Wednesday, August 16, 2017

It Came From the '90s: Essential Films of 1997


This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

I love lists. Anyone who really knows me knows this. When I feel inspired by something, I'll drop a top five or ten list on you at any time, without warning, like that time I ranked all of the X-Men films (before Logan came out, so today that film would top the list). So I'm a sucker for lists like the one The AV Club compiled for the best movies of 1997. It reaffirmed something I felt twenty years ago, which is that 1997 was an exceptional year at the movies.

After you've read the AVC's list, come back here and I'll opine on some of the choices, probably argue with the rankings, and finally mention a few films from 1997 that didn't make the cut.

18. Grosse Point Blank. I might rank this one higher, but my love for this film is widely known. I was about to graduate from college when I saw it, and Cusack's portrait of a man faced with an uncertain future finding some strange comfort in his nostalgic past strongly resonated with me. The killer soundtrack doesn't hurt, either.


Kevin Kline in The Ice Storm.

14. The Ice Storm. Like many of the great films on this list, Ang Lee's hauntingly beautiful meditation on 1970s suburban ennui remains powerful today. In some ways, it's even more so now that we've had two more decades to further marinate in the specific sort of privileged American malaise this film chronicles. If you grew up in the 1970s through the 1990s, in other words if you are a member of Generation X, then so much of this film will be eerily familiar. From the drab and dreary late-fall setting, to the pitch-perfect period details, to a morose Tobey Maguire reading Fantastic Four on the commuter train, the film remains a deeply affecting work without being sentimental or cloying. The AV Club says it best,
The suburbs roiling with bad behavior and dirty secrets was a long-standing cliché well before The Ice Storm arrived on the scene, but Lee, Moody, and adapting screenwriter James Schamus observe every character in the pair of intertwined families with a clear, sharp vision of behavior that vacillates between soul-searching and self-destructive.
The Ice Storm ranks in my personal top five for 1997.

10. The Game. It's good to see this oft-neglected David Fincher film (released between two of his most memorable works, Se7en and Fight Club), as I've always had a soft spot for it. Still, I wouldn't rank it #10 for that year. Quibbles with rankings aside, the film's stature certainly has grown over the years, and deservedly so. It just proves that Fincher's body of work is so strong that a movie this good still probably wouldn't crack a top five list of his films.

8. L.A. Confidential. Look, #8 is absurd. This one should be in the top five for 1997, easy, maybe even top two or three. I'd rank it in the top ten of the entire decade. This reminds me, I need to revisit the film again, it's been far too long. 

6. Titanic. Look, it's been twenty years but I still haven't seen this blockbuster in its entirety. Every time I've caught portions of it on cable I've wanted to barf. At this point, I think I'm avoiding a complete viewing out of spite, and that's fine with me. I have as little interest in the film today as I did in 1997, which is to say I have no interest in it. So it's no surprise that it wouldn't make my top twenty of 1997. Sorry, Kate and Leo fans.

5. Starship Troopers. I think Paul Verhoeven is an underappreciated cinematic genius, and I've written about his films twice recently, here and here. So I won't wax rhapsodic about this movie's brilliant satire of the military-industrial-media-complex, just know this: Starship Troopers, like many of Verhoeven's films, was woefully misunderstood upon release but eventually people caught on to what he was putting down. Some works of genius are only fully appreciated with time and distance, it seems.


That scene in Boogie Nights.

4. Boogie Nights. This one was rightly celebrated in 1997 as an audaciously ambitious powerhouse ensemble piece that left you breathless throughout. While I've heard some grumblings about it being overrated since then—a friend once laughed derisively when I declared the infamously insane "Sister Christian" scene to be one of my favorites in all of film—it still more than holds up today. Don Cheadle's cowboy hat wearing stereo salesman? Brilliant. Heather Graham's iconic Rollgergirl? Heartbreaking. Burt Reynolds' porn king, Jack Horner? Hilarious yet highly disturbing. Mark Wahlberg, of whom I'd previously had a mostly low opinion, was spectacular. Boogie Nights is Paul Thomas Anderson's first true masterpiece.

1. Jackie Brown. The AVC and I are in complete agreement on the #1 film of 1997, no question about it. I remember loving this movie so passionately back then, and feeling like no one else seemed to get it like I did. I recall an awful lot of complaints from friends and critics that it was a letdown after Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. "It's too long" and "It's too slow" were the primary reasons given by these folks for disliking the film. Today it seems obvious, in a career filled with several excellent films, Jackie Brown is still Tarantino's best. So it's good to see the critics finally coming around to it these days. I have so much I could say about it that I'd like to write an entire piece about the film instead. For now I'll note that it's one of the most poignant portrayals I've ever seen of two adults navigating both life and their mutual attraction. Pam Grier and Robert Forster are magnificent, each turning in career-best work. And, of course, the film is a beautiful love letter to Grier from superfan Tarantino, which only enhances its appeal. She never had the opportunities to star in truly great films, but this one will always stand as a testament to her charisma, charm, and underrated skills as an actress.


Pam Grier owns the screen no matter the role, but especially as Jackie Brown.

There are so many more great films from 1997 not included on the AVC list, including Cop Land (featuring an all-star cast and Sylvester Stallone's tour-de-force work)Chasing Amy (Kevin Smith's sweet and sometimes naive look at love)The Fifth Element (Luc Besson's manic sci-fi romp)Devil's Advocate (Al Pacino setting the screen on fire with a ferociously fun performance as the Devil)Donne Brasco (featuring another gem of a performance by Pacino), and Lost Highway (one of David Lynch's most disturbing films, which is saying an awful lot), to name a few. Clearly, 1997 was a very good year at the multiplex, and I was fortunate to see many of these films that year. I idolized (and still do) the films of the 1970s, Hollywood's last true Golden Age. So in 1997, I recognized and appreciated the inspiration of 1970s cinema on the new movies I was then watching in the theater. It certainly was a glorious time to be a young film fanatic.

Lastly, let me say a few words about another 1997 film, Anaconda. 

J Lo: bored and a little embarrassed. Cube: cashing in. Voight: batshit crazy. 

Ahem, okay, this one shouldn't be anywhere near a top twenty (or thirty or forty or...) list, but I don't care I love it anyway. It's so outrageously bad, so gleefully absurd, that I can't help myself. For god's sake, it stars J Lo, Ice Cube, Owen Wilson, Eric Stoltz, Kari Wuhrer, and Danny Trejo! And, turning in an all-time great terrible performance, Jon Voight. I'm not sure we've seen a cast this magnificently bizarre since. Plus, let's not forget the giant killer snake. 'nuff said.



4 comments:

  1. Great listicle, Mike. I agree with you. 1997 was a terrific year. Thanks for bringing it back.

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    1. Any time, Susan! The AV Club ran several good articles on 1997 last week, this being my favorite. It helped remind me of what a spectacular year it was at the movies.

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  2. Jon Voight is Anaconda’s shining light, he hams it up wonderfully. Here is a man who knows exactly what kind of movie he’s in, and apparently he loves the flavour of the cheese!

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    1. It truly is a mesmerizing performance from Voight. It takes bad to a whole new level, to the point where it's not even bad anymore. It's pure gold.

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