Saturday, May 13, 2017

My Top Ten Films of 1997

This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from the years before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.

Jackie Brown - This is still my favorite Quentin Tarantino film. Here he's still mixing and matching elements from his older favorite movies, not to mention borrowing the still potent star power of Pam Grier, but there's a degree of restraint to his fanboyishness this time out. I think it's because "Jackie Brown" is a fairly straight adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel, and Tarantino wasn't willing to stray too far from the source material. The result is an unusually nostalgic, atmospheric caper film, full of old faces and brimming over with style.

Eve's Bayou - I love movies that take me somewhere I've never been before, and the haunted, beautiful world of young Eve Batiste is such a place. It conveys a wonderful sense of living with the past and a checkered family history. And seen through the eyes of a child, there's a particular magic to the way that events unfold. I especially enjoy the cast, including a young Jurnee Smolett as Eve, Debbi Morgan as her prophetic Aunt Mozelle, and Samuel L. Jackson as her very imperfect father, quite possibly the best role he's ever had.

Good Will Hunting - It was a deceptively simple, modest film that launched Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to stardom. The duo not only acted in the film, but wrote it together too. However, the heart and soul of "Good Will Hunting" is clearly Robin Williams. I can't imagine anyone else in the role, and can think of precious few actors who could have made the part work as well as it did. Rising director Gus van Sant also deserves considerable praise for giving the film a great sense of place, and really grounding the script and performances.

Princess Mononoke - The first Studio Ghibli film that I saw in theaters, in an experience that absolutely took my breath away. Nobody's fantasy worlds have ever been quite so fantastic as the ones that have come from Hayao Miyazaki, and "Princess Mononoke" plays like a culmination of all the themes and ideas that he's explored over a long, eventful career. His criticisms of war, the destruction of nature, and industrialization are conveyed through a very unique, unforgettable fable about gods and monsters, humans and spirits.

Boogie Nights - Paul Thomas Anderson finds the humanity in a merry band of pornographers, sex workers, and drug-addicts who live by their own rules. "Boogie Nights" is a fantastic evocation of the late 1970s counterculture, featuring a strong ensemble and engrossing subject matter. The sleaze factor kept me from fully embracing it for years, but upon closer examination it's one of Anderson's strongest films, full of great humor, great tragedy, and some fascinating characters who have their own take on the American Dream.

The Butcher Boy - I was fascinated by this film as a teenager for how incredibly dark the story got, and the way it went to certain places that a film starring a child wasn't supposed to go. Neil Jordan's chronicle of the adventures of troubled Francie Brady is alternately hilarious and shocking, as it explores his deteriorating, schizophrenic mind. I love the little fantasy elements, especially Sinead O'Connor's Virgin Mary and the recurring visions of nuclear holocausts. This is one of those forgotten films in serious need of rediscovering.

Love and Death on Long Island - John Hurt once claimed in interviews that his favorite screen role was Giles De'Ath, the fusty old British writer whose life is totally upended when he falls madly in love with a young American screen star, played by Jason Priestly. Hurt is absolutely delightful in the role, trying to navigate a modern world and popular culture he's avoided for much of his life, and coming to grips with his own rekindled passion. It's such a strange, but also deeply touching film that I've never managed to forget.

Funny Games - The sadistic, fourth wall-breaking thriller from Michael Haneke was remade shot for shot ten years later with bigger stars, but it's the Austrian original that has stuck with me. As horrible as it is to the characters, the film is really aiming to make the audience squirm, directly confronting us with the notion of violence as entertainment. The experience isn't altogether successful, but the conceit is fascinating, and the execution is frequently chilling. The remote control sequence in particular is a punch in the gut.

LA Confidential - The best film noir of recent years, starring Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, and Guy Pearce just a few short years before they would all became household names. Curtis Hanson brings the Los Angeles of the 1950s to life, with all its glamour and corresponding darkness. Though the plotting is very good, the filmmakers wisely keep the attention on their characters, three men working against a corrupt system from three different vantage points, and Kim Basinger's unforgettable femme fatale.

The Full Monty - Perhaps the pinnacle of the working-class British comedy, with a likable cast, strong writing, and no shortage of charm. Once you get past the eyebrow-raising premise, it may be a surprise to find that the film deals with some pretty heavy topics, like suicide and homosexuality, with remarkable care. "The Full Monty" really is about economic insecurity and threatened masculinity more than it is about fancy dancing, and the low budget, scrappy filmmaking reflects that in the best possible way.

Honorable Mentions

Chasing Amy
Nil by Mouth
As Good as it Gets
Mrs. Brown
The Sweet Hereafter
Perfect Blue
The Ice Storm

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