1998 was a good year for movies. True, Affliction's official year of release was 1997, when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and I didn't see it until 1999, when it finally opened in wide release across the U.S. But I'll always associate it with the year between these two, a year that feels now like the final hurrah of 20th century cinema. When works like Fight Club, The Matrix, Three Kings and Being John Malkovich were released the following year, giving an early kickstart to 21st century filmmaking, '98 began to seem like the swan song of classicism. These newer works were often dark, hip, witty in one way or another, and highly self-conscious in their play with structure and expectation. Call them "surface" works, expressed through a slick style which often bypassed the human element en route to big themes and grand ideas. These films weren't especially my cup of tea and still aren't, though their influence is stronger than ever.
Saving Private Ryan, Gods and Monsters, The Thin Red Line, the often-maligned Life is Beautiful, even Rushmore, the breakthrough work of the becoming-unfashionable hipster godhead Wes Anderson, were films that had people at their center. Even Babe: Pig in the City, Gene Siskel's final pick for best-of-the-year, and a film staffed by animals, had a warm, human heart. Of course, to a certain extent, my memory is arbitrary and selective. To be fair, '98 wasn't and still isn't generally seen as a high-water mark for either classicism or humanism in film. The classical era had supposedly been over for something like thirty years, and critics were already - indeed, had long been - decrying trends towards special effects and away from character. But can we really doubt that a great change occurred around this time, setting the tone for our current epoch? Not that many of these new films aren't good. Indeed, formally, they are often an improvement on well-intentioned but aesthetically unadventurous dramas. Yet something has been critically wounded in our transition into a faster-paced, slicker, more cerebral and clever art cinema...and the end product, even at its best, can seem to lack a soul.