Thursday Ten - Best Films of 1997

1997 subscribed to typical box office threads, with sequels and rereleases registering with audiences. The year brought Titanic, a film that would hold the highest grossing picture crown for thirteen years. Titanic was a film that was met with solid, critical backing. Only after its success did a groundswell of resentment grow against the picture. Obviously, given its massive success, it opens itself to a greater deal of scrutiny. Critics and audiences who were once wowed by the visual feats achieved in the film seem to poke holes at the simple narrative device used to progress the picture. While not necessarily a bad film, the picture does have some glaring issues that hold it back.  And with Titanic’s upcoming 3D rerelease, I decided to look into the films of 1997. It wasn’t the best year in cinema (which perhaps explains Titanic’s immense wave of success), but there were about a dozen other films that I would easily prefer seeing getting the sort of recognition that Titanic gets.


Perfect Blue (Satoshi Kon)

Perfect Blue is an interesting picture in that it functions as a preliminary effort to films like David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. It’s not quite as refined as either one of those pictures, but it’s interesting enough in its riskiness to iron out some of its faults. Part of what makes the film particularly effective is how director Satoshi Kon utilizes his animated media to do things that would be normally quite difficult in live-action filmmaking. He instills a sense of paranoia and fear through repetition, therein thoroughly confusing the audience as they’re trying to make sense of the picture. Part of it comes across as a bit overly-complicated, but on the whole, Kon managed to take the animated medium to a darker and more existential territory.


The Game (David Fincher)

Like Perfect BlueThe Game functions much like a puzzle. It’s meant to be confound and inspire a sense of shock through its twists. It’s certainly not the most provocative, but The Game manages to work largely on the strength of David Fincher’s directorial prowess. Perhaps its best aspect is that it can be viewed with a sense of novelty, as certain precision filmmaking techniques from the director start here and are expanded upon in his later features, particularly The Social Network and Zodiac. The narrative never truly finds its footing, nor is a sense of paranoia and anxiety ever truly realized, but Fincher manages to guide the audience through the rabbit hole with such confidence that it kind of pulls the whole picture together. And much to his credit, Michael Douglas is impressive in a leading role that demands an air of logical flexibility.


The Ice Storm (Ang Lee)

There’s a leap in quality between The Ice Storm and the aforementioned The Game. With The Ice Storm, Ang Lee broaches the suburban drama genre with a true level of formal sophistication. First, Lee effectively draws the era of the 70s through the picture with a level head – he doesn’t try to evoke the times in broad strokes, instead focusing on light touches in conversation to elaborate on the tumultuous time. And secondly, Lee focuses on environment that his characters inhabit. As they converse about the Watergate Scandal and swinging, Lee navigates through the icy Connecticut landscape. The Ice Storm’s cold aesthetics obviously functions on a literal and metaphorical level, but the way Lee manages to bring his themes together has a level of precision that I have yet to see him duplicate.


Contact (Robert Zemeckis)

What makes Contact so impressive is its ability to unite themes of politics, religion, and science through the open dialogue of its narrative conundrum. It’s a picture that serves to explore a need for obtaining proof of not just an alien existence, but to justify humanity’s existence. For a film that is directed by a very Hollywood director and starring a mainstream actress, Contact works as both a commercial and artistic piece. It’s a film that essentially gets people talking about the fabric of our existence and the variables associated with how we define ourselves. While the picture’s runtime lends itself to some problems in maintaining its rhythm, it still remains one of the boldest contemporary films to come out of the Hollywood system.


Open Your Eyes (Alejandro Amenábar)

Like the aforementioned Perfect Blue and The GameOpen Your Eyes’ narrative structure is meant to confound the audience and inspire a sense of dread. But Alejandro Amenábar’s film is more successful in uniting its overarching themes of privilege, love, and appearance with its science-fiction narrative. The picture feels as if it were written by Charlie Kaufman with a dash of David Cronenberg, wherein the backlash of a car crash cause a disfigured man to question the differences between dreams and reality. Amenábar understands the horror associated with oneself in a new reality, wherein he astutely observes  how people focus on tangible losses over  that which we cannot see. It’s only until it’s too late do we realize that we’ve been walking in a dream.


L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson)

Individual components to L.A. Confidential, particularly the supporting performances and Curtis Hanson’s direction, aren’t particularly memorable. But what is so absorbing about the film is its writing. Adapted from James Ellroy’s novel, L.A. Confidential, the film works as a throwback to a by-gone era. It’s a shining example of a picture that institutes narrative drive and propulsion to grip its audience. Unlike the film that inspired this Thursday Ten, L.A. Confidential’s script deviates from archetypes while embracing a traditional narrative style – Titanic attempts to subscribe to the same model, but does so in an overly simplistic way. I hesitate to call L.A. Confidential a great film, as it was the critical darling going up against Titanic at the time, as its writing resonates far more than any other aspect of the film. But the strength of its writing alone makes it a must-watch.


Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki)

Whereas L.A. Confidential subscribes to a traditionalist model, the folkloric qualities of Princess Mononoke are entirely unique in their own way. I’ve always been fond of Miyazaki’s films, and with Princess Mononoke, he reaches the closest thing I’ve seen to an animated epic. The film’s philosophical musings on man’s responsibilities to nature are provoked through the beautiful scenery and landscape that Miyazaki creates. Fifteen years after its release, it’s truly unrivaled in its sheer scope. Its significance obviously carries weight now, wherein Pixar has adopted the mantra that animation can definitely expand its demographic by appealing to adults as well.


Happy Together (Wong Kar Wai)

For a film that possesses such a vibrant stylistic energy, Happy Together is one hell of a cynical film. It’s a film that is deeply rooted in a sense that love just might not be for everyone. In a realist sense, Wong Kar Wai acknowledges that love can’t blossom if it wasn’t there in the first place. The film’s central narrative conceit involves two men who bicker over their relationship. Their continuous arguments prompt them to pick things up and move from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires, wherein the thought that they’re fleeting relationship might be salvaged. It’s obviously not, and the two men find themselves lost in a foreign land, trying to make sense of the world. Happy Together is breathtakingly confident virtually on a formal level, with Wong Kar Wai working at the peak of his career with such finesse. And while he may have topped this effort with 2000’s In the Mood for LoveHappy Together is not far behind. It’s a film that explores the desperation of finding love, and the disarray that comes from never finding it.


Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Boogie Nights has always been a personal favorite of mine. As a fledging cinephile, I adopted the film early on, as I was thoroughly impressed with its scale and eclectic cast of characters. And it’s still a picture that I hold dear to me. For one, it’s a film that has a relentless sense of energy. There’s not a wasted movement throughout the film, as scene by scene, you get a sense that Paul Thomas Anderson is building up to an emotional crescendo. It really is the sum of its parts with its incredibly tight ensemble cast, excellent writing, and impressive directorial presence. There really isn’t any sense of mockery here at all either, as you gather that everyone involved in the picture just wanted to tell a simple story with a talented group of people – it all reflects the actual material of the film.


Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino)

The similarities between Jackie Brown and Boogie Nights are obvious. Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson are both writer-directors who have a fantastic handle on characters and narrative propulsion. They have a comedic way about them, though they can ramp up tension at the snap of a finger. They have command over their material. But what makes Jackie Brown just that much better than Boogie Nights is the intricacy of its plot, both on a paper and on an emotional level. While I value Anderson’s straightforward approach in Boogie Nights, Tarantino’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel deceives you into believing it’s straightforward. But as characters mull over the fact, you realize that they’re lost. They’re constantly thinking and engineering ways to come out on top, but like a race, there can only be one winner. And that’s where the audience begins to share in all of these character’s anxieties. Everyone’s out for themselves. A mistake can be deadly. And then someone comes out on top.

Jackie Brown remains Tarantino’s best film. While I love Pulp Fiction’s rich dialogue and Inglourious Basterds’ revisionist audacity, Jackie Brown appeals to my sensibilities best. Here’s a film with a true sense of wit and sense of suspense. Few films approach the level of subtlety and restraint shown here, and it’s probably most impressive that it’s Tarantino, a guy who relishes in over-the-top stylism, showing subtlety and restraint.

Deconstructing Harry (Woody Allen, 1997)

A film like Deconstructing Harry is interesting to look at in hindsight. Now, Woody Allen’s prominence has diminished, as his scandalous affairs are no longer under the lens of media scrutiny. That’s the way it works sometimes – Charlie Sheen will undoubtedly release us from his flagrant media whoring when the time comes. But unlike Sheen, I always gathered that Allen never really wanted to make his private affairs so widely known to the public. If anything, Deconstructing Harry, an extremely personal film, is Allen’s plea to be left alone.

Woody Allen is Harry Block – a writer who takes his morally questionable life as inspiration to churn out fiction. After writing a novel that only thinly veils his infidelities, he finds himself struggling to connect with anyone. This is particularly inconvenient, as he is being recognized by the university from which he was expelled. Here’s an opportunity to validate his writing while simultaneously garnering respect from his son. But getting his son to come is difficult as Harry contends with his ex-wife’s disdain. Meanwhile, Block suffers from writers block – for the first time in his life, his social life has led him to lead a relatively secluded lifestyle, with not so much as a muse to inspire him.

Deconstructing Harry relies on Harry Block’s stories to create a general sense of the sort of life Block leads. This leads to some interesting visual and narrative nuances, as the product of Block’s fiction is visualized by actors like Richard Benjamin, whereas the real-life actualization of the event features Allen (as Block). Allen tinkers around with the format throughout the film, and ultimately, despite some initial reservations I had with its style, I liked it. Something I liked a little less was the film’s spliced editing style. It acts as a hindrance, and simply calls too much attention to itself.

Despite my minor quibble with the film, I found it to be surprisingly poignant and the antithesis of a lot of Allen’s work – Deconstructing Harry is surprisingly vulgar and literal. It’s like all of Allen’s pent up frustrations were recorded and clarified to ensure that no one misunderstands where he is coming from. And it seems to have worked – Allen makes the rounds from time to time, but ultimately, any discussion about the man tends to be geared toward his films. I bet he prefers it that way. I do too.

Rating: 7/10