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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.  

Performance Art: Worth noting are a number of performances that may get lost in the Oscar shuffle. Mike Nichols, in The Designated Mourner, gives an astonishing display of world-weary cynicism; I've rarely seen an actor deliver lines so effortlessly -- as if they came right out of him. Al Pacino, high- and low-key, respectively, in The Devil's Advocate and Donnie Brasco, was a sight to see. In Red Corner the luminous Chinese actress Bai Ling has a grace and alertness that seem ready-made for the camera. The same is true for Hope Davis in The Daytrippers. As the talent-challenged theatrical impresario in Waiting for Guffman, Christopher Guest gives one of the funniest strutting-peacock performances I've ever seen. And for all the hoo-hah about Robert Duvall in The Apostle, I would rather single out from that film John Beasley as the black preacher whose reticence is more eloquent than any Holy Roller holler.

Good Directors, Half Speed: This was one of those years in which some gifted directors seemed to be marking time. Francis Ford Coppola's John Grisham's The Rainmaker -- don't you hate proprietary titles? -- was moderately entertaining and eminently forgettable. David Lynch's Lost Highway had some of his old visual flair and spectral suggestiveness but was so incoherent that it came across as a private joke. Roger Spottiswoode, a great director who hasn't worked on material truly worthy of him since 1983's Under Fire, needed a commercial hit to stay in the game, and I hope Tomorrow Never Dies, a not-bad Bond bash, does it for him. Gillian Armstrong, who had a strong success with Little Women (1994) and made a great film with High Tide (1987), comes through in Oscar and Lucinda with a beautifully crafted film of enameled emptiness. Mike Figgis was overrated for 1995's Leaving Las Vegas, but his moody-blues malaise in that film is miles ahead of the disaster that is One Night Stand. Quentin Tarantino in Jackie Brown does a pretty good job of serving novelist Elmore Leonard, on whose book the film is based, but a less effective job of serving himself.

The Commies Are Back: After rooting around unsuccessfully for many post-Cold War years trying to find villains to replace the Commies, Hollywood has taken the imaginative leap of targeting... Commies. Admittedly it's difficult to find a suitable replacement: Just about every racial and ethnic group is off-limits, and you can go up against intergalactic goop only so many times. The return of the Commies, in films ranging from The Saint and Air Force One (Russian variety) to Seven Years in Tibet and Red Corner and Kundun (Chinese variety), is like a trip down memory lane. It's a villainy we can relate to. After all who else can be targeted with impunity any more? There are Southern white racists, of course, but they don't have the same heft -- and besides, who wants to see any more John Grisham movies?

The Presidency Is Back: If the Commies are back, we need a strong leader to fight them, right? But here the picture gets a little fuzzy. This is the Clinton era, after all. If one believes, as I do, that movies reflect the administration in power at the time, then the great presidential movie of our time is not Air Force One, with Harrison Ford's growl going up against Gary Oldman's borscht-thick accent, but rather Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog, in which a phony war is ostensibly staged in Albania by a spin-doctor (Robert De Niro) and a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to divert the nation's attention from a presidential indiscretion with a chicklette.

There doesn't seem to be any middle ground now when it comes to Presidents in the movies: Either they're clenched-jawed types like Harrison Ford, or they're scumbag dalliers like Gene Hackman in Absolute Power or the faceless president we glimpse only from the back in Wag the Dog. Even Nigel Hawthorne's Martin Van Buren in Steven Spielberg's dripping waxworks Amistad comes across as a loon.

Because Americans are often at their best when they don't take themselves, or their Presidents, too seriously, I hope that Wag the Dog and not Air Force One is the coming order. For one thing it's an infinitely better movie, but it also has a high-flying, revue-sketch irreverence that resembles, I think, how Americans these days actually relate to their government. It isn't until you see a movie as "smart" as Wag the Dog that you realize how dumb and pontificating most other films are -- and how deprived you've been.  

The Family Is Back: With national pride comes family pride. For a few years now, our screens have been filling up with movies about families, but lately the uplift has downshifted. While it's still OK to show black families celebrating their togetherness (Soul Food), white families are breaking apart like dry leaves. It seems all those homilies about home and hearth were a lie. The problem with most of the current crop of family-themed movies is they never move beyond the shock factor. We in the audience are more wised-up than the filmmakers, and that's never much fun.

For example, A Thousand Acres is a retooled King Lear; in it Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange, and Jason Robards take turns wearing long faces. The Myth of Fingerprints also boasts a first-rate cast -- including Julianne Moore, Blythe Danner, and Hope Davis -- but sets them to nattering and moaning. It's like Etch A Sketch Eugene O'Neill.

Then there's The Ice Storm, in which suburban swingers from the Seventies get it in the neck. It's payback time for all those crum-bum parents who, neglecting their children, mate-swapped their way to purgatory. The Ice Storm is one chilly movie, but things couldn't have been so freeze-dried back then. If they were then nobody would have had any fun, and there would be no need for such puritanical cinematic purges.

At least one new movie, Greg Mottola's The Daytrippers, features an extended family that actually resembles a real one. You couldn't ask for a more headache-inducing matriarch than Anne Meara's Rita, and, as her daughters Jo and Eliza, respectively, Parker Posey and Hope Davis have just the right battle-fatigued look. The family members in The Daytrippers are a familiar horror, but Mottola is such an observant writer-director that they stop being horrible after a while. We can't stand apart from them because we are them. The togetherness in this movie is earned because it hasn't been tenderized for us.

The most unexpected of family-themed movies turned out to be Paul Thomas Anderson's porno-world epic Boogie Nights, in which the family that screws together stays together. In the way it thumps for family values, Boogie Nights is probably the most conservative film of the year. Of course the togetherness on view in this film is just as rigged as the otherness on view in a film like The Ice Storm. If Anderson had really gotten inside the hot-wired circuitry of the porn business, his "family" of skin-flick luminaries (played by, among others, Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, Heather Graham, and Don Cheadle) might not seem so cozy. But Anderson wants us to know that family is where you find it, and redemption is at hand. Hallelujah!

Maybe if Boogie Nights had done better at the box office it could have been turned into a real daisy chain of a franchise. There actually was talk for a blink of a Boogie Nights TV series -- I would like to have seen the sponsors for that one.

Working-Class Hero: In Good Will Hunting, the touchy-feely hit of the year, Matt Damon's Will is advised by his friend, played by Ben Affleck, to leave South Boston if he wants to avoid living out a dreary, working-class life -- as if the only Southies who remain are doomed to an existence of beer-swilling and mindless construction work. So much for this film's highly touted enlightened class-consciousness.

Is There a Doc in the House? In Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell's Riding the Rails, former road kids of the Depression, now in their seventies and eighties, recount their train-hopping days. It's a beautiful act of documentary remembrance -- the kind of work Studs Terkel might have come up with if he were to make a film.

Apocalypse Whenever: Titanic is the great apocalyptic movie of the year because it has the good sense to take place in 1912. None of this millennium stuff, like we get in Kevin Costner's The Postman, a futuristic ode to the postal service that is one of the most flabbergastingly silly films ever made. Return to sender.

Stop Making Sense: The art of narrative has been in decline for so long in Hollywood that a plausible, well-told story is now a bona fide anomaly. It may seem perverse for me to cite for opprobrium certain films and spare others, so please regard these hits as a random sample.  

In The Game we're put through a lot of paranoiac paces only to face a finale so insultingly implausible you expect to see the screen shimmy in that wavy way that lets you know it's all a dream. A bad dream.

The premise of the overtouted In the Company of Men -- a sub-David Mamet-ish horror show for people who want to believe the worst of human male apes -- rests on the fact that its two guy protagonists have been close friends for years. But if that's so, why is it such a revelation for one of them to discover that the other, who has been acting throughout like a king-size backstabbing scumball is, in fact, a king-size backstabbing scumball?

The character played by Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets is a Scrooge redeemed. But what exactly is the source of his Scroogeness? Well, he's an obsessive-compulsive, so much so that he never washes with the same bar of soap twice. But then, just for good measure, he's also shown to be a racist and a homophobe. And he still manages to make a great living writing romance novels. These puzzle pieces don't fit: Being obsessive-compulsive doesn't make you a racist (though it may make you a romance novelist -- how else could anybody write those things?). Perhaps writer-director James L. Brooks had Tourette's syndrome in mind? Or maybe he just wanted to load the deck with as many jokers as possible. The joke is on him. (Or is it on us?)

My top ten films of 1997:
1.Hamsun
2.L.A. Confidential
3.A Self-Made Hero
4.La Promesse
5.Grosse Point Blank
6.Wag the Dog
7.Riding the Rails
8.The Daytrippers
9.Conspiracy Theory
10.Mimic


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