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Author's Note: This is the fifth year I've done a "year in review" essay, and I'm occasionally asked why I spend so much time on an article that has more breadth than depth. The answer is simple: the intent of this piece is not to present a scholarly or in- depth examination of cinematic concepts and themes in the year gone by, but to lay out one person's impressions of certain trends, and, more importantly, to spark the reader's thoughts by working in as many titles as possible. For anyone who has seen a movie, the mere recitation of its name will conjure up personal images and associations, and it's my hope that this stimulation of the memory will enable readers to gain more from this commentary than what's on the written page.
Is it really New Year's Day again? It doesn't seem long ago that I was writing this column for 1996, lauding the likes of Hamlet and Secrets and Lies. Now, some 250 film later, I'm back at the same place, ready to give my impressions of the year gone by. I made a concerted attempt during late 1997 to see as many "1997" releases as I could (as opposed to leaving a handful until 1998), so this represents my most complete view of a motion picture year to date.
In general, 1997 was similar to 1996. Most of the early year releases weren't much better than cinematic trash, the summer blockbusters were largely disappointing, and the good stuff didn't show up until the October-December time frame (actually, October & December -- November was a terrible month). This was virtually a carbon copy of last year. A more rigorous comparison unearths the following results:
films: 1996, 7; 1997, 5
films: 1996, 42; 1997, 35
films: 1996, 78; 1997, 79
films: 1996, 55; 1997, 48
As you can see, 1996 and 1997 were nearly identical (give or take a half-star here and there), with '96 having a slightly more favorable tally. It's also worth noting that, by perusing the tentative release schedule for 1998, there's no reason to suspect that anything will change during the next 12 months. In another year, I'll probably be writing much the same text in this space.
Some numbers (for anyone who's interested): of the 245 new release (this discounts the dozen or so re-releases), non-festival films I reviewed this year, I would heartily endorse 40 of them (16%), give a solid "thumbs up" to another 79 (32%), and offer qualified recommendations to 48 (20%). Stick the other 32% in a dark hole and forget about them until they show up at 3 am on Cinemax.
In a tradition that seems as old as the Christmas tree, some of the best, brightest lights of 1996 didn't see general release until 1997. I did a pretty good job of catching many of these films in New York City last December, so only a paltry five '96 releases ended up on my 1997 list, and none landed in the Top 10, sparing me the confusion of last year, when Dead Man Walking, a 1995 film, showed up on my "Best of 1996" list.
This year's leftovers were (in descending order of quality): The Whole Wide World, Thieves, Albino Alligator, In Love and War, and The Substance of Fire. Of those five, the only one really worth seeing was The Whole Wide World, a well-modulated romance based on the single great love of pulp writer Robert E. Howard's life. Thieves and Albino Alligator were okay, but nothing special. In Love and War and The Substance of Fire were both significant disappointments -- I'm glad I didn't go out of my way to see either one last winter.
To the best of my knowledge, I'm not missing anything this year, except perhaps a few small films that may never open outside of New York.
This year, we had two pairs of films about the same subject. In past years, we've endured such double vision with the likes of Christopher Columbus, Wyatt Earp, and Robin Hood. In 1997, it was volcanoes and Tibet (two subjects that couldn't possibly be more dissimilar).
The second, better film about the Dalai Lama was Martin Scorsese's Kundun, which opened only in New York and Los Angeles by year's end. A lyrical film that oozed atmosphere, Kundun cared little about traditional film elements like plot and character. As a travelogue, it was superlative; as a drama, it was adequate That's more than can be said for Jean Jacques Annaud's Seven Years in Tibet, however, which was undermined by the miscasting of Brad Pitt in the lead role. Seven Years was filled with gorgeous scenery and not-so-gorgeous scenery-chewing. So, while neither Dalai Lama film was an unqualified success, the presence of two such movies in the marketplace indicates how hot the exiled spiritual leader is these days.
And, speaking of hot, the first half of 1997 featured dueling volcanoes. Scientists agreed that Dante's Peak showcased a far more plausible scenario than Volcano, but movie fans were split about which afforded more bang for the buck. I came down on the side that favors Volcano, the more entertaining pure disaster movie of the two. Volcano was a lot of fun, from the spectacle of seeing Beverly Hills vanish under an ever-growing pool of lava to the enjoyability of watching Tommy Lee Jones playing the action hero. By comparison, Dante's Peak wasn't nearly as pleasing. In fact, with its "the dog must survive at all costs" subplot, it was rather idiotic. (Note: this does not mean that I'm endorsing Volcano as a literary masterpiece. I'm simply saying that it was better written than its competition.)
I wonder how many people will be surprised to learn that Star Wars was among the top money makers of 1997. With the exception of a few minutes of newly-added footage, that's the same Star Wars that debuted 20 years ago (and, as a result of this latest re-release, is now the all-time money making champion). Enough has been written about the film's resurgence in popularity, so I won't bother re-hashing it here, but the unexpected 1997 box office success of George Lucas' space opera has industry experts wondering just how much money Chapter One might pull in when it finally hits screens in 1999. The other two films in the Star Wars saga, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi did respectable business, but didn't match the performance of their older sibling.
Still, the profitability of these films has led to a resurgence in the popularity of re-releases, especially for "anniversaries." This practice has been going on for a long time, of course, but when Star Wars '97 crossed the $100 million mark, the studios took notice. This year saw the 10th year return of Dirty Dancing, a cleaned-up print of the brilliant Le Samourai, a version of Das Boot that added 60 minutes to the 1982 masterpiece, and a limited engagement of The Godfather on its 25th birthday. Next year promises more of the same, starting out with a new print of Grease, which will be 20 years old.
Unlike George Lucas, who added a few scenes here and there to already-existing movies, Disney frequently takes things a step further and completely redoes them. Unfortunately, the studio has fallen into the bad habit of making just about every other release a second edition. Of course, even Disney couldn't resist bringing back an old favorite without alterations. Ariel, The Little Mermaid, returned to the big screen for a second engagement this fall.
There were a few original Disney films this year: Air Bud, Rocket Man, and the animated Hercules come to mind. (The criteria for being included in that short list is "original" not "enjoyable.") But the studio's highest-grossing offering was George of the Jungle, a live- action version of an old TV cartoon. Mr. Magoo received similar treatment, albeit in a much less entertaining fashion. During 1997, Disney also regurgitated That Darn Cat, Little Indian Big City (as Jungle2Jungle), and The Absent Minded Professor (which was renamed Flubber). One of the most unpleasant things to note about all these remakes is that practically none were any good. It would be easier for the Mouseketeers to justify all of this rehashing if they were actually turning out a quality product.
It happened to Jane Austen. It happened to William Shakespeare. Now it has happened to Henry James, albeit without the same degree of fanfare and on a smaller scale. Still, for an author as difficult to translate into film as James, it was something of a surprise to see two adaptations of his novels on screens this year (and neither was named The Turn of the Screw). The first, more literal film was based on Washington Square and featured Jennifer Jason Leigh in the lead role. The second, more haunting movie was The Wings of the Dove, which kept the themes and ideas of the book alive while changing the approach. Both pictures were worthwhile, especially for anyone who appreciates the classic author's work.
This year's honorary "Demi Moore as Hester Prynne Award" (worst motion picture based on a classic novel) went to Anna Karenina. Although the latest adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's romantic tragedy retained most of the book's minor characters and subplots, it reduced the emotional aspect of the story to soap-operish melodrama. Lead actress Sophie Marceau was delightful in Braveheart; here, she was boring.
Sequels and return engagements were just as prevalent in 1997 as in any other year. Disappointingly, most were unpromising affairs. Sadly, the best sequel to arrive in the past two years was probably 1996's Star Trek: First Contact, which didn't manage better than an enthusiastic . That, more than anything, says something about the current state of the sequel market. Viewers pay, but the film makers don't invest a great deal of creativity into them.
This year featured three decent sequels: The Lost World (despite being roundly panned by critics, I still think this one isn't a great deal worse than the first Jurassic Park), Scream 2, and Tomorrow Never Dies. Each member of this trio had its weaknesses, but the familiarity of the characters and situations outweighed the negatives. Not so for the rest of the year's crop of returning friends and foes.
The big-budget sequel disasters were Batman and Robin and Speed 2, both of which would make dubious choices for video movies, and certainly weren't worth plunking down money to see in theaters. Slightly less costly blunders included Home Alone 3 and An American Werewolf in Paris. Interestingly, neither of those movies featured anything from their predecessors aside from than the name and the concept. Alien Resurrection made us wonder whether there's any new territory left for the long- lasting series to mine. The worst sequel of 1997 by far was Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, a sure-fire Bottom 10 entry. This was one of those rare movies that almost provoked a walk-out from me.
Although not technically sequels, a couple of action stars showed up again in fairly typical roles. One was welcome; the other wasn't. Jackie Chan returned with First Strike, an inferior effort that nevertheless featured some memorable stunts and enjoyable moments. Steven Seagal, however, turned out another predictably dreadful film with Fire Down Below. In addition to kicking butt, Seagal decided to transform this awful motion picture into an extended sermon about the evils of polluting the environment.
Although 1997 featured a few traditional romantic comedies ('Til There Was You, Love and Other Catastrophes, The Matchmaker, Picture Perfect), most of the year's kisses were accompanied by some sort of atypical twist. Chasing Amy told the tale of a twentysomething man hopelessly infatuated with his lesbian best friend. The film, written by hot writer/director Kevin Smith, was not as funny as his debut feature, Clerks, but displayed a maturity and intelligence that the earlier film lacked. Hugo Pool, the latest from indie icon Robert Downey Sr., explored a love affair between a dying, paralyzed man and a pool cleaner. Addicted to Love was a romance wrapped in a revenge fantasy. My Best Friend's Wedding dared to challenge the age-old tradition that the lead actress must always get the actor. As Good as It Gets had one of the nastiest men alive (played by Jack Nicholson) as the main character, with a frumpy Helen Hunt as the object of his obsessive/compulsive desires. Love Serenade, an Australian import, satirized romantic comedies in a story that had two sisters competing for the affections of a slimy, heartless radio DJ. Love! Valour! Compassion! brought the popular play, about life, love, and loss in the gay community, to the screen. For Roseanna showed the sacrifices a man made to ensure that his still-living wife had a chance for a prime grave plot. Danny Boyle's disappointing A Life Less Ordinary chronicled the development of an emotional bond between a kidnapper and his victim (the Alicia Silverstone vehicle, Excess Baggage, had a similar storyline). Sprung and Love Jones were a pair of African American romantic comedies.
The summer of 1996, with its powerhouse trio of Twister, Mission: Impossible, and Independence Day, was a difficult act to follow, and 1997 didn't do a very good job. The most-seen movie of the summer was the delightfully quirky comedy, Men in Black. Second place went to The Lost World (which underperformed following a stunning $90+ million opening weekend). Beyond that, there were a few other winners: My Best Friend's Wedding, Contact, Face/Off, and Air Force One. Despite nearly making $100 million, Disney's Hercules was considered a disappointment. Many of the supposed summer blockbusters failed to meet expectations, including Con Air, Speed 2, Conspiracy Theory, Fathers' Day, The Fifth Element, and Batman and Robin. Overall, box office performance was down this summer from last year. Aside from perhaps MIB, there weren't any "must see" events.
As the year drew to a close, there were two periods of quality film releases. The first, in October, brought forth the likes of Gattaca, Fairy Tale, Eve's Bayou, L.A. Confidential, The Ice Storm, Boogie Nights, and 4 Little Girls. The second was the annual Christmas rush. In between came November, a month that had only one worthwhile release: Anastasia. Highlighted by the likes of Flubber and Alien Resurrection, this Thanksgiving proved that you can get turkeys as easily in theaters as at home on the dinner table.
The Christmas rush in stores might begin the day after Thanksgiving, but this year, in theaters, it started on December 12. That was the day Miramax Films launched Scream 2, the first sequel to the hugely popular 1996 hit, Scream. And, while mid-December might seem like an odd time for a horror movie (as opposed to October), the Wes Craven-directed picture justified the release date by pulling in one of the largest-ever December openings. Playing opposite Scream 2 in some multiplexes was Steven Spielberg's Amistad, his "apology" for The Lost World. The film, which focused on the meaning and nature of freedom, opened wider over the next several weeks.
December 19 saw the battle of the titans: Tomorrow Never Dies, the 18th outing for James Bond, versus Titanic, James Cameron's 194-minute, $200+ million epic. It was a battle that Titanic won, both creatively and financially. Not only was this film one of the best of the year, but it managed to pull in approximately $1 million more than the Bond film - an impressive feat considering that, because of Titanic's running length, most theaters could screen only three shows per day. That's not to say that Tomorrow Never Dies wasn't good; in fact, it was the best Bond in years. It just wasn't up to Titanic's level.
The majority of the Christmas releases were worthwhile. Two top 10 entries, The Sweet Hereafter and Wag the Dog, opened. As Good as It Gets, starring Jack Nicholson as one of the nastiest men in the world, was an entertaining romantic comedy. Deconstructing Harry, with Woody Allen as the other nastiest man in the world, was profane, acerbic, and very funny. Good Will Hunting gave us our best "feel good" feature of the season. Jackie Brown brought back Quentin Tarantino after a three year absence. While the energy wasn't all there, the film still offered two and one- half hours of solid entertainment. Oscar and Lucinda gave us December's most heartfelt romance. The Apostle, written, directed, and starring Robert Duvall, brought its stirring portrait of a religious man into limited New York and Los Angeles release. Martin Scorsese's Kundun, also another NY and LA exclusive, told the story of the Dalai Lama without Brad Pitt.
Not everything was good. There was Kevin Costner's ego epic, The Postman, which turned author David Brinn's science fiction story into an exercise in camp. An American Werewolf in Paris proved that there are some movies that even Julie Delpy can't redeem. And Mr. Magoo managed the difficult feat of disappointing even little children.
It was a slow year for documentaries. Only two truly stood out. The first, 4 Little Girls, was Spike Lee's first attempt at a non-narrative film. The emotionally-wrenching movie told the story of the four little girls who died as a result of the 1963 bombing of a black church in Alabama. The second, Errol Morris' Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, used interviews with four very different men to illustrate a common theme - that man, no matter how great his hubris, will never completely master nature. Last year's Best Documentary, When We Were Kings (about the Ali/Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle"), received widespread distribution in 1997. The winner of the Sundance Film Festival documentary prize, Girls Like Us, an average tale of the struggles of several South Philadelphia girls, got some exposure. There was also Jim Jarmusch's dreadful Year of the Horse, which only a Neil Young die-hard could appreciate.
1997's foreign film crop was fatter than that of 1996, which was a refreshing reversal of the trend of the past few years. Most of the entries came from France, but there were also releases from Japan, China, Georgia (the republic, not the state), the Czech Republic, Russia, Sweden, Bosnia, and India. Although no foreign films placed in my Top 10 (an unusual occurrence), there were a number of memorable pictures. A Single Girl (officially first released in some North American theaters during 1996) was a wonderful, real-time exploration of a young woman's first morning of work at a top Paris hotel. When the Cat's Away, a semi- documentary, introduced a rich group of supporting characters while chronicling Chloe's attempts to find her lost cat. A Self-Made Hero used satire to examine France's ambivalence about the country's role in World War II.
Other French films reaching these shores: Irma Vep, a biting satire on the French film industry; La Promesse, an examination of a father/son relationship; Beaumarchais, the Scoundrel, a biopic of the writer of "The Barber of Seville" and "The Marriage of Figaro"; Diary of a Seducer, a witty black comedy; La Ceremonie, a gothic mystery based on a Ruth Rendell novel; Ma Vie en Rose, a gender bender about a boy who thinks he'll grow up to be a girl; Nenette and Boni, Claire Denis' thoughtful, careful exploration of the bonds between siblings; Ponette, the story of a little girl coping with the death of her mother; and Thieves, Andre Techine's disappointing follow-up to Wild Reeds.
Looking to other countries, there was Fire (India), an emotionally-powerful lesbian romance; Kolya (Czech Republic), the 1996 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner about a young boy and an older man; Pretty Village, Pretty Flame (Bosnia), a brutal look at war; Jerusalem (Sweden), a study of the power of religion for good and evil; Prisoner of the Mountains (Russia), a tale about the folly of racial intolerance; Shall We Dance? (Japan), a film that uses ballroom dancing as a representation of life; Temptress Moon (China), Chen Kaige's disappointing follow-up to Farewell My Concubine; and A Chef in Love (Georgia), about love, food, and war.
Last year, one of my most overrated films was Fargo. I took a lot of heat for that opinion, and a few people misinterpreted my feelings about the film. It's not that I didn't like Fargo (I did); it's that I thought it received too many accolades. This year, I have similar feelings about four films: The Full Monty, Shall We Dance?, Good Will Hunting, and As Good as It Gets. I gave all of these movies , which means that I enjoyed and recommended them. For various reasons, however, these four pictures became associated with the overused word "masterpiece." Sorry, but I can't agree with that assessment. Each lacked at least one critical element necessary to elevate it from the level of quality entertainment to that of a modern classic.
The biggest movie of the late summer was Air Force One, a preposterous, high-flying thriller that turned the President of the United States (played by Harrison Ford) into an action hero. For some inexplicable reason, despite the predictable plot and underwritten script, this motion picture captured the public's fancy. Similarly, Jim Carrey's Liar Liar got better press than it probably deserved. The film was inconsistently amusing, and certainly not one of 1997's top comedies. I Know What You Did Last Summer parlayed its "written by Kevin Williamson" (the scribe of the Scream movies) credit into a big box office take, even though the movie could best be described as uninspired.
The independent market suffered its share of overrated films, as well. Perhaps the biggest was David Cronenberg's Crash, which explored the relationship between car accidents and sex. The movie was advertised as being adventurous and cutting-edge, but turned out to be cold and lifeless. Sure, there was a lot of nudity, but that didn't liven things up. Crash was boring. A couple of other indie entries, Gravesend and Kiss or Kill, failed to impress me, despite overwhelmingly positive advance word. Both tried desperately to be quirky and offbeat, and, as a result, came across as contrived.
For me, however, the most overrated movie of the year had to be the thriller Breakdown, which starred Kurt Russell as a stranded motorist searching for his wife. A hard-to-swallow action/mystery set in the middle of nowhere, Breakdown started out solidly, then completely fell apart. Quite a few reviewers compared this movie to the works of Alfred Hitchcock, which made me wonder if they'd actually seen anything by the late film maker. Hitchcock understood suspense; after its first half-hour, Breakdown doesn't have a single legitimate moment of it. The movie is so contrived and predictable that, at times, it almost seemed like a parody of the genre rather than a serious entry.
For every overrated movie, there were several underrated ones. These are films that, for one reason or another, weren't favored by mainstream critics or performed so poorly at the box office that they quickly disappeared. Many are already available on video.
Arguably, the best children's film of 1997 was also one of the most poorly-attended. I'm referring to Fairy Tale: A True Story, a late-year, live-entry feature from Paramount Pictures that came and went with little more than a whimper despite pretty good notices from a large contingent of critics. It was a magical motion picture that deserved to find a more substantial audience than the one that discovered it.
The Locusts, a steamy noir mystery starring Vince Vaughn and Ashley Judd, received a critical drubbing, but I thought the atmospheric melodrama was both effective and involving. Angel Baby, an Australian production, was a fascinating examination of the romance between two mentally ill adults. Paradise Road used music as a means of healing and redemption in a World War II prisoner of war camp for women. Career Girls was Mike Leigh's underappreciated follow-up to Secrets and Lies. Fierce Creatures, despite a pointless plot, had more laughs per minute than 90% of the year's comedies. Gridlock'd offered two terrific performances (by Tupac Shakur and Tim Roth) in an offbeat buddy movie. Kissed managed the amazing task of dealing with necrophilia in an non-exploitative way. Love Jones, one of the favorite films emerging from 1997's Sundance Film Festival, was one of only a few African American romances. Switchback was an energetic mystery/thriller that succeeded in a way that Breakdown never did. And, despite being raked across the coals by nearly every critic from Florida to California, Oliver Stone's U-Turn had a level of audaciousness and energy that I appreciated.
Sometimes, it's almost more fun examining the Bottom 10 than the Top 10. So here, in reverse order (best of the worst to worst of the worst, with #1 being the worst), are the least watchable films of 1997. (Actually, I've cheated -- there are 11 films here.)
10. (Tie). Red Corner: Richard Gere decided to apply his Hollywood clout to make a movie that criticizes Red China's legal system. Two problems: he used a corny, badly-written script, and he chose to appear in front of the camera. No amount of righteous indignation could disguise such an embarrassing display of hammy acting.
10. (Tie). Mr. Magoo: Based on the '60s cartoon of the same name, this movie defines the term "unfunny". Despite endless attempts at lame, physical humor, Mr. Magoo manages the difficult feat of never once being funny, intentionally or unintentionally. This isn't just one of the worst films of the year, it's one of the most boring.
9. Masterminds: Patrick Stewart must have needed the money. How else is it possible to explain his appearance in this idiotic amalgamation of Toy Soldiers and Die Hard. In fact, Stewart is the only one in this film who isn't painful to watch, but, even if he was in every scene (which he certainly isn't), it wouldn't be enough to redeem this loser.
8. Jungle 2 Jungle: Last year, Little Indian, Big City, a dumb French comedy about a "jungle boy" coming to live with his father in Paris, made the Bottom 10. Disney, apparently oblivious to how bad the movie was, quickly remade it, with a change of venue and actors (Tim Allen took over as Dad). Predictably, the result isn't much better. The film has one of those screenplays that makes you wonder whether many Hollywood writers graduated from high school.
7. The Beautician and the Beast: Fran Drescher in a big-screen romantic comedy. The voice alone makes you wonder if she was supposed to be Beauty or the Beast. This would have been the most irritating movie of the year if it hadn't been for...
6. McHale's Navy: This is arguably the worst big-screen TV show remake not only of the year, but of all time. Starring the usually obnoxious Tom Arnold at his worst, this film has nothing to recommend it, even to fans of the original series. Hollywood retreads don't sink any lower than this one.
5. Wishmaster: A painfully bad reworking of "The Monkey's Paw", Wishmaster attempted to cash in on the new popularity of horror movies, even going so far as hype Wes Craven's minimal involvement. Not even the best ad campaign in the world could save this unimaginative gore-fest. This is the kind of motion picture that reminds one why the slasher genre died out.
4. Meet Wally Sparks: Given the right project, Rodney Dangerfield can be a very funny man. Meet Wally Sparks, a sophomoric, laughless comedy, is not the right project. Dangerfield's signature line is that he doesn't get any respect, and, at least for doing this particular movie, he doesn't deserve any.
3. Mortal Kombat: Annihilation: In some ways, it's hard to believe that this lifeless exercise in martial arts tedium isn't the worst movie of the year. The film replaces plot and characters with repetitive, pointless action sequences. It might have been moderately amusing if hadn't been so boring.
2. The Pest: I'm sure someone found this film appealing, but not me. Aside from featuring the worst performance this side of a Pauly Shore movie, The Pest's stupid mix of failed comedy and incoherent plotting marks it as one of the few films I have labeled as "unwatchable."
1. The Year of the Horse: Possibly the worst documentary ever made, The Year of the Horse is director Jim Jarmusch's homage to Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Be warned: unless you're a rabid fan of the band, this movie is likely to either drive you from the theater or put you to sleep. It's badly filmed, doesn't offer any interesting insights, and succeeds in reducing Young's passionate performances to muddled rubbish.
Here they are, in reverse order. #11-20 are presented without commentary.
20. Hugo Pool
19. Hollow Reed
17. In & Out
16. All Over Me
15. Ulee's Gold
14. The Wings of the Dove
12. Waiting for Guffman
11. When the Cat's Away
10. Wag the Dog: One of the best satires about movie-making and Hollywood since Robert Altman's The Player, Wag the Dog ups the ante by adding a vicious look behind the scenes of what goes on in American politics. Filmed in less than four weeks on a low-budget by director Barry Levinson, Wag the Dog ranks as one of the year's freshest, most inventive comedies. It's one of those rare movies that's funny and thought-provoking at the same time.
9. Chasing Amy: The third installment in Kevin Smith's New Jersey Trilogy, Chasing Amy is also the film maker's best movie to- date. Fresh, hip, and smart, the film not only features plenty of Smith's clever dialogue and irreverent humor, but adds an emotional layer that was not evident in either Clerks or Mallrats. The romance between a straight comic book writer (Ben Affleck) and a lesbian (Joey Lauren Adams) is presented with great humor and sensitivity, and proves that Smith is capable of much more than writing compelling conversations.
8. Boogie Nights: A examination of the porn industry in the late-'70s and early-'80s, Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights works not only as a character study but as an overview of the way America changed in the space of a short decade. Filled with memorable performances and expertly-directed sequences, and possessing a great soundtrack, Boogie Nights represents one of the most challenging of 1997's releases.
7. L.A. Confidential: The best of this year's film noir entries, L.A. Confidential is unique not only because of the strength of its atmosphere and the intelligence of its writing, but because of the complexity of the three main characters. Directed by Curtis Hanson, this is one of those rare examples of film noir that is aided, not abetted, by being filmed in color. The production standards are top notch, and the movie is a triumph on both creative and technical levels.
6. Mrs. Brown: The best love story of the year, John Madden's Mrs. Brown features two older characters whose deeply-felt, powerfully-realized relationship never develops beyond the platonic stage. In Oscar-worthy performances, Judi Dench plays Queen Victoria and Billy Connelly is Mr. Brown, the man she comes to rely upon for stability and common-sense advice. For me, this was one of the most emotionally-satisfying of any of 1997's films.
5. In the Company of Men: Neil LaBute's debut feature is a disturbing, uncompromising look at the darker side of the war between the sexes. In the Company of Men isn't concerned with presenting sympathetic characters in familiar situations. The film's strength is that it takes chances, most of which pay off handsomely. Plus, there's a final twist in the narrative that allows us to re-examine the entire movie in a different light. Provoking and startling, In the Company of Men is strictly for those who don't demand a "feel good" story.
4. Contact: One of only two films this year that use special effects in service of a story (rather than the other way around), Contact initially appears to be yet another story about mankind's first encounter with an alien race. The core of the film, however, is far more substantial, philosophical, and compelling , centering on issues like the existence of God, the importance of faith, and the continuing need of human beings to expand their horizons. Directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jodie Foster, Contact takes a seemingly-simple premise and develops a transcendent motion picture.
3. The Ice Storm: It's New England during the early 1970s - a setting that director Ang Lee recaptures with uncanny accuracy (despite the fact that he never experienced the United States first hand during the time period). The Ice Storm deconstructs a dysfunctional American family, displaying a rich tapestry that uses satire, drama, and tragedy to present a potent message. Filled with unique, three-dimensional characters trekking through a believable story, The Ice Storm opens a window on an engrossing world.
2. Titanic: The other movie that uses spectacular, state-of-the-art special effects to enhance the story, James Cameron's Titanic will not just be remembered as the most expensive movie of 1997, but as one of the most creatively successful as well. Big, bold, and grand, the film anchors us to the characters through a relatively-simple love story, then launches one of the most exciting and engrossing final hours of any recent movie, as we follow the ocean liner's infamous sinking. Titanic is Hollywood movie-making at its best, and proves that big-budget pictures can still be rousing triumphs when writing, directing, and acting don't take a back seat to visual effects.
1. The Sweet Hereafter: From the moment I saw this film in November, there was no question in my mind that it would rank #1 for the year. The Sweet Hereafter is one of those extremely rare movies that stayed with me for days after I saw it, its haunting music and images being replayed in my mind. It's hard to overstate the devastating impact of this poignant film. If director Atom Egoyan makes a misstep anywhere in the nearly two-hour production, I can't find it. An emotionally-wrenching and intellectually-demanding exploration of the effects of grief on a small Canadian community, The Sweet Hereafter is haunting, eloquent, and proves just how impressive a motion picture can be.
Next: "Who Should Be Nominated"
© 1998 James Berardinelli