best film: The Thin Red Line from Terrence Malick
The Thin Red Line fulfilled the promise of a twenty year wait since Terrence Malick’s previous feature, also a masterpiece (and the best film of its year), Days of Heaven. Thin Red Line does not have the visceral war experience punch in the face that Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan does (Spielberg’s film was released earlier in the year) so I think it took a while for Malick’s poetic tone poem, Christ allegory, and sheer photographical brilliance to resonate fully with many cinema lovers. The sprawling ensemble, endless voiceover narrators (I lost count during the film just how many take the mantle), and the way it dodges a real traditional war narrative can make for an opaque first viewing- revisits to the film will confirm it as one of the strongest films of the 1990s.
- With that long of a stretch after Days of Heaven, what does Malick open with? He opens on a crocodile slipping into the water with Hans Zimmer’s score (along with The Lion King this is his best to date in 1998, and the one that changed his style) welcoming us back. Malick is fascinated by the dichotomy–the beauty of nature- and the ugliness of and war/man/sin. Malick’s trademark style (even after just two films) is evident from the outset: the exterior photography, the voice-over “What’s this war in the heart of nature?” is the first question. Malick is setting up his motifs formally. Next is the sun poking through the trees (like Kurosawa’s Rashomon)—a key shot for The Thin Red Line– repeated often.
- Dissolves here again for Malick as his go-to transition choice. This is a 170-minute, largely plotless (the goal is to take control of the island I guess but this will frustrate plot focused movie watchers), tone poem—so the lyrical dissolve editing fits perfectly.
- After establishing the conflicted beautify of life (crocodile), the voice-over, and the shot of the heavens (through nature) and setting all of that up formally—Malick opens on an Eden. The Eden in The Thin Red Line is depicted by those native to Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands (the film shot on location there, and in Australia) along with Jim Caviezel as Private Witt. He has gone AWOL again to enjoy this peaceful escape of war. There is playing, swimming, singing—he says, “the kids around here never fight”. Witt is Malick’s Christ figure here in The Thin Red Line (the subtext is more important than the text really) and it is best to watch the film that way.
- Malick’s camera is rarely sedentary (when he’s not in montage mode)– often pushing through the grass and thick jungle with the soldiers
- Unlike the solo voice-over of Badlands and Days of Heaven, Malick will pass the baton from character to character here in a new, free form ensemble, multi-pronged style. It is Nashville’s ensemble meets the multiple voice-over style hinted at (but not to these depths) of Goodfellas or Casino. At one point, Malick even has a dead Japanese soldier take part. The characters all have Malick’s voice, asking philosophical, rhetorical questions, meditating on death, war, and the meaning of life.
- Malick often cuts to flashbacks of Ben Chaplin (Private Bell)’s character and his wife. The two never speak together in scene, these scenes are carried by the voice-over. These are interludes in The Thin Red Line– breaks for the norm—but these cutaway segments will become Malick’s entire style for later 2010s films like To the Wonder and Song to Song. This is where he gets the Antonioni meets fragrance commercial comparisons.
- Ambient noise– capturing nature and the crickets – constant cutaways to wildlife: birds, owls, bats, snakes and more. Malick is one of cinema’s great photographers (especially exteriors including nature), but he is also one who builds his film, his rhythm, in the editing room.
- The all-star cast ensembled is one of the best of the late twentieth century. It is told that the actors lined up (many were actually cut altogether—Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen), many offering to work for free or next to nothing for the enigmatic Malick. Massive stars like Travolta, Clooney (just becoming one in 1998) are used for a scene or two. Future Oscar winners like Jared Leto and Adrien Brody (those great shifting eyes here) are just at the beginning of their careers and do not even get a line of dialogue really…maybe one. Brody’s part was cut way down apparently in post production and it was a massive surprise to him when he saw the finished film (his Private Fife is essentially the largest character in the book). Nolte is shouting the entire time—you wonder how he didn’t have a heart attack filming this- and he is tremendous here. His battles with Elias Koteas are some of the best sections in the film. Sean Penn and Jim Caviezel’s relationship and philosophical discussions are sublime as well. The film is a coup for both. Malick taps into The Deer Hunter for the John Savage character with PTSD.
- The final image is a single lotus growing—a great bookend with the opening crocodile.
most underrated: In the few years since I last updated this page Saving Private Ryan has finally found a spot on the TSPDT list (and doing quite well at #686)- so that has been remedied. Films yet to be remedied by the consensus still include Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Run Lola Run and Pi – they should all be on the consensus TSPDT top 1000 by now, and they are not. However, Cuaron’s Great Expectations may be the ultimate answer here. Not only is it not on the TSPDT top 1000- but it is still regarded by many as an outwardly bad film—it current sits at 37% positive on Rotten Tomatoes https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1081200-great_expectations.
- It does not have the narrative aplomb of 12 Monkeys but just sit back and enjoy the beautify of what is going on around you here. It makes a great installment into Gilliam’s expressionist oeuvre.
- Set in 1971- largely in Vegas- the height of glitz and gaudy costume and set/production design. We have the floating shag carpet the reptile zoo – it is hard not to think of Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch in 1991 as well though that is a film at a different pace.
- Sardonic narration and hysterical dialogue “As your attorney I advise you” happens fifteen times and I laughed every time
- There is no arguing that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a brilliant feat of production design—beyond just the hoarder’s art messy meticulousness of Gilliam—this is about excess, loud color, the Bazooko circus, tracking through the man-made swamp at the Flamingo, the reverse processing of the neon lights of the strip in the Cadillac, the constant flashing lights, strobe lights, mirrors and carpet design. The American flag is a visual motif, as is the Vietnam war on television and pictures of Nixon everywhere
- loud color– if it isn’t the excess of Fellini, Gilliam’s film is best compared to animated films actually
- Gilliam has not only made a major achievement of production design here– but the camera work with wild Wellesian angles as well (canted— repeatedly—most in his career to this point) is a stylistic triumph. Gilliam goes back to the tool bag: the overhead shot (the final one at the Flamingo is stunning), wide angle lens (he’ll make a small room feel huge), the barrage of neon and color– all a perfect marriage with both the source material from Thompson and Gilliam’s larger body of work as an auteur. It is an inspired selection of material and ambitiously executed (it doesn’t feel like the right word choice to call it flawless). This is a film about drug use, disorientation, hallucination
- Green drawings (from Hawke’s character- a totally believable artist by the way) yellow lettering again during the titles
- Cuaron even uses a green lens flare- wow
- Chris Cooper is part of the phenomenal ensemble – four Oscar winners- De Niro, Anne Bancroft, Paltrow—Hawke is great of course—Cooper’s role is sort of an audition for his 2002 Adaption Oscar win- the characters are not that far off
- Cuaron and the mise-en-scene never rest. They drink mountain dew because of the color- it’s so wonderful
- Great ellipsis editing of the young girl (Paltrow as a child) and her features and then dissolves of Bancroft’s mansion in a tour
- Canted angles during the Paltrow seduction scene with dissolves galore- a very directed film
- There are a few De Palma-like wonderful long tracking shots including one through an art gallery—it goes into a sequence where Hawke tracks down Paltrow—it is a simulated oner with 3-4 cuts like Hitchcock’s Rope walking out of the gallery, running down the street, getting her, back out of the restaurant and the big kiss in the rain- three shots
- If it wasn’t called Great Expectations and burdened with the literary expectations from that classic (I think De Palma’s Bonfire of the Vanities suffers from the same) it would have had a much better fate with critics.
- the sheer ugliness of the patchy 16mm photography is so hard for me to get past. There’s a guaranteed top 5 film of 1998 in there with some nice photography
- Urban paranoia and self-mutilation—Cronenberg in Videodrome and Polanski’s Repulsion comes to mind— the isolation and head shaving remind me of Taxi Driver
- Strong early graphic match editing of trees turning into numbers
- Lively jump editing with exaggerated sound mix (door locking, noises in his head)
- Same cinematographer as Black Swan and Requiem – his two best films- Matthew Libatique—
- Blends math, the Torah, Japanese Go board game and the stock market brilliantly- such a bounty of intelligent and exceptional ideas
- Like Hitchcock, Aronofsky, even in his debut, is not afraid of taking an ingenious and stylistic approach to every internal thought and feeling- here an example is “how do I show someone getting a headache” cinematically?
- POV reverse Rubber Biscuit Mean Streets shot (again he’d use in Requiem)
- Active score– which mirrors the really low average shot length
- Eraserhead is another film it lends itself to
- Many fade to gray editing ellipsis
- One nice effect of the lighting is the awful bags under the eyes of Sean Gullette
most overrated: Lars von Trier followed up Breaking the Waves, one of the great films of all-time, with The Idiots. The Idiots is awful. It is ugly- tough to look at. I get that von Trier, auteur enfant terrible, is poking the bear and thumbing his nose at society but it would take some deep sleuthing to find anything of artistic value here. The film did not offend me, I am not easily offended at this point- it just underwhelmed me and long stretches of time seems to go by without anything except flat visuals to note. TSPDT, astonishingly, has it at #839 (at least it has dropped a little in recent years) of all time and I could not find a spot for it in my top 50 of 1998 let alone my top 1000 overall. It is not currently in the archives.
gems I want to spotlight Spike Lee’s He Got Game is one of the great master’s films that does not get touted enough. Todd Solondz’s Happiness is a bizarre film, one worth seeking out. And it is tough viewing for the subject matter, but American History X is powerful cinema- led by a dynamic Edward Norton.
trends and notables:
- Twenty years is too long to wait for any auteur, but The Thin Red Line makes you think twice about it. Haha. It is the event of the year and one of the cinematic events of the decade (the notoriously unprolific Kubrick came out with two films during Malick’s sabbatical and Tarkovsky came out with three during that time (and subsequently died or it would have been more)).
- In 1998 it certainly felt like the year for World War II films as Saving Private Ryan was probably the popular cinema event of the year. The other big hit was Armageddon – so again Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are just everywhere in 1997 and 1998.
- It is a great year for comedy with both Wes Anderson (big breakthrough for him) giving us Rushmore and the Coen brothers giving us The Big Lebowski. The Big Lebowski was considered an odd follow up to Fargo and basically a failure at the time of the release but now it is considered a masterpiece of course and amongst the Coen’s best work. In fact, you could make a very strong case (this is probably the right answer) that this stretch for them with Big Lebowski following up Fargo is peak Coen Brothers. Certainly their run up to this point in their career is close to unassailable. Of the seven (7) films they have made, six (6) are in their respective years top 10.
- 1998 marks the start for Darren Aronofsky. Pi is shot in a harsh, grainy 16mm, but it is still a fully realized inventive proclamation by Aronofsky- the clear the mark of a dazzling young voice in cinema.
- For actors 1998 would mark the archiveable debut of Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth. Blanchett’s storied career would mark 20+ archiveable films over the next 20 years. Out of Sight is mentioned above as a peak thus far in the career of Soderbergh. Well, it certainly helped solidify George Clooney as a bona fide film star (he has a very time role in The Thin Red Line as well). Clive Owen never had the staying power of Blanchett or Clooney but is a remarkable actor nonetheless who gets his first nod in the archives in Croupier. Picking up the mantle from Parker Posey in the early 90s we’d have the first archiveable film from the new queen of indie cinema, Chloe Sevigny, in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco.
best performance male: It is hard to know where to begin for this category in 1998. As mentioned above it is a great year for comedy and both The Big Lebowski and Rushmore have two performances each that deserve some love. Jeff Brides’ justifiably iconic take as “The Dude” probably should land here first. This is the Coens’ spin on Sam Spade and other detective films (Elliott Gould’s work in Altman’s The Long Goodbye is an important precursor) and Bridges work here belongs right besides the all-time greats. None of those old detective films had a number two like John Goodman- who definitely deserves a spot here. Both Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman land next for their work in Rushmore. It seems inconceivable that Schwartzman ever top this, and this would mark the first of many collaborations between Murray and Wes Anderson. As talented as Murray is, the need for a great auteur to pair with is nearly essential for any actor looking to make a lasting imprint in cinema. Johnny Depp may be next for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Johnny Depp provides the voice-over and is the lead- playing an absolutely mad Raoul Duke (Hunter S. Thompson) and Benicio Del Toro plays Dr. Gonzo. Both of these talented actors are clearly committed to the work. Depp is almost unrecognizable. If these two great actors (both in their prime in 1998—well Depp is in his and Del Toro heading into his) do not land in these performances, I think the film stumbles and may have a hard time recovering. Clooney has to get a spot for his work in Out of Sight at the helm for Soderbergh’s work and Tom Hanks is back in this category again for Saving Private Ryan. The Thin Red Line is a difficult one- clearly an ensemble effort, but I do think Nick Nolte, Elias Koetas, Sean Penn, and Jim Caviezel stand out from the rest even if I have to split the collective mention between the four of them. Lastly, only when you give a performance like Edward Norton in American History X does a performance from a film outside of the top 10 of the year deserve recognition. Norton’s work here is that rare case. He is a tour de force, intelligent, and terrifying. To make this category even more crowded in 1998, the great Tony Leung has to land here for his work in The Flowers of Shanghai. Tony Leung plays Wang Lingsheng. Leung also worked with HHH on A City of Sadness (1989). Leung is a phenomenal actor- a star’s charisma without being a primadonna, even in a room filled with other actors/characters, he shines like a beacon. Like Montgomery Clift, he has an instant undertone and nuance- he is an actor that looks like he always has a secret. This is such a key role for Leung’s resume. He does not ask for the camera’s attention (he is often facing the opposite direction in a large gathering)- but it comes his way anyways as he goes through the meticulous ritual of preparing his pipe. He is often inebriated- but a sullen drunk.
best performance female:. This is Franka Potente’s category in 1998. She explodes off the screen in Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run. Overall though, it is a very weak year here. As much as I chuckle at Julianne Moore as Maude in The Big Lebowski I cannot, in good conscience, put her here. Haha. Sadly, male dominated war films like The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan are the story in 1998 and they do not have female roles really at all. Other films, like Pi and Fear and Loathing are also focused on their central characters (male) and narrators that they do not have a candidate to register in this category for 1998 either. Olivia Williams is very worthy of praise in Rushmore– but that is really about it unfortunately.
- The Thin Red Line
- The Big Lebowski
- Saving Private Ryan
- Out of Sight
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
- The Celebration
- Run Lola Run
- Flowers of Shanghai
Archives, Directors, and Grades
|A Simple Plan – Raimi||R|
|After Life- Koreeda|
|American History X- Kaye||HR|
|Central Station – Salles||R/HR|
|Dark City- Proyas||HR|
|Emperor and the Assassin- Kaige Chen|
|Eternity and a Day- Angelopoulos||R|
|Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Gilliam||MS|
|Flowers of Shanghai- Hsiao-Hsien Hou||HR|
|Gods and Monsters- Condon||R|
|Great Expectations – Cuaron||HR|
|He Got Game- S. Lee||HR|
|Out of Sight- Soderbergh||MS|
|Pi – Aronofsky||HR/MS|
|Primary Colors- M. Nichols||R|
|Ringu – Nakata||R|
|Ronin – Frankenheimer||R|
|Rounders – Dahl||R|
|Run, Lola Run- Tykwer||MS|
|Rushmore – W. Anderson||MP|
|Saving Private Ryan- Spielberg||MS/MP|
|Shakespeare in Love- Madden||R|
|Show Me Love- Moodysson||R|
|Snake Eyes – De Palma||R|
|The Big Lebowski – Coen||MP|
|The Celebration- Vinterberg||MS|
|The General- Boorman||R|
|The Last Days of Disco- Stillman||R|
|The Thin Red Life – Malick||MP|
|The Truman Show- Weir||HR|
|Velvet Goldmine – Haynes||R|
*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film
MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film
HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film
R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives