Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix The Best Films of '97

By Peter Keough

The Sweet Hereafter. Atom Egoyan's adaptation of Russell Banks's novel is a wrenching, nearly flawless film -- the best of his career and the best of the year. Told in a fluid stream-of-collective-consciousness that skips with mounting gravity between points-of-view and from past to present to future, the film describes a bus crash that devastates a small Canadian town, and what's disclosed after ambulance-chasing claims lawyer Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm) starts asking questions. Again and again Egoyan's camera takes up the route of the doomed bus as it snakes around the snowblasted roadway until the unthinkable happens in a simple special-effects scene that equals all the fury of Titanic's climax in its awe-inspiring sublimity. What's left behind is neither recrimination nor despair but clarity, a hereafter that, sweet or not, must be reclaimed.


The Wings of the Dove. Although not as freewheeling as Jane Campion in The Portrait of a Lady, Iain Softley cuts through Henry James's exquisite convolutions and ambiguities to the bare essentials of this tale of love, mortality, and the many shades of betrayal while at same time filling the screen with lush sets, costumes, and cinematography as dense as the author's prose. Credit the cast, too: Helena Bonham Carter both hard-edged and emotionally refined as London lady-of-limited-means Kate Croy; Linus Roache stiff but oddly eloquent as her low-rent lover, journalist Merton Densher; and a Pre-Raphaelite Alison Elliott as Milly Theale, the beautiful rich American whom Kate decides Merton should woo so he can become her heir. The result is the best adaptation of James on screen since William Wyler's The Heiress in 1949.


Love Serenade. Shirley Barrett's daft and delightful Australian comedy finds two sisters -- desperate-to-be-married Vicki-Ann (a pursed and determined Rebecca Frith) and the aptly named Dimity (a malignantly muppetish Miranda Otto) -- both falling for the newly arrived radio dj, Ken Sherry (a smoothly grotesque George Shevtsov). Their competition for the sleekly seductive lothario is hilarious, but when he oozes digestive fluid from a pair of vestigial gills, easygoing farce gives way to burgeoning nightmare. And somehow, when Dimity announces, "I have reason to believe your boyfriend is a fish," all becomes painfully, uproariously clear.


Boogie Nights. Emerson College dropout Paul Thomas Anderson's sophomore sizzler (his first film was last winter's little noir Hard Eight), a grand, comic epic about the porn-film industry of the late '70s and early '80s, one-ups Scorsese, Altman, and Tarantino. It's also a breakout vehicle for Dorchester's Mark Wahlberg, as a 17-year-old busboy who's discovered by porn auteur Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), rechristened Dirk Diggler, and taken into Horner's ad hoc family -- which includes the maternal Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), big-brotherly Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), and sisterlike Rollergirl (Heather Graham), who never takes off her skates, even during sex. Anderson tells his tale without flinching or moralizing -- proving that there's still pleasure to be had in giving yourself over to a dazzling storyteller.


Chasing Amy. In the bracing last chapter of his New Jersey triptych (Clerks, Mallrats), Kevin Smith gives us a winsome lesbian heroine in Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams), a comic-book artist with a knowing half-smile and a Betty Boop squeak who catches the eye of sensitive fellow artist Holden (Ben Affleck) at a comic-book convention. Smith doesn't cower from the challenges of a boy-meets-lesbian romance; eventually Alyssa and Holden melt into a seemingly preposterous, hopelessly passionate affair. The director does stumble at the end, tacking on a pat, safe conclusion. But it takes guts to make a personal film, and his tender characterization of Alyssa proves he's got the goods.


Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. What do a topiary gardener, a robot engineer, a mole-rat expert, and a lion tamer have in common? Errol Morris's exhilarating and original new film says a lot more about the human place in the universe than his ponderous A Brief History of Time. Interweaving and paralleling the lives, work obsessions, and eccentricities of his four unlikely subjects -- the arcana of whose trades are rapturously photographed as the film dances from machines that look like insects to animals that act like them, from topiary shaped into beasts to beasts shaped into a kind of topiary -- Morris has achieved the cinematic equivalent of a Bach fugue, delightful in its wit and intricacies and, in the end, spiritually elevating.


Hamsun. Author of Hunger, Pan, and The Growth of the Soil, revered by his native Norway, and winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize, Kurt Hamsun opted in old age for ignominy by siding with Quisling and the occupying German army during World War II. He always claimed his support for Hitler was due to his hatred of British Imperial "arrogance" and his desire to see Norway take its place as a first-rate nation in the "German Empire." In his searing bio-pic, Jan Troell makes the excruciatingly convincing case that Hamsun's decision derived rather from a bad marriage and a twisted home life. In the title role, Max von Sydow has the blithest and lushest of frameworks for his consummate performance. And Troell sustains the story's passions through the film's continually absorbing 160-minute length.


Female Perversions. First-time director Susan Streitfeld probably didn't have much competition from studio moguls when she optioned Dr. Louise J. Kaplan's Female Perversions: The Temptations of Emma Bovary -- but she seizes the screen with utter confidence. The astonishing Tilda Swinton is Eve Stephens, a sharklike district attorney who has maneuvered her career toward a judgeship. Ostensibly attached to a pony-tailed male sophisticate (Clancy Brown), Eve leads a life dominated by women: her kleptomaniac sister (Amy Madigan); a beautiful young psychiatrist (Karen Sillas) whom Eve meets in an elevator; and a gender-confused pubescent niece (Dale Shuger). Streitfeld combines Antonioni-like alienating composition and expressionistic color with a Buñuel-esque sense of wryly surreal detail; the result passes beyond the narrow urgency of sexual politics and into the realm of myth.


Titanic. Not only does the most expensive movie ever made elevate its special effects with a story, characters, and a point, it also brings to them the long-missing qualities of awe and vision. In flashback we meet the spoiled and desperate 17-year-old American socialite Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet in a career-making performance); her mother, Ruth (Frances Fisher), a dowager facing ruin; the impossibly villainous millionaire's son Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) whom Rose is to marry; and the plucky young American Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), an impoverished, itinerant artist who has won steerage passage on the ship in a poker game. The free-spirited Jack and the gilded-caged Rose meet on board, and so on -- it's a standard story given Henry Jamesian depth. But where director James Cameron really shines is in showing how our fascination with such technological wonders as the White Star liner and this movie itself is a fascination with the inanimate, with death, and with the dread of what iceberg might lie in the path of our lives and our civilization.


L.A. Confidential. Curtis Hanson's adaptation of James Ellroy's massive noir preserves the novel's 1950s Hollywood atmosphere, tough dialogue, and lurid detail while untangling, compressing, and realigning the implausible overplotting. Brown-nosing LAPD Sergeant Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) gets a promotion after pinning a string of assassinations on a trio of "Negro" teens; subsequently, he blows them away after a botched escape attempt. But something about the case doesn't sit right with Exley, and he forms an uneasy alliance with his nemesis, strong-arm cop Sergeant Bud White (Russell Crowe as a beefy Jack Webb), and slick Sergeant Jack Vincennes (reliable Kevin Spacey) to plumb the truth in a cesspool of corruption, pornography, prostitution, and murder. With Danny DeVito appropriately reptilian as a scandal-sheet editor, and Kim Basinger not looking at all like Veronica Lake (who she's supposed to look like) as a call girl, L.A. Confidential is a glitzy tribute to the hardboiled genre.



And a pair of noteworthy contenders . . .




Hercules and Anastasia. Turning its Greek Muses into an African-American girl-group quintet that does pop, R&B, and gospel, Disney's animated Hercules has a hip hero with heart who discovers that love is the secret to immortality, a heroine with attitude, and a black-lipsticked, worm-slurping villain -- Hades, attempting a "corporate takeover" of Mount Olympus -- who's more fun than any Disney baddie since Cruella DeVil. It's a smart movie for smart kids and smart adults. Anastasia, from Disney alum Don Bluth, is animation that looks more like a live-action movie, but its tale of how Tsar Nicholas II's youngest daughter finds her grandmama -- and love -- in Paris, despite the efforts of the villainous Rasputin, is Anastasia's story as it never was but should have been.


Kristin Lavransdatter. Norwegian author Sigrid Undset's 14th-century tale of a woman who weds the man she chooses instead of the one her father has selected for her won her the 1928 Nobel Prize, and Liv Ullmann makes the first of Kristin Lavransdatter's three volumes, The Bridal Wreath, into a Nobel-worthy film by tapping into Undset's essential virtues: a keen eye, brutal honesty, and an astonishing capacity to affirm and love. With Elisabeth Matheson magnificent in the title role, the film is like an Icelandic saga: love and marriage, family and society, sin and redemption -- what life is all about. -- Jeffrey Gantz


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