The 1998 Cinema All-Stars

This is a brand-new annual feature designed to thank and applaud ten talents of the silver screen whose contributions were most consistently or conspicuously helpful in making the movies a pleasurable, exciting, and admirable art form. Some of the people whom I recognize, and to whom I am quite sincerely grateful, are household names; others are men and women who work behind the scenes to make those images and stories we receive more believable, or moving, or magnetic. Thanks and congratulations to all of them for a year full of hard work...even the guy who's been buried for the last 150 years. He might take a rest from Hollywood for a while, but as for the others, I can't wait to see what they put on screen in 1999!

Meg Ryan
Unlike any other A-list star in 1998, Meg Ryan ventured gamely into into high-visibility roles in major films of different genres—and she contributed in each of them some of her best, most mature work. That Ryan is rarely, if ever, given the acclaim she deserves is both a testament to the seamlessness of her performances and a diminishment of how much craft she puts into them. The most common assessment of Ryan's work in romantic comedies like You've Got Mail or romantic dramas such as City of Angels—even in rock-bottom gutter dramas like Hurlyburly, in which she plays a notorious call-girl—is that she has an innate cuteness, an incontestable likability on which to always get by. Stop and think for one second, though, about the number of people you know whom everyone in your world finds charming and likable, and you'll start to get a sense of the degree of Ryan's achievements and the skill involved in her acting. By always making basic, humanly inflected sense out of her words, by timing her looks and her gestures in perfect harmony with those of her co-stars, and by refusing to give up her innate intelligence even when she portrays perplexed or confused or desperate characters, Ryan convinces us that she is listening as much as speaking, that she comes from a humane, "ordinary" center we can all relate to, and that she is a major talent who does not steer clear of a challenge.

Carter Burwell
Continuing his rising momentum as one of the decade's best composers of film music, Carter Burwell donated to Gods and Monsters a score as eerie, as troubled, but as melodic and uniquely beautiful as James Whale's bizarre life story. Burwell's music achieves more of the macabre poignancy intended by director Bill Condon than do any of the much-hyped performances, though Burwell is not likely to be as fêted or thanked when the inevitable voting bodies convene. Gods, however, was not Burwell's only achievement in 1998. His bewitching score for The Spanish Prisoner was one of the key assets and most effective generators of atmosphere in that film as well, and he bookended the year with two Wild-West scores for The Big Lebowski—his seventh collaboration with the Coen Brothers—and Stephen Frears' ill-fated The Hi-Lo Country. Burwell is definitely a name to know, even if he's not a familiar face: the Gods and Monsters on-set pic I'm cheating with here is actually of producer Clive Barker and director Condon. So sue me, or else take your own pictures of this movie maestro.

Honoré de Balzac
Hey, Jane Austen's done it, why not Balzac, right? For a short while this summer, it looked as though the early 19th-century Parisian might become the latest fad in literary adaptation circles. After all, what the heck: he couldn't be greeted with any chillier a reception than Henry James got in 1997, if you don't count the modest success of The Wings of the Dove. In fact, Balzac was shrugged off even more summarily, though the two films made from his work that were (barely) released this summer were both rewarding entertainments in their way, and astounding for their utter contrasts in tone, setting, and theme. Passion in the Desert was a strange, fablic tale of a man who literally falls in love with a leopard, and writer-director Lavinia Currier, whatever her other failings, achieved the right feel of desolate, isolated, deceptively beautiful a-society that Balzac's prose required. Even more impressive, and therefore more sadly ignored, was Des McAnuff's ribald, irreverent comic farce Cousin Bette, which reminded us that Jessica Lange's comic touch in Tootsie was no fluke, if only we give her chances to crack a smile. Not a bad one-two punch for a man dead for a century and a half, but who fashioned such crystalline comedies and dramas, people are likely not to recognize Passion and Bette's common ancestry. Rent them both.

Sean Penn
One of our most startling and incisive actors wowed us once again with his volcanically seedy Eddie in Hurlyburly and his much more quietly dispirited Sgt. Welsh in the year's best English-language film, The Thin Red Line. In shifting his style so noticeably between these two pictures, Penn made a quick and priceless point about how few of our actors become not just different characters, but different actors from project to project; his range seems limitless and his intuitive dedication to his job is irreproachable. Unfortunately, if Penn's typically inflammatory public statements are to be read at face value (though his history with the press invites some skepticism), we may be losing this great actor to retirement, a protest of what he rightfully considers the buffoonish privileging of marketing over product in Hollywood and the equally misguided tendency of the public to prefer their movies short, quick, and empty of challenges. If the trend continues, we'll not only have fewer films worth savoring, but one fewer actor whose economy and force can redeem entire projects into watchability. Happily for us, the thorny, demanding, but richly rewarding films he made in 1998 required no redemption. They simply showcased a dazzling, talented idealist allowed to work at the top of his form.

Danny Elfman
Following a year in which he was Oscar-nominated as a composer of both dramatic and comic scores, Danny Elfman showed no signs of slowing down with three more insinuating, pitch-perfect efforts. In A Civil Action, his typically delicate, totally un-John Williams score tinkers and rolls as quietly but insistently as the stream water that rushes beneath the picture's mournful drama. In the horribly overpraised A Simple Plan, Elfman's spindly music puts us tantalizingly on edge even as a predictable script and histrionic performances fail to do the same. Finally, Elfman took on the task of updating Bernard Herrmann's original score for Psycho, one of the most truly thankless jobs in an entire project that worked hard to beat accusations of irrelevance. Those violin chords never sounded angrier, or better. If Elfman is not nominated for at least one Oscar again this year, it might be time that some Mrs. Bates-style justice be enacted on the staid Academy membership.

Mimi Leder
Finally confronting the long-standing criticism that summer blockbusters require an absence of brain or emotion, second-time director Leder turned Deep Impact into a nail-biter not only for its apocalyptic suspense but for the even greater anxiety produced, as it should be, by the private moments of disappointment, fear, and despair experienced by its planetful of characters. Deep Impact was shown up at the box office by Armageddon, but Leder's picture was as involving as the Bruckheimer production was slick, as nourishing to the genre as Armageddon was bloated and retrograde. In a summer that also saw Godzilla take it in the foot-long teeth, Leder's balance of drama and spectacle gave us hope not only for her future career but for a new style of event-movie that barrages our feelings, not just our eyes and ears.

William H. Macy
The Boston Society of Film Critics made an inspired choice in selecting William H. Macy as their Best Supporting Actor of the year. None of Macy's performances was a show-stopping centerpiece, or featured any big speeches, or even occupied a great deal of screen time. In fact, the defining traits of two of his characters—the nickel-counting law firm accountant in A Civil Action and the cardboard father scared off by the world's sudden materiality in Pleasantville—were their sad quietness and hushed feelings of neglect or outmodedness. Don't make the same mistake with Macy, whose understated shrewdness as an actor was put to quite different use in his snazzy riff on Martin Balsam's old role as the snoopy detective Arbogast in Psycho. There was nothing Lundegaardish about this role, and no reason to expect that Macy won't keep showing us new facets of his deceptive, adaptable talent.

Christina Ricci
Finally, the hype machine behind an ascendant, revelatory actress was driven almost entirely by her prodigious talent and not by the figure she cuts in a Prada. That emphasis on work over wiles probably extends from Ricci's own crackly sense of humor and her impatience with triflers of any sort. Her sarcastic, expectation-fileting Dedee Truitt in The Opposite of Sex should provide a model for study to the hordes of more hesitant actresses she leaves in her wake. Later in the summer, the tender, minnow-eyed Layla that Ricci contributed to the piranha swamp of Buffalo '66 did as much as possible to save that film from Vincent Gallo's all-consuming solipsism—itself a feat for the books. Ricci's authority with her parts is almost frightening, but kudos to her for working with such off-kilter, distinctive directors who will round out her technique in ways that no Joel Schumacher or Tom Shadyac is likely to do. And did I mention what a figure she cuts in a Prada?

Sandy Powell
Sandy Powell has proven to be the cinema's most fearless, flexible, and ceaselessly jaw-dropping costume designer, dating back to all those dazzling jewels and sleek outfits she found in which to cloak Jaye Davidson's show-stopping figure in The Crying Game. Powell has only gotten more impressive since, and 1998 was her biggest coup yet, showing her to be an unstoppable force of nature. Stand next to one another the richly embroidered and lavishly elaborated duds from Shakespeare in Love and the outlandish, otherworldly spandex-and-boa ensembles from Velvet Goldmine and you'll see two audacious and ravishing wardrobes that seem like they couldn't possibly have sprung from the same hand. An even more formidable aspect of Powell's genius (and when is this lady going to win an Oscar??) is that she doesn't need a conspicuous or flashy assignment to design appropriate and meaning-laden clothes; look at how the outfits in The Butcher Boy succinctly capture the essences of their wearers, or how the same feat is accomplished in the 1970s daywear of Hilary and Jackie. Of all the people on this list, Powell's is the name who inspires in me the most immediate and unquestioning elation when her name appears in the credits. "Surely she can't have done this, too!" I silently exclaim, and then when the film ends, I wonder why the director would even have asked anyone else.

Oprah Winfrey
Sure, Winfrey had plenty of help, including a galvanizing cast, an able array of screenwriters, and a dedicated, bold director in getting her version of Toni Morrison's Beloved on the screen after ten years. (An exquisite, almost peerless original novel didn't hurt, either.) It was Winfrey, however, whose participation and commitment was the force that finally enabled this movie to take shape, and what a proud, prodigious, and finally haunting shape this Beloved took on. I was so disheartened to see the public ignore this project, which was marketed and discussed as though it were medicine. The movie offered such rich, definitive treats beyond its value as a document of pained history. More to the point, though, whatever could be wrong with some medicine at the movies, especially when the wounds it seeks to heal are still so urgent, so insufficiently tended even in our own day? America performed a terrible miscalculation in shying away from this picture, but Oprah herself hit almost every note, both in her able work as the lead actress and, even more so, in her rigorous and uncomprising vision as the producer. Beloved demands that history not be forgotten; Oprah Winfrey is one woman, committed to knowledge and aware of the power of art, whom our memories are unlikely ever to erase.

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