From 'Private Ryan' to Babe the pig, Tatara ranks his top 10 of 1998
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From Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- We've got a lot of ground to cover, so let's skip the introductory pleasantries and get down to work. There were some good movies released in 1998, you just had to be vigilant about looking for them.
"Saving Private Ryan"
Though not perfect by any means, "Saving Private Ryan" is the most savagely honest war film ever made. And, as far as I'm concerned, that's an extremely important thing. Normally, I'm willing to accept the argument that movies dealing with overt brutality can be just as powerful without showing us absolutely everything (let's face it, you don't have to unfurl that entire damn torture sequence in "Reservoir Dogs" to convey that someone's being tortured).
But "Saving Private Ryan," even with its sometimes low supply of narrative steam and occasionally clichéd characterizations, gives credit to the real men who fought and died for this country, while displaying a spectacular level of film making artistry in its battle sequences. Nobody could pull off the Omaha Beach landing with as much technical skill as Spielberg does, but the action is both profoundly disturbing and profoundly moving in the same horrible gesture.
That Spielberg's latter-day work musters up the courage to recreate very real hell without so much as flinching is an unexpected turn of events, coming, as it does, from a man who used to specialize in huggable aliens. "Saving Private Ryan" is not the greatest script ever written, but between Tom Hanks' classic performance and Spielberg's undeniable brilliance, it's a great film-going experience.
Twenty-six year old Danish director Vinterberg's handheld, low-light examination of an extended family's disintegration during the patriarch's 60th birthday bash is a scalding piece of work that keeps you guessing about its many characters' motivations from scene to scene. The moment when a now-grown son stands up at the black tie affair and proceeds to expose his father's predilection towards raping his own children -- one of whom has recently committed suicide -- is utterly devastating, one of the most unforgettable, non-Normandy invasion scenes in recent memory.
Though Vinterberg's purposefully shaky camera takes some getting used to, the performances and the full-on approach to disturbing subject matter easily makes this one of my top films. (And, believe it or not, it's often darkly hilarious.) Keep an eye out for Vinterberg, but "The Celebration" may be a tough act to follow.
The most uniquely voiced film of the year, "Rushmore" is virtually impossible to describe in a nutshell. Schwartzman stars as Max Fischer, a rather annoying 15-year-old prep school student with enough ambition for 10 people and a merciless, unwavering belief in his own abilities.
A lot of the film deals with Max's massive extracurricular load; he invents and then proceeds to run (usually for his own gain) most of the school's clubs and committees. The real fun starts, though, when he and a local millionaire (played by Murray, and I'm really hoping he'll win an Oscar for it) start competing for the affections of a pretty first-grade teacher (Williams, who's a sweetheart). Guerilla warfare ensues between the two suitors, with Murray pulling off some hilarious, stone-faced revenge tactics against Schwartzman.
Director Anderson co-wrote the script with Owen C. Wilson, who also scripted and starred in Anderson's previous idiosyncratic gem, "Bottle Rocket." Sporting what I consider to be the single best screenplay of 1998, "Rushmore" will receive a wide national release in January.
"Out of Sight"
Contrary to what a lot of readers seem to believe, I don't hold a grudge against commercial films. It's just that 95 percent of them are nowhere near as sharply conceived as "Out of Sight," Soderbergh's foray into Elmore Leonard territory, and it absolutely doesn't have to be that way. Clooney and Lopez are the sexiest escaped convict/federal agent team you'll ever encounter, in a story that's crawling with acutely observed characters and wonderfully snide dialogue.
You also get a string of formidable supporting performances, with special mention going to Don Cheadle as a very believably scary villain. The movie is so good, it makes perfect sense that it died a quick death at the box office while everybody was jumping out of their pants to see "Armageddon."
This is the first Hal Hartley movie that I've ever really cared for, although I don't think that even this one scores a bull's-eye from beginning to end. But Hartley's tale of Simon (Urbaniak), a lonely janitor who's encouraged by an asocial drifter (Ryan, spewing endless bile) to write epic poetry, asks difficult questions about the essence of creativity, then actually attempts to supply difficult answers. Things get a little too bizarre a little too often as Simon unexpectedly turns out to be a fiery genius, but Hartley keeps his head in the game all the way. It's emblematic of the movie as a whole that its rather contrived final scene is still terribly moving. A flawed, but often extremely powerful film.
"Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's"
Hands down, the coolest movie to be released in 1998, and I mean old-school cool, the kind that Sinatra used to so effortlessly beam like a silk-tied beacon. This is the often hysterical, but eventually downright sad story of the closing of Chasen's, a luxurious Hollywood eatery where icons gathered for 50 years to schmooze, grope, and punch-out other icons.
On the surface, the movie's really just a bunch of very likable "average" waiters and bartenders telling juicy, butter-cooked steak stories about the rich and famous, but the focus slowly shifts until those soon-to-be unemployed lifelong servants are the people you're most concerned with. My favorite anecdote is the one where Orson Welles tosses a lit Sterno onto John Houseman's pompous lap, but a woman receiving a $200 tip just to check Alfred Hitchcock's coat also gives me the groovies. That it all falls apart when America's biggest big-shots quit showing any real zest for life says as much about the movie industry as it does the restaurant.
I realize that a lot of CNN.com's readers don't live in areas where they get to see international releases in the theater, but definitely look for "The Inheritors" on video. German director Ruzowitzky takes what could have been a mundane situation -- a bunch of turn-of-the-century peasants inherit their cruel master's farm, thus setting off a turf war of sorts -- and turns it into a richly textured study of the politics of a pecking order.
The inheritors themselves thrive as farmers, but their ability to function as a community begins to crumble with their newfound self-reliance. Wildgrauber is completely sleazy/nasty as the rich farmer who shows the most ill will towards his new neighbors. The ending is not what you would call optimistic. But a lot of real-life endings aren't, either.
One of the most interesting sports movies ever made, because it concerns itself with a gifted athlete's all-encompassing will to succeed without really being about winning. At least, not in the conventional sense.
Written and directed by legendary screenwriter Towne, "Without Limits" is the story of the late Steve Prefontaine, a hard-headed University of Oregon track star who pushed himself to extremes of human endurance during his races, refusing to follow the accepted long-distance runner's strategy of holding a little bit back until the home stretch.
Crudup is great as the charismatic Prefontaine, a man who ran in some big races, but ultimately competed against no one but himself. It's inspiring without being the least bit obvious, and the race sequences are spectacularly well filmed. A welcome comeback for the long-faltering Towne.
This is one of those French movies that looks to be about nothing at all, but sort of establishes a plot through the back door when you're not paying attention. Lopez and Bourdo star as a handsome shoe salesman and an awkward Russian immigrant who establish an uneasy friendship, then hit the road when Lopez's girlfriend insists on a trial separation.
You can detect a number of themes running throughout the story, but the main one seems to be that happiness is more likely to find you than the other way around. Bourdo is great, especially in a scene where he and Lopez are trying to seduce a couple of young women. Their flirtatious banter around a simple dinner table ebbs and flows until Bourdo is completely out of the picture and Lopez winds up sleeping with both women simultaneously. The subtle changes in Bourdo's voice and manner are heartbreaking, as he finds himself being discarded by yet another sweet, young thing. Good stuff, and often very funny to boot.
"Babe: Pig in the City"
This movie's failure at the box office is one of the more inexplicable events of the holiday season (the other being the actual release of "Jack Frost"). "Babe" mastermind George Miller takes the helm on this one, and it's a worthy counterpart to the technical mastery and kinetic energy of his "Mad Max" films.
Babe, through a variety of nutty twists and turns, finds himself stuck in a huge city (one that amusingly contains the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty), living with a bunch of desperate animals who've lost their owners. One of his buddies, a sad old orangutan named Thelonious, can very nearly bring you to tears ... which is a pretty disturbing sentence for a grown man to find himself writing.
There's also an unspeakably lovely moment when a little doggie who drags his paralyzed back legs around on a small cart is thrown to the roadside after grabbing onto a speeding truck. Suddenly, he glimpses a blue-skied heaven where he can run all by himself and leap after low-flying butterflies. Then he snaps out of it, waking up to this world and his broken wheels. I just about swooned.
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