Best Films of 1997

Atom Egoyan, The Sweet Hereafter, 1997
Atom Egoyan, The Sweet Hereafter, 1997
It takes a little time, sometimes, to turn the Titanic around

- Amy Grant

It was a radically uneven year. There were moments of unparalleled beauty and moments of disappointing mediocrity. I started out with a series of my own (shared with Mr. Wotman), which had its own unevenness (evidence of growing pains, I’d like to think), and ended in a classroom watching Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The pressures of presenting a series of films to a paying audience (yes, both at Doc and Rutgers) proved to be as serious as a heartbeat and often exhilarating (Contempt was a hard sell, but worth it). I also felt myself drifting to/from two very different shores: the active, almost obsessive Chicago film culture, and Philadelphia / South(ern New) Jersey’s lackluster — at times self-conscious, at times unapologetic — film scene.

As in the early part of 1996, I found myself immersed in films that you would be hard-pressed to find outside of the classroom: French poetic realism of the 30s, Italian neo-realism of the 1940s-50s, and various achievements of the silent era including Stroheim’s Greed and De Mille’s The Cheat. In the street, I felt a heaviness that I’ve managed to avoid up to this point, the burden of commercialism and the thin taste of obsolescence. Bus posters advertising Starship Troopers, Alien: Resurrection and The Game lacked originality and also, despite of or because of the healthy cash flow, proved just how trite movie-going can be. Critics seemed a bit lost too, sorting through hundreds of films, not sure if they were missing the point or if indeed the tail was wagging the dog. I’ve never felt the vacuity of recycled themes, story-lines, and gestures as much as I have this year. Even the quiet moments in cinema were enveloped by the wake of last year’s “independent” triumph. Films like Ulee’s Gold (which I did not see) might have never made it to the screen or might have held more value in my eyes had they not been sold as the next Sling Blade, or some other fading middle-brow art house success. Of course the mass cultists among us will say that such recycled ballast is what Hollywood does best. Relish the shit, the more the better, perhaps even the more self-aware the better. It’s the end of the century, the millennium. What have we got to lose, let alone to hold on to? In response, I offer the following:

Top 5: 

  1. The Sweet Hereafter
  1. Irma Vep
  1. La Ceremonie
  1. Boogie Nights
  1. Ice Storm

The Sweet Hereafter redeemed an otherwise disappointing year. As I watched it, I felt I was witnessing such a finely-wrought film. Elegant and yet not as icy as some of his earlier work, this film could be Egoyan’s best. If Rosenbaum thinks he bit off more than he should here, I am thankful for the ambition. Truly brilliant.

Regarding the other four, Vep still lingers and mutates in my sub-conscious and Ceremonie gets kudos for a great ending. Boogie Nights and Ice Storm both deal with 70s American culture in one way or another, with varying success (even though Boogie Nights strays into the 80s to accommodate the video age). While the symbolism and overt morality of both were hard to endure at times, their inclusion here is at once evidence of sporadically exciting filmmaking and my relatively short list of first-run outings this year.

Like Jon, I don’t know if people will remember these films in years to come (though I am not convinced that Titanic will be remembered for anything other than its budget, and the fact that Hollywood execs are better at steering clear of imminent disaster than their forebears). This troubles me. The vagaries of indelibility have always been part and parcel to pop culture. My decaying Rolling Stone magazines testify: Steven Speilberg winks at the camera, arms wrapped around E.T., and Harrison Ford smirks from beneath a perfectly weathered brow, coiled whip in hand — images surely a part of our collective (American?) consciousness. And then there are the has-beens and better-left-forgottens, the likes of Lucas’s Howard the Duck and Ron Howard’s Willow, films that surely have a reserved space in the “dustbins of history”. But wait; I tilt the camera slightly, and narrative film transforms into a mature art form with a history of achievements such as Citizen Kane, Vertigo, La Strada, etc. — films that surely shape a canon that even Harold Bloom can’t ignore.

In the thick of it, in the heat of the moment, the here and now of choosing which films touched us most deeply, which films opened our eyes widest, should we keep this history in mind? Should the longevity of our choices concern us? or should we resist such an impulse? Historically speaking, movie-going has mostly been an ephemeral experience, a fleeting impression that never quite satisfies. Today, given the archive of video tape and various digital technologies, the week’s offerings return to us again and again, in different forms, and at different prices. We witness a movie’s gradual, well-orchestrated devaluation from today’s must-see to tomorrow’s clearance special at Target. I am reminded of the torn corners of those bus posters (and the posters in Contempt), and again I am forced to choose between reveling in this transience or to try to hold on to something more lasting.

Best First Reel:  Lost Highway

I recently watched a show on Bravo, The Actor’s Studio, where Mike Nichols claimed that the most crucial part of a film is its opening sequence. As a Twizzler-chomping movie-goer I’d have to agree and admit that the first minutes of a film are often the most defining. The obvious: it sets the tone, sets up expectations, and the like. We settle in, sometimes wait for the credits to get on with it, and then we are either hooked or already frowning. What are some films with great openings? Fargo? Contempt? Touch of Evil? In retrospect, are they great because they are preludes, the beginning of a greater work of art? or do they manage to stand on their own?

Best Summer Flic:  My Best Friend’s Wedding

My indulgence. The summer began in Chicago for me. Then, in Philadelphia, something broke. I wound up avoiding/missing most of the blockbusters (didn’t see MIB or Lost World). I saw Chasing Amy (late?). Went to see Contact with high expectations, which were quickly dashed. Meanwhile, I watched the undying undulations of the ever-saucy Mae West and the stiff Marlene Dietrich (in class). The hot but not too hot days bled into weeks. Maybe I remembered Wedding because of all the Chicago locales. In a certain sense, it felt like this year’s Flirting with Disaster: a riot, great ensemble sequences, and cell phones attached to pretty faces.

Best Repertory:  Ugetsu

My first taste of this inspired director. Like many films that I find especially moving, Ugetsu had a graceful rhythm and delicate pace. A cinema of gestures, Mizoguchi’s style is such that he begs to be deciphered but does so with little more than a nudge.

Most Over-rated:  L.A. Confidential / Cop Land

A dead-heat tie here. Even with Spacey’s screen presence, Confidential was just too referential, even for this tired old post-modern apologist. Every line felt delivered and every shot felt like a part of a how-to noir manual. Cop Land was yet another waste of an incredible cast; but then, aren’t all incredible casts wasted? Beyond that, Cop Land had a promising beginning but then quickly deteriorated into a run-of-the-mill ho-hummer. Machismo moves to Jersey.