"'One: Make check mark on paper,'" he reads, and does so.
"'Cross item out,'" he continues. "No time for that, I'm afraid," he adds, crossing it out.

"Finally," he reads, "Say, 'That seems pretty senseless, but whatever.'"
"That seems pretty senseless," he says with a shrug, "but ... whatever." Putting the notepad away, he marches on with a sense of accomplishment.

List-making, that bureaucratic passion, has been a part of popular film culture at least since 1924, the year the New York Times published its first 10 Best selection (does anybody remember In Hollywood with Potash and Perlmutter?), but perhaps never so pervasively as in recent years, when cover stories about the "50 most popular" or "100 greatest videos" or "25 most beloved films of all time" appear with increasing frequency in the popular press. Rather than promote discussion, however, the current barrage of list-making and cataloging serves a very different purpose, encouraging a popular view of movies as a homogeneous medium judged solely by the demands of the marketplace.

This commodification of the cinematic past reached new extremes this summer with the unveiling of the American Film Institute's list of the "100 greatest American movies," a shameless promotional tie-in with Blockbuster Video and CBS that had more to do with pushing videos and balancing the AFI's budget than with film history. My complaint is not with the AFI's list, predictably bland as it was, but with the uncritical response with which it was met by most major news sources. Though neither the voting process nor the selection criteria were ever explained, the AFI's list was welcomed almost without question. (I found it ironic that many of the papers that aided the AFI's self-promotion were more skeptical about the Modern Library's selection of the best English-language novels of the century a few weeks later, even though the latter organization was far more forthcoming about the voting process. Maybe they should have produced a TV special with Brooke Shields and Cher discussing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and U.S.A.).

I have made my futile objections to the tradition of the year-end 10-best list many times before in these pages, so this year I'll keep my grumbling to a minimum. The following list of the high points from the last 12 months of moviegoing is necessarily incomplete, and many films that are likely to appear on other lists are absent, some because I haven't seen them yet (I'm still hoping to find time for Elizabeth and A Bug's Life, and my overloaded shelf of unwatched videos still holds The Spanish Prisoner, Afterglow, The Apostle, Love and Death on Long Island, Underground and The Opposite of Sex, all of which have been highly recommended), some that I found disappointing despite the lavish praise they received elsewhere (Pleasantville, The Truman Show) and at least one title that I am conspicuously alone in disliking (Saving Private Ryan). There is also the usual amount of confusion over what constitutes a 1998 release, made more noticeable this year by the increasing importance of cable and video in premiering films. (Two of the films mentioned below appeared on HBO, and another had a widely publicized screening on Showtime before its theatrical run.)

There were few films in the last year that I enjoyed quite as much as Jacques Demy's 1967 musical The Young Girls of Rochefort, revived and restored by Demy's widow, Agnes Varda, and given a single underpublicized screening at the St. Louis International Film festival this fall. Ordinarily I'd have no problem putting this on the year's "best" list, but because the film is scheduled to open in January, I'll give it special premature status as one of 1999's best films.

I'm also not sure how to classify straight-to-video revivals, even though there was no cinematic event in theaters quite as significant as the long-awaited video premiere of Feuillade's Les Vampires (Water Bearer Video) and no new discovery quite as startling as that of Seijun Suzuki's extraordinary 1967 gangster film Branded to Kill (Public Media).

Having made those exceptions, my favorite cinematic experiences in 1998 (in no discernible order) were:

Spike Lee's Four Little Girls: A director who's no stranger to hyperbole matures to make an intimate, heartfelt film about history. (Lee's film had little competition as the year's best documentary, though high marks also go to Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart and, with reservations, Wild Man Blues.)

Adrian Lyne's Lolita: As much for preserving Nabokov's ability to shock as for Jeremy Irons' performance.

Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine: I'm not sure I'd agree with Richard Byrne's claim that it's the best movie about rock music, but it's certainly not like any other movie I've seen lately. Haynes' combines three unpromising themes -- rock romanticism, gay nostalgia and gossipy roman-a-clef -- and comes up with ... the great lost Ken Russell science-fiction musical.

Warren Beatty's Bulworth: The most savage and necessary political satire since The Candidate, guaranteed to infuriate those who most need to hear its message. Compared to Beatty's film, Primary Colors is a tame apology.

Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters: A dreamlike elegy for lost youth and Hollywood glamour made genuinely tragic by the depth of Ian McKellen's performance.

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