An entertaining reversal: In 1998, "independent" distributors -- either beholden to their studio masters or flabby in their tastes -- lobbed us one softball after another, from Sliding Doors to Celebrity to Life Is Beautiful to Waking Ned Devine. Meanwhile, bless my jaded critic's soul if those big fat studios didn't come through with four of the year's most energetically independent films: The Butcher Boy, Bulworth, Babe: Pig in the City and Rushmore. Five if you count Touch of Evil. Six if you count that beautifully crafted confection, Out of Sight. Seven if you count A Simple Plan . . . but I digress, or rather, cheat. In no particular order, here's the cream of my crop. 1. When Neil Jordan sticks to small movies on his own turf, he's one of the masters. The Butcher Boy is a near-perfect film about an abandoned Irish lad feeding off television and Cold War paranoia as he perfects an exuberantly sociopathic profile. Far from mawkish, the movie's tone is cocksure with an elegiac undertow; the screenplay is wickedly funny; the score is jaunty; and young newcomer Eamonn Owens is jaw-droppingly good as Francie, the troubled boy who, with and without help from his own private Virgin Mary (Sinéad O'Connor, who else?), spirals into an orgy of madness. 2. The Butcher Boy's Francie might have grown up into the real-life Dublin gangster Martin Cahill, who's profiled in John Boorman's The General, another romp with a cautionary edge, shot in deep, rich black and white. An extraordinary Brendan Gleeson plays the infamous thug with the careless grandeur of a myth in the making and the sniveling pathos of a vanquished schoolyard bully. It's the best work Boorman has done since Hope and Glory; he and Jordan between them have done much to relieve Irish film of a galloping case of the cutes. 3. What do you call a teen movie with a wobbly plot, no yuks and a score that's pinched from the '60s, a movie in which suffering souls are healed by a good haircut? A complete original. Genuinely eccentric as opposed to merely wacky, Wes Anderson's Rushmore glances slyly at The Graduate, then goes its own beguiling way in a loose-limbed tale of a spotty, blazered nerd consumed by two unrequited passions -- his school and his schoolteacher -- and helped by a suicidal loser, brilliantly underplayed by Bill Murray. 4. Fireworks. A strange, ambiguous little beauty from Japanese director Takeshi Kitano, also starring as a taciturn former police detective who, when he's not calmly whacking mobsters, cheerfully tends to his terminally ill wife. The lighting is gorgeous, the acoustic score ravishing, and the tone remains goofily serene whether a yakuza is being offed or a marriage nurtured. 5. Babe: Pig in the City. Sure it's dark. Kids love dark. With due respect to all the parents who gave me grief for declaring George Miller's hog sequel kid-friendly (have they seen Bambi lately, or Jurassic Park?), this is one of the more inventive and literary movies I've seen all year. Mauled, maligned and misunderstood, Babe the Sequel is a fervently funny porker's pitch for loving kindness. 6. Affliction. Without Nick Nolte, this might have been another run-of-the-mill tale of a bad dad's sins visited on his wayward son. Under surprisingly unobtrusive direction from Paul Schrader, Nolte puffs and blusters and bellows in pain to pull you inside the head of a man going nowhere so loudly he can't hear himself think, or feel. 7. The Celebration. More dysfunctional dad, but the style is giddy and tough, and the camera hand-held, gleefully observing a bourgeois Danish family trying not to notice when a son drops a bombshell at his father's birthday party. Just when you're laughing your hardest, director Thomas Vinterberg turns around and shoots you in the face. 8. Bulworth. To err is human, to rhyme divine. Warren Beatty makes a happy ass of himself as a broken-down senator rapping his way to love and integrity -- and comes up with a piece of agitprop as brave and vital as it is sometimes off-the-wall. Wag the Dog had brains and polish; Bulworth has balls and soul. Did you jump when he said "socialism"? 8. Gods and Monsters. In Bill Condon's graceful, bitchy, lyrical portrait of Bride of Frankenstein director James Whale, Ian McKellen tones himself down beautifully to express the hectic inner life of an outwardly composed old man whose regrets are killing him as surely as are the ministrokes that flood his addled brain with memories both welcome and unwelcome. Brendan Fraser is terrific as Whale's gardener, friend, objet de lust and designated monster. 10. This space is dedicated to the masterpieces that Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line would have been, had they been silent movies. GRACE NOTES Some weird and beautiful moments in the year's movies: Dominique Swain's hand crawls up Jeremy Irons' pant leg for a dollar and promises more for two, in Lolita; Danny DeVito puts the moves on Holly Hunter and fails, in Living Out Loud, but leaves her with the gift of a life outside the whiny voices in her lonely head; Lisa Kudrow stops whining just long enough to succumb to Lyle Lovett, in The Opposite of Sex; Alan Arkin soothes his savage breast with a Sizzler steak, in Slums of Beverly Hills; Cate Blanchett, scary in chalky whiteface, ties the knot with England in Elizabeth; George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, strangers on opposite sides of the law, lie pressed together in the back of a car and companionably discuss movies, in Out of Sight; in Love and Death on Long Island, John Hurt blurts out his love for Jason Priestley in a diner and, rebuffed, goes home smiling; Jim Carrey discovers that when it rains it rains only on him, in The Truman Show; in Nil by Mouth, Kathy Burke takes time out from being a battered wife for a slow waltz around her kitchen with her grandma; and at the end of Wild Man Blues, Woody Allen's mum, having had enough, tells director Barbara Kopple to "Go home now."
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