on this list, but even after seeing it twice I haven't learned how to find my way through it properly, something that took me a good while to accomplish with his last two features, Good Men, Good Women and Goodbye South, Goodbye (and which, in this case, was further hampered by the film's uneven lip sync). In other words, my admiration for this virtuosic, claustrophobic period drama about power battles waged by Shanghai prostitutes against their male customers and each other hasn't yet been matched by full appreciation, though I suspect that, as with those other films, it will come in time. I might add that, on the Ozu panel, when I commented that Hou and Ozu were both "historians of the present"--especially in reference to Goodbye South, Goodbye--Hou responded that, despite his former interest in period movies, he was beginning to mistrust them because they invite nostalgia, and that he wanted to make more films about the present.

8. Another tie, this one between The Apple and Pleasantville, two hopeful movies about community that surfaced in Chicago around the same time. (I'm stretching the criteria to include The Apple because its October screening at the Film Center was only a preview; it will open commercially later this year.) An Iranian comedy by a teenage girl, Samira Makhmalbaf, The Apple reenacts the true story of illiterate twin sisters who were kept at home from birth, until a social worker discovered them when they were 11 and enabled them to step outside. Pleasantville, by screenwriter Gary Ross, is another first feature about a belated awakening--the discovery of color by a small town that's lodged inside a hokey, black-and-white 50s sitcom.

A few skeptics have argued that The Apple was really the work of Samira Makhmalbaf's well-known father, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who wrote and edited the picture. I doubt this is entirely true--The Apple has plenty of stylistic and behavioral qualities absent from the father's work--but even if it were, I can't see how it matters. (Divorce Iranian Style, a fascinating documentary playing this week at the Film Center, amply displays the potential of Iranian females of all ages to assert themselves in spite of Neanderthal laws.) What does matter is this "politically incorrect" film's poetry and zeal in exposing Iran as a country of communal busybodies, for better and for worse.

Pleasantville sometimes confused the relation between American history and TV history, and evaded the relation between the 50s, the 60s, and the present, but I loved its reinvention of color as well as its implied reinvention of the 90s. In an interview with Bill Stamets in the local alternative weekly Gab, Ross admitted that the only research he carried out for this picture was visiting a contemporary high school, which says more about the true concern of his movie--how awful it is to be a teenager in 1998--than anything else. And unlike The Truman Show (which copped all the critical approval denied Ross's popular favorite), Pleasantville didn't butter up the supposedly media-savvy spinmeisters (i.e., the critics) by showering aristocratic abuse on the audience; its overall spirit was far more democratic, even when it was rejecting the civilization of the 90s in toto.

9. The Newton Boys. Another fine studio picture that was slammed so severely by the press that few people ever got to see it. Each of Richard Linklater's four preceding features (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, and SubUrbia) contains its action within the span of a single day. But this engaging, mysterious, and buoyant period piece chronicles the exploits of the most successful band of bank robbers in American history: the relatively nonviolent Newton brothers, who pulled off 80-odd robberies between 1918 and the mid-20s, then managed to live to ripe old ages. The movie is less a bustling crime thriller or a streamlined piece of storytelling than a triumph of decor and flavorsome period detail. I can't predict how well its big-screen virtues will translate to video, because I was most enchanted by the opportunity to lose myself in its rich, well-appointed spaces. (If films released only on video were eligible for this list, I might have paired The Newton Boys with Robert Altman's Jazz '34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing, a jazz documentary in period dress that was both a footnote to his Kansas City and a fulfillment of all the promises regarding both jazz and the 30s that Kansas City failed to deliver on.)

10. A tie between Bulworth and A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. With Bulworth, Warren Beatty proved, after many years of wasting his--and our--time, that one can make a film that's truly political and truly entertaining. With A Soldier's Daughter, James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala followed a stint of servicing the carriage trade in literary adaptation and high-priced upholstery by proving that one can adapt a fictionalized literary biography--in this case Kaylie Jones's novel about her father, James Jones, and family living in Paris and the U.S.--and give a talented cast (including Kris Kristofferson, Barbara Hershey, Anthony Roth Costanzo, Jane Birkin, and Isaac de Bankole) a lot of fine material.

Since I worked as a consultant on the new version of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil--reedited according to instructions Welles drafted in the 50s--I can't write about it as a disinterested party, but I can't really ignore it either. The commercial as well as critical success of this venture resulted in conceivably the most successful domestic release of a Welles picture to date, which was immensely gratifying--though I was saddened that this had to happen many years after his death. I was equally pleased that the work undertaken by producer Rick Schmidlin, editor Walter Murch, picture restorer Bob O'Neil, and myself was for the most part understood by both the audience and the press. Viewers on the lookout for this version should be warned that the so-called "director's cut" released by Universal last summer and still on the market is neither a director's cut nor a restoration but the same preview version that's been around since the mid-70s. Properly speaking, no director's cut of Touch of Evil can ever exist, because Welles was never allowed to complete his own edit; the latest version, scheduled for video release in April, is simply the belated execution of patch-up work requested by Welles 40 years ago after he saw the studio's rough cut.

There are a good many distinguished runners-up to my favorites listed above. Foremost among them are Darezhan Omirbaev's Killer (shown at the Chicago International Film Festival), Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration (both the festival and the Music Box), Pascal Aubier's The Son of Gascogne (Film Center), Otar Iosseliani's Brigands: Chapter VII (Facets Multimedia), Alexander Sokurov's Oriental Elegy (a video shown at Facets Multimedia), Nanni Moretti's Aprile (the festival), Tsai Ming-liang's The Hole (the festival, after a shorter version played at the Film Center), Shohei Imamura's The Eel (the Music Box), and Emir Kusturica's Underground (also the Music Box).

Here are some others, in alphabetical order: Cedric Klapisch's Un air de famille (Music Box), Lewis Klahr's Altair (Chicago Filmmakers), Anne Marie Fleming's Automatic Writing (Film Center), George Miller's Babe: Pig in the City (for its uncommon melancholy and sheer Australian weirdness), Ko Icheng's Blue Moon (the festival), Elia Suleiman's Chronicle of a Disappearance (Film Center), Jill Sprecher's Clockwatchers (Fine Arts), Ira Sachs's The Delta (Music Box), Sandra Goldbacher's The Governess (for its sexiness more than its history), Christopher Scott Cherot's Hav Plenty, Spike Lee's He Got Game, Hal Hartley's Henry Fool, Stefan Ruzowitzky's The Inheritors (Fine Arts, also the festival), Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (despite the jive), Adolfo Aristarian's Martin (Hache) (Chicago Latino Film Festival), Noah Baumbach's Mr. Jealousy (Pipers Alley), Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe (the festival), Boaz Yakin's A Price Above Rubies, Joseph Ruben's Return to Paradise, Adama Drabo's Skirt Power (Film Center), Chris Eyre's Smoke Signals, Robert Benton's Twilight, and James Benning's Utopia (somebody's loft).

Some other titles that I recommended when they came out have faded in relative importance, rightly or wrongly. And I've omitted major revivals such as Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures (Film Center) Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (Music Box), and the aforementioned The Young Girls of Rochefort.

I can't close without bequeathing my annual F.W. Murnau award--for the film or films that did the most to enhance my sense of film history--on the retrospective of Yasuzo Masumura's films that Facets Multimedia was brave and perceptive enough to program in early May. Before this event I'd seen only one of his films back in the 70s. I previewed five more and finally saw one more the last night of the series; practically every one of them blew my mind. It was like discovering Sam Fuller or Frank Tashlin for the first time, and it proved yet again that there are more important and interesting movies out there in the netherworld than we imagine.

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