Joel and Ethan Coen's The Big Lebowski. A deliriously stoned crime movie that relates to Altman's The Long Goodbye the way Altman's film did to The Big Sleep, with razor-sharp dialogue and a flawless John Goodman performance.

And finally (do I dare?):
Peter and Bobby Farrelly's There's Something About Mary ... if for nothing else but all the times this year that people have started conversations with "I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I went to see There's Something About Mary."

Also: Celebrity, Out of Sight, Mulan, Jackie Chan's Who Am I?, John Carpenter's Vampires, What Dreams May Come, Shattered Image, Wild Things, Antz, The Mask of Zorro, Deconstructing Harry.

Worth seeing: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Jane Austen's Mafia!, Small Soldiers, The Kingdom II, I Married a Strange Person, The Wind in the Willows (released on video as Mr. Toad's Wild Ride), Forgotten Silver, The Newton Boys, The Borrowers, He Got Game and Primary Colors (especially for Kathy Bates).

Every year, as the 10-best-list deadline ticks down, I mutter disconsolately that finding more than a handful of films to cite will prove impossible, so dismal and crapulent are the candidates in this, the worst of all possible moviegoing times. But this year, when I belatedly scrambled to re-examine those contenders with some small degree of seriousness and rigor, I was stunned to find that narrowing the field to 10 was the actual problem: In 1998, I saw about 25 movies that deserve some thoughtful consideration, and there are another dozen worthies I've yet to see. Because I limit the number of movies I attend in a year to 100 or so -- largely by ignoring Hollywood's market-driven blockbusters and genre programmers such as Armageddon and The Waterboy -- you could argue that such a high percentage of allegedly meritorious films is clear evidence not of cinema's escalating artistic quality but of my declining critical standards. Perhaps so, but, if anything, I've grown less tolerant of by-the-numbers filmmaking in recent years, becoming more difficult to surprise and much harder to please.

What explains the seeming generosity of my assessment are volume and variety. With the return of Landmark Theatres to the area, St. Louis now has 10 screens devoted to first-run art in the Plaza Frontenac, Tivoli and Hi-Pointe. Although the same film often appears at two of those theaters -- or even on multiple screens at the same theater -- the healthy competition between Landmark's Plaza Frontenac and the sister houses owned by Joe Edwards has ensured that almost every major art film distributed in the U.S. will play St. Louis. And those that fail to appear on their screens will almost inevitably find a home in Webster University's ambitious, wide-ranging film series or as part of the ever-expanding St. Louis International Film Festival (or the St. Louis International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival or the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival or Nebula Communications' St. Louis Black Film Festival). We still see far too few foreign works -- because of the distributors' cowardice as much as the exhibitors' -- but the American-independent scene continues to thrive, supported by adventuresome mini-studios, and even mainstream Hollywood occasionally indulges the more outrageous artistic whims of its proven talent.

That said, 1998 lacked an uncontested masterpiece -- its many gems all had flaws, large and small, such as the cringe-inducing framing sequence of Saving Private Ryan or the ill-conceived conclusion of Henry Fool. But it was a year of surprising and pleasing fecundity, including such welcome restorations as Orson Welles' Touch of Evil and Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria. Once more acknowledging the arbitrary nature of this enterprise -- I've not seen, for example, Life Is Beautiful, The Eel, Slam, Lolita, Central Station, Your Friends and Neighbors, Celebrity, Shakespeare in Love, A Simple Plan, The Thin Red Line, A Civil Action, Rushmore or Fireworks -- here are my highly personal, admittedly idiosyncratic picks for 1998's 10 best, in roughly descending order of preference:

Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan
Todd Solondz's Happiness
Joel and Ethan Coen's The Big Lebowski
Eric Rohmer's Autumn Tale
Peter Weir's The Truman Show
Stefan Ruzowitzky's The Inheritors
Chris Eyre's Smoke Signals
Warren Beatty's Bulworth
George Miller's Babe: Pig in the City
Don Roos' The Opposite of Sex

Just missing the cut were Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters and Hal Hartley's Henry Fool, followed by The General, The Celebration, Out of Sight, My Name Is Joe, Mrs. Dalloway, The Winter Guest, Taste of Cherry, The Cruise, The Big One, I'm Losing You and, yes, There's Something About Mary.

In 1998 the Spanish Inquisition came back to possess and paralyze the U.S. government. As the year ends, England and the U.S.A. are bombing Iraq. In summer 1998, St. Louis gloried in Mark Mc-Gwire's generosity and in his home-run record, which brought the Cardinals back from much-deserved demise. In January 1999, Pope John Paul II will visit St. Louis, a great honor to the city. Perhaps the Holy See knows that the Vatican Museums sent an advance team to the St. Louis Art Museum: the disappointing Angels from the Vatican. Though a particular painting of an angel might be mediocre, we certainly need all the angels we can get. They help us glimpse the divine amidst the general madness. Great filmmakers, like other great artists, are angels. Our English word comes from the Greek angelos: "messenger."

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