Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Year in Review:1997

1997 was an important movie year for me personally; as I think that was the year I went from being a movie fan to being a film buff. There is a difference. It saw the emergence of one of the best filmmakers in the world; as well it was an important stepping stone for a few younger filmmakers who continued their growth. There are also a few films on here by filmmakers who have still not lived up to the films they made this year.

10. Hard Eight (Paul Thomas Anderson)
The first film by director Paul Thomas Anderson is his most intimate character study, forgoing his normal sprawling casts for a smaller one here. The great Philip Baker Hall gives a marvelous performance as an old gambler who takes on a younger protégé (the great John C. Reilly) and his prostitute girlfriend (Gwyneth Paltrow) for mysterious reasons. Not as ambitious as the other films in Anderson’s career, it is still a marvelous little movie, full of great writing, acting and direction. I love it when a character actor like Hall is finally given a lead role worthy of his talent, and although Altman gave him his best role in Secret Honor, Anderson gave him his second best one here.

9. The Game (David Fincher)
For reasons that have always boggled my mind, David Fincher’s The Game has never really garnered the kind of following it deserves. It is a twisty thriller about a rich man (Michael Douglas) given a strange gift by his younger brother (Sean Penn) of a strange game that is supposed to make him see life more clearly. The film keeps you guessing as to whether or not it really is a game until its final moment. And unlike most movies with a twist ending, The Game rewards repeat viewing, as the film is stacked with small details that you miss the first, second and even third time through. One of the more underrated films of the 1990s, and a crackerjack thriller at that.

8. Wag the Dog (Barry Levinson)
A President is running for reelection just as a sex scandal involving him and a “Firefly girl” is revealed. Needed a distraction, they bring in a spin doctor (Robert DeNiro), who decides to stage a fake war with Albania, and needs the help of Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman), who laughes everything off with a proclamation of “This is nothing!!!”. The film written by David Mamet, is full of whip smart dialogue, and characters who are perfectly cast in even the smallest of roles (Woody Harrellson for instance has but one scene, but he is brilliant in it). One of the best political satires of the decade, and an absolutely hilarious film to boot. Robert DeNiro is great, but Dustin Hoffman steals the movies with his thinly veiled Robert Evans impersonation. Perhaps Barry Levinson’s best film.

7. Chasing Amy (Kevin Smith)
After his debut film Clerks made a name for him, and his follow up Mallrats disappointed his now loyal fans, Kevin Smith made Chasing Amy - far and away the best film of his career. Ben Affleck does career best work as a comic book writer who falls in love with a fellow scribe - Joey Lauren Adams - unaware that she is a lesbian, or at least she says so. What follows is a surprising insightful, funny, truthful look at modern relationships- romantic, sexual and friendship. Jason Lee gives a marvelous performance as Affleck’s partner, who maybe harboring more love for Affleck than he cares to admit. After two films where he barely mumbled a word, Kevin Smith’s Silent Bob delivers a monologue that may just be the best thing he has ever written. This is the film that Kevin Smith keeps trying, and failing, to live up to.

6. Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell)
Mike Newell is a talented journeyman director who normally delivers solid films (his entry in the Harry Potter franchise, The Goblet of Fire, is my choice for the best of the series). Here, he is given the best script he ever had to work with by veteran Paul Attansio, and delivers a hell of a gangster movie. Johnny Depp is very good as FBI Agent Joe Pistone, aka Donnie Brasco, who infiltrates the mafia through his friendship with veteran Al Pacino. This is really Pacino’s movie, whose performance gives a complete opposite view of life in the mafia as his work in The Godfather films did. The movie is wonderfully detailed and observed, powerfully acted and directed. It’s too bad it was released so early in the year, so by the time the Oscars rolled around, the Academy completely forgot about Pacino’s work. More than a decade later, I can’t forget it.

5. The Ice Storm (Ang Lee)
Ang Lee’s film about two dysfunctional families in the 1970s gets my vote for the best film of his career. As the adults, led by Kevin Kline, Joan Allen and Sigourny Weaver, set about to key parties, extra martial affairs and imploding marriages, their kids are maturing into sexual beings in their own right. While all three of the adults are brilliant, it is really the kids who own the movie. Christina Ricci as a sexually precocious young woman, Elijah Wood who is perhaps too curious, and the college student Tobey Maguire all engage in acts that would shock their parents, if they were paying any attention whatsoever. The period detail is perfect, the cinematography terrific, and the movie builds to a shocking, but fitting, climax.

4. The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan)
This was the film that Atom Egoyan’s career was building toward up until this point, and which he has spent the past decade trying to live up. A bus accident that kills many children rocks a small town community. Ian Holm gives a wonderful performance as a lawyer who comes to town and tries to convince the parents to hire him so they can sue - anyone and everyone who may be responsible. Sarah Polley gives a marvelous performance as one of the older kids on the bus who survives, and maybe keeping secrets. Egoyan’s film is haunting and unforgettable from beginning to end. Egoyan’s masterful screenplay and direction anchors the movie in reality, but is also somewhat dreamlike. A masterful film.

3. Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino)
Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown was perceived as a disappointment upon its release, perhaps because it wasn’t as immediately influential as Pulp Fiction was. But Jackie Brown is a masterfully told story - the best ever adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel. Tarantino’s love for long dialogue scenes remains in intact, but so does Leonard’s narrative. The film is full of great performances from Pam Grier’s title character, a flight attendant involved in criminal activity, to Samuel L. Jackson’s drug dealer to Robert DeNiro’s ex-con to Bridget Fonda’s flirtatious pothead to Robert Forster’s bail bondsman. The film has all the usual Tarantino flourishes. A wonderful, intricately detailed crime movie of the highest order. People who think this is weak Tarantino really do need to watch it again.

2. LA Confidential (Curtis Hanson)
Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential is one of the few neo-noirs that deserve comparison to Roman Polanski’s brilliant Chinatown. A mass killing at a coffee shop sets the plot in motion - one that will eventually include minor celebrities, whores cut to look like movie stars, corrupt rich men, a tabloid reporter, and three very different cops. Kevin Spacey is the celebrity vice cop, who is a technical adviser on a Dragnet like TV show. Guy Pearce is young, ambitious and completely by the book. And Russell Crowe is a more violent, by any means necessary type cop. These characters revolve around each other in the wonderful period detail of 1950s LA. The cinematography and art direction are top notch, but it’s really Hanson and Brian Helgeland’s twisty script, based on the James Ellroy novel, that is truly masterful. A great film noir for a new generation.

1. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson)
It didn’t take Anderson long to make his first masterpiece. In only his second film (and the second of this year), Anderson crafted a marvelously entertaining, enlightening and surprisingly touching movie about an extended family in the porn industry. Mark Wahlberg is magnificent as Dirk Diggler, the young stud who becomes an instant star under the tuttlage of veteran director Burt Reynolds, who has never been better. Julianne Moore is wonderful as the mother like figure of the group, and Heather Graham is sexy and fun as Rollergirl. The heady, fun filled days of the 1970s gives way to the downfall of the 1980s, fueled by drugs and the emergence of video. A great Hollywood type rise and fall story, Anderson fills his movie with the most interesting characters (John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, Melora Walters, Thomas Jane, Alfred Molina and Philip Seymour Hoffman are among the supporting players). The film is endlessly entertaining and has the kind of sustained energy that is rarely seen in the movies. A truly great film - and one that gets better each of the many times I have watched it.

Just Missed the Top 10: The Apostle (Robert Duvall), Eve’s Bayou (Kasi Lemmons), Face/Off (John Woo), Fast Cheap and Out of Control (Errol Morris), Four Little Girls (Spike Lee), Gattaca (Andrew Niccol), Insomnia (Erik Skoljbaerg), In the Company of Men (Neil LaBute), Waco: The Rules of Engagement (William Galecki), Happy Together (Wong Kar Wai).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture and Director: Titanic (James Cameron)
James Cameron’s Titanic pretty much had to win this award. It was the most successful film of all time (and would remain so until his next film, Avatar, more than a decade later). Yes, the dialogue is stilted at times, but Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet anchor the movie with wonderful performances, and that final hour truly is something to behold. No, it was nowhere near the best film of the year, but it is a hell of lot better than a lot films who have won this award.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets
Jack Nicholson is as enjoyable as ever as a writer with serious problems with women and gays, who is forced to confront both. It is fine work. But really it was nowhere near the best of the year. Of the nominees, I would have picked Robert Duvall’s magnetic performance in The Apostle, or Dustin Hoffman in Wag the Dog. But Al Pacino in Donnie Brasco and Ian Holm is The Sweet Hereafter were probably better than any of the nominees.

Oscar Winner – Actress: Helen Hunt, As Good As It Gets
If Nicholson’s performance was enjoyable but not Oscar worthy, then I cannot say that Hunt is not even all that enjoyable. Sure, she’s fine in the movie as a waitress who for some reason likes Nicholson, but it really isn’t a great performance. Julie Christie in Afterglow, Helena Bonham Carter in The Wings of the Dove and Kate Winslet in Titanic were all nominees that were better than Hunt - and even better were Pam Grier and Joey Lauren Adams who didn’t even get nominated!

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actor: Robin Williams, Good Will Hunting
The Academy obviously wanted to reward Robin Williams, a popular movie star, and saw this feel good story as their opportunity. Sure, he’s quite good as the shrink who works with a genius, but Robert Forster in Jackie Brown and especially Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights were nominees that were infinitely better. That doesn’t even mention Kevin Spacey in LA Confidential, Jason Lee in Chasing Amy and Robert DeNiro in Jackie Brown, all of whom SHOULD have been nominated.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actress: Kim Basinger, LA Confidential
Kim Basinger is quite good as a hooker cut to look like Veronica Lake. She is the classic hooker with a heart of gold that we have seen many times before, but rarely this well done. The actress, who was never given very good roles in her career, makes good on the best one of her career. Personally, I think Julianne Moore’s performance in Boogie Nights was far and away the best this category had to offer. And I would have loved to have seen Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown, Sarah Polley in The Sweet Hereafter and Christina Ricci in The Ice Storm all should have been nominated.

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