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Gambit Weekly At the Movies in 1997

By Rick Barton

DECEMBER 29, 1997:  If you have read this year-in-review column in past years, you are used to my complaining about a dearth of good movies. So now for something entirely different. I am happy to report that I found 1997 the best movie year in a decade. And I say this without having had the chance to see a half-dozen promising films that will open in town after our publishing deadline.

Birth, Death and Resurrection

Before turning to the films themselves, however, I should reflect a moment on three significant changes in the New Orleans moviegoing experience. First was the boffo May 22 opening of the PalaceTheater in Harahan. The area's first superplex, the Palace is the future of motion-picture exhibition. It offers 20 screens, the most comfortable, high-backed chairs and truly unimpeded sight lines.

Unfortunately, just as the Palace opened, the venerable Lakeside Theatre in Metairie closed down. Co-owned and managed by Bill Cobb, Lakeside Theatre No. 1 commenced business in 1965. A second screen opened in 1972, and the final two in 1974. But with three separate ticket booths and concession stands, the Lakeside Theatres were never a genuine multiplex and thus could not easily adapt to the changing economics of movie exhibition. Added to the stiff competition from the nearby Galleria, the nascence of the Palace was a death sentence for Lakeside. The Veterans Memorial Boulevard real estate became more valuable than the theater operation itself.

A cheerier story is the amazing resurrection of the Prytania. At Christmas 1996, the Prytania was closed, and even its seats and projection equipment had been removed from the building. But the theater was miraculously saved by Chris Riley, who has spruced it up and handed over management to longtime New Orleans film exhibitor Rene Brunet. The new Prytania has yet to develop a consistent programming strategy, but it's back, let's hope, for the long haul.

Honorable Mentions

Amazingly, I saw 80 satisfactorily enjoyable films in 1997. Of those, I'd like to call your year-end attention to about 25. First, a list of pictures I think deserve honorable mention for the year's best:

The meaning remains elusive in Kenneth Branagh's dazzling, full-length Hamlet, and the title character's motivations remain murky, but the staging is magnificent and the performances are superb. John Singleton based Rosewood on an actual horrific incident. Starring Jon Voight and Ving Rhames, the picture is the story of a group of black Florida families in the 1920s who fight back against white vigilante violence. Singleton settles for standard Hollywood theatrics in his closing, but at its best this is a powerfully affecting work.

Mark Herman's Brassed Off also is an excellent piece of work. Focusing on British mine workers who try to take their minds off their economic dislocation by performing in a community band, Brassed Off is funny, true, touching and politically forthright. For a change of pace, I enjoyed Bill Bennett's Australian noir Kiss or Kill, the story of two small-time scam artists who hit the road when one of their victims accidentally dies. You can't see where this goofy flick is heading, and it delivers a handful of kicky surprises.

On a more serious note, Steven Spielberg's Amistad is the true story of 53 Africans who commandeered their slave ship in 1839 and sought the protection of the U.S. Constitution. This picture is earnest, high-minded and occasionally brilliant, though Spielberg's intrusive score and other storytelling decisions render merely instructive that which should be thrilling. Jacques Doillon's quietly moving Ponette tells the story of a 4-year-old girl's grief over the death of her mother. This picture has a truly astonishing title performance by preschooler Victoire Thivisol and provides perhaps the best child's view of the world ever captured in fictional cinema.

Elliot, Roache and Carter turn Henry James into powerhouse cinema with The Wings of the Dove.

Lastly, two comedies deserve singling out. Frank Oz's In & Out is built around the suspicion that a popular, small-town Indiana high-school English teacher (Kevin Kline) may be gay. The internal logic of the flick is sometimes thin, but it's very good-hearted and often quite funny. Kline is terrific, and he's ably supported by Tom Selleck and Joan Cusack. And Peter Cattaneo's The Full Monty was the year's sleeper hit. A group of unemployed steel workers decide to become male strippers and deliver a series of bellylaughs.

Outstanding Documentaries

The year also offered up three noteworthy documentaries. Certainly the most controversial among them is Kirby Dick's Sick, which concerns the life and death of performance artist and masochist Bob Flanagan. The film includes scenes involving mutilation of the human body that are almost unwatchable, but it makes you accept Flanagan on his own terms, care about him and, in some measure anyway, understand him.

When We Were Kings, Leon Gast's terrific documentary about Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and their 1974 "rumble in the jungle," is a fascinating look at uncommon men, a thrilling film even for viewers who care little about boxing. Best of all is Errol Morris's utterly distinctive Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, a series of interrelated interviews with a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, a mole rat expert and a robotics scientist. Absolutely fascinating, this is a picture you find yourself thinking about for days afterwards.

Special Mention

A small group of pictures didn't quite make it onto my top 10 list but received serious consideration. They include Prisoner of the Mountains, Sergei Bodrov's somber and affecting film about two Russian soldiers taken prisoner by Moslem rebels in the Caucasus mountains. It's a story of historic misunderstanding, racism, casual violence and unexpected compassion. Jan Sverak's Kolya tells the story of an impoverished, middle-age cellist who marries for money and gets stuck with his young bride's 6-year-old son. Winner of the Oscar for best foreign film, this picture is beautifully acted and absolutely melts your heart. Children of the Revolution, Peter Duncan's wildly inventive black comedy, is the story of a radical Australian mother (Judy Davis) who gets impregnated by Joseph Stalin and watches as junior grows up to be a right-wing spokesman. It is often laugh-out-loud funny.

Among mainstream Hollywood's best offerings was Robert Zemeckis' Contact starring Jodie Foster as the astronomer who detects a radio signal from another civilization. It's a little strained at points, but at its best it's a fascinating rumination on the connection between science and religion. And thoroughly enjoyable was P.J. Hogan's My Best Friend's Wedding. Julia Roberts is out to break up the forthcoming wedding of Dermot Mulroney to Cameron Diaz so she can have the guy for herself. An uncommonly intelligent script by Ronald Bass makes this that rarest of Hollywood things: thoroughly original.

Top 10

My selection for the best films of the year:

10) Nicholas Hytner's The Crucible, with Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder in a gloriously mounted adaptation of the Arthur Miller play, is a potent warning about society's susceptibility to reckless accusations of evil.

9) Thaddeus O'Sullivan's searing Nothing Personal examines the longtime turmoil in Northern Ireland and provides an insightful exploration of how the cycle of violence has taken on a life of its own.

8) Christopher Guest's hilarious farce Waiting for Guffman does for community theater what his earlier This Is Spinal Tap did for rock documentaries.

7) Alexander Payne's canny comedy Citizen Ruth offers an insightful script and an outstanding lead performance by Laura Dern as a glue-sniffing pregnant woman who gets caught in a crossfire between right-to-lifers and pro-choice activists.

6) Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy exhibits his deliriously funny dialogue. But there's surprising depth here, too, and some keen insights about the first requisite of love being a forgiving heart.

5) Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves, which tells the story of a 1970s Scottish lass who sleeps with other men in order to gather erotic tales for her paralyzed husband, is one of the most searching and deeply religious movies in some time. Emily Watson is absolutely brilliant in the lead role.

4) Curtis Hanson's finely nuanced and superbly plotted L.A. Confidential looks at the corrupt underbelly of Los Angeles in the 1950s and offers outstanding performances by Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Kim Basinger and Danny DeVito.

3) Wings of the Dove is Ian Softley's adaptation of the Henry James novel about a penniless aristocrat (Helena Bonham Carter) who tries to get her middle-class lover (Linus Roache) to woo an ailing American heiress (Allison Elliot) in order to inherit her fortune. It is brilliantly acted and deeply moving.

2) Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson's look at the 1970s via characters involved in the burgeoning porn film industry of the era, is smartly acted (by Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore and Heather Graham), well-written, riotously funny and full of surprising heart.

1) My favorite film of the year is the gifted Ang Lee's The Ice Storm. This adaptation of Rick Moody's novel starring Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood and Tobey Maguire is a memorable, involving and artfully elusive rumination about sexual license, adolescence, marital infidelity and nuclear-family disintegration in the Watergate era of the early 1970s.

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