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The Boston Phoenix 1998 Film In Review

Getting the Irish up- -and the Iranians, and the Danes

By Peter Keough

DECEMBER 28, 1998:  1. A taboo film subject, and not just in Iran, is what Camus describes as the only real philosophical question: suicide. Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry is one of the most lacerating and ultimately uplifting explorations of this primal dilemma. Morose, middle-aged, and middle-class, Mr. Badii tools around Teheran soliciting strangers to collaborate in his self-murder. The result is a series of dialogues on life and death that range from bewildered revulsion to confused compassion, each in its way offering an argument for life and a clarification of Mr. Badii's choice of death. It's only after we consider the alternative, Taste of Cherry suggests, that life's savor can be appreciated. Or after experiencing a masterpiece like this film.

2. Celebration. With its handheld camera, its suffocating close-ups, its air of vulnerability and doom, Thomas Vinterberg's film is the Saving Private Ryan of family-reunion movies. A birthday party for a family patriarch takes a turn for the worst when the eldest son is called on for a toast and drops a bombshell. What follows is a hilarious nightmare of denial and family pathology, a rite as old as Greek tragedy and as crass as Jerry Springer. Whether or not the film portends any future for "Dogma 94," that tongue-in-cheek manifesto of cinema purity cooked up by Vinterberg and fellow Dane Lars von Trier, it remains cause for celebration.

3. The General. John Boorman is back in Hope and Glory form with this story of real-life Dublin crimelord Martin Cahill (Brendan Gleeson). Beginning with Cahill's assassination by the IRA, it flashes back to a career that begins with the hopes of a slum-dwelling youth pinching sweet rolls and goes on to the glory of a modern-day Robin Hood whose daunting capers include the theft of a Vermeer. Boorman allows Gleeson a free hand, and his Cahill seems a lovable scamp (he's like Michael Moore on a sugar high) -- until, for example, he nails an underling to a pool table. Shadowed by Cahill's nemesis, a police inspector played by a sinister Jon Voight, The General shambles to its fatal rendezvous with picaresque, black-and-white inevitability, limning a portrait of Irish rebelliousness and complacency along the way.

4. The Butcher Boy. The Irish don't need the Troubles, booze, or a taste for sweet rolls to get their Irish up. Neil Jordan's The Butcher Boy, an adaptation of the feverish novel by Patrick McCabe that's part Portrait of the Artist, part Cuckoo's Nest, brings us a '60s Olde Sod devoid of political strife, artistic fervor, or spiritual striving. The sole crucible of such creative turmoil is 12-year-old Francie (stunning newcomer Eamonn Owens), a lad whose alcoholic father (a flawless Stephen Rea) and suicidal mother are the least of his problems. Balancing horror and hilarity, paranoia and pathos, Jordan re-creates the world of the adolescent imagination gone berserk.

5. Affliction. If anything was missing from Atom Egoyan's sublime adaptation of Russell Banks's The Sweet Hereafter, it was the author's knowledge of the broken blue-collar sensibility. Leave it to Paul Schrader, director of Blue Collar and screenwriter of Taxi Driver, to supply that touch in his adaptation of Banks's Affliction. Nick Nolte puts in a career-making performance as Wade, a lumpen cop in a frozen New Hampshire village who finds his life thwarted by a divorced wife, an estranged daughter, a nowhere job, a throbbing toothache, and a legacy of violence from his brutal, drunkard father (a revelatory James Coburn). He finds surcease in a homespun conspiracy theory, but his nemesis is himself, and Schrader unfolds his tragedy with grace, aching detail, and complete fidelity to the text.

6. Rushmore. At a certain point in Wes Anderson's mercurial Rushmore none of it seems to make any sense or follow any logical pattern, and yet it's all magically right and clear. Max (an assured Jason Schwartzman) is a working-class 15-year-old who excels at all the extracurricular activities at his tony prep school but can't pass any classes. Adding to his problems is his crush on a first-grade teacher played by a serene Olivia Williams and the intrusion of a steel magnate/Vietnam vet played by a goofily melancholy Bill Murray who first becomes Max's mentor, then his rival. What follows defies predictability, a shaggy-dog narrative that is the sunny corrective to the grisly misadventures of The Butcher Boy.

7. Slums of Beverly Hills. Adolescence from the female point of view is eminently represented by this overlooked gem from debut director Tamara Jenkins. The usual problems of pubescence are compounded for Vivian (Natasha Lyonne), whose sudden bounty of breasts is just another burden to bear along with her eccentric dad (Alan Arkin), who insists on carting his flaky brood from one low-rent 90210 abode to the next in order to ensure their high-quality education and bolster his own self-esteem. A low-key, hilarious critique of class, family, and gender politics sparked by dead-on performances and a kitschy eye for detail, Slums makes a bracing distaff complement to Rushmore.

8. The Truman Show. Peter Weir's The Truman Show is the year's ultimate statement on privacy, power, and the poison of the media. Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) seems to have an ideal life until one day a light fixture falls out of the sky labeled "Sirius." Then Truman's deceased father reappears as a homeless man and an elevator opens to reveal a television studio. It's The Truman Show, the most popular program in the world, an intimate record Truman's life. Implausibility dissolves before Weir's irony and surreal imagery, and before the concept's relevance in a world defined by the illusions of the media. Thank Carrey, too, whose persona and restraint makes Truman a true hero of our time.

9. There's Something About Mary. Once again the Farrelly Brothers assault true love, good taste, and the inconvenience of taking a leak. Ted (Ben Stiller) has a painful experience of the latter, and it puts an end to his high-school romance with Mary (Cameron Diaz). The resulting "frank and beans" scene proves just the appetizer. The Farrellys have a gift for generating laughter from discomfort and vice versa, and their balance of comedy and cruelty is the heart of the movie. That and Stiller's endearing masochism and Diaz, the closest thing to a human sunbeam on the screen. Even with the worst hair day in film history, there's something about her that makes this gross-out comedy one of the year's warmest romances.

10. Saving Private Ryan. Is Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan the greatest war movie ever made? The uncompromising horror of its Omaha Beach landings almost qualifies it as such, as do its lofty moral ambitions. Ryan asks the same question as does Schindler's List: after so much death, what is the value of a single human life? In this case, it's that of the title paratrooper, who's lost behind enemy lines on D-Day. A saintly Tom Hanks and a squad of Rangers set out to find him in a variation on Apocalypse Now -- except the search is not for the heart of darkness but for the heart of decency. The inevitable clichés are subverted with a provocative twist, except in the case of Ryan himself: though Matt Damon tries hard, he remains a cipher. Despite that, and despite a flag-waving frame tale, Saving Private Ryan's brilliance overcomes its lapses into hypocrisy.

And the Boston version. Neither Affliction nor Rushmore opened in Boston this year (though they'll be considered 1998 films when the Oscar nominations come around), so for a local version of this year's Top 10, replace those two with Antz and The Chambermaid. Antz is the best insect movie of the year, with Woody Allen giving voice to an alienated worker ant whose discontent with a regimented life reaches a crisis when he falls for a beautiful princess voiced by a plucky Sharon Stone. It's not exactly kiddie fare with its Kafkaesque allusions, its barbed black comedy, its top-notch cast (Gene Hackman and Christopher Walken as fascistic soldier ants, Dan Aykroyd as a blue-blooded wasp), and its spectacular battle sequence reminiscent of Starship Troopers; rather, Antz offers a brilliantly animated fable about independence and conformity. Bigas Luna's The Chambermaid (originally titled The Chambermaid on the Titanic) is the story of a French foundry worker who wins a ticket to watch the launching of the Titanic and has a night he can't remember with woman who claims to be a chambermaid on the ship, even as his wife is (or is she?) spending the night with his boss. So he gets drunk and tells his story over and over, each time with theatrical embellishment, until the legend not only displaces the fact but becomes a lot more lucrative. Superbly acted, Luna's film crackles with visual poetry and a wry eye for irony.

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