Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Best of 1997

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 1998)

I hope to indulge in the popular critics’ tradition of selecting my favourite ten films of 1997 (actually twelve, due to some subtle cheating). These come in the order I saw them, although Les voleurs is artistically as well as chronologically first. Apologies to any masterpieces released in the last two weeks of the year.

In a better year I might have hoped for some of the items on this list to be in my “Ten second-best” list rather than in the highest echelon. There was certainly a lack of overall knock-down slam-dunk masterpieces. Even the movies I liked tended to have fairly extensive flaws, and for that reason (out of fear that I’d make those flaws sound more significant than they are, putting people off from going to see them), I steered away from writing about some of them. Still, I’ll watch any of these again any time.

Les voleurs Belgian director Andre Techine is presently making wonderful movies. They’re highly involving as narratives, and yet they’re almost wantonly complex and provocative. The title of this year’s movie (“Thieves”) clues us in perfectly to the prevailing scheme – the array of “steals” across sexual, cultural and professional boundaries (professor Catherine Deneuve having an affair with cop Daniel Auteuil, who’s having an affair with a crook): it’s a quietly anarchic, intellectually thrilling view of human involvement.

Blood and Wine My favourite thriller of the year (an authentic spine-tingler), this film also works as a cynical examination of modern-day family and communality. The violence in this movie is a convincing expression of bitter characters driven by strong antipathies and desires. Every scene has old-fashioned, meaty behavioural resonance; Jack Nicholson and Michael Caine are in their best form for ages.

Everyone Says I Love You/Deconstructing Harry This Woody Allen double bill shows why he’s still a vitally important filmmaker. The first, a musical, has a classical, utterly captivating (if deliberately over-generic) grasp of what the genre should be. The second movie is an almost unbearably vicious self-examination in which Allen virtually invites us to find him repelling. Even if I hadn’t enjoyed these two as much, Allen’s prolific body of work would still add up to one of the most fascinating (and nowadays perhaps underrated) meditations on character, truth and fiction in the modern cinema.

The Daytrippers This movie is about a family that maintains an amiable screwball-comedy wackiness, as long as it remains in its natural suburban habitat. Then it travels into the big city and quickly succumbs to strain and fracture, which is an appealing metaphor for the complexity that families so often avoid. Parker Posey gives the best performance – vibrant, alive, giving wonderful line readings at every stage. But the cast is really a miracle of good direction. Daytrippers gave me some of my biggest laughs of the year.

Brassed Off This exceptionally effective picture elicited as much audience applause as any commercial movie I’ve ever seen, and had me choking up all the way, through the evocative power of music, blue-collar muck-raking and heart-plucking, and some authentically bleak worldviews in which even a fleeting, symbolic victory seems like a gift from God. The movie is the best kind of old-fashioned proletarian filmmaking in that it’s rooted in a recognizable, just slightly idealized, community of insular, battered idiosyncrasy.

Where is the Friend’s House?/And Life Goes On Two separate movies set in presumably remotest Iran, but for those of us who discovered director Abbas Kiarostami for the first time this year (courtesy of the Carlton Cinema’s brilliant programming), one sublime experience. Both films are thrilling illustrations of universal human concerns conveyed patiently through staggering visual images, quirky ideas about the nature of cinematic art, and even comedy, in the midst of highly unpromising circumstances. (I thought less of Kiarostami’s newest film, A Taste of Cherry, but a defender of the movie wiped the floor with me in an email argument on the subject, so maybe that should be up there too).

L.A. Confidential This movie takes some utterly familiar genre mechanics and fills them with knowing vigour and pep. As unselfconscious and nimble as a great movie could be, one sometimes wonders if director Curtis Hanson (whose previous career indicated no possibility of such an achievement) could possibly have made it by accident. At the time of writing, this is my tip as next year’s Oscar winner.

Irma Vep Shown only four times at the Cinematheque Ontario, this French film by Olivier Assayas evokes a pure joy in the myth and substance of cinema. It’s so light and unforced, so deceptively frivolous, and the structure (if any) is so cleverly obscure and elusive that the movie calls out to be underrated. But it’s also a serious investigation into the creative process, and closes with the single most mesmerizing sequence of the year – evoking a cinema that’s both regressively simpler and purer, yet as forward-looking as science fiction.

Underground The 1995 Cannes winner, belatedly released here, lives up to its reputation as a daring, boisterous epic overflowing with messy imagination. It’s frequently sentimental, grandiose, or even silly. But no other picture this year had such passionate ambition (second place in the “sheer audacity” subcategory goes to Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book – an intricate film of images within images that dazzled me with the sheer concentrated strenuousness of its design, even if I was often puzzled as to the point of it all).

One Night Stand A bit of a problematic choice, but I found parts of this movie as spellbinding as anything that turned up on the screen this year. Director Mike Figgis shoots in an allusive, sensitive style that (with the help of varied casting, well-chosen symbolism and a beguiling jazz score) achieves a deeply-satisfying, universal look into emotions in motion. At the time I thought the ending almost ruined the movie, but in retrospect I’ve decided it’s a fitting sign of Figgis’ openness to innovation and alternative directions.

And the best Canadian movie (and my 11th favourite of the year) was The Sweet Hereafter.

Since I’m under no compulsion to pay for movies that don’t appeal to me, I doubt very much that I saw the worst movie of the year. Of those I did see, Evita probably constituted the most painful experience. This seems by and large to have been one of those love-it-or-hate-it movies. For me, the high-decibel incoherence and bombastic self-importance slowed down time so effectively that I swear I could have fitted my entire summer vacation into the time Madonna took to sing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.” Maybe it’s largely in reaction to this ridiculous attempt at a musical that I rated the Woody Allen movie so highly.

Thank you to all the readers of this column. I hope you had a great Christmas and will be back reading this column in 1998.

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