American History X - Edward Norton's brutal meditation on racism is every bit as effective over twenty years later. The film follows a young man who is a vile bigot that faces the criminal justice system after committing a violent hate crime. Edward Norton is fantastic in the lead role. Supporting him is Edward Furlong as Norton's brother who is following in his brother's hateful ways. The film places excellent commentary on the nature of hate and extremist violence and sounds like it was one of the few films that was really saved in the editing room when Edward Norton took control of the project from the director. Read up on the direction the filmmaker wanted to take the film and it almost sounds like the antithesis of the message the film ultimately and wisely conveys. The film is stunning to watch and Norton and Furlong just slam home runs. This is a powerful and moving film that really is worth your time.
Cube - This was a stunning piece of genre work to come out of Canada. The film is, in essence, a mathematical thriller which sounds profoundly bland but is incredibly captivating. Six strangers find themselves to be in a futuristic looking room. Four walls, floor and ceiling. Each wall (as well as the floor and ceiling) have a door that leads to another room. Certain cubed rooms are booby-trapped and there is only one door that faces the exit. The characters have to unite to survive and figure out the key to weaving their way through to the exit. Each of the characters is named after and archetypal of famous prisons of North America and if you know your prisons you can kind of figure out the trajectory of the film. That said, it is an incredibly inventive and suspenseful film with some strong performances from David Hewlett and Nicole de Boer. This was the start of a franchise, but the sequels are bereft of any real ideas and, not unlike Tremors, are disastrous to the reputation of this film.
Pleasantville - This delightful little throwback to the glory days of 50's television sneaks up on you with how much thought and meaning the film conceals. When Toby Maguire and Reese Witherspoon are transported into the black and white world of Maguire's favorite sitcom from the 50's, they discover that their presence radically reshapes their world. As the film progresses and characters from the show become immersed in new understanding from a couple of modern day kids, strange things happen. Their black and white world becomes enriched in color. This film plays into this by playing up the allegory of normal (white) people and coloreds. There is suddenly talk of segregating those people of color and suddenly the pleasant world of Pleasantville is no longer a safe place but marred in real world issues that plagued the nation during the years the show originally aired. Maguire and Witherspoon are spectacular as are Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels, Paul Walker and Marley Shelton. This is a wonderful film from Gary Ross that thoughtfully explores those that society views as different in an innovative and constructive way.
A Simple Plan - This film makes for a perfect companion piece to Fargo. Both are Minnesota based thrillers that go full dark and offer an interesting insight into the nature of humanity when the sin of greed is introduced. Three men discover a crashed single engine plane in the woods. Inside is a corpse and a duffel bag full of cash. The men split the cash but once they do, their worlds begin to unravel as authorities discover the downed plane. Lies begin to mount and soon the body count follows. This is an incredible thriller from Sam Raimi with a script by Billy Bob Thornton. The film stars Bill Paxton in one of his best performances, Thornton is great and almost unrecognizable and Bridget Fonda is dynamite. Gary Cole almost steals the show as a Fed looking to investigate the crime.
What Dreams May Come - Robin Williams stars in this tear-jerking adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel about a man's journey into Heaven. William's character Chris is plagued by a life of tragedy. He loses his children and lives through the grief only to die himself in a grotesque traffic accident. He soon finds himself lingering as a spirit to those he was close to on Earth before he passes into heaven. He is met by various guides who usher him into Heaven where he learns that Heaven is what you make it. His Heaven is representative of the paintings that his wife made; a wife that is left to grieve alone on Earth. When Chris's artistically beautiful world begins to fade, he learns that she has taken her own life and will suffer eternity in Hell. That is when Chris makes the choice to venture from Heaven into Hell and either redeem his wife's soul or accompany it in Hell forever. Williams gives what I consider to be his best performance; one that has become so much more poignant in the years since his passing. Surrounding him in equally strong roles are Cuba Gooding Jr, Annabella Sciorra and Max von Sydow. The visuals in the film are unparalleled. If you are a fan of classic art, especially biblical art, this film will captivate you. Heaven is lush and gorgeous, but Hell is too in its own haunting way. This, while being a bit maudlin, is easily the best film of 1998.
Best Picture : Shakespeare in Love - A fun little love letter to Shakespeare that hypothesizes how the man created his masterpieces. The film is wickedly fun if you are a fan and holds some really strong performances.
Biggest Box Office : Saving Private Ryan - Spielberg crafted one of the grandest, most realistic war films and delivers on all fronts. This film is repulsive as war should be, but shows it through human eyes. The performances are stellar. Hanks, Giovanni Ribisi, Adam Goldberg and the rest of the cast are in top form. Matt Damon kills in a small but crucial role, and Nathan Fillion is spectacular in a small cameo that gets me every time.