The Man Who Viewed Too Much
31 December 1998

Okay, let's just pretend that I was abducted by aliens sometime along about May and subjected to several months of bizarre experiments, which experiments let's say involved exposure to numerous 1998 commercial movie releases, the object presumably being to test Homo sapiens' tolerance for boredom, disappointment, and frustration. I realize that most of my readers would have preferred more frequent updates over the past twelve months...but really, if I absolutely had to slack off, this was definitely the right year in which to do it. I think the key word here is "blah."

Because I've fallen so far behind, I plan to address most of the films that I overlooked over the course of the year in a pithy sentence or two. The eight slightly longer reviews below, however, were originally written for Video Librarian, a trade publication that, as its moniker implies, reviews new video releases for librarians. Because they were penned with the VL audience in mind, they're perhaps a bit more staid than my usual fare, but you know what they say about beggars and their relative freedom of choice.

These babies are in no particular order.

In the past, Hal Hartley's films have always been impressive in a rather wearisome way. He encourages his actors to recite his quirky dialogue in an clipped, deadpan monotone, and the table-tennis rhythms that inevitably develop between any two characters gradually become more and more irritating -- the performers seem to be constantly congratulating themselves on their facility at Hartley-speak. With Henry Fool, however, Hartley has taken a major leap forward, simply by making one of his two protagonists so withdrawn and depressive that he's virtually mute. This near-silent fellow, Simon Grim by name (played by James Urbaniak), is a garbageman whose life is turned upside-down when the title character (Thomas Jay Ryan, playing a more typically gregarious Hartley dude in high style), a failed writer who's been polishing his epic "Confession" for years, appears from nowhere one odd afternoon and encourages simple Simon to set some of his thoughts down on paper. What emerges is a highly entertaining dissertation on the role of the artist in society, featuring all of Hartley's strengths -- hilariously arch dialogue; off-kilter sensibility; blistering score by "Ned Rifle" (Hartley himself) -- without the rat-a-tat fussiness that usually detracts from same. Grade: B+

Having invigorating his spirit with two quick, cheap, aggressively independent movies that were seen by virtually nobody (Gray's Anatomy and Schizopolis), indie wunderkind Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies and videotape) returns to Hollywood with Out of Sight, the best Elmore Leonard adaptation to date, outclassing both 1995's uneven Get Shorty and Quentin Tarantino's bloated Jackie Brown. In fact, Soderbergh scarcely makes a false move here, from his playful fracturing of the film's chronology (incredibly, you're never for a moment confused about where you are in the story) to his graceful use of freeze-frames as emotional punctuation (the opening shot, in particular, is a doozy) to his inspired casting choices (neither George Clooney nor Jennifer Lopez -- as a bank robber and the federal marshal who falls for him, respectively -- has ever been more appealing). The weak link, as usual, is the source material -- Leonard's novels are invariably engaging and funny but also infuriatingly slight, and the movies made from them tend to fade from memory as soon as they've finished unspooling (Out of Sight, out of mind, you might say). While it's still flickering in front of you, however, this pleasantly artful cop'n'robber saga is a much-needed reminder of what big-budget American movies are supposed to be. Grade: B+

Disney's animation division seems to have fallen into a relatively pleasant rut; their last few cartoon extravaganzas have been unfailingly...adequate, neither unqualified masterpieces nor embarrassing failures. Mulan, the latest strategic move in the Mouse's quest for world domination, is yet another thoroughly respectable entertainment, consistently diverting and engaging without ever really feeling inspired. Once again, the theme is the value of individualism, with a plucky outsider -- in this case, a young girl in feudal China who doesn't conform to her society's repressive notions of femininity -- forced by circumstances to rebel and prove herself worthy of respect and admiration; when her elderly father is conscripted into the Imperial Army, Mulan (voice of Ming-na Wen) disguises herself as a man and goes to war in his stead. What follows is both entirely predictable and quite a bit of fun; the protagonist, as usual, is a bit of a bore -- sort of an earnest cross between Yentl and G.I. Jane -- but whenever the energy level begins to flag, Eddie Murphy's wisecracking dragon sidekick lets loose with another barrage of priceless one-liners. The animation is typically masterful, the songs (since the death of lyricist Howard Ashman) typically mediocre. Typical, in short -- and therefore recommended. Grade: B

It isn't often that a movie can get by on visual imagination alone, but Darren Aronofsky's vivid debut π, shot in 16mm for about the cost of a Two-Cheeseburger Value Meal at McDonald's (sans "super-size" upgrade), is just such a rarity; watching it with the volume turned all the way down might well be even more rewarding than using both eyes and ears. The plot, which involves a tormented computer genius (Sean Gullette) and his attempts to discover patterns in the stock market via a mathematical equivalent of the Rosetta Stone, is resoundingly stupid, although Aronofsky does his best to obscure this fact with a mountain of technological jargon and multisyllabic words. (When the dialogue is comprehensible, it tends toward the painfully overwrought: "This is madness, Max." "Or maybe it's genius!") Ultimately, however, it doesn't matter whether you're hooting at the melodramatic narrative lurches or mad-scientist clichés, because the high-contrast black-and-white cinematography and harrowing flights of aesthetic fancy (e.g., a nightmarish sequence in which our hero finds a pulsating human brain in a New York subway station) more than compensate. For a neophyte, Aronofsky has a remarkably sophisticated eye, and clearly he's got ambition to spare. For his next project, all he needs is a halfway decent script. Grade: B

My enthusiasm for Funny Games comes with a great big honking caveat: this is not remotely a movie for anybody who's looking to be entertained. In fact, a streak of cinematic masochism is a necessary prerequisite, because the entire point of this Austrian art film, directed by celebrated provocateur Michael Haneke, is to make you, the viewer, feel like an immoral, bloodthirsty scumbag. The story is nauseatingly simple: two polite young men, dressed in tennis whites, invade the home of a nice suburban family and proceed to torture and murder them, one by one. "And?" you're wondering. But there is no "and." Haneke's object is to make you think about your complicity in the proliferation of images that degrade your fellow human beings, and to that end he's created a hideously post-modern movie in which there is no narrative payoff to justify the violence that takes place, and in which the killers repeatedly address the camera and remind you that the pain you're witnessing is occurring solely for your personal diversion. One imagines Haneke applauding anybody with the good sense to get up and walk out, and condemning those (like myself) who sit through it to the extremely bitter end. I respect Funny Games, and think it a valuable and important work of art, but I wouldn't sit through the thing again for a sum with fewer than three figures. Grade: B+

With two first-rate actors in the leads, Brad Anderson's charming romantic comedy Next Stop Wonderland might have been a minor classic; with the radiant Hope Davis as one protagonist and the somewhat stolid Alan Gelfant as the other, it's still a charming romantic comedy. Davis plays a lonely single nurse whose pushy mother places a cheesy personal ad on her behalf without her permission; Gelfant a mildly hunky plumber and aquarium volunteer who's equally bereft of companionship. The film's premise is that these two souls were made for each other, yet keep missing each other -- their paths continually cross, yet each is utterly unaware of the other's existence. Anderson cuts back and forth between their parallel stories until the inevitable final-reel connection, and so each time you find yourself growing a bit weary of Gelfant's puppy-dog soulfulness, there's a sudden jolt of Hope, who manages somehow to dominate the frame even while playing a shrinking violet, and whose encounters with the pathetic suitors who respond to her mother's ad are as witty a dissection of male vanity as has been seen onscreen in ages. Grade: B

James Toback's latest movie is called simply Two Girls and a Guy; I guess and Their Incessant Yammering wouldn't fit on the marquee. Robert Downey Jr.'s astounding, mercurial performance as a pathological liar and philanderer unexpectedly cornered by two of his girlfriends is the only reason to see this single-set talkfest; backing and filling and wheeling and dealing and pleading and provoking, Downey invests Toback's fairly banal scenario with so much crazed, desperate energy that he very nearly makes it work by sheer force of will. Heather Graham (Boogie Nights) and Natasha Gregson Wagner (Lost Highway), as the eponymous gals, on the other hand, have little to do but stand around being angrily accusatory and/or coyly sexual. Those who'd willingly sit through a bad off-off-Broadway play (which is what this is, really, the 24 frames per second notwithstanding) in order to see one legendary performance won't be disappointed, but everybody else is liable to find themselves fervently wishing that the fillies on the left-hand side of the title's conjunction were one-tenth as fascinating as the fella on the right. Grade: C+

A convicted murderer (Denzel Washington) is released from prison for a week with orders to convince his son, a high school basketball superstar (played by real-life NBA star Ray Allen), to attend the warden's alma mater; if he succeeds, he's told, he'll be released permanently. Such is the fervently melodramatic plot of He Got Game, the first film in quite a while to be written as well as directed by Mr. Spike "Kitchen Sinks [backwards-R] Us" Lee. The movie's strength, predictably enough, is its oncourt sequences, many of which diehard fan Lee sets not to the usual hip-hop or rock anthems but to such stirring Aaron Copland works as "Fanfare for the Common Man" and "Rodeo"; at first it seems willfully perverse, but once you adjust your expectations it's a surprisingly effective juxtaposition of image and sound. Whenever Lee turns to the strained, maudlin relationship between father and son, however, it's involuntary-head-nodding time -- especially since pitting a mediocre non-pro like Allen against a laid-back master like Washington is like asking yrs truly to play a little one-on-one with Michael Jordan (last name to be pronounced with equal stress on both syllables, à la Buggin' Out in Do the Right Thing). Additional demerits for the dumbest hooker-with-heart-composed-of-a-certain-yellowish-and-valuable-mineral subplot since Milk Money. Grade: C

Okay, now for the onslaught. My goal is to complete this column in one sitting, so that I can finish the NYFF column and compile my pathetic '98 top ten list before the new year's cinematic tide begins rolling in. (Fortunately, the next couple of weeks look fairly quiet, what with such bad-rep leftovers as Virus and At First Sight on the menu.) Each of the 50-odd titles below, therefore, is getting the 25-words-or-fewer treatment, give or take another 25 words or so. In some cases, a single word may suffice. (E.g., Blade: Dull.) If it's analysis you seek, in short, look elsewhere; what follows is strictly for longtime readers and the terminally curious.

In reverse order seen:

Elizabeth (Shekhar Kapur): Nice to see a historical costume drama exhibit some energy for a change, but no amount of lurching and whirling and cutcutcutting is gonna fill the emotional vacuum at the core of this pedestrian portrait of the not-so-virginal-after-all Queen. Cate Blanchett, however, is almost skilled enough to fool you into believing there's actually a character underneath all of that pancake. Grade: C+

Hilary and Jackie (Anand Tucker): The thin line between genius and madness has never seemed dramatically thinner; I'm alarmed to find myself half-heartedly longing for a boring movie about an emotionally stable, relatively happy musical prodigy. Emily Watson twitches up a storm, but it's Rachel Griffiths, as the sane and healthy DuPré, who prevents the picture from charging headlong into Mt. Maudlin. Grade: C+

Affliction (Paul Schrader): I've never had much use for Schrader's academically tortured explorations of tragic machismo -- I'm not even that keen on Taxi Driver, to be honest. More of the same here: good men poisoned by a patrimonial legacy of brutality, etc. Wake me when our (anti-)hero finally breaks down and murders somebody. Grade: C

The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick): One part riveting, disconcerting masterpiece to two parts pretentious twaddle. I'm with Peter Rainer, who likened the experience of watching it to "being in a platoon of philosophy majors"; imagine an Apocalypse Now in which every character sounds like Kurtz. Of the enormous all-star cast, only Nick Nolte and Elias Koteas make an impression. Grade: C+

Shakespeare in Love (John Madden): I've been reading and re-reading the raves, trying to figure out what I missed. "A fervid theatricality and wit, a boisterous wholeheartedness, that is nothing short of enchanting," exclaimed Owen Gleiberman. Didn't notice that. "Ingeniously Shakespearean in its dimensions," quoth Roger Ebert. Wherefore the plural? "Has all the swoon appeal you could hope for in a tale of star-cross'd lovers," enthused my compadre Scott Renshaw. If y'all say so. My take: thoroughly competent; mildly pleasant; utterly forgettable. Grade: B-

The Emperor's Shadow (Zhou Xiaowen): Spectacular cinematography and production design (probably truly spectacular when seen on a print that isn't six months old) in service of a wheel-spinning melodrama that's sort of a sibling variation on Character. Takes forever to get where it's obviously going, but the journey's plenty scenic, and the two lead actors, Jiang Wen and Ge You, are superb. Grade: B-

A Simple Plan (Sam Raimi): Kinda wish now that I hadn't read the book first, as I couldn't get past the numerous ways in which Scott Smith's almost unbelievably grim story ("they can't film this," was my mantra as I was feverishly turning pages) was watered down for mass consumption (by Smith himself, I'm sorry to say). I am surprised, though, that nobody else seems to have noticed how clunky the dialogue is. That said, is Billy Bob the best damn character actor since M. Emmet Walsh or what? Grade: C+

Little Voice (Mark Herman): Okay, so Jane Horrocks can do impressive vocal impersonations of Bassey, Dietrich, Garland, etc. Great talk-show shtick; now any chance someone might give her an actual character to play? Preferably in a movie in which said character's plight isn't symbolized by a goddamn caged bird? (Why do so many writers imagine that nobody ever thought of this before?!) Less of Brenda Blethyn's boozy sexpot routine would be welcome, too, and chuck the general air of feel-good condescension while you're at it. Grade: C-

Psycho (Gus Van Sant): Utterly pointless, and hence nearly unwatchable; this needed to be either a truly surreal painstaking imitation or a complete re-imagining of its source, and it wound up being neither, though it features elements of both. Interesting only as a case study in the difference between screen acting then and now. I elaborated in numerous posts to Usenet's rec.arts.movies.current-films -- check 'em out via DejaNews, if you're interested in more. Grade: D

A Civil Action (Steven Zaillian): See how forgiving I can be when I haven't read the book? It helps that I'm a sucker for Zaillian's distinctive narrative ebb'n'flow, a storytelling confidence so unmistakable and gratifying that I'm tempted to risk heresy and label it "the Zaillian Touch." The first two reels had me completely enthralled, and while I became somewhat irritated as the picture gradually turned sanctimonious, I was never for one moment even the tiniest bit bored. Grade: B

Central Station (Walter Salles): Yet another grumpy-adult-bonds-with-destitute-kid flick; it's probably just terrific, if you like that sort of thing. I sure as hell wouldn't know. Grade: C+

Babe: Pig in the City (George Miller): Certainly one of the most demented and inspired major-studio pictures of the year; also, unfortunately, one of the flabbiest, as one terrific scene after another continues wowing you several minutes after it ought to have taken its bows and made way for the next act. (One notable exception is the bungee-jumping climax, which is dire throughout.) The original seemed to me an overrated trifle; this thing, on the other hand, with some judicious editing and a boffo finale, could've been the movie of the year. File it alongside Bulworth under Heartbreakers. Grade: B-

Very Bad Things (Peter Berg): Not so much shocking or subversive as it is simply unpleasant -- a gratuitously nasty assault on societal conventions unleavened by wit, compassion, or understanding. I might have made allowances had it at least been hideously funny, but the best it has to offer is an out-of-focus Christian Slater pointedly fondling the handle of a bread knife while Jon Favreau nervously improvises a lie. Grade: C

A Bug's Life (John Lasseter): Even more visually astounding than Toy Story, but a bit deficient in the characterization dept. -- nobody here, least of all bumbling protagonist Flik (perpetual straight-man Dave Foley), is half as memorable as good ol' Buzz and Woody. And the inevitable similarities to Antz, while not remotely Pixar's fault, gave the whole enterprise an unfortunate sense of déjà vu; it's not impossible that my grade would've been a notch higher had I seen this one first. Nonetheless, a delight; pity Lasseter can only make one film every three years. Grade: B+

Storefront Hitchcock (Jonathan Demme): I'm a Robyn Hitchcock fan from way back -- own every album he's ever released; saw one of the rehearsals for this very film; etc. -- and so I was predisposed to enjoy myself. Stop Making Sense, however, this ain't: Demme does wonders with the fishbowl setting (the expressions of random passersby through the panes of glass are often priceless), but it's hard to imagine anybody making a great movie that's dominated by one guy and his guitar. Grade: B

Beloved (Jonathan Demme): Offbeat concert films and affectionately crackpot visions of Americana are Demme's forte; sober drama, on the evidence of the wretched Philadelphia and this more honorable misfire, decidedly ain't. He's most at home with the genre elements of Toni Morrison's literary ghost story, effectively creating a distinctive atmosphere of unease seasoned with a smattering of genuine dread (Paul D's initial entrance into Sethe's home is unforgettably creepy). Ultimately, though, the picture's too ponderously respectful to be properly gripping, and Demme, to my alarm, is threatening to join Rob Reiner and Robert Zemeckis among the ranks of directors derailed by a misguided sense of self-importance. Grade: B-

The Mighty (Peter Chelsom): Mighty sappy; mighty stupid; I'm mighty sorry I paid full price to see it. The title change from the book's Freak the Mighty (and the choice to hire Sting to write a title tune) tells you everything you need to know. Grade: C

The Impostors (Stanley Tucci): Attempts to revive dormant genres are almost always curiosities at best, and Tucci's '30s-style shipboard farce strands a terrific cast in what is essentially an affable talent show sketch. It's like watching high schoolers performing Importance of Being Earnest; "Aww, aren't they cute?!" is the only possible reaction. They can be pretty adorable, though; Campbell Scott, as a German martinet, seems to be having the time of his life, and Tucci and Oliver Platt demonstrate a fine flair for silent shtick in the opening credits sequence. Grade: C+

Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (John Maybury): One of those tedious price-of-genius biopics, in which we get to find out what a miserable, rotten bastard so-and-so was in his personal life. Maybury's visual grotesquerie -- distorting faces by shooting them through wine glasses, etc. -- is merely distracting, although anything that draws attention away from the schematically unpleasant narrative is something of a godsend. Derek Jacobi's work in the title role is surprisingly monotonous. Grade: C-

Antz (Eric Darnell & Tim Johnson): The closest approximation of an "early, funny" Woody Allen picture that we're likely to get at this late date; if Allen didn't write a hefty percentage of Z's dialogue, then whoever did write it has seen Love and Death at least two dozen times. Thematically confused -- is the movie advocating individualism, collectivism, or some idealistic hybrid of the two? -- and perhaps a bit too monochromatic, it's also extremely funny, though I'm willing to concede that some of my affection may well be nostalgic. Seeing it shortly after Celebrity probably didn't hurt. Grade: B+

Ronin (John Frankenheimer): Undeniably exciting -- this is the first time in ages that I've genuinely enjoyed watching a car chase -- but also utterly soulless; it's like Le Samouraï conceived as a generic action flick, with De Niro's taciturn renegade so sullenly introspective that the film would have been almost as effective with a statue of the Buddha in the role (if you meet him in the road, he kills you). Also, I'd like to declare a decade-long moratorium on brief/suitcases the valuable contents of which are never revealed. Get a new McGuffin, folks. Grade: B-

Monument Ave. (Ted Demme): I had to go visit the Movie Review Query Engine to remind myself what this cliché-machine was even about. ("Thaaaat's right, it was last year's ill-advised Mean Streets facsimile.") Rote it may be -- tiresomely so, in the end -- but it's anchored by a surprisingly affecting performance by Denis Leary, enlarging his standard motormouthed-wiseacre persona in a way that makes me want to see what he might do with a leading role in a movie that doesn't have 'EXPIRED' stamped on the leader in bold red. Grade: C+

A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (James Ivory): One of those frustrating, yes-yes-and movies in which there's hardly a bum moment to be found -- each individual scene incisive and evocative and admirably truthful -- and yet it's never quite clear what the thematic upshot is supposed to be, or even the dramatic upshot. Oddly tentative, then, but featuring a terrific, beautifully nuanced performance by Leelee Sobieski, plus Barbara Hershey's best work since maybe Tin Men. Good to see M/I moving away from the celeb biopics, too (Kristofferson's James Jones is a supporting character, more Plain Ol' Dad than Tortured Artist), and closer to the turf they know. Grade: B

One True Thing (Carl Franklin): I didn't much like Terms of Endearment the first time; thanks all the same. Grade: C+

Rounders (John Dahl): Takes a while to get going, but once the insufferable whiny-girlfriend subplot ("insufferable" modifying both "girlfriend" and "subplot") disappears, it's almost embarrassingly satisfying -- even John Malkovich's ludicrous Russian accent ("ghive ze mhan heeesssk mahnee") miraculously works for the picture rather than against it. Damon's made one trip too many to the charisma-coasting well, however; we'll soon see if he's as Talented as the astonishingly chameleonic Edward Norton, whose weaselly Worm is the best Johnny Boy since Johnny Boy himself. Grade: B-

A Merry War (Robert Bierman): Refreshingly ignoble, contending as it does that artists who embrace poverty as a virtue are deluded cretins. The film (following Orwell, presumably, upon whose novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying it was based) hedges its bets, though, by making Gordon Comstock (Richard E. Grant, enjoyably manic as ever) a laughably awful poet; it's not at all clear whether we're to believe that those with genuine talent should succumb to the myriad lures of capitalism -- nor, for that matter, whether the theme is truly the debilitating effects of insolvency or (as it sometimes seems) the pretensions of would-be aesthetes. "Focus!" I was tempted to yell. Grade: B-

See the Sea (François Ozon): Okay, yes, it's unbelievably disturbing...but to what end, exactly? "A stunning thriller," Steve Erickson calls it, which would be fine but for the nagging fact that it doesn't thrill at all; Ozon certainly knows how to expertly evoke apprehension, but his movie is essentially 52 solid minutes of somebody creeping up the stairs holding a gleaming butcher's knife. Slowly. Creeping. Slowly. Step, step. Slowly. Climbing. Sloooowly. "But what happens when the figure reaches the top of the stairs?" you ask? Answer: End credits. How' bout some steak with that sizzle? Grade: C (what else?)

The Chambermaid on the Titanic (Bigas Luna): Another potentially brilliant idea squandered -- in this case, because the movie is ostensibly about the power of storytelling, and blandly handsome Olivier Martinez, bless his wooden heart, is to the art of the raconteur roughly what Genghis Khan was to the art of gentle diplomacy. Fortunately, Romane Bohringer's on hand to pick up some of the slack...and, in any case, not even an Ed Wood alumnus could completely sabotage this imaginative ode to the imagination. Grade: B-

Brother (Alexei Balabanov): I didn't, it should be noted, see this one under ideal conditions: having missed the Manhattan run, I caught up with it in a rinky-dink multiplex on Long Island, which had inherited a print that had very likely been kicking around since Toronto '97 (and where the projectionist, apparently figuring that the damage was done so what the heck, didn't even bother to frame it properly). Still, I doubt that I'd have been in sync with this doleful accidental-hit-man pic under any circumstances; the notion of talent misplaced didn't much resonate with me, and if I never see another casually amoral hired gun again it'll be etc. Grade: C

The Eel (Shohei Imamura): Imamura looks to be one of my blind spots (though I did warm somewhat to Dr. Akagi a few months later); his hallmark is a wildly vacillating tone, which as a general rule I simply cannot abide. I don't mind a tone that suddenly shifts, mind you -- cf. Something Wild, my favorite film of 1986 -- but when every scene feels like it belongs to a different movie -- veering, as in this case, from stark horror to contemplative drama to slapstick comedy to tender romance to whatever the hell's going on in the borderline-hysterical final reel -- I start to get mighty restless. This is one of those cases where I'd actively encourage you to ignore me, though. Grade: C

Your Friends & Neighbors (Neil LaBute): I've a hunch that LaBute pulled this one out of the fabled trunk: it plays like juvenilia, something penned during that unfortunate undergrad phase in which compassion seems trite and feeble. Worse, it's painfully repetitive -- LaBute sets up C. Keener's loathing for coital conversation within thirty seconds of the character's introduction, and then is still setting it up over an hour later, for no apparent reason. That said, and massive post-Company letdown acknowledged, it's nonetheless skillfully directed, well acted (by B. Stiller and A. Eckhart in particular), and -- the saving grace -- often queasily hilarious. Bonus points for a rip-roarin', tone-settin' credits sequence: Metallica performed by a frantic string quartet. Grade: B-

Snake Eyes (Brian De Palma): Dazzling opening shot; pity about everything frickin' else. I haven't seen superlative style wasted on such insipid content since...uh...whaddaya know, Bonfire of the Vanities. Grade: C-

Unmade Beds (Nicholas Barker): The recent blurring of the line between cinematic fiction and non-fiction is unquestionably intriguing, but I think that some part of me must fundamentally object to the deliberate obliteration of that line, because watching the four "characters" in Unmade Beds flawlessly recite monologues about their pathetic lives made me acutely uncomfortable. The scene in which Aimee breaks down crying was especially troubling; I wasn't sure how to react, because I had no idea whether or not her tears were genuine. It's as if I wear one pair of glasses for fictional narratives and another pair of glasses for documentaries, and Barker's film left me unable to determine which pair of glasses I was supposed to put on, and without glasses my vision's maybe 20/500, and so I found the entire experience...well, really darn blurry. Grade: C+

Gadjo dilo (Tony Gatlif): An ethnographic treat, though you can't help but wish that it had strived to be something more. Months later, all I remember of it is a wash of unconnected "exotic" images -- though I'm still humming the song featured in the trailer and the opening credits on a weekly basis, which makes me even sorrier that I missed (on two separate occasions) Gatlif's more blatantly musical Latcho Drom. Not much to say about this one, really (unless, of course, you're Theo the Great). Grade: B

Seventh Heaven (Benoît Jacquot): "I understand HOW: I do not understand WHY," Winston Smith once wrote, little realizing that he was deftly summarizing my own response to the understated weirdness of Jacquot's elegant Huh?-provoker. There is such a thing as too much ambiguity, and when even the corporeal existence of one of your key supporting characters is in doubt, you've definitely hit Equivocation Overload; Sandrine Kiberlain and Vincent Lindon, as the film's unhappy couple, are both first-rate, but what the sudden shift in their relationship's balance of power (accompanied by an equally sudden change of protagonist) is intended to signify escaped me entirely. Grade: C+

Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg): Crap crap genius genius genius genius genius genius genius genius crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap genius genius genius genius genius genius genius genius crap crap. Grade: B

There's Something About Mary (Bobby & Peter Farrelly): Often hilarious -- Matt Dillon's paean to retards had me gasping for breath -- but the constant stabs at transgression weaken rather than strengthen the comedy. The caught-in-the-zipper scene, to cite just one example, plays beautifully as a vulgar update of the Marx Brothers' stateroom gag from Night at the Opera; but its infamous "money shot" is so deliberately, calculatedly "outrageous" that it completely disrupts the comic momentum, sacrificing several minutes of gradually escalating absurdity for mere shock value. It's not a joke, not a payoff -- it's simply "you didn't think we'd show you this, did you?" Actually, no -- I thought you were smarter than that. Grade: B-

Western (Manuel Poirier): Engaging multi-cultural camaraderie is about all that this French road/buddy movie has to offer, but it's not as if we see so much of that onscreen that it's become tiresome or anything. Cleverly conceived, smartly directed, expertly acted -- indeed, there's nothing much wrong with it apart from a lack of ambition: it's pleasant without being memorable, too quietly anecdotal to really register. Grade: B

The Thief (Pavel Chukhrai): AMPAS members with unresolved issues strike again: this polished but rote tale of crippling surrogate fatherhood inexplicably wound up a foreign-language Oscar nominee last year despite a color-by-numbers narrative and a punishingly dour tone. I gave it a respectable grade, so it must have a few virtues; I'll be damned if I can remember what they were, though, a year later. It's receded in my memory to such an extent that I picture it among the generic items on a supermarket shelf -- a yellow film canister with black sans-serif type stating ALLEGORICAL RUSSIAN FAMILY DRAMA. Grade: B-

I Went Down (Paddy Breathnach): 1998, for me, was the year of Brendan Gleeson; he hadn't made much of an impression on me in Braveheart or The Snapper, but by the second reel of this intermittently amusing gangster comedy I'd made a mental note to memorize the name of the actor playing Bunny, as I felt confident that I'd be seeing him again. (I hadn't yet learned that he'd played the title role in Boorman's then-forthcoming The General.) Breathnach works the quirkiness a bit too hard, and the protagonist (Peter McDonald) rather deserves the name Git, but whenever Gleeson shambles into the frame, it's as if the projectionist has suddenly doubled the lamp's wattage; this, my friends, is a potential legend. Grade: B

Carla's Song (Ken Loach): Most of Loach's movies are terrific character studies only occasionally marred by left-wing preachiness; when the didacticism takes over, however, it's not a pretty sight. What I remember most vividly is wanting to spit when a lovely, apparently irrelevant scene in which bus-driver-turned-hesitant-activist Robert Carlyle and a Nicaraguan exchange t-shirts ("Sandino" v. "City of Glasgow") turned out to have an ugly ironic "payoff" a few minutes later. The easy naturalism that distinguishes Loach's work is cheapened, somehow, when forced into a context of mechanistic hectoring, 24 'tsk's per second; fortunately, Loach has already rebounded, so there's no cause for concern. Grade: C

Buffalo '66 (Vincent Gallo): The year's best film, hands down; I'll be writing a lengthy appreciation in conjunction with my forthcoming New Directors/New Films column (I first saw Gallo's film in last year's ND/NF). Grade: A

Smoke Signals (Chris Eyre): The cinematic equivalent of one of those mocking How to Speak [Dialect] books; the film's comic sensibility is epitomized by the moment in which an Indian woman is told to go buy something or other and she sarcastically replies "We're Indians -- we barter!" Yuk yuk yuk. What's most frustrating is that there's an unmistakable undercurrent of anger at the marginalization of native Americans, yet Eyre never allows it to surface -- it's all disguised as crowd-pleasing, self-deprecating humor. Oddly enough, I felt offended, though I hear that Indian audiences were rolling in the aisles. (I'm inclined to churlishly dismiss their pleasure as the sheer novelty of seeing themselves onscreen, though I recognize that that's pretty darn patronizing.) My irritation was exacerbated by the ineptitude of the two lead actors, who apparently jointly decided that there was no need for both of them to emote ("here's an idea: you do nothing at all, and I'll compensate by being more annoying than Adam Sandler, Jim Varney and Gilbert Gottfried combined!"). Thank christ for Gary Farmer; he's responsible for the plus. Grade: D+

Hav Plenty (Christopher Scott Cherot): Here's what it has plenty of: bad acting, mediocre one-liners, irritating asides delivered directly to the lens, unattractive compositions, schizophrenic cutting, low-budget chutzpah. Another how-the-hell-did-this-ever-get-released? mystery, featuring what is quite possibly the single most narcissistic lead performance I've ever seen (by the auteur himself). Grade: C

The Farm: Angola, USA (Jonathan Stack & Liz Garbus): Delivers exactly what you would expect from its premise, and not one iota more. What you'll learn, basically, is that life for a hard-time con isn't quite akin to a nude oil message on the French Riviera, which for most of us is perhaps not breaking news; it'd be easier to feel properly outraged, too, if not for the sneaking suspicion that relevant details (e.g., those related to the highly sympathetic prisoners' alleged crimes) were being swept under the journalistic rug. Typical Oscar fare (but it's up against a Holocaust doc, so forget it). Grade: B-

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam): Dazzling for about twenty minutes, then faintly exasperating until the credits finally roll. Because there's no real sense of forward motion, and only the vaguest hint of a theme, the movie is only as interesting as its individual anecdotes, which range from the gut-clutchingly hilarious to the head-noddingly tiresome; I'm as staunch a foe of voiceover narration as any movie buff I know, but Thompson's prose (as delivered with lockjawed panache by the perpetually underrated Johnny Depp) is so exhilarating that what I felt most strongly after watching the movie was a desire to read the book. Not the worst reaction imaginable, surely. Grade: B-

The Borrowers (Peter Hewitt): I will pay a monthly stipend of $75 (cost-of-living increases negotiable) to anybody who can somehow guarantee that I never have to sit though another dog-poop joke again as long as I live. Send a one-page prospectus and references to me c/o Arthur Jackson, 32A Milton Avenue, Hounslow, Middlesex. Grade: C+

The Butcher Boy (Neil Jordan): Too gleeful and jaunty, ultimately, for its own good; I understand that the film is being told from Francie's point of view, but since Jordan declines to push the material into a truly fantastical or expressionistic vein (as, say, Peter Jackson did with the far superior Heavenly Creatures), the giddiness in the final reel seems wildly inappropriate...and besides, isn't it the older, ostensibly more sober Francie whose sensibility informs what we see? In any event, I found myself becoming increasingly meta-horrified, recoiling from the messenger rather than the message. Worth seeing, though, for Eamonn Owens' lunatic performance in the title role; I haven't seen a youngster that brash since the initial heyday of Jodie Foster. Grade: B-

Marius and Jeannette (Robert Guédiguian): The most lovable movie I saw all year -- maybe a bit too lovable, frankly. Guédiguian's affection for his middle-aged proles is palpable, and compensates for the occasional cutesiness; as with Western, ambition is negligible and rewards are commensurately moderate. Grade: B

Genealogies of a Crime (Raoul Ruiz): Um...I didn't get it. Sometimes it's best to just 'fess up. Grade: C

Next time (in all likelihood): Analyze This, Children of Heaven, In Dreams, The School of Flesh, and a quick rundown of various other unexceptional titles