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The Critics' Awards 1998: Film - The good, the bad, and the really, really bad

When habitual, recidivist, and even paid filmgoers come to look back on a year just past, there is a temptation to be solemn, whether or not the millennium is now like the iceberg waiting for Titanic. It's easy to pronounce that things are not as they were - above all, I fear, in the sparse range and quality of foreign-language films. It's possible to surmise that 10 or so years into the next century, there may be far more ice than navigable ships on the water. Nevertheless, I had a good time in 1998 - even if that paints me as blithely shacked up in a first- class stateroom as the ice loomed.

Like anyone in Britain this year, I was entertained by the absurd vainglory of Titanic itself - and I can recall, at an LA screening late in 1997, trying to cheer up some studio executives, saying it wasn't as bad as all that, and might do well enough in the long run - like six weeks! Beyond that, I liked, loved, or just looked forward to another chance of seeing Wings of the Dove, Boogie Nights, The Ice Storm, Jackie Brown, Deconstructing Harry, The General, The Apostle, Love and Death on Long Island (from the novel by the IoS's Gilbert Adair), Wild Things, The Truman Show, Saving Private Ryan and There's Something About Mary. That's a dozen movies, and there are likely a few more I've forgotten about.

I'd like to stress that I don't approach these annual round-ups with monumental earnestness. Still, to find a dozen remarkable new paintings, pieces of music, or even books in any year - let alone a dozen new people who might rearrange your life - would be more than most of us could handle. I know the author of this essay is expected to pick one film above all others - the great one, if you like - and I'll stick with The Truman Show, if only because it got at one of our most patient, if not eager, forms of slavery with wit, cunning and a kind of gentle outrage. But if you want the most neglected film of the year - everywhere - I'd go for The Ice Storm, and its droll but fearsome confrontation of demoralised parents and dismayed teens.

On the other hand, I can easily come up with a dozen disasters or travesties, films so taken with mistake or pretension that the fun of the debacle is irresistible. Some of them, alas, were by very good directors - Kundun, Amistad - and some were by people with inflated reputations - U-Turn, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Rainmaker. Then there were the fatuous colossi, pictures for which the equation of entertainment found to money spent would bring tears to the parched eyes of starving nations - Godzilla, Armageddon, The X-Files, A Perfect Murder, The Postman, The Avengers, The Horse Whisperer, Mad City and Red Corner. You see - that's more than a dozen.

Trends? You know, after a hundred years of demented trendiness, I don't think there is a reliable trend, except maybe for all the stupid old rules - look, a new star; look, the same old stuff done differently; look - why did they ever make that? And if we're really lucky, well, look, there's someone new, trying something. There are new people: there's Harmony Korine with Gummo; there's Neil LaBute, whose In The Company of Men doesn't quite prepare you for the smoother, more nihilistic shock of his next one, Your Friends and Neighbours. There's Paul Thomas Anderson, whose Boogie Nights was good, yet not as daring or cool as his best film, Hard Eight. And there was John Boorman - that indispensable figure, fierce guard of his own unpredictability - coming out with a clever young man's film, The General, in nothing less than black-and-white CinemaScope!

What were the performances of the year? Well, I've been flat-out unkind to Helena Bonham Carter in the past (and I will be again for the inane Theory of Flight), but she was depressed, erotic and stealthy in Wings of the Dove, and her skin shone like death. I admired Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, but I think Ed Harris gave the great performance. I liked Brendan Gleeson and Jon Voight in The General, and I enjoy hunting down all the supporting roles Voight is doing these days. Tom Sizemore was quiet but seething in Saving Private Ryan. Bridget Fonda deserved raves for Jackie Brown, along with Samuel L Jackson, who was also good in The Negotiator. Robert Duvall only did The Apostle, I'd guess, because he longed to go off on the guy's great rants. But why not? Cameron Diaz is going to be something. Sigourney Weaver may be on the edge of becoming a great, cranky "old" lady.

Predictions? 1999 will be better still. I do not encourage film buffs to hold out much hope for The Thin Red Line - but Eyes Wide Shut is another matter. While you're waiting for that, get ready for Happiness, Affliction, One True Thing, Gods and Monsters, Celebrity, and the movie that could win Best Picture for 1999, Shakespeare in Love.

t Film of 1998: `The Truman Show'