Why 1998 Was the Best Year In Film History

All week long our writers will debate: Which was the greatest film year of the past half century.  Check here for a complete list of our essays.

Just one glance at the Oscar nominees for 1998 might make it seem less a questionable choice for “best year in film” – and more an insane one.  

Instead of a 1974 – The Godfather II, The Conversation, Chinatown, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, etc – or even a 1994, where Shawshank, Quiz Show, and Pulp Fiction lost to Gump – you choose a year where the Oscars would allow Roberto Benigni to climb atop both the figurative and literal chairs of the Shrine?  

Fine, step away from the Oscars. Would you still celebrate a year that saw not one, but two movies about asteroids threatening the Earth?  A year that saw such scars carved across cinematic history as Patch Adams, My Giant, Stepmom, and Krippendorf”s Tribe?   It bears repeating: KRIPPENDORF”S TRIBE?

But dig a little deeper.  You find that 1998 was not just a great year for movies.  It was an incredible one.  It boasted not just a deep bench of quality independent films and foreign films, but – here”s the shocker – a long list of good to great big-budget studio movies.  It was a year that saw the debuts of filmmakers who would make essential films over the next two decades, and it was a year of comebacks of some of our greatest veteran filmmakers.  It was a year of some excellent films, but maybe more importantly, it was also a year of dozens upon dozens of good ones.

1) The One Craziest Summer

Wait, wait, wait.  1998 a great summer for movies?  A summer that featured the Roland Emmerich Godzilla?  

No, it”s true.  Through May through August of ’98, cineplexes across this great land saw great edgy comedies, grown-up big-budget entertainments, and smartly constructed action films that were driven more by character and less by CGI and SFX.  

Let”s start with Saving Private Ryan.  Yes, the Omaha Beach sequence might rank as the greatest sequence Spielberg ever made, but maybe because it later lost out to Shakespeare in Love at the Oscars, we think of it as an Oscar film, and not as a great summer entertainment.  But a summer entertainment it was, but one that adults also enjoyed, as it wound up the #1 box office film of the year, even beating Armageddon.  

But that was just the tip of the summer iceberg.   Also high on the list of the year”s greatest films has to be the mis-marketed, but fantastic Out of Sight.  It is easy now to assume that we have always had Clooney as a star leading man, but before Out of Sight, his film career was quickly heading towards David Caruso-dom: Batman and Robin, The Peacemaker, One Fine Day.  His Jack Foley changed all that.  And Out of Sight marked the start, and arguably the highest point, of Soderbergh”s incredible comeback run, that continued through The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and Ocean”s 11.  

Then there”s There”s Something About Mary.  It”s easy to forget now, but the Farrelly Brothers movie both saved Ben Stiller”s career, and was arguably the seminal (sorry) comedy of the ’90s,  as huge in its impact and influence as National Lampoon”s Animal House was to the 1970s and Airplane! was to the 1980s.  Would you have the extreme raunch and sweetness of The 40 Year Old Virgin, Bridesmaids, or Wedding Crashers without Mary paving the way?

You had an excellent film from one of our great filmmakers, Peter Weir”s The Truman Show, another excellent big studio movie and one which has also only improved with age.  Flattened by Godzilla”s ample foot in its release weekend was maybe the boldest movie for a major studio to finance in years – and the studio was Murdoch”s Fox! –  was Warren Beatty”s Bulworth.  And then you even had several summer films that were just incredibly entertaining, well executed versions of what they were, but that still had story and characters: The Mask of Zorro, with Banderas and Hopkins and, in her big American debut, Zeta-Jones, and The Negotiator, F. Gary Gray”s extremely efficient B-movie thriller with Sam Jackson and Kevin Spacey.  

When was the last summer when you saw three big studio movies you loved?  Let alone seven?

2) The Great Foreign Films  

Of the films nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in that Benigni-soaked year, only Walter Salles” Central Station still stands out as a great film.   But the year saw the release of several foreign films that almost twenty years later hold up incredibly well.  

Thomas Vinterberg”s Festen – The Celebration here in the US – was the first movie made to the Dogme 95 compact”s specifications and, in my opinion, by far the best; it”s a fantastic movie about a birthday party going painfully awry.   

France”s The Dreamlife of Angels, which won Best Actress at Cannes for its two leads, is a wonderful film; and Tom Tykwer”s Run Lola Run would prove to be one of the most visually influential films of its time.  

3) The Great Old Men and the Improbable Comeback

Something that also comes up in looking at the films of 1998 is how many excellent movies were directed by filmmakers then-eligible for the AARP.  John Boorman, 65 at the time, directed The General, featuring one of Brendan Gleeson”s best performances.  Mike Hodges, 66 in 1998, more than 25 years after directing Michael Caine in Get Carter, directed Clive Owen”s breakthrough performance in Croupier.  John Frankenheimer, 68 in 1998, directed one of the greatest chase sequences of all time in Ronin, more than thirty years after he revolutionized driving sequences in Grand Prix.  

Ken Loach, 62 in 1998, directed one of his few later films to rank with his 1960s work – and directed Peter Mullan to a Best Actor award at Cannes – in the beautiful Scottish sobriety picture, My Name is Joe.  And Robert Towne, who turned 64 in 1998, directed his best film and one of the best sports movies of all time, Without Limits, a film likely hindered by the earlier release of an inferior movie about runner Steve Prefontaine.  It”s a Hague-worthy crime that Donald Sutherland has never been nominated for an Oscar, but his performance here as Oregon coach Bill Bowerman is one of his best.

And 1998 was also the year that saw the most unexpected, improbable comeback of all, which was Terence Malick, releasing The Thin Red Line twenty years after his previous movie, Days of Heaven, hit the screen.  It”s not by no means a perfect film – and who knows what film would have emerged had Malick that extra six months to continue editing that he allegedly wanted – but the early sequences of Jim Caviezal AWOL on the island and the performances by Elias Koteas and Nick Nolte are especially great.

4) The Great Debuts

Another fact worth noting about 1998 is how many filmmakers who would later make such an impact on the next fifteen years of movies released their debuts that year.  

Christopher Nolan, with Following.  Darren Aronofsky, with Pi.  Lisa Cholodenko, with High Art.   And yes, the year also saw the debuts of Guy Ritchie with Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, and Todd Phillips, with his Sundance award-winning documentary Frat House.

5) Great Art House Wonders

1998 also saw its share of excellent smaller, independent films.  Yes, Welcome to the Dollhouse is great, but Happiness is Todd Solondz”s masterpiece, with a career performance by Dylan Baker and some of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jane Adams” finest work. You could make an argument that Don Roos” The Opposite of Sex, Todd Haynes” gorgeous Velvet Goldmine, and Bill Condon”s Gods and Monsters ushered in a new era of gay-themed movies, as none of them could be defined or pigeonholed as so-called issue films.   

A Simple Plan might be one of Sam Raimi”s best directed movies, featuring, for my money, Billy Bob Thornton”s finest performance.  And 1998 saw two really good movies from Canada: Dom McKellar”s apocalypse romantic comedy Last Night, and Francois Girard”s The Red Violin (co-written with McKellar) which won the Oscar for Best Score.  Whether you go for the Neil LaBute thing or not, Your Friends and Neighbors represented his doing it in its most concentrated, effective form.  And Whit Stillman finished off his early trilogy by bringing Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale together for The Last Days of Disco.

1998 also saw its share of charmers: Next Stop Wonderland, Sliding Doors, Illuminata, and, yes, Shakespeare in Love – it wasn”t the best picture of the year, but it was a clever, sweet film.  Kate Winslet responded to the Titanic tidal wave (and Titanic, though released in 1997, dominated the box office all spring of 1998) with Hideous Kinky, one of her more unique performances; Robert Downey, Jr., in the midst of the most difficult period of his career, gave one of his best performances in James Toback”s Two Girls and a Guy.  I know a lot of people who think Buffalo “66 is a great movie.

And let”s not forget that 1998 saw the next entry in Michael Apted”s fantastic Up series, 42 Up.

But the strongest smaller film of the year might have been Paul Schrader”s Affliction, based on the Russell Banks novel. It brought James Coburn an Oscar, but one of the great injustices of Miramax armadas nabbing Benigni the gold is that Affliction features the finest performance of one of our most underrated actors, Nick Nolte.  

6) Three Visual Marvels

They are not perfect films, but it would be hard to think of three more trailblazing, unsettlingly visual films – and so different from each other – than Alex Proyas” neo-noir Dark City, George Miller”s Babe: Pig in the City, and Terry Gilliam”s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  

All distributed by major studios, none of them financially successful (with only Dark City breaking even), but all visually bold and gorgeous films, taking the kind of chances few studios would take today.

7) Notable Absences

When you look at the 1998 list of films, one is also struck not just by what is there, but what is not.  Or at least, what is only there in a very brief supply.  Sequel wise, the year only saw a fourth Lethal Weapon, the aforementioned sequel (where George Miller somehow gave the world a G-rated horror film), a lackluster Star Trek entry, and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer.  

There is also a paucity of superhero films, with only Wesley Snipes” effective Blade filling the slot.   

Did fewer sequels mean more original filmmaking?  Did fewer superhero films mean more grown-up films?  Or was it just that the global marketplace was not dictating the studios” choices to the extent that it does today? (Okay, I forgot Blues Brothers 2000 and Odd Couple II.)

8) And Did We Mention…

A testament to how good a year 1998 was in film is how many good movies from that year I haven”t even mentioned yet.  Enemy of the State, which, along with Crimson Tide, stands as my favorite Tony Scott film.  Primary Colors, which has improved over the years, thanks to Kathy Bates and Larry Hagman both delivering career bests.  And I maintain that in the Ephron ouvre, You”ve Got Mail ages better than Sleepless in Seattle does.

There”s The Parent Trap, without which we”d never have Li-Lo.  The Ed Norton solid double whammy of American History X and Rounders.  The intelligent A Civil Action.  Snake Eyes, not a great film, but featuring one of Nic Cage”s Nic Cagiest performances and an incredible DePalma tracking shot.  One True Thing, Carl Franklin”s very good version of a movie that doesn”t get made anymore.  Pleasantville, a beautifully shot movie.  Elizabeth, not a great film but with a great performance by Cate Blanchett. And while Robert Benton”s Twilight isn”t to the snuff of his late-career best Nobody”s Fool, isn”t watching Paul Newman, James Garner, and Gene Hackman in the same film a delight?  And then there's Wild Things, where – do you really need me to explain the merits of Wild Things?

He Got Game is a better-than-average Spike Lee movie, with one of Denzel Washington”s best performances.  And speaking of Denzel, while it”s a problematic movie, was there a more prescient film made in the 1990s than Edward Zwick”s The Siege?

Is a great year for movies defined by the number of a good number of great movies?  Or by an enormous number of good ones?

9) Adam Sandler

I like a lot of his movies, but The Wedding Singer is the best film Adam Sandler has ever made.

Yes, it”s better than Punch Drunk Love.

10) The Big Lebowski and Rushmore

Finally, I end my case with two films that the farther we get from 1998 seem more and more like minor miracles.  

The Big Lebowski received mixed reviews when it was first released, but it”s proven to not just be a cult classic, but a film that improves over time and over repeated viewing, as it reveals new textures, jokes, moments that could easily have been lost on a first viewing (you know, when you were thinking that following the shaggy dog story was important).  It has the best performance by, for my money, the finest American actor of his generation, Jeff Bridges, and is maybe, along with The Assassination of Jesse James and The Man Who Wasn”t There, the best film by my favorite cinematographer, Roger Deakins.  A great movie about Los Angeles, and just flat-out funny in so many ways, I think as the years go by, No Country for Old Men”s stock will fall a little, and Lebowski will stand with Miller”s Crossing as the Coens” best film.

And then there”s Rushmore, which exists as a perfect little snow globe of a movie.  I”ve liked other Wes Anderson films, but I”ve never loved any of them the way that I loved Rushmore.  It shows a filmmaker caring about his characters, and not just the look and design of his film; it”s genuinely funny; its soundtrack is perfect, and brilliantly deployed; it features terrific performances by Seymour Cassel, Olivia Williams, and Jason Schwartzman; and it maybe saved Bill Murray”s career.  It”s a great picture.

Neither of these films received even one Oscar nomination.  Neither of them were box office successes.  But while many films from 1998 did receive Oscar nominations (Hilary and Jackie? Little Voice?) have since fallen out of posterity, or even memory, these two have only improved with time.  

But that”s the case with 1998″s cinematic year as a whole.  You don”t think it could have been a great year, but when you start looking at what was released, the numbers start to add up.

It was a year when independent film, foreign film, and big studio movies all seemed to be reaching for more than the lowest common denominator, and reaching for less than all four quadrants at once.   

And it was a year of big swings.  And maybe, as many of that year”s great movies, from Out of Sight and Bulworth, to Lebowski and Rushmore, underperformed in the box office, it also explains why it would be hard to have another year like this now.  Big swings also mean big strikeouts, and strikeouts lead to more caution at the plate.  And as studios more and more are run with the financial prudence of an actuarial table, the sequels and superhero films tend to be the safer bets.

But one more observation of why 1998 might have been the end of an era requires looking to 1999 – and in fact, early January at that year.  

That second week, on January 10?  

That was the night The Sopranos premiered.  And if that ushered in the new golden era of television – where cable television could especially offer in real estate and number of hours a depth of character study that feature films couldn”t – it may have also helped push the film industry to further focus on producing global tentpole movies and their CGI thrills.  But in 1998, as the chasm between big studio and independent narrowed, if only for a time, film, too, seemed without limits. 

Michael Oates Palmer has written for television for the past thirteen years, including such series as The West Wing and Crossbones.  He”s currently serving his second term on the Board of Directors of the Writers Guild of America West.

Other pieces in this series:

1974 by Daniel Fienberg

1977 by Louis Virtel

1980 by Richard Rushfield

1982 by Alan Sepinwall

1988 by Drew McWeeny

1995 by Jane Hu

1998 by Michael Oates Palmer

1999 by Kris Tapley

2001 by Chris Eggertsen

2012 by Zara Lisbon