NOTE: For the first time ever, I’m embedding brief audio reviews of films relevant to the months within. The films reviewed are in bold. This is just a test. Hope it works
I’ve been looking a lot at the mid-2000s in this column and while modern history is fun, it’s not quite as useful to study. So at least for the next 3 columns, I’m sticking to the 1990s. It’ll be a bit thinner on films I’ve seen but there’s a lot more to study in these years. This month, looking back at 1998, the year of rocks hitting Earth, D-Day, and a sinking ship controlling the first three months. For this column, I was aided greatly by Peter Bart’s brilliant The Gross, a study of every major summer film in 1998.
The Year in Review
A surprising number of high profile films landed with a thud this month. Alfonso Cuaron’s poorly received Great Expectations tanked here. So did the Denzel Washington supernatural thriller Fallen. Robert Altman’s The Gingerbread Man, loosely drawn from John Grisham, happened. The twin attempts at merging disaster movies with action, Hard Rain and Firestorm, opened. Half Baked, from the writers of Chappelle’s Show, didn’t quite make the impact that would. Spice World happened. So did Phantoms. The only movie anybody liked this month was the outright bomb Deep Rising.
Without The Wedding Singer, the first quarter of this year would be impossibly bleak. That was an actual hit, albeit one of only two movies to break 50 million in the first 3 months. (Everest was an even bigger hit but as it was IMAX, doesn’t count.) Instead, we endured films like the utterly unwanted Blues Brothers 2000. Marlon Wayans got a vehicle in Senseless. There was the megabomb Sphere. Dark City would develop a fandom, but Roger Ebert aside, not until much later. Oh and David Schwimmer had a leading role in Kissing a Fool, which you’ve never seen.
It didn’t get better. U.S. Marshals, the spinoff/quasiremake of The Fugitive nobody wanted, was the only mild success. The best known release of the month was actually viewed as a major flop and letdown on release, The Big Lebowski. Fellow future cult hit Wild Things also landed this month. Timing destroyed Mike Nichols’ acclaimed Primary Colors, released in the wake of the Clinton scandal. On the other hand, the bombs continued. The Newton Boys and Hush showed Hollywood could not make Gwyneth Paltrow and Matthew Happen based on Hush and The Newton Boys. The Man in the Iron Mask couldn’t topple Titanic even with two DiCaprios. Meet the Deedles was an actual movie.
Lost in Space finally ended Titanic’s reign but couldn’t make back its budget. Also losing money were Mercury Rising and Barney’s Great Adventure. Sequels tanked badly with Species 2, The Odd Couple 2, and Major League: Back to the Minors bombing hard. There was a Tarzan movie. Romantic outings fared better such as The Object of My Affection and City of Angels. (I use romantic very loosely. Both films have a bleak view of humanity.)
Godzilla arrived after nearly a year of hype and promptly became the year’s biggest disaster, barely outearning its budget and receiving wildly negative response. In fact, Deep Impact even outgrossed it, proving to be a rather solid hit. Once more romantic movies sold with The Horse Whisperer and Hope Floats performing well. Spike Lee and Terry Gilliam and Spike Lee had underperformers destined to do better in the long run with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and He Got Game. Bulworth opened and why didn’t we all give up on Warren Beatty immediately?
Eddie Murphy dominated June with Dr. Dolittle and Mulan, two films that were well liked then and have become nostalgic favorites. Also performing well was The Truman Show which earned a mountain of great reviews. The X-Files jumped to the big screen with modest but genuine success. Can’t Hardly Wait tapped into the growing teen audience. A Perfect Murder and Six Days, Seven Nights were both hits that completely failed to last in memory. Sadly Out of Sight failed to catch fire but it marked the dawn of Steven Soderbergh as a commercial director who knows the audience.
The megahits arrived. Saving Private Ryan dominated the year’s box office, the last time to date this has happened. Armageddon did the expected strong numbers for a summer film though only just barely outgrossed Pearl Harbor domestically. The surprise hit of the year was There’s Something About Mary which played strong through the summer. Lethal Weapon 4 also put up solid numbers as did The Mask of Zorro. Girls had unexpectedly strong outings with the well received Ever After and The Parent Trap. Underperforming but still outgrossing its budget was Small Soldiers.
The bombs of August were violent. The Avengers (not that one) didn’t even make half its budget back though the casting was impeccable. Snake Eyes couldn’t recoup a $73 million budget. 54, despite a mountain of hype and legendary recutting/reshooting squeaked past its budget. Halloween H20 did decently on the other hand while Blade quietly began reshaping the landscape for comic book movies. How Stella Got Her Groove Back also performed solidly if not spectacularly.
As usual, September brought little reason to go to the movies. Rush Hour owned the month firmly, benefitting from zero competition. Rounders would develop a cult following in the future but it did limp business upon release. I had to strain to remember One True Thing, though because Meryl Streep was in it she was nominated despite critical savaging. Simon Birch borrowed the plot beat for beat from A Prayer For Owen Meany but utterly had no idea what it was about. Ronin was an underperformer but has fans. Urban Legend showed horror was alive.
This was a month of bombs. Soldier flopped massively, earning $15 million on a $75 million budget. After two straight hits, Eddie Murphy’s Holy Man performed like his other 90s films making a mere $12 million on a $60 million budget. Beloved couldn’t earn half its cost. What Dreams May Come made $55 million on a $80 million budget though it’s deserving of far more really. Even the popular Practical Magic only scored 75% of its costs. On the other hand, Antz was a rather strong performer while Pleasantville, Bride of Chucky, and A Night at the Roxbury all showed life. Life is Beautiful kicked off its journey to the Oscars.
For the first time since July, the big hits returned. A Bug’s Life, The Waterboy, Enemy of the State, and The Rugrats Movie all played strongly. They were joined however by a series of bombs. Babe: Pig in the City scared away fans of the original by being much darker and unpleasant. Meet Joe Black tanked in no small part due to a punishing 3 hour running time. The Siege failed to grab any real interest, a rare dud for Denzel Washington.
It was a solid end to the year. Warm fuzzy movies sold big this month such as Patch Adams, You’ve Got Mail, and Stepmom. The first rate The Prince of Egypt arrived to disappointing numbers but wound up a decent performer. Star Trek: Insurrection did just ok but was savaged by fans. Jack Frost was a flop in every way. In limited release one could find such stellar films as Shakespeare in Love, The Thin Red Line, A Simple Plan, and Rushmore. Middling performers like Mighty Joe Young, A Civil Action, and The Faculty dotted the scene. The rather good Psycho remake was this month too.
The Themes of the Year
The movies were unusually aggressive towards the audience. 1998 was a strangely bitter and cynical year at the movies with films like Godzilla and Lost in Space all but mocking their source material and failing for it. They weren’t alone though. Pleasantville derided nostalgia to strong if poorly aging effect. The Truman Show managed to critique forms of television that hadn’t even happened yet. Bride of Chucky turned the previously straightfaced horror franchise comedic, albeit with a script from its creator. Even The Wedding Singer had mockery of the 80s at its core, though it was at least quite sweet. There really was a sense that if you loved something in 1998, cinema wanted to laugh at the idea of caring.
There was a darkness throughout the films. Remove Rush Hour, There’s Something About Mary, and family films and this was a shockingly dark year. Armageddon and Deep Impact depicted humanity on the brink of extinction. Godzilla focused on New York under siege by a monster. Horror had a banner year too. Then there was the year’s biggest film, Saving Private Ryan, which depicted war as absolute hell. Even romantic movies tended to be like City of Angels with its aggressively sad ending.
This was really Titanic’s year. Face it, nothing that can be said about what was actually released in 1998 will capture the fervor of Titanic. The movie held the box office hostage for 3 straight months, a record that will never be toppled. It was a surreal phenomenon made even stranger by how instantly it faded. The 2012 rerelease did at least make me decide it’s definitely an excellent movie.
Budgets were outrageous this year. Given the standard cost of movies today, that might seem silly but over and over again movies failed to even make back what they cost on paper. Barney’s Great Adventure lost money just to underline how bad this year was. The thing is, many of these were obviously bad decisions. 80 million is way too much to spend on a romantic drama like Meet Joe Black. Babe: Pig in the City cost more than the first film made in the US. Soldier costing 75 million just baffles me.
Did The Oscars Get It Right? This is the year that everybody points to as proof they don’t get it right. No. They did not. Shakespeare in Love is still good though.
The Worst Films of 1998
I’m limiting myself to 3 films but I’m going to go into depth on why I hate each one. Because I really hated these films.
3. Jack Frost. This movie is bad enough on its own merits. It’s ugly. It’s bizarre. It has no imagination. It’s boring unless Michael Keaton is involved. The monster is hideous and creepy. It’s blecch. But this movie is responsible for one of the greatest crimes in modern cinema. After this movie, the next mainstream film Keaton headlined was Birdman. There would be sparse supporting roles but Birdman was the next lead. That defines unforgivable. Keaton’s renaissance now only makes me hate this more.
2. Star Trek: Insurrection. This ALMOST had the top spot until I really thought on it. This is here because it is the ultimate example of a franchise not getting its fanbase. Trek fans wanted another film in the vein of First Contact or something that drew from the show. Instead they got an insipid movie about space hippies that drew from the absolute worst things about Trek. There was no sense the series was going forward or trying something new. A shame as the original idea about Picard forced to hunt down Data who had gone rogue might’ve been what we needed.
1. The Waterboy. I know. Adam Sandler is an easy target. Very easy. The thing is I don’t really have the same hate others have. He’s a good actor and he’s made a few good movies with Happy Gilmore and this year’s The Wedding Singer holding up wonderfully. I even respect Little Nicky for trying. But this? This movie wasn’t funny to me at 15. I was his exact audience and I hated it. This is the definition of an aggressively bad movie. Not to be too PC but yes, it definitely finds mental impairment far funnier than I did. It’s poorly acted with even the great Kathy Bates adrift in a very rare moment in her career. This was as bad as it got.
The Best Films of 1998
I’m shooting though these with quick reviews in the hopes you understand these are all films you need to see. Watch them.
1. The Truman Show. A masterpiece on every level. A film about reality itself and the question of if utopia is worth being denied a genuine existence.
2. The Prince of Egypt. A truly profound animated epic that showed how great cel animation can be.
3. A Simple Plan. An underseen marvel. Sam Raimi delivered a powerhouse of a rural noir.
4. Out of Sight. Steven Soderbergh’s grand debut into the mainstream remains an absurdly fun bit of cinema.
5. Pleasantville. While it hasn’t quite held its luster in my eyes with an at times clumsy central metaphor, the acting and story remain immensely engaging.
6. A Civil Action. A quietly brilliant study of the hard truths of the legal system. The antidote to John Grisham.
7. The X-Files. I’m really convinced this is an underrated franchise on film.
8. There’s Something About Mary. The quiet genius of this film is it hides a genuinely believable romance within its sarcastic take on the genre. Sincerity posing as cynicism is joy.
9. The Wedding Singer. Adam Sandler can do better. Proof.
10. Antz. This has no business being a forgotbuster. It’s superb satire.
So that was 1998. Next time: 1994.