For the past two weeks, we’ve been looking back at the ’90s, with our year-by-year rundown of the decade’s best movies. Right now, we’re hurtling toward the millennium and are up to 1998 (you can check out 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1997 at your leisure), the year in which not one but two meteorites threatened to wipe out humanity but obliterated the box office instead (“Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” were the number 1 and number 6 highest-grossing films that year).
“Shakespeare In Love” snaffled Best Picture to the eternal chagrin of some of the film world’s sniffier commentators, and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett welcomed their son Jaden into the world in July, which makes him almost certainly the reincarnation of Frank Sinatra, who died two months prior. Yes, 1998 was a spunky time at the movies, which is appropriate for a year when the news was dominated by the stains on Monica Lewinsky’s clothing, and in which the FDA finally approved Viagra. 1998 gave America its boner back — here are the 10 films that most did it for us.
10. “Saving Private Ryan”
Steven Spielberg‘s Best Director-winning film unfolds on such a grand scale that its flaws, such as a slackening of pace after the first act, some rather simplistic characterizations and those semi-infuriating flash-forward bookends, feel similarly magnified. But one’s recall of those disappointments tends to be obliterated by the almost palpable sense-memory of that opening act, in particular the unforgettable first 20 minutes or so in which the landing on Omaha Beach is summoned with electrifying, terrifying immediacy. It’s a single scene that merits the film’s place here all by itself, and as for the throttling down that happens after? Perhaps Spielberg was simply aware that we’d need the entire rest of the film to recover. Also, amid the ensemble, Barry Pepper’s bible-quoting sniper steals most of his scenes, while Tom Hanks gives one of his most memorable turns as the good Captain, broken down and morally exhausted by the exigencies of war. His performance, in fact, is so nuanced in its portrayal of the gradual erosion of certainty and the ethical ambiguity that life on the frontlines dictates, that it almost compensates for the unsubtle flag-waving elsewhere. Ultimately, whatever one’s hesitation, the eminently compelling filmmaking craft on display here shows a great American showman at the height of his powers.
9. “The Truman Show”
There was a time, not so long ago, when Peter Weir‘s terrifically inventive and offbeat film, based on a tight, witty script by Andrew Niccol, felt like science fiction. But like half of Philip K. Dick and a whole host of “Twilight Zone” episodes, its high-concept premise now seems uncomfortably close to the reality of our infinitesimally surveilled lives and our culture’s generalized obsession with celebrity and TV-as-“reality.” So perhaps even more than its topicality, we can now appreciate the film for its high-wire, high-risk balancing act: it walks a delicate tightrope of tone between the satirical and the sweet-natured, the indignant and the goofball, but it never wavers. A cunning mix of “Network” and “It’s A Wonderful Life,” giving us the first glimpse of a Jim Carrey who could be a legitimate leading man and not just a rubber-faced physical comedian, “The Truman Show” is most impressive for never selling out the darker aspects of its allegorical story, while keeping the register buoyant, afloat on whimsical and breezy currents — right until it bumps into the edge of the world and Truman gets to make one of the most heart-stirring and uplifting escapes since “The Shawshank Redemption.”
8. “He Got Game”
Spike Lee has a way with Denzel Washington: in each of their four collaborations to date, Lee has got something special from the megastar — perhaps because he has the confidence to cast Washington in the kind of roles he rarely takes elsewhere, and Washington has enough trust in Lee to take them. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in “He Got Game,” which is rarely counted among the top-tier Spike Lee films (which is wrong anyway), and which also features arguably Washington’s most atypical performance, and one of his very best. As the deadbeat dad temporarily released from prison on condition he get his basketball-star son (a convincing turn from NBA player Ray Allen) to sign with the warden’s alma mater, there are no action-movie histrionics or broad, simplistic hero arcs here. Washington, who still exudes that innately likable charisma, doesn’t hold back in mining his character’s darker side: we often see him play men who are at war with their own worse nature, and here that battle rages as he juggles a lifetime of selfishness against the chance to reconnect with his children. This time, however, his worse nature often wins, yielding one of Washington’s most multifaceted and nuanced turns, and one of Lee’s most humane and emotionally honest films.
7. “The Big Lebowski”
We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t with the cultural institution that now is the Coen Brothers‘ “The Big Lebowski”: critics of the film’s looseness, its culty unevenness (which hampered its reception on release) will wonder why it’s here at all, while its much more vociferous contingent of diehard fans will find it unforgivable that it’s not higher. So let’s state our case for the record: while not, in fact, our favorite Coens film, “The Big Lebowski” has enough genuinely inspired sequences and homages that even if we weren’t afraid of the the death threats (or at least the rug-napping threats) we’d get if we left it off, we’d include it. Like any film that has spawned a cult so big it can presumably at this stage be termed a religion, it’s endlessly quotable, but above the epithets, this is maybe the most accomplished seven-car genre pile-up of the modern era. The Coens take elements of detective noir, stoner movie, melodrama, western and Busby Berkeley musical, liberally sprinkle some genial profanity (its 292 “fuck”s make it more foulmouthed than “Scarface“) and populate it with an ensemble of the most eccentric and colorful characters in the Coensian pantheon, most importantly Jeff Bridges‘ indelible, cardigan-sporting, White Russian-swilling, ever-abiding Dude.
6. “Out Of Sight”
Steven Soderbergh, for a good portion of his career, was one of the foremost proponents of the “one for them and one for me” ethos whereby he’d alternate studio commissions with smaller, more personal projects. But what makes him great is just how adept he was at bringing something of the one-for-me passion and eccentricity to the ones-for-them. This is particularly well exemplified by “Out Of Sight,” his Elmore Leonard adaptation, which, sandwiched between “Schizopolis“/a Spalding Gray documentary and 1999’s terrifically lean “The Limey,” and budgeted at a relatively high (for Soderbergh) $50m by Universal, should really have been a paycheck gig. Actually, it’s a sultry, sexy delight, as a pre-megastardom George Clooney and a pre-never-making-another-good-movie Jennifer Lopez spark and fizz off each other through one of Leonard’s labyrinthine plots. Also featuring stellar support from Don Cheadle, Albert Brooks, Isaiah Washington, Steve Zahn, Catherine Keener, Dennis Farina, Ving Rhames and Luis Guzmán, as well as an uncredited turn by Michael Keaton reprising his “Jackie Brown” role, “Out of Sight” might not have broken the box office when it opened, but it was built to last and all these years later, it’s still a sly, smoldering pleasure.