By Ann Silverthorn
Solitude, sorrow, and love—all treated on a thought-provoking level—define seven popular films from 1998. That was the year the DVD Netflix began sending discs through the mail, allowing movie fans to order movies at home rather than standing in line at the video store.
When these seven titles were beginning production, Dolly the sheep had become the first mammal to be successfully cloned, IBM’s Deep Blue had recently defeated chess champion Gary Kasparov, and Internet users were growing at a yearly rate of 900 percent. We were primed for those red envelopes (although they didn’t start out that color). Here’s a list of seven intelligent films worth revisiting from 1998.
No one can portray longing and loneliness quite like Nicolas Cage does. In this film, Cage is a natural for the character of Seth, a guardian angel who has never known what it’s like to be human. This changes when he encounters a heart surgeon (Meg Ryan) with whom he falls in love, and faces the decision to become mortal or continue as an angel with a mission to guide the recently departed. City of Angels is based on Wings of Desire, a 1987 German film, also available from DVD Netflix.
Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett humanizes the historic Virgin Queen and provides a view into the life of a woman who puts her country in front of her own desires. While coming of age and becoming the queen during a period of upheaval in England, Elizabeth finds herself surrounded by many advisors with conflicting interests. In love with one who was not suited to be her husband, Elizabeth learns to rule the country without a king beside her and earns her place in history.
After a public humiliation, Birdee Pruitt, a devoted wife, mother, and former prom queen, finds herself back in her Texas hometown, the object of pity and gossip. Reluctant to give up on her devastated marriage, she must also consider the feelings of her unhappy daughter as she decides if she should let herself find happiness with an old flame from her adolescence.
In this dramatization set during the reign of King Louis XIV (Leonardo DiCaprio), the Three Musketeers come out of retirement to rescue Louis’ twin brother, Phillippe, who has been imprisoned for years in an iron mask to hide his identity. The Musketeers conspire to substitute Phillippe for King Louis, a tyrant, but they are soon found out, and Phillipe would rather die than go back to the mask. The Man in the Iron Mask is loosely based on the legend of the same name, which was brought to life by Alexandre Dumas in The Vicomte de Bragelonne, one of the three D’Artagnan Romances.
In this comedic drama loosely based on history, young Shakespeare has writer’s block and must produce a play quickly to satisfy his investors. Meanwhile, Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) wants to be an actress, but women are not allowed to play in the theater. She poses as a man, wins the lead role in Romeo and Ethel, and when Shakespeare finds out that she’s really a woman, he falls in love with her. Dame Judi Dench makes an appearance as Elizabeth I, in Shakespeare in Love, which won seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actress.
Suggested by the John Irving novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, this film successfully retains the essence of Irving’s story, which is friendship, tragedy, and destiny. Simon Birch is the story of two boys living in a small town, each with his own set of challenges. Simon is a dwarf, who still plays the Baby Jesus at Christmas, and Joe is being raised by a single mother (Ashley Judd) and longs to know who his father is. Simon believes that he was born for a reason and eventually gets his chance to prove it.
What would it be like to find out that everything you’ve ever known is a sham? The Truman Show is pure fantasy as Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) unknowingly provides entertainment for a vast television audience, just by living his own life. But it’s not really his own, and being an intelligent fellow, he begins to realize that all is not what he’s always thought it to be. Should he continue his existence, where most things seem to go his way, or venture out and see what is on the other side the wall?
In the late 1990s, the world was in the midst of a reflective, thinking period. Perhaps this was because a century was ending, and the dreaded Y2K loomed right around the corner. Thankfully, intelligent movies are still being made today, such as Victoria & Abdul and Loving Vincent to name just a few. And 20 years after that first Netflix DVD shipped, more than three million subscribers still enjoy opening their mailboxes to find the bright red envelopes waiting inside.