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A Film Snob's Favorites of '97

Distribution is the name of the game. Your movie could be the best of the year, but if it only plays at a festival in New York, or if it never makes to the States, then film writers who live in smaller U.S. markets, like me, can't put it on their best of the year lists. If you add to that all the movies I missed because I didn't have time, or I was turned off by the trailer or the bad reviews, then what you have here is a disclaimer. These are the best movies I happened to see this year.

Annual explanation: as I'm sure you know, many of the year's best films are released at the very end of the calendar year. That means that some of them don't make it out here to this stinkin' desert for a while. So there are several official '96 releases, and most prominently my numbers 1 and 3, on this'97 review. They were too late for last year's, and I couldn't ignore them, so there you are.

1. Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier).

When the memory of a film stays with me for a whole year, not only through the power of its images or its provocative ideas, but also because it caused feelings which shook me to the core, and still do - what other choice could I make for number oner? Von Trier's drama of innocence and affliction, in which a young woman follows her sense of faith to places condemned by her society and church, in order, she believes, to bring healing to her husband, was bound to offend orthodoxies on all sides - and so it did. Among other things, the film explores the supposed opposition between spirituality and sexuality - and through the character of Bess, a figure of utterly simple goodness, shows that it is founded on cruelty. The hand-held camera, extreme close-ups, jump cuts and grainy photography eliminate the comfort zone and immerse us in the raw immediacy of this woman's vibrant and tragic relationship to her God. Emily Watson's performance is unforgettable. And Lars Von Trier has proven to be one of the most daring and important directors we have.

2. Ponette (Jacques Doillon).

The story of a little girl who has lost her mother in a car accident, but refuses to accept the finality of death, becomes a vehicle for the exploration of age-old religious questions. The child's point of view lends a stark clarity to the tragic theme - deceptively simple, the film's concerns are very adult. Ponette's interaction with other children provides her with a variety of belief systems - garbled mixtures of fact and fantasy that are like a microcosm of human attempts to come to terms with death. Doillon has inspired an utterly natural performance from four-year-old Victoire Thivisol in the title role. Ponette is inconsolable and undaunted - she must find the way through grief on her own. A remarkably thoughtful and moving film.

3. The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion).

This adaptation of the Henry James classic is a work of exquisite emotional and visual depth. The story of Isabel Archer, whose imaginative choices are undermined by her lack of experience, is for Campion a metaphor for women who struggle against the barriers of their social roles. The film's style is bold and makes demands on the viewer - the progressive color schemes, the audacious camera work, the way each image, each shot, relates to a theme as if it were a word in a secret language. Nicole Kidman is excellent, as are Barbara Hershey and Martin Donovan in supporting roles. Even after subtracting points for John Malkovich's lack of subtlety in the role of Osmond, I would still have to rate The Portrait of a Lady as an exciting achievement.

4. Gabbeh (Mohsen Makhmalbaf).

A poetic film about a group of nomadic goat herders in central Iran and the stories they tell through their gorgeous carpets. The picture is also, by means of a strangely hypnotic style that seems to double back on itself, about the act of storytelling itself, and ultimately about the language of cinema. Color is used as a metaphor for the simultaneous transience and eternity of life (the photography is intensely beautiful), and the points of view are always shifting. This picture, so free and energetic and intelligent, is a real mind-opener.

5. La Promesse (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne).

A15-year-old boy, helping his father in his racket of housing and employing illegal aliens, faces a crisis of conscience when an African immigrant dies in a fall and his father chooses to conceal the event by burying the body on the construction site. The film is vigorous and immediate in style. The mostly non-professional actors are wonderful, especially Jeremie Renier as the boy. Volatile issues are approached from the inside, there is no preachiness, just a very clear-eyed sense of human beings and their sufferings. A sad film, but also a film of hope and faith that promises do mean something after all.

6. Prisoner of the Mountains (Sergei Bodrov).

An updating of a Tolstoy story to the modern conflict in Chechnya. Two Russian soldiers are captured by Chechen rebels. An old man plans to trade them for his son, who is a prisoner of the Russians, and as negotiations stall, prisoners and captors develop a complex relationship. The picture is tough-minded and frequently very funny, a humanist film with a strong realistic flavor. There is good acting and stunning location photography, with a story that continually surprised me. It's about people being forced to recognize the humanity of their enemies.

7. Temptress Moon (Chen Kaige)

This epic of doomed lovers (Leslie Cheung and Gong Li) caught between two worlds is melodrama on a grand scale. The production design, sumptuous photography, and Chen's abrupt and elusive style help make it work. I cared about these desperate, unhappy people ecause the film infused the story with a dark, passionate romanticism.

8. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson).

Anderson's much-heralded second feature sets you down in the crazy milieu of the late 70s porn industry and never lets up. Great energy and inventiveness, especially in the group set pieces, and a fine sense of satire balanced with genuine affection. Fine work by Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, and so help me god, Burt Reynolds.

9. Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day (Christopher Münch).

A young Chinese American man, with a passion for railroads, attempts to save the short-line train through Yosemite Valley. The style is gentle, elegiac. The black-and-white photography is nothing short of spectacular. Münch is a gifted filmmaker whose works deserve to be seen by a wider audience.

10. Ulee's Gold (Victor Nunez).

Nunez loves the rhythms of everyday life. His hero this time is a beekeeper who has withdrawn deep within himself out of grief and disappointment. There's a crime plot thrown in, but that doesn't prevent the film from taking its time to let us get to know the characters, and thereby making the stakes higher. The real reason to see this is Peter Fonda, who gives the performance of the year as Ulee.

And now, because I hate to leave things unmentioned, here is the second tier, in brief:

11. Irma Vep (Olivier Assayas). This drily amusing satire of French art films also happens to be a very inventive French art film. Hong Kong star Maggie Clieung plays the only sane person in the movie.

12. When the Cat's Away (Cedric Klapisch). A young woman loses her cat, enlists the help of her neighbors to find it, and in the process we meet an assortment of odd characters. A light comedy about loneliness, and it hits the spot.

13. Mondo (Tony Gatlif). A lyrical film about the wanderings of a homeless Gypsy boy in Nice, and the people who come to cherish him. Mondo is a symbol of the freedom and innocence we need in order to live, as opposed to merely surviving.

14. La Ceremonie (Claude Chabrol). This story about a vengeful nutcase (the scary Isabelle Huppert) who encourages a servant (Sandrine Bonnaire) to turn against the well-to-do family that employs her, is a disturbing parable about the class system and its underlying pathology.

15. Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell). A mid-level gangster (Al Pacino) takes a young man (Johnny Depp) under his wing. Trouble is, his protegé works for the FBI. A crackling script, good buildup of tension, and Pacino is fine indeed.

16. In the Company of Men (Neil LaBute). A rigorous and chilling film about a misogynistic plot cooked up by two resentful yuppies on a business trip. The real subject is the power struggles between men, and the loss of human connection that results. The point is worth getting to, if you can take it.

17. Crash (David Cronenberg). A doom-laden portrait of cultic obsessiveness, in a world where the erotic has been absorbed by self-destructive urges. Without a doubt the bleakest and most pessimistic vision around, and, for the most part, Cronenberg's superior craft pulls it off.

18. Mrs. Brown (John Madden). An historical drama about the scandal resulting from the attachment formed by Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) to her groomsman John Brown (Billy Connolly). The script has humor and heart, but the real reason to see it is the acting, which is fine all around.

19. Hollow Reed (Angela Pope). A gay man (Martin Donovan) believes that his son is being abused by his ex-wife's new boyfriend. But will the courts believe him? A moving study of child abuse and homophobia that convinces because of good direction and Donovan's strong presence.

20. Sunday (Jonathan Nossiter). An actress meets a homeless man in New York and mistakes him for a famous film director she met in London. Or is it a mistake? This Sundance winner is about the loss of self when we identify who we are with what we do. I like the odd emotional atmosphere, and the way the film maps the interior lives of two unglamorous middle-aged people.

Cinematography: Rob Sweeney, Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day Runners-up:
Christopher Doyle, Temptress Moon
Mahmou'd Kalari, Gabbeh

Score: Caleb Sampson, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control

Visual Effects: Men in Black

Art Direction: Temptress Moon

Best Documentary:
When We Were Kings
: Leon Gast's vivid account of the Ali-Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle."
Best Documentary, small screen: Four Little Girls: Spike Lee's moving tribute to the girls who died in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing.

Best reissue: Coppola's The Godfather, putting this year's crop to shame, and not a Wookie in sight.

Other acting highlights:

Anthony Sher in a droll turn as Disraeli in Mrs. Brown.
Oleg Menshikov as the cocky young Russian officer in Prisoner of the Mountains
Stacy Edwards as the victim in In the Company of Men
Samuel L. Jackson, powerful as the father in Eve's Bayou (and also good in Jackie Brown)
Joely Richardson in the difficult role of the mother in Hollow Reed
Stephen Tompkinson stole the show as the bandleader's son in Brassed Off
Katrin Cartlidge's hyperactive rebel girl in Mike Leigh's Career Girls, and as the sister in Breaking the Waves
Elias Koteas as the creepy cult leader in Crash
Cranky old lady Renee Le Calm in When the Cat's Away
Kevin Spacey's sleazy, affable detective in L.A. Confidential
The graceful and majestic Tamiyo Kusakari as the dance instructor in Shall We Dance?

Most underrated: The Portrait of a Lady took a dive at the box office. Maybe folks were expecting a tame costume drama.
Runner-up: Temptress Moon. Very lukewarm critical reception. Sure, it's not Farewell My Concubine but it's still very good.

The Dishonor Roll:

Most pretentious: Contact. All that talk about the existence of God versus the scientific world view, and not a smidgen of actual thought in the picture. Brain-dead prestige filmmaking at its finest, brought to you by Robert Zemeckis.

Most overrated: Titanic.There's no arguing with James Cameron's ability to present massive spectacle. Well, if that's what "floats your boat," fine. But if you want believable characters and dialogue, or a meaningful story, you're not going there on this ship.

Most overrated performances:
Kim Basinger, L.A. Confidential
Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets

Most embarassing performance: Matthew McConaughey, Contact
To be fair, the role as written is asinine, but McConaughey's smarmy condescending smile and sing-song delivery make it worse. Not a good year for him. He was woefully miscast in Amistad as well.

Worst art film: Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet
Proving once and for all that you have to cut when you adapt Shakespeare to the screen. Even at four hours, the actors have to talk too fast in order

Ho-hum award: Scream

Interesting failure award: Three Lives and Only One Death
The film is truly intriguing in its first half, and Raul Ruiz has a wonderful sense for images and camera placement. But his head-games get increasingly absurd and heavy-handed. One of those movies that ends three or four times before it actually ends.
Runner-up: Chasing Amy. Kevin Smith's comedy about intimacy and sexual preference goes wrong in more ways than I thought possible. I was very annoyed, but I still give him credit for trying to explore places other filmmakers wouldn't even touch.

Enough already: Sequels, aliens, old TV shows remade into films, National Lampoon vacations anywhere, fiendishly clever serial killers, Siskel and Ebert, idiots who talk through the movie.

Finally, I note that fewer foreign language films got distributed in the States this year than last, a trend which I don't see ending soon. I believe that the art of cinema, and our appreciation of it, in the U.S., will stagnate unless we are exposed to more films from outside of this country. I'll bet that many, if not most, of the films on my list, were not even available to be seen by many of you, because the only theaters in your area are cineplexes that show nothing but Hollywood product. You really don't know what you're missing.

And farewell to James Stewart, Robert Mitchum, Toshiro Mifune, and all the others that left us last year........

Chris Dashiell, 1998