The monumental film of the time was James Cameron’s Titanic, which broke box-office records and won 11 Oscars; including best picture and director. It was a landmark piece of cinema that ended up being a cultural phenomenon. It was a year where the world mourned for Princess Diana after her death in a tragic car crash, and the Heaven’s Gate Cult committed mass suicides in California. Throughout these tragedies, it was a year that offered many great offerings–both from Hollywood and the indies. It was a pivotal year for cinema, coming off the rebound of Pulp Fiction and Fargo, which appeared to raise the standards of cinema in terms of storytelling, screenwriting, and even technique. Even film criticism was taken more seriously as Siskel & Ebert generated an even greater following during this era. It was a year where movie cinemas and video stores opened–wider to meet the demand for distributed movies. It was truly a time to be alive as a film buff, and now many years later, so many other great films that were released at the time are mostly available thanks to Blu-Ray restorations and streaming services. Like I do today with my year-end lists, the year of U.S. theatrical distribution is the model used for films to be determined on the list. I also included six runners-up, 10 honorable mentions, and a notable list because it was such a dynamic year. Here are the best films of 1997:
1. Jackie Brown (d. Quentin Tarantino)
Terribly undervalued upon its original release, Jackie Brown was released just 3 years after the release of “Pulp Fiction, and even critics and audiences at the time went with bigger expectations of explosive violence and more lurid material. What they got instead was Tarantino’s most understated film to date, that also happens to be his least violent, that holds some of these strongest characterizations and pathos to date. Jackie Brown’s performances are also some of the greatest that he has pulled off, its baffling how Pam Grier wasn’t awarded or even nominated for an Oscar that year, Samuel L. Jackson was mesmerizing as Ordell Robbie, and Robert Forster delivered the most tender and heartfelt performance out of any Tarantino character as Max Cherry. Based on the novel Rum Punch by the late Elmore Leonard, and while “Jackie Brown” often doesn’t come up in conversation when you first bring up Tarantino, out of all of his films this one holds up the best in perms of character depth and storytelling. It may not be as lurid or as graphic as his other films, however it is his most humane work to date in which Tarantino would revisit with Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
2. Boogie Nights (d. Paul Thomas Anderson)
With Boogie Nights, the sophomore effort to P.T Anderson’s impressive Sundance debut feature, Hard Eight, Anderson proved his position as a skillful craftsman and dramatic storyteller at such a young age. P.T. Anderson has directed an exuberant depiction of the Golden Age of Porn from the late 1970s to its “artistic” demise in the 1980s.With a brilliant ensemble cast, kinetic energy, and an impeccable visual style, P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights is a fully realized masterpiece that remains an extraordinary feat. The veracity of this sprawling saga, at its core, is really about a family of outsiders attempting to find some reconciliation and meaning in their lives. The result is an endearing film filled with rich characterizations, earned pathos, and first-rate performances from a uniformly first-rate cast—especially Burt Reynolds, who plays Jack Horner, the adult film director of Diggler, who puts a lot of passion, creativity, and technique into porn back in the days when adult films had some standards, were shot on film over digital, and offered some production value. Julianne Moore shines with vulnerability as Maggie/Amber Waves, Dirk’s co-star actress in the adult films, who yearns to be a mother as she pines for a son who has been dragged away from endless custody battles due to her lifestyle choices. Compassionate and deft, P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights leaves a great dramatic impact that has remained a treasure of 90s cinema and of P.T. Anderson’s majestic career.
3. Lost Highway (d. David Lynch)
David Lynch’s 7th feature, the neo-noir, maddeningly nightmarish, brilliantly crafted Lost Highway, plays on Lynch’s usual visual motifs and themes of mistaken identity, alternate realities, and different dimensions within his main characters’ dreams and subconscious. The film explores Fred (Bill Pullman), a married jazz musician who begins receiving mysterious videotapes sent to his house that involve his home, as well as very creepy images of him sleeping at night with his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette). During a party, Fred encounters a Mystery Man (Robert Blake) who happens to be in two places at once and holds the key to Fred’s destiny and deepest secrets. At the halfway point through the film, Renee ends up being brutally murdered in his arms, and the next moment he’s sentenced to death row. Eventually, Fred disappears, or rather transforms into a completely different person in the cell, into a young man named Peter Dayton (Baltazer Getty), a tormented mechanic who’s been left out of jail, leaving the prison puzzled as much as the audience as to how this logically happened. Highly abstract and eerily atmospheric, Lynch’s two worlds and realities transition into each other in hypnotic and hallucinatory fashion. Of course, everything becomes a facade, but Lynch’s narrative is filled with rich surrealism and dream logic that plays on film noir tropes, in which his visual potency ends up exploring one man’s subconscious of anxiety, desire, fear, and insecurities, along with the consequences that lie ahead for Fred and Peter and Renee’s fatalism. It’s a perplexing masterpiece and one of the decades’ most timeless masterpieces that only gets better with repeat viewings and with age.
4. Titanic (d. James Cameron)
Along with Avatar, Titanic is one of cinema’s largest productions. Director James Cameron is a modern Cecile DeMille, who also holds great technique and extraordinary craftmanship. Cameron’s 1997 was monumental and extraordinary achievement, both on a cultural and artistic level. Created with lavish production values that still holds a timeless quality, While Cameron added fictional elements to the tragedy, and many have showed some displease with those creative liberties, the love story between Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) is nothing short of involving and makes the drama resonant. Winslet’s performance is commading, as it encompasses anxiety, fear, and self-discovery, while DiCaprio is quite raw. Cameron’s vision remains groundbreaking, pulling off one seamless moment from the next. Titanic maintains its reputation as a film for the ages.
5. L.A. Confidential (d. Curtis Hanson)
In its brilliantly vivid details of the past, the convoluted plot that eventually comes full circle, rich characterizations, expertly written script by Brian Helgeland, and top-notch direction by the late Curtis Hanson, L.A. Confidential is an engrossing crime thriller neo-noir throwback to 50’s era filmmaking that feels every bit as timeless as those classics. With its extravagant set-pieces and swift pacing, “L.A. Confidential” reminds us why we love movies to begin with. The stellar cast by Russell Crowe, Guy Pierce, Danny DeVito, Kevin Spacey, and Kim Basinger all deliver memorable performances and characters. A mix of Chinatown and other 50s noir thrillers, L.A. Confidential was an instant classic upon its release, a film that has held its reputation quite well and the true masterpiece by the late Curtis Hanson.
6. The Sweet Hereafter (d. Atom Egoyan)
While revisiting Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, I realized just how strong of a craftsman and engaging storyteller he really is. He does not seem to be celebrated much anymore, simply because he hasn’t directed a critical hit film since 2002’s Ararat. So I’m going back for the first time in over 20 years to watch this gorgeous and complex film that feels singular on its own, and it’s one of the greatest Canadian films ever produced. It’s a movie about searching for the truth, finding closure, and observing a tragedy. The film ends up becoming a profound meditation on loss and tragedy, and the performances by Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, and Bruce Greenwood are among the most authentic I’ve seen.
7. The Ice Storm (d. Ang Lee)
Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm—is the fifth film and fourth collaboration with frequent writer James Schamus, also created the masterpiece Crouching, Tiger, Hidden Dragon together. At the time, The Ice Storm made numerous top ten lists, won some major awards at the Golden Globes, and was snubbed for Oscars, but somehow, with the passage of time, people tend to only discuss Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hulk, and Life of PI when discussing Ang Lee. Modern film buffs and big indie publications like Indiewire and others don’t discuss it. Either the younger writers haven’t watched it or haven’t shown any interest as of yet, even with its Criterion Blu-Ray release. However, it has stayed with me and is easily one of Ang’s three best films. Perhaps if Ang Lee had another hit, it would entice more people to see this masterpiece gem of a film. The film is a masterful exploration of two families’ healing, and like P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, Ang Lee allows weather as a metaphor for repressed emotions, desires, and other hidden tensions to be leashed out in the third act. With exceptional writing, honest pathos, and great period details from the 70s, and a first-rate cast that includes Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, and Tobey Maguire, where are the “Spider-Man” fans? The Ice Storm is a film made of immense sadness that holds many rich themes, including coming-of-age, desire, marital uncertainty, and finally, reconciliation.
8. The Apostle (d. Robert Duvall)
Robert Duvall’s career defining performance also just happens to be one he also directed. A superlative achievement, the film chronicles a troubled pastor on the run as a fugitive who travels across state lines and starts a brand-new ministry under a different ally with a community of all colors and creeds. He ends up touching just about everyone he encounters. Yet, he also has his own sins and flaws that set him back from his aspirations. Powerful and gripping from beginning to end, Duvall’s “The Apostle” is an unforgettable masterpiece and one of the greatest films ever crafted about faith. The scene with Billy Bob Thornton is a highlight. The third act is absolutely riveting, involving Walton Goggins seeking redemption for his betrayal. Look for this film on Blu-ray!
9. Wag the Dog (d. Barry Levinson)
It might have been, though, for Wag the Dog to remain merely a sharp satire on politics, with sharp writing, superb performances, uproariously funny bell laughs, and even some absurdity is to be found here. And certainly, Hollywood veteran and filmmaker legend, Barry Levinson, delivers a deeper edge to Wag the Dog with a first-rate adapted screenplay by David Mamet and Hilary Henkin that’s based on Larry Beinart’s novel American Hero. The screenplay manages to be both bright and satirical, and the commentary here is way ahead of its time, as Wag the Dog examines how politics really is a spectacle, much like a production. The film taps into how the media uses distractions and other crises to take the public’s eye off other issues or scandals, and then makes them even more involving. It’s a film that is prophetic and way ahead of its time in a time where political discourse appeared to be quaint. Also, the trio between Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, and Anne Heche is quite dynamic, you can see their onscreen chemistry shine through, and this is an essential film that needs to be revisited and discussed more often.
10. In the Company of Men (d. Neil Labute)
In the Company of Men, the debut film from cynic Neil Labute, is one of the most explosive cinematic debuts of the 1990s; it is cruel, politically incorrect, and ultimately condemns misogyny. Chad (Aaron Eckart) and Howard (Matt Malloy) are two white-collar office workers who use toxic behavior to vent their insecurities on women.They end up targeting a typist in the office, a deaf woman named Christine (Stacy Edwards), who Howard ends up falling madly in love with while Chad is leading her on. The discussion focuses on rampant sexism and how it pervades our society, workplaces, and role reversals, and the result is a very subversive satire. Both uproariously funny and deeply disturbing, In the Company of Men is a well-crafted film that takes the audience into uncomfortable territory and allows us to process and confront such toxicity. Aaron Eckhart’s role as Chad is one of the most menacing and cruel characters ever captured on celluloid, making it even more eerie because of just how real that type of guy exists–even 25 years after its release, that behavior seems to be embraced by some podcasters, pundits, public figures, and circles in society.
Runners-Up: In Alphabetical Order
Chasing Amy (d. Kevin Smith)
Hands down, Kevin Smith’s most mature and poignant film yet. Smith takes his commonalities of pop culture references, funny one-liners, friendships, and crude humor–in the View Askew universe, of a comic book artist named Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck) who falls in love with a bi-sexual woman named Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams) –and Smith turns it into an honest, complex exploration of love and friendship. The movie’s razor-sharp dialogue and engaging storytelling emphasize an honest look at relationships more than most studio rom coms. The film could have gone wrong in so many ways. Watching the film 25 years later, Smith was way ahead of his time as the film also explores modern topics that are more openly discussed today, like misogyny and sexual identity, and Smith even explores the vileness of misogyny, slut-shaming, and homophobia. Sure, it might be uncomfortable watching characters speak like that now, but Smith was taken a stand against it and exploring it while many films in that era weren’t as bold.
Eve’s Bayou (d. Kassi Lemmons)
Kassi Lemmon’s debut feature, Eve’s Bayou could accurately be described as an American southern gothic thriller mixed with elements of a melodrama. What could have easily been ingredients for something over-the-top and histrionic, ends up becoming a transcendent framework with its involving narrative that makes it absolutely engaging on every level. It’s artful, complex, and holds a lot of sophisticated character depth with everyone on board. Even though this was Lemmon’s debut film, it feels like it’s helmed by the work of a seasoned professional. It’s one of the most impressive debut features to emerge from the 90s. The character growth of Samuel L. Jackson as the unfaithful husband undergoes quite the growth as his depth is untangled with many layers as the film unfolds. Lemmon’s vision explores Southern mysticism and is able to deliver a very profound film about disillusionment and redemption.
Face/Off (d. John Woo)
Easily one of the decade’s finest action flicks, John Woo’s extravagant and equally histrionic is an extraordinary exercise in operatic action. Woo created a very seamless and unbelievably dynamic action-thriller with Face/Off, which ranges with such fine skill from Travolta and Cage, who certainly elevate their onscreen personas to the border between self-parody and skillfully layered. Simultaneously, both Travolta and Cage are able to deliver two performances that hold various quirks and nuances. The result is quite impressive when merged with breathtaking action (in a time where action wasn’t messy handheld). Best of all, you get all the Cage/Travolta lunacy merged with an engrossing narrative that unfolds with exceptionally staged shoot-out scenes and awe-inspiring set-pieces. It was during a time where action blockbusters could get greenlit and be huge blockbusters before the days of Marvel, reboots, and endless franchises.
Good Will Hunting (d. Gus Van Sant)
Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting is still a highly moving and emotionally charged drama with its humane vision that combines a great script by both Matt Damon and Ben Affleck with Van Sant’s stellar directorial skills. Somewhat of a modern Charles Dickens’s narrative about a university custodian who’s actually a genius and was raised as an orphan who has been in and out of juvenile detention and jail in his life. What could have easily been corny or schmaltzy, immediately became gripping, dark, and dramatically rich thanks to Van Sants’ indie spirit and the outstanding performances by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Minnie Driver, and the late Robin Williams, who delivered a career-defining performance as a widowed psychiatrist who attempts to guide Will Hunting out of his psychological torment, while carrying his own internal struggles.
Happy Together (d. Wong Kar-Wai)
An emotionally charged and complex love story, Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together is one of the most memorable and realist LGBTQ love stories films to emerge in cinematic history–coming from a straight filmmaker, you would think it would feel detached, but it remains one of the most intimate. Christopher Doyle and WKW deliver an incredibly involving story about a gay Hong Kong couple (Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung) who have a lot of turmoil in their relationship and are trying to scrape by as they reside in Argentina on a visa with their highly stylized visual energy, innovative cuts, and ravishing cinematography. In addition to Wong Kar Wai’s themes of confinement, isolated love, loneliness, and marginalization, each viewing rewards the viewer with different joys. Wong Kar-Wai’s first film to be shot outside of Hong Kong holds the sensibilities of a Michelangelo Antonini film as his characters wonder through the landscapes and architecture, contemplating love and pondering how to move forward. Filled with rich visual poetry of waterfalls, decayed roads, confined hotel rooms, and desolate rads, it’s a film that will break you each time.
Hard Eight (d. Paul Thomas Anderson)
A towering debut feature by P.T. Anderson, led by an impressive cast headed by Phillip Baker Hall, elevates Hard Eight, Anderson’s crime drama. Certainly, a notch or two above most of the Tarantino imitators that were released after Pulp Fiction. Centering on Sydney (Phillip Baker Hall), a career gambler and retired criminal who takes a younger protégé, John (John C. Reilly), under his wing to show him how to profit off casinos, PTA’s debut feature shows so much competence in writing, crisp dialogue, and, of course, craftsmanship that unfolds as if it was crafted by a veteran. You can easily sense an Altman and Scorsese vibe in this film, and PTA keeps the yarn small for his calling-card movie, as you never quite know where the story goes. P.T. Anderson Hard Eight has a lot of heart and emotional payoffs for a crime film. As is evident throughout most of his films, P.T. Anderson is a humanist who understands the human condition and doesn’t manipulate the audience. He also imbues the film with his rich visual touches that include master shots, exceptional blocking, great tracking shots, and impressive dramatic writing. Addressing strong character arcs, reveals, as well as deeply flawed characters, Hard Eight paved the tone for the rest of his filmography since. Ultimately, Hard Eight is stronger than most debut features as it’s involving, wise, moving and rendered with very strong performances. Samuel L. Jackson also delivers an impactful performance as Jimmy, a criminal who holds unkept knowledge of Sydney’s past, and Gwyneth Paltrow is very authentic and convincing as Clementine, a casino cocktail waitress who reminds Sydney of his daughter.
Honorable Mention (In alphabetical order)
4 Little Girls (d. Spike Lee)
Crash (d. David Cronenberg)
Cure (d. Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
Deconstructing Harry (d. Woody Allen)
Donnie Brasco (d. Mike Newell)
The End of Violence (d. Wim Wenders)
Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control (d. Errol Morris)
Irma Vep (d. Olivier Assayas)
Taste of Cherry (d. Abbas Kiarostami)
Suburbia (d. Richard Linklater)
Waiting for Guffman (d. Christopher Guest)
Other notable films of 1997: Afterglow, Amistad, Anaconda, As Good As It Gets, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Blood and Wine, The Boxer, Breakdown, The Butcher Boy, Career Girls, Con Air, Contact, Copland, The Edge, The Fifth Element, The Full Monty, The Game, Hercules, Gataca, Gabbeh, Gummo, Grosse Pointe Blank, Kundun, Insomnia (1997), Live Flesh, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Maborosi, Men in Black, Mimic, Mother and Son, Mrs. Brown, Nowhere, Open Your Eyes,The Rainmaker, Scream 2, Starship Troopers, Tomorrow Never Dies, U’Lee’s Gold, Under the Skin (1997), The Tango Lesson, When We Were Kings, The Wings of the Dove
Note–Affliction and The Spanish Prisoner are included in my 1998 list, Princess Mononoke in my 1999 list because of their respected North America theatrical releases.