The Man Who Viewed Too Much
2 February 1998

My 1997 Top Ten

what we have here

Basically, my ten favorite films of 1997, ranked in preferential order, accompanied by almost desperately pithy comments designed to obscure the fact that I don't have much to say about most of them that I didn't say when I initially wrote about them. As always, I don't mean to suggest that these are last year's best films (though in fact I believe that many of them are just that) -- they're simply the ten that I most enjoyed, for reasons both obvious (to me) and obscure (to me). And I make no apologies for enjoying them as much as I did, and that goes quadruple for the film you'll find at #1, the identity of which many of you already know since I just wrote a piece about it for Entertainment Weekly in which I expressly referred to it as my favorite film of '97, even though I hadn't technically seen all of the 1997 films that I'd planned to see at the time that I wrote the piece. (I'll get to those last-minute candidates anon.)

movies that almost wound up on the list below, but didn't quite

Face/Off, directed by John Woo; Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, directed by Srdjan Dragojevic; Breakdown, directed by Jonathan Mostow; The Eighteenth, directed by Anders Rønnow-Klarlund; and Prisoner of the Mountains, directed by Sergei Bodrov. Face/Off in particular missed out by a hair, and almost certainly would have placed rather highly had I not seen it a second time; the stupid parts (e.g., yet another goddamn speedboat chase; a potentially hauntingly bittersweet ending ditched in favor of something noxiously heartwarming and mass-audience-friendly, etc.), which had seemed so inconsequential to me when I saw the film with a crowd of certified Woo fanatics (yes, I saw their certificates) on opening day, truly grated when they were repeated in a, shall we say, somewhat less-stoked context a few months later. Think of it as #11, if you like.

incisive extrapolations from the films on the list below to the state of world cinema in 1997, attended by predictably gloomy predictions of an artistically barren viewing future here in the U.S. of A.

Don't have any of those. Sorry.

I will note this, though: none of the films that I loved last year made any money, again. Only two of 'em grossed more than $3 million in North America, and both of those were big-budget studio pictures that were significant financial disappointments. Six of the ten grossed less than a mil...and two of those six grossed exactly nothing, in fact, because neither one was released theatrically in this country at all. This is the first time that I've ever included unreleased films on one of my lists, and while I'd rather been looking forward to doing so one day -- thinking it would, you know, solidify my hip urban cinéaste reputation -- now that it's happened I find it more than a little depressing. Reason being that my taste is still pretty mainstream (by hip urban cinéaste standards, anyway), and I don't generally get overly excited about abstruse expressionistic palettes o' color'n'light, and I think that both of the unreleased films on my list are plenty accessible, and not only deserve but could attract an audience at least as sizable as the one that dutifully trudged to see Cindy Sherman's reportedly inept Office Killer, and please that audience to boot. And what's truly bizarre, from my perspective, is that the respective directors of these two films each had a different film in commercial release last year, and in both cases I consider the film that wasn't picked up considerably more audience-friendly than the one that was. In any case, if a couple of the titles below ring no bells, now you know why.

semi-mandatory musings about the year in film as a whole

You may have noticed, if you regularly read year-end analyses of just about anything, that as a general rule every year is the worst year for [whatever] since the year before that, which was downright gawdawful vis-a-vis [whatever] when compared to the year before that, and so on in an infinite regression that suggests that [whatever] has been going to hell in a handbag since about the time that matter first began to cool. Me, I found 1997 both a terrific year for movies and a disappointing one, and that apparent paradox is reflected in the list that follows: judged by the quality of the film in the #10 slot, it's perhaps the strongest list I've ever compiled; judged by the quality of the film in the #1 slot, it's perhaps the weakest. Another way of putting it is this: I saw more near-masterpieces than usual, but fewer bona fide works of genius. I wound up allotting my highest rating to only two films, and I feel ambivalent about having done so in both cases. (In fact, my rating for the film ranked at #2 was retroactively upgraded from *** ½ to ****, several months after I first saw it. I'd never done that before, and I still feel kinda guilty.) Or to put it yet another way: I would rank no fewer than four (4) 1994 films -- Red, Pulp Fiction, Heavenly Creatures, and Ed Wood -- higher than the film ranked at #1 below. And I don't think that that's just hindsight speaking, either. The jaw-slackening stunners just weren't out there. Ah well. Not every year can be '94, after all.

number of films on the list below that were directed by people pretty firmly on the XX section of the gender continuum

Zero. Again. I wish it were otherwise. The strongest contenders this year were Kasi Lemmons' Eve's Bayou, Laetitia Masson's To Have (Or Not), Danielle Gardner's basketball documentary Soul in the Hole, and Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern, another documentary, directed by Jeanne Jordan and her husband, Steven Ascher. All of these films were impressive, but they all lacked a certain 'oomph,' for lack of a better word. What the hell happened to Darnell Martin, anyway?

number of films on the list below in which most or all of the characters speak a language other than English

Four. Incredibly. Granted, in three of the four the characters are speaking French (though only two of them are French per se; the third is set in Belgium and was directed by Belgians and is I believe just thoroughly Belgian in general, though if memory serves there was some French money involved in its financing), so it's not as if my list represents a complete cross-section of world cinema or anything. But my past lists have invariably been dominated by English-language pictures, with one or at most two foreign-language films managing to squeeze their subtitled way into the ranks every year, so this is quite unprecedented. We'll see if it represents a new aesthetic direction for my sensibilities, or merely a statistical fluke (I'm betting on the latter).

as promised above, regrettably brief comments about a handful of 1997 films that I've seen in 1998, which let's face it I'm not going to get around to properly reviewing given that I'm still working on this top ten column in freakin' early February, and none of which wound up making the list below in any case, with soon-to-be-semi-defunct star ratings and in order of preference

Wag the Dog (***), despite a brilliant premise and a first-rate cast, never quite takes off; like Maurizio Nichetti's The Icicle Thief, it's consistently clever but almost never funny. At the time, I remarked to friends that it was too plausible to be hilarious, and the subsequent affaire Lewinsky and concurrent threats of aggression directed at Hussein rather confirm that suspicion (while at the same time confirming my belief that the American people are ultimately more fascinated by sex than by war). Certainly a step up for Barry Levinson following disastrous crap like Toys and Jimmy Hollywood and Disclosure, and worth seeing, but it's a trifle, and comparisons to Dr. Strangelove are not merely overstated but just plain loony.

Speaking of my friends, several of those who saw Kundun (** ½) before I did predicted that I'd dislike it, knowing as they do my pro-narrative bias (one of them once referred to me as a "narrative slut," in fact). And it's true that long stretches of Scorsese's poetic Dalai Lama biopic actively bored me; I enjoy a good visual metaphor as much as the next film buff, but I'm still ultimately more interested in people (i.e, character) than in virtuoso displays of expressionistic technique, even when said displays sort of obliquely reveal character. Nonetheless, the first and final half-hours of Kundun are so exquisite, so magical, so obviously perfect, that I can almost forgive the long, long, long, long, exceedingly lengthy hour or so in-between during which nothing, but nothing, is happening.

I hadn't planned to see The Devil's Advocate (** ½), since the trailer made it look mind-bogglingly stupid and the local reviews were at best mixed, but since both Charles François and Skander Halim seemed to enthusiastically dig it, and since it was playing at NY's cheapo theater on an evening when I had nothing else to do (except, uh, write this column), I decided, Hey, What The Hell. Fact is, it is mind-bogglingly stupid. It's also preposterously entertaining, and I guarantee that my rating would be at least half-a-star higher had an actor, rather than Keanu Reeves, been cast in the lead role. (He tries so hard, but he just doesn't have the tools -- he's like an aspiring basketball player with a great jump shot and superb control and a 5'2" frame. Forget it, Keanu.) Worth $2 just for Pacino's climactic monologue.

Oscar and Lucinda (** ½), based on Peter Carey's award-winning novel, features two of the year's best performances, courtesy Ralph Fiennes and newcomer Cate Blanchett, and little else worth mentioning. I haven't read the book (well, I read the first 60 pages or so back in 1989, but I got distracted and never continued -- this happens way too often), but it's easy to see, just by watching Gillian Armstrong's adaptation, that its (the book's) strengths are woefully uncinematic; the whole thing is one ridiculous overheated literary metaphor, and you can't disguise that fact onscreen the way you can in a lengthy book. (See also Philip Haas' dreadful film of Paul Auster's The Music of Chance.) Or maybe it's simply less irritating on the page, where the author can dazzle you with prose and you're not just sitting there staring at a Big Ol' Honkin' Symbol like, oh, say, a floating church made entirely of glass. Too precious by half. But Ms. Blanchett is goin' places -- mark my words.

You know, I don't have anything to say about The Boxer (** ½). It stars Daniel Day-Lewis and Emily Watson, and they're both more than competent, and neither of them says or does anything in this movie that you haven't seen once a week or more for your entire life. So aggressively average is this film that it might just as well be called The Mean. I barely remember a single detail, less than a month later. My rating strikes me as unnecessarily generous

So much for the also-rans. Let's get to it.

my hopelessly inconsistent and often fairly pointless rules of eligibility, which you can safely skip past if you've encountered them before, since they haven't changed

Films released commercially in New York City in the calendar year 1997 were considered, with the fairly pointless exception of those featuring copyrights more than two years old. (I think the only film ruled out this year was the Oscar nominee Dust of Life, which didn't exactly wow me anyway.) I also considered films less than two years old that did not receive commercial distribution, provided that those films are not currently scheduled for commercial release in 1998. Of course, either of the two films on my list that currently have no distribution status might well turn up in a commercial run later this year, or even sometime in 1999, in which case I'll have included them prematurely by my own hopelessly inconsistent standards. For further details concerning why this all makes less than no sense, and why I demonstrate all the artistic/critical integrity of a cold plate of leftover lasagna, please consult Eric "rules schmules" C. Johnson, who I strongly suspect will have a film at least four years old in his #1 spot this year for the third year running.

finally, to your relief, the list itself

10. L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson) Expected to find this one a bit further on, did you? So did I, once upon a time...which is to say, right up until the moment that Bud White turned up in the back seat of a sedan beside Ms. Lynn Bracken and announced his intention of paying a visit to her sleepy home town. (Few critics were able to resist the comparison to Chinatown, but what they generally failed to mention is that this is a Chinatown in which Jake and Evelyn wind up sipping daiquiris on her veranda as the credits roll.) That it's here in spite of its preposterous (and utterly unearned) sunny ending is a testament to how genuinely thrilling it is before it goes astray; if co-screenwriter Brian Helgeland hadn't also penned last summer's terminally silly Conspiracy Theory, I'd be wondering whether he might not just be the reincarnation of Ben Hecht (note the initials). Still, for all its undeniable panache, I'll always remember it as one of cinema's great missed opportunities -- with the proper conclusion, this movie would have turned up in future Sight and Sound polls. And who knows, maybe it will anyway. I intend to own the laserdisc (or DVD, or whatthehellever), and I doubt that I'll ever sit through the final scene again.

9. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (Errol Morris) Morris' latest rule-bending documentary doesn't deliver The Thin Blue Line's sock in the gut, but it's equally powerful in its own way, offering something not unlike a vigorous cranial massage. In particular, I can't get over its Rorschachian quality; I don't think I've yet encountered two reviews of this movie that came to the same conclusion about its intended theme(s). Part of me marvels at Morris' uncannily incisive selection of interview subjects, and his ability to weave disparate personalities and anecdotes together in such a way that virtually anything said by A resonates with something previously said or soon to be said by B, C, or D, and vice versa quadrilaterally (or something -- words fail me). Another part of me wonders, with a certain amount of awe, whether you might not be able to achieve a similar result with any four people plucked randomly from the aisles of the corner market, provided only that you knew which questions to ask. And this, I realize, is Morris' particular genius: that he knows which questions to ask, and also knows when to shut up and listen. I should also note for the record that Caleb Sampson's magnificent and evocative score is available at a decent music emporium near you; it's rarely left my Discman since I picked it up last fall.

8. Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (Kirby Dick) So I was working the room at my dad's family's annual Christmas get-together, talking to relatives who I hadn't seen in a year or more; and most of them had questions or comments about this site, which my family dutifully reads even as they grumble that they've never heard of most of the films that I review; and at some point it dawned on me that every one of them, without exception, had brought up my review of Sick, a film that none of them had actually seen. And I then began to notice, as others asked me about "that masochist movie," that they invariably took a couple of nervous steps away from me as they did so -- as if they feared that I might suddenly produce a hammer and a nail and offer to demonstrate for them the eponymous subject's most painfully memorable shtick. To those who haven't seen it, it seems, Sick is just a movie about a guy who likes to hurt himself; it's the descriptions of Flanagan's self-mutilation, not his courage and good humor in the face of unfathomable pain, that linger in the reader's memory. And perhaps understandably so. But make no mistake: those who stayed away out of misunderstanding or general squeamishness missed what was, in its own subversive way, the feel-good movie of 1997.

7. Un air de famille (Cédric Klapisch) You don't mind if I throw a bit of a tantrum at this point, do you? Now, I have nothing whatsoever against When the Cat's Away, the Klapisch film that was released by Sony Pictures Classics last summer to pretty decent business for a largely plotless French art film (about a million seven, as I recall). I liked it fine; it's well worth seeing; it's now on video; go rent it if you missed it. But I find it hard to believe -- impossible to believe, in fact -- that its laid-back exploration of urban loneliness and gentrification is more accessible to an American audience than the hilarious, precision-loaded hijinks to be found in Un air de famille, which for some reason nobody on this side of the Atlantic will touch. What's going on here? Do people no longer recognize brilliant farce when they see it? Does nobody care that Klapisch has directed the most gorgeously cinematic adaptation of a single-set play in the history of the medium? Is something not fundamentally awry with the universe when a witty, crowd-pleasing film like this one goes unseen while pretentious pseudo-intellectual piffle like Diary of a Seducer invades our arthouses? That you have not seen this movie, and may never see it, is a travesty. Somebody do something.

(Addendum 16 March: I've just learned that Un air de famille has been picked up itty-bitty Leisure Time Films, so it'll apparently have a commercial run in at least a few major U.S. cities. Good news for film lovers; mildly bad news for me, since now I've mucked up my eligibility rules and included this film a year early. Ah well.)

6. La Promesse (Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne) It's always a bit disconcerting when a filmmaker (or, as in this case, a filmmaking team) emerges, apparently from nowhere, with a first-class picture that subsequently turns out to be merely the latest (albeit possibly the finest) work in a distinguished oeuvre of which you'd been not even remotely aware; you find yourself wondering discontentedly how many other brilliant auteurs are toiling away in semi-obscurity, and why nobody ever bothers to tell you about them. Almost a year and a half after I first saw La Promesse, I still know nothing about the Dardennes' other two narrative features, or their numerous documentaries. I can only assume/infer/guess that their considerable experience with nonfiction filmmaking is what lends this quietly devastating picture its air of utter authenticity; there's not a false moment to be found anywhere -- not a single narrative contrivance or forced line reading or empty display of technique. It's the kind of film that's easy to underrate, precisely because it all appears so effortless. It's also the kind of film that's difficult to write about, precisely because its virtues are so uncomplicated. So I'm going to quit while I'm ahead. This is great stuff.

5. In the Company of Men (Neil LaBute) The year's most remarkable debut (in a walk): a corrosive, masterful frontal assault on male gamesmanship both sexual and (much more often) otherwise, featuring a performance by Aaron Eckhart that sets a new standard for casual emotional tyranny. (I still shiver a bit whenever I think of Chad's genial farewell in his final scene: "See ya Monday.") Hard to believe that this was LaBute's first film; his pungent Mametian dialogue is hilarious, sure, but he also managed to shoot a visually arresting feature in just eleven days with about as much money as my dad spent on his (my dad's) most recent car, demonstrating more cinematic ingenuity than fellow low-budget wunderkind Kevin Smith has been able to muster in three times at bat. (Okay, okay, I'll leave Smith alone.) Not a movie for the faint of heart -- I suspect that most people, and especially most men, will see more of themselves in meek, grasping Howard than they might care to admit -- but then, as Kafka once asked, "If a book we are reading does not rouse us with a blow to the head, then why read it?" (Anybody who writes to point out that In the Company of Men is not a book will be eviscerated by slow degrees.)

4. The Bread and the Vase (Mohsen Makhmalbaf) More commonly known by the comparatively bland title A Moment of Innocence, this is the Makhmalbaf film that didn't get released commercially in the U.S. (though I hear tell that it did turn up in Canada). Instead, it was Makhmalbaf's beautiful but rather amorphous Gabbeh that the average (urban, adventurous) American moviegoer was given the opportunity to see; that film was even reviewed on Siskel & Ebert, which leads me to believe that it saw the inside of a fair number of projectors (for an Iranian picture, anyway). Like the Klapisch situation described above, this makes no sense at all: Gabbeh, whatever one may think of its merits as art, is about as accessible as The Color of Pomegranates, whereas The Bread and the Vase is not only a story well-told, but a story well-told twice -- first narrated bit by bit to a pair of aspiring actors, then re-enacted by those actors with gut-wrenching variations. That it's based on a real incident from Makhmalbaf's past only heightens its emotional power -- life-affirming humanism doesn't come any less pushy or mawkish than this. Others are welcome to sniffle at the banal psychotherapy of Good Will Hunting; I'll be wiping away my tears at Makhmalbaf's stirring act of contrition...the most movingly optimistic film I know. If I ever get a chance to see it again, that is.

3. The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan) I wish I didn't believe so passionately that outsiders should never never never under any circumstances interfere with a director's work, because it would be a simple matter for me to recut Egoyan's latest stunner in such a way that it would wind up two notches higher on this list than it currently is -- right where his Exotica was a mere two years ago. I wouldn't need reshoots or stock footage, maybe not even ADR work: just let me go into the editing room and remove most of the Pied Piper material. That's all. Let me see this film without having to endure Sarah Polley reciting invented verses like "And why I lied/He only knew..." Let me revel in the magnificent performances and breathtaking cinematography and heartbreakingly fractured narrative without Egoyan's elbow in my ribs, nudging me to pay attention to the various thematic confluences that he's so carefully engineered. (I still can't believe that Atom "figure it out for yourself" Egoyan resorted to such sledgehammer-subtle tactics.) Because I'll tell you something: remove those minor but extremely damaging elements, and The Sweet Hereafter would be perfect. Not only better; not just "great"; not merely a masterpiece. Perfect.

2. Irma Vep (Olivier Assayas) My alarmingly frequent correspondent-cum-groupie Charles Lin, who I'm sure is very excited to see his name in one of my columns and will be writing very soon to share that excitement with me, once asked me to select a few of my favorite passages from my own reviews. I never got around to doing so -- it just seemed too hubristic, even though I'd been asked -- but I do sometimes look back on my work with what I think is a bit more objectivity than I could muster at the time, and I must say that I think that my review of Irma Vep was the worst piece I wrote all year: lazy, superficial, incoherent, and just generally lacking any kind of insight that might clue the reader in as to why I liked the damn thing so much. And the frustrating thing is that I still can't articulate my reasons; my love for the film seems in some bizarre way to entirely transcend logic and reason, so that whatever limited critical faculties I possess are completely disengaged, and I'm reduced to pointing at the screen with a wild-eyed, gleeful expression. The best that I can do, finally, is this: Irma Vep -- as opposed to formulaic macho crap like Broken Arrow -- is my idea of cool.

1. The Game (David Fincher) Look, I don't even wanna hear it, all right? The best and the brightest have shared with me their various dissatisfactions and quibbles and complaints, and I remain unswayed: this was far and away the year's most underrated movie, both a sensationally entertaining exercise in urban paranoia and a deeply felt (albeit only in retrospect, which is what seems to throw people) tale of exorcism and salvation. And that's not even considering Fincher's visual mastery, which made most of the year's other movies look wan and inert by comparison. Naturally, what most people remember most vividly and discuss most fervently is the mind-altering conclusion, but oddly enough it's the smaller, throwaway moments that tend to stick with me: Nicholas Van Orton gamely attempting to explain to Catherine how he happened to have the elevator key ("it was, um, in the mouth of this, uh...wooden...clown..."), or the eerily realistic pain-reliever commercial in which he spots CRS operative Feingold (I wouldn't be surprised if James Rebhorn starts getting offers to do real spots), or the simple fact that Fincher &c. have enough faith in our patience that they let Van Orton lug that copy of To Kill a Mockingbird around for a while before showing us why he grabbed it. Even as lightweight, shallow entertainment, it deserves a lot more credit than it's received; my thoroughly atypical emotional reaction aside, I'd be thrilled if even half of Hollywood's seemingly endless parade of thrillers were one-tenth as sharp and subtle as this one. If, as Theo Panayides suggests, The Game turns out decades hence to be a lesser, half-forgotten picture in Fincher's oeuvre, then we're in for one helluva ride.

credit where credit is due

The structure of this piece, as well as elements of the prose style, were shamelessly filched from David Foster Wallace, whose Infinite Jest, for those who haven't yet encountered it, is like the mindfuck of all time. Highly recommended, even though I'm still months away from finishing it at my current rate of page-turning speed.

Next time (in all likelihood): Four Days in September, The Gingerbread Man, illtown, Nil by Mouth