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Top 25 Films of 1997

From blockbusters to minor classics, 1997 left us feeling like kings and queens of the world

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    Decades, presented by Discogs, is a recurring feature that turns back the clock to critical anniversaries of albums, songs, and films. This month, we dial it back to the top 25 films of 1997.

    By 1997, the multiplexes were beginning to overflow. Granted, what was considered “overflowing” back then would pale against today’s endless gauntlet of mega-budget, A-list franchise movies. But the tentpole movie was already taking over the industry, and ’97 saw Hollywood roll out the full spectrum of blockbuster movies, from the record-shattering hits (Titanic) to the stuff of trash legend (Batman & Robin). Sixteen movies crossed the $100 million mark, back when that was a much bigger deal, and another eight broke $70 million.

    As has been true since at least the 1960s, 1997 wasn’t just a year for the best and worst of the major studios’ best bets, though; the continued boom period for arthouse fare offered its own share of true gems. When the CoS film staff came together to discuss what the best films of that year were, each writer’s list revealed that same dichotomy between blockbusters and minor classics. It also turns out that “classic” is a relative term, and you’ll either be pleased or chagrined to learn that Con Air just barely missed our final cut.

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    What we did find was a spread where Takeshi Kitano can rub elbows with Mike Myers and the once-highest-grossing film of all time was able to exist in the same Oscar categories as a small production about Boston written by two ambitious buddies. The industry would only get bigger from there, but 1997 built on the momentum of the ‘90s on the strength of (mostly) unique and original material. Even if some of that unique material involved a T-Rex sprinting through San Diego.
    So let’s go diving back once again, when the mall multiplexes weren’t all owned by the same three companies and you could rent Face/Off for two nights from your local Blockbuster.

    –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
    Film Editor


    25. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

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    While it’s true that the Austin Powers trilogy lasted exactly two films too long, you’re dabbling in revisionist history if you deny that Mike Myers’ initial send-up of the gentleman spy genre, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, wasn’t a groovy, swinging shindig during the summer of 1997. With the “Olivier of Spoofs” Leslie Nielsen’s best work behind him, Mel Brooks unofficially retired from filmmaking, and BASEketball still a year away, Myers gave spoof, parody, and farce lovers a reason to once again pack theaters via a familiar genre and a catchphrase-spouting SNL-style character whom general audiences could also embrace. For Myers, a lifelong Bond fan, the project was a labor of love, drawing character inspiration, developing gags, and repurposing dialogue from no less than 14 films from the legendary 007 series. In fact, our own Sarah Kurchak argues that Myers and his team were so true to the campy, over-the-top fare of their source material that the Austin Powers films were more or less legit spy films with a heavy dose of self-awareness — a development that likely helped push the genre towards the darker, grittier realism of today’s cinema. While Myers has mentioned (threatened?) the possibility of another installment, there’s really no need to unfreeze our favorite hairy-chested, dentally challenged, penis-pumping gentleman spy again. We’ll just pull him down from our VHS shelves whenever we feel a little bit randy, baby. Yeah, smashing, baby! –Matt Melis   


    24. The Wings of the Dove

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    Stealing the show in a film as uniformly solid as Iain Softley’s take on Henry James’ 1902 devastating drama, The Wings of the Dove, is an almost Herculean task. British acting legends Charlotte Rampling and Michael Gambon deliver characteristically excellent performances, and their less established counterparts Linus Roache and Alison Elliott do an admirable job of keeping up. The plot is finely rendered, cinching its central moral dilemma tighter than the corsets of its (equally beautifully crafted) period piece costumes. It’s easily the best James adaptation this side of 1961’s The Innocents. And yet steal the show is exactly what Helena Bonham Carter does. Her nuanced and unnervingly sympathetic performance as Kate Croy, a desperate young woman who willingly plunges herself into a sinister love triangle with her wealthy, fatally ill friend and her secret fiancé, earned the star her first Oscar nomination and cemented her status as a British screen legend in her own right. –Sarah Kurchak


    23. Grosse Pointe Blank

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    In the wake of the emergence of Quentin Tarantino in the early ’90s, it didn’t take long for his influence to be felt. A movie like Grosse Point Blank is hard to imagine without Pulp Fiction coming before it, though GPB pushes the humorous hitman trope further into the absurd. When professional killer Martin Blank (John Cusack) gets an assignment in the same town as his high school reunion, the table is set for Blank to wrestle with both his past and his present while still, you know, making sure his job gets done. Supporting performances from big sister Joan, Minnie Driver, Alan Arkin, and Dan Aykroyd all stand out, but the film’s real MVP might be the ’80s soundtrack that tickles the nostalgia of its protagonist. Funny enough, the film features Blank working with a therapist (Arkin), though it’s largely against the doctor’s wishes. With the film Analyze This and television series The Sopranos both debuting a couple years later, Grosse Point Blank proves to be influential in its own right. –Philip Cosores


    22. Hana-bi

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    In North America, Takeshi Kitano’s name has become so synonymous with a certain kind of realistic, usually yakuza-fueled crime drama that it’s easy to forget when Kitano was a famous Japanese comedian whose film career was considered a surprising side project. Hana-bi, which was released here as Fireworks, saw Kitano tell one of the great crime stories of the ‘90s with his tale of an ex-detective (Kitano, under his performing name Beat Takeshi) who takes money from the worst possible people to take care of his leukemia-stricken wife (Kayoko Kishimoto). For a film of such shocking violence, Hana-bi also deserves its credit as a crime saga equally concerned with the inner life of Kitano’s death machine, a mode that’s only grown more popular in the years since. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer


    21. The Full Monty

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    “He’s fat, you’re thin, and you’re both fucking ugly.” So what, Gerald? The Full Monty’s about letting it all out, bucking the system, and being proud to just be you. Waving your “poof and tackle” at the Mrs. Uh, heh, you get it though. The Full Monty was a modern kind of feel-good comedy, that endures as a loud and proud gas with a nervous energy all its own. And the Sheffield slang, the punchlines, my god (“Gentlemen, the lunchbox has landed.”) Director Peter Cattaneo and writer Simon Beaufoy, along with an all-star English cast, just barely got this one in front of audiences. Danny Boyle passed on directing, unimpressed by the script. The film ran short and needed extra scenes added months after filming. And according to Robert Carlyle, the film was not well liked by 20th Century Fox, and editor Nick Moore had to bust his hump getting the film to take shape in post so the studio would be comfortable enough with it. The result was a beefy sleeper hit: The Full Monty grossed almost $260 million worldwide (on a $3.5 million budget), won an Oscar for Best Original Score (and was nominated for Best Picture), and went on to become a hit Broadway musical. That’s a lotta g-string dollars, chaps. Talk about good exposure! –Blake Goble


    20. As Good as It Gets

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    Hermetic, bad-natured author Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson), who suffers from OCD, may have written 62 successful romances, but that doesn’t mean he can negotiate a cracked sidewalk, hold a civil conversation with his gay artist neighbor Simon (Greg Kinnear), or finish a meal without gravely offending Carol (Helen Hunt), his steady waitress and the woman of his dreams. It’s not until the three get thrown together due to Melvin trying to help Carol’s ill son and a violent crime committed against Simon that everyone finds the helping hand needed to pull themselves out of the ruts their lives have become. Director James L. Brooks helmed the film with a gentle, comedic touch, and the quirky chemistry between Nicholson and Hunt earned them both lead acting Oscars, a feat last achieved by Silence of the Lambs co-stars Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in 1991. As Good as It Gets may seem a modest tale when compared to other films on this list, but it remains a warmhearted reminder that even the most unlikely person in our lives can make us feel good about ourselves, remind us of what we truly love, or encourage us to be a better person. That hopeful message may actually be about as good as it gets. –Matt Melis


    19. In the Company of Men

    As assaults on everyday misogyny go, they don’t come much more pointed than Neil LaBute’s caustic film debut. His so-dark-it’s-pitch-black comedy about a sociopathic middle manager (Aaron Eckhart) and his doomed cohort (Matt Malloy), who plot to simultaneously date and ruin the life of an insecure coworker (Stacy Edwards). In the Company of Men is a brutal study of how far vicious men will go just to entertain themselves and of the sort of person who can’t feel tall without standing on somebody else’s neck. Eckhart delivered his breakout performance as Chad, the kind of person who thinks nothing of throwing an alleged friend under the bus to have their job or torturing an innocent deaf woman just because it’s something to do. And what’s telling is that, at the film’s end, it’s Malloy who’s left carrying the bag; for Eckhart’s everyday lunatic, it was all just another game to play. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer


    18. Happy Together

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    On one level, Happy Together couldn’t be simpler. Two people fall in love, things turn sour, it ends, they reconcile, it begins all over again. But director Wong Kar-Wai layers Happy Together with so much richness, so much sorrow that it becomes something well beyond a mere chronicle of a toxic relationship. Hinging on a gripping performance from Tony Leung as Lai Yiu-fai, the film chooses to turn Lai’s destructive (and sometimes abusive) partner (Leslie Cheung) into something more akin to a tornado — there not to be a co-protagonist, but to batter against his partner like an oncoming storm, there to overwhelm him with love, need, cruelty, and abuse. This isn’t a story about a relationship, not really. It’s about a man who needs more and how he discovers what he deserves — from his lovers, from the world, from himself. The luscious cinematography, masterful editing, and clever storytelling? That’s all just a bonus. –Allison Shoemaker
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    17. The Apostle

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    The last decade has given us an endless glut of faith-based films, each of which professes to demonstrate the glory of God and offer insight into the mind of a struggling Christian. The majority of them are garbage, not due to their content but because of their approach: Ideology trumps humanity; characters are dictated by ideas of faith rather than an imperfect passion. Luckily, we already have a movie that illustrates faith’s beauty, violence, and contradiction, and it was written and directed by Robert Duvall, who also stars. He plays E.F. Dewey, a prideful preacher who, in a fit of rage, accidentally kills his wife’s adulterous lover. He goes on the run, retreating to the bayous of Louisiana, where he reaffirms his faith, builds a church, and brings revival to a small town before facing his sin. Unlike most films about faith, The Apostle isn’t as concerned with making a statement about religion so much as it is showing its influence on one man’s life. That Duvall filmed on location in Louisiana gives the film that much more authenticity, as he’s able to convey the impact and importance of charismatic Christianity as it applies to Southern tradition and the poverty line. Today’s faith-based directors could learn a thing or two from Duvall’s approach. –Randall Colburn
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    16. Face/Off

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    John Woo’s English-language output might’ve ultimately turned out to be a mixed bag, but long before doves flying through action sequences became a punchline in Step Brothers, the director proved that he could do big, loud, absolutely ridiculous Hollywood action sleaze as well as anybody’s ever done it. Face/Off boasts at least three terrifically excessive performances in one: John Travolta as a straitlaced cop driven to avenge the murder of his young son, Nicolas Cage as the bug-eyed criminal mastermind (and murderer in question) Castor Troy, and perhaps best of all, Travolta as Castor Troy after a face-swapping procedure leaves each of them in the other’s body. For action fans who like their movies bombastic, preposterous, hyper-violent, and hilariously ‘90s in just about every imaginable way, Face/Off is manna from heaven, a shotgun blast of adrenalized madness that will live on for years to come on the sheer strength of its “holy shit, how does this even exist?” appeal. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer


    15. The Sweet Hereafter

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    Atom Egoyan doesn’t so much adapt Russell Banks’ novel The Sweet Hereafter as the director and screenwriter rips it apart, mixes in a dark fairy tale, and pieces it together again out of sequential order. Banks’ novel about a tragic bus crash that claims most of a small town’s children and the lawyer who comes to town to avenge them – and his own demons in the process – is a taut, serious drama, but Egoyan’s film is a nightmare that unfolds like a dream. Against a backdrop of lush Canadian landscapes, sparkling small-town fairs, and idyllic family portraits – and against a soundtrack of bittersweet Jane Siberry and Tragically Hip covers by star Sarah Polley – Canada’s second weirdest auteur delivers a gut-wrenching meditation on love, unconscionable loss, and the hollowness of vengeance that’s as subtle as it is ultimately devastating. And, like all powerful dreams, it lingers in your psyche long after you wake up from the credits. –Sarah Kurchak


    14. Contact

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    Twenty years later, ambitious sci-fi originals that delve into the core questions of life and faith are still very much in vogue, with Interstellar and Arrival just a few of the most recent offerings. But in 1997, it was Robert Zemeckis having his go with the cosmos, adapting a Carl Sagan novel in which a woman of science (Jodie Foster) and a man of faith (Matthew McConaughey) see both of their worldviews tested when communication is received from the other side of the galaxy. With an exceptional cast that includes Angela Bassett, James Woods, Rob Lowe, and Tom Skerritt, Contact excels when its characters are sparring about policy, debating the mysteries of the universe, and asking questions that there are generally not answers to. And Zemeckis puts his signature stamp on everything, from inserting then-President Bill Clinton into the action to his huge, sweeping shots and heart-tugging orchestral cues. The film oftentimes reduces itself to a catchphrase — that if mankind is alone in the universe, it’s an awful waste of space. But that doesn’t do the ideas presented in the film justice, which can’t be condensed to a single pithy phrase. With Contact, the effort was made to make a film that wrestled with humanity’s tiny presence within the grandeur of space. That it often succeeds is impressive enough. –Philip Cosores
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    13. Starship Troopers

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    Paul Verhoeven is no stranger to commentary. Depending on where you stand, his gory oeuvre could look like one long strip of political cartoons, making several pointed jabs at the oft-hidden brutality, corruption, and male chauvinism of an all-too-militaristic government drunk on the deadly fumes of nationalism. His loose adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is a brilliant example of this, bustling with all kinds of tongue-in-cheek gore, sleazy sex, and shameless drama. On the surface, it looks and feels and moves like a cheap SyFy epic, but that’s kind of the point. It’s entirely self-aware, from the boisterous news updates to the campy performances by Casper Van Dien and Jake Busey, all of which echo Verhoeven’s greatest trademarks and quirks, as seen in past adrenalized classics such as 1987’s RoboCop and 1990’s Total Recall. Today, the film speaks volumes about our country’s reliance on nationalistic pride and stands quite tall as the kind of anti-summer blockbuster that would give every studio a heart attack in the screening room. Captain America, ‘fraid not. –Michael Roffman


    12. The Game

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    Michael Douglas is at his best when power dynamics come into play. His most notable role may be Gordon Gekko in the classic Wall Street and its iffy sequel. He followed his first Gekko turn with roles as police officers (Black Rain and Basic Instinct), an army colonel during WWII (Shining Through), and a man fighting through a divorce (War of the Roses). That run is capped by the stunning Falling Down, where he plays a divorced and unemployed man who breaks under the weight of the world. Whether he’s the one exerting unfair power or facing it down, Douglas’ filmography in the ‘90s certainly had a theme. That comes into fuller focus with The Game, in which he begins as the in-control power and quickly finds himself in over his head against a shadowy conspiracy that may or may not be real. Considering the intense power dynamics of the ‘90s, it’s no wonder that Douglas’ work in the decade proved so thrilling.–Lior Phillips


    11. Gattaca

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    The ’90s saw the advent of cloning as both scientific breakthrough and social fear, as debates surrounding the ethics of “designer babies” and Dolly the Sheep saw us asking questions about whether we were making a better future or playing God. Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca was a pitch-perfect vehicle for exploring these issues, a soft sci-fi masterpiece centered around a genetically imperfect “invalid” (Ethan Hawke) who strikes a deal with a paralyzed member of the genetic elite (Jude Law) to assume his identity so Hawke can achieve his dream of going to space. With its beautifully measured tone and contemplative Michael Nyman score, Gattaca offers audiences an intellectual alternative to the whiz-bang we’d come to expect from sci-fi cinema – a theater of ideas about humanity, individuality, and the social cost of achieving racial perfection. Though Niccol’s subsequent directorial efforts have left much to be desired (S1m0ne, In Time, The Host), Gattaca remains a potent work of futurism. –Clint Worthington
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    10. Princess Mononoke

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    Hayao Miyazaki is one of those rare, singular filmmakers who’s made so many films classifiable under “masterpiece” that naming his best work is a fool’s errand, after a time. But of all the director’s most beloved films, Princess Mononoke ranks high; it was the first animated film to ever win a Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture and has become a beloved work in America for its tale of human arrogance and elemental resistance. It’s also perhaps the bleakest and most pointed of the director’s films; while fear and danger have often been central concerns for Miyazaki, this is a story in which the spirit of the forest is decapitated for the sake of human immortality, and violence is a literally corruptive force. Yet the same inimitable grace and empathy that propels all of his best work is present here, as the director argues passionately for our ability to always make things right, no matter how far from the path we might have strayed. –Dominick Suzanne-Mayer


    09. The Ice Storm

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    If you didn’t already gather, 1997 was an incredible year for ensembles, and one more for the pile is Ang Lee’s throwback drama, The Ice Storm. Based on Rick Moody’s 1994 novel of the same name, the film takes place around Thanksgiving 1973 in New Canaan, Connecticut, where two warped families wrestle with the changing of the times, from infidelity and sexual promiscuity to drugs and alcohol. Lee’s frosty direction never feels as if he’s aping for nostalgia, though, allowing the characters and the setting to coalesce in a manner that could best be described as territorial. Everyone’s fighting for space here, and James Schamus’ compelling screenplay gives the film’s A-list cast all the right jabs and left hooks. Kevin Kline? Joan Allen? Sigourney Weaver? They’re brilliant. But so is the film’s graduating class of youngsters, who deliver career-defining work, namely Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, and Elijah Wood. There’s talent bursting through every wide-collar shirt and tight pair of bell bottoms, bringing life to a curious story that should forever draw gasps from any era of our inherently puritanical country. –Michael Roffman


    08. Waiting for Guffman

    As an eighth-grader, I performed in The Music Man at Richey Suncoast Theatre in New Port Richey, Florida. While the show itself was nothing special, it’s still one of my more memorable theatrical experiences due to the scrappy, small-town weirdness that seems to bleed its way into just about every community theater in America. During one performance, an actor got a vertigo attack, inexplicably transforming the musical’s barbershop quartet into a barbershop trio after intermission. Another night, a fellow teenage actor slipped Penthouse spreads into the library books we were all supposed to read during “Marian the Librarian.” And that’s to say nothing of the 45-year-old playing opposite a teenager, the ensemble members who got catty with each other over the size of their roles, and our eccentric director, Dick Poole — a man who had a penchant for lightning-striped pants and shirts that read “Got a problem? Call 1-800 I Don’t Care.”

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    Any of these memories could have easily fit into Waiting for Guffman, Christopher Guest’s mockumentary that nails the idiosyncrasies specific to community theatre, from Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara as two veteran actors (“The lunts of Blaine,” Guest calls them) to the hunky leading man who drops out at the last minute and has to be replaced by the feminine director. But the film gets the heart right, as well as the humor. As erratic as the characters get, it’s because they care. For them, producing a musical history of their hometown of Blaine, Missouri, is the absolute most important thing in their lives, and that’s kind of touching, if also kind of sad. By the time the Broadway producer of the title fails to show up and fulfill their naive dreams of stardom, you’re no longer laughing at them, but laughing with them. –Dan Caffrey


    07. The Fifth Element

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    Sci-fi films don’t age particularly well; time catches up to their imagined futures in unimaginable ways. For every Metropolis or Blade Runner, there are six or seven Battlefield Earths and Adventures of Pluto Nashes. And though you might see stills of Chris Tucker in leopard print or know it spends an inordinate amount of time focused on Milla Jovovich in white-bandaged glory and think it might scream ‘90s, The Fifth Element ages beautifully because of how over the top it was. The soundtrack melts from reggae to opera (and I’m still trying to perfect the Diva Dance). Twenty years later, the costumes still feel futuristic, thanks to high-fashion legend Jean-Paul Gaultier’s design. The special effects may not match those of today, but that’s always going to be the case for a decades-old film, and director Luc Besson wisely uses them subtly, paired with scale models and fantastic practical effects. From visions of the future to an Egyptian past, from the sneering Mangalores to the flying cars, this film just feels like a believable future because it is rooted in the past and informed by the present. That comes from the fact that it posits something more than the future at its own core: love. Jovovich’s wide-eyed naivety (“mool-tee-pass”) and Bruce Willis’ tough guy with a soft center power The Fifth Element more than any mystic stone. –Lior Phillips
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    06. Lost Highway

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    With Twin Peaks long behind him and the future a murky gray, David Lynch indulged in the darkness and drove everyone out to nowhere with Lost Highway. The schizophrenic crime thriller starring Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, and one of the greatest soundtracks of the ’90s is essentially Lynch channeling his inner Dostoyevsky. On one hand, it’s a nightmarish meditation on guilt and impotence, while on the other, it’s a perverse visual essay on the cyclical nature of male rage. Altogether, it’s one of Lynch’s most confounding exercises, exuding the type of existential dread and illogical malaise that would come to inform his future masterpiece, 2001’s Mulholland Drive. And while Balthazar Getty isn’t exactly the ideal swap for Pullman, he comes through in his own Lynchian way. Besides, the late Robert Loggia makes the whole trip worth it alone, if only to see him lose his fucking mind at some jerkstore California driver. Lest we forget to ever go anywhere without a driver’s manual. –Michael Roffman


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