A quarter of a century may seem like a long time, but for many, it seems like only yesterday that some of the most beloved films of 1998 first saw the light of a projector. A few filmmakers broke through to a wide audience that year, ranging from Wes Anderson to Guy Ritchie, while several bold animated projects and a pair of watershed World War II films took viewers on gripping cinematic journeys.
In honor of their 25 Year Anniversaries, A.frame fondly looks back on some of the most cherished films of a year filled with many cinematic gems, 1998.
The Big Lebowski
The unbroken creative streak of filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen reached new heights with their Oscar-winning sixth film Fargo in 1996. Two years later, The Coens followed up their dark comedy master class with what would become one of the most beloved cult classics of the decade, The Big Lebowski.
The crime comedy stars Oscar winner Jeff Bridges as Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski, also known as His Dudeness or El Duderino. As played by Bridges, The Dude is one extremely laidback guy. He has no job, and his time is spent drinking sweet White Russians and bowling with his close friends (John Goodman and Steve Buscemi). He lives a rather drama-free existence in 1991 Los Angeles. But thanks to a case of mistaken identity, The Dude finds himself dealing with a few thugs who have broken into his home. They rough him up and ruin his rug — a rug that "really tied the room together!" The Dude then, to seek compensation for the rug, tracks down the man who the thugs had mistaken him for. Their first meeting isn't exactly a friendly one, but the man later offers The Dude the opportunity to do a job for him in exchange for an enticing sum of money. The Dude accepts the offer and embarks upon a quest during which he ends up thrown into a baffling mélange of all kinds of incidents, including encounters with various strange characters and even a hallucinatory musical number.
The Coens modeled their script for The Big Lebowski on Raymond Chandler's 1939 hardboiled crime novel, The Big Sleep, and other noirs like it, where the protagonist is ensnared in a convoluted crime plot that can be somewhat difficult for the audience to follow and involves mysterious characters. The film is wry, satirical, and hilarious with broad comedy. Bridges' pitch-perfect lead performance is backed by a cavalcade of stars, including Goodman, Buscemi, Julianne Moore, John Turturro, Sam Elliott, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and others. Like 11 other Coen brothers films, The Big Lebowski was beautifully shot by the esteemed Roger Deakins. Another notable feature of the film is its eclectic soundtrack.
Since its release, the film's fan base has grown substantially, inspiring yearly "Lebowski Fest" conventions all across the country and even in a few cities across the pond.
Though it isn’t quite what moviegoers think of as a Marvel movie today, this action-horror hit starring Wesley Snipes (who reprised his role for two sequels) marked a watershed in today's superhero cinema landscape. Here, Snipes plays a half-vampire hunter who uses his abilities to protect people from the creatures of the night, led by a megalomaniacal Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), who’s planning to unleash an apocalyptic terror on humanity. From its unforgettable, blood-soaked nightclub opening to its gripping, effects-laden climax, Blade was a pleasant surprise when it opened and introduced audiences to a new kind of supernatural hero.
Shekhar Kapur's 1998 historical epic, Elizabeth, is a rich and thrilling experience that depicts the early years and the turbulent rise to power of Queen Elizabeth I. Two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett delivers a powerhouse performance as Elizabeth, the young queen forced to become wise beyond her years. It's the 16th century and the country is divided, Catholic against Protestant. Elizabeth must find a way to unite her people under one church. As a ruler, she has a keen eye for deception as she takes counsel from mysterious advisors. She must choose where to place her trust, with her secret lover, Sir Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) or her secretary Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush).
Throughout the film, Blanchett is joined by a cast of distinguished actors, including Rush, Fiennes, Richard Attenborough, and Emily Mortimer. Elizabeth received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress in a Leading Role for Blanchett, and went on to win the Oscar for Best Makeup.
Life Is Beautiful
Star and director Robert Benigni delivered not one but two of the most memorable Oscar acceptance speeches of all time when this beloved Italian production won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and another for Best Actor (with an additional win by Nicola Piovani for Best Original Dramatic Score). Partially inspired by the experiences of Benigni's father in a World War II concentration camp, the film is a family drama with touches of heartfelt humor about a Jewish father who uses whimsy and imagination to shield his young son from the horror of their imprisonment.
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
Guy Ritchie’s debut feature became an instant cult classic in the U.K. and earned accolades on the American indie scene with its distinctive dialogue and crafty new take on the heist film. Here an ensemble cast (including Jason Statham in his debut film role) gathers for the tale of a group of friends who plan a big job involving a rigged card-playing ring. Snappy and stylish, the film paved the way for a wave of lad caper films by Ritchie and many other filmmakers that are still enjoying success to this day.
The Disney renaissance had been going in full force for a decade when the studio released its epic animated take on a famous Chinese legend. Here the title character is a young woman who disguises herself as a male soldier to take the place of her conscripted father during a Hun invasion (with Eddie Murphy as vulnerable family dragon Mushu as a sidekick). The film's sweeping score by Oscar winner Jerry Goldsmith, with his signature blend of electronics and a grand symphony, is one of the film's highlights and received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score.
Out of Sight
Crime thriller author Elmore Leonard was suddenly everywhere in the late-'90s thanks to Barry Sonnenfeld's Get Shorty (1995) and Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (1997). In 1998, Steven Soderbergh brought a new kind of sizzling energy to his Leonard adaptation, Out of Sight. George Clooney teamed up with Soderbergh for the first of many times here as nonviolent bank robber Jack Foley. On the night that Jack busts out of prison, he somehow finds himself — as fate would have it — in the trunk of a car with Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), a beautiful and sharp-witted Federal Marshal. Despite Jack being who he is and Karen being who she is, the two actually begin to develop romantic feelings for one another.
This comedy caper, featuring a formidable supporting cast that includes Ving Rhames, Albert Brooks, Don Cheadle, Dennis Farina, Catherine Keener, Viola Davis, Steve Zahn, and Michael Keaton (reprising his role of FBI Agent Ray Nicolette from Jackie Brown), received an Oscar nomination for Best Film Editing for the innovative work of Anne V. Coates, and another for Best Adapted Screenplay for Scott Frank's superb writing.
The Prince of Egypt
The story of Moses and the Biblical exodus from Egypt was retold on a spectacular animated scale for this DreamWorks Animation production featuring a star-studded voice cast which included Val Kilmer as Moses, Ralph Fiennes as Ramses, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Martin Short, Steve Martin, Helen Mirren, Danny Glover, and Jeff Goldblum. A major departure from previous studio animated features, the emotionally resonant rendering has continued to rise in stature over the years.
The Prince of Egypt received two Oscar nominations, one for Best Original Musical Score by Stephen Schwartz and Hans Zimmer, and another for Best Original Song for the iconic ballad "When You Believe," written and composed by Schwartz, and performed by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. The uplifting song, which marked Carey and Houston's only musical collaboration with one another, won the Oscar.
A buddy team for the ages was born when Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker teamed up for this fast-paced action-comedy about a Hong Kong cop butting heads with Los Angeles police when he’s brought in to assist in solving the kidnapping of a prominent Chinese consul's daughter. The mixture of rapid-fire quips, culture-clash comedy, Lalo Schifrin's thrilling throwback score, and martial arts mayhem proved so winning that the duo returned for two sequels.
Though his debut film Bottle Rocket (1996) had earned a positive reception, it wasn’t until this sophomore film that Wes Anderson’s signature visual style and deadpan (yet sometimes disarmingly poignant) dialogue really flourished. Again co-written by and featuring Owen Wilson, the film spends an eventful year at a prep school where oddball, overly extracurricular Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman, in his screen debut) finds himself locked into an escalating romantic triangle involving his teacher (Olivia Williams) and a middle-aged industrialist (Bill Murray). Highlighted by its memorable stage productions and British Invasion soundtrack, the film crafted a template that has given Anderson and his troupe of actors and key collaborators one of the most recognizable artistic signatures of all time.
Saving Private Ryan
Though Tom Hanks starred in 1986's The Money Pit for executive producer Steven Spielberg, the two wouldn’t work together as actor and director until this groundbreaking depiction of World War II through the eyes of soldiers looking for the last remaining son among multiple brothers killed in combat. A war film unlike any other with one of the most harrowing openings in cinema history, Saving Private Ryan inspired Spielberg and Hanks to later bring HBO's Band of Brothers and The Pacific to the small screen.
Co-starring Matt Damon, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, and Vin Diesel, Saving Private Ryan received 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor in a Leading Role for Hanks, and went on to win Oscars for Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, and Best Sound Effects Editing.
Shakespeare in Love
A fanciful "what if" depiction of William Shakespeare's writing torment that led to the penning and first performance of Romeo and Juliet casts Joseph Fiennes as the Bard, inspired by his turbulent love for the upper-class Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow).
The romantic comedy, co-starring Geoffrey Rush, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, and Colin Firth, received 13 Oscar nominations, including Best Director for John Madden, and went on to win seven Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actress in a Leading Role for Paltrow, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Original Musical or Comedy Score, and Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Dench, who won for her short but memorable turn as Queen Elizabeth I, who ultimately plays a decisive role in the unfolding drama.
There's Something About Mary
Few audience experiences in 1998 could compare with the shocked hilarity that erupted from coast to coast when Peter and Bobby Farrelly's smash comedy hit theaters. Already established with instant classics like Dumb and Dumber (1994) and Kingpin (1996), the writer-directors became a bona fide brand here with the story of hapless Ted (Ben Stiller) whose crush on Mary (Cameron Diaz), thwarted by a disastrous prom night, is rekindled with even more outrageous consequences in adulthood.
The Thin Red Line
Among film buffs, few developments in 1998 were as highly anticipated as the return of filmmaker Terrence Malick, behind the camera for the very first time since his 1978 masterpiece, Days of Heaven. His third feature film is a more meditative and expansive look at World War II, adapted from the James Jones novel centered on the experiences of one Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) in the South Pacific at the height of the Guadalcanal campaign. Malick's return drew the attention of actors far and wide, resulting in an extraordinarily impressive ensemble cast that included everyone from Sean Penn, George Clooney, John Travolta, and Woody Harrelson, to Nick Nolte, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, and John C. Reilly, among many others.
Arguably one of the greatest war films ever directed, The Thin Red Line, brimming with its unique cinematic poetry in every frame, received seven Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Dramatic Score, and Best Sound.
The Truman Show
The late '90s was a unique time as the world ramped up for the new millennium. On TV screens, the relatively new format of reality television was beginning to reach prominence within the cultural landscape. The Truman Show from director Peter Weir (Witness, Dead Poets Society) remains one of the boldest satires of the era, more relevant than ever now 25 years after its release.
Jim Carrey is perfectly cast as Truman Burbank, the unwitting star of a 24-hour live broadcast reality show that has been airing since the day he was born. Complete with actors, extras, and a few thousand hidden cameras on a studio backlot broadcasting his every move to viewers, the show depicts everything in Truman's life while he goes about living in the fictional town of Seahaven completely unaware of the outside world. However, as Truman begins to suspect that things are actually not as they appear, his innate curiosity and desire to grow beyond the confines of his world lead to him trying to solve the mystery of his confounding existence.
Films from the '90s don’t come much more prescient than The Truman Show, foreshadowing the advent of reality television, the endless scrutiny of social media, and the omnipresence of surveillance. Penned by Gattaca screenwriter Andrew Niccol, The Truman Show entertained critics and audiences alike with its fascinating story and imaginative visuals. The film's supporting cast, which includes Ed Harris, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, and Natascha McElhone, delivers memorable performances to go with Carrey's riveting lead performance.
The Truman Show received three Oscar nominations: Best Director for Weir, Best Original Screenplay for Niccol, and Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Harris, who played Christof, the reality show's creator.
You've Got Mail
When it comes to romantic comedies, there are few as treasured as the ones in Nora Ephron's Meg Ryan trilogy. The films include, of course, When Harry Met Sally… (1989), written by Ephron, directed by Rob Reiner, and starring Billy Crystal and Ryan; and Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You've Got Mail (1998), both co-written and directed by Ephron, and both starring Hanks and Ryan.
Parfumerie was a 1936 Hungarian play written by Miklós László. The play takes place in a Budapest gift shop around the holidays and depicts the relationship between two bickering co-workers at the gift shop who are actually, unbeknownst to either party, pen pals. The play was adapted into an Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedy, The Shop Around the Corner (1940), starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. Ephron's You've Got Mail is based on the original play and the Lubitsch film.
In You've Got Mail, Ryan stars as Kathleen Kelly, whose bookstore, The Shop Around the Corner, is in danger of going out of business as a result of the massive Fox Books bookstore opening up in the same neighborhood. Meanwhile in her personal life, Kathleen has begun an anonymous internet romance with Joe Fox (Hanks), the man whose family founded, owns, and runs Fox Books. Joe himself is an executive at Fox Books and happens to be in charge of the Fox Books location that's threatening Kathleen's livelihood. While online, however, Kathleen and Joe, each one entirely oblivious of the other's true identity, begin to fall in love while exchanging emails.
The title of the film comes, of course, from the "you've got mail" greeting that users would hear upon opening their emails using America Online aka AOL, one of the early pioneers of the internet in the '90s during those first years after the internet became available to the public. Through its portrayal of the internet experience that existed during that time period, You've Got Mail is, in a sense, a perfect time capsule movie for the year it was released.