The Man Who Viewed Too Much
Special Grumpy Report

My 1998 Top Ten

(or: The Man Who Fell to Earth)

As I type these words, I'm looking at my hands. In part this is because I never learned to type properly, and so occasionally need to visually reorient them on the keyboard (though I can still do a mean three-finger hunt-and-peck; I was last clocked at 58wpm). More significantly, though, I'm pondering the quirk of evolution that produced a total of ten fingers, inspiring a base-ten system of arithmetic and ensuring that film critics enumerating the year's best cinematic efforts settle on a decimal representation. No matter how barren or bountiful the twelvemonth, we all dutifully cobble together ten titles that represent, for us, the cream of that particular crop. It's pretty much de rigueur, like acknowledging a sneeze with a polite "gesundheit," or, in my circle, applauding the key grip during the closing credits (no real reason apart from the fact that my circle is composed of former smartass adolescents).

Occasionally, however, people do rebel. New York Press critic Godfrey Cheshire, for example, chose to include only eight films in his top ten list for 1998, by way of protest: he felt that only eight first-class movies had been released. Had I done the same, my list would be exactly three titles long. In fact, I seriously considered forgoing the list entirely this year, so singularly unimpressed was I with the barrage of mediocrity that assaulted U.S. screens between January and December last. I did finally dutifully put one together, however...and here it is, stark and unadorned and totally depressing:

01. Buffalo '66 (Vincent Gallo, USA)
02. The Celebration (Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark)
03. Life Is Beautiful (La vita è bella) (Roberto Benigni, Italy)
04. Nil by Mouth (Gary Oldman, UK)
05. The General (John Boorman, Eire)
06. Henry Fool (Hal Hartley, USA)
07. Same Old Song (Alain Resnais, France)
08. A Bug's Life (John Lasseter, USA)
09. Funny Games (Michael Haneke, Austria)
10. The Truman Show (Peter Weir, USA)

Don't get me wrong -- those are all fine films, well worth seeing. But just for the sheer heck of it, let's compare them to a set culled from a few years back -- not 1939 or 1946 or 1974, but a year still vibrating intensely in our collective cinematic short-term memory. A year so recent that there's been nowhere near enough time for hindsight or nostalgia to influence opinions and inspire re-assessments. Let's take a look at 1995. And forget 1995's top ten list (though you're welcome to refresh your memory) -- let's take a gander at my honorable mention list from that year, at the movies that didn't make the cut:

Dunno about you, but to me, this list of also-rans from three years ago looks a helluva lot more impressive than the best that '98 had to offer. Granted, none of these films is in the same league as Buffalo '66, the year's sole triumph...but I'd rank several of them alongside The Celebration, and every one of them, without exception, would have ranked no lower than #5 on this year's list. In my '96 roundup, I described my agonizing decision to allot the #10 slot to Jerry Maguire, thus consigning terrific but flawed pictures like Secrets & Lies and The People vs. Larry Flynt to the hierarchical scrapheap; imagine my agony today, given that both of 'em would've wiped the mat with Weir/Niccol's journeyman-blah squandering of a brilliant premise, or Haneke's somewhat dubious exercise in theoretical sadism. I could go on in this vein for some time, believe me, but I'm too crushed to elaborate further.

Speaking of which: some of my readers, I know, are bound to be disappointed by the absence of my usual title-specific commentary. I do feel guilty, and at least somewhat remiss, but the truth is that I'm just not enthusiastic enough about this year's roster to summon the necessary energy, and I think my time is better spent catching up with the '98 movies that I neglected due to long-distance amore (a list that includes, as it happens, the first two titles above, plus the film at #5; I'll be writing about Gallo's tender sleazefest at some length in the near future, and the other two are forthcoming in my long-dormant-but-not-quite-dead-yet NYFF rundown). I fervently hope that a year from now I'll be pelvis-deep in worthy candidates, and tearing my hair out due to indecision rather than indifference (though I seem, to my horror, to be developing a bald spot already, so I guess the whole hair-tearing thing had better cease pronto). I remind myself that the laws of probability predict the occasional drought. I prepare myself for the coming of Lucas and Kubrick and the return of Dr. Evil. The Dude abides, folks, never fear. The Dude abides.