Making a list, checking it twice: Tatara's picks for '97
February 10, 1998
Web posted at: 12:43 a.m. EST (0543 GMT)
From Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- Ironically enough, it started to warm up in December, but 1997 was not what one would call a banner year at the movies. For every "Titanic" or "The Sweet Hereafter," there were 3 "Out to Seas" and 5 "Spawns. " I should know. I had to sit through 151 of 'em; you just had to read the reviews. My hands smell of popcorn and I've had particularly insistent Gummi Bears clinging to my molars for a solid year now.
Here they are, the 10 that I recall most fondly ... although there were several more that I wish I could cite for individual elements (and moments) of brilliance.
1. "L.A. Confidential"
My first three picks are top-notch pieces of filmmaking with widely different perspectives on what constitutes screen entertainment. I'm going with "L.A. Confidential" because I appreciate its refreshing, non-winking sense of pulp fiction. The performances (especially by Kevin Spacey, whose nonchalance is seductive) are restrained while still conveying the clenched-jaw brutality that these stories call for. The best script of the year, crack direction by Curtis Hanson, and "Godfather"-type precision editing make this a modern classic. I bet Richard Widmark loves it.
2. "The Sweet Hereafter"
As mournful as "L.A. Confidential" is bluntly violent, Atom Egoyan's "The Sweet Hereafter" is a despairing look at a small snow-bound community that falls apart when 20 of its children are killed in a school bus accident. Ian Holm, in the performance of the year, plays a litigation lawyer who tries to avenge the tragedy for his own very personal (and truly heart-breaking) reasons. Egoyan's restraint with his camera is a revelation. This one focuses on the actors, and it's an unforgettable tour de force for Holm, who delivers his dialogue with a seething Biblical fury. A beautiful and (when all is said and done) strangely uplifting film.
Against all odds, James Cameron won out over the spiraling budget, extensive post-production, and nasty rumors to deliver an awe-inspiring piece of popular art. Though the sinking of the ship itself is an astonishing sight, the story focuses on the blossoming love between two passengers, wonderfully embodied by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. The movie is true old-school spectacle backed up with a highly unexpected gentle heart. Technically magnificent, near-redemptive for the studios and talent involved, and just a great deal of fun. I smell an Oscar coming.
4. "Eve's Bayou"
"Time" magazine has already suggested that this may be the best movie ever made by an African-American, and I would have to agree. Writer/director Kasi Lemmons weaves a seductive web of sex, childhood memory, and even voodoo as she explores the inner-workings of a well-to-do black family in 1950s Louisiana. Though it sometimes gets a little too cloying, this is a mature work loaded with emotional pay-offs. Samuel Jackson gives what I consider to be his best performance as a sexual manipulator who seduces one woman too many for his willful young daughter (Jurnee Smollett). Crisp cinematography by Amy Vincent.
5. "The Myth of Fingerprints"
I didn't think this one would be so high on my list by the end of the year, but here it is. The script, about a large, argumentative family that gathers for Thanksgiving to achieve a series of sometimes-angry, sometimes-tearful epiphanies is a little too old-hat by now, but the dialogue (by writer/director Bart Freundlich) is sharp and funny. Noah Wyle is quite good, and any movie with Julianne Moore in it (unless it stars dinosaurs) deserves to be mulled over. Not great with a capital "G," but very memorable and pretty consistent. (Moore's "Boogie Nights," by the way, just missed making my list. Calm down.)
6. "Irma Vep"
Director Olivier Assayas has made a French New Wave film that pokes fun at French New Wave films while being cast with a couple of stars from that groundbreaking period in movie history. The major exception is Maggie Cheung, a current-day Hong Kong action legend who plays herself, an actress appearing in an ill-conceived remake of the old French silent serial, "The Vampires." This cross-referencing makes for a fun game of "name that rip-off" and is one of the more thought-provoking concepts of the year. Assayas' mis en scene (fancy New Wave critic term) reminds you of Robert Altman at his most focused. The whole thing is odd but highly accessible. If there were any justice, Cheung (sexy and intelligent) would be a huge star in the States, but don't hold your breath waiting for it to happen.
7. "Fast Cheap & Out of Control"
I landed one blurb in a newspaper movie ad this year, and it was for Erroll Morris' "Fast Cheap & Out of Control." It said "Not for the faint of brain- Paul Tatara, CNN Interactive." I only mention this because it sums up my general attitude toward the film, and because I know it's the kind of thing that draws marriage proposals. Morris himself can't explain what "Fast Cheap & Out of Control" is about, but I think it's a meditation on the eventual extinction of the human race. This is told through a series of illuminating interviews with a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, a robot scientist, and a guy who's infatuated with African mole rats. Trust me. Morris' often spectacular visual motifs are a little too MTV this time around, but he's still a uniquely gifted man and possibly a genius.
8. "The Edge"
Easily the wackiest selection on my list, "The Edge" is a movie about three (and very quickly, 2 1/2) guys who are being chased through some snowcapped mountains by a Kodiak bear. "So what," you say, and you'd be right if the two more fortunate guys weren't Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, and the writer weren't David Mamet, who's getting at something metaphorical with that big, fat bear. I'm not certain what that metaphor is, but the movie is a gas, as know-it-all Hopkins figures out how to tame him a bear (or, better yet, kill the darn thing) with only a sharp stick and a real good-lookin' guy as his weapons. The bear, I hear, is a sweetheart in real life, but his agent is hell on wheels. (That's a joke. I can just see some bear's agent lunging for the phone.)
9. "Year of the Horse"
Proof positive that rust isn't even yawning yet. Jim Jarmusch shot this documentary about legendary feedback junkie Neil Young's musical symbiosis with the world's most ferocious garage band, Crazy Horse, on 8 millimeter film. Some people, like my Mom (who digs Rosemary Clooney and Carmen Miranda), won't understand the fuss, but Young-heads like myself should prepare to levitate. It still bugs me that he doesn't play "Powderfinger," though.
10. "4 Little Girls"
The third documentary on my list (I didn't expect that to happen, either) is easily Spike Lee's most meditative work. It's a frank account of the infamous 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama. The title refers to the 4 young ladies who lost their lives in the explosion. Lee focuses a great deal on the little girls' loving home life, then suddenly hits you with graphic autopsy photos of the bombing's aftermath. No preaching this time from Spike, and the movie is much more powerful due to his new-found restraint. Former Alabama governor George Wallace's scenes are embarrassing, whether they're isolated incidents or not.