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Best Movies of 1997

By Eric Beltmann

Why compile a 10-best list? Since responses to art are subjective, and liable to change, a 10-best list is only valuable in two ways. First, it serves as a personal record of one viewer's experiences at the movies, as an organizational tool for those who think some movies matter. Second, it shares those opinions with others, who may use them as advice or as warning. The idea is to nudge people into thinking about movies, perhaps in a new way. As I see it, here are the best (and worst) films of 1997, in rank order.

1. The Ice Storm. With this mesmerizing period piece, director Ang Lee weaves a shrewd, intricate tale of a family plagued by sex, drugs, and isolation in the 1970s. Reproducing the era's wary embrace of experimental conduct, Lee cleverly creates a climate of impending personal catastrophe. The storm itself -- beautiful but intensely dangerous -- becomes an open-eyed metaphor for cultural doom. The effect is both authentic and tragic. Yet because Lee has such a subtle, pleasing intelligence, he leaves you feeling exalted. It's a rare example of a filmmaker who knows precisely what he's doing.

2. Ulee's Gold. Victor Nunez's naturalistic study of good sense is a pure and modest domestic drama that gets deep under your skin. Peter Fonda is remarkable as an aging, reclusive beekeeper faced with an unexpected brush with violent thieves. Nothing feels overcalculated, and the depictions of emotional chaos are genuinely unsettling. It has a stark, bombed-out vitality.

3. The Apostle. An evangelist, on the run from the law, uses his borrowed time to establish a small church and preach the love of Jesus. This ingenuous view of Christianity and sin is dramatically stimulating, because Robert Duvall's fiercely spiritual but flawed preacher contains profound human depths. He gets us thinking about how theology should, can, and does affect our daily lives.

4. Titanic. Large-scale spectacle as art. By capturing the horrifying details of modern history's most infamous disaster, James Cameron has crafted the greatest special-effects movie ever. Miraculously, he uses those effects -- and his own eye for thrilling aesthetics -- to magnify the youthful romance at the story's center, which allows the film to become a passionate and haunting experience.

5. The Game. A leisure-class nightmare that's also a supremely witty modern film noir, tweaked to serve director David Fincher's own cynical ideas about cultural-claustrophobia. As a man's existence is usurped by a series of sudden, elaborate "life games," this hall-of-mirrors stump-puzzle turns deftly existential. Pure pleasure.

6. Deconstructing Harry. Highbrow prankishness, and some kind of jittery, poststructuralist masterpiece from Woody Allen. Playing Harry Block, a writer doomed by his penchant for miserable self-gratification, Allen takes surprisingly candid, daring risks. As a director, he has constructed a wiseacre psychodrama that, in the way it cruelly implodes Harry, is unapologetically honest and adult.

7. The Sweet Hereafter. In the aftermath of a fatal school-bus crash, a small, snowy community tries to cope. Director Atom Egoyan enters new, powerfully enigmatic emotional territory, seeking to uncover the invisible connections between love, hate, intimacy, and compassion. The film has an ambiguous, dark beauty to it, and feels like a blow to both the heart and mind.

8. The Wings of the Dove. Henry James' novel about a corrupt love triangle is adapted into Iain Softley's expert costume drama of radical passions. Sex is the last thing the climactic nude scene is about; in a truly pitiful moment, the feelings of guilt and betrayal are brilliantly personalized. The marvelous Helena Bonham Carter gives a rueful portrayal of devious selfishness.

9. L.A. Confidential. Two very different cops look more closely at the web of sex, corruption, celebrity, and violence they exist in. This is a film that understands the consequences of naïve nobility, but what's fun about it is the way director Curtis Hanson keeps springing delirious surprises on us. As the heroes slither out from under pessimism, it's a lushly exciting story.

10. The Full Monty. Unemployed steel workers become amateur male strippers as an antidote to the dole in this rowdy bit of awkward pseudo-debauchery. It has extremely appealing charms, with an unexpected deadpan consistency: director Peter Cattaneo first exposes the comedy of shame, and then the comedy of shamelessness.

Honorable Mentions: Afterglow; Air Force One; Boogie Nights; Comrades: Almost a Love Story; Contact; Donnie Brasco; Eve's Bayou; 4 Little Girls; Good Will Hunting; Gridlock'd; Hard Eight; Jackie Brown; Ponette; The Postman; Waiting for Guffman.

Guilty Pleasures: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery; Liar Liar; Fierce Creatures; I Know What You Did Last Summer; Selena.

The Worst

1. The Saint. Essentially unwatchable. Action movies this year were more impersonal than ever, aiming for mechanical, continual climaxes impossible to sustain. Yet only The Saint can also claim the unbearable sight of Val Kilmer mugging repugnantly as a master-of-disguise. It's an ugly, incoherent absurdity, and apparently edited with a battle-ax.

2. The Last Time I Committed Suicide. Supposedly based on a letter Neal Cassady wrote concerning his early love life, but completely ignorant of poetry and of filmmaking. Marked by a bogus visual style.

3. Crash. David Cronenberg's icy and morbid tale of sex fetishists aroused by mangled metal (violence as excitement). It's a vain conceit, an academic exercise lacking both truth and relevancy.

4. U Turn. Oliver Stone's rambling comedy about misery and victimization feels abstract, lacking any real sophistication or purpose. The cruel, infantile images are cheaply sensational.

5. Batman & Robin. A rostrum for director Joel Schumacher's follies. It unfolds passively, and the meaningless action sequences are truly inept. Schumacher turns his actors into cartoon zombies.

Dishonorable Mentions: A Life Less Ordinary; Anaconda; Beverly Hills Ninja; Con Air; Fathers' Day; Gummo; The Jackal; Jungle 2 Jungle; The Matchmaker; Volcano.

Most Overrated: As Good as It Gets; In the Company of Men; Fast, Cheap & Out of Control; Men in Black; Mimic.

Article published 03.31.2002.


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