'Truman Show' Was Definitely the One to Watch

Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

Like the moving finger of fate immortalized in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which writes and then irreversibly moves on, film critics have a tendency to abandon what's come before. Just like the audiences and executives we sometimes despair of, critics also flock to what's new and what's hot, leaving yesterday's favorites to wither in the shadow of a newer love.

So while "The Truman Show" was a critical darling for a brief moment in time, many reviewers have moved on to more beckoning pastures. But despite everything that's come out in the second half of the year (including eight of the nine other films on this list), "The Truman Show" still feels like No. 1.

1. As nervy a film as Hollywood has delivered in quite some time, "The Truman Show" did more than give Jim Carrey the most serious role of his career as a man whose every waking moment has been unknowingly turned into the most popular television show on Earth.

Directed with wonderful restraint by Peter Weir from an Andrew Niccol screenplay, "The Truman Show" is emotionally involving without losing the ability to raise sharp satiric questions as well as get numerous laughs, a film that managed to be disturbing while working beautifully within industry norms.

The rest of 1998's list comprises:

2. "Saving Private Ryan": A powerful and impressive milestone in the realistic depiction of combat, this Steven Spielberg-directed canvas is as much an experience we live through as a film we watch on screen. Though parts of the script are naggingly familiar, visually this is World War II as no movie audience has seen it before.

3. "Shakespeare in Love": Wearing its cleverness with grace and ease and blessed with lovers (Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes) who look and act like they really are in love, this witty farce explains how the real-life passions of William Shakespeare transformed "Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate's Daughter" into "Romeo and Juliet."

4. "The Celebration": The year's best foreign-language film comes from 29-year-old Danish director Thomas Vinterberg. As compelling for the way it tells its story as for the tale itself, it's a carefully thought-out work about a completely out-of-control family situation, raw without being off-putting and wrenching without losing its sense of humor.

5. "Out of Sight": Aided by screenwriter Scott Frank's expert rendition of the Elmore Leonard novel, director Steven Soderbergh has turned out a wised-up, insouciant love story about a deputy U.S. marshal and the veteran bank robber she's trying to incarcerate. Stars George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez are well teamed and backed up by one of the year's best ensemble casts.

6. "One True Thing": Meryl Streep gives perhaps the year's best performance by an actress, and also one of her least self-consciously dramatic, as a housewife and mother stricken with cancer. Director Carl Franklin, better known for traditionally masculine films, brings a welcome dignity and restraint to what would have been overly emotional material in other hands.

7. "Without Limits": The intertwined careers of premier American distance runner Steve Prefontaine (Billy Crudup) and coach Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland) get the exciting, thoughtful and empathetic treatment they deserve from Robert Towne. Because "Without Limits" doesn't call attention to itself, it's easy to miss how the film finds beauty and poetry in spareness and tells a familiar story without lapsing into cliches.

8. "There's Something About Mary": An outrageous goofball farce that gets you to laugh at things you never thought you'd even see on screen, much less chuckle at. The year's great word-of-mouth success, and deservedly so, with credit going to stars Cameron Diaz, Ben Stiller and Matt Dillon and the irrepressible filmmaking team of Peter and Bobby Farrelly.

9. "Next Stop, Wonderland": Smart and beguiling, with a bravura performance by Hope Davis as a woman flummoxed by romance, this Brad Anderson Sundance success manages to believe wholeheartedly in the power of love without checking its mind at the door. Discriminating romantics will not believe their good fortune.

10. "Love and Death on Long Island": One of the most unlikely of plots--a highbrow British novelist goes ga-ga over mega-dreamboat Ronnie Bostock, star of "Hotpants College II" and celebrated as "one of Hollywood's most snoggable fellows"--has been turned by writer-director Richard Kwietniowski into a sharp, sophisticated and finally poignant drama about amour fou, totally mad love. John Hurt's performance as the besotted novelist is one of the year's best.

If there were room for an eleventh pick, the slot would go to one of two end-of-the-year films, either Steven Zaillian's "A Civil Action," which finally unravels but has too many excellent qualities to ignore, or "Hilary and Jackie," which doesn't open until Dec. 30. A "Rashomon"-like retelling of the complicated lives of celebrated cellist Jacqueline du Pre and her sister Hilary, its performances by actresses Emily Watson and Rachel Griffiths are the only work that rivals Streep's this year.

Though no documentaries made the final cut, at least four were memorable in 1998: Ken Burns' magisterial "Frank Lloyd Wright," Barbara Koppel's "Wild Man Blues" look at Woody Allen, Penelope Spheeris' heartfelt "The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III" and the wacky Texas charmer "Hands on a Hard Body."

As for more foreign-language films, the most interesting seemed invariably to come from France. If you missed "Post Coitum," "Seventh Heaven" and the hilarious "Un Air du Famille," video is a good place to catch up. One of the year's best thrillers, John Frankenheimer's "Ronin," was set in France as well.

Though New York often seems like a foreign country, it really isn't, and several of the best independent-minded features were set in its amusing streets, including Whit Stillman's "The Last Days of Disco," Noah Baumbach's "Mr. Jealousy" and Richard LaGravenese's "Living Out Loud."

A nod must also be given to the year's most successful reissue, a new print of Orson Welles' mesmerizing "Touch of Evil," on screens at last in a version that's the closest yet to what the director originally intended.

And finally, in the Fiction Is as Strange as Truth department, no examination of 1998 is complete without a backward nod to "Primary Colors." Given what's happened in the months since to the real-life relationship between President Clinton and his wife Hillary, this fictionalized portrait of a much-talked-about relationship seems almost uncannily on target.

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