1998 was a year when titans clashed. It was peak time for that strange phenomenon in which two mammoth movies on the same theme arrive in cinemas in quick succession.
Thus, DreamWorks’ insect opus Antz went antenna-to-antenna with Pixar’s A Bug’s Life (Pixar won at the box office), Elizabethan-era historical dramas Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love both reaped a slew of awards (though the latter got best picture), Steven Spielberg and returning-from-the-wilderness Terrence Malick both offered up Second World War epics (Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line respectively), and – in the biggest box-office battle of them all – Armageddon bumped up against fellow apocalypse-by-asteroid flick Deep Impact. As the most successful film of the year, it was Michael Bay’s Armageddon that technically won that one, but given that the pair made close to a billion dollars between them, let’s say there were no real losers.
Away from the big beasts of Hollywood, however, it was also a year that saw first films by directors who’d go on to huge things or wider acclaim themselves, including Christopher Nolan (with Following), Darren Aronofsky (with Pi), Denis Villeneuve (with August 32nd on Earth), Lukas Moodysson (with Show Me Love) and Abderrahmane Sissako (with Life on Earth). In many ways though, the most impressive directorial debut of the year was The Apple, the startlingly original Iranian feature made by Samira Makhmalbaf at the tender age of 17.
Shockingly, even the 10 films below are older than that now.
After Life (1998)
Director Hirokazu Koreeda
Festival darling Hirokazu Koreeda, now recognised for superior, Ozu-worthy family dramas such as Still Walking (2008) and I Wish (2011), first demonstrated his plaintive, humane style with two extraordinary 1990s releases: 1995’s devastating Maborosi, and After Life, released three years later. The latter resembles a kind of analogue Black Mirror, with echoes of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) and Michael Schur’s The Good Place (2016). It’s set in a business-like purgatory where bureaucratic civil servants meet the newly dead to determine their “most meaningful and precious” memory, which is enacted as film and relived for eternity.
This deeply philosophical premise accrues a gentle profundity, posing questions about the process of remembering, the nature of cinema and the limits of imagination. But it’s Koreeda’s customary humanity that shines through a deliberately mundane aesthetic: his mastery of actors (many of whom were non-professionals) and rare gift for levity ensure time spent with After Life provides a memory to be treasured.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Director Joel Coen
It may come as a surprise to learn that the Coen brothers’ classic comedy of mistaken identity opened to both modest box office returns and some equally underwhelming reviews in 1998. But, 20 years later, The Big Lebowski has become the epitome of the cult film, with its own annual superfan festival, Lebowski Fest, running since 2002 and a seemingly endless stream of memes and merchandise stemming from its irresistibly quotable dialogue.
The tale of 10-pin bowling stoner, Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski, who is mistaken for a millionaire with the same name, is a farcical comedy-crime masterpiece underpinned by brilliant comedy performances, in particular John Goodman as unhinged Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak. The film is littered with memorable moments, from leather-clad German nihilists smashing the Dude’s apartment with baseball bats and dropping ferrets (or is it marmots?) into his bath to the sight of bowling maestro and disgraced pederast Jesus (John Turturro) taunting the Dude and his bowling buddies to the wailing sounds of The Gipsy Kings.
Central Station (1998)
Director Walter Salles
From its arresting documentary-style opening in Rio’s Central Station, through to an unexpected conclusion in the arid sertão, Walter Salles’ film is both neorealist state-of-the-nation portrait and unsentimental odd-couple drama. Following the relationship between middle-aged Dora (Fernanda Montenegro), a letter-writer callously serving the illiterate poor, and Josué (Vinícius de Oliveira), a nine-year-old boy in danger of becoming a street-child statistic, Central Station travels a variety of unexpected roads in the search to find Josué’s father.
Aside from impressive composition – a religious pilgrimage provides a candlelit tour de force – the film’s strength lies in the performances of Montenegro (a leading Brazilian theatre actor) and de Oliveira (a shoe-shine boy Salles discovered in Rio airport), with Montenegro commendably keeping sentiment at bay as her stony-hearted character rediscovers a long-subdued capacity for feeling. Central Station’s just acclaim (including a Golden Bear and Oscar nominations) helped return Brazilian cinema to the map, paving the way for successes such as City of God (2002).
Divorce Iranian Style (1998)
Directors Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini
Like all of Kim Longinotto’s films, Divorce Iranian Style is populated with women who exude strength and inspire hope in the face of oppression. The film chronicles the legal disputes of mismatched couples as they negotiate the farcically labyrinthine legal systems of a divorce court in Tehran. The feisty female characters certainly challenge the western stereotype of Iranian women as cowering victims. Massy wants a divorce on the grounds that her husband has sexual problems; Ziba, an outspoken 16-year-old, wants out because her 38-year-old husband lied to her about his age; and Jamileh just wants to put her badly-behaved husband though the legal ‘mill’ to teach him a lesson.
Divorce Iranian Style took two years to secure funding, with Channel 4 eventually commissioning it for their groundbreaking True Stories slot. Meanwhile, the filmmakers found convincing officials at the Iranian embassy of their non-investigative journalistic intentions to be an even greater feat of endurance.
Eternity and a Day (1998)
Director Theo Angelopoulos
Although it’s not the first film title that comes to mind when thinking of Theo Angelopoulos’s work, Eternity and a Day is a gently thought-provoking masterwork. The third film in the Greek filmmaker’s so-called ‘borders trilogy’, it’s a film about state and statelessness; mortality and youth. Bruno Ganz stars as an aged author coming to terms with his impending death, and meanwhile rescuing and befriending a lost Albanian refugee boy.
Ensconced in melancholy memories of his life and seemingly infatuated by the boy’s youth and promise, the man travels with the child on a strange trip to the Greek-Albanian border. With Angelopolous’s typical stately pace and fascination for moody landscapes, this is slow-burn arthouse of the highest calibre. 1998 at the Cannes Film Festival saw the likes of Festen, The Idiots, Velvet Goldmine and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in competition, but it was Eternity and a Day that took the Palme d’Or.
Flowers of Shanghai (1998)
Director Hou Hsiao-hsien
Is there a more beguiling opening shot in 1990s cinema than the eight-minute unbroken take that begins Flowers of Shanghai? Observing the carousing and merriment at table in a ‘flower house’ in 19th-century China, the camera hovers above the tabletop, slowly shifting its gaze this way and that to drink in the gilded scene. Its drift is hypnotic, setting the measured pace for this typically slow yet intoxicating drama from Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien.
During the Qing dynasty, flower houses were brothel-like establishments where gentlemen could seek female company and friendship, if not necessarily sex. With not so much as a shot outside, Hou’s film traces a handful of such liaisons, charting the ripples of affection, jealousy and scandal that play out between the male visitors and their courtesans. Hou’s sublime style received its widest acclaim to date with 2015’s The Assassin, but his earlier films remain sadly tricky to see in the west – despite the fact that Village Voice once named Flowers of Shanghai the third best film of its decade.
Out of Sight (1998)
Director Steven Soderbergh
One of the greatest talents of Steven Soderbergh is the way in which he turns what should be typical genre fare into unique, more personal films that tread the tightrope between the mainstream and the arthouse. 1998’s Out of Sight is a case in point: it takes a simple tale of boy (an ever-charming George Clooney, playing bank robber Jack Foley) meets girl (a career best Jennifer Lopez as US marshal Karen Sisco), locks the pair of them in the boot of the car as he evades prison and she attempts to apprehend him, and becomes one of the most sultry games of cat and mouse that cinema has seen – complete with a now-iconic Don’t Look Now-inspired seduction scene.
Smart, heartfelt and palpably erotic, Out of Sight has weathered the past 20 years far better than many other late 1990s crime movies. The director has returned to the theme of heists and robberies several times since, but this one offers something more: a distinctively Soderbergh-ian romance.
Director Wes Anderson
On paper, the story of precocious private-school student Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) appears to be another tiresome coming-of-age tale about smug, rich, white people. Fischer is a student at Rushmore Academy, Houston, where he excels at extracurricular activities but has an appalling academic record. Schwartzman is delightful as the preening, pretentious but somehow likeable Fischer, who falls in unrequited love with widowed teacher Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams) yet has a rival in his friend – married middle-aged industrialist Herman Blume (Bill Murray).
The breakthrough film for Wes Anderson, following his 1996 debut Bottle Rocket, Rushmore is packed with his trademark eccentric characters, quaint production design and uproarious set-pieces – it’s still in with a shout of being the director’s greatest film. As an added bonus, it was Rushmore that launched Murray’s second career as an indie cinema stalwart.
The Thin Red Line (1998)
Director Terrence Malick
Nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture and best director for Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line may have been somewhat overshadowed by Steven Spielberg’s rather more conventional Saving Private Ryan, also released in 1998, but it remains an intriguing war movie in its own right. In adapting James Jones’s autobiographical 1962 novel about the conflict at Guadalcanal during the Second World War, writer-director Malick adopts his trademark hallucinatory, impressionistic filmmaking approach, even as his starry cast (including Nick Nolte, Jim Caviezel and Sean Penn) take an ultra-real approach to their roles.
The result is typically Malick – a contemplative, at times visually meandering treatise on the extremes of human behaviour. Unlike much of the filmmaker’s more recent work, however, it finds dramatic and ideological coherence in a roster of solid performances and its examination of the real-life horrors of war, showcased with visceral brutality.
The Truman Show (1998)
Director Peter Weir
Released in the days when the idea of broadcasting our intimacies seemed wild, The Truman Show starred Jim Carrey as Truman Burbank, a man who has – unwittingly – been the star of a 24/7, lifelong soap opera. Sealed in a studio and surrounded by actors playing his wife, friends and neighbours, Truman gradually comes to realise that his life is a lie, albeit a cosy one directed by Ed Harris’s godlike showrunner.
Carrey has drawn parallels between Truman’s plight and his own life in the celebrity bubble. For the rest of us, social media is the obvious tie. Like Truman, the life we lead is the life recorded. There’s not much else on.