Roll the Credits When the smoke and testosterone have cleared, 1998 will show itself as a year of huff, puff and fluff, but with enough gems to make a deep impact.

January 01, 1999|By ANN HORNADAY and SUN FILM CRITIC

Kids still rule.

That's the lesson that most clearly emerged from Hollywood in 1998, and there's no doubt movie executives took it to heart. The throbbingly illogical "Armageddon" and similarly themed "Deep Impact," followed by the surprise comedy hits "There's Something About Mary" and "The Waterboy," double-teamed to win the day. (Can the action-comedy "Kick My Asteroid" -- with Cameron Diaz as a rocket scientist who gets into lewdly comic trouble with an errant ejector seat -- be far behind?)

A flotilla of family movies -- including "Antz," "A Bug's Life," the re-release of "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Rugrats Movie" -- coaxed little ones into theaters. Even such adult thrillers as "Enemy of the State," "Ronin" and "The Siege" had to have the obligatory sub-adult car chase and/or big explosion.

But even if special effects, sophomoric humor and animated bugs ruled the day in 1998, the year had its share of other moments, some auspicious, others less so. Herewith, a highly subjective, and throbbingly illogical, compendium of the movie year's high points, low points and points worth noting in between:

There was something about the 1940s and 1970s.

Between "Saving Private Ryan" (itself a surprise box-office hit), "Life Is Beautiful" and "The Thin Red Line" (coming to Baltimore Jan. 12), World War II was hot, hot, hot. Spliced in among the war pictures were reminiscences of the 1970s, with "54" (featuring an outstanding performance by Mike Myers as disco impresario Steve Rubell), "The Last Days of Disco" and Todd Haynes' trippy ode to glam rock, "Velvet Goldmine." Chalk it up to -- who else? -- the Boomers, who seem permanently torn between the moral ideals of their parents and the narcissism, overindulgence and sexual freedom they miss so badly.

Mr. Reaper, call your agent.

This is the last time we mention the Baby Boomers, promise, but who could miss the cardinal theme of mortality-anxiety that draped over 1998 like a pale shroud? First we had to suffer through "City of Angels" (the pointless re-make of the much better German film "Wings of Desire"), which proved definitively that something can be leaden and sudsy at the same time.

Pretty soon, it seemed that every Friday brought some permutation on death, dying and the afterlife. If it wasn't Robin Williams beaming earnestly in the muddle-headed "What Dreams May Come," it was Brad Pitt looking like a stoned Kewpie Doll in "Meet Joe Black."

Of course, these were only the most cosmeticized versions of Reaper Chic; if you wanted real suffering, you could watch Meryl Streep succumb to cancer in "One True Thing," or another character do the same thing (albeit with fewer ghastly touches) in "Stepmom."

Even the kiddies had their own mortality plays, with "Simon Birch," starring as a precocious moppet with Marquito's Syndrome, and "The Mighty," about a moppet with Marquito's Syndrome. Blame the Boomers again: Now that they're considering their own deaths, suddenly everybody has to.

Every family is happy in the same way: They're in deep, deep denial.

Dysfunction was all the rage, especially in art houses, where Todd Solondz's "Happiness," a dark comedy about three sisters coping with sexual predators, compulsive promiscuity, pedophiliac husbands and sundry other perversions, was a huge hit. Solondz's movie, a masterpiece of restraint, technical control and searing wit, followed fast on the heels of Neil La Bute's "Your Friends and Neighbors," an orgy of misbehavior that showed all and observed nothing. Always good for a gritty family portrait, indie godlet Hal Hartley turned in "Henry Fool," featuring a title character who takes honors as the year's most lovable misanthrope.

The best of the lot, Thomas Vinterberg's "The Celebration," about a young man who confronts his father on the elder's 60th birthday, is still at the Charles. And rest assured, the mean season isn't over yet: Look for "Hurlyburly," a dark-toned Hollywood fable starring Sean Penn, in Baltimore theaters soon.

Hype wasn't everything.

Well, not completely everything: "Godzilla," this year's biggest disappointment, which should have been hoist on its own marketing petard, still managed to come in seventh at the box office. But some other over-hyped movies failed (deservedly) to gain audiences, among them Nick Broomfield's non-movie "Kurt & Courtney" and La Bute's "Your Friends and Neighbors," which proved to be a letdown after his directorial debut, the highly promising "In the Company of Men."

Somebody get a doc!

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