1998 Ten Best Movies

Hou’s on first? That’s right. Movie Year 1998 is led by an uncannily beautiful film from Hou Hsiao-hsien, Flowers of Shanghai, which is arguably the most accessible work by this commanding director. Flowers of Shanghai is set in a “flower house” – well, a brothel – in late-19th-century Shanghai, and while claustrophobic and specific in its burnished interior world and its ceremonial behavior, it somehow manages to be about your life, and my life, as far away as our lives may be from this location. The music, the supple use of long takes, the delicate negotiations involved in the emotional world of the central character played by Tony Leung, all fall into place with something like terrible authority.

And there are other fine titles in 1998. Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan would sit atop the list were it not for a single central contradiction I’ve never quite been able to solve: on the script level the film seems to have been conceived as a play on the absurdity of war – of sending and probably sacrificing eight men to save one man whose value has mostly public-relations value – and yet for all its brutality, Spielberg’s film is behind the mission. But on ground level, where the movie mostly operates, what Spielberg captures in a completely masterly way is that such contradictions are not relevant in this small patch of land that represents the next spot to cross: there is only the mission, and the platoon, and the rest will have to be sorted out by someone else. And one other thing: in a role that appears tailored for more of a Mitchum/McQueen kind of actor, Tom Hanks is superb.

And there’s Autumn Tale, merely one of the wisest and most gorgeously satisfying films of Eric Rohmer’s career (which, despite his recent death, I’m still not entirely convinced is over – and here is my life measured in Rohmer movies). And Rushmore, the Wes Anderson movie that goes into the vault – yes, quite a decent year. With apologies to Abbott and Costello, the ten best movies of 1998:

1. Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien)

2. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg)

3. Autumn Tale (Eric Rohmer)

4. Rushmore (Wes Anderson)

5. Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh)

6. Affliction (Paul Schrader)

7. The Butcher Boy (Neil Jordan)

8. The General (John Boorman)

9. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick)

10. The Big Lebowski (Coen brothers)

Took a while for that last one to worm its way up my list, but now I like it. Some interesting things in the misses: Richard LaGravenese’s Living Out Loud is an under-appreciated picture, Pecker is the best (and most unexpectedly delightful) film of John Waters’ later career, and He Got Game might be the only Spike Lee film I really, really like. The Last Days of Disco isn’t the best Whit Stillman film but it’s very good, and A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries has a forcefulness rare in the Merchant Ivory catalogue. And there’s Ronin and The Truman Show and Run Lola Run and the Oscar-winner, Shakespeare in Love, which I stil find pretty charming. At the time, A Simple Plan and A Civil Action struck me as well-wrought throwbacks to middlebrow movie-making. In the end, Don McKellar’s Last Night presents a fresh take on the world-is-ending genre, finding just the right place to leave off.