Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
1. "Eve's Bayou" This is the astonishingly assured debut film by writer-director Kasi Lemmons, who explores the secrets of a Louisiana family through the not always understanding eyes of a 10-year-old girl (Jurnee Smollett). She has a strong affection for her father, a local doctor--and is jealous when he seems to favor her older sister. The doctor (Samuel L. Jackson) is also a womanizer, and when Eve sees him with a local woman, all sorts of half-understood emotions come churning into her heart. The film evokes a time and place as well as any movie released all year, and it creates vivid characters--for example Eve's aunt (Debbi Morgan), who can foretell everyone's future except for her own. Released with little fanfare on a limited budget, "Eve's Bayou" became the top-grossing art house film of the year, mostly because people told one another about it. It takes us into a realm of poetry and dreams, and shows us how deceptive memory can be. In the way it examines a family's emotional life, it reminded me of the family dramas of Ingmar Bergman.
2. "The Sweet Hereafter"
Atom Egoyan's heartbreaking drama takes place in a small Canadian town in the dead of winter, as a cloud of grief settles over it. Fourteen children are killed in a school bus accident, and a lawyer (Ian Holm) arrives to interview possible clients for a class-action suit. He may seem to some like an ambulance chaser, but he's only going through the motions; his own daughter may die any day from drug abuse, and he shares more with the grieving parents than they know.
Egoyan's story circles around the central fact of the accident, moving back and forth in time as the lawyer and the audience come to know the people in the town. Some of them have secrets that the accident will betray. All have a deep hopelessness, evoked by the film's sad, beautiful cinematography. Egoyan, whose last film was the seductive (and also sad) "Exotica," is a director whose films see human weakness with a special poignancy.
3. "Boogie Nights"
Set in the late 1970s world of X-rated porno films, this ambitious drama by Paul Thomas Anderson wasn't about sex so much as about need: The need to belong, the need to be famous, the need to be part of the Hollywood movie industry--however small and disreputable that part might be. Burt Reynolds, in one of his best performances, plays a pornmaker who discovers a kid (Mark Wahlberg) in a nightclub, and makes him into an X-rated star. The rich supporting cast includes Julianne Moore as Reynolds' companion and frequent star; drugs have lured her away from her husband and family, but here she tries to create a surrogate family, in scenes of tenderness and desperation. "Boogie Nights" was an unsentimental, detached, analytical look at sex films that was a surprise for those anticipating winks and nudges: This was about business and failure, not fantasies.
There was no more beautiful film this year. Makiko Esumi, a fashion model with a quiet grace and introspection, played a woman who loses her husband, raises their baby until he is a small boy, and then marries again--to a man who lives in an isolated fishing village. Ignoring all the conventional ways in which this story could unfold, the movie is about how the woman adjusts to her new life, while she continues to mourn her old one. How and why, exactly, did her young husband, who was so happy with her and their baby, die? She does not know. The director, Hirokazu Kore-Eda, films sequence after sequence with such a sure eye for light and composition that your eyes drink in the screen. His camera is tactful; he tells us what we need to know about this woman, and lets us intuit the rest, in long, silent passages in which she goes about her daily life, or cares for the child, or learns to know her new husband, or simply sits and thinks.
5. Jackie Brown"
The best films in 1997 were sad. Here is the first comedy, a triumphant encore for Quentin Tarantino more than three years after his influential "Pulp Fiction." Pam Grier and Robert Forster, two actors whose careers have been in eclipse, are perfectly cast here--she as a weary stewardess who smuggles money for a gun dealer, he as the bondsman who goes her bail. An unspoken affection grows between them, as Grier improvises a brilliant scam that will prevent the gun dealer (Samuel L. Jackson) from killing her, while separating him from his money.
The movie is based on Rum Punch, a novel by Elmore Leonard, who is known for his dialogue. So is Tarantino, and here they mesh smoothly in a film that is a delight to simply listen to: The characters are savvy, quick and colorful, and they talk in specifics that help establish their personalities. The film's special quality is its sense of freedom over time and space: Unlike most genre characters, these are not limited to plot mechanisms, but can meander, as we circle more widely into the details of their lives.
6. "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control"
Errol Morris's visionary, free-form documentary considers the lives of four people who have dedicated themselves to controlling that which cannot or should not be controlled. There is a lion tamer, whose profession consists in making animals behave contrary to their nature; a topiary gardener, who wants to clip shrubs so they look like animals or geometric designs; a robot designer, who wants machines to move instinctively like animals or people do; and an expert on the naked mole rat, who wants to build habitats in which they will reveal their lifestyle to the patrons. Tying his images together with an evocative sound track, Morris never forces his theme but lets us discover it: When these four lifetimes are over, everything they have accomplished will snap back to the way it was before. And perhaps that's true of all of man's efforts in the face of nature's vast indifference, and the tendency of all things to behave as they are predisposed to.
7. "L. A. Confidential"
Set in the Los Angeles of the 1950s, when lines often crossed between cops, criminals and celebrities, Curtis Hanson's twisted melodrama was about sleaze in the land of dreams. Two young cops (Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe) approach ethics from different viewpoints, but find themselves on the same side in a messy case involving a dead cop, a high-priced call girl ring, and corruption in high places. Kevin Spacey finds the right note as a cop intoxicated by his role as "advisor" to a TV police show, and Danny De Vito has diabolical energy as the publisher of a scandal sheet. Kim Basinger is a beautiful hooker who has the misfortune to fall in love. The film inhabits its period so effortlessly that it seems like a time capsule; the plot reveals layer after layer; the characters are richly drawn, and there is often a thin line between the top and the bottom. (When one cop says a hooker looks like Lana Turner, his partner corrects him: "She (ital) is (unital) Lana Turner.")
No film this year was more cruel or unforgiving. Neil LaBute's hard-edged, perceptive film was about two men in a faceless corporation, who are assigned to an out of town branch office. One (Aaron Eckhart) nurses a special grudge against women, and enlists the other (Matt Malloy) in a plan to play a cruel practical joke on a woman (Stacy Edwards) at the new location--a woman who turns out to be deaf, which only underlines the cruelty.
The dialog is harsh and contemptuous, the scheme is diabolical, and the plot turns out to have more surprises than we, or some of the characters, anticipated. This is the kind of film that demands to be discussed afterwards--or fought about, as the case may be.
What a superb achievement this was! Blending special effects with strong melodrama and an element of docudrama, writer-director James Cameron made a film in the tradition of classic Hollywood epics. His special effects are astonishingly convincing, recreating the Titanic in all her splendor, and then spending more than an hour of screen time on the story of her sinking. But it was an equal technical achievement to tell the story so clearly, thanks to modern characters who set up the sequence of the tragedy so that, when it happens, we're always clear about what is taking place, and why.
10. "Wag the Dog"
Barry Levinson's savage political satire may inspire me to read the papers in a slightly new light. After a U.S. president is caught in a sex scandal, a spin doctor (Robert De Niro) is brought in by the White House, and hires a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to produce a phony international crisis--to distract attention. The details are precise and unforgiving, the dialog is priceless, ironies abound, and at the end we wonder how much could be true, or half-true. Isn't it strange, after all, how modern armed conflicts so quickly generate their song, their symbol, their logo, and their poster child?
At international film festivals, there is always a "Special Jury Prize," sort of a glorified second place. A few years ago I started a similar category. (The five winners include a few films that haven't opened in Chicago yet, but have qualified as 1997 Oscar candidates.)
"Donnie Brasco" centered on Al Pacino's best performance in years, as an aging hood named Lefty who develops a strong affection for a younger man (Johnny Depp) and sponsors him for the Mob--a bad decision, as it turns out. Directed by Mike Newell, it also had effective work by Michael Madsen as Lefty's superior, in a story that made the life of crime seem like a boring, unrewarding and deadly career choice. "Ice Storm" was Ang Lee's bleak drama about families in the Connecticut suburbs in the early 1970s. A companion piece to "Boogie Nights," in a way, it also shows unconvincing family units struggling to hold together against the flood of drugs, sexual license and permissiveness. Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver and Joan Allen were stand-outs.
"Kundun," by Martin Scorsese, told the story of the 14th Dalai Lama from his childhood to his handling of the crisis between Tibet and China. A voluptuously beautiful film, with a lush score by Philip Glass and--unusual for Scorsese--a center of spiritual serenity.
"Oscar and Lucinda," directed by Gillian Armstrong ("My Brilliant Career") and starring Ralph Fines and Cate Blanchett, is based on the brilliant, comic, romantic novel by Peter Carey about a 19th century English clergyman who loves to gamble - -and meets his counterpart in Sydney, Australia. Together, they conceive a mad scheme to float a glass cathedral upriver to the outback.
"Shall We Dance," written and directed by Masayuki Suo, told the story of a Tokyo salaryman who is enchanted by the image of a beautiful woman standing alone in the window of a dance studio. He goes in, signs up for ballroom lessons, and gets more of a life-changing experience than he counted on.
Readers sometimes tell me, "Hey, I haven't even heard of half the films on your year-end list." I tell them, "That's what I'm for. Now you have." Here are ten superb 1997 films that you may have missed if you weren't playing close attention. Some were made on shoestrings, others have stars like Jack Nicholson or Helena Bonham Carter. Look for them at the video store.
"Bang," written and directed by Ash (that's his name) stars Darling Narita (that's her name) as a Japanese-American actress who is hassled by a Los Angeles cop, manages to handcuff him, steals his uniform and motorbike, and spends a day finding out how people treat you when you wear the badge.
"Bliss," written and directed by Lance Young, takes sex seriously, which makes people squirmy, because it senses their fears and secrets. It's grown-up, thoughtful, and surprisingly erotic, and has strong performances by Craig Sheffer and Sheryl Lee, as a couple that seeks help from two very different sex therapists, played by Spalding Grey and Terence Stamp.
"Blood and Wine," directed by Bob Rafelson, contains the best Jack Nicholson performance of the year, more focused and fascinating than "As Good As It Gets." He's a wine dealer who gets involved with an ailing British crook (Michael Caine in one of his best performances) in a theft that goes desperately wrong. Inspired supporting work by Judy Davis, Stephen Dorff and Jennifer Lopez. "Chasing Amy," written and directed by Kevin Smith ("Clerks"), was a joyous job of writing and construction, in a plot that keeps us fascinated by its human dimensions. It's a comedy about two buddies (Ben Affleck and Jason Lee) who write comic books. Affleck falls in love with a woman (Joey Lauren Adams), only to discover she's a lesbian. What to do? Not what you might think, or guess. Evidence that Smith's talent continues to grow.
"Female Perversions" was sort of the other side of the coin from "In the Company of Men." Co-written and directed by Susan Streitfeld, it starred Tilda Swinton ("Orlando") as a successful attorney whose career and sexuality are in unacknowledged conflict. Amy Madigan's supporting performance as her sister casts both women in a strange light, poised between perfection and madness.
"Hard Eight" was one of two wonderful films this year by Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights") and featured a flat-out great performance by that underappreciated actor Philip Baker Hall, as an older man who takes a down-and-out younger one (John C. Reilly) under his wing and shows him the ropes of Reno casinos. Also with Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson.
"Margaret's Museum" starred Helena Bonham Carter in a sad, stunningly beautiful film shot in a 1940s Nova Scotia that looks like a Wyeth painting. She plays a local waitress who marries a young man who serenades her with bagpipes. The house he builds her is a wacky masterpiece; the ending is a heartbreaker.
"Pillow Book" is another of the visually elegant, intellectually challenging films by Peter Greenaway, about a woman named Nagiko (Vivian Wu) who finds a powerful link connecting calligraphy, human flesh, poetry, and sexuality. In a complex plan designed to atone for a loss by her father, she uses parts of the human body to write a book, and prove a point. "Shiloh" was a heartwarming and surprisingly complex story about a boy and his dog -- and family values. It starred Blake Heron as a kid who befriends a dog that an alcoholic neighbor abuses; his father (Michael Moriarity) explains why he has to return the dog, and the movie is like a G-rated seminar in situational ethics. Wonderfully entertaining for all ages -- not just kids.
"The Tango Lesson," written and directed by Sally Potter, stars her as a British director who takes tango lessons from a master (Pablo Veron) and falls almost in love with him, before they quarrel over who should lead. A fascinating study of dance, music, power and sexuality, with one of the year's best scores.
I've just finished teaching a semester of documentaries at the Univ. of Chicago's downtown center, after which we observed that, film for film, a doc is likely to be more fascinating that almost any fiction film. Here are five that prove it. (They are, or soon will be, available on video): "4 Little Girls" was Spike Lee's heart-rending, historically fascinating story of the Birmingham church bombing. Using historical footage and new interviews with parents and other observers, he shows how the deaths of the four little girls was a turning-point in the civil rights movement. "Microcosmos" was a stunningly well-photographed French film about the insect life in a meadow, seen magnified hundreds of times.
"Public Housing," by the cinema verite master Frederick Wiseman, takes us inside Chicago's Ida B. Wells Homes and shows us the problems, the hope, and the human resources in a "project." "Sick, the Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist," by Kirby Dick, tells the story of a cystic fibrosis victim who fought pain with pain; he and his dominatrix lover, Sheree Rose, made works of art out of his suffering. Agonizing unwatchable at times; brutally honest, and with a stubborn wit and courage. "Waco: The Rules of Engagement," by William Gazecki. raises disturbing and so far unanswered questions about the standoff between the feds and the Branch Davidians. Did the FBI lie about its methods? Were all of those deaths necessary? The film uses heat-sensitive aerial footage to show firepower where there shouldn't be any, and makes a strong case against the government's methods.
"Anaconda" was one of the year;s great entertainments, not least because of Jon Voight's wink. "Anastasia" proved that a studio other than Disney could make a good animated feature. Robert Duvall's "Apostle" featured his inspired performance as a man of God who sins, but is redeemed. Robert Zemeckis' "Contact" was the provocative, challenging film about first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, starring Jodie Foster as a radio astronomer. Woody Allen's "Deconstructing Harry" cut close to the bone in a story where the characters say about the hero what some people are saying about him. Judi Dench played Queen Victoria as a woman with a needy heart in "Mrs. Brown," and Billy Connolly was the one man who stood up to her. Gregory Nava's "Selena" starred Jennifer Lopez in a luminous performance as the late Mexican-American singer. "Soul Food," written and directed by George Tillman, Jr., was the surprise hit about an extended black family, their hopes and setbacks, all centering on the rock-solid presence of their "Big Mama" (Irma P. Hall). Victor Nunez' "Ulee's Gold" had that quiet, nuanced performance by Peter Fonda as a Florida beekeeper who kept to himself -- until he couldn't anymore. And Iain Softley's "Wings of the Dove," from the Henry James novel, starred Helena Bonham Carter in the story of a woman who can't afford to marry the man she loves--unless he marries her new friend first.
Here are some of the year's other good films: "Absolute Power," "Amistad," "The Assignment," "Contact," "Crash," "G. I. Jane," "The Game," "Gattaca," "Good Will Hunting," "Kiss the Girls," "Kolya," "Marvin's Room," "Men in Black," "Mimic," "My Best Friend's Wedding," "Night Falls on Manhattan," "Ponette," "Prisoner of the Mountains," "Rosewood," "She's So Lovely," "Smilla's Sense of Snow," "SubUrbia," and "Telling Lies in America." They're mostly on video by now, and so are almost all of the other films on my list.