This year more than ever it seems studios saved their best efforts for the end of the year. So much so that some prestige films technically part of 1997 haven't even been screened yet for the Northern California press, although they're already playing in New York and Los Angeles.
I didn't want to commit a best and worst list at least until I'd seen "The Boxer" -- an Irish political drama with excellent advance buzz -- because in 1996 my 10 best article ran before I saw "Breaking the Waves," which turned out to be the most extraordinary movie of the year.
But after scolding Universal Studios for the delay in showing the aforementioned film (it doesn't open for a couple of weeks around here), I'm forging ahead for the sake of timeliness.
Until a few weeks ago, I feared I would go through 1997 without seeing any movie I could honestly rank number one. Then the most remarkable thing happened -- "Titanic."
An over-hyped movie that two months ago (before anyone had seen it) was rumored to be dead on arrival, does in fact stand as a monument to the art of epic filmmaking.
Like a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind gown by a master couturier, "Titanic" is opulent, daring, detailed and, yes, vastly over-priced.
But even the seamless computer-generated effects, heart-stopping camera work and spectacular sets can't overshadow the compelling love story between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet that drives this incredible film. Who would have thought a James Cameron film would be the early favorite for a Best Picture Oscar?
The rest of the best are as follows:
"Good Will Hunting," another major Oscar contender, is driven by rich, frank, passionate dialogue. This film about a rebellious blue collar math prodigy is from an insightful screenplay by its stars, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
As professors at MIT (where he is a janitor) try to direct the hero's genius, his shrink (Robin Williams) and girlfriend (Minnie Driver) back his passion for a different kind of life. The movie is almost entirely conversation, yet remains funny, emotional and endlessly fascinating.
"All Over Me." Unknowns Alison Folland and Tara Subkoff give sublime performances in this notably authentic independent film about two Hell's Kitchen 15-year-olds exploring their sexuality and searching for acceptance.
Written and directed by two sisters, the attention to character detail and subtle emotion lends this picture a palatable realism as one girl finds herself trapped by an abusive boyfriend and the other tests the waters of homosexuality.
"Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." An intriguing true story of a gay Savannah socialite (Kevin Spacey) who murdered his lover and set the town abuzz in gossip by being cheeky and elusive about it all.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, "Midnight" has an unhurried air that allows eccentric, mysterious and outrageous characters to take the film on fascinating side-trips as it casually weaves the character of Savannah itself into the story.
"The Pillow Book." An outstanding visual and cerebral feast that requires a turbo-charged right brain to take in its multiple layers of symbolism, time and emotion. A beautiful, young Hong Kong writer with a fetish for writing on flesh searches for the perfect calligrapher/lover while avenging her father on the book editor who betrayed him years before.
"Ponette" hinges on a truly miraculous and visceral performance by 4-year-old Victoire Thivisol, playing a pensive little girl trying to make sense of her mother's death. Inconsolable and convinced her mother will return, Ponette is confused by conflicting theories on God and death presented to her by various adults. Through fantasies and a torrent of tears she works out her own solutions for surviving this terrible episode of her life. Thivisol won Best Actress at the 1996 Venice Film Festival and the French equivalent of the Oscar for her performance.
"Deconstructing Harry." Woody Allen is brilliantly back in the comedy vein with this sardonically funny autobiographical (although he vehemently denies it) parable.
Allen plays his usual frumpy, writer-type persona who has alienated every friend and his entire family by using their lives, very thinly disguised, as fodder for his sordid novels.
The film's gimmick is that events in his real life are offset by the similar scenes from his stories, with another set of actors playing the "fictional" versions of his loved ones. The best Woody Allen comedy in 20 years.
"The Peacemaker." I may lose all credibility by calling this riveting sledgehammer of an action movie one of the best films of the year. But while it visits many standard action staples -- car chases, shoot-outs and terrorists with stolen nukes -- this movie treats them with a fresh eye and it invokes more cerebral, classic espionage fare at the same time.
Director Mimi Leder knows her job is to overdose the audience on adrenaline -- she just goes about it by employing more artful channels than the genre requires.
"Romy and Michele's High School Reunion." A surprisingly spot-on satire about two vapid L.A. bimbos who dress to impress as faux business women for their 10th-class reunion, this comedy never relies on '80s in-jokes for its incessant laughs.
Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino are a female Beavis and Butthead, so their scam lasts about only about 10 minutes at the reunion -- as long as it takes a bitter classmate (Janeane Garofalo) to show up, all cigarette smoke and naysaying, with stories of their fatuous real lives.
"Kissed." Canadian actress Molly Parker manages to evoke an engrossing empathy in her role as Sandra, a necrophiliac embalming student who takes a rather excessive interest in her clients.
Incredibly well crafted, the film's illustrative details mindfully trifle with the audience, pushing us to see things from Sandra's skewed point of view. Unless you're completely appalled at the concept, "Kissed" is fascinating.
And because I refuse to hold myself to just 10 "best" films, my number 11 is "L.A. Confidential," a rich, layered, intelligent detective drama centered around the investigation into a massacre at an all night diner in the 1950s. Three rival L.A. cops become embroiled in a web of intrigue, duplicity, corruption and character tension, the likes of which are rarely seen in American movies anymore. Brilliant performances, smart direction and gorgeous photography pay off in virtually every scene.
Honorable mentions go to:
"The Devil's Advocate," "Donnie Brasco," "My Best Friend's Wedding," and "Boogie Nights."