|by Jack Sommersby
From police corruption to space monsters to Michael Douglas to The Delfonics to a horny British spy to, well, you know, all the things that made this glorious retro year of 1998 go round!
And the winners are...
1. L.A. Confidential
2. The Game
3. Waco: The Rules of Engagement
4. The Sweet Hereafter
5. Jackie Brown
6. Wag the Dog
7. Starship Troopers
8. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
9. Eye of God
10. Romy and Michele's High School Reunion
Actor: Michael Douglas (The Game)
Actress: Mira Sorvino (Romy and Michele's High School Reunion)
Supporting Actor: Robert Forster (Jackie Brown)
Supporting Actress: Diane Venora (The Jackal)
Director: Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential)
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland, Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential)
Cinematography: John Schwartzman (Conspiracy Theory)
Editing: Peter Honess (L.A. Confidential)
Score: Howard Shore (The Game)
Nudity: Heather Graham (Boogie Nights)
For die-hard film lovers like myself, the mere mention of the 1997 film year more often than not elicits deep-down groans, and not because it was a monumentally bad year for films (it wasn't), but because of the Academy Awards having rewarded the elephantine, infantile Titanic with both the Best Picture and Director Oscar awards over the extraordinary L.A. Confidential. What's quite telling is that L.A. Confidential, a beautifully multi-layered police-corruption crime drama set in 1950s Los Angeles, did something never before accomplished: Winning Best Picture and Director awards from all the major year-end critic's groups, ranging from the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Chicago Film Critics Association, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the National Board of Review, the National Society of Film Critics, and the New York Film Critics Circle. In the other corner, Titanic, a big-budget, three-hour disaster epic with a soggy love triangle amid the elaborate sets and special effects, copped a couple of Best Director wins from some less-prestigious critic's groups yet not so much as a single solitary Best Picture win. Granted, the Oscar winner for Best Picture and Director from the previous year, the laboriously dull The English Patient, didn't win any Best Picture awards from any critic's groups either, but it also didn't eclipse a film in its Best Picture category that had won several Best Picture awards -- Fargo snagged New York's, Secrets & Lies Los Angeles', Shine The National Board of Review's. In his first-rate review, David Denby of New York magazine proclaimed L.A. Confidential not just the best American film of the year, but the only American film of the year -- one where such genuine dedication and craft were given to story, structure and character that the film was a major revelation and something that seemed to have crawled out of a time capsule having been released during a day and age when flimsy stories with attention-getting premises and easy-to-read characters ruled the lay of the cinematic land (and, unfortunately as we know, still do). Excepting the just-adequate Kim Basinger (who inexplicably won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) and a shoot-'em-up finale that piles on too many bodies to be plausible, L.A. Confidential is brilliantly cast, designed, written and directed, and so jazzily robust in its bursts of storytelling fervor that the dialogue exchanges are as dynamic to witness as the expertly staged action and stunning production design. A monumental film achievement more than worthy of its high-echelon accolades.
Almost as enraging was the lukewarm critical reception of David Fincher's miraculous fantasy-thriller The Game, which showcased a career-best performance from Michael Douglas as a reticent San Francisco investment banker whose overly-controlled life is turned upside down when brother Sean Penn signs him up with a high-tech recreation company that promises a "profound life experience". He's soon plunged into a frightening world where his two biggest fears -- unpredictability and uncertainty -- rain down on him in spades. His TV starts talking to him, a mysterious clown mannequin with a gold key in its mouth winds up in his driveway, the key to his briefcase won't work, a homeless man collapses in front of him, a hospital elevator he's in shuts down, glimpses of shady-looking eavesdroppers are caught, a cab's doors lock him inside while the car's in high-speed motion -- and this doesn't include the black-clad, machine-gun-toting assassins soon nipping at his heels. The film works as an involving thriller (Fincher is an expert at engineering tension and sustaining mood), a telling meditation on the soul-deadening of materialism (the emotional zero of a banker has it all but has nothing), and an affecting character study (Douglas deftly and dexterously makes the man's emotional progression wholly believable). So why did so many myopic-minded critics harp on the film being implausible, when clearly it was intended as a fantasy? They didn't have a problem with overpraising Peter Weir's enervating media-denouncing fantasy The Truman Show the year after, even though the potential behind its fantastical premise was never intelligently explored (like what would have happened had the actress playing Truman's wife went on strike for a higher salary -- and, by the way, what would make so many Americans tune into a dullard's uneventful life day after day?); and the similar overpraising of Jim Carrey's barely average performance was particularly disgusting in light of the crass underpraising of Douglas' spectacular one (critics were dubiously certain of merit in Carrey's work in his first "dramatic" role simply because he didn't make them hurl at the mere effort, while largely shrugging off Douglas' work with his playing a similar Gordon Gekko role even though the uncommon degrees of nuance and variety and shading he endowed it with reached dramatic highs Carrey could -- and still -- only dream about). Dazzingly unpredictable, with tantalizing plot turns, enjoyably witty dialogue, and a grade-A supporting cast adding texture to the bravura proceedings, The Game is wondrous to behold.
(By the way, Michael Douglas' performance wasn't the only wrongfully overlooked one in 1997. Harvey Keitel brought unexpected depth to his role as Timothy Hutton's revenge-seeking brother in the fine crime tale City of Industry. Pierce Brosnan gave a sturdier star performance as the hero volcanologist in the entertaining disaster picture Dante's Peak than he has in any of his three disposable James Bond adventures. Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt did some of the best work of their careers as a veteran New York police captain and a feral IRA operative in The Devil's Own. Viggo Mortensen effortlessly blew the usually-uncommunicative Demi Moore off the screen in G.I. Jane. In the enjoyable The Jackal, Richard Gere was outstanding as an IRA sharpshooter enlisted to track down notorious assassin Bruce Willis, and Diane Venora equally so as a Russian major also involved in the hunt -- both performances were considerably more three-dimensional and lived-in than we're used to in globe-trotting action-adventures of this type. The beautiful and appealing Mary McCormack made quite the poignant impression as Howard Stern's understanding wife in Private Parts. Playing a superstitious Chicago cop in the botched adaptation of the brilliant horror novel The Relic, Tom Sizemore proved he could carry a starring role in a major-studio film with confidence and ease, with the underemployed Clayton Rohner proving himself an incorrigible screen presence as his second-in-command. Mira Sorvino, whom I always like, and Lisa Kudrow, whom I usually don't, made for an utterly charming comic pairing in Romy & Michelle's High School Reunion. Julia Ormond, who failed to light up the screen as intended in the title role in the 1995 remake of Sabrina, came into her own with her confident, captivating portrait of an amateur sleuth in the gripping big-screen adaptation of Peter Hoeg's best-selling novel Smilla's Sense of Snow. Dennis Quaid, Danny Glover, Jared Leto, and, especially, R. Lee Ermey made for a stellar thespian quartet in the serial-killer thriller Switchabck. And the appealing Jeff Daniels and Charlize Theron emanated serious romantic chemistry in the sometimes-amusing Trial and Error. As for overlooked films, well, the following weren't exactly perfect, but they were worthwhile nevertheless and boasted better entertainment value than crap like Good Will Hunting that year: Paul W.S. Anderson's frightening sci-fi-horror treat Event Horizon, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's inventive sequel Alien: Resurrection, Steve James' engaging sports biopic Prefontaine, and Kevin Spacey's directorial debut, the crime drama Albino Alligator.)
William Gazecki's Waco: The Rules of Engagement was a searing, disturbing documental indictment of the FBI's incompetent handling, heinous actions, and aftermath cover-ups involved in the fifty-one-day standoff outside the Branch Davidian compound in 1993. Like a cinematic Eliot Spitzer, Gazecki expertly delineates his contention of quintessential governmental malfeasance with revealing interviews (indicating David Koresch was less the leader of a dangerous cult than a voluntary sect), contradictory statements (the FBI's claim of working peacefully with the Davidians contradicted by tanks tearing up the compound and blasting sleep-depriving, anger-inducing sounds over a loudspeaker all night long), infra-red photography (showing federal agents shooting at Davidians trying to flee their fire-engulfed compound, which was likely caused due to FBI bullets igniting highly flammable tear gas that was shot inside for six hours, even with children inside), and revealing on-the-scene witnesses (like news reporters who say they were tipped off to the raid the night before, thus furthering that the Bureau staged the arrest-warrant carrying-out of Koresch -- despite the fact that he could have easily been arrested the day before when he was in town running errands -- as a publicity stunt to better their image after the disastrous Ruby Ridge fiasco the year before). Gazecki has painstakingly assembled a devastating array of facts that knock crater-size holes in the government's fatuous case justifying their "rules of engagement" here, and his willingness not to paint Koresch in a totally flattering light or embark on a partisan crusade help give the film a rock-solid gravitas that should serve as a must-see eye-opener for every American who genuinely, rather than superficially, cares about their country. Making a nice double-bill with this would be Barry Levinson's wickedly funny political satire Wag the Dog, which involves a U.S. president accused of luring an underage girl into the Oval Office and making lewd propositions with the election just a few weeks away. To distract the press, top spin doctor Robert De Niro invents an imaginary international crisis in Albania, and enlists Hollywood producer Dustin Hoffman to manipulate the media and thus the American people into buying into it. This is the breeziest, most assured work of Levinson's career, and he's been given a real ace in the crackerjack screenplay by David Mamet that manages to top each previous gag with hearty aplomb. Hoffman, in particular, is a pure delight as the egocentric, tanning-booth-baked producer who brushes off every unforeseen setback with his patent "This is nothing." response. The year's best comedy.
Quinten Tarantino's Jackie Brown was a marvelous follow-up to his overpraised Pulp Fiction (which employed such hoary subplots as a tuxedo-clad mob fixer who holds cocktail parties at eight in the morning and is dispatched to give this earth-shattering advice to two hit men with a dead body and its fresh bodily fluids sprayed all over their car parked in a friend's garage: clean the blood off yourselves and the car). While showing proper respect for the satisfying Elmore Leonard novel he adapted it from, Rum Punch, Tarantino also did what an auteur of his stature is expected to: make it uniquely his own. On the surface, it's a con-artist tale -- flight attendant Pam Grier trying to outwit murderous arms dealer Samuel L. Jackson and ATF agent Michael Keaton for a half-a-million-dollar booty -- but, essentially, it's a love story -- Grier striking up a slowly building romance with kindly bail bondsman Robert Forster. The various intricacies in pulling off the con are enticing, but even more so are the internal dynamics of its players whose zenith levels of distrust for one another would have made the late noir novelist Jim Thompson proud -- he, like Leonard and Tarantino do, understood that what's more important to an interesting plot twist is interestingly arriving at it through the eyes of interesting characters. Tarantino's dialogue here is enjoyably catchy without the distracting self-adoration that hindered Pulp, and, thankfully, like Spike Lee, he's quit acting in his own films. The story structure is sound, the pacing throughout the two-and-a-half-hour running time is agile, and though Grier is a bit weak as the heroine (Kay Lenz, I think, would have been a knockout in the role), she's professional enough and easy to take. Standouts: the repeated playings of The Delfonics song "Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time", and Forster's spectacularly understated, soulful, flawless performance. Speaking of stellar performances, in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Mike Myers' show-stopping work as a habitually horny '60s London secret agent cryogenically frozen and awakened in the '90s to do battle with arch-nemesis Dr. Evil (also played by Myers) offers up a treasure trove of side-splitting laughs. The film is a brazenly broad and colorful spoof of '60s British spy flicks, and, quite delightfully, about eighty percent of the jokes score. Director Jay Roach ably keeps the proceedings bouncy and superbly framed in widescreen; Myers' own screenplay is endlessly creative; co-star Elizabeth Hurley makes for a deft comic foil; and Myers' performances are comic tour de forces of boundless proportions.
The sci-fi genre was done proud with two excellent entries: Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers and Andrew Niccol's Gattaca. The first is an adaptation of a Robert A. Heinlein book and boasts a very simple story: a group of young intergalactic fighters consisting of both men and women do bloody, dismembering battle with giant arachnids on the planet Klendathu to save the fate of mankind. End of story. Utterly devoid of pretense and engineered solely to wow audiences on a purely responsive level, Starship Troopers allows director Verhoeven to free himself up and concentrate his virtuoso technical skill on the visual and the visceral, which he's great at, as opposed to dramatics, which he's awful at. Expertly choreographed action sequences are on voluminous display through Jost Vacano's super-sensitized color photography. The casting of second-raters like Casper Van Dien and Dina Meyer allows their plasticity to perfectly merge with the virtually contextless writing (though the always-welcome Clancy Brown is around in a supporting role to remind viewers that not all humans in this far-away future are inanimate objects). The CGI effects are thoroughly impressive. And, gosh darn, even clocking in at over two hours, Verhoeven keeps everything revved up and entertaining as gangbusters with not a single bum note to be found. Gattaca is a less-expensive sci-fi production that's character-oriented and intelligent in its depiction of an emotionally sterile future where perfectly engineered humans are the norm and "faith babies" (flawed humans who're naturally born) are the exception. Thought-provoking in the Phillip K. Dick vein, and impressively conceptualized and developed by debuting writer/director Niccol. Another debuting writer/director, Tim Blake Nelson, impresses with Eye of God, a non-linearly-told, small-town tale of tragedy set in Oklahoma involving a young short-order cook and her just-released ex-con/born-again Christian pen pal whom she quickly marries -- and who gradually begins exhibiting a dark, violent streak in between, and even during, his Scripture readings. Nelson's refusal to rush things, his confidence in his material, his uncanny eye for human idiosyncrasies allow the impending horror to build to a nerve-jangling conclusion that resonates. Another non-linearly told, disturbing tragic tale is Atom Egoyan's harrowing The Sweet Hereafter. After a small-town Canadian school bus plunges into an icy lake and fourteen children die, a big-city lawyer seeking to avenge the children as a way of healing his rage over his perceived failures as the parent of a heroin-addicted daughter unknowingly opens fissures of dark secrets and repressed feelings within the community. An unflinchingly sad film about sad people that's neither maudlin nor didactic, just well-observed and blessedly unpredictable. As the lawyer holding onto the faintest shreds of self-control, Ian Holm is remarkable.
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originally posted: 02/06/05 16:53:02
last updated: 01/15/17 19:22:42