Even in 1998, people were claiming cinema was dying. As I recall, I was told this as I had a VHS copy of The Big Lebowski in my hand, and a local film buff neighbor was telling me cinema was dead. Granted, we hear this every year, and this is always grossly overstated as many nostalgists refuse to embrace newer movies in the moment as they are attached to the relics and treasures of the past. Reflecting back, American cinema appeared to take more risks in that era compared to now. Let’s face it, if Steven Soderberg did an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight, it would either go direct to a streaming service or play in fewer theaters. But has the audience’s taste really changed? Even the Coen Brothers’ cult hit The Big Lebowski wasn’t a commercial success and took quite a while to be appreciated and embraced by audiences before blemishing into cult status. Consider this: 1998 started building the bridge where many filmmakers felt the urge to put out films that questioned our perceptions and realities right before we entered a new century. Making it a very profound era where so many big studio films backed highly sophisticated films (The Truman Show, Pleasantville, Dark City) with some big dollars and it allowed artists to take bigger risks, while other filmmakers like George Miller were able to experiment and be playful with Babe: Pig in the City, which was a sequel to the 1995 family movie Babe. Terrence Malick made a monumental return to cinema after a 20-year hiatus and delivered a deeply profound war movie with The Thin Red Line, as Steven Spielberg trailed right behind him in crafting a substantial war film with Saving Private Ryan that was every bit as harrowing. No matter how anyone reflects back to 1998, there is no denying just how many of these films below gained traction and still have legs today. Hopefully, a few more below will get more restorations and re-releases in the near future. Here are the very best films of 1998:
1. The Truman Show (d. Peter Weir)
The Truman Show is a hard act to sell; what could have easily been a gimmicky mess is turned into something richly satirical, genius, and genuine. Weir takes an offbeat idea—of a worldwide reality TV star named Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) who unknowingly knows his world has been caught on camera since his birth, where everything around him is artificial and scripted. As Truman begins to question his reality and the relationships around him, he knows something is off, and Weir turns satire into an open-hearted exploration of human fulfillment. The movie’s incredible setting of Truman’s world in a fictional town called Seaside emphasizes Truman’s world, as Truman’s world and show, controlled by its creator Christof (Ed Harris), do everything imaginable to keep Truman confined to the outside world. Weir and screenwriter Andrew Niccol clash rich philosophies on the power of free will and satire on consumerism and the power of mass media, and really how far audiences and studios would go in co-opting one’s free will for our own entertainment. The film could have taken so much misdirection, but it ignites on all levels with its short 100-minute running time. Weir also took the hyper-spontaneous and comedic actor Jim Carrey and guided him to the most absorbing, nuanced, and moving performances of his career. It’s also Weir’s most technically accomplished and most aesthetically pleasing work of his career, thanks to Peter Bizou’s astonishing cinematography and Weir’s wise shots that consist of iris shots, fish-eye lenses, zoom lenses, and remarkable framing that strengthen Truman’s hyperreal journey.
2. The Thin Red Line (d. Terrence Malick)
It took two decades for Terrence Malick to get this third feature off the ground, and it’s not an easy task getting back into the director’s chair after that long of an absence, especially for a big-budget World War II passion project with an all-star cast of so many familiar actors that you could blink your eyes and miss some of their faces. But Malick’s The Thin Red Line—also written by Malick and an adaptation of James Jones’s fourth novel, which draws from Jones’s personal experiences at the Battle of the GIFU, which took place on Guadalcanal—presents a deeply contemplative and richly philosophical portrayal of the agonies of war, with all the moral conundrums, anxieties, fears, doubts, and finally courage that soldiers experience during battle. Masterfully crafted, where Malick merged poetic voice-over narration, some flashbacks, and visceral battle sequences, it flows so masterfully as Malick has created a unique experience that is both elliptical and harrowing. And it deepens as Malick turns in one of cinema’s greatest war films.
3. Saving Private Ryan (d. Steven Spielberg)
The great Steven Spielberg won his second Best Director Oscar and crafted one of his most towering and greatest achievements in his filmography with the staggering World War II masterpiece Saving Private Ryan. Chronicling a group of soldiers led by Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), who leads his men from Normandy and deep into enemy lines in search of Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), whose three brothers were just killed during the war. Along the journey, each soldier finds moral conundrums and the meaning of the journey as they attempt to use their own strengths and courage during the uncertain journey. Like Malick’s The Thin Red Line, Spielberg prevents the material from slipping into jingoism and examines the dehumanization of war and the human courage to combat tyranny in times of peril. As the title hints, they attempt to save Private Ryan, but Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan transcends the material both thematically and visually, immersing the viewers right into the setting with one breathtaking and visceral set piece after the other. The end result is timeless and transfixing—certainly a movie for the ages.
4. The Big Lebowski (d. Joen Coen)
The Coen Bros. follow-up to the highly acclaimed Fargo, The Big Lebowski, took critics for a whirlwind with mostly mixed to reluctantly positive reviews as audiences didn’t show up for the film upon its initial release. Often, we have seen many great filmmakers fall into traps where the follow-up films don’t live up to their game-changers, especially when it’s between two and three years after their release, but the Coen’s zany humor, sharp dialogue, memorable characters, and vast exuberance with many amusing twists and turns make it so rewatchable. It’s also a brilliant and slippery deconstructionist genre piece that plays off the tropes of mistaken identity, detective stories, and film noir quite effectively. and the Coen film still feels fresh 25 years later. Jeff Daniels as Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski is mistaken for a wealthy millionaire of the same name (David Huddleston) after a few henchmen rough him up and urinate on his rug. Eventually, “The Dude” is convinced by his bowling friends, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), a Vietnam vet, and Donny (Steve Buscemi), to confront the wealthier “Big Lebowski” to get compensated for his rug. The Dude ends up getting more than he bargained for after he gets hired as a reliable bagman by “Big Lebowski; to get his kidnapped trophy wife back. Of course, in Coen fashion, the whole exchange goes awry, which leads The Dude down a bizarre journey involving a deliberately convoluted movie standoff that involves a porn producer (Ben Gazzara), as well as the daughter of “The Big Lebowski” named Maude Lebowski, a feminist artist (Julianne Moore) who wants to conceive, and a group of German nihilists who could be responsible for the kidnapping. Over the years, The Big Lebowski has turned into a huge cult movie, perhaps the most popular film the Coen Brothers have ever created, or at the very least their most quotable. They have created many great films since, and part of the greatness is just how great their films get upon repeat viewings, and The Big Lebowski is certainly one of those films.
5. Pleasantville (d. Gary Ross)
Acclaimed screenwriter turned filmmaker Gary Ross (Big, Dave, Seabiscuit) made a subsequent masterwork with his directorial debut; Pleasantville remains his greatest achievement yet, rendered with rich style and nuanced performances and mostly filmed in black-and-white that cleverly uses colors as metaphors. Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon make a wonderfully bittersweet brother-sister duo named David and Jennifer. They are polar opposites who find their whole reality changing after a random TV repairman (Don Knotts) appears and gives them a TV remote that transports them right to a 1950s TV show called Pleasantville. Soon, David and Jennifer are in 50s wardrobe and hair and have embodied the show’s characters of Bud and Mary Sue Parke and reside in a simple Midwest town called Pleasantville, where residents are wholesome and everything seems innocent and perfect. Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels, and William H. Macy all turn in poignant performances where Ross lifts each of them away from 1950s sitcom caricatures to nuanced characters. Ross brilliantly balances the high-concept fantasy from being satirical to deeply philosophical as the movie examines just how cyclical human nature is with human progress and the inevitable dark forces that arise whenever there is resistance to change. Pleasantville is quite a satisfying journey with an original story that still feels refreshing and timeless.
6. Happiness (d. Todd Solondz)
Along with American Beauty, Happiness is one of the pioneering films from the 1990s that examined the facade of Clinton-era suburbia. On the surface and reflecting back, writer-director Todd Solondz’s Happiness is one of those films that will leave you baffled as to how it was greenlit, financed, and released in some multiplexes and major video retail chains due to how fearless some of the subject matter is, where Solondz explores certain taboos that hold a lot of complexity. It’s a dark ensemble comedy in the vein of a Robert Altman ensemble. Think Hannah and Her Sisters, but more apprehensive, as Solondz centers around the story of three sisters. Joy (Jane Adams), who is single and unsuccessful at love, switches her mundane job at a cubicle to being employed as a substitute teacher, in which she develops a relationship with one of her students, a Russian taxi driver named Vlad (Jarred Haris). Then there is Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), a successful writer who just had her first work published and unknowingly becomes fixated by her perverted neighbor, Allen (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who calls her anonymously for phone sex. And the older sister Trish (Cynthia Stevenson), who is so self-righteous, condescending, and judgmental towards Joy and longs for Helen’s book success. Trish is also a mother and married to Bill (Dylan Baker), a troubled psychiatrist who has dark fantasies of being a gunman in a mass shooting and also holds a deeply troubling secret life that Solondz handles with maturity and veracity. Solondz’s third feature, his follow-up to the successful Welcome to the Dollhouse (which ended up having a loose sequel to both Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse that mostly has new actors playing the same roles), remains his greatest. Solondz has crafted an uncompromising film that is astounding, darkly amusing, and equally engaging. While the subject matter takes some very dark and weird turns, Solondz dives deep into the most uncomfortable places of the human condition, of society, and how we treat each other and our siblings, rendering itself out of feeling like a meaningless geek show.
7. Life is Beautiful (d. Roberto Benigni)
Stigmatized over the years as the “feel good” holocaust movie, Life is Beautiful is still misunderstood by its detractors, as writer-director-lead actor Roberto Benigni’s main intent was to show how the human spirit triumphs over tyranny. 25 years later, we have watched numerous Holocaust films come before and after, and while many find Benigni’s approach to such a delicate historical event to be misguided, Benigni doesn’t shy away from tyranny. He examines how characters can combat misery with hope, dreams, and conviction. The story is about a whimsical Jewish-Italian waiter, Guido (Benigni), who falls in love with Dora (Nicholetta Braschi), a grade schoolteacher who is about to marry into a wealthy family who are supporters of Mussolini’s fascist regime. Roberto ends up having a human connection with her and wins her over with his wit and charm. They end up married, and years later they have a young boy named Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini). Their lives abruptly come to an end as the war escalates and the Nazis come into Italy to take Guido and Giosue to a concentration camp as they are separated from Dora. In order to shield his son from being terrified by the horror surrounding them, Guido ends up persuading his young son that it’s all part of a camp and they are participating in a game where the big winner will walk away with the prize of an Army tank. Perhaps the concept is a lot to ask, but Benigni’s story is more about the power of parenting and love and how those forces can combat something as cruel as tyranny. With that, Benigni has made one of the most noble films of the 1990s. Filled with wit, charm, and sincere poignancy. Benigni still deserves credit for branching out and having a more varied approach that never feels manipulative or gimmicky. Benigni’s vision holds a lot of dignity; he adroitly merges the funny with the melancholy, the whimsy with the despair, and the heartbreaking finale is both liberating and earned.
8. He Got Game (d. Spike Lee)
Spike Lee’s He Got Game is another overlooked film in his impressive filmography and one of his most wrenching, though I will never understand why more don’t celebrate this wrenching film. In many aspects, the film is the polar opposite of Ben Affleck’s Air, which was also an engaging film about the behind-the-scenes drama of the people in corporate power trying to reap the benefits, labor, and talents of great sports. While Affleck’s was compelling, it felt too compromised, and it’s a watered-down version of the exploits of commerce in sports. Spike Lee, on the other hand, explores the elusive nature of greed and commerce and how sports are really one of the few skills left in society that isn’t necessarily based on nepotism, class, or race, as the most athletic often rise to the top, only to find the fruits of their labor and hard work being co-opted for others’ personal gain. Lee’s film, which is about a troubled father named Jake Shuttleworth (Denzel Washington), who is in prison for accidently killing his wife in a domestic argument, ends up getting an offer by the prison warden (Ned Beatty) to shorten his sentence. In exchange, he must embark on the task of coming up the chains from the governor’s office, which gives Jake one week of parole to persuade his son, a high school basketball prospect named Jesus Shuttleworth (Ray Allen), to join Big State. If Jake succeeds, he will be released from prison. It’s not all that simple, as Jesus holds a lot of torment and resentment for the death of his mother, which led him to fend for himself and look after his younger sister (Zelda Harris). Lee’s sublime aesthetics, intertwined with his emotionally charged drama, Terence Blanchard’s moving score, and Malik Hassan Sayeed’s majestic cinematography give He Got Game a timeless quality. Lee’s film is a heartbreaking one, a riveting sports drama where all the basketball playing takes place on the playground courts in Coney Island. It’s as dramatic as any championship game sequence in any other sports movie, before moving into a powerful portrait of redemption.
9. Out of Sight (d. Steven Soderbergh)
Soderbergh’s impressive adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel is a vivid, richly stylized heist caper, bathed in vibrant colors is indeed an exuberant experience. In Out of Sight, career bank robber Jack Foley (George Clooney) robs a bank with no gun, he walks out with a bag of money, but his vehicle won’t start, which leads to police officers pulling their guns on them, and he finds himself back in state prison. After discovering a fellow inmate (Luis Guzman) plotting to escape prison through an underground tunnel, Jack plots his escape with right-hand man Buddy (Ving Rhames), as he attempts to escape, they encounter Karen Cisco (a terrific Jennifer Lopez), a U.S. Marshall which leads to her being trapped in a car trunk as Foley escapes from the prison. Eventually they all leave the scene of the crime and Karen and Jack go separate ways, but it’s clear they have a romantic spark as well. During an era of pulpy crime films due to the success of Pulp Fiction, like Tarantino did, Soderbergh along with Scott Frank’s script was able to elevate the material with memorable characters, wonderful performances, and sharp Elmore Leonard characterizations along with an energetic style and pacing.
10. Rushmore (d. Wes Anderson)
In Wes Anderson’s sophomore follow-up to Bottle Rocket, revealed just how auspicious of a filmmaker Anderson was going to be. Also co-written by Owen Wilson and Anderson themselves, Rushmore remains a very hip comedy that examines the lifestyle of an outsider. A film that is sharply written, visually impressive, and undeniably charming as a coming-of-age-story. Perhaps a younger alter-ego of Wes Anderson himself, the awkward but eventually endearing Max Fisher (Jason Schwartzman) is a high-minded misfit who must sort through his problems at school along with his awkward first crush on a schoolteacher (Olivia Williams).In retrospective, you can easily sense Anderson’s love for misfits and his colorful style and visual energy come into fruition. It also features a superb supporting performance from Bill Murray, who was certainly snubbed for an Oscar nomination. Fortunately, Rushmore proved that Anderson was a true emerging talent to be embraced. Both Schwartzman and Murray deliver some rich chemistry and memorable exchanges together, in which both have become very iconic characters in Anderson’s oeuvre. The film remains a satisfying viewing experience that has aged like a fine wine and should always be a treasure for committed Anderson fans, as well as younger and newer fans who are more in tune with newer releases.
Runners-Up (In Alphabetical Order)
Central Station (d. Walter Selles)
While Walter Selles was a seasoned documentary filmmaker, he switched styles to socialism realism and still found a lot of authenticity in his actor’s emotional arcs. We witness a lonely former schoolteacher, Dora (Fernanda Montenegro), who now writes letters to illiterate people at Rio de Janeiro’s Central Station. After one of her clients is killed in a tragic bus accident, she ends up taking her 9-year-old son Josue (Vincius de Oliveira) cross-country to Brazil in search of his father. Welles shoots Brazil with a poet’s eye, utilizing the dry landscapes for the characters dislocation and uncertainty while finding shimmers of hope along the way in this compassionate treasure.
Fallen Angels (d. Wong Kar-Wai)
Whenever you go back and watch cinema from the 90s and find it too corporate, too formulaic, or even dated, always go back and watch or revisit the beautiful work of Wong Kai-Wai. While this was released three years after its festival release date in 1998, after the success of Chungking Express, which was released by Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder distribution company, Kino Lorber made the wise decision to do a limited theatrical and DVD/VHS release of this film short after its 1998 United States theatrical release. Wong Kar-Wai contributes so much rich style and empathy to his characters absorbed in their own lonely words, and he melds their isolation perfectly in this beautifully stylized, luminous human drama.
Gods and Monsters (d. Bill Condon)
I grew up being dazzled by the classic Universal Frankenstein movies at such a young age. When I saw Bill Condon’s 1998 Gods and Monsters in my teenage years, I was eager to learn about James Whale, the Hollywood director best known for Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein. While the film takes place in Whale’s final year, Condon delivers a compelling portrait of Whale’s inner turmoil and traumas that he carried through, and even now, after watching Gods and Monsters, his Frankenstein films hold even deeper pathos. The film is about Whale’s (Ian McKellen) retired life, where his health is worsening and he has lived mostly a life of solitude through many gay relationships that have left him unfulfilled. His housekeeper, Hanna (Lynn Redgrave), disapproves but still cares for him. James ends up befriending his new gardener, Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser), a former Marine and Korean War veteran, where their platonic and equally intricate friendship allows James to open up his hidden anguish and becomes an endurance test for Clayton, who gets pulled into James’s deepest secrets. So many biopics have come before and after Condon’s, but this one is one of the more haunting and gripping ones.
Pi (d. Darren Aronofsky)
Pi marked the feature debut for writer/director Darren Aronofsky, and he brought a film school aesthetic merged with some German Expressionism sensibilities to this maddening story about a numbers whiz Max Coen (Sean Gullette) who ends up getting obsessed with numbers that lead to matching equations of PI. His obsessions led him to have severe headaches, delusions, and severe paranoia. Max ends up discovering a number that he believes holds the equation to our existence, and he believes everything we encounter and exchange has a mathematical purpose within the universe. All of which are challenged by his mentor (Mark Margolis), a religious friend he meets at a coffee ship (Benk Shenkman), and he ends up becoming scouted by a crony Wall Street firm that wants to use his equations for profits. It’s the first film that planted the seeds for a mostly impressive filmography that launched familiar Aronofsky on the same grounds of how one’s obsessions lead to their own demise of mind, spirit, and mind that Aronofsky has continued to tell in bold and refreshing ways since.
Shakespeare in Love (d. John Madden)
Yes, this film was complete Miramax Oscar-baiting, but this charming, cleverly scripted behind-the-scenes fictional story of how William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), who after enduring writers block, ended up getting his creative spirits back after meeting a young woman, Viola De Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow), who disguises herself as a star in one of his plays, She ends up becoming a muse, and their chemistry spawns a forbidden relationship as she is engaged to an aristocrat, but their chemistry spawns the creation of Romeo and Juliet, which leads to a huge buzz for not only their village but for Queen Elizabeth I (Judy Dench). What could have been contrived and hollow ends up being presented with luminous delight and executed with impressive artistry, and the result is both exuberant and absorbing. This was the late John Madden’s most accomplished film, one that unfairly gets picked on by modern cinephiles and audiences because it snubbed Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture that year.
A Simple Plan (d. Sam Raimi)
As we already know, Sam Rami has helmed some of cinema’s most notable horror films with his Evil Dead films. He then made a splash with his Spider-Man film, and Spider-Man 2 is considered by many to be a masterpiece. But A Simple Plan proved Raimi to be at his most versatile. Adding a neo-noir crime thriller to his filmography, Raimi’s thriller about two small-town MidWest brothers, Hank (Bill Paxton) and his dim brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), along with their close friend Lou (Brent Brisco), ends up checking in on a crashed plane that has a dead pilot and a bag of four million dollars. Hank, who wants to report it, ends up being persuaded by Lou and Jacob to keep the money. Jacob suggests holding onto the money until everything clears. It doesn’t take long for greed and self-interest to kick in, causing situations to go awry and lead to irreversible, dire consequences. The film unfolds with great tension building and noir movie tropes, and there is no doubt the Coen Brothers Fargo kept flashing through my mind. It’s Raimi’s most mature and dramatically gripping work to date.
Honorable Mention (In Alphabetical Order)
Afterlife (d. Hirokazu Koreeda)
Affliction (d. Paul Schrader)
Babe: Pig in the City (d. George Miller)
Buffalo ’66 (d. Vincent Gallo)
The Butcher Boy (d. Neil Jordan)
The Celebration (d. Thomas Vinterberg)
Dark City (d. Alex Proyos)
Fireworks (d Takeshi Kitano)
High Art (d. Lisa Cholodenko)
The Opposite of Sex (d. Don Roos)
Ringu (d. Hideo Nakata)
Your Friends and Neighbors (d. Neil Labute)
Note-Croupier, The Dreamlife of Angels, The Emperor and the Assassin, My Name is Joe, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train are in consideration for my 1999 list due to their respected North American release dates.