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Films stressed creativity over action

You may notice that a couple of highly decorated war stories are missing in action on the list of the top 10 films of 1998.

A couple of expertly harrowing battle scenes weren't enough to overcome the dramatic emptiness of Saving Private Ryan, and Twentieth Century Fox didn't arrange a screening of The Thin Red Line in time for consideration. We eagerly await the latter film, while the former will be left for Steven Spielberg's most bloodthirsty fans and trendy award voters to worship.

The year was more notable as one in which Hollywood rediscovered its flair for words, not merely technically adept action. Scan through the top 10 list and notice that the lone quality they share is a carefully measured screenplay brimming with sharply defined characters and human intuition.

The best films didn't dazzle us with special-effects trickery beyond what was necessary, and audiences showed a growing appreciation for films that prod us to think. Even some of the dumb stuff (i.e. There's Something About Mary) tried harder than usual to stretch creative boundaries and confound our expectations.

Let us hope that 1999 has as many nice surprises in store. Here are one critic's choices of the cream of the 1998 crop, an annual exercise that was reassuring because of a number of highly enjoyable films that didn't make the cut:

1. The Truman Show _ The most relevant fantasy of the year took place in an artificial environment created for television, chipping away the fourth wall of our own couch potato existence. Jim Carrey skillfully broke form as a duped everyman, and Peter Weir's direction briskly captured the manipulation of the medium without ranting. Truman's revolt against technology is a fable for the '90s, a mythic ode to individuality that uses the oppressors' own weapons against them.

2. Gods and Monsters _ Ian McKellen's towering portrayal of a crumbling film director is the year's best male performance, but it's only one facet of Bill Condon's nostalgic and gossipy gem. McKellen plays Frankenstein creator James Whale past his professional and physical prime, haunted by his past and longing for the new gardener (Brendan Fraser). Reality and film fantasy collide with tempered passion and tragedy, with McKellen's dandy smirk as the mark of another pathetic movie monster.

3. Shakespeare in Love _ Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes were the most appealing screen couple of the year in John Madden's exquisite farce of the Bard's early and mostly undocumented years. The film is ripe with satirical speculation about the events that led to Shakespeare's writing Romeo and Juliet, and the screenplay's witty guesses are half the fun. The other half is a grand supporting cast led by Geoffrey Rush and Judi Dench. The best romantic comedy in leotards since The Princess Bride.

4. A Simple Plan _ Two brothers, one drunk buddy, a scheming wife and a $4.4-million fortune in dirty money come up with the simple plan. Fate, impetuous judgment and greed make the results very messy in Sam Raimi's claustrophobic thriller. Frigid surroundings and offbeat criminal intentions urge comparisons to Fargo, although A Simple Plan is a more deliberately paced rat trap, one that features a showstopping performance by Billy Bob Thornton.

5. Smoke Signals _ A road movie that took audiences in an entirely new direction. Sherman Alexie's gift for creating indelible American Indian characters became a sterling example of cinematic storytelling. Two generations of dead-end reservation life and centuries of stereotypes were melded with wry humor, while a pair of young misfits travel to reclaim a dead relative's remains. Evan Adams stole the show as a meek soul with a shaman's gift of gab.

6. The Prince of Egypt _ The most visually impressive achievement of 1998 was the cel-and-keyboard artistry displayed in this epic of biblical proportions. The story of Moses leading Hebrew slaves to freedom across a parted Red Sea dutifully retained its reverence, with a grandiose animated style inspired by the films of David Lean. Good vocal performances and a stirring musical score round out this worthy challenger to the legacy of that other 'toon factory.

7. Happiness _ Todd Solondz's uncompromising peek into the private lives of some rather despicable people was the most perverse shocker in a movie year that rarely blushed. Using a multicharacter style reminiscent of Robert Altman, the film weaved grim tales of pedophilia, obscene telephone callers, terminal loneliness and bad date gifts into a captivating thumbs-down to good taste. Anybody who wants to leave the theater early is understandably excused.

8. Rushmore _ Here's the lone teaser on the list, since Rushmore isn't slated to open in Tampa Bay until February. The creators of the under-seen Bottle Rocket have devised a comedy of uncommon strangeness with a unique hero, an uber-nerd with a hilarious stream of extracurricular activities that ruin his grades. His escapades with an eccentric millionaire (Bill Murray) and a schoolboy crush on a teacher are brilliantly exaggerated with a loose-limbed and low-budget vigor we haven't seen much since the 1970s.

9. Life Is Beautiful _ Drastic times call for comedy and imagination in Roberto Benigni's film, in which a father attempts to save his wife and son in a Nazi concentration camp by turning their imprisonment into a game. The idea of mixing the Holocaust and humor sounds questionable, which makes the gentle impact of Benigni's fable even more astounding. The story lives up to its title, even in the most tragic circumstances.

10. Your Friends & Neighbors _ Neil LaBute's scathing autopsy of poisoned sex lives was a brave plunge for moviegoers, featuring fine ensemble acting and exceedingly profane honesty. Like his 1997 film In the Company of Men, LaBute delves into risky territory since his straight-faced lampoons of adultery, bedroom dysfunction and predatory romance can be taken too seriously. These may not be your friends or neighbors, and that is the only comfort LaBute allows.

Honorable mention: The stoned-out pleasures of The Big Lebowski, a new slant on palace intrigue in Elizabeth, the colorful allegory of Pleasantville, Jonathan Demme's fractured ghost story Beloved, the gangland chic of Out of Sight, a cunning con game called The Spanish Prisoner, the expansive IMAX true-life adventure Everest and, after several viewings and escalating laughs, There's Something About Mary.

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