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Nashville Scene "Reeling in the Year"

The Scene's best of 1997.

By Jim Ridley, Noel Murray, and Donna Bowman

JANUARY 12, 1998:  1997 may not have been a good year for great movies, but it was a great year for good movies. No one film dominated the year the way Pulp Fiction did in 1994, despite entries from a stellar crop of directors: Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Tarantino, Woody Allen, John Woo, Spike Lee, Mike Leigh, Wong Kar-wai, Atom Egoyan, James Cameron, Jackie Chan, Errol Morris. At the same time, 1997 moviegoers stood a remarkably good chance of finding well-crafted popular entertainment at the neighborhood multiplex.

Most interesting was the way Hollywood rebounded from 1996's Year of the Indie, when sort-of outside projects like Fargo and The English Patient outshone their lumbering major-studio competition. This year, the indies largely foundered in waves of trendiness, self-indulgence, and irrelevance, while artistic bull's-eyes such as L.A. Confidential and Face/Off were scored entirely within the mainstream. It said a lot about 1997, both good and bad, that the year's most uncompromising independent vision required the manpower of two major studios and upwards of $200 million. And yet several sterling smaller films last year found or are finding a deserved audience. These, and more, are the best movies of 1997.


  1. The Sweet Hereafter. A school-bus crash in a small Canadian town shatters lives--and time itself--in Atom Egoyan's profoundly disturbing drama, filmed in audaciously fragmented style.

  2. Titanic. OK, so it has the howler of the movie year 1997: Kate Winslet chirping, "This is where we met!" as the ship tanks. Let it never be said that James Cameron won't risk looking foolish--which is why this titanic gamble pays off with fearless conviction, a romance all the more touching for being utterly cornball, and about a dozen of the most indelible images I've ever seen at the movies.

  3. L.A. Confidential. Light on self-referential fanboy cool, heavy on atmosphere, character, and incident, this is what crime-dramas were like before film-noir revivalism: tough, unfussy, and ferocious.

  4. Face/Off. Persona with assault weapons. John Woo's mind-boggling tale of detached psyches has its own split personality--it's a surreal examination of self and identity, dense with spiritual and psychological symbolism. It's also the wildest kick-ass action flick since Woo's own Hard-Boiled.

  5. The Apostle. From moment to moment, no American movie this year seemed as volatile and alive as Robert Duvall's exquisite, hugely entertaining dream project, in which a fugitive man of God seeks rebirth in an abandoned Louisiana parish.

  6. La Promesse. A heartbreaking slice of Belgian neo-realism, in which a teenage boy's awakening conscience forces him to choose between saving an immigrant family and obeying his brutish father.

  7. Hard Eight. As taut and controlled as his Boogie Nights was sprawling and dissolute, Paul Thomas Anderson's gripping character study of an aging Reno gambler had the year's most incisive original script.

  8. 4 Little Girls/Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. Two superb documentaries that enrich and expand the form: Spike Lee's methodical, deeply felt examination of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that murdered four children, and Errol Morris' dizzying free-association riff on man's attempt to shape his destiny and environment.

  9. Waiting for Guffman. Christopher Guest's hilarious, pitch-perfect minor gem about the 150th-anniversary historical pageant in tiny Blaine, Mo., a city whose chief claims to fame are UFO landings and a brush with President McKinley.

  10. Donnie Brasco. A convincingly low-key portrait of middle-management mob life, sparked by Al Pacino's most inspired work in years, by a riveting Johnny Depp, and by ace screenwriter Paul Attanasio's piquant lessons in lowlife semantics.

Special Prize: To Emir Kusturica's astonishing, inexhaustible 1995 epic Underground, which finally received a modest U.S. release after two years, and to the reissue of Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai--two of the moviegoing thrills of my year.

Honorable Mentions: Breakdown, Eve's Bayou, The Full Monty, Irma Vep, Shall We Dance?, The Wings of the Dove.


  1. The Ice Storm. A moment in time--suburban America at the threshold of an unwieldy new era of sexual liberation--frozen so tightly that it cracks.

  2. Hard Eight/Boogie Nights. Paul Thomas Anderson's two 1997 offerings both fall short of greatness, but each contains scenes that are as tense, funny, and wise as anything in the history of cinema.

  3. The Wings of the Dove. A bittersweet romance, wherein two callow lovers toy with the affections of a dying heiress and inadvertently bring her joy while cursing themselves.

  4. Donnie Brasco. A witty character study about the low-rent pathos of small-time hoods and the glorified meter maids who bring them to "justice."

  5. Waiting for Guffman. For everyone who ever took high-school drama or lived in a small town, this sharp, very human comedy should strike a chord.

  6. L.A. Confidential. A smart updating of Chinatown, wherein it's not power that corrupts, but our whole damn system; to get along in a soiled world, everyone has to get a little dirty.

  7. The Apostle. As writer, director, and star, Robert Duvall delves deeply into his struggling man of faith and shows that what matters is the faith, not the struggle.

  8. Titanic. Yes, there are flaws, but only because art on a massive scale is bound to have obvious lapses; James Cameron's pricey recreation is so detailed that when the water starts rising, we understand exactly what has been lost.

  9. Eve's Bayou. A rich, satisfying meditation on the way memory is only one small method of understanding the truth of a situation; Kasi Lemmons' filmmaking debut has enough voodoo, heartbreak, and tainted opulence to fill a fine novel...or one very good movie.

  10. Deconstructing Harry. A corrosive antidote to James L. Brooks' overpraised, overly cute As Good As It Gets. Brooks' film is funny and charming, but Woody Allen's is just as funny and--in its loose, structure-bending, highly profane way--far more honest about what happens to egotistical artists.

Special Prize: Two of the best films of the year were made for TV--TNT's refreshingly complex biography George Wallace and Hallmark's luminous, compassionate adaptation of Faulkner's Old Man.

Honorable Mentions: Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, Grosse Pointe Blank, Jackie Brown, The Sweet Hereafter, and Ulee's Gold.


  1. The Apostle. The year's most personal film is not just a tour de force for director, writer, and star Robert Duvall. It's also an honest and uplifting portrayal of religious conviction--riveting, heartbreaking, and suspenseful.

    Show of faith Robert Duvall gives the performance of the year in The Apostle--one of 1997's finest movies
    Photo by Van Redin

  2. Ulee's Gold. 1997 had many quiet, small stories, but this retelling of The Odyssey in a Florida swamp stands out for its performances, haunting images, and believable motivations.

  3. Mrs. Brown. Judi Dench plays Queen Victoria as the woman we all hope to be or to find--strong, vulnerable, and deserving of love. Billy Connolly, as her servant Brown, revives true chivalry while modern politics mocks them both.

  4. The Ice Storm. Ang Lee's penetrating insight into America's attempt to erase its past demonstrates that tradition lives on in human nature, no matter how much external mores change.

  5. Donnie Brasco. Alongside Tarantino's reinterpretations of the crime genre, there is still room for tightly focused portraits of the mob's old guard; the passing face of our shared dirty secret is starkly visible in Al Pacino.

  6. The Wings of the Dove. The most romantic movie of the year has no easy answers for its lovers--just the understanding that sacrifice is a double-edged sword.

  7. Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. Errol Morris makes a documentary that rattles around in the brain for days after viewing, recombining images and words until his movie is almost a life form of its own.

  8. L.A. Confidential. It's rare that such consummate entertainment needs no apology. Curtis Hanson's tangled plot emanates from the dark secrets of its characters and their society.

  9. Jackie Brown. This love letter to Pam Grier's aging stewardess and Robert Forster's businesslike bail bondsman gets right what Boogie Nights fumbles: smart, sympathetic characters.

  10. Waiting for Guffman. I savor every crumb Christopher Guest throws the audience's way, and this is a full buffet of small-town spirit and belly laughs.

Honorable Mentions: Addicted to Love, Amistad, The Edge, Night Falls on Manhattan, Starship Troopers.

Great performances--male

Jim: Robert Duvall in The Apostle gives the performance of the year, period. But very nearly as good were John Travolta and Nicolas Cage in Face/Off; both men turned a game of mirrors into an exuberant duel of acting styles. Sean Penn blazed before the third-act burnout of She's So Lovely, and Ian Holm imbued his ambulance-chasing lawyer with a father's broken tenderness in the marvelous The Sweet Hereafter. The best performance nobody saw: the great Philip Baker Hall's guarded gambler in Hard Eight.

Noel: Robert Duvall closes The Apostle by leading a 20-minute church service and showing the divine contentment behind a seemingly desperate character, while Peter Fonda's Ulee in Ulee's Gold has been sad so long that every deliberate gesture traces a lifetime of disappointment. Al Pacino's doomed mobster in Donnie Brasco is aware enough to strip himself of valuables before facing the inevitable. And Mike Myers does a wicked Lorne Michaels impression as Dr. Evil, upstaging his own groovy performance as Austin Powers.

Donna: Through quiet observation, Johnny Depp holds the screen against one of filmdom's most charismatic presences in Donnie Brasco. The magnetic Vincent D'Onofrio was larger than life without an audience in The Whole Wide World, and petty in the face of death in his guest role on TV's Homicide. Kurt Russell redefines the action hero as a desperately improvising Everyman in Breakdown. And John Turturro sums up his life in signed, dated aphorisms in the charming Box of Moonlight.

Great performances--female

Jim: Pam Grier was handed the part of a lifetime in Jackie Brown, and she wore it like a crown of tough, weary dignity. Julianne Moore's maternal porn queen Amber Waves and Heather Graham's lost Rollergirl punctured Boogie Nights' precious portrayal of adult filmmaking. Helena Bonham Carter smashed her porcelain-doll persona as The Wings of the Dove's calculating heroine. And while the conflicts of As Good As It Gets were blatantly manufactured, Helen Hunt's smashing rapport with Jack Nicholson wasn't.

Noel: Alison Elliott's deep crush on Linus Roache draws the final, vital line in The Wings of the Dove's cruel triangle; Kate Winslet's blend of mod confidence and youthful insecurity gives James Cameron's hackneyed dialogue real dimension in Titanic; Katrin Cartlidge in Career Girls hides her sweet nature behind games, tics, and nasty sarcasm; and in the otherwise confused Buddy, Rene Russo's understanding of animals crosses the line into dangerous obsession.

Donna: Minnie Driver in Grosse Pointe Blank is what everyone's high-school sweetheart should be 10 years later: confident, genuine, and spontaneous. The amazing 4-year-old Victoire Thivisol never wavers as she threads a maze of religion to find her dead mother in Ponette. Tilda Swinton embodies shallow ambition in the problematic Female Perversions, while Stacy Edwards stands up to a world of abuse as the unwitting victim in In the Company of Men. And Jennifer Jason Leigh puts aside glamour and embraces hope as the plain, awkward heroine of Washington Square.

Scene-stealing performances

Jim: Nobody stole more scenes than Rupert Everett as Julia Roberts' suave pal in My Best Friend's Wedding. James Cromwell was institutional corruption personified as L.A. Confidential's dandy Dud Smith. As a wheezing, bilious old safecracker, Michael Caine pumped some blood into Blood & Wine's convoluted trickery. But there weren't any scene-stealers in Waiting for Guffman's seamless ensemble--just try diverting attention from Christopher Guest, Catherine O'Hara, Fred Willard, or Eugene Levy.

Noel: Robert DeNiro's slow-witted crook in Jackie Brown is more than comic relief--his eroding faculties are part of the movie's poignant theme; Dan Aykroyd's fast-talking union assassin gooses Grosse Pointe Blank to remarkable comic highs; Ed Harris' wry cop in Absolute Power suggests a promising path that the film does not follow; and Maggie Smith's conspiratorial aunt in Washington Square gives a sober romance some moments of quirky modernity.

Donna: Jon Seda began the year as Selena's perfectly hunky partner, and he continues into 1998 as Homicide's latest idealist. No villain in movies had more fun than Brent Spiner as the megalomaniac cruise director in Out to Sea. Anthony Hopkins staves off Alec Baldwin's terror with a clinical discussion of ice in The Edge, and Jay Mohr goes hilariously off-script at Jennifer Aniston's choreographed dinner party in Picture Perfect.

Unforgettable moments


  • Two revelatory nude scenes: Helena Bonham Carter desperately making love to erase another woman's memory in The Wings of the Dove, and Kate Winslet posing with false bravado for Leonardo DiCaprio in the smallest, quietest scene from Titanic.

  • In a tiny but haunting detail from The Sweet Hereafter, the bus driver remembers picking up 20 or 22 kids; the number sounds insignificant until we see the two tiny lives in question board the doomed bus.

  • The wonderful split-screen climax in Jackie Brown, when we realize Pam Grier has a gun at the exact instant Robert Forster does.

  • Rag-doll savior Milla Jovovich swan-dives off a 23rd-century Manhattan high-rise into vertical traffic in the loopy, diverting The Fifth Element.

  • The beat of quiet darkness before the title Boogie Nights blares into view.

  • All of Face/Off's naked aggression and mind games distilled into one image: Nicolas Cage and John Travolta each firing point-blank at his own reflection--on opposite sides of the same mirror.


  • Jamey Sheridan's discomfort with the '70s is manifested physically when he can't figure out how to lie on his waterbed in The Ice Storm.

  • A scientist who studies mole rats explains that we watch animals to see how they are like ourselves--the same reason we watch observant documentaries like Fast, Cheap and Out of Control.

  • Jackie Brown quietly assesses her aging face in a dressing-room mirror before her caper begins.

  • The persistence of crises in The Sweet Hereafter: While talking on the phone with his drug-addicted daughter, an attorney flashes back to the girl's infancy, when he almost had to perform an emergency tracheotomy on her--is he prepared to make the cut now?

  • Water pours into the floor of a state-of-the-art elevator as the lift descends to a flooded deck in Titanic.

  • Sean Penn and Robin Wright dance in She's So Lovely, and the whole history of their relationship is told by each giddy turn around the floor.


  • Number Two (Robert Wagner) plays high-stakes blackjack with Mike Myers' Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery in cheesy, AARP-dominated Las Vegas.

  • From a cozy couch, Matthew Broderick and Meg Ryan add voices to their silent surveillance movie in Addicted to Love.

  • Searching for a place in the human world, a gorilla tries out a room full of velvet chairs, one by one, in Buddy.

  • To save his prodigal daughter-in-law, Peter Fonda stoically enters a low, sprawling, neon-lit Orlando--the far country in Ulee's Gold.

  • A piece of advice, from one child to another, in Ponette: The time spent in a Dumpster as a test of courage will pass more quickly "if you tell yourself a Batman story."

  • Unable to give up in practice what his heart has already deserted, Robert Forster mechanically asks a client questions while his chance for escape drives away in Jackie Brown.

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