The Top Ten List for 1997

(#7 and #5 don't have their entries fleshed out yet. I seem to be suffering from a little bit of writers' block about them. Don't worry, I'll try to update them soon.)

Ten

Contact (Robert Zemeckis)
Face/Off (John Woo)
Forgotten Silver (Peter Jackson)
The Game (David Fincher)
Irma Vep (Olivier Assayas)
Kissed (Lynne Stopkewich)
Lost Highway (David Lynch)
Nowhere (Gregg Araki)
Prisoner of the Mountains (Sergei Bodrov)

So many choices -- only one spot left. Should I go with Forgotten Silver, Peter Jackson's droll valentine to cinema, the calmly nutzoid Kissed, David Lynch's mesmerizing Lost Highway, Gregg Araki's candy-colored apocalypse Nowhere, the supremely uneven but often terrific Contact. perhaps John Woo's wonderfully hyperbolic Face/Off, Sergei Bodrov's moving update of the Leo Tolstoy story, "Prisoner of the Caucasus", Prisoner of the Mountains, Olivier Assayas' fascinating navelgazer Irma Vep, or the best suspense thriller of the year, The Game (and its brilliant plot twist)?

Oh, to hell with it. All are tied for #10. I've got more important things to decide.

Nine

Titanic (James Cameron)

Hokey? Yes, but it's clearly intentional; as Cameron is clearly going for the grandiose scale of a D.W. Griffith silent and during the riveting last half, he succeeds magnificently. However, there are some dismal patches in the first half; the framing story is far too long and some of the early touches of characterization are eyeroll-inducing. But I found myself getting caught up in the grandeur, the larger-than-life romance of Jack and Rose, and the sheer corniness of it all. And when the ship starts to sink, Cameron displays a lyricism that had never been apparent. There are some great touches of wit, too -- I loved it how Jack and Rose, like all red-blooded American teens after them, make love in the backseat of a car.

Eight

Underground (Emir Kusterica)

Finally the 1995 Cannes Palme D'Or winner washes up on these shores and it's a raucous, helter skelter party of a black comedy. From the start, it's got an energy level that is nigh-unbelievable -- anyone who claims to have slept through this is a liar. A tad wearisome by the end (that energy level is exhausting), but still one of the most exhilariting and humorous films of the year.

Seven

Ulee's Gold (Victor Nunez)

Six

The Quiet Room (Rolf de Heer)

A lot of critics found this one dull. (My favorite : the Time Out New York critic who compared it to a stay in a Peruvian prison.) Lucky I didn't listen to those critics. I found Rolf de Heer's minute examination of the mind of a child (a possibly insane one, at that) to be one of the more spellbinding film experiences of the year. There are some flaws -- for one, the kid seems far too precocious for a six year old -- but de Heer nails the innate self-centeredness of the very young.

Five

The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan)

Four

L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson)

If someone had told me last year that Curtis Hanson, a competent but anonymous yeoman director, and Brian Helgeland, a screenwriter I was ready to call a hack, would produce the best Hollywood film since 12 Monkeys, I would have laughed in their face. I guess the two are far more talented than I thought -- they turned what was considered an unfilmable novel into a tight, fastly-paced and morally complex entertainment. Superlative work all around by its cast, and with its matter-of-fact portrayal of LAPD racism, makes certain aspects of the King and Simpson cases much clearer.

Three

Fast, Cheap, & Out Of Control (Errol Morris)

One of the densest and most rhythmically complex films ever made, Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control is edited and scored like a Bachian canon, comprising several fugues that seem to touch on different aspects of life, human condition, and the universe. (This is one cosmic movie). It has inspired countless readings, all different, on just what the heck the film is about. They're all correct. Errol Morris' work is not a meditation but a meta-meditation, which provides a rich array of parallels but no concrete meaning. And his greatest achievement is not providing us with a complete work, but with an incomplete work, a foundation, in which the experiences and perception of the viewer provides the meaning.

Two

In The Company of Men (Neil LaBute)

The evil, nasty twin of Dilbert is at once, a vicious critique of the winner-take-all ethos, the corporate culture that spawns it, and a fascinating portrayal of its most successful product. Viciously funny, even if you didn't feel very good about yourself after laughing; its most frightening aspect is not that someone like Chad exists (he's a tad too much to be completely credible as a human being) -- but that we all have a little bit of Chad in us.

One

Capitaine Conan (Bertrand Tavernier)

The most criminally ignored film in years, Capitaine Conan lost the Cesar to the forgettable Ridicule, and then has had a shadowy existence in US arthouses. Which is a shame, as Conan is the finest war movie made since Breaker Morant. Like Breaker, it focuses on the court martial of soldiers who consider themselves 'true' warriors fighting in a largely forgotten war. (In Conan's case, an undeclared war in the Balkans shortly after the end of World War I.) Unlike Breaker, Conan is not concerned with what happened, but uses the stress of the court martial as an examination of the character of Conan -- who is both barbarian and civilized man, savage and ethical. Played with magnificent force by Phillipe Torreton (who won the Cesar), Conan threatens to break the boundaries of the screen every second he appears. And the film is bookended by long battle sequences that are breathtakingly chaotic, filmed with handheld cameras that captures the chaos and confusion of modern warfare -- and the energy level is kept up, as the 'peaceful' middle section is filmed in much the same style. Movies don't get much better than this -- this is 100-proof film-making.