The 10th Anniversary of 1997
There have been many great years in film. Peter Bogdanovich regards 1927 as American cinema’s greatest year when silent film achieved near perfection, and the same year, the first talkie the “The Jazz Singer” was released.
1939 is considered by many to be cinema’s greatest year, which brought us “The Wizard of Oz”, “Gone With the Wind”, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, “Stagecoach”, “Ninotchka” and more. Sure, sure. That’s fine.
1974 brought us “Chinatown” and “The Godfather Part II”, 1975 brought us “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, “Nashville” and “Jaws”, 1982 brought us “E.T.”, “Blade Runner”, “The Thing” and “Gandhi”. I don’t want to start another list, but these examples help chart the course of cinema on a macro level and help us understand certain transition points in film history.
For me, 1997 was a seminal year for film. Throughout the year, on a personal level, there were several experiences and discoveries that have forever been etched in my memory.
The 1990’s decade is one of the greatest decades in film and 1997 was one of the best. 1994 and 1995 were great, so was 1999. The year 1997 was significant because it represented the introduction of bold new auteur filmmakers, the re-introduction of great foreign filmmakers in North America, and the rebirth of the mega-blockbuster.
The year started off with the Oscar race of 1996. Late and wider releases into the smaller markets of the country meant great indie films like “Sling Blade” and “Secrets and Lies” and “Breaking the Waves” were in the theatres. Most cinephiles were ecstatic that many of the truly deserving films were recognized - “Fargo” was finally given mainstream recognition, Lars Von Trier was nominated and so was Mike Leigh. The big sweeping romance epic “The English Patient” took the big prizes, but the recognition these auteur filmmakers received for their small films was sufficient to make the ceremony worthy.
The Sundance Film Festival traditionally kicks off the year in cinema. For me, the notable Sundance entry was Neil La Bute’s scathing indictment of the male ego and corporate culture – “In the Company of Men”. Made on a shoestring for $25,000, the film substituted production value for sharp witty dialogue, and a unique visual design of creatively framed long takes. It was a loud introduction to playwright turned director Neil La Bute and his number one bad guy, actor Aaron Eckhart.
I’ll always remember, in February of that year, “Siskel and Ebert’s” review of a small film directed by first-time feature director, Paul Thomas Anderson. The film was “Hard Eight”. I recently rewatched the review on At the Movies.com, and though there isn’t a mention of Anderson’s name, there was something about the clips they choose and the passion they had for the film that struck me as special. Further written reviews and background to the film kept mentioning a 70’s film the director was shooting which was causing a fervor in Hollywood. My interest was piqued, but more on that later.
Just around the time of “Hard Eight” a certain movie made in 1977 was re-released in theatres. “Star Wars” was the first film I ever saw in the cinema and so getting the chance to see it again on the big screen was a chance to reclaim those distant memories. Of course there were the added effects, scenes, Guido shooting first etc etc. But at the time people didn’t care about that. No one was knocking Lucas for doing that. It was all about the joy of Star Wars and announcing to the world that 3 more films will soon be arriving to us. And with “Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” released 3 and 6 weeks after, for almost two months it was as if I was 5 years old again. It’s hard to bottle that feeling, but “Star Wars” did.
1997 was also the year of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. At the beginning of the year nobody had heard of these two guys, but by the end, they were household names and soon to be Oscar winners… for writing! Ben Affleck came first with Kevin Smith’s third film, “Chasing Amy”. The budget was a fraction of his sophomore bomb “Mallrats”, but Smith had his mojo back and brought to our attention its lead Ben Affleck. There are two other instances of Matt and Ben in 1997, but more on that later.
Cannes was a special year for Canadians. It unveiled one of Canada’s greatest films – Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” – a fascinating mosaic of characters centred around a tragic bus accident in Alberta. It won the Grand Jury Prize, which is considered ‘second place’, and critics were hailing the film a masterpiece. It would be on hundreds of Critic’s Top Ten lists and eventually give Egoyan and Canada it’s first Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay. It wouldn’t be until the fall before I and most others would be able to see it. And I did, and it certainly lived up to the hype. I watch it now and again, and it still packs an emotional wallop.
As I said, it was a special year at Cannes – but not just for Canadians either. Shoei Imamura’s “The Eel” and “Abbas Kiarostami’s “A Taste of Cherry” shared the Palm D’Or and Wong Kar Wai’s lyrical love poem, “Happy Together” took Best Director. All are masterpieces. Oh yeah, Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games”, Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm” and “L.A. Confidential” also premiered then. Pretty good year so far.
The summer blockbusters of 1997 unfortunately were some of the worst in recent memory. We also saw the birth one of the worst trend revivals in film history – the disaster film. We had the privilege of seeing two Volcano films grace our screens. The other summer blockbusters included the sequels, “The Lost World” and “Speed 2: Cruise Control”, “The Fifth Element”, and “Con Air.” But the piece de résistance of crap was “Batman and Robin”, which I still cite to this day as “the worst film I’ve ever seen.”
The summer is also significant because the first of the stadium seating super-plex cinemas were built - The Famous Players Coliseum in Mississauga was the first in Canada. Some say it turned the theatre-going experience into more of a Las Vegas style circus atmosphere - distracting lights, noises, grotesque colours assaulting our eyes - but gone were the shoebox cinemas of the 80's. We were now watching our films in giant lounge chairs with unobstructed views and gigantic larger than ever screens. I was not complaining.
The late summer had some under-the-radar minor but largely forgettable hits, "Men in Black", "Air Force One" and "The Full Monty", but the Fall and Winter would make up for a relatively dull Summer.
Click HERE for Part II