1998 in Review: Flawed Ryan stands out in a weak year for drama

So, here we are at the end of 1998, yet it seems like the year has hardly begun, at least at the box office. This year we’ve seen plenty of action movies, comedies and cartoons. We’ve seen a few more horror movies than usual but practically no good, meaty dramas. With the exception of a few films, this has been one of the most dramatically bland years in recent memory. The studios seem to have had more trouble than usual coming up with original ideas. Remember that 1998 gave us the sequels Halloween 8 and Babe 2 , not to mention movies inspired by TV shows ranging from The Avengers to Rugrats and a colorized version of Hitchcock’s 1961 horror classicPsycho.

Anyway, here are my picks for the top five movies of the year:

1. Saving Private Ryan. This was by far the most compelling drama of the year, although it was not without its faults. Steven Spielberg, once again in historical spectacle mode, creates another film in the vein ofSchindler’s List and Amistad: All three movies focus on massive historical tragedies that are made viscerally and emotionally real to modern viewers. Most of Ryan’s impact comes as a result of Spielberg’s technical skill in recreating scenes of war. It would be nice if one day he made a simple movie about characters who just talk and interact for two hours without special effects. However, Ryan succeeds because it has a good script written by Robert Rodat and because it has a small number of characters to whom the audience can connect; Tom Hanks and company are more approachable than Amistad’s John Quincy Adams and Cinque, The Slave Who Stands for All Africans.

2. Out of Sight. A lot of people missed this movie when it came out over the summer, but that’s what video is for. Here, director Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies, and videotape) ventures into Tarantino territory and creates a story as interesting as anything the pulp-meister has made, but without Tarantino’s smug hipness. Out of Sight is a solid and entertaining movie that pleases on just about every level. George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez are both terrific, as are a couple of great cameos.

3. There’s Something About Mary. Film critics like to talk about subtexts, cinematographic properties and editing relationships, but none of these are particularly important in the Farrelly Brothers’ third great comedy (after Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin). These guys, aided by a terrific cast, know how to make an audience happy. And unlike a lot of other comedies these days, there’s no cynicism; it’s all good, clean fun (well, maybe not clean…)

4. Happiness. Like the previous movie, this is also a comedy involving similarly bold and dark humor. Happiness, though, is a unique look at the shadowy underbelly of America and the things that people feel and do when they’re alone but keep hidden from everyone they know. With a large, talented cast, director Todd Solondz provides a painfully realistic vision of seemingly everday people who walk among us, living lives of quiet desperation. And it’s funny!

5. The Truman Show. This has been the year of the paranoid thriller, ranging from the big and expensive (Enemy of the State, The X-Files) to the tiny and independent (Pi). The Truman Show works on a lot of different levels: it’s funny, it’s oddly touching, and it’s wonderfully inventive as a sort of existential look at modern life. In addition, it was more solidly creative than any of the other mass-conspiracy movies of the year. Jim Carrey was good, but Ed Harris as the mastermind behind it all was even better.

A few other mentions: The year’s best action movie would have to be a three-way tie between two well-acted action dramas, The Negotiator and Ronin, and one goofy comic-book movie, Blade. Similarly, the best sci-fi movie was the visionary Dark City, while the most entertaining horror movies were actually farces, Bride of Chucky and Deep Rising.

Finally, the citation for the worst movie of the year. This was hard to choose: Should I pick the awkwardness of The Avengers? The unpleasantness of Species II? The strained non-humor of Norm MacDonald’s Dirty Work? No, the award goes to the much-hyped Lost in Space. That’s right, it’s even worse than Godzilla. Here was a movie completely blatant in its desire to wring money out of your pockets by appealing to every base instinct in the American viewing public. Let’s take an old TV show and stick in a cute hunk, a cute babe, a cute married couple, a couple of cute kids, a cute robot, a computer-generated space monkey and a bad guy overplayed by Gary Oldman. If that weren’t enough let’s include plenty of explosions and special effects to make everyone happy!

The director, Stephen Hopkins, does everything by the corporate-hack book; the “script” is by Akiva Goldsman, who also wrote last year’s worst movie, Batman & Robin. He’s quite a guy. However, what really annoyed me about Lost in Space is the ending: stuck in a nasty situation, the trusty ship must warp away. Where will they end up, home? Someplace better or worse? Sorry, folks, you’ll have to wait for the sequel (which hopefully will never come), because the movie just stops there, leaving us hanging while the techno remix of the old “Lost in Space” TV theme plays over the credits. Have they no shame?

Things could still turn out okay for this year, however. The best bets for the holiday season include: A Simple Plan, a Fargo-like tale of murder and snow; The Thin Red Line, another World War II drama which could be a major Oscar contender; A Civil Action, which looks like a John Grisham movie, but better; and The Prince of Egypt, the most serious-looking cartoon ever. And in case none of these appeal to you, there’s always Michael Keaton’s Jack Frost, in case you’ve been dying for a movie in which a man dies and comes back to life as a computer-generated snowman Muppet, so that he can learn the true meaning of Christmas. Enjoy!

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