As I mentioned in my earlier post on “The Best Films of 2007” the problem with year-end awards is that there is very little distance between the actual viewing of the film and heralding it one of the best films if not the very best film of the year. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with immediate or near-immediate judgments on a film’s quality (and comes with the territory of being a film critic) that does leave us open to getting our judgment of a film wrong, and sometimes terribly so.
Case in point: for three years in a row, the Academy Awards gave the Best Picture Oscar to The King’s Speech in 2010, The Artist in 2011, and Argo in 2012. When was the last time you thought about those films in the context of discussing great films? When was the last time you thought about any of those films at all?
The cliche is that hindsight is 20/20, but it is certainly true in evaluating art. The passage of time allows mediocre and poor movies to fall off the radar into obscurity, lessening the noise and allowing one to focus. With all the middling films removed from the mix we are left with only four major categories of films: the memorably bad (which are easily dismissed); the nostalgically popular (which are in most danger of being overrated); the critically beloved (which have a knack for remaining beloved for good reason); and the sleeper, which are films that for whatever reason did not catch on in popularity in their initial run but have been discovered in later years. Of these four, it is the last category that is most interesting because they usually tend to get disproportionately occupied by movies that either offer no easy interpretations, had less than crowd-pleasing content, did not offer easy blockbuster thrills, or just found themselves off-the-beaten path. But these movies endured because they are good and maybe even great. A list like this is a chance to highlight those movies, and the passage of time simply makes it easier to separate the wheat from the chaff. These particular journeys back are also one of the most fun things I’ve been able to do since starting this blog, so you might just want to get used to that too. Here we go:
BOX OFFICE WINNERS (North America Gross)
- Titanic ($600,788,188)
- Men in Black ($250,690,539)
- The Lost World: Jurassic Park ($229,086,679)
- Liar, Liar ($181,410,615)
- Air Force One ($172,956,049)
- As Good As It Gets ($148,478,011)
- Good Will Hunting ($138,433,435)
- Star Wars (Special Edition) ($138,257,865)
- My Best Friend’s Wedding ($127,120,029)
- Tomorrow Never Dies ($125,304,276)
(Courtesy of Box Office Mojo)
Seeing the top ten box office winners is a surreal experience because it seems to reflect a completely different time and place in film. Of the top 10, only two movies are sequels (The Lost World: Jurassic Park and the middling James Bond flick Tomorrow Never Dies). In the meantime, comedy is a solid box-office draw with four comedies occupying spots on the list. And most surprising of all, especially given our current box-office situation, three films on this list would be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award (Titanic, As Good As It Gets, Good Will Hunting). It is also a climate where the prospect of George Lucas tinkering with what was already close to perfect (and making it slightly worse as a result) was apparently exciting enough for all of us to fork our cash over again.
As far as the quality of the movies in question, even despite all this “original content”, the movies come out slightly worse on aggregate than in 2017. According to Metacritic, the top 10 box-office films of 1997 average out for a score of 67/100, whereas their counterparts in 2017 average out at 70/100 (Astute readers might notice I’ve shifted from Rotten Tomatoes to Metacritic. The reasons are wide and varied and not worth going over here, but rest assured this switch is intentional).
NOMINEES: As Good As It Gets, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting, L.A. Confidential
Spoiler alert: Titanic is in no way, shape, or form making my top 10 list. As I detailed earlier, the problem with Titanic isn’t that it is necessarily a bad movie. Instead it is merely a good movie that has been elevated to impossibly high standards that it can’t possibly live up to. James Cameron, as we have seen now with his Avatar movies, is a master of spectacle but when it comes to actual elements like story and character is barely perfunctory and that is true with Titanic. Again, don’t get me wrong it’s not a bad movie but it is not the greatest movie ever made, nor does it belong to be anywhere close to the conversation of the best movie ever made. And as we shall soon see, I don’t think it was even the best Academy Award Nominee of the year.
Now onto the actual best movies of the year (in my humble but absolutely correct opinion):
Open Your Eyes – Alejandro Amenabar’s complex and surrealistic exercise in exploring madness has the distinction of first of all being much better than Cameron Crowe’s American remake Vanilla Sky. But it commits the same mistake that Psycho made in that it is not content with just displaying this descent into madness – which it does fantastically – but feels it owes us an explanation as to why the madness occurred in the first place.
The Apostle – The faith-focused films of Robert Duvall are like catnip to seminarians who are especially unimpressed by the Christian film industry. Yet ironically it might just be that overly-expressed love that made me slightly less enamoured than my peers for a good, if not great Duvall picture. (Note: And yes, it is better than 99% of the movies put out by the Christian film industry).
Face/Off and The Fifth Element – As I mentioned in my “Does It Hold Up?” feature on Wednesday, these are both films that have gotten so much better with time since I first saw them. But as we shall see, competition is kind of stiff.
Grosse Pointe Blank – On the one hand, this action comedy about a hired killer returning to this childhood town for his ten-year reunion is such a 90’s premise for a movie. On the other hand, it’s also a hoot.
10. GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997) dir. Gus Van Sant
The movie tends to get a little bit of flak because it (a) stars Robin Williams in “earnest” mode, who can sometimes get a little bit overaggressive with said earnestness and (b) is written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, two dude-bros of Hollywood who inexplicably wrote a sensitive and moving screenplay that managed to get them a Best Screenplay Oscar. The film narrative is as cliche Oscar-bait as can be, about a genius mathematician who can solve any equation … except his personal life! In fact the whole movie would be a complete cheese-fest if not for one very important detail: the performances in this movie are incredible. Yes, Robin Williams is earnest but he reins it in to give perhaps his most subtle performance as a professor who has to battle his own demons before being able to help Will (Matt Damon), the brilliant janitor-mathematician. Damon meanwhile puts in the performance of his life as a genius who is cursed to find himself alienated from both his working-class upbringing and the academic life he finds himself destined to. It is a quiet movie that is much better than you probably remember.
9. AFFLICTION (1997) dir. Paul Schrader
Affliction starts off looking and sounding like a clone of Fargo as a small-town cop Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) arrives at the scene of a hunting accident but begins to suspect that foul-play may be at hand. This leads him on a investigative rampage of a trail through the community to the detriment of his personal relationships and social capital in search of the dubious truth. Yet the brilliance of this movie is that while it starts out in the dark humour realm, the movie subtly shifts and changes tone until at some moment (which I will not spoil) you realize the movie has made you stop laughing. Of course this should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with director Paul Schrader’s more familiar screenwriting credits in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. The man has made a career out of disintegrating the myths of American manhood, and Affliction is a worthy addition to his canon.
8. CONTACT (1997) dir. Robert Zemeckis
Contact today seems like such a relic of a bygone era as an intelligent big budget sci-fi drama that is more interested in philosophical and religious questions about belief and existence than in thrilling us. The film about a benign alien encounter is ironically more terrifying than any alien invasion film because it reveals so much more about our expert ability to fracture amongst ourselves, to live out our fears, and to commit violence and cruelty for the sake of our beliefs. Buoyed by a dominating performance by Jodie Foster, the film is a headlong plunge into the debate between science and religion but in a thoughtful enough way that neither one position feels belittled. While the debate is fairly binary and simplistic, the mere fact that it happens in this movie and in such an accessible and compelling package is as refreshing as it is rare.
7. JACKIE BROWN (1997) dir. Quentin Tarantino
This movie has been slated as minor-Tarantino because it is the only Tarantino movie that adapts another work (“Rum Punch” by Elmore Leonard) and is thus viewed as his least personal work, which is considered potentially damning given the close relationship Tarantino’s writing and direction typically have. And yet, the use of an actual outside work forces Tarantino to create actual characters rather than rely on his usual fascinating pastiche of Hollywood cliches and callbacks, and as a result ends up with his most human work and arguably his best. His homage to blaxploitation movies is also aided by casting blaxploitation legend Pam Grier as the titular character who is an air stewardess who finds herself plunged into a world of crime needing to pull of a great scam or find herself dead. In typical Tarantino fashion, the whole thing would be so grim if it wasn’t so fun to watch play out as Jackie Brown pits her wits against some truly diabolical and intelligent criminal minds, in order to escape the criminal underworld she finds herself in.
6. THE ICE STORM (1997) dir. Ang Lee
In a suburban neighbourhood of Connecticut in the 1970s, a bunch of upper-class families gather for the annual feast of Thanksgiving as each individual hides their growing desperation and angst over the pure sterility of their lives under their own glacial exteriors. The summer of love attitudes of the 60’s have seeped up into their socialite lives and in small and big ways they try to show that they are happy, hip, and “with it”, experimenting with sex, booze, and drugs as kickstarts to their own happiness. Poetically, it takes the impending early ice storm to bring their unhappiness and emptiness into the open, shaking apart the carefully constructed lives they have created for themselves, and shattering the illusions of their supposed enlightened awakenings. It is a dour premise for a film that is somewhat softened by the tender direction of Ang Lee, who bathes the film with a cold but beautiful light. But make no mistake, the film was a devastating mirror to the late 90’s of excess, and it remains a devastating mirror now.
5. BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
It is already well-established that I love Paul Thomas Anderson (here, here, and here), and I think what I love best about his work is that he is an expert at exegeting the American dream, revealing both the lure of its promises and the devastating logical ends of its pursuit. In Boogie Nights, his second feature, Anderson provocatively shines the spotlight on the porn industry and the myth of the self-made man by focusing on the rise and fall of fictional porn star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg). While the salacious subject material may serve as a turn-off to some, the movie is less interested in shocking us with frank portrayals of sex, and more interested in unnerving us in unexpected ways. In particular, Anderson dives deep into this subculture of the entertainment industry in an empathetic and humanistic way to show that the ambitions and hopes that drive the people working in it are the same ones that most of us in North America use to get ourselves up in the morning. And more tellingly, Anderson suggests that the ultimate emptiness Diggler and his cohorts feel despite their success has less to do with the less-than-savory nature of their work, but because the promises of the American dream are similarly strangely hollow once achieved. Of course you’d be forgiven for not paying too much attention to those themes because the movie is also a fantastic piece of entertainment as Anderson deftly moves from comedy to drama and under his sure direction paints a vibrant picture of what Los Angeles in the 1970s really must have been like.
4. HAPPY TOGETHER (1997) dir. Wong Kar-Wai
A young gay couple move from a repressive Hong Kong to Buenos Aires to salvage their relationship. And predictably to anybody who has observed relationships for a decent amount of time, the relationship goes south and quickly. While this is a decent descriptor of the movie’s plot, we all know that you don’t come to see a Wong Kar-Wai movie for plot. Instead you come to watch him visualize complex and painful emotions through his unique melodramatic style. In this case the emotions on display are the acerbic bitterness of a romance fallen apart, the profound alienation of being in a foreign place, and the hope for happiness in spite of all that. And it is as beautiful as it is painful to watch. Special mention needs to be made to two of his long-time collaborators Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Leslie Cheung who together form two halves of this dynamic and explosive couple and give this meditation of love all the energy it needs.
3. PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
Princess Mononoke is a departure for Hayao Miyazaki as he tackles a more mature fantasy story that’s more in line with the great samurai epics of Akira Kurosawa than of anything else in the Studio Ghibli canon. And the thing just works. It is a sweeping tale of Ashitaka, a prince who finds himself cursed by the corruption of a demon he’s killed. His quest to rid himself of this curse finds him travelling to a foreign land where he is plunged into the heart of a conflict between a mining town and the forces of nature whose natural resources it is stripping. The power of this movie is that Miyazaki does not create easy heroes or villains with both sides having blood on their hands and both sides being worthy of admiration. Rather Miyazaki has the audacity to suggest that the problem lies in the pointlessness of conflict in the first place, and the victims are those who choose to fight. Of course all this is dressed up in Miyazaki’s typically awe-inducing animation where every scene is an opportunity to soak in the visual genius of the master.
2. L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997) dir. Curtis Hanson
My number 1 pick was never going to win the Oscar or be nominated for it, but in its place L.A. Confidential stands as my clear alternative for what should’ve won best picture. The movie is both a pitch perfect send-up to the film noir movies of Hollywood’s golden age and a biting portrayal of the underbelly of that world itself. The dense but tautly paced thriller finds the unlikely team-up of three philosophically opposed police officers as they try to get to the bottom of a vicious gangland-style killing. Unfortunately for the trio, doing so threatens to stir up several hornets nests and upset the status quo, leading to predictably explosive results. Movies about Hollywood are one of the most constant filmic traditions in Hollywood, and yet L.A. Confidential effortlessly rises above the chaff to instantly become one of the best films ever created about Tinseltown.
1. THE SWEET HEREAFTER (1997) dir. Atom Egoyan
This film is an almost impossible accomplishment. The subject matter, about a lawyer trying to recruit members of a small-town in British Columbia to file a class action lawsuit against the town after a school bus crashes into a lake and kills a significant amount of children, could not be more harrowing. And with such a harrowing subject it would be easy for the film to either descend into grief porn making us wallow in pity. Or worse yet, the film could cheapen the horrible tragedy by offering some sort of panacea through a victory in the legal justice system. The film does neither and instead a stunning portrait of a town that despite their horrific trauma finds a way to survive. It presents us with grief, but from the offset makes clear that we only get a glimpse of it and will never truly understand it. It is a lament that offers no easy explanations, and scoffs at a claims lawyer’s easy solutions. Instead it is a movie that invites us to sit on the mourner’s bench and to stop running away from sadness. But above all, it is a movie that begs not to be explained through words, but watched and experienced for yourself. So go do that.