Monday, March 7, 2011

Time-Delayed Oscars 008: 1997

This is going to be a weird year; there were some genuinely great movies to come out in 1997, some of which haven’t yet received their full due, others of which have simply faded from our regard… and then there’s a giant 900 lb. gorilla in the room. A technically amazing, poorly-written, extremely high grossing gorilla who sometimes sounds like Celine Dion.

Will our hearts go on?  Let’s find out.

Ian Holm and Sarah Polley contemplate the fact that they have
no shot at the 1997 Oscars.

And The Survivors:

Air Bud – OK, I’m kidding. This movie was probably terrible. I certainly will never watch it.

The Apostle – AKA Robert Duvall’s tour-de force as actor/writer/director. This may be his greatest performance. He brought it to the screen almost by himself. It was almost totally ignored. I think the love for this movie is growing slowly. The day will come when suddenly the world of film history will take another look and realize what has been buried.

As Good As It Gets – One of the most beloved movies of 1997, both then and now, which obscures what a mess this thing is. Jack Nicholson is given one of his best opportunities ever to play The Jack Nicholson Character – and yes, he is sure enough given some of his most hilarious lines in an age to say, and yes, he does tear into those lines with gusto. But his character is just such a terminal louse, and his semi-redemption seems so tacked on and unearned. I’m being unduly harsh, because I actually enjoyed it, but as cinema it’s a pretty good TV movie. I think this movie is good eating, but it’s fast food.

Austin Powers – The movie that launched a million catchphrases. Or, perhaps, the same catch phrase a million times. A middling semi-success in theaters, it was such a hit on video that it catapulted Michael Myers into headlining movie-star territory the likes of which had only been seen by a handful of SNL stars (arguably only Eddie Murphy ever got bigger than Myers at his biggest, though you could make a case for Bill Murray and Chevy Chase). Myers used his newfound clout to make the exact same movie two more times, and then appear in a series of decent-to-excruciating movies as the voice of a Scottish troll.

Batman & Robin – This movie was the worst thing ever and should never be forgotten as such. However, it did end Chris O’Donnell’s movie career, so it wasn’t for nothing.

Boogie Nights – PT Anderson’s LA porn epic was his first big grab at the Scorsese crown and dangnabbit, if he didn’t pull off an at least temporary coup. Features include maybe a dozen of the more indelible scenes of the year, an entire stable of great actors on the cusp of stardom (seriously, look at it; Phillip Seymour Hoffman probably has 12th billing), one of the more infectious soundtracks of the decade, and Burt Reynold’s last fleeting moment of relevance.

The Butcher Boy – OK, does anybody remember this movie?  It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve seen. Neil Jordan gets a performance out of child actor Eamonn Owens that is a miracle. Eamonn who? Exactly. But trust me, this isn’t just one of the best child performances of the decade; it’s one of the best performances of any kind. I think the movie was just obscure enough that the baffled Academy was able to sort of ignore it.

Chasing Amy – I remember when Kevin Smith movies were nearly as fun as Kevin Smith speaking engagements. This was the first movie of note starring Ben Affleck, and to watch it today is to watch what might have been if he had been allowed to grow into his likeable but flawed everyman shoes instead of trying to wear Bruce Willis’ big boy action boots. Jason Lee is a genius in this movie. Jay and Silent Bob barely appear in this, still to date Smith’s best movie. This is not a coincidence.

Donnie Brasco – Ah, when Johnny Depp played human beings instead of a sequence of space alien schoolgirls in a variety of funny hair. Come back, Johnny, I miss you, man. Al Pacino in Donnie Brasco . . . oh man.  Do you remember this performance?  Do you remember him leaving his watch behind as he goes to his fate?  How is this movie not better remembered? I see Brasco on the Godfather/Goodfellas axis, with Godfather showing the upper class, Goodfellas the middle class, and Brasco the working stiffs of the mob.

Face/Off – This is a pretty special movie. Something that John Woo should keep in mind as he makes his movies: He’s so over-the-top in such a self-serious way that the only thing to do is to cast in the lead roles crazy people who don’t mind dialing the scenery chewing up to 11, the better to make your film the comedy it really is. Face/Off is a masterpiece of ludicrous cheese. I loved every silly second of it.  And you know what? Cage and Travolta are GREAT in this. I won’t hear otherwise.

The Fifth Element – John Baptiste Emanuel ZORG. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I rest my case.

Funny Games – This home-invasion exercise in sadism and audience implication is an early stage-setter for Michael Haneke. He went and made a near shot-for-shot English remake a few years back for some reason. I haven’t seen it yet. It scares me.

The Game – David Fincher, Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, and about 7000 plot holes. I don’t care, this one is fan-flipping-tastic. One of the best genre pictures and one of the most under-rated movies of the year and many other years around it.  You know what? Between this and Face/Off and The Fifth Element and Donnie Brasco and The Butcher Boy and The Apostle, this is turning into an absolute killer year for movies with either great cheese factor or great performances, or both, and some fantastic genre pieces . . . it’s just very weird, because I don’t think most of these are properly loved even now.  It’s like that monster boat took the whole year in film down to the bottom of the Atlantic with it.

Gattaca – Another under-rated sleeper. This one’s actually sort of B-level, not as smart as it thinks it is (and surrounded by movies that are smarter than they let on) but it brought us Jude Law and it still is shorthand for “genetic science moral quandary.”

Good Will Hunting – Wow. Watch this movie again and tell me if I’m wrong but . . .it’s just really uneven, isn’t it? The parts that are good (starting with Matt Damon, who is excellent in the title role) are really, really good; but the parts that aren’t (the surface-level pop psychology first and foremost) really aren’t. Nevertheless, it’s a well-remembered film, and one that has Robin Williams mercifully playing the Wise Shrink role in a minor key, which he excels at.

Jackie Brown – I know I sound like a fanboy, but Quentin Tarantino hasn’t made a bad movie yet. However, his penchant for surprising stylistic turns has disappointed his fans before, and Brown was a big first bump in the road for people expecting more Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction from QT. This Elmore Leonard adaptation is top-notch, though, and the themes of finding your place in a world you’re aging out of are just starting to ring true for me.  I think this may be a film you age into, which is all the more extraordinary considering that it was made by a guy in his early thirties. Check it out again, and marvel at the nearly full minute of screen time Samuel L. Jackson’s character is given to think about who stole his mothafuckin’ money.  Not many movies have the trust in the audience and actors to allow these sorts of beats.

LA Confidential – One of the best neo-noirs ever. Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce just popped out of nowhere to become major stars in their own right. Kevin Spacey gives one of his better performances right in the middle of a pretty sick tear of great performances. Kim Basinger channels old-school Hollywood star wattage. This is a crime flick of the best kind, the kind that just doesn’t get made all that much.  I sort of wish I was watching it again.

Lost Highway – This would be a much more critically beloved (or at least acclaimed) movie, I’m convinced, if it weren’t seen as such a dry run for the all time David Lynch classic, Mulholland Drive, released a few year later. Still, if 1997 has a creepier scene than the “Call me/Ask me” bit between Bill Pullman and Robert Blake, I am not aware of it.

Men In Black – Will Smith arrived in Independence Day.  He blasted off in this, but my favorite moments of MIB come from bit players, like David Cross as a David Cross kind of person and Siobhan Fallon as the confused wife of the movie’s comedic masterpiece, Edgar the Bug Man (Vincent D’Onofrio).

Princess Mononoke – Japan’s highest grosser (I think) until the Great Big Boat That Could (Sink) came along.  That was a long time on top there, Princess Mononoke.  I’d like to say this: Animator Hideo Miyizaki is a friggin’ genius, and everybody should watch every single one of his movies. That said, Mononoke is one of his lesser efforts, in quality if not in scope. I like my Miyazaki dreamy.
Starship Troopers – Haven’t seen this war against aliens cum satire of military fascism, but it (and the films of Paul Verhovan in general) are getting a critical reclaimation. Maybe it’s time to.

The Sweet Hereafter – Atom Egoyan’s devastating masterpiece of sorrow. Ian Holm as an ambulance chaser who secretly shares in the mourning of a town that lost their children in one fell swoop. This movie will hurt you and help you. It has often appeared at or near the top of critic’s “best of the 90s” lists. It is entirely, terribly and unequivocally great.

Titanic – Hold on . . .

Wag the Dog – Mainly remembered today for popularizing a phrase that was already sort of out there. This David Mamet production features Robert DeNiro as a politico and Dustin Hoffman as a film producer who make a war up out of whole cloth because the president wants to distract the country. This was a satire until 2003, at which point it retroactively became a documentary.

"Rose, listen to me. You need to live. You need to go on. In about 35 years
a baby named Celine Dion will be born in Canada. You have to kill that
baby. So it is very important that you don't die."

And the Time-Delayed Oscar Goes To:

Best Picture:

Real List: As Good As It Gets, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting, LA Confidential, Titanic

Today’s List: As Good As It Gets, Boogie Nights, Good Will Hunting, LA Confidential, Titanic

My Pick: The Sweet Hereafter

This kind of hurts. First, let me say that I saw Titanic in the theaters, and I really liked it at the time. I thought (and still think) that in many ways it was a very well-made and involving motion picture.

That being said, whether you think it was good or whether you think it was nightmarishly awful, we can all come together to admit that this wasn’t the best movie of this or any year, right? The script hit all the right story beats, albeit in a totally by-the-numbers sort of way, but the dialogue was occasionally cringe-worthy, and some of the acting (looking at you, Billy Zane) was imported from the silent era of very big mugging.

I liked Titanic. It’s a throwback spectacle movie (few films suffer more in the translation to home video), and at its best it puts you right there on the boat. At its worst, it plays you a Celine Dion tune while an old lady throws a piece of fashion jewelry right over the side.

Titanic was in some aspects a great movie, in some aspects a merely good movie, and in some aspects not all that good at all.  Wherever you land, I bet you do not consider it the best movie of the year, and I think in time we’ll ALL know that.

But you know what? This movie was such a phenomenon that more than a decade’s time just isn’t enough. I kind of think it would still win the Oscar even today.  It was HA-YUGE, people. Whereas The Sweet Hereafter, which I still believe will win posterity, was very tiny. So my pick for the movie that would probably win Best Picture of 1997, even today, is, sigh, Titanic.

Best Actor
Difficult to say. Jack Nicholson took it this year for what is still a beloved role. This was sort of the last time he really got a chance to play The Feisty Jack Nicholson Guy instead of The Almost-Dead Guy With Moobs and Broccoli Eyebrows, and he does it really, really well in a very funny performance. He may still be the guy to beat.  However, there’s a lot of people who might fit the bill, based on the fact that they gave more impressive performances rather than resting on an established movie-star persona.  Russell Crowe in LA Confidential, Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, Ian Holm in The Sweet Hereafter, Eamonn Owen in The Butcher Boy, and Johnny Depp and Al Pacino both in Donnie Brasco, all fit the bill.  (This was a VERY good year for performances, at least male lead performances.)

But really, guys? It’s Robert Duvall this year. See The Apostle and tell me otherwise. It’s one of the performances of the decade. I think this has been forgotten, but I spent all my cynicism on the Best Picture category. It’s time to recognize.

Best Actress

If it’s possible that Jack doesn’t win anymore, there’s no way Helen Hunt can still ride those coat-tails, especially given the exactly nothing of note that she’s delivered to the silver screen since then.  Once again, though, we’re faced with a chronic Hollywood malady: The Curse Of The Not Many Well-Developed Roles for Women. They really they probably could have spent a bit more time naming that malady.

You know who I think gets it? Pam Grier for Jackie Brown. It’s a great role made just for her and she is awesome in it. There was Oscar talk for her in 1997 but the movie underperformed and she didn’t even get a nomination. She shines in Jackie Brown. Give her the gold.

What was the Best Picture of 1997?  Vote at FilmChaw!


Hammer Player a.k.a Hoyazo said...

Here was another year where I thought the academy got it utterly and completely wrong. While I did not see Titanic and probably never will so I can't comment there, I can say that LA Confidential was good-but-surely-not-great, and Good Will Hunting was I think a little bit worse than that. It was just a classic case of people glomming on to the movies they think the Academy would like and then talking them up for no reason. I tried to watch Good Will Hunting when it showed up for some reason on TBS or TNT not that long ago, and it is barely watchable. I like Matt Damon but Robin Williams is utterly horrible and simplistic in one of his most acclaimed roles ever.

Sleepers for the year have to include Gattaca and The Game, both of which I enjoyed quite a bit, although neither I think is worthy of Oscar's glory (and you're so right about the plot holes in The Game, although I loved the movie and would definitely watch if it came on right now).\

However, despite a truly anti-climactic ending, The Fifth Element is probably the best movie on your list in my book. From a science fiction perspective, it is about as original as you ever find these days, and to this day when it is on as I flip the channels, it's always good for a cool scene or five. And Zorg is about as perfect of a character for Gary Oldman as you will ever find anywhere.

Ken Wheaton said...

Just to point out that you left Adam Sandler out of the post-SNL fame crew. Pretty sure he and his invisible penguin are swimming in piles of money.

Good year for movies overall, though. Funny how somtimes Duvall's character in The Apostle bleeds into (in my mind) his character from Slingblade.

Julius_Goat said...

Big whiff on my part missing Sandler. He's #2 after Eddie Murphy, who remains the only former SNL actor to actually become the biggest star in the world for a while -- though at this point Sandler's had greater longevity than Murphy.

Robert Downey Jr. doesn't count because that season never happened.