Disappointing... yet brilliant

Random and not-so-random thoughts about movies

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Did we get it right? Neon magazine’s films of 1998 (Part 1)

Reading (and writing) end-of-year lists has got me thinking once again about the creation of these top 10s, 20s, 50s… It’s such an arbitrary, often panicky process, full of instant regret and shaded (when you taking part in a collective vote) with lots of calculation. Did you get it right at the time, and more contentiously, from the perspective of years later?

The test of time is a slippery notion, one beloved of batshit politicians like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair in their final terms as they determinedly ignore those who disagree with them. But at least until we reach the Day of Judgement, history doesn’t have one point of view, it has multiple, ever-changing perceptions. For instance, the crucial question of how to react to the economic crisis since 2007 tends to be have been answered by experts according to their differing opinions on the causes and resolution of the Great Depression of the 1930s, a question very much unresolved 80 years on. And just because something was well thought of 100 years and is well thought of now tells you little about how it was thought 50 years ago and how it will be regarded in 50 years time.

With that somewhat pompous reservation noted, we come to the list. Neon was an excellent/crisis-ridden/very funny/short-lived monthly movie magazine published by EMAP from late 1996 to early 1999. I contributed to all but two issues and for final nine months was the reviews editor. The electorate for the 1998 poll was the magazine’s small staff - a few regular freelancers may also have got a say. To be eligible for selection, the films had to have been released for the first time in UK cinemas in 1998.

Here are the movies [click on titles to get the IMDB]:

20. Jackie Brown

19. Out Of Sight

18. U-Turn

17. The Castle

16. In The Company Of Men

15. Carne Trémula (Live Flesh)

14. The Last Days Of Disco

13. The Big Lebowski

12. The Daytrippers

11. The Truman Show

10. Hana-bi (Fireworks)

9. The Wedding Singer

8. Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas

7. Saving Private Ryan

6. Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels

5. Velvet Goldmine

4. There’s Something About Mary

3. Starship Troopers

2. Buffalo 66

1. Boogie Nights

First impressions from a 2013 perspective:

a) 1998 was a terrific year for films. But also, as an electorate, we may have voted for films that (mostly) big news within the confines of of our office, but were far from consensus choices from a lot of other critics (Fear And Loathing, Velvet Goldmine, even, absurdly, Starship Troopers).

b) Perhaps surprisingly, there are no films on the list about which my opinion has changed completely in the 14 years that followed, none that I loved then and now hate, hated then and now love. At 28 I was probably more excited by Fear And Loathing that I would have been at much older – my interest in Hunter Thompson has dimmed considerably since then, so that’s not really a judgement on the movie itself. And I don’t think we foresaw how tiresome (and unappealingly skinny) Christina Ricci would grow up to be.

c) Two of these films star Jennifer Lopez, then a neo-noir fave after her attention-grabbing turn in Bob Rafelson’s Blood And Wine. I think she could have had a very different movie career if she had wanted to (and funnily enough, she’s returned to roughly that kind of territory in her next film).

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d) Maybe some evidence of the test of time is that I feel a few of these films may need an introduction (then again, some of them probably needed one then). U-Turn is small-town crime thriller that, rather surprisingly, was directed by Oliver Stone and starred Sean Penn and Ms Lopez. The Castle is an Australian comedy. The Daytrippers is an almost archetypal US indie of the era, a talky comedy about a woman convinced her husband is cheating on her who goes from Long island to Manhattan to find out - accompanied in a crammed car by her squabbling family. Stars Hope Davis, Stanley Tucci and - yes! - Parker Posey. Hana-bi (Fireworks) is a rather moving Japanese crime drama from director-star Takeshi Kitano. Buffalo 66 is somewhat uncategorisable film written/directed by and starring Vincent Gallo as a bloke who gets out of jail and, on his way to a meal with his hated parents, kidnaps a young woman (Christina Ricci) to pose as his wife. Gallo had been a Neon obsession from the start and was by a distance the least famous person we ever had on the cover. It must have taken a hell of a sales job to convince the people upstairs he was going to be the new Tarantino and Pacino all rolled into one. He wasn’t.

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e) The most surprising placings, it seems to me now, are the subsequently much-loved Out Of Sight, down at 19, and Lebowski at 13. We had had Out Of Sight on the cover, so it wasn’t like it wasn’t a big deal, It may have split votes with the other Elmore Leonard adaptation, Jackie Brown, also lower than you might expect. Lebowski was a classic slow-burner.

f). The Castle? I’ve never seen it and have only the faintest notion of what it was about. Every time I think I remember, I realise I am thinking of The Dish. Then again, with such a small staff two people amounted to a powerful block vote.

g) I loathed The Truman Show then, and still do. It has an entirely unjustified reputation for being prophetic. In fact, the mass projection of love and hope on an unknowing Truman couldn’t be further from our collective relationship with Kim Kardashian. In any case, it’s actually about the death of God. And excessively tedious.

h) Lock Stock provoked some heated discussion. Associate editor Damon Wise argued (correctly) that the film was a huge deal with the punters and the sneery British film magazines had all missed the boat on it. He was right. I still think Guy Ritchie’s public persona is risible and his early films unwatchable, but he’s clearly done OK for himself, as have some of the cast.

i) Velvet Goldmine, American director Todd Haynes’ film about the very British glam rock phenomenon, got a tough ride from critics and public, stumped by characters who were sort of Bowie and Iggy but also not. Damon (again) prepped us by playing the soundtrack endlessly in the office and insisting we had to see the film twice (He was right: it was better the second time).

j) There are three films on this list I will always watch (and always enjoy) at least a few scenes of every time they are on TV: The Big Lebowski, Out Of The Sight and Starship Troopers.

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k) So, my instinctive feeling is this: time (so far) has been actively kind to Out Of Sight, which in many ways created George Clooney the movie star, The Big Lebowksi and Starship Troopers, which after the George W Bush years looked every bit as prophetic as The Truman Show isn’t. Pedro Almodovar’s Live Flesh and Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown are probably the lowest-key films made by famously unrestrained, high-profile directors. Hana-bi? Takeshi was considered ridiculously cool at the time, maybe less so now? It’s a terrific film. U-Turn (despite all the big names involved), The Daytrippers and The Last Days Of Disco (Kate Beckinsale’s only decent American film?) have all been somewhat forgotten, unfairly in the latter two cases. In The Company Of Men is an odd one – it still gets shown on TV, but I think writer-director Neil LaBute’s very random film career matters a lot less than his status as an important playwright. My family, at least, still loves The Wedding Singer. Fear And Loathing is an interesting, watchable mess that will never escape the shadow of the book. Velvet Goldmine got at least discussed again when Haynes’ even more unconventional Bob Dylan film, I’m Not There, came out. There’s Something About Mary never needed critics’ lists anyway. Saving Private Ryan was hailed as an instant classic, but as time went on the reputation of the beach scene (high) and the rest of it (not so) have separated out. Purely anecdotally, people seem to talk a lot more about Band Of Brothers. We put a lot of effort into making Buffalo ‘66 at least a cult movie (I was allowed to place it as The Observer film & TV supplement’s sixth best film of the 1990s) – but has it made it?

In Part 2: What else was out in 1998? And we look at some crude statistics…

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