First, I must define my parameters. I live in Vancouver, British Columbia, and it is quite common for worthy films to be released here months after they were given a limited release in the major American markets; I am therefore counting films, including foreign and independent films, which may have technically qualified for the American top-ten lists of 1998 but did not come to my attention until later. Second, this is a list of personal favorites; this is not a list of the ten "best" films, as if such things could ever be objectively decided, nor is it a list of the "most Christian" films, because I have no idea what such a label would mean—the most family-friendly? the most explicitly theological? the most compassionate? the most holy? I will say, however, that being a Christian means that the films which excite me most tend to be those which touch on some aspect of my faith. Finally, C.S. Lewis once said that no book was any good to him until he had read it at least twice, and that's how I often feel about films. I have seen a few of these films more than once; with others, I am running on distant memories of first impressions, bolstered by whatever thoughts I may have jotted down at the time. But if I saw any of these again in a day, or a week, or a month, this list could be very different.
1. The Dreamlife of Angels (dir. Erick Zonca; R). Life is anything but beautiful for two young women as they look for work and companionship in the south of France. Isa (Elodie Bouchez), we discover, is a generous soul who is able to look beyond the bleak realities surrounding her with hope and love; but her roommate Marie (Natacha Regnier) is caught in a downward spiral of shame and self-loathing. Zonca articulates the differences between the other-centered life and the self-centered life, between compassion and pride, with uncompromising strength.
2. The Sixth Sense (dir. M. Night Shyamalan; PG-13). This extremely well-crafted film requires a second viewing to be fully appreciated. In a year full of overhyped ghost stories, this one is unique in that it pays proper attention to character; Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment, as a child psychologist and his latest patient, strike up an engaging and perfectly believable rapport. Some Christians objected to the film because it supposedly promoted the occult, but they missed the point: among other things, it affirms the biblical idea that perfect love casts out fear.
3. The Matrix (dir. Andy & Larry Wachowski; R). The climax revels in nihilism, and the cybergnostic heroes are dangerously elitist—anybody who doesn't share their secret knowledge may as well die—but this film taps into so many urgent cultural, religious, and meta-technological issues, it's hard to know where to start dissecting it. The key thing, for me, is that the film ultimately casts its lot with reality, however bleak, over and against fantasy, however pleasurable. Prophecies come true even in the "real" world—and thus the film points to an even higher reality.
4. The Insider (dir. Michael Mann; R). Flawless performances all around and an unexpectedly exotic soundtrack help this film to transcend the real-life events on which it is based. Mann's film is a fascinating morality tale that emphasizes, with conviction, the value of such virtues as integrity, courage, and being true to one's word.
5. Run Lola Run (dir. Tom Tykwer; R). German existentialism on amphetamines, chaos theory set to a driving techno beat. Tykwer charts three possible outcomes when Lola makes a split-second decision to rescue her boyfriend; each time, we get flash-forward glimpses of the effect her mad dash down the street has on the lives of those she bumps into. Not particularly deep, but fun and thought-provoking just the same.
6. Central Station (dir. Walter Salles; R). A cynical ex-schoolteacher reluctantly takes an orphaned boy deep into the heart of Brazil on a journey to find his long-lost father. The naturalistic settings are increasingly permeated with Catholic symbolism, and the film works very well as an allegory about the rediscovery of faith, hope and love.
7. Rushmore (dir. Wes Anderson; R). An enjoyably quirky, offbeat little flick in which adults, teens, and young children all treat each other as equals. These characters exhibit a fairly comprehensive array of naive hopes and petty jealousies, but in the end, they find reconciliation. Anderson's joie de cinema just leaps off the screen.
8. The Celebration (dir. Thomas Vinterberg; R). A man attends his father's sixtieth-birthday banquet and, when it comes time to make a toast, begins to air the family's dirty laundry in front of all the guests. And it doesn't come much dirtier than this. Seriously unsettling yet oddly hilarious, this Danish tour de force is all about the need for justice, yet there's a strangely compassionate edge to it, too.
9. Toy Story 2 (dir. John Lasseter, Ash Brannon, and Lee Unkrich; G). Not quite as good as the first film, but in its exploration of abandonment and similarly dark issues, it's moving in a way the original was not. The love between the toys and their owners—at least the more benevolent ones—is a wonderful analogy for the love between God and his creations.
10. SlamNation (dir. Paul Devlin; unrated). Slam poetry is an intriguing mix of art and sport, earth and spirit, glib humor and passionate idealism. Devlin's documentary covers a national slam-poetry competition, and it leaves you wondering just how much is really communicated by these poets, and how much of their work is really just put on for show.
And then there's the other end of the measuring stick. This year had its share of dreck. Rather than mention films which were merely bad (such as the dull-beyond-belief Simply Irresistible, which barely rates a mention), these were two of my biggest disappointments.
1. 8MM (dir. Joel Schumacher; R). Nicolas Cage, as a private detective investigating the world of snuff films, squanders his talents on a film that has absolutely no redeeming value. It climaxes with some appallingly brutal revenge scenes, then tacks on an unlikely happy ending, just because that's the way audiences like it. It also reeks of some pretty tired cliches, such as the murderer who lives with his churchgoing mama.
2. The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc(dir. Luc Besson; R). What a wasted opportunity. The first big-screen mounting of the Joan of Arc story in years is a chaotic mess that fails both as a rousing war film and as a would-be deconstruction of the Joan legend. And it ends on a dreadfully trite note: Was Joan guided by God, by a desire for revenge, or by a complex of fractured religious impulses? None of the above, according to the Celine Dionesque theme song: "It's my heart calling." Ick.
Peter Chattaway is a regular writer for Christianity TodayandBooks & Culture, as well as other publications in Canada and the U.S.
For a second opinion, read today's other article on 1999's top films, "
Ten Films that Made my Year," by Steve Lansingh.
Peter Chattaway's reviews of The Dreamlife of Angels,
Central Station, and
Toy Story 2 can be found at the ChristianWeek Web site.
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