1997 Top Ten
Feature by Eddie Cockrell, Posted 9 January 1998

Let's get one thing straight right away: if you respect filmmaking as an art form, are fascinated with the often herculean behind-the-scenes machinations of even the most pedestrian pictures and just enjoy spending hour after hour in the dark transported to another place and time, well, then, every year is a good year for movies.

In that sense, maybe critic isn't the word for what gets done here at Nitrate Online. Chronicler? Maybe, but from the safety of a home office rather than the thick of a junket. Cheerleader? Perhaps, but in the best sense of the word (no premiere party coverage or syndication deals here). Whatever you call it, it means appreciating films at least as much for their cultural significance as for their entertainment value.

Of course, like all such lists, this is severely subjective, as it must be, because it is no longer possible to see everything in a given year. And as movies become more like streetcars, coming and going with mind-numbing regularity, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the often low-profile wheat from the tub-thumped chaff, predict which way the awards winds are blowing and even put a finger on fundamental trends and messages.

So this list doesn't even try, preferring instead to serve as a stream-of-consciousness survey of high and, uh, not-so-high marks in another enjoyable movie year.

And so, to the list:

  1. Boogie Nights. The year's most audacious movie, a spicy chronicle of an era that now seems strange and – is this the right word? – wondrous. Featuring a career-best performance from Burt Reynolds (who'dve thought?), the only obscene element in Paul Thomas Anderson's second feature would be if Oscar turned it's back.
  2. Titanic. Another lost world, this one heartbreakingly class-driven, James Cameron's $200 million-plus epic is perhaps the first art film to pose as a disaster saga. The daring balance of clich¾ d love story and action spectacle pays off handsomely, as does the attention to detail and those awesome special effects.
  3. The Sweet Hereafter. Delicate yet clear-eyed, this meditation on loss and grief could be the commercial breakthrough for Armenian Canadian director Atom Egoyan, who has adapted Russell Banks' novel into an experience that is at once sobering and inspirational.
  4. Cop Land. Writer-director James Mangold (Heavy) brings a shrewd fascination with small-town life in the northeastern United States to this cautionary fable that should have been longer than it was (how many movies leave that impression?). Sylvester Stallone's career-best performance is a thrill.
  5. The Full Monty. The year's scrappy little comedy that could – and did, this second feature from director Peter Cattaneo taps into the strong underdog vein that makes for a word-of-mouth smash. The movie gets extra credit for clever use of Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff," in a howlingly funny unemployment office scene.
  6. Starship Troopers. One of the best pure sci-fi movies in years, this reverent adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein's novel continued director Paul Verhoeven's distinctly European mix of carnage and comedy spiced with sex. A little less fascistic flash would've insured the film a spot atop the year's box office.
  7. L.A. ConfidentialSome said it couldn't be done, but Curtis Hanson's nuanced adaptation of James Ellroy's dense, stylized prose is the best color noir since Chinatown. The film also showcases as many Oscar-caliber performances as any other movie of 1997.
  8. Nénette and Boni. Claire Denis is one of the handful of great world filmmakers unknown in the United States, and this regionally released drama about the often invisible ties that bind headstrong siblings showcases her astonishing intuition with young acting talent. The film also features a sublime score from Tindersticks.
  9. The Apostle. Robert Duvall's self-made masterpiece is fiery, cocksure independent American filmmaking at its best, charting the odd but sincere spiritual journey of a decidedly worldly man of God and a testament to the enduring power of rural faith and tradition.
  10. Jackie Brown. Quentin Tarantino's entertaining film stakes out new turf for the influential young filmmaker, who has preserved the tough-talking milieu of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction but relies more on dialogue than gunplay to move his stories along. Welcome back, Robert Forster and Pam Grier.

 Honorable mention (movies that would've been on a top 10 had the assignment been The Twenty Best Movies of 1997):

  1. La Promesse.
  2. Face/Off.
  3. She's So Lovely.
  4. Donnie Brasco.
  5. Contact.
  6. Year of the Horse.
  7. The Myth of Fingerprints.
  8. East Side Story.
  9. As Good as It Gets.
  10. Underground.

 The Ten Worst Movies of 1997

  1. The Postman. Kevin Costner obviously means well, but this ponderous, static epic disembowels a good book in dubious service to jingoistic narcissism.
  2. Office Killer. Humorless and sloooow. As a filmmaker, Cindy Sherman might be a good still photographer. Maybe.
  3. Batman & Robin. Did anybody buy this heartless, by-the-numbers sequel machine?
  4. In & Out. Insultingly improbable and not even very funny.
  5. SwitchBack. When an actor billed well down the credit list (R. Lee Ermey) is the only element worth watching, the movie's in trouble.
  6. Gummo. This directorial debut from the writer of Kids is an incoherent, useless mess.
  7. The Designated Mourner. Everybody makes mistakes, and this spectacularly inept stab at experimental filmmaking is a doozy.
  8. I Know What You Did Last Summer. Post-post-post modern tripe from the writer of Scream (Kevin Williamson) that mistakes its novelty for substance.
  9. Kiss the Girls. Only sincere performances from Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd make this predictable genre piece watchable.
  10. Conspiracy Theory. Mel by numbers, Julia by numbers; Cynical, manipulative, disposable.

 The Ten Best Movies of 1997 that Weren't Distributed in the United States (watch for them soon at a festival or specialty house near you – if there is a festival or specialty house near you):

  1. Funny Games (Austria)
  2. Love and Death on Long Island (United Kingdom/Canada)
  3. The Eel (Japan)
  4. Western (France)
  5. Inside/Out (USA)
  6. [Focus] (Japan)
  7. Mother and Son (Russia)
  8. Fireworks (Japan)
  9. illtown (USA)
  10. Moebius (Argentina)
  11. Keep Cool (People's Republic of China)
  12. Passage (Czech Republic/France/Belgium)
  13. The Fire Within (Japan)



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