Hollywood may have ended 1997 with a sinking ship, but what a spectacular sinking ship it was, breathing new life into an industry that was threatened last year with the rise of the independent film, one of which, “The English Patient,” swept last year’s Academy Awards.
This year, some of the leading contenders for Best Picture came from major studios, suggesting that the heads of those studios finally understood what the independents have known all along: strong, intelligent writing featuring strong, intelligent characters will not only ease the way toward Oscar gold, but also bring audiences back to theaters in record numbers.
1997 was a good year in film that saw us looking beyond our universe into the heavens, where we questioned God, religion, and the role science plays in our collective faith. It showcased societies corrupted by evil, streets terrorized with dinosaurs, voodoo in a small Louisiana town, and two films about Tibetan Buddhism. It also had its share of disappointing resurrections, unnecessary remakes, expensive summer sequels that speeded along the waves of financial ruin, and a film about the porn industry that proved more is only ever more when the director knows how to use his lens.
Still, 1997 almost always offered something worth seeing, which is no small feat when you consider how rare great films have become, and how absolutely necessary they will always be to our culture.
The best films of 1997 are:
1. “Titanic” James Cameron’s magnificent, old-fashioned epic was the summer’s biggest joke before becoming the year’s best film. Slated for summer release, the film’s opening was pushed back six months because director Cameron had a vision and refused to be hurried by nervous accountants worrying about the film’s burgeoning, $200 million budget. The result was PR poison as everyone in the media began condemning the film without first seeing it. Are those same critics now eating their words? Of course not — this is Hollywood, where the world’s most famous ship has been majestically restored in a triumph of storytelling and special effects that left critics in awe — and audiences cheerfully emptying their wallets.
2. “L.A. Confidential” This faithful adaptation of James Ellroy’s dark, jaw-dropping look at 1950s Los Angeles literally has it all — and then some. Drugs, prostitutes surgically made up to look like movie stars, brutally racist cops who may or may not be on the law’s side, gorgeous women and brooding men whose hearts pump nothing but pure testosterone. This smart, clever film never goes for the cliche, always rises above our highest expectations, and packages its significant twists and turns into the year’s most stylish production. This is what Hollywood excelled at in the 1940s with films such as “Double Indemnity,” “Out of the Past,” and “The Blue Dahlia,” and later in 1974 with a little film called “Chinatown.” Raymond Chandler would have been delighted.
3. “Microcosmos” Fifteen years of research, two years of designing special camera technology, three years of filming and six months of editing went into the production of this outstanding film, which is more than simply a celebration of those lives we tend to casually trample upon. Indeed, its brilliance rests in its ability to showcase insects as lower forms of ourselves. When the seven-dotted ladybugs find one another and mate, when the dung beetle triumphs over physics, or when a colony of ants sets off to war, there we are with them, up on the screen, watching a microcosm of our own world play out before our eyes. This cinematic essay on entomology is important not only because it changes the way we think, but also because it helps us to see the larger picture of an infinitely smaller world. And when you think about that, when you consider how this film and these insects have affected you, what we have here is a feat of filmmaking that cannot go unnoticed. Rent it now on video.
4. “Mrs. Brown” Judi Dench’s Queen Victoria is possibly the most difficult, regal and human queen since Bette Davis’ Queen Elizabeth in 1939’s “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.” Like Davis, Dench’s queen counts on deference in every regard, can silence a room with a blistering glance, and whose sharply pounded fist can shake a nation. The film, which opens in 1864, tells the story of Victoria’s long mourning after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, and how she eventually allows an outsider, John Brown (Billy Connolly), to help her resolve her feelings of loss and find her way back to the living. The tightly controlled performances are captivating; the passion that builds between Victoria and Brown, smoldering. Dench’s performance is so strong, she likely will be nominated for an Academy Award.
5. “Eve’s Bayou” Writer-director Kasi Lemmons’ debut film about the secrets and lies within a Louisiana family is among the year’s most affecting — especially as it is told through the troubled eyes of young Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett), who states in the film’s engrossing opening moments: “The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old.” Thus begins a richly atmospheric film about love, deceit, voodoo and lust that recalls the best of Tennessee Williams as it gradually strips away the poisonous layers of a southern family that must come to terms with its womanizing patriarch, Louis, played by Samuel L. Jackson. Lemmons’ direction is so assured, her eye for detail so sharp, she emerges as someone to look for in the future.
6. “Ulee’s Gold” There is an undercurrent in Victor Nunez’s “Ulee’s Gold” that is so subtle, yet so disturbing, at first you cannot put your finger on what it is. But it is powerful, and as the film unfolds, you eventually realize that what is troubling you most is the unsettling truth in Peter Fonda’s superb, haunting performance as Ulysses Jackson, a beekeeper who lives in the Florida panhandle. You know there are men out there like Ulee, good, hard-working men who have been physically and emotionally beaten down by life. You know this film is but a glimpse of what is going on in America today. And you know, just as Ulee knows, that things are getting worse. That Ulee faces his hardships with unflagging strength, dignity and considerable humility is not only moving, but an example through which so much can be learned.
7. “Ponette” Recently, Owen Gleiberman of “Entertainment Weekly” wrote that “French films don’t matter anymore … because most of them suck.” While the sheer eloquence and sublime tact of Mr. Gleiberman’s words cannot be refuted, his opinion certainly can: Jacques Doillon’s “Ponette” is a French film that does not suck. Indeed, it is so good, so moving and so well-acted, that it deserves the Academy’s full attention at this year’s awards. When young Ponette (Victoire Thivisol) survives the car accident that took her mother’s life, she is told sternly by her grief-stricken father that “Mommy’s dead. She was all broken. They couldn’t fix her.” What is a child to do with this knowledge? With heart-breaking results, this extraordinary film explores the many answers from 4-year-old Ponette’s point-of-view.
8. “The Wings of the Dove” Iain Softley’s savvy adaptation of Henry James’ 1902 novel may differ significantly from the book, but as a whole it works, which is all we can ask. Softley’s great achievement is actually creating anything from James’ writing, which tends to coil back on itself even as it unwinds. Take, for instance, the novel’s first sentence: “She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.” The film opens with Kate (Helena Bonham Carter) in an ascending elevator with her lover, Merton (Linus Roache), at her side. But the only thing uncoiling here is the passion in Merton’s pants, which would have left an embarrassed Mr. James shielding his disbelieving eyes.
9. “Contact” Has technology improved our lives? Or has it alienated us from one another by undermining our spiritual faith? And if heaven does exist, is it unique to each person’s conscience? Or is it the place many have always believed it to be, with angels alighting among silver-lined clouds? These are just some of the bigger questions at work in Robert Zemeckis’ fearless interpretation of Carl Sagan’s novel, which follows Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), a brilliant young astronomer who doesn’t believe in God, yet who is determined to find life beyond our solar system. When she does, the discovery leads her to a spiritual awakening that is a direct result of science … which is a nice twist in a film that can now be rented on video.
10. “Shall We Dance?” One of the year’s best and most endearing comedies is the story of Shohei Sugiyama (Koji Yakasyo), a handsome, 40ish Japanese salaryman who works nights in an office and who is bored with his hum-drum existence. But when Shohei glimpses a beautiful, melancholy woman standing at a dance studio window on his way home from work, hope lights his face — is she what his life has been missing? Shohei, who is married, leaves the train to find out, and eventually finds himself taken not only with her, but with the ballroom dancing she teaches. This film’s best moments — and there are many of them — come from watching Shohei and his sidekicks shed their spiritual inhibitions and cut loose on the dance floor. They rumba, they waltz, they tear off dresses in awful missteps. And they prove, at film’s end, that the human spirit can indeed be liberated in a culture that is determined to keep it repressed.
Christopher Smith, a writer and critic who lives in Brewer, reviews films each Monday in the News.