Eight Isn't Enough

Michael Sragow finds eight good films, and countless condescending duds, in a year at the movies

In Manny Farber's just-reissued (and expanded) 1971 collection Negative Space, the most important film publishing milestone of 1998, this scarily lucid critic describes an American world "where whole eras and cultures in different stages of development exist side by side, where history along one route seems to skip over decades only to fly backward over another route and begin over again in still a different period." In 1998 old movies such as The Wizard of Oz and Touch of Evil and new ones like the following eight (listed in alphabetical order) delighted and enthralled me with their graceful light stepping through that volatile terrain.

Babe: Pig in the City As a fairy tale of an imperiled innocent in a chaotic and threatening metropolis, George Miller's follow-up to Babe ranks with Carol Reed's Oliver!, and is the most genuinely Dickensian film to emerge since that one did 30 years ago. It's a continually surprising and inventive call for interspecies understanding and civility. There hasn't been a scene all year to match the deep-seated humor and solemnity of a host of disenfranchised city animals lining up for food and expressing their appreciation to Babe, their provider, with the simple, resonant words, "Thank you, pig." Miller has given us a radical alternative to the moral gasbaggery of writer William J. Bennett (Death of Outrage, The Book of Virtues). In fact, this film is so vital and moving that even Bennett might be compelled to say, "Thank you, pig."

A Bug's Life In the wonderful world of Pixar computer animation, artistry and gimmickry mesh: A thing of beauty is a toy forever. With a lyric combination of flash and filigree, director John Lasseter and company energize this tale of a heroic young ant who enlists circus bugs in a fight against tyrannical grasshoppers. The show-biz pastiche outstrips anything else of the like this year (except for the sections of Shakespeare in Love that aren't overburdened with Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes). The slapstick recalls Chaplin and Keaton, and the luxuriant imagery makes you feel as if you're in a restorative light bath.

The General Not content with a docudrama depiction of the notorious criminal Martin Cahill, who cut a larcenous swath through Dublin in the '80s, director John Boorman depicts him as a Jovian figure, as hearty as he is sinister. The result is a marvelous, multifaceted movie, with a savage intelligence and a core of mystery. The events are rooted, ruthlessly, in the schisms of contemporary Ireland. Yet Boorman's treatment of them is so incisive and so expansive that the movie sweeps us up in the exuberance of an archetypal chieftain, then forces us to face the consequences of his outlawry. Brendan Gleeson is the perfect actor to anchor this tumultuous saga. He's as comically self-contained as he was in the bravura, self-destructive The Butcher Boy, and as salty as he was in the slight, entertaining I Went Down (both released earlier this year). But he's also wily and charismatic -- a performer on the crest of a roiling wave.

Home Fries I don't know when writer Vince Gilligan (a contributor to TV's The X-Files) first dreamed up this delicious deadpan farce about an unmarried burger-joint worker (Drew Barrymore) and the family of the man who impregnated her. But coming when it does, it's a great relief -- a big-studio release that blows away a whole spate of independent dysfunctional-clan comedies, including the frantically overrated The Opposite of Sex. Luke Wilson and Jake Busey conjure a hilarious itchy intimacy as mismatched brothers, and Catherine O'Hara gets laughs where you least expect them as their peerlessly manipulative mom. Under Dean Parisot's deft, unforced direction, Barrymore has never been more adorable. And when the besotted Wilson is with her, his steady, intent attempt to work things out brings the film a quality similar farces desperately need: an uproarious, stalwart sanity.

The Mask of Zorro In part this is an exciting throwback to the days when action sequences were splashily choreographed, not spliced together in the editing room, and when swashbucklers stressed (in the words of film historian Brian Taves) "the purity of the hero's motives, his physical and mental agility, impeccable manners, and often witty speech." But it's also an ingenious update, since in this film the original wearer of the Mask of Zorro (Anthony Hopkins) must instruct his successor (Antonio Banderas) in agility, manners, and wit -- bringing audiences up to speed at the same time. Hopkins and Banderas have a joyous old pro/upstart chemistry, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, as Hopkins' daughter and Banderas' lover, has the sparkling, mischief-tinged beauty of every boy adventurer's dreams.

Out of Sight Ever since the Sexual Revolution, the makers of romantic comedies have twisted themselves into pretzels trying to concoct new reasons for their would-be lovers to delay gratification. (For the latest contortions see You've Got Mail.) But this adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel pulls off these curlicues without breaking a sweat: The hero (George Clooney) just happens to be a handsome bank robber, the heroine a dishy cop (Jennifer Lopez). Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Frank understand that the secret of lasting movie romance lies in putting appealing personalities to the test; they show us how, under pressure, an attractive man and woman become formidable characters. We don't merely hope that these two get together; we hope they do so without violating the best parts of themselves. With Ving Rhames as Clooney's stand-up partner, Don Cheadle as a gutless boxer turned manager/thug, Albert Brooks as a smarmy Michael Milken-like financial wizard, and Wendell B. Harris as an officious FBI man, this movie has star power and bench strength. It's an elegant entertainment -- it transforms affectation into artistry.

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