Dominated as it was by the financial success of two giant killer asteroid movies, gross-out comedy hit There’s Something About Mary and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, 1998 proved to be an extraordinary year for movie theater.
Okay, so history doesn’t look back too fondly on Roland Emmerich’s mishandled Godzilla remake, and Lethal Weapon 4 was hardly the best buddy-cop flick ever made, despite its handsome profit. But search outside the top-10 grossing films of that year (or Best Picture winner Shakespeare in Love), and you’ll find all kinds of spectacular modern classics: Peter Weir’s wonderful The Truman Show, John Frankenheimer’s rock-solid thriller Ronin, and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line.
Then there was The Big Lebowski, the Coen Brothers’ sublime comedy that has since become a deserved and oft-quoted cult favorite. Below those, there were dozens of movies that, in our estimation, were unfairly overlooked as well. So many, in fact, that we had to think long and hard before we came up with just 25 of them.
So with apologies to the likes of Richard Linklater’s The Newton Boys, Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, and many, many other worthy movies, here’s our pick of the unsung greats of 1998…
With the likes of Mimic, The Relic, and Anaconda all coming out in the late ’90s, this was truly the era of the mid-budget creature feature. Director Stephen Sommers’ Deep Rising was one of several swept up in this unexpected wave, and it’s a pity that it got lost in the swell: made on a relatively handsome budget of $45 million, it only made about a quarter of that at the box office.
Disparagingly described by Roger Ebert as “Alien on a boat,” Deep Rising sees a group of mercenaries board a luxury cruise ship with the aim of stealing some stuff from a safe, but instead end up on the wrong side of an ancient predator that has sprung up from the ocean depths for a spot of lunch. Treat Williams, Famke Janssen, Wes Studi, and Jason Flemyng are among the potential snacks, and while the movie’s original title, Tentacle, probably gives you a fair idea of the movie’s B-movie roots, Sommers keeps the action brisk, while Jerry Goldsmith’s score adds a real touch of class.
This simmering, conversation-heavy thriller may be fairly by the numbers in places, but it’s enlivened by what is surely a strong cast. Samuel L. Jackson plays a Chicago cop who takes hostages in an Internal Affairs building in order to prove his innocence in a corruption case while Kevin Spacey plays a police negotiator who gradually realizes that Jackson’s character isn’t as crazy as he initially thinks he is.
Jackson and Spacey add real weight and charisma to a flawed yet brisk script co-written by James DeMonaco (who went on to make The Purge movies), while the supporting cast includes David Morse, J.T. Walsh, and Paul Giamatti. With a cast like that, and some decent notices behind it, you’d be forgiven for thinking that The Negotiator‘s success would be surefire. Unfortunately, the movie came out in a busy summer season where it was forced to compete with the big-budget swagger of Michael Bay’s Armageddon and the gross-out romance of There’s Something About Mary.
John Dahl has appeared several times on Den Of Geek, thanks to quality thrillers such as Red Rock West and The Last Seduction. His subway poker thriller Rounders isn’t one of his flat-out best, but it still has real merit. Matt Damon and Ed Norton star with John Malkovich putting in a performance that feels like it’s drifted in from another movie. The scenery had to be coated with a special chewing-resistant spray whenever he walked on set.
It’s a bit of a distracting performance, but Dahl is too good of a director to let it overpower his movie. Thus as the stakes get raised, the tension follows in its path. Good movie, this one, and better than the initial reaction to it may have suggested.
BASEketball was the movie that came at the turning point in David Zucker’s directorial career. Before BASEketball, there was Airplane!, Top Secret, and The Naked Gun. After it? Er, Scary Movie 3 and Scary Movie 4. Hmm.
But overlook BASEketball at your own risk. Starring the South Park duo of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, it’s a very funny comedy, centred around a fake sport that’s a union of basketball and baseball. The real gold is in the psyche outs that each side uses to put the other player off their shot. They’re wildly inappropriate and quite brilliant.
In some ways a precursor to Dodgeball, a movie that would enjoy far greater box office success, BASEketball is a real hoot. Hopefully, David Zucker can relocate his comedy beans again in the near future…
Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas
In between bill-paying fair such as Nick of Time and The Astronaut’s Wife, Johnny Depp spent much of the ’90s steadily building up a portfolio of superb performances in challenging roles, from his title turn in Ed Wood to undercover cop Joe Pistone in Donnie Brasco. Although a curious choice on paper, Depp is perfectly cast in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, and immerses himself entirely in the role of Hunter S. Thompson, the great, rambling eccentric of ’60s and ’70s journalism.
Terry Gilliam applies his own chaotic filmmaking style to Thompson’s 1971 book, which completely smudges the lines between reality and drugged up hallucination. As in the book, Thompson (or rather Raoul Duke, his alter-ego) jumps in a convertible with his attorney Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) and a trunk full of illegal pharmaceuticals and booze, and heads off to cover the Mint 400 motorbike race in Las Vegas.
There’s little direction to the story, as adapted by screenwriters Tony Grisoni, Alex Cox, Tod Davies, and Gilliam, and some critics found the movie’s string of trippy encounters too repetitive. But with a terrific central performance from Depp, some skilful weaving of the book’s most memorable scenes and lines (“I was just admiring the shape of your skull”), and a real eye for Las Vegas’ darker undercurrents, Fear And Loathing is a truly underrated ’90s black comedy.
The Prince of Egypt
The Prince of Egypt was designed to be DreamWorks Animation’s maiden movie before a release date change scheduled Antz ahead of it. And while the hand-drawn animated telling of the story of Moses was a good hit on its initial release, as with all four DreamWorks’ hand-drawn features, it feels all but ignored since. If you’re looking for a Blu-ray release, for instance, you’re very much out of luck. There are problems here, which should be acknowledged. Three music CDs spun out of the movie, and a couple of the songs don’t really resonate at all, for instance. But this feels, in large parts, like something of an animated epic.
It deals with the darker edges of the biblical story it’s based on, and some of the animation is outstanding (the parting of the Red Sea sequence looked spectacular on the big screen, and still impresses now). But it’s the storytelling that shines through particularly: The Prince of Egypt was always going to be ambitious, but no shortage of pitfalls stood in its way too. The movie though turned out be just the kind of movie that they don’t, in this form at least, make any more. We dearly wish they would.
This supernatural thriller was one of those films we stumbled on almost by accident during our regular visits to the local video store. It’s sad to think, in fact, just how quietly Fallen managed to slip through theaters in early 1998, since it features a great cast with Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Donald Sutherland, Elias Koteas, and the late, great James Gandolfini, and a plot that keeps twisting and turning to the very end.
At first glance, Fallen‘s a serial killer thriller in the usual ’90s mode: Washington plays John Hobbes, a cop on the trail of a murderer who’s soon captured and sentenced to death. But it then transpires that the murderer was merely a puppet controlled by a demon who can pass from body to body at will.
Nicholas Kazan’s script takes familiar elements and employs them in unusual ways, and there’s much to enjoy in this stylish, well-acted, and sorely overlooked ’90s movie.
Based on the then-anonymously penned book of the same name (Joe Klein was later revealed as its author), Primary Colors had its moment of infamy for being a fictional account of a man running for political office that bore very strong parallels to the life of Bill Clinton.
Certainly, John Travolta’s lead performance does nothing to shy away from that, and Mike Nichols’ big screen adaptation (skilfully shaped by Elaine May’s screenplay) also adds Emma Thompson, Allison Janney, Kathy Bates (really good here), and Billy Bob Thornton to its impressive ensemble.
There’s a lot of narrative that the movie eats through, and maybe a miniseries would have given more space to spread the story. It’s hard to grumble with the quality of what you get though. It’s well worth teaming this up with Wag The Dog, to get a snapshot of how fiction was reflecting American politics at the end of the ’90s…
Mark Herman followed up the excellent Brassed Off with another superb feature: Little Voice. It’s based on a play, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, which itself was built around the incredible talent of Jane Horrocks for vocal mimicry. Horrocks takes the lead role in the movie too, as a shy woman who comes to life when belting out the tunes of Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, Edith Piaf, and such like.
Horrocks puts in one of two excellent performances in the movie. The other belongs to Michael Caine, in arguably his best work of the ’90s, as music manager Ray Say. Caine would shortly after win his second Oscar for The Cider House Rules, but for our money, Little Voice was the better performance.
With a superb soundtrack, Little Voice has things to say, and doesn’t skimp at all on entertainment either. And Horrocks really is something else. The movie simply couldn’t work with anyone else in that role.
One of those family movies that appears quite regularly on television on Saturday afternoons, Joe Dante’s Small Soldiers is a pint-sized war movie mixed with the anarchic action of the director’s earlier Gremlins movies. A military tech corporation places cutting-edge computer french fries into its new range of action figures, and mayhem ensues when the two factions of toys begin an all-out war in a quiet suburb. Although the clean-cut, all-American miniature soldiers are meant to be the heroes in the toys’ view of things, it’s the freakish, awkward Gorgonites who emerge as the true good guys, and Dante has great fun with this reversal.
Some reviewers criticized Small Soldiers for being too dark, but then again, would you really expect anything less from a director who put Gremlins in microwaves and sent old ladies flying through the air on malfunctioning stair lifts back in 1984? War movie buffs will have great fun spotting the visual references to classic films like Patton, and several cast members from The Dirty Dozen provide voices.
A fun family movie with a great cast (this was, tragically, the last screen appearance from Phil Hartmann) and a truly subversive, mischievous sense of humor, Small Soldiers is a real treat from Dante and stands up exceptionally well even 15 years later.
Writer and director Mike Hodges will probably be best remembered for the undisputed British gangster classic that is Get Carter but he’s also deservedly praised for the blackly comic Pulp (1972), his knowingly camp handling of Flash Gordon (1980), and the shamefully ignored ’80s thriller Black Rainbow (1989).
Croupier, a movie made in 1998 and gradually shown on limited release across America two years later, is arguably Hodges’ best movie since Get Carter. Clive Owen plays a smart, struggling writer who becomes a casino card dealer to make ends meet, and is willingly drawn into a web of cheating, robbery, and deceit. Alex Kingston also stars as a gambler who has designs on relieving the casino of its petty cash, and Peter Mayersberg script gives plenty of hardboiled dialogue for she and Owen to relish.
Run Lola Run
An Austrian action movie, and a very brief one at that. Tom Tykwer–who would go on to co-direct Cloud Atlas—tells the same story three times here as Franka Potente’s Lola has to find a large amount of money in 20 minutes flat if she wants to save the life of her boyfriend.
There’s an urgency underpinning Run Lola Run that’s maintained throughout, and that’s no small feat given that you’re watching a similar task being performed three times. It’s breathless movie theater, throwing in enough tricks to avoid repetition, and leaving you half-tempted to press play and watch the whole thing again once it’s done.
This is a little-seen Australian drama, and that’s a real pity. The Interview features Hugo Weaving in an award-winning role and takes place almost exclusively in a police interrogation room. There are a few flashbacks, but the bulk of the movie is Weaving’s suspected criminal being interrogated by the police. And whilst you don’t win prizes for guessing that there might be something a bit more going on under the surface here, director Craig Monahan–who’s only directed 2004’s Peaches and 2014’s Healing since–ratchets up the tension and tightens his movie to expert effect. Weaving’s work too keeps things far less predictable than you might imagine.
It’s been a hard movie to track down over its lifetime, if you don’t live in Australia, but The Interview is well, well worth the effort. We’re not going to spoil it here, so will leave the details out. But may we humbly suggest this is just the kind of movie that you read lists of this ilk to discover.
The Opposite of Sex
Christina Ricci also appeared in Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66 in 1998. But the movie that arguably migrated here from brilliant child actress to someone who could make a living out of acting in adulthood was Don Roos’ The Opposite of Sex. Here, she plays a teenager who leaves home and moves in with her gay half-brother, seducing his boyfriend and generally causing emotional carnage.
Lisa Kudrow has one of her best movie roles here too, a fair distance away from Phoebe in Friends, with one or two particularly acidic lines delivered with real skill. It’s also worth seeing for Ricci’s excellent voiceover that narrates the movie.
It’s Roos’ best movie to date, and comfortably one of Ricci’s too. To its immense credit, it takes seconds for you to forget that Ricci was once Wednesday Addams, so strong is her work here.
John Waters’ maverick style of filmmaking may not be to everyone’s taste, but his gentle comedy drama Pecker is surely among his most approachable and broadly entertaining. Edward Furlong stars as Pecker, a Baltimore teenager who becomes fascinated by photography, and whose pictures of eccentric people become the toast of New York’s trendy art crowd.
Although this central story–and its gentle ribbing of modern art and celebrity–would have been pleasant enough in itself, it’s the incidental characters that make Waters’ comedy so rich. Whether it’s Pecker’s grandmother, who’s convinced that a statue of the Virgin Mary can talk, or his six year-old sister, who’s addicted to eating sugar, the movie’s full of color and warmth.
Oddly, some critics complained that Waters was trying too hard to break into the mainstream, yet Pecker‘s still full of the director’s quirky sense of humor, if not his more outrageous excesses; if you didn’t know what teabagging was before watching Pecker, then you certainly will after Martha Plimpton carefully (and hilariously) explains all.
Memento may have been the movie that made Christopher Nolan’s name in Hollywood, but it was this 1998 thriller, shot for a few thousand pounds on black-and-white 16mm movie, which really began his career. Written by Nolan himself, who also shot the movie and co-edited it, Following‘s about a dapper young would-be author who begins wandering after complete strangers in search of inspiration. But instead of an idea for his first page-turner, he meets Cobb, an equally well-dressed young thief whose charisma and brazen criminality bewitches the writer.
Nolan’s use of grainy stock and monochrome adds to the stark, noir quality, and the plot’s as tricksy and ingenious as we’ve come to expect from this famously cerebral mainstream filmmaker. It’s fascinating, in fact, to observe just how much of what we now accept as being part of Nolan’s style is already present in his first feature: the unusual narrative structure, the sharp suits, and conflicted central characters are all present. Nolan would even reference Following in 2010’s Inception with the character Cobb (this time played by Leonardo DiCaprio) being a suit-wearing thief of a very different sort.
Although inevitably lacking the dramatic or technical polish of Nolan’s later films, Following is more than a calling card or a footnote at the start of a remarkable career; it’s a classy thriller in its own right, and shows that, even on the leanest of budgets, Nolan could craft something mesmerizing.
Another young auteur who was flourishing in 1998 was Wes Anderson. While on his second film, as opposed to his first, Anderson’s Rushmore followed up 1996’s Bottle Rocket as a more fully formed, pitch perfect distillation of what we now have come to understand is a “Wes Anderson film.” The excruciatingly symmetrical lines of the framing and cinematography, the disaffected youth at the center, and the dysfunctional relationship of a father figure and son, all underplayed and also underscored by a soundtrack of ’60s rock, merge together in this effortlessly charming, droll, and just occasionally uproarious experience.
Set in the titular Rushmore high school, the film follows a teenage narcissist on the rise, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman). He is a boy with no friends despite creating almost every club in the school, and he is also enamored with his favorite teacher Ms. Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams). However, this is bad news all around since the neighbor who took some pity on the boy, Bill Murray’s mustasched Herman Blume, is also infatuated with Rosemary. Hence a rivalry turns into a battle of wills fought with consistent dryness and zero dignity. You won’t stop smiling.
Happiness is in very short supply in Todd Solondz’s ensemble drama, which sees a bunch of troubled characters and the complicated interactions between them. It would be fair to say that this bunch of individuals aren’t always the easiest to warm to, and Solondz doesn’t hold back in exploring the darker sides of them.
That does open the movie up to some excellent performances, with Philip Seymour Hoffman and particularly Dylan Baker emerging in their courageous roles. It brushes on difficult themes, and sees not always likeable people doing not always likeable things. But to Solondz’s credit, he always hunts for the humanity in the situation, and more often than not finds it.
As an actor and a director, Peter Mullan has shown a real conviction in seeking out stories and characters with rough edges to them. As director, The Magdalene Sisters remains superbly made, if horrible to watch (it’s an interesting companion piece for Stephen Frears’ Philomena, certainly). Orphans, though, is a jet black comedy demonstrating Mullan’s ability to put across subtle shifts in tone, and getting us laughing at things we probably shouldn’t.
The premise of Orphans is about four siblings who come together for their mother’s funeral in Scotland. Mullan, who co-wrote the script as well, spends time exploring the fractured relationships between the characters. It works as drama, it works as comedy, and you’ll get one or two really good guffaws out of it too. If you share Mullan’s dark sense of humor, that is…
Gods and Monsters
Set in the 1950s, writer-director Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters is an unforgettably moving drama. It’s about the final days of legendary Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein filmmaker James Whale (Ian McKellen), and his companionship with gardener Clayton Boone (Brendan Fraser). Although Boone, a determinedly straight former Marine, is initially unnerved by Whale’s unapologetic homosexuality, a friendship begins to blossom between these two very different people.
Shifting between Whale’s younger days as a soldier in the First World War, then a celebrated director and thrower of wild Hollywood parties and his fragile old age, Gods and Monsters is a warmly told, richly shot drama. And if you’re looking for a movie acting master class, then the lead performance from Ian McKellen as James Whale is an excellent place to start. Fraser also puts in good work with a performance of a standard he would match again in The Quiet American. But Lynn Redgrave is the one who comes closest to matching the majesty of McKellen here.
Made with a real affection for Whale’s classic Frankenstein films (whose sets are lovingly recreated for the flashback sequences), Gods and Monsters‘ brilliance is, like those Universal horror pictures, entirely undimmed by time.
It’s quite a coincidence that both Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky would make their feature movie debuts in 1998, and that both would make black-and-white thrillers with relatively tiny budgets. The similarities between Pi and Nolan’s Following end there, however. In fact, the films merely underline how different the filmmakers were even at this early stage in their careers; where Following is cool and coiled, Pi is desperate, histrionic, and full of psychic torment.
Sean Gullette stars as Max, a mathematician whose computer appears to have figured out the secret string of numbers behind the stock market and all of creation. As Jewish scholars and frighteningly aggressive Wall Street agencies begin vying for Max’s discovery, his already tenuous grasp on reality begins to slip.
At once a thriller, a character study about a troubled genius, and a psychological horror movie, Aronofsky channels elements of David Cronenberg and Philip K. Dick-like paranoia into his one-of-a-kind debut. That he crafted an absorbing, even scary movie on such a low budget is a testament to Aronofsky’s filmmaking skill. He’d later bring his operatic sense of drama to acclaimed films like Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and Black Swan, but Pi remains one of his sharpest and most searing pieces of filmmaking. Look out too for some distinctive music from Clint Mansell, whose post-pop Will Eat Itself career was also launched by the success of this movie.
Gary Ross doesn’t direct many films. He steered the first Hunger Games movie to big success, and his movie before that, 2003’s Seabiscuit, got a Best Picture Oscar nomination. His films are a rare treat. But Pleasantville was the movie that marked him out as a very special filmmaker. It’s a lovely movie, following a pair of 1990s teenagers who find themselves in a black and white 1950s sitcom. Ross blends the two visual styles extremely well, and he addresses the inevitable culture clash inherent in the movie without going over the top about it.
Boasting warm and strong performances from Jeff Daniels, Tobey Maguire, and Reese Witherspoon, Pleasantville is charming, exquisitely told, and always worth a revisit. No wonder people get excited when Gary Ross directs a new movie.
It’s little short of astonishing that this gripping science fiction movie barely broke even when it came out in American cinemas in 1998, and that its cult success only arrived long after it left theaters. About a man who wakes up in an unfamiliar hotel room in an eternally benighted metropolis, Dark City is beautifully shot by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (who is now Ridley Scott’s regular collaborator), and full of philosophical ideas as compelling as its mind-bending special effects.
Dark City shares some elements in common with The Matrix, which caused a sensation the following year and, just to rub a bit more salt into the wound, even recycled some of the same sets. But director Alex Proyas’ movie eschews flashy, stylized action for an unfolding mystery and a Phildickian sense of existential unease, and as a result, has aged extraordinarily well.
Rufus Sewell plays the ordinary man caught in the middle of a city-wide conspiracy, ably supported by William Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, and Jennifer Connelly, plus Richard O’Brien on perfectly slinky form as a disturbing character called Mr. Hand. Proyas also directed such genre films as The Crow, I, Robot, and Knowing. Dark City is arguably his finest work.
A Simple Plan
Sam Raimi has a couple of underrated movies in his extensive collection of films. The Quick and the Dead is a good, solid Western, while baseball flick For Love of the Game has its moments too. But if you’re looking for the absolute gem, then A Simple Plan is most certainly it.
Every time we look back at the years of the ’90s, we keep coming back to the raft of terrific thrillers that the decade produced. This dark crime drama is most certainly one of the best. The catalyst here is a trio of men who find millions of dollars in a duffle bag and hatch a plan to keep the money for themselves. Throw simmering distrust and an FBI agent into the mix, along with superb photography from Alar Kivilo and a terrific Danny Elfman score, A Simple Plan is a very human thriller and stands alongside the likes of One False Move, Red Rock West, and The Last Seduction in the ’90s hall of fame for the genre.
It’s one of Sam Raimi’s very, very best, and a showcase in how to manage the ingredients of a thriller without ever overplaying your hand.
American History X
Director Tony Kaye’s very public falling out with the producers of this, his first feature movie, threatened to entirely engulf its release. Furious that the theatrical cut of the movie wasn’t his own, Kaye placed full-page ads in Variety demanding that his name be removed from the credits and famously brought in a priest, a rabbi, and a Buddhist monk into a meeting with New Line studio executive Michael De Luca to “lighten” the mood.
Putting all this media hoopla aside, American History X remains beautifully shot (with cinematography by Kaye himself) and extremely well-acted. It’s a drama about neo-Nazis and racial tension in Venice, California. Edward Furlong plays Danny, a teenager living in the shadow of his jailed older brother Derek (Edward Norton), whose horribly cruel treatment of a pair of would-be car thieves leaves him in prison for manslaughter, but hailed as a hero by his racist friends.
While behind bars, Derek’s extreme views are continuously challenged, and when he leaves prison a few years later a reformed man, he attempts to bring about the same change in his younger brother. Unflinching in its violence and convincing in its depiction of how racist ideas take hold and spread like a virus, American History X is powerful and provocative, with a superb turn from a beefed-up Norton.
Kaye may have disowned the movie, but whether the cut we now have is as good as the one he envisioned or not, there’s no denying that it’s a provocative piece of work, and it’s a pity that the movie’s release was so overshadowed by all the stories surrounding it. But with the passing of time, the quality of American History X has become ever more apparent–and more recently, even Kaye’s attitude has changed somewhat.
“It’s number 16 on Best Dramas of All Time on the IMDb,” Kaye pointed out in a 2007 interview, before rightly adding, “It’s become quite a little classic in its own befuddled way…”