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With an average of seven movies opening every week, not counting premieres at the Hirshhorn, AFI, National Gallery, Library of Congress, and other noncommercial venues, it’s virtually impossible to compile a comprehensive best-of-the-year list. Of the films I’ve written about in 1997, these gave me the most pleasure:
1.) Contempt The revival of Jean-Luc Godard’s little-seen, long-unavailable 1963 masterpiece belatedly found the audience the film so richly deserves. A poetic juxtaposition of classicism and modernism, it expresses abstract ideas in exquisite images, and features compelling performances by Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Michel Piccoli, and Fritz Lang.
2.) Level Five Once again, veteran filmmaker Chris Marker breaks fresh ground with this unsummarizable computer-generated collage of video game, historical inquiry, and psychodrama. Fascinating, demanding, exhausting, and, at times, almost impenetrable, it’s the only movie I’ve seen all year that merits the adjective “new.”
3.) “Alan Bennett’s England” The National Gallery’s retrospective of films and television plays written by Britain’s smartest, wittiest, most humane dramatist redeemed an otherwise barren summer and vividly demonstrated why Bennett’s countrymen regard him as a national treasure.
4.) The Full Monty English director Peter Cattaneo’s warm-hearted debut feature delicately balances humor and melancholy, leaving audiences with a feeling of satisfaction few contemporary movies afford. Intelligent and funny, socially engaged yet entertaining, it has deservedly become the most successful British film ever distributed in the U.S.
5.) L.A. Confidential Writer-director Curtis Hanson’s artful compression of James Ellroy’s panoramic 1990 crime novel careens along at breakneck pace. Densely plotted, elegantly crafted, and skillfully performed by an ensemble cast, it proves that Hollywood is still capable of producing gratifying fare for grown-ups.
6.) Sling Blade Actor-writer Billy Bob Thornton’s directorial debut is a mesmerizing oddity, by turns macabrely comic and surprisingly affecting. Inspired performances and a palpable feeling for rural Southern atmosphere hold the screenplay’s Gumpian sentimentality at bay.
7.) Prisoner of the Mountains Sergei Bodrov’s film about two Russian soldiers ambushed by Muslims on a Caucasus mountain pass is a traditional narrative with a distinctly modern sensibility, combining stylized cinematography and elliptical editing with passages of dark humor and touches of magical realism.
8.) In & Out Screenwriter Paul Rudnick and director Frank Oz unleash a torrent of cheeky throwaway gags in a comedy that’s unabashedly gay in every sense of the word. An implausible plot twist and a lumpish ending are counterbalanced by Kevin Kline’s deft star turn and the screenplay’s gleeful disregard for political correctness.
9.) The Sweet Hereafter Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan breaks out of the art-theater ghetto with this adaptation of Russell Banks’ novel about an isolated British Columbia community devastated by a school-bus accident that claims the lives of 14 children. Despite patches of overly explicit dialogue and a mood of unrelieved misery, the filmmaker masterfully juggles time tenses in a mosaic narrative that leaves viewers with unresolved questions and bruised emotions long after the final credits roll.
10.) Fast, Cheap & Out of Control Nonfiction filmmaker Errol Morris interweaves interviews with four creature-obsessed mena lion tamer, a mole-rat specialist, a topiary gardener, and a robot designerto contemplate the resourcefulness and vulnerability of our own species. Presented in a distractingly intricate collage format that incorporates old and new footage shot in a panoply of visual processes, the result is by turns enlightening and exasperating.
11.) Le Samouraï# There’s never been a gangster thriller as solemn as Jean-Pierre Melville’s ritualistic 1967 study of the last days of a Parisian hit man, unseen in this country for several decades. As a dramatic narrative, it’s comatose, but it’s remarkable as an exercise in pure cinematic style.
Four performers deserve special mention for their contributions to otherwise undistinguished movies: mercurial Renée Zellweger in The Whole Wide World, spellbinding Gena Rowlands in Unhook the Stars, impudent Parker Posey in The House of Yes, and brassy Bette Midler in That Old Feeling.
I prefer not to dwell on the year’s least rewarding moviegoing experiences, but if I could live my life over again, I would take pains to avoid Hotel de Love, Lost Highway, Gray’s Anatomy, ‘Til There Was You, A Smile Like Yours, Cafe Society, One Night Stand, The Ice Storm, Speed 2: Cruise Control, and Woody Allen’s upcoming Deconstructing Harry, a Christmas gift from hell.CP