As Merely OK as It Gets

While not a movie year to go down in infamy, 1997 was still mostly full of hype and holler. If the annual yield is judged by how many great films came out, 1997 was a loser. If you factor in the number of films that brought fresh talents and fresh subjects to the screen, the yield is slightly better. And yet there was enough going in the movies -- enough good work or at least enough interesting bad work -- to keep this critic in clover.

Herewith some notes on the year in film that just passed:

Happy Ending: Probably the best American film of the year was L.A. Confidential, and its clean sweep of the critics' groups should help turn it into a box-office success. Its initial lack of commercial firepower was, I think, due to a combination of woes. First, it was released in too few theaters; second, it was issued at different times throughout the nation. Further, it's a film noir, and audiences have never quite cozied to the genre -- even Chinatown was not a smash when first released. And the lack of stars in the cast may have hurt.

But one reason I hope L.A. Confidential does well is because it lacked major names (other than Kevin Spacey, who appeared in a supporting role). Warner Bros. Pictures backed cowriter-director Curtis Hanson's decision to go with two near-unknowns as the leads: the Australians Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce. The studio's gamble paid off. It's vital to the health of the film industry that movie companies be encouraged to go with offbeat or unknown casting choices, especially because so many new and talented actors are turning up in small independent movies.

Overlooked: A couple of films that I liked and thought deserved a better fate were Conspiracy Theory and Mimic. I'm not sure why critics were so hostile to Conspiracy Theory -- it features a manic, scattershot performance by Mel Gibson that's probably his best ever, and Julia Roberts is remarkable as his steadying, indulgent muse. (I like her better here than in the overrated My Best Friend's Wedding.) Despite some pulpy passages, it's a terrific thriller-romance with a valiant heart. By its end Gibson's frantic energy is transformed into ardor.

Mimic is a giant-bug picture, but its director, the Mexican Guillermo del Toro, is a true movie poet, and he stages some sequences that are as creepy and suggestive as anything in the great silent horror classics by F.W. Murnau or Carl Dreyer. Perhaps audiences have been so pummeled by the grand-scale glop of movies such as Men in Black and Starship Troopers -- a glop I happen to enjoy -- that the lyrical glop of Mimic seems wimpy by comparison.

Foreign Matter: The most remarkable foreign-language film of the year was Jan Troell's Hamsun, which I think was also far and away the best film of 1997. It's a masterpiece about a great subject: the enigma of the artist who is also a fascist. As the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, who became a Nazi collaborator in his eighties, Max von Sydow gives the kind of performance that can truly be called a "summation." He draws on everything he's learned as an actor in more than 40 years of performing; it's one of the most remarkably detailed displays I've ever seen, right down to the slight tremor in Hamsun's hands.

The Belgian La Promesse, directed by the brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which tells of a boy who betrays his father, was one of the rare films that merged fictional and documentary techniques into a seamless whole. Jacques Audiard's A Self-Made Hero was a tricky, light-fingered stunner about a man, played extraordinarily well by Mathieu Kassovitz, who reinvents himself as a French Resistance hero after WWII. The reinvention is presented almost breezily as a con game, but it's only afterward that it takes on a greater significance. It's a metaphor for France's own reinvention of its collaborationist past.

Most of the foreign films with widespread audience appeal favored corseted costume drama and sentimental exotica. The Japanese Shall We Dance? is a perfectly enjoyable weepie that looks like it was made to be remade -- in Hollywood. The British literary-adaptation mill turned out two Henry James productions: Washington Square, in which Jennifer Jason Leigh injects an incongruous modern neurosis into the story; and the more accomplished The Wings of the Dove, which brings Helena Bonham Carter into the front rank of actresses. (Next up: movie versions of The Golden Bowl and The Aspern Papers.)

I didn't care for The Sweet Hereafter, by Canada's Atom Egoyan, as much as most critics did. It's an artful film, but it doesn't only dramatize a community tragedy; it seems to suggest that the tragedy was an emanation of the vacuousness of small-town life. The most annoying "art-house" hit of the year was The Full Monty, yet another British film about clubby working-class guys showing off how drearily delectable their lives are. The rage and passion and lyricism that informed movies about working-class life in Britain back in the Sixties (for example, Look Back in Anger and A Taste of Honey) has been replaced by a remarkable harmlessness: Movies such as The Full Monty or Brassed Off seem as if they were made for the American market -- or, more precisely, the American tourist trade.

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