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Mike’s Top Ten of 1998

This is such a great year. This year is right around when I started getting into step with movies and seeing stuff as it came out rather than later on. 1998-1999 are those years I culturally came into my own. So there’s stuff here I remember seeing at the time that… okay, maybe as a 10 year old I probably shouldn’t have been watching, but it helped turn me into the person I am today in regard to watching stuff. So there’s that.

There’s also some real heavy hitters this year. And a few that I just adore from having grew up with them that might not be consensus choices for “best films of 1998.” But that’s what makes the 90s so good. That’s the decade that’s most personal to me. 1995-2004 is probably the ten year stretch that’s most influenced by my growing up and most personal to me in terms of the choices.

This is also, now that I look at it, kind of a weird year. There’s a lot of mainstream studio stuff here that other people might not think is particularly good. So maybe it really isn’t that strong a year and just feels that way because it’s such a big part of my youth. Whatever. I love it, and that’s all that really matters.

Mike’s Top Ten of 1998

The Big Lebowski

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Meet Joe Black

Mulan

Pleasantville

Saving Private Ryan

Shakespeare in Love

Snake Eyes

The Truman Show

What Dreams May Come

11-20: Armageddon, BASEketball, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, The Negotiator, Out of Sight, The Parent Trap, Rounders, Rush Hour, Rushmore, The Thin Red Line

Tier two: American History X, Blade, A Bug’s Life, Bulworth, A Civil Action, Elizabeth, Gods and Monsters, He Got Game, Little Voice, Major League: Back to the Minors, A Night at the Roxbury, Primary Colors, Ronin, Run Lola Run, A Simple Plan, There’s Something About Mary, Very Bad Things, The Waterboy, The Wedding Singer, Wrongfully Accused

Tier three: Antz, Babe: Big in the City, Celebrity, City of Angels, Dark City, Deep Impact, Dirty Work, Great Expectations, Half Baked, Halloween H20, The Horse Whisperer, The Mask of Zorro, Mighty Joe Young, The Prince of Egypt, Psycho, Small Soldiers, Sour Grapes, Twilight, Velvet Goldmine, You’ve Got Mail

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1. Saving Private Ryan

“James, earn this… earn it.”

This is one of my 50 favorite movies of all time. I will watch this movie at any time and just sit all the way through it. I think it’s absolutely perfect.

I imagine when this came out and people watched that opening sequence, before it ended everyone went, “Well he just won Best Director.” Because you can’t see this and not realize you’re witnessing one of the greatest sequences ever shot and edited. That sequence though is just the opening of the movie. Only after all the carnage has ended do we hone in on the plot, which involves a group of soldiers sent to send another soldier home, after that soldier’s brothers were all killed in battle.

It’s so good. When you watch this movie, you’re first taken by how amazing the direction and editing and sound and all the technical stuff are. But really what gets to me now after all these years of watching it is just how amazing Tom Hanks is in this movie. He truly is astoundingly good. He’s become one of those actors who is so good that you almost don’t notice how good he is the first time out, because in your mind you’re just watching Tom Hanks. But he really delivers one of the finest performances of his career in this movie.

This is the total package. It’s hard to find a war movie as good as this one. And honestly it’s hard to find a movie as good as this one. You really go on this journey with these people, and it accomplishes everything a movie sets out to accomplish. For a guy who has made two-dozen great movies (and at least five masterpieces), this is my favorite of all his works.

2. The Big Lebowski

“That rug really tied the room together.”

It’s funny to me to think that this came out in 1998 and people either didn’t get it or just hated it. Because this was the Coen brothers’ followup to Fargo. That movie was generally heralded as a masterpiece and was instantly one of the classic movies of the 90s. And here they are, following it up with this crazy comedy that is the tonal opposite of their previous movie. Which, you’ll notice… they like to do that. Their followup to No County for Old Men was Burn After Reading, which I also feel got one of those receptions. Where people were like, “This is funny,” but also were kinda mixed on it. And only now is it coming around as one of the movies of theirs people love and think is hilarious. So it’s funny to me how this one has gained such a following in the ensuing years as compared to how much it didn’t land when it came out.

Anyway, this has become Jeff Bridges’ defining film role. He seems to embrace it, though sometimes I feel like it diminishes his work for this to be the one that gets brought up. Still, it’s a hell of a character. And having seen him around LA at various screenings and things… he certainly does dress like the Dude in real life.

This movie is so funny and so wonderful. It’s also one where, I watched it so often in such a short period of time (between the ages of like, 16 and 20) that I actually had to take a break from it for a few years. It’s also one of those movies that I notice… we all get into it pretty early as we get into movies, and some people never really ever mature from it. So for me it also became the movie representative of the people who are still stuck in high school.

But either way — everything about this movie is amazing. It’s so bizarre and so note perfect for what it’s trying to do. John Goodman in this movie is just… *kisses fingertips*. John Turturro, Steve Buscemi… everyone in this movie, down to the random characters. Jackie fucking Treehorn, or the Malibu cop. This is one of those movies that’s so absurd that everything about it becomes hyper-memorable. There’s a musical fantasy sequence about a bowling porno that has a fake Saddam Hussein in it. And yet… makes total sense.

3. Shakespeare in Love

“Fifty pounds! A very worthy sum on a very worthy question. Can a play show us the very truth and nature of love? I bear witness to the wager, and will be the judge of it as occasion arises. I have not seen anything to settle it yet.”

I feel like this movie has a bit of a bad reputation because of the stain of it being a Best Picture winner. This was one of the most hotly contested Oscar years in memory, with this and Saving Private Ryan fighting it out. And I think it left a lot of people with bad tastes in their mouths, because people proclaim this as one of the worst winners of all time. I don’t really see what the problem is with it on its own. It’s really just when you look at it vs. Private Ryan that you consider it not the best choice.

I think the conceit of this movie (and its script, which rightly earned Tom Stoppard an Oscar) is genius. It’s a movie about William Shakespeare, fucking married women and in the midst of writer’s block, embarking on his new play… Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. And we watch as his experiences of falling in love with a noblewoman help turn that play into his most famous work, Romeo and Juliet.

It’s such a terrific movie with an amazing ensemble cast. It’s impossible not to see this and enjoy the hell out of it. It’s so well-written and acted. If you just take this purely as a movie, it’s amazing. Look, I have as strong opinions as the next person when it comes to Oscars and Oscar winners, but it should say something that in a year with some of the other choices in this top ten that I have this at #3. It’s a really, really terrific film. Judi Dench and Gwyneth Paltrow won Oscars for it, Geoffrey Rush was nominated (and he steals nearly every scene he’s in, to boot). Truly one of those movies that I feel like everyone enjoys because it’s just good.

4. Pleasantville

“Must be awfully lucky to see colors like that. I’ll bet they don’t know how lucky they are.”

I love this movie so much. This is one of those where, to me it’s just assumed that it’s one of the best movies of the 90s. Yet I’m constantly finding that people haven’t seen it or don’t really remember it.

It’s easy to write this movie off as a gimmick. But it’s so much more than its premise. Basically, Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon are bickering siblings whose TV goes out. And through various movie magic, they end up transported into a black-and-white 50s sitcom. So the early stages of the film are them dealing with this 50s sitcom universe, and how different it is from their 1990s sensibilities. But then it becomes about progress, as it takes place just as the series transitioned from black-and-white to color. So it sort of becomes about these kids ushering in a more progressive way of thinking to this very conservative society. It’s truly wonderful.

Gary Ross directs this (his debut) after writing high concept movies like Big and Dave. It’s a perfect movie. Truly. It may seem somewhat dated in the opening scenes set in the 90s, but everything inside Pleasantville is absolutely perfect and timeless. I love the idea that they shot this in black-and-white and then moved bits and pieces into color as they go along. (Or rather, color corrected it to be black-and-white and then let in more color as they went along.)

Trust me when I say — this is one of the best movies of the decade. The performances in this movie are so good. Joan Allen and Jeff Daniels… so great. Everyone needs to see this movie.

5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

“We can’t stop here. This is bat country.”

We all see this movie pretty early. This cross lists with everything else we like. So chances are, you don’t need me to tell you how great this movie is. But for the ones who don’t know this, here we go.

We’ll start by saying it’s adapted from a Hunter S. Thompson novel. If you don’t know him, he was a reporter/writer who would work for Rolling Stone and be sent to cover all these stories, but basically it would be him going on week-long drug and party binges, occasionally showing up to cover the story, and then writing basically whatever the hell he wanted. And yet, it totally worked. So this is him writing about such events under the guise of fiction. Kinda like how Bob Fosse made All That Jazz, which was basically about himself but all the names were fictionalized.

Johnny Depp plays Thompson here, and Benicio Del Tor plays his lawyer. And it’s the two of them going on a road trip to Vegas to cover a stock car race. But really what happens is, they do so many drugs they just sort of go around, getting into all sorts of insane situations along the way, and the movie becomes about that.

It’s… it’s an experience. To me, it’s Terry Gilliam’s best movie. He is so perfectly matched to the material. And Depp as Thompson is just spectacular. This may as well just be called “Drugs: The Movie.” It’s absolutely wonderful. You know you’re in for a ride when the first line of the movie is, “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

6. The Truman Show

“Good morning, and in case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night!”

Somehow I missed this movie for like a decade after it came out. I knew the conceit, yet somehow just never got around to watching it. So when I finally managed to get the Netflix DVD of this in college and watched it, I was blown away at how it took me that long to see this.

Andrew Niccol made a career out of high-concept movies. This being the best of them all. The premise — and I think we all know this, since it’s now basically become a standard way of describing vaguely similar plots — Jim Carrey plays a guy who discovers that his whole life is one elaborate reality show. From the moment he was born, every second of his life has been broadcast on international TV and every ounce of his reality has been tightly controlled without his knowledge.

It’s an incredible, incredible movie. Carrey delivers one of his best performances, and it’s one of those movies that is greater than the some of its parts. It’s a really touching piece of work and stands as one of the masterpieces of the 90s.

7. Snake Eyes

Yeah, boy. This was probably the first Brian De Palma movie I ever saw. Maybe Mission: Impossible came first. But this was the one I definitely remembered as being ‘his’ movie. I saw this in theaters I think twice. And then I feel like I watched this on TBS/TNT all the time. It felt like it was always on. And I’ve grown to love every frame of this movie. I still remain confused as to why some people think this movie is terrible.

It takes place over the course of one day, in Atlantic City, as a major boxing match is about to take place. And the opening of the film is shown in one giant tracking shot as we introduce all the characters. Led, of course, by Nicolas Cage, who plays a Nicolas Cage version of a corrupt cop. He’s so good. And we meet all the characters as he walks around the arena, up to and through the fight, which ends in both controversy and a murder. And so the rest of the film is Cage, in the middle of all this shit and as a major storm is bearing down on the town, trying to figure out just what the hell happened.

I love it. It’s very De Palma. That tracking shot with all the split screens is just a masterclass in style. And honestly, having seen the rest of the De Palma stuff, I still say this is one of my three favorite films of his, with Untouchables and Scarface. I really, really, like this movie a lot. And I think it’s a perfect sort of B-movie noir plot that is elevated by the way De Palma shoots it. I can’t imagine this movie turning out nearly as good without him being the one who made it.

8. Meet Joe Black

“It’s hard to let go, isn’t it?”
“Yes it is,Bill.”
“What can I tell you? That’s life.”

I’ve always loved this movie. It’s three hours, and some might say it’s bloated and overdone, but most of the time when this comes up, all I hear are positive things about this movie. (Though every year or two, that one gif-worthy moment, which I will not spoil, even though it comes at the very beginning of the film, always seems to make the rounds again, which somewhat diminishes the emotional impact of the rest of the film.)

It’s a remake of Death Takes a Holiday, the 1934 movie with Fredric March. Death shows up, in the form of Brad Pitt (wouldn’t we all, though?), to Anthony Hopkins’ house. Only Death, intrigued by him, decides to delay his fate by a few days, to both allow him to get his affairs in order and be his guide and show him around the world. And also, of course, he’s got a thing for Hopkins’ daughter, but that’s a whole other subplot.

It’s a really strong movie. All the side characters are well-developed and it just works. It is three-hours, but it almost doesn’t matter. Everyone in it is wonderful, and it’s yet another fantastic movie by Martin Brest. To this point, he had directed: Going in Style, Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run and Scent of a Woman. Now this. Incredible, right? Then he went and made Gigli and hasn’t made anything since. But damn, that run of four is great, and Going in Style is also really good.

This is one of those movies that I don’t know if everyone would have in their top ten, but every time I watch it, I think, “There’s no way I wouldn’t have it here. This movie is terrific.” I always trust my gut over what popular opinion is, and my gut says this movie is incredible.

9. What Dreams May Come

“Is that a kind of occupational hazard of soul mates? One’s not much without the other?”

I remember seeing clips from this movie as a kid when it was on HBO or something. And I always loved that part of the movie was set in a world that looked like a painting. And the images always stuck with me, and when I was in college, I sought out this movie to figure out what it was. Then I watched it for the first time, and… man, did I not know what the story was at all. But also, it was exactly up my alley.

Robin Williams plays a doctor and a family man who, in quick succession, loses both his kids in a car crash and then himself dies in a car crash. And he ends up in a sort of personal heaven, that is of his own creation. Which is why it looks like a painting for part of it (the visual effects in this movie are stunning, and it actually won an Oscar). So part of the movie is him going around this afterlife of sorts, only to find out that his wife, in her grief of losing her entire family, has killed herself and ended up in Hell because of it. And he’s determined to get her back, no matter the cost. So, like Dante, he travels into Hell (with Max von Sydow (!) as his guide) to find his wife and get her back.

It is beautiful. I love everything about this movie. It’s gorgeous, it’s romantic, it’s got big ideas, and it’s just a lovely movie that always makes me cry and always leaves me happy. I feel like not enough people even know about this one, but it’s really a stunning movie. I feel like, were this directed by Terry Gilliam (because it’s almost a Gilliam-adjacent type of movie), people would consider it an unheralded masterpiece.

Robin Williams, while one of our most beloved and talented actors, also is one of our more underrated actors, because I feel like he always ended up choosing really great material, some of which wasn’t as immediately well-regarded as his other stuff and has been somewhat forgotten. But even that stuff has a lot to like about it and is much more of a risk than you’d associate out of someone of his caliber.

10. Mulan

“The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all.”

Let’s get down to business.

You’re welcome for now having that song in your head.

This movie is awesome. And it’s based on a real person, which is even more badass. Basically story is — girl goes and joins the army in place of her older father. And she fucks some people up along the way. Part of the movie is the Some Like It Hot of it all, her hiding her identity among all the other (male) soldiers, while also falling for her commanding officer (as you do). But it’s great. Couple of fantastic songs in this one, though not quite the Disney Renaissance level, where it was like, six deep each movie.

One thing people forget about this movie is that Eddie Murphy basically introduces the Donkey character three years early, yet somehow people always only think of that character when they think of his voice acting.

This is one of the better movies Disney’s made. It’s one that most people should have seen. If for some chance you have not seen this movie, then dishonor on you, dishonor on your cow, dishonor on your whole family.

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11-20:

Armageddon — The 80s and 90s gave us some of the most batshit movie premises ever. Technically this premise isn’t that insane (at least compared to Con Air), but isn’t it nuts to think that people going back now will see this and go, “That’s seriously what this is about? And it made all that money and people really like it?” It’s about a giant asteroid that’s coming to hit earth. So NASA (you just have to go with this part, it’s a Michael Bay movie) hires a bunch of oil workers to train as astronauts so they can land on the asteroid, drill a hole in it they can put a nuclear bomb in, and blow the asteroid apart so it doesn’t hit earth. Yes. That is correct. And yet, really fun movie. Great cast, all around. Bay had a knack for getting cool dramatic actors and putting them in these movies in fun roles, and it just kinda worked, even though it was ridiculous. Plus, this movie gave us this song, which automatically makes it a classic:

(P.S. If you ever want to try a social experiment — go to any room that contains drunk white people over the age of 25 and put on this song. I guarantee you that to a person, they will all start singing along to this song, word for word.)

BASEketball — God, I love this movie. I was always curious to know if they cast Trey Parker and Matt Stone knowing South Park was/was going to be a huge hit, or they just got really lucky. You have to assume they knew, but the movie came out a year after the first episode premiered. That shit lined up really closely. Anyway, this is a Zucker movie (not ZAZ like Airplane). But rather than a straight parody, it’s a sports comedy with an actual plot. Two underachievers create their own backyard game (mostly out of laziness): basketball with baseball rules. So rather than running around, it’s taking shots from various places on the court, with each space counting as a single, double, triple, home run, etc. And this backyard game turns into an entire league, and we watch them go from idiots to sports stars, and see how success… you know the tropes. But it’s funny. There are moments in this that still make me laugh. Others don’t hold up at all, but some of them do. I think it’s a worthwhile comedy for people to see.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels — Guy Ritchie. This is his first movie, and it’s a forerunner to Snatch. They’re both amazing, and I feel like, most of the time, whichever one you like better is a factor of which one you see first. I saw Snatch first, and as such, I enjoy it more. But this is still so good. He really has perfected the fun, British crime genre.

The Negotiator — Love this movie. Pure 90s thriller. Samuel L. Jackson is a police negotiator who is framed for murder and ends up being the hostage-taker. So of course it’s him versus another negotiator, and he’s got to figure out who framed him before the cops break in and murder him. It’s awesome.

Out of Sight — Quite possibly (or probably) the best Elmore Leonard movie ever made. (Top five is 3:10 to Yuma, Get Shorty, this, Jackie Brown and whatever becomes #5. Maybe the second version of 3:10 to Yuma.) Steven Soderbergh became a mainstream filmmaker with this. It really skyrocketed (even more so) Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney’s careers. It’s a major movie for all involved. And it’s just great. She’s a cop looking for a criminal, and he’s a criminal avoiding the cops, and sparks fly. It’s so good. And I always forget how amazing this entire cast is, too.

The Parent Trap — Nancy Meyers’ remake of the 1961 movie with Lindsay Lohan (and Lindsay Lohan!). It’s a masterpiece for anyone who grew up in the 90s. I feel sorry for any child who has grown up without this movie. The plot itself actually goes back to the 30s, and Three Smart Girls (though there, its sisters conspiring to get their parents back together, in all later versions, it’s twins played by the same actress). Still, it’s one of those plots that’s worth recycling because it’s just great. And this is the version for all of us of a certain age.

Rounders — Great poker movie. Like all poker movies, the actual hands that come down are ridiculous, but it’s also hard to have a movie where the final hand is decided on a pair of tens versus jack-eight off-suit. Still, it’s really strong. Matt Damon is a law student who thinks he’s hot shit but loses all his money to a high stakes gambler (John Malkovich, sporting the greatest accent in the history of cinema). So he decides to just focus on becoming a lawyer. But then his best friend (and degenerate gambler), Edward Norton, gets out of prison and immediately drags him back into poker. It’s a great movie. Damon and Norton are fantastic, and it’s just one of those movies you can watch anytime.

Rush Hour — One of the great comedies of the 90s. Basically if you took Lethal Weapon but made them Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan. You know this worked because they made three of them and still may yet make a fourth. It’s a standard buddy cop movie, but these movies rise and fall on the chemistry between the leads, and this one works. It still holds up. The sequels aren’t as good, but they still are fun because the two of them work so well together.

Rushmore — Wes Anderson. Everyone of his movies is a must-see, but this one is the one that really established him as an indie darling. And then Tenenbaums cemented him as celebrated auteur. Jason Schwartzman is a kid who lives to go to his prep school. He’s involved in dozen extracurricular activities and basically just is everywhere on the campus at all times. Except… the classroom. He gets put on academic probation, which, along with his crush on a teacher and friendship with the father of some fellow students, leads to… you know, shit happens. And it’s great. Schwartzman is fantastic, Bill Murray is great, Olivia Williams — this is Wes Anderson beginning his visual style, which he would later refine to a science. I consider this to be like the early Coen brothers movies. Feels a bit rough around the edges, but it’s great, and it’s formative.

The Thin Red Line — Terrence Malick’s return to filmmaking after a 20 year hiatus. I’ll admit, it’s been a while since I’ve seen this movie, but I do remember loving it, even before I truly got into film. It’s a war movie that doesn’t feel like any war movie you’ve ever seen. It’s quiet, and meditative. And there’s just a parade of famous faces that come through. It’s insane. But it’s wonderful. Everything Malick made up to Tree of Life is an essential movie for anyone into film. (Everything after that can be negotiable, even if I think it’s all worth seeing.)

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Tier two:

  • American History X
  • Blade
  • A Bug’s Life
  • Bulworth
  • A Civil Action
  • Elizabeth
  • Gods and Monsters
  • He Got Game
  • Little Voice
  • Major League: Back to the Minors
  • A Night at the Roxbury
  • Primary Colors
  • Ronin
  • Run Lola Run
  • A Simple Plan
  • There’s Something About Mary
  • Very Bad Things
  • The Waterboy
  • The Wedding Singer
  • Wrongfully Accused

We’ll start with more films of my childhood. Major League: Back to the Minors is a film I saw in theaters. And probably like three dozen or more times growing up. This was a staple for me. All the Major League movies were. This is the least of the three but still fun. It’s got Scott Bakula, again playing an aging athlete (after Necessary Roughness, perhaps the most underrated sports movie of all time), who gets recruited by Corbin Bernsen to run a Triple-A team. And they bring back some of the people from the other films — Dennis Haysbert, the catcher from the second one, the Japanese guy from the second one… and Bob Uecker, because sometimes you don’t need a reason and you just go with it because thank god he’s back. A lot of fun this movie. Wrongfully Accused is a Liam Neeson parody movie of The Fugitive. I also remember seeing this in theaters and watching it a bunch. It’s no Naked Gun or Airplane, but it’s fun. Movies like this and Spy Hard are classics to me, because I saw them in the first ten years of my life.

There’s Something About Mary. I remember when this movie came out and it was a smash hit. And all the adults in my family all saw it and were talking about it and I had no idea what they were talking about because I was allegedly too young to see it. Naturally, because our illegal cable hookup and my affinity for watching everything I could on the Pay Pew View channels, I saw this within six months. But that’s all of us, right? Ten year olds watching stuff we absolutely should not be? Or is it just the ten year olds who eventually get into movies? Anyway, this is the most successful of the Farrelly brothers comedies (even if I think Kingpin is a better comedy overall). I saw this again recently… it mostly holds up. Kinda slow, going back. Still, it’s fun. Story sounds weird, from today’s perspective. Ben Stiller plays a guy who had a chance at his dream girl in high school and missed out. Now, he’s obsessed with her and hires a P.I. to find her, leading to him going down there and reintroducing himself to her. Only, the woman has this strange affect on men, and basically all of the ones who interact with her fall in love with her. It’s… fun. Some stuff feels dated, but overall it’s still solid.

Next, The Waterboy and The Wedding Singer. Adam Sandler. Billy Madison was fun, Happy Gilmore is great, and these two really propelled him into comedy superstar. Not quite Jim Carrey level, but he was big. The Wedding Singer is self-explanatory. Him and Drew Barrymore. He’s (insert title here) and she works at the weddings, and they’re both engaged to the wrong people. And romance ensues. The Waterboy, meanwhile, is Sandler as (insert title here) who makes it onto the college football team when they discover he’s a great tackler. The Waterboy moreso has crossed into the cultural lexicon, or maybe that’s just for people my age. Everything Kathy Bates says in this movie is genius. And then there’s Very Bad Things. Peter Berg’s first movie. I saw this in theaters knowing absolutely no idea what to expect and coming out going, “What the hell was that? (But I kinda liked it.)” It’s a (very) dark comedy about a bunch of men in Vegas for a bachelor party. Things go great… drugs, booze, hooker… until the hooker dies. And things go… very bad. The decisions the men make in this moment basically dictate how the rest of the movie goes. It’s dark. To the point where you wonder why. But still, I kinda enjoy it.

Okay, so the last of the films of my childhood segues us into our next section of movies — the “A” films. A Night at the Roxbury. I cannot tell you how often I saw this movie. Expanded from the SNL sketch with Kattan and Ferrell, I’m honestly shocked this movie had a plot. Everyone knows the sketch — the club dudes and the banging of the heads — I feel like all of us in the early days of the internet sought that one out. The movie puts on a plot… brothers trying to open their own nightclub while also getting into the best club in town. It’s… I love it because I grew up with it. I have no idea if this even holds up for people watching it for the first time nowadays. But man, do I love this movie. Next is A Bug’s Life. Pixar’s Seven Samurai with bugs. That’s it. It’s fun. The weakest of the Pixar films through their first fifteen years (yes, it’s even weaker than Cars, and I will probably stand by that). Eventually it was surpassed as Pixar’s worst by Cars 2 and The Good Dinosaur, but for a while it was simply their worst just because it was just okay. Everything else was just so much better than it.

Next, A Civil Action John Travolta trial movie, about a guy filing a class action suit on behalf of a town which was poisoned en masse by a company dumping chemicals in the water. He keeps getting offered more and more money to settle, but decides it’s personal, so now he’s gotta win or else risk getting the town nothing and bankrupting his firm. Great movie, great Travolta performance and a nice supporting turn by Robert Duvall, who is perfectly characterized and gives a note-perfect performance to boot. And finally, A Simple Plan. Sam Raimi directing, basically, his version of Fargo. Three men, Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton and… a third guy… find a downed plane in the forest and find a couple of million dollars inside it. Paxton is the sensible one, Thornton (his brother), is slow, and the other guy is the rash one. They decide, ultimately, to hold the money for a year. And if no one claims it, then it’s theirs. Of course, they can’t wait that long, and then some shady people start snooping around for it, and pretty soon things start unraveling out of control. Thornton gives one of the performances of his career in this, hot off the heels of Sling Blade. Within seven years, dude delivered Sling Blade, this, The Man Who Wasn’t There and Bad Santa. People forget what an acting powerhouse he is (mostly because it feels like he hasn’t been trying to find great material in recent years in pursuit of money). But at least we have Fargo.

He Got Game is Spike Lee. I love this movie. Denzel plays a man in prison for life whose son is the top basketball prospect in the country. (His son is played by Ray Allen, too, which is a nice touch.) The warden tells Denzel that if he can convince his son to go to “State” for college (and play for that team), then he’ll help commute his sentence. It’s mostly about the pressures put on young (black) basketball prospects as well as a great father-son story. I’m telling you… when Spike’s good, he’s great. Little Voice is an underrated little movie with three great performances at its center. It’s about Jane Horrocks as a terribly shy girl who only comes out of her shell when singing along to records. She lives with Brenda Blethyn, her lower class mother who is constantly bringing home men. One night, she brings home Michael Caine, a third-rate promoter, who hears the girl singing and decides he’s gonna make her a star. And it’s a story of what happens when these three get together. All three are incredible. Blethyn was nominated for an Oscar for her work (and arguably should have won), Horrocks got a lot of notices for her performance (and her singing), but it’s Caine who really delivers a hell of a performance that is vastly underrated. This movie is worth seeing. It’s solid, but the performances are really what make it shine.

Ronin is an awesome action movie. John Frankenheimer’s last great movie. One of those movies I saw a lot growing up but can never remember what it’s really about. But also, it’s awesome, with a great car chases in it. It’s part heist… they’re all stealing this MacGuffin, but basically it’s about everyone turning on each other and all sorts of political intrigue. It’s great. I’m definitely due to see this again, but it’s one of the great action movies of the 90s with some of the best car chases you’ll ever see. And while we’re on action movies Run Lola Run is one of the most unique you’ll ever see. The entire movie takes place over 20 minutes. The same 20 minutes over and over and over again. A woman gets a call from her boyfriend, who lost money he was about to drop off for a gangster. If he can’t get it back in 20 minutes, he’s dead. So the film begins from the minute she gets the call and continues until everything is resolved. It all takes place in real time, only it’s like a video game, where, if the level isn’t completed you go back to the save point to try again. It’s awesome. Revolutionary in its own way and still holds up as a really fun time.

Elizabeth is Cate Blanchett starring as Elizabeth I. That’s really all you need. It’s the 90s version of one of those 60s royalty biopics. Only while those were all about the acting and the writing, this one’s all about the costumes and the sets. Though Blanchett is amazing in this. Still hoping they finish out this trilogy. It deserves it. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of royalty biopics… Blade. Wesley Snipes as the vampire hunter (House of Stuart, naturally). So 90s, but still fun. One of my favorite things I discovered was going back to see this on TV a decade after it came out and hearing on the vampires speak in whatever language they have and recognizing the exact phrase as something spoken in Elven in Lord of the Rings. That was amusing. But anyway, yeah, Blade. It’s fun. Primary Colors, meanwhile, is Mike Nichols’ and Elaine May’s movie about Bill and Hillary Clinton. It’s so thinly-veiled, too. Travolta plays Bill and Emma Thompson plays Hillary. It’s about their pursuit for the presidency, by any means necessary, even despite his proclivities for other women. Great supporting performance by Kathy Bates, and the kind of movie that’s strong enough to overcome the painfully obvious influence of its subject matter (it’s as bad as a movie we’ll get to in the next tier).

Gods and Monsters is an incredible biopic of James Whale in his later years. Whale is best known as the director of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Openly gay in an era when not many people in Hollywood would be and haunted by his past fighting in World War I. Incredible performance by Ian McKellen. Seriously. So good it might have been the best from this year, which features a bunch of great male lead performances. Speaking of which… American History X. Everyone knows this because we get into it early when we get into movies. The movie that skyrocketed Edward Norton’s career, at least critically. He never really became huge, I’m guessing because of his tendency to pick strong material and be demanding of his movies to be good. But this one really… think of it this way. His first movie, Primal Fear. Oscar nomination, incredible performance. Second movie, Everyone Says I Love You, Woody Allen movie. Everyone does one of those. Then The People vs Larry Flynt. Scene-stealing performance. Then Rounders… great movie, great performance. And then this (and then Fight Club, then Keeping the Faith, then The Score, then Death to Smoochy. For my money, dude could not miss). Here he plays a reformed Neo-Nazi who tries to prevent his brother from going down the same path. It’s a hell of a performance. It’s one of those… the movie’s good, but it’s not nearly as good without his performance at the center of it. He elevates this movie immensely because of what he does in it.

Bulworth is Warren Beatty. To this point, the films he had directed were Heaven Can Wait (amazing), Reds (amazing), Dick Tracy (amazing) and this. This… not amazing, but very good. It’s an incredibly prescient social satire about a politician who can’t stand how corrupt everything is, so he pays a hitman to kill him. Not feeling the pressure anymore, he decides to be honest. And he starts speaking his mind and telling the people what he really believes, not what the lobbyists pay him to believe. And here’s the thing… it works. He becomes hugely popular, especially with the hip hop community. It’s great. It’s like a political Network, and it’s so much fun. And, kinda like Network, scarily accurate as to what politics has become. Also, and people forget this, this movie is responsible for giving us this song:

 

– – – – – – – – – –

Tier three:

  • Antz
  • Babe: Big in the City
  • Celebrity
  • City of Angels
  • Dark City
  • Deep Impact
  • Dirty Work
  • Great Expectations
  • Half Baked
  • Halloween H20
  • The Horse Whisperer
  • The Mask of Zorro
  • Mighty Joe Young
  • The Prince of Egypt
  • Psycho
  • Small Soldiers
  • Sour Grapes
  • Twilight
  • Velvet Goldmine
  • You’ve Got Mail

Antz is the other A Bug’s Life that came out this year. I’ll admit… kinda liked this one better at the time. Admittedly, I never really saw A Bug’s Life at the time, so I’m not sure that counts. It stars Woody Allen as a neurotic ant, questioning everything about ant society and trying to woo a princess. It’s almost like Bee Movie before Bee Movie, too. A lot of fun.

Babe: Big in the City is the sequel, and it’s lovely. It’s the Paddington 2 of anthropomorphic 90s animal pictures. Which should tell you everything you need to know.

Celebrity is Woody Allen’s 1998 movie. Between 1977 (Annie Hall) and 2017 (Wonder Wheel), the only year he did not release a new movie was 1981 (though he did put out two movies in 1987 to make up for it). This one is about a couple going through a divorce — Kenneth Branagh and Judy Davis. He becomes an entertainment journalist and goes around, meeting celebrities and drifting from party to party, slowly fucking up every opportunity put in front of him. While she puts her life together. It’s fun. Great cast of young actors — Leo’s in it. Winona. Also Melanie Griffith, Famke Janssen, Joe Mantegna, Charlize, Gretchen Mol, J.K. Simmons, Dylan Baker, Michael Lerner, Debra Messing, Allison Janney and Jeffrey Wright. This is one of the Allen movies I like. Marginally, but it’s a thumbs up for me. And there’s only about a dozen of those at most.

City of Angels is an American remake of Wings of Desire. Nicolas Cage stars as an angel who gets noticed by a woman and decides to give up his eternal life as an angel for a life on earth. It’s nice. It’s a romance. I’m sure most people think the original is better, but as remakes go, this is solid.

Dark City is Alex Proyas’s second movie about a noir landscape (after The Crow). This is also a movie that so clearly presages The Matrix some people think The Matrix stole a lot of stuff from it. This was also one of those movies for years people said was amazing and I had to see it, because it crosslisted with so much stuff I loved. It’s about a guy who wakes up with no memory and wanted for a bunch of murders, meanwhile he exists in a city that’s always nighttime and there is this group that seems to control what happens. It’s solid. Maybe I’d like it more if I saw it at the time, but it took me almost 20 years to see this for the first time.

Deep Impact is the other Armageddon. Literally same plot, but more ensemble disaster drama than Bayhem. Less fun, overall, but still solid. Also underrated as being a huge box office blockbuster directed by a woman.

Great Expectations is Alfonso Cuaron’s version of Dickens. The best is still David Lean from 1946, but man, this is a hell of an effort. Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert De Niro as Magwitch. It’s solid.

The Horse Whisperer is Robert Redford’s adaptation of the novel. He plays (insert title here), who helps rehabilitate a young girl’s injured horse… and also falls in love with her mother. Really solid movie. All Redford’s films are.

The Prince of Egypt is the animated story of Moses and Ramses. Everyone my age knows this movie well. Ralph Fiennes as Ramses, Val Kilmer as Moses. Amazing voice cast on top of them, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Steve Martin and Martin Short. It’s great. One of the best non-Disney/Pixar movies and quite possibly the best DreamWorks animated movie ever (top five for sure, if not top three).

Dirty Work is a Bob Saget-directed, Norm MacDonald-written comedy. About two friends who start a “revenge-for-hire” business. It’s fun. Stupid, but amused the hell out of me when I was 10.

The Mask of Zorro is fun as hell. Written by the guys who’d later bring us Pirates, directed by Martin Campbell who brought us GoldenEye and Casino Royale, and starring Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Anthony Hopkins. Great continuation/origin story that’s a lot of fun (and has such shades of Pirates when you watch it, too).

Small Soldiers is such an awesome movie that could only have come out between 1989 and 1999. Basically, what if G.I. Joes came to life and were a bit too into their jobs. Pure 90s. The kid with a crush on his neighbor having to help some of the toys against the others…  so 90s. And so much fun.

Mighty Joe Young is a remake of the 1949 film, and arguably better than that. Pure 90s. Charlize Theron plays a scientist who helped raise a young gorilla. Now when he’s full grown, poachers are after him, so Charlize agrees to take him to LA… where the poachers come after him. It’s like a Schwarzenegger movie but with a gorilla. But it’s also fun. And great creature work.

Halloween H20 is the 20-year sequel. I remember going to see this in theaters with about seven friends and my father, who bought us all tickets so we could get into the R-rated movie (this was right before we started buying tickets to PG-13 movies and sneaking into the R ones) and sat through the movie with us, because all of us wanted to see it. It’s fun. It’s kind of what Halloween from 2018 is to it… following up on the story and picking up with the character from the first one while generally ignoring the sequels. Nice to see Jamie Lee Curtis back… once again ending with a “finale” that will surely be undone by another sequel. You know the drill. I haven’t as of this posting seen all the Halloween movies, but I’ve always felt this was a solid one.

Psycho is Gus Van Sant’s shot for shot remake. Interesting that, after Good Will Hunting, given that he had the choice of anything he wanted to do, he chose a shot for shot remake of one of the most perfect films ever made. And boy, has history not been kind to this. I saw this in theaters. I’d seen the original, but I also went to see this. And I liked it. I don’t get why people are so savage against this. It’s a shot for shot remake, with like, what, one alteration? It’s in color, sure. But I think the only other swap was Van Sant doing the Hitchcock cameo instead of Hitchcock? But otherwise, it’s just a style exercise, and I think it’s a noble one to try. Plus, I am eagerly awaiting the person who decides they’re going to make a shot for shot remake of Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. That’ll be the true meta shit.

Sour Grapes is the only feature Larry David wrote (well, theatrical feature. Technically Clear History counts too). It’s such a Curb Your Enthusiasm premise, too — two cousins are in Vegas. One loses all his money at the tables and, down to his last 50 cents, asks his (more sensible) cousin for two more quarters to play one final slot. Then, the jackpot comes in. So… does the other cousin get half for giving him half the coins he used to play? Or is it his slot because he played and does he only get his investment back? It’s about to tear the family apart. Such a Curb premise, but stretched out over 90 minutes, and clearly studio-influenced, because you only see flashes of Curb’s brilliance in there. But still, worth seeing for anyone who is interested in whatever Larry David creates.

Twilight is not the vampire movie, it’s a neo noir detective mystery with Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, Reese Witherspoon, Stockard Channing, James Garner, Giancarlo Esposito, Liev Schreiber, Margo Martindale, John Spencer and M. Emmet Walsh. Do I have your attention now? Paul Newman is an aging detective who meets up with old friends Hackman and Sarandon to do a simple task… which spirals into a decades-old mystery. It’s awesome. Robert Benton directs.

Velvet Goldmine is Todd Hayne’s movie about David Bowie fucking Iggy Pop. That’s basically what it is, though, right? Christian Bale is a journalist looking to find out what happened to a rock superstar Jonathan Rhys Meyers (who is basically Ziggy Stardust Bowie), who was murdered onstage during one of his concerts. To do this, he tracks down his friend/creative partner/lover Ewan McGregor (basically Iggy Pop), and all sorts of stories and flashbacks come out. It’s really solid, though looking back it’s kinda nuts how clearly this is based on Bowie. It’s bordering on fan-fiction level. But at the same time, it’s also kinda good.

You’ve Got Mail is the digital age version of The Shop Around the Corner. Meg Ryan is a small bookstore owner determined not to sell out and Tom Hanks works for the big corporation, looking to buy her out. Professionally, they hate each other. But… email is another story. It’s great. Hanks and Ryan make a great screen pair, and it’s just a wonderful movie. One of the great rom coms of the 90s, and probably even all time.

Speaking of movies that are “the other version” of movies from this year: Half Baked. (It’s the other Mulan.) The ultimate stoner movie. Dave Chappelle, Jim Breuer. I don’t know how to explain this movie other than… if you were born in my generation, it just makes sense. It also gave us one of the best walkout lines of all time:

– – – – – – – – – –

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