The Year in Film

In 1997, independence was not a status so much as a state of mind.

From where I sat, this was a great movie year: Even such thrilling esoterica as Irma Vep, Eye of God, and Latin Boys Go to Hell couldn't crack my Top 30, while four of the year's 10 best were, believe it or not, studio-financed--two of them by Disney. And yet the film that resonated most for me in 1997 is now 20 years old.

Joan Micklin Silver's Between the Lines (1977) is about an alt-weekly newspaper under threat from "a rich asshole who goes around buying up papers like ours." The flick's barely five minutes old when the paper's film critic facetiously interrupts an edit meeting to ask if he can go to Cannes. The $75-a-week music editor (a young and hyper Jeff Goldblum) is reduced to hocking armloads of vinyl and "teaching" a self-indulgent class on rock & roll to a fawning group of Radcliffe rejects. The weekly's star reporter conspires with the new owner--who insists he's bought the paper "not for what it can be, but for what it is"--to increase the number of New York-based columns. A mass exodus of talent ensues. Everyone is convinced the paper has lost its edge.

Maybe so. But this year in film is nothing if not proof that independence can survive within the system, given a certain amount of individual daring and ingenuity. To wit: Martin Scorsese (Kundun) and Charles Burnett (Nightjohn) snuck their artfully radical work past Uncle Walt in '97; Errol Morris (Fast, Cheap & Out of Control) and Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) courted commerciality but remained plenty weird; Emir Kusturica (Underground) and Arnaud Desplechin (My Sex Life) saw their hard-to-market, three-hour films picked up for U.S. distribution; Curtis Hanson parlayed his clout as a hack to make L.A. Confidential at Warner Bros.; John Woo (Face/Off) exercised final-cut privileges to pull the wool over Paramount; Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-Wai (Happy Together) got away with a queer love story despite his country's new regime; and David Cronenberg defied Ted Turner by compelling Fine Line Features to release Crash, the most fearless movie of the year.

TOP 10:

1. Crash. In a money-driven industry such as this, it stands to reason that great movies are often those hardest to release--or to describe, or even to watch. Taking this as its subject, David Cronenberg's reflexive film isn't a cautionary tale about the speed of modern life so much as a study of people who go against the flow of traffic to rev up their "art." In a literal sense, Crash hardly lacked for sex--but no one came, either. If only Fine Line's belated release in March could have been delayed another few months for a tie-in with "Candle in the Wind 1997."

2. Happy Together. Still the hipster's heir to Godard, director Wong Kar-Wai answered his many imitators--as well as the challenge to define Hong Kong circa 1997--by setting up shop in Buenos Aires. Until it reaches Oak Street Cinema on April 10, suffice to say this hypnotic, languorous love story goes by its own watch. Meanwhile, as time marches on, I'll have to wait until next year to list Wong's still-unreleased masterpiece from '96, Fallen Angels.

3. Kundun. No less than the first two on this list, Martin Scorsese's painterly bio-pic of the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet employs the properties of cinema to alter the viewer's consciousness. Seeming the inverse of Raging Bull, Kundun is subjective and surreal but predicated on calm: Even the Chinese invasion is depicted simply through a shriek of pain and a splash of the color red. Who'd have thought the masochist would learn to meditate? Opens January 16.

4. Nightjohn. The story of a man who willingly returns to slavery with the goal of imparting his knowledge to those who need it, directed for the Disney Channel by the heretofore independent maker of Killer of Sheep and To Sleep With Anger. With this deeply resonant drama, Charles Burnett proves doubly that the best education is akin to smuggling.

5. Underground. Screwball rather than somber, Emir Kusturica's three-hour tour of Yugoslavian history spans from 1941 through the war in Bosnia, ironically staging the most tragic events as slapstick circus acts; the most sympathetic characters are a caged tiger and a pet chimpanzee. U Film has shrewdly scheduled it to open Friday opposite Miramax's facile and familiarly rendered Welcome to Sarajevo; time to vote with your wallet.

6. Face/Off. Cinema with passion on a Hollywood scale, this was John Woo's exhilarating gift to the industry. With its hyper-emotive performances, fearless dream-logic and metaphor, and truly poetic style, Woo's work makes other U.S. action films look pathetic. Best of all, having grossed over $100 million, Face/Off stands to give its genre a new identity--and its maker his old one.

7. My Sex Life...Or How I Got Into an Argument. Three entirely unpredictable and deliberately exhausting hours with characters whose actions aren't determined by the immediate needs of director or viewer--which in turn meant that even knowing it existed was no sure thing either. Oak Street's new St. Paul offshoot, Seventh Place Cinema, dared to play it for two weeks anyway.

8. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control. In which Errol Morris proves that real life is an artistic construct, too, if you look closely enough. The director makes his own desire to play God somewhat poignant by including himself in a holy quintuple of creators--not to mention cinematographer Robert Richardson, whose meticulously sculpted images help continue the auteur's evolution.

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