"Reeling in the Year"
The Scene's best of 1997.
By Jim Ridley, Noel Murray, and Donna Bowman
JANUARY 12, 1998:
1997 may not have been a good year for great movies, but it was a great
year for good movies. No one film dominated the year the way Pulp
Fiction did in 1994, despite entries from a stellar crop of directors:
Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Tarantino, Woody Allen, John Woo, Spike Lee,
Mike Leigh, Wong Kar-wai, Atom Egoyan, James Cameron, Jackie Chan, Errol
Morris. At the same time, 1997 moviegoers stood a remarkably good chance of
finding well-crafted popular entertainment at the neighborhood multiplex.
Most interesting was the way Hollywood rebounded from 1996's Year of the
Indie, when sort-of outside projects like Fargo and The English Patient
outshone their lumbering major-studio competition. This year, the indies
largely foundered in waves of trendiness, self-indulgence, and irrelevance,
while artistic bull's-eyes such as L.A. Confidential and Face/Off were
scored entirely within the mainstream. It said a lot about 1997, both good
and bad, that the year's most uncompromising independent vision required
the manpower of two major studios and upwards of $200 million. And yet
several sterling smaller films last year found or are finding a deserved
audience. These, and more, are the best movies of 1997.
- The Sweet Hereafter. A school-bus crash in a small Canadian
town shatters lives--and time itself--in Atom Egoyan's profoundly
disturbing drama, filmed in audaciously fragmented style.
- Titanic. OK, so it has the howler of the movie year 1997: Kate
Winslet chirping, "This is where we met!" as the ship tanks. Let it never
be said that James Cameron won't risk looking foolish--which is why this
titanic gamble pays off with fearless conviction, a romance all the more
touching for being utterly cornball, and about a dozen of the most
indelible images I've ever seen at the movies.
- L.A. Confidential. Light on self-referential fanboy cool,
heavy on atmosphere, character, and incident, this is what crime-dramas
were like before film-noir revivalism: tough, unfussy, and ferocious.
- Face/Off. Persona with assault weapons. John Woo's
mind-boggling tale of detached psyches has its own split personality--it's
a surreal examination of self and identity, dense with spiritual and
psychological symbolism. It's also the wildest kick-ass action flick since
Woo's own Hard-Boiled.
- The Apostle. From moment to moment, no American movie this
year seemed as volatile and alive as Robert Duvall's exquisite, hugely
entertaining dream project, in which a fugitive man of God seeks rebirth in
an abandoned Louisiana parish.
- La Promesse. A heartbreaking slice of Belgian neo-realism, in
which a teenage boy's awakening conscience forces him to choose between
saving an immigrant family and obeying his brutish father.
- Hard Eight. As taut and controlled as his Boogie Nights
was sprawling and dissolute, Paul Thomas Anderson's gripping character
study of an aging Reno gambler had the year's most incisive original
- 4 Little Girls/Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. Two superb
documentaries that enrich and expand the form: Spike Lee's methodical,
deeply felt examination of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that murdered
four children, and Errol Morris' dizzying free-association riff on man's
attempt to shape his destiny and environment.
- Waiting for Guffman. Christopher Guest's hilarious,
pitch-perfect minor gem about the 150th-anniversary historical pageant in
tiny Blaine, Mo., a city whose chief claims to fame are UFO landings and a
brush with President McKinley.
- Donnie Brasco. A convincingly low-key portrait of
middle-management mob life, sparked by Al Pacino's most inspired work in
years, by a riveting Johnny Depp, and by ace screenwriter Paul Attanasio's
piquant lessons in lowlife semantics.
Special Prize: To Emir Kusturica's astonishing, inexhaustible 1995 epic
Underground, which finally received a modest U.S. release after two
years, and to the reissue of Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai--two
of the moviegoing thrills of my year.
Honorable Mentions: Breakdown, Eve's Bayou, The Full
Monty, Irma Vep, Shall We Dance?, The Wings of the
- The Ice Storm. A moment in time--suburban America at the
threshold of an unwieldy new era of sexual liberation--frozen so tightly
that it cracks.
- Hard Eight/Boogie Nights. Paul Thomas Anderson's two 1997
offerings both fall short of greatness, but each contains scenes that are
as tense, funny, and wise as anything in the history of cinema.
- The Wings of the Dove. A bittersweet romance, wherein two
callow lovers toy with the affections of a dying heiress and inadvertently
bring her joy while cursing themselves.
- Donnie Brasco. A witty character study about the low-rent
pathos of small-time hoods and the glorified meter maids who bring them to
- Waiting for Guffman. For everyone who ever took high-school
drama or lived in a small town, this sharp, very human comedy should strike
- L.A. Confidential. A smart updating of Chinatown,
wherein it's not power that corrupts, but our whole damn system; to get
along in a soiled world, everyone has to get a little dirty.
- The Apostle. As writer, director, and star, Robert Duvall
delves deeply into his struggling man of faith and shows that what matters
is the faith, not the struggle.
- Titanic. Yes, there are flaws, but only because art on a
massive scale is bound to have obvious lapses; James Cameron's pricey
recreation is so detailed that when the water starts rising, we understand
exactly what has been lost.
- Eve's Bayou. A rich, satisfying meditation on the way memory
is only one small method of understanding the truth of a situation; Kasi
Lemmons' filmmaking debut has enough voodoo, heartbreak, and tainted
opulence to fill a fine novel...or one very good movie.
- Deconstructing Harry. A corrosive antidote to James L.
Brooks' overpraised, overly cute As Good As It Gets. Brooks' film is
funny and charming, but Woody Allen's is just as funny and--in its loose,
structure-bending, highly profane way--far more honest about what happens
to egotistical artists.
Special Prize: Two of the best films of the year were made for TV--TNT's
refreshingly complex biography George Wallace and Hallmark's
luminous, compassionate adaptation of Faulkner's Old Man.
Honorable Mentions: Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, Grosse
Pointe Blank, Jackie Brown, The Sweet Hereafter, and
- The Apostle. The year's most personal film is not just a tour
de force for director, writer, and star Robert Duvall. It's also an honest
and uplifting portrayal of religious conviction--riveting, heartbreaking,
Show of faith Robert Duvall gives the performance of the year in
The Apostle--one of 1997's finest movies
Photo by Van Redin
- Ulee's Gold. 1997 had many quiet, small stories, but this
retelling of The Odyssey in a Florida swamp stands out for its
performances, haunting images, and believable motivations.
- Mrs. Brown. Judi Dench plays Queen Victoria as the woman we
all hope to be or to find--strong, vulnerable, and deserving of love. Billy
Connolly, as her servant Brown, revives true chivalry while modern politics
mocks them both.
- The Ice Storm. Ang Lee's penetrating insight into America's
attempt to erase its past demonstrates that tradition lives on in human
nature, no matter how much external mores change.
- Donnie Brasco. Alongside Tarantino's reinterpretations of the
crime genre, there is still room for tightly focused portraits of the mob's
old guard; the passing face of our shared dirty secret is starkly visible
in Al Pacino.
- The Wings of the Dove. The most romantic movie of the year has
no easy answers for its lovers--just the understanding that sacrifice is a
- Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. Errol Morris makes a
documentary that rattles around in the brain for days after viewing,
recombining images and words until his movie is almost a life form of its
- L.A. Confidential. It's rare that such consummate
entertainment needs no apology. Curtis Hanson's tangled plot emanates from
the dark secrets of its characters and their society.
- Jackie Brown. This love letter to Pam Grier's aging stewardess
and Robert Forster's businesslike bail bondsman gets right what Boogie
Nights fumbles: smart, sympathetic characters.
- Waiting for Guffman. I savor every crumb Christopher Guest
throws the audience's way, and this is a full buffet of small-town spirit
and belly laughs.
Honorable Mentions: Addicted to Love, Amistad, The
Edge, Night Falls on Manhattan, Starship Troopers.
Jim: Robert Duvall in The Apostle gives the performance of the year,
period. But very nearly as good were John Travolta and Nicolas Cage in
Face/Off; both men turned a game of mirrors into an exuberant duel of
acting styles. Sean Penn blazed before the third-act burnout of She's So
Lovely, and Ian Holm imbued his ambulance-chasing lawyer with a father's
broken tenderness in the marvelous The Sweet Hereafter. The best
performance nobody saw: the great Philip Baker Hall's guarded gambler in
Noel: Robert Duvall closes The Apostle by leading a
20-minute church service and showing the divine contentment behind a
seemingly desperate character, while Peter Fonda's Ulee in Ulee's
Gold has been sad so long that every deliberate gesture traces a
lifetime of disappointment. Al Pacino's doomed mobster in Donnie
Brasco is aware enough to strip himself of valuables before facing the
inevitable. And Mike Myers does a wicked Lorne Michaels impression as Dr.
Evil, upstaging his own groovy performance as Austin Powers.
Donna: Through quiet observation, Johnny Depp holds the screen
against one of filmdom's most charismatic presences in Donnie
Brasco. The magnetic Vincent D'Onofrio was larger than life without an
audience in The Whole Wide World, and petty in the face of death in
his guest role on TV's Homicide. Kurt Russell redefines the action
hero as a desperately improvising Everyman in Breakdown. And John
Turturro sums up his life in signed, dated aphorisms in the charming Box
Jim: Pam Grier was handed the part of a lifetime in Jackie Brown, and
she wore it like a crown of tough, weary dignity. Julianne Moore's maternal
porn queen Amber Waves and Heather Graham's lost Rollergirl punctured
Boogie Nights' precious portrayal of adult filmmaking. Helena Bonham Carter
smashed her porcelain-doll persona as The Wings of the Dove's calculating
heroine. And while the conflicts of As Good As It Gets were blatantly
manufactured, Helen Hunt's smashing rapport with Jack Nicholson wasn't.
Noel: Alison Elliott's deep crush on Linus Roache draws the
final, vital line in The Wings of the Dove's cruel triangle; Kate
Winslet's blend of mod confidence and youthful insecurity gives James
Cameron's hackneyed dialogue real dimension in Titanic; Katrin
Cartlidge in Career Girls hides her sweet nature behind games, tics,
and nasty sarcasm; and in the otherwise confused Buddy, Rene Russo's
understanding of animals crosses the line into dangerous obsession.
Donna: Minnie Driver in Grosse Pointe Blank is what
everyone's high-school sweetheart should be 10 years later: confident,
genuine, and spontaneous. The amazing 4-year-old Victoire Thivisol never
wavers as she threads a maze of religion to find her dead mother in
Ponette. Tilda Swinton embodies shallow ambition in the problematic
Female Perversions, while Stacy Edwards stands up to a world of
abuse as the unwitting victim in In the Company of Men. And Jennifer
Jason Leigh puts aside glamour and embraces hope as the plain, awkward
heroine of Washington Square.
Jim: Nobody stole more scenes than Rupert Everett as Julia Roberts'
suave pal in My Best Friend's Wedding. James Cromwell was institutional
corruption personified as L.A. Confidential's dandy Dud Smith. As a
wheezing, bilious old safecracker, Michael Caine pumped some blood into
Blood & Wine's convoluted trickery. But there weren't any scene-stealers in
Waiting for Guffman's seamless ensemble--just try diverting attention from
Christopher Guest, Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard, or Eugene Levy.
Noel: Robert DeNiro's slow-witted crook in Jackie Brown is
more than comic relief--his eroding faculties are part of the movie's
poignant theme; Dan Aykroyd's fast-talking union assassin gooses Grosse
Pointe Blank to remarkable comic highs; Ed Harris' wry cop in
Absolute Power suggests a promising path that the film does not
follow; and Maggie Smith's conspiratorial aunt in Washington Square
gives a sober romance some moments of quirky modernity.
Donna: Jon Seda began the year as Selena's perfectly hunky
partner, and he continues into 1998 as Homicide's latest idealist.
No villain in movies had more fun than Brent Spiner as the megalomaniac
cruise director in Out to Sea. Anthony Hopkins staves off Alec
Baldwin's terror with a clinical discussion of ice in The Edge, and
Jay Mohr goes hilariously off-script at Jennifer Aniston's choreographed
dinner party in Picture Perfect.
- Two revelatory nude scenes: Helena Bonham Carter desperately making
love to erase another woman's memory in The Wings of the Dove, and
Kate Winslet posing with false bravado for Leonardo DiCaprio in the
smallest, quietest scene from Titanic.
- In a tiny but haunting detail from The Sweet Hereafter, the bus
driver remembers picking up 20 or 22 kids; the number sounds insignificant
until we see the two tiny lives in question board the doomed bus.
- The wonderful split-screen climax in Jackie Brown, when we
realize Pam Grier has a gun at the exact instant Robert Forster does.
- Rag-doll savior Milla Jovovich swan-dives off a 23rd-century Manhattan
high-rise into vertical traffic in the loopy, diverting The Fifth
- The beat of quiet darkness before the title Boogie Nights
blares into view.
- All of Face/Off's naked aggression and mind games distilled
into one image: Nicolas Cage and John Travolta each firing point-blank at
his own reflection--on opposite sides of the same mirror.
- Jamey Sheridan's discomfort with the '70s is manifested physically
when he can't figure out how to lie on his waterbed in The Ice
- A scientist who studies mole rats explains that we watch animals to
see how they are like ourselves--the same reason we watch observant
documentaries like Fast, Cheap and Out of Control.
- Jackie Brown quietly assesses her aging face in a dressing-room mirror
before her caper begins.
- The persistence of crises in The Sweet Hereafter: While talking
on the phone with his drug-addicted daughter, an attorney flashes back to
the girl's infancy, when he almost had to perform an emergency tracheotomy
on her--is he prepared to make the cut now?
- Water pours into the floor of a state-of-the-art elevator as the lift
descends to a flooded deck in Titanic.
- Sean Penn and Robin Wright dance in She's So Lovely, and the
whole history of their relationship is told by each giddy turn around the
- Number Two (Robert Wagner) plays high-stakes blackjack with Mike
Myers' Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery in cheesy,
AARP-dominated Las Vegas.
- From a cozy couch, Matthew Broderick and Meg Ryan add voices to their
silent surveillance movie in Addicted to Love.
- Searching for a place in the human world, a gorilla tries out a room
full of velvet chairs, one by one, in Buddy.
- To save his prodigal daughter-in-law, Peter Fonda stoically enters a
low, sprawling, neon-lit Orlando--the far country in Ulee's
- A piece of advice, from one child to another, in Ponette: The
time spent in a Dumpster as a test of courage will pass more quickly "if
you tell yourself a Batman story."
- Unable to give up in practice what his heart has already deserted,
Robert Forster mechanically asks a client questions while his chance for
escape drives away in Jackie Brown.