Hype and holler

The best of 1997 was OK, but sometimes the worst was better

While not a movie year to go down in infamy, 1997 was still mostly full of hype and holler. If the annual yield is judged by how many great films came out, 1997 was a loser. If you factor in the number of films that brought fresh talents and fresh subjects to the screen, the crop is slightly better. Yet there was enough going on in the movies--enough good work, or at least enough interestingly bad work--to keep this critic in clover.

Herewith some notes on a year just past:

Happy ending
Probably the best American film of the year was L.A. Confidential, and its clean sweep of the critics' groups should (finally) help turn it into a box-office success. Its initial lack of commercial firepower was, I think, due to a combination of woes: First off, the film in its first run was released in too few theaters and not all at the same time throughout the country. It's also a film noir, and audiences have never quite cozied to the genre--even Chinatown was not a smash when first released. And the lack of stars in the cast may have hurt.

But one reason to hope L.A. Confidential does well is because it lacked major names (besides Kevin Spacey, who played a supporting role). Warner Bros. backed director and co-writer Curtis Hanson's decision to go with two near-unknowns for the leads: Australians Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce. The studio's gamble paid off, and it deserves to. It's vital to the health of the film industry that movie companies be encouraged to go with offbeat or unknown casting choices, especially since so many new and talented actors are turning up in small independent movies.

A couple of films I liked that deserved better were Conspiracy Theory and Mimic. I'm not sure why the critics were so hostile to Conspiracy Theory--it features a manic, scattershot performance by Mel Gibson that's probably his best, and Julia Roberts is remarkable as his steadying, indulgent muse. (She's far better here than in the overrated My Best Friend's Wedding.) Despite some pulpy passages, it's a terrific thriller-romance with a valiant heart: By the end, Gibson's frantic energy is transformed into ardor.

Mimic is a giant bug picture, but its director, the Mexican Guillermo Del Toro, is a true movie poet, and he stages some sequences that are as creepy and suggestive as anything in the great silent horror classics by Murnau or Dreyer. Perhaps audiences have been so pummeled by the grand-scale glop of movies such as Men In Black and Starship Troopers--a glop I also enjoy--that the lyrical glop of Mimic seems wimpy in comparison.

Foreign matter
The most remarkable foreign language film of the year was Jan Troell's Hamsun, which was also far and away the best film of 1997--though it has yet to make it to Dallas. It's a masterpiece about a great subject: the enigma of the artist who's also a fascist. Yet the film also disappeared before it had a chance to shine: It played only two weeks in Los Angeles, never made it out of the city, and should be brought back; many more people wanted to see the film than had the opportunity to do so. As the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, who became a Nazi collaborator in his 80s, Max Von Sydow gives the kind of performance that can truly be called a "summation." He draws on everything he's learned as an actor in more than 40 years of performing; it's one of the most remarkably detailed displays I've ever seen, right down to the slight tremor in Hamsun's hands.

The Belgian La Promesse, directed by the brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, which tells of a boy who betrays his father, was one of the rare films that merged fictional and documentary techniques into a seamless whole. But most of the foreign films with widespread audience appeal still favored corseted costume drama and sentimental exotica. The Japanese Shall We Dance? is a perfectly enjoyable weepie that looks like it was made to be re-made--in Hollywood. The British literary-adaptation mill turned out two Henry James productions: Washington Square, in which Jennifer Jason Leigh injects an incongruous modern neurosis into the story; and the more accomplished Wings of the Dove, which brings Helena Bonham Carter into the front ranks of actresses. (Next up: movies of The Golden Bowl and The Aspern Papers.)

I didn't care for The Sweet Hereafter, by Canada's Atom Egoyan, as much as most critics. It's an artful film, but it doesn't only dramatize a community tragedy; it seems to suggest that the tragedy was an emanation of the vacuousness of small-town life. The most annoying "art-house" hit of the year was The Full Monty, yet another British film about clubby working-class guys showing off how drearily delectable their lives are. The rage and passion and lyricism that informed movies about working-class life in Britain back in the '60s (for example, Look Back in Anger and A Taste of Honey) have been replaced by a remarkable harmlessness: Movies such as The Full Monty or Brassed Off seem as though they were made for the American market--or, to be more precise, the American tourist trade.

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