Just before Oscar time - and just before the big glut of 1999 films starts pouring out - I thought I'd sneak in under the wire with my own annoying list of movies that I think you should watch. Please note that, although I'm calling these the nine best movies of 1998, they are really just nine films that I saw, liked, and now recommend to those who are looking for something different. Many of these were missed by mainstream audiences and deserve to be seen. I have chosen not to list them in any particular order.
- The Butcher Boy (Neil Jordan, Ireland). I thought this was going to be some quaint coming-of-age story about a cute, rambunctious boy in an Irish village. Boy, was I wrong! Jordan's best film since Mona Lisa, this is a dark, harrowing portrait of a young boy's descent into violent psychopathy, with at least three truly shocking moments - and I'm not easily shocked. For those who'd appreciate the comparison, I call this a boyhood version of Heavenly Creatures.
- Fireworks (Takeshi Kitano, Japan). Kitano is Japan's most popular celebrity - hard to understand when you consider he is a middle-aged intellectual with a face half-frozen by a stroke. But his most recent film, which he stars in, directs, writes, and edits, is a beautiful look at a disgraced former cop who decides to care for his dying wife in a most unusual way. Kitano makes films like no one else - at turns slow and meditative, then abruptly violent and/or comic. This is one of the most honest and unsentimental - and yet most tender - portrayals of real love I've seen on film.
- Buffalo 66 (Vincent Gallo, US). Gallo, another do-everything-yourself filmmaker, stars as a loser just out of jail who tries to impress his heartless parents by showing off his new "wife" - in this case, a girl he kidnaps (Christina Ricci). An odd but endearing story about a self-hating narcissist who is slowly awakened to the beauty of love, in spite of himself.
- The Celebration (Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark). An extended bourgeois family gets together for the patriarch's 60th birthday - and his eldest son informs the gathered crowd that Dad used to rape his own children. The rest of the film is about the family's varied reactions to the shocking news. Filmed hand-held on digital video, this feels like a home movie, which makes the viewing all the more unsettling. This is a film that quickly gets under your skin and stays there.
- Bulworth (Warren Beatty, US). I liked this movie, about washed-up Senator J. Billington Bulworth (Beatty) and his bizarre re-emergence as a rapping, streetwise homeboy. Beatty makes a complete fool of himself, but that's part of the fun. This film dispenses endlessly bold truths - bravely - about political issues that few films will even go near. For me, it reminds me of the great dramas of the '70s, the kind I didn't think they made any more. It's funny, too!
- Children of Heaven (Majid Majidi, Iran). A very simple story about two poor children in Tehran who, because of a tragically simple slip-up, have to share the same pair of shoes. That a film can be made about this, and still be charming, suspenseful, and highly involving, says a lot about the film and about much of Iranian cinema today, which picks up the "neorealist" torch where Italian cinema left it in the 1940s. Ironic that a film made in Iran, the West's "cultural opposite", takes a more honest and familiar look at childhood than any "kid's film" the US is putting out now, or ever.
- A Bug's Life (John Lasseter & Andrew Stanton, US). No need to go far into this because so many people have already seen it and enjoyed it. Pure entertainment, that's all. A very tight story, beautifully and seamlessly animated, with more fall-down funny throwaway jokes than any other movie this year. And no songs!
- Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran). Another Iranian film? What gives? This ultra-low budget story of a man who has decided to kill himself, and is looking for a stranger who will check his body the next morning to make sure he is dead, may not be the most exciting film ever made, and the ending is a bit murky, but I still cannot get it out of my head. An important film to see if you are ever feeling low enough to consider suicide. This will talk you out of it. For that alone, it deserves the highest of recommendations.
- The Eel (Shohei Imamura, Japan). This shared the Palme d'Or at Cannes with Taste of Cherry. Filmmaking great Imamura is not for all tastes - he likes to show you absolutely everything his characters do in full detail, whether it's having sex, killing people, picking their noses, or what have you. His narratives also tend to wander. But this complex tale of a man seeking peace in a small town after murdering his wife - and the woman who falls in love with him - remains haunting, strange, and affecting.