Top Ten List 1998

I used to love lists. Really. In fact, one of the most defining moments in my film life was the publication of the December 1992 issue of Sight and Sound with it poll of critics and directors on their all-time top ten lists. The hundreds of films on those lists formed an delectable banquet that allowed me to indulge my then newly formed and still relatively inexperienced cinephilia to decidedly unhealthy levels in subsequent years. And when it came to current films, I eagerly awaited the wave of year-end critics lists to compare to my own viewings and to fill in gaps. Heck, starting in November, my impatience would grow with all that endless waiting...

Of course, lists are, after all, only lists, and to devote so much interest in them is rather silly. I still like lists very much -- my page is still something of a shrine to various lists -- but I have to admit that my interest in lists for their own sake is becoming markedly less pronounced. In a year which saw such travesties as the American Film Institute's Top 100 Greatest American Movies and the Modern Library's 100 Best Books, the potential hollowness the whole concept of list-making becomes readily apparent. (I'm waiting now for someone to put forth a list of the 100 Greatest Top 100 Lists. That way we'll all have an "official" endorsement to spend our money on up to 10,000 products.)

Another reason list-making suddenly seems a bit foolish in A.D. 1998 is the standard prescription that year-end lists of top films should in number be ten. ("Ten shalt be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shalt be ten. Eleven shalt thou not count, nor either count thou nine, excepting that thou then proceed to ten. Twelve is right out.") Okay, fine, but to me the emphasis should really be placed on *top*. I've always viewed the "top films list" as something of an aesthetic category in and of itself, rather than a mere skimming off of some arbitrary number from the larger pool of candidates. In previous years, I've generally been able to find ten reasonable films which allowed me to play the game without too much pain. However, 1998 was easily the weakest year for "top films" since I've been actively preparing lists, and hence I am listing only the five films which I think come closest to meeting the criteria.

Oh, there were plenty of perfectly solid, perfectly adequate films during the year that I enjoyed enough not to resent (completely) having spent money on them. But as for great films, I'm not even entirely sure any of the five films listed below truly qualify. I suspect a couple of them do, actually, but such is the nature of distribution and was the nature of my mental state -- now improving thanks to a special lady -- that I saw most of them only once. As a matter of fact, I recall BUFFALO '66 as the only multiple viewing for me all year. It's quite possible that if I had seen some of those close-but-not-quite candidates -- DRIFTING CLOUDS, CLOCKWATCHERS, LAST NIGHT, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, THE APOSTLE, TASTE OF CHERRY, GUMMO -- more than once, I might have been produced a viable, conforming Top Ten list. Alas, 'twas not the case, so there you are: five.

I have, however, included a second list of five to balance things out, and hence obtain a nice round ten. Some of the year's most exciting and pleasurable film experiences came via retrospectives, and I therefore list five awesome directors who had significant parts of their oeuvres shown in Chicago in 1998. Even though I'd seen many of the films in these series before, the opportunity to see them in good prints and in relatively short periods of time was quite a treat. And as the Masumura (who!?!) series showed, there are still great directors out there of whom no one has ever heard...

(As always, I do hope to add a few words to the following in the coming days, but anyone who's glanced at my lists for the previous two years won't be holding their breaths...)

Note: the number in parentheses following each film is the number of times I've seen the film as of this writing.


1. Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien) (1)
2. Buffalo '66 (Vincent Gallo) (2)
3. Henry Fool (Hal Hartley) (1)
4. Oriental Elegy (Alexander Sokurov) (1)
5. Anxiety (Manoel de Oliveira) (1)


John Cassavetes (Music Box) (January)
Charles Chaplin (Music Box) (December)
Howard Hawks (Film Center) (October, November, December)
Yasuzo Masumura (Facets Multimedia) (May)
Orson Welles (Music Box) (September, October)