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The movie biz and its mainstream-media lackeys have trained us to think of films in terms of their first-week grosses, so it’s appropriate that Hollywood at the end of 1997 seems a bit like Wall Street. Both are doing their best to ignore disheartening financial harbingers, and both are dead set on staying the course. But the news from the nation’s megaplexes isn’t much more encouraging than the reports from the Seoul stock market.
If you believe the official line, filmmaking is all about blockbusters, but in 1997 Hollywood didn’t make very many. Among the 10 top-grossing films were several modest comedies and one film, Star Wars, that was (mostly) made 20 years ago. Batman and Robin earned more than $100 million, but that was considered such a disappointment that Warner Bros. announced a merciful end to the series. The Lost World: Jurassic Park did the kind of business it was meant to, but nobody seemed to like it much. Despite frequently rapturous commentary on their supercharged inanity, The Fifth Element, The Saint, and Starship Troopers weren’t huge hits, and The Peacemaker and Speed 2: Cruise Control weren’t even small hits.
And yet bigger is still supposed to be better. Since discussing the budget is now taken to be half the thrill of moviegoing, the Christmas sensation should be Titanic. As everyone knows, it’s the most expensive movie ever made, which is some sort of perverse innovation: It used to be that filmmakers set movies on boats or trains so they could credibly save money by using a small cast and limited locations. Titanic, however, is a $200-million chamber drama. Worse, it’s a harbinger of a new trend, the disaster-plus movie. It offers disaster-plus-romance: Leonardo DiCaprio not only gets to reprise Romeo but also to play co-star Kate Winslet’s early-’97 role, Ophelia. Coming early next year is Hard Rain, which promises disaster-plus-suspense. This seems like a lot of bother to keep alive a genre that never should have been revived. But Twister made money, so expect a few more years of this.
As if to prove that the big-movie juggernaut can’t be stopped, Washington’s only independent cinema, the Key, closed earlier this month. Although there are rumors of new theaters that might fill that gap, the only certaintybarring a sudden awakening of the government’s antitrust lawyersis that Cineplex Odeon and Sony Cinemas will merge, making the local film-exhibition business even more monolithic.
It’s not just the exhibitors that limit people’s filmgoing choices, however. The distributors are increasingly reluctant to pick up films that are perceived as difficult, whether because they’re downbeat, serious, or simply in a foreign language. The “independents” (which are mostly owned by major media corporations) now specialize in lightweight fare made in the U.S.A. or other English-speaking countries. The result is a distribution system that can bring us Matthew Harrison’s worthless Kicked in the Head but not Claire Denis’ acclaimed Nénette and Boni, Michael Winterbottom’s glib Welcome to Sarajevo (opening next month in D.C.) but not Emir Kusturica’s passionate Underground (which ran briefly at the Key almost three years after its European debut), and Wim Wenders’ muddled The End of Violence but not his lyrical Lisbon Story (which will probably show up at AFI next year).
Despite all this, some excellent films played commercially this year in Washington, products of both the major studios and the indie upstarts. Young directors like Kevin Smith and Paul Thomas Anderson made breakthrough movies, and Atom Egoyan will probably be in their company by the end of the holiday-film-glut season. British master Mike Newell (The Good Father, An Awfully Big Adventure) made an unexpected transition to a traditional Hollywood topic, the mob, and such film-festival stars as Wong Kar-Wai and Olivier Assayas lived up to their reputations. The long-awaited Underground got a brief commercial run, while first-time fiction-film directors Hirokazu Kore-eda, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, and Cédric Klapisch did distinctive work. Of course, half the films on this top 10 played at the Keywhich doesn’t bode well for 1998.
As always, the following films were chosen from those that premiered in commercial cinemas (or in an AFI one-to-two-week run) in Washington in 1997, and are in alphabetical order. Movies that opened for Oscar consideration in late 1996 only in New York and L.A. are eligible here, while those that will open only in those cities in late 1997 are not. Because of deadline considerations, I haven’t seen a few films yet to open this year. An American Werewolf in Paris doesn’t seem like Top 10 material to me, though. And many of the most promising Christmastime movies (Kundun, Wag the Dog, The Boxer, Afterglow, Oscar and Lucinda, The Apostle) won’t open in Washington ’til January anyway.
Boogie Nights GoodFellas is one obvious model for Paul Thomas Anderson’s ’70s-porn Bildungsroman, and as with Scorsese the storytelling is sometimes more compelling than the story. Despite the inevitable narrative letdown, though, this was the year’s most energetic, ebullient American film.
Chasing Amy The unexpectedly ambitious third film from writer-director Kevin Smith is awkward and overloaded in places, but that suits this powerfully heartfelt spiritual autobiography about a Jersey guy striving to accept the wider world (in the form of a bisexual girlfriend) while his alter ego (in the form of his close friend) fights to retain their narrow wisdom.
Donnie Brasco With the influence of Tarantino waning (even on Tarantino, as Jackie Brown demonstrates), we didn’t see as many dumb crooks this year. Even if we had, though, Al Pacino’s low-level mob functionary would have topped them all. Leave it to a British director like Mike Newell to see thug life as an arcane comedy of manners.
Happy Together Tracking two estranged gay Hong Kong lovers through the back streets of Buenos Aires, Wong Kar-Wai’s melancholy whimsy is about losswhich is to say it’s about Hong Kong, the wide-open city that vanished forever on July 1.
Irma Vep Audacious young French director Olivier Assayas, whose work is tentatively scheduled for a retrospective here next year, gets his first American release with a smart, funny, freewheeling film that’s about nothing less than the crisis of contemporary French cinemaas well as sex, music, language, Hong Kong action flicks, and the transcultural appeal of Maggie Cheung.
Maborosi Hirokazu Kore-eda’s austere masterpiece would be worth seeing simply as a series of incandescent almost-still lifes, but this hushed tale of a young woman’s life after her husband’s suicide is also, in just a moment of unexpected release, emotionally wrenching.
La Promesse In their first fiction film, Belgian documentarians Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne present the dilemma of Europe and its new immigrants as a bracing, unsettling moral drama: A teenage boy must chose between his loyalty to his father and his promise to an African woman, and neither choice can be satisfactory.
While The Cat’s Away Also indebted to documentary, Cédric Klapisch’s film uses a lost cat as the means to reveal not just the cat’s owner but the neighbors she never really noticed before. Fresh, free, and partially improvised, this takes an intimate yet kaleidoscopic look at the world contained in a single Parisian neighborhood.
Underground Controversial for reasons both aesthetic and politically arcane, Emir Kusturica’s allegorical and absurdist meditation on 50 years of Yugoslavian history mixes archival and new footage, suicide and fratricide, history and parable in the darkest of burlesques.
The Sweet Hereafter Atom Egoyan finally reaches beyond his own obsessionsbut not too farin this exquisite, somber adaptation of Russell Banks’ novel about the aftermath of a small-town school-bus crash. Egoyan has always been a self-conscious storyteller, so the most remarkable thing about this film is how its complex structure elegantly reflects the town’s collective consciousness.
Making such selections is hardly a scientific process, so I can’t fully explain why those 10 made the list and Diary of a Seducer, My Sex Life (or How I Got Into an Argument), Gabbeh, Some Mother’s Son, and The Whole Wide World didn’t.
This year brought many films that were significantly flawed but still powerful, including La Cérémonie; Fire; The Portrait of a Lady; Pretty Village, Pretty Flame; She’s So Lovely; Sunday; The Tango Lesson; Temptress Moon; Three Lives and Only One Death; Twin Town; Ulysses’ Gaze; Unhook the Stars; and Les Voleurs. There were even more films that were interesting or entertaining but finally underwhelming, notably Brassed Off, Citizen Ruth, Face/Off, Fairytale: A True Story, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, Four Little Girls, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting, Hamsun, Madadayo, Men in Black, Mother, Mrs. Brown, The Pillow Book, Prisoner of the Mountains, Shall We Dance?, Ulee’s Gold, U-Turn, Waiting for Guffman, Washington Square, and The Wings of the Dove.
I don’t try to keep track of the year’s worst films, but the most overrated were Children of the Revolution, The Ice Storm, In the Company of Men, L.A. Confidential, Sling Blade, and When We Were Kings. And, as a small measure of revenge, here are the ones that were most painful to sit through: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, The House of Yes, The Myth of Fingerprints, The Saint, and ‘Til There Was You.
I don’t know what life without the Key will be like, but I do know where I’ll see challenging films in Washington in 1998. From museum gift shops to Positive Force shows, numerous virtual strangers have asked me where they can see more interesting films than those that screen in the mainstream megaplexes. The answer is the American Film Institute, the National Gallery, the Hirshhorn, the Freer, and other local nonprofit cinemas, as well as the many local film festivals. It’s much harder to make it to a film when it only screens once or twice, but those who attended the nonprofit venues faithfully in 1997 could see not only such austere and arty films as Aleksandr Sokurov’s Mother and Son but also the best Jackie Chan movie to play D.C. this year, Project A.
While commercial theaters showed such important reissues as Godard’s Contempt, Lang’s M, Polanski’s Repulsion, and Roeg’s Walkabout, the local nonprofits presented remarkable retrospectives of Shyam Benegal, Alan Bennett, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Peter Greenaway, Tsui Hark, Miklós Jancsó, Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mario Monicelli, Gordon Parks, Jacques Rivette (including three local premieres), Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Jan Troell, and Frederick Wiseman.
If I were to pick an alternative Top 10 of premieres I saw this year in local nonprofit venuesnot including AFI’s longer runsthe choices would include Carine Adler’s Under the Skin, Chantal Akerman’s A Couch in New York, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Beyond the Clouds, Alan Berliner’s Nobody’s Business, Peter Chan’s Comrades, Almost a Love Story, Sue Clayton’s The Disappearance of Finbar, Ibolya Fekete’s Bolshe Vita, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Good Men, Good Women and Dust in the Wind, Shu Kei’s Stage Door, Stanley Kwan’s The Actress, Chris Marker’s Level Five, Gustavo Mosquera’s Moebius, Jacques Rivette’s Love on the Ground, Nicolas Roeg’s Two Deaths, and Elia Suleiman’s Chronicle of a Disappearance. That’s a pretty encouraging list. If, as seems increasingly likely, the future of intelligent film is in nonprofit venues, then Washington is unusually well equipped to survive the possible crash of Hollywood’s blockbuster machine.CP