The Year in Film 1997

Salon Entertainment: Salon film critic Charles Taylor chooses the best movies of 1997.

Published December 24, 1997 12:46PM (EST)

IN A NOT-VERY-GOOD year for movies, the problem with a 10-best list isn't
knowing what to put on, but what to leave off. Once you get past the
ludicrousness inherent in any of these lists (how much better is No. 6
than No. 7?), it becomes harder to decide what makes the cut and what
doesn't. So I've cheated. I've put 11 movies on my list. My excuse is that
excluding any of them from a list of the year's best movies made the
resulting list feel incomplete.

Among my honorable mentions are two movies opening in the next few weeks:
Gillian Armstrong's flawed and magical "Oscar and Lucinda" and the
wild-card political satire "Wag the Dog." I was disappointed that the
anything-goes road romance "A Life Less Ordinary" wasn't the hit it
deserved to be, and happy that John Woo's crazily operatic "Face/Off" was.
There are two less-well-publicized pictures, both on video, that I hope
people will seek out: Angela Pope's "Hollow Reed," a wrenching domestic
drama beautifully acted by Martin Donovan, Joely Richardson and Ian
Hart, and Clare Peploe's "Rough Magic," a piece of hard-boiled magical
realism with Bridget Fonda, picking up where Lauren Bacall left off in "To
Have and Have Not," and Russell Crowe, displaying more charm and sexiness
than he does in "L.A. Confidential." And there are other performances that
shouldn't be missed: Mike Nichols in "The Designated Mourner," Martha
Plimpton in "Eye of God" and Robert Downey Jr. in "One Night Stand."

The hunger for good movies this year may explain why "L.A. Confidential"
was so wildly overrated, and why the awesome triviality "Titanic" is being
treated as if it were Griffith or Lean when it isn't even Irwin Allen. At
the end of each year film critics look at our lists and try to glean some
story from them. This year, I can't see anything more important than the
conviction of people who, despite everything, still believe that good work
is possible.

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"Irma Vep" (France): Olivier Assayas' deceptively modest comedy
about the making (and unmaking) of a movie is actually a demonstration of
how, for a filmmaker, an entire movie can be contained in one face. Here
that face belongs to Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung, playing herself starring
in a remake of Feuillade's "Les Vampires." She's muse both to Assayas and
the director of the film within the film, played by French New Wave icon
Jean-Pierre Leaud in an endearingly eccentric performance. Parodying the
foolhardiness of both the art houses and the multiplexes, "Irma Vep"
acknowledges everything that stands in the way of making movies today and
then defies those obstacles by brimming over with the freedom and lyricism
and inventiveness too many of us are ready to relegate to the past. "Irma
Vep" is alive to the possibilities of the movies in a way that nothing else
I saw this year comes close to. Cheung, scampering over the roofs of
Paris in black and white, could stand for the glories the movies have given
us and the glories they've yet to yield up.

"Donnie Brasco" (U.S.): This exceptionally intelligent and adult
gangster film, directed by Mike Newell and written by Paul Attanasio, is
distinguished by the work of Johnny Depp as an FBI agent who goes
undercover to infiltrate the mob, and Al Pacino as the aging hood he
befriends and must betray. Depp's performance hums with the tension of
casting an instinctively expressive actor as a man whose life depends on
being able to control his reactions. And Pacino, in a role that offers him
a dozen ways to go soft, dries out the conception of a hood-with-heart and
turns in his warmest performance.

"Haut bas fragile" ("Up Down Fragile") (France): Legendary French filmmaker Jacques
Rivette's sort-of-musical, with its sort-of-plot about three young women
(Laurence Cote, Natalie Richard, Marianne Denicourt) in summertime Paris,
is typically long (nearly three hours). But that length allows us to
experience the sense of expanding time that's Rivette's great subject. He
fills his movie with songs and incidents for the sheer pleasure of enjoying
the company of the people he puts on-screen. This joyous picture -- released in France in 1995 but shown at several U.S. film festivals this year -- is like an
attempt to extend the feeling of Manet's "Le dejeuner sur l'herbe," to make
us, for its duration, so alive to our surroundings that the deep
satisfaction of Manet's perfect moment doesn't have to pass.
("Haut bas fragile" can be ordered from its distributor, Baltimore's Cinema

"Kissed" (Canada): As the tape-recorded message at my local art
theater described it, "That movie about necrophilia." And there wasn't a
sweeter, more erotic movie this year than Lynne Stopkewich's debut. Based
on a Barbara Gowdy short story, "Kissed" is about a young female mortician
who makes love to the male corpses she prepares because she can't separate
her sexuality from her spirituality. In the lead, Molly Parker had the most
winning fresh-from-the-lily-pad look since Sissy Spacek in "Carrie," taking
in everything through her huge eyes as if she were seeing it for the first

"Welcome to Sarajevo" (U.K.): Messy and visceral, and with an
articulate, pointed anger, Michael Winterbottom's openly polemical film is
about a British reporter (Stephen Dillane) who begins to question the
distance that is his profession's article of faith when he tries to rescue
a 9-year-old girl from the siege of Sarajevo. Winterbottom is out to
make the misery of Sarajevo seep into your bones, and to make you outraged
at the Western officials who allowed genocide to occur. His methods may not
be those of an artist, but his movie is so raw and alive that it makes
questions of art seem beside the point.

"Chasing Amy" (U.S.): Kevin Smith's ragged and affecting
boy-meets-lesbian story is the only romantic comedy in a while to
even to celebrate, the fact that love and sex are emotional anarchy,
upsetting our most cherished beliefs about who we think we are. As much of
a mess as a movie can be and still be good, "Chasing Amy" takes risk after
risk that pays off. The pleasure of this bracingly, liberatingly profane
comedy is that of seeing a movie that feels absolutely contemporary.

"The Sweet Hereafter" (Canada): I've never liked anything by Atom
Egoyan before, and there are still traces of cold schematism in this
adaptation of Russell Banks' novel. But the subject of this film -- the
aftermath of a school bus crash that kills nearly all the children in a
rural Canadian town -- requires a director who can come to grips with the
world's profound lack of safety and certainty. Fittingly, Egoyan responds
with the realization that he must learn to trust his instincts. Weeks after
seeing this haunting and mournful film, its mood still comes flooding over
me, especially when I recall the face of the remarkable Sarah Polley, who
plays a teenage girl who survives the accident. She offers the camera the
face of someone who never had regrets until she learned the uselessness of

"Boogie Nights" (U.S.): Twenty-seven-year-old Paul Thomas Anderson
is a wildly ambitious filmmaker who can't yet distinguish his good
instincts from his bad ones. Before it falls into Scorsese-and-Tarantino
mannerisms in its second half, this epic comedy about the glory days of the
California porn industry (the late '70s and early '80s) is the most loving
look at the cracked schemes of American fantasists since Jonathan Demme's
"Citizen's Band" and "Melvin and Howard." With the help of a superb
ensemble cast, including Burt Reynolds doing the best work of his career,
"Boogie Nights" sails right past the moralism that usually defines dramatic
treatments of porn and surges with the exhilaration of the most daring
American comedies.

"The Wings of the Dove" (U.K.): As a young woman who tries to
persuade her lover to romance a dying American heiress (the heartbreaking
and luminous Alison Elliot) so they can inherit her fortune, Helena
Bonham-Carter does her best work yet. This adaptation of Henry James' last
novel requires her to keep her divided, ever-shifting motives hidden behind
a Jamesian veil. It's a ferociously difficult role, and she's superb. "The
Wings of the Dove" is sumptuously shot by Eduardo Serra and beautifully
directed by Iain Softley ("Backbeat"), but this costume drama never
sacrifices passion to production values. Layered and complex, it also
carries a sting in its tail.

"Kundun" (U.S.): Martin Scorsese's lovely film on the early life of
the 14th (and current) Dalai Lama has the simplicity of a fairy tale that's
been handed down for generations. "Kundun" clears away the clutter of
Scorsese's recent films. Staying true to the spirit of his subject,
Scorsese and his cinematographer, Roger Deakins, have made a film that's a
flow of incidents and images that might be described as chastely ravishing.
It's a movie that affects you with its dignity and tranquil conviction.

"The Boxer" (Ireland): Set against the backdrop of the recent
Northern Ireland cease-fire, Jim Sheridan's drama doesn't soar as his
earlier "My Left Foot" and "In the Name of the Father" did. But in the
title role of an IRA soldier who returns to his Belfast neighborhood after
14 years in prison, determined to restart his life free of the old
sectarian grudges, Daniel Day-Lewis gives a performance of controlled
passion without a wasted word or gesture. And as an IRA prisoner's wife
he's out to win back, Emily Watson combines the bloom of a young girl with
the weariness of someone made to honor allegiances that take no account of

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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