Best film of the year (tie): Fireworks (Takeshi Kitano, Japan), and Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan)
The next 10: Affliction (Paul Schrader, U.S.); Babe: Pig in the City (George Miller, Australia); The Celebration (Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark); The Eel (Shohei Imamura, Japan); Gasman (Lynne Ramsay, Scotland); Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, U.S.); The Power of Kangwon Province (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea); Rushmore (Wes Anderson, U.S.); A Simple Plan (Sam Raimi, U.S.); There's Something About Mary (Bobby and Peter Farrelly, U.S.)
Most of the films on my best list will be familiar to moviegoers, but a few words about those that won't: Gasman, a powerfully atmospheric short about familial sorrow that played at various international film festivals, is easily the best film from a woman director I saw last year, which is why it's good news that Ramsay, reportedly, has just finished shooting her first feature. The Power of Kangwon Province is a film about love and longing that switches its point of view midway– from her to him. Its emotional depth, narrative elegance and wit (three vacationing schoolgirls stumble through a rendition of “My Darling Clementine” in Korean) puts to shame the calculated whimsy of the similarly fractured Sliding Doors, but since Kangwon Province necessitates subtitles for non-Korean speakers and doesn't star the unfathomably overemployed Gwyneth Paltrow, it's unlikely to make it to this country outside of a festival.
The other unfamiliar title on the list, Flowers of Shanghai, written and directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, is the greatest film of the year by a director whose work has never been released in this country, and — because of an imbecilic, shockingly lazy review in The New York Times on the occasion of the New York Film Festival — probably never will be. The film, a stunningly beautiful, emotionally wrenching exploration of sexual and social relations in late-19th-century China, is easily the equal of work by lionized European auteurs such as Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut, and for a paper like the Times to dismiss it as a “soap opera” is nothing less than a cultural crime. Suggested punishment: endless screenings of Armageddon, with the volume turned up to aural bleed.
The last few years have witnessed considerable critical speculation about the diminished audience for foreign film in the United States. This past April, writing in The New Yorker, the magazine's soon-to-be critic David Denby argued that “the current French, Italian, German and Japanese cinemas are but a remnant of their former selves, and . . . the new movies from China, Russia, Finland and Iran, however fascinating, cannot replace the old masterworks in excitement or glamour.” A number of critics, myself included, took him to task, but, as the Times review of Flowers of Shanghai proves, Denby is far from alone in his cinematic nescience. For his part, Anthony Lane, the magazine's other reviewer, is enough of a cine-hipster to have figured out that Takeshi Kitano is worthy of attention (it probably helps that Lane is a Brit). He also suggested that Kitano's Fireworks might have played better at another moment in time: “The dedicated moviegoer of 1970, say, fresh from a decade's salty immersion in the New Wave, would have much less difficulty following the elliptical suavity of Fireworks than his younger counterpart will have today.”
Yeah, maybe. But it would surely help if more critics championed movies such as Fireworks — which don't have the benefit of large advertising and marketing budgets — and even pushed movies without U.S. distribution, such as Flowers of Shanghai. With some critical prodding, perhaps more moviegoers would eagerly immerse themselves in this decade's elliptical suavity, especially in the wake of such nonelliptical and radically unsuave narratives as the Clinton-Lewinsky imbroglio, Happiness and There's Something About Mary. You can blame a lot of different elements for the decline in foreign-film attendance — the critics, the distributors, the exhibitors, the glut of American indies — but you can't blame the audience if all the audience reads in its cultural Fodors is that foreign film ain't what it used to be.
The truth is, the greatest foreign films don't often look or talk the way they used to. Now the masterworks of international cinema often speak in Cantonese rather than Italian, Korean rather than German. Just a thought: Is it mere coincidence that this country's white mainstream press hasn't done remote justice to some of the most original world cinemas, among them those of Taiwan, Korea, the People's Republic and Hong Kong? Happily, for those on this side of the Pacific Rim, the Santa Barbara Film Festival has scheduled a Hou Hsiao-Hsien tribute for the spring, and programmer Dennis Bartok is planning to bring the filmmaker and his films to the American Cinematheque's fabulous new home sometime this year, probably in the early fall. Long live cultural adventurers like Bartok and all his co-conspirators at the Cinematheque.
Other reasons 1998 wasn't a cinematic sinkhole: The Apple (Samira Makhmalbaf, Iran); The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen, U.S.); Buffalo '66 (Vincent Gallo, U.S.); Bulworth (Warren Beatty, U.S.); The Butcher Boy (Neil Jordan, Ireland/U.S.); Ceux qui m'aiment prendront le train (Patrice Chereau, France); Elizabeth (Shekhar Kapur, U.K.); The Farm: Angola, USA (Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus, U.S.); Flat Is Beautiful (Sadie Benning, U.S.); He Got Game (Spike Lee, U.S.); Hilary and Jackie (Anand Tucker, U.K.); The Hole (Tsai Ming-Liang, Taiwan); Living Out Loud (Richard LaGravenese, U.S.); Khroustaliov, My Car! (Alexeï Guerman, Russia); Public Housing (Frederick Wiseman, U.S.); Shulie (Elisabeth Subrin, U.S.); Small Soldiers (Joe Dante, U.S.); Tu Ridi (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Italy); A Vendre (Laetitia Masson, France); Your Friends & Neighbors (Neil LaBute, U.S.)
Best screenplay (tie): Out of Sight, Rushmore
Worst (tie): Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line
Best performance: Nick Nolte in Affliction (also-rans: Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore, Eamonn Owens in The Butcher Boy, Joan Allen in Pleasantville, Catherine Keener in Your Friends & Neighbors, Denzel Washington in He Got Game, Bill Pullman in Zero Effect)
Worst performance: William Jefferson Clinton
Best ensemble: Happiness, Out of Sight, Rushmore, A Simple Plan
Worst: Very Bad Things
Best cinematography: The Celebration; Flowers of Shanghai; Khroustaliov, My Car!
Worst: The Horse Whisperer
Best music: The Thin Red Line, Hans Zimmer
Worst: The Prince of Egypt, Hans Zimmer
Best sex scene: Out of Sight
Worst: Very Bad Things
Best written, directed and acted film I hated: Happiness
Worst (tie): Henry Fool, Little Voice, Very Bad Things
Best film about seeing the glass as half full: There's Something About Mary
Worst: Life Is Beautiful
Best surprise: All the good studio movies
Worst fear: That given the disappointing box-office returns, the studios are going to stop making movies like Rushmore and only churn out Farrelly Brothers forgeries ad infinitum.
Best re-release: Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, with help from Rick Schmidlin, Walter Murch, Bob O'Neil, Bill Varney and Jonathan Rosenbaum)
Best unreleased American independent film: One, written and directed by Tony Barbieri
Best guilty pleasure: Enemy of the State, written by committee, directed by Tony Scott
Best retrospective: “The Films of Anthony Mann,” at the American Cinematheque
Best retrospective with kinks: “The Films of Doris Wishman,” at the Nuart
Best independent distributor: Milestone Films
Best bets for next year's Top Ten: Dr. Akagi, the eccentric, magnificently assured new film from Japan's grand master, Shohei Imamura, which is set to be released this year by Kino International. And The Idiots, an authentically shocking blow to the system featuring pranks, drool and hardcore fucking courtesy Danish madman Lars Von Trier. The film will be released by the hands-down smartest, bravest semi-independent movie company in the country, October Films. The brightest jewel in Universal's tarnished crown, October was forced by its parent company to dump Happiness but nonetheless survived with its integrity and reputation intact. Long may it shine.