As mentioned in my original 1997 post, this is one of the few years I had to upgrade from 10 to 20 movies. So this is a bumper edition – hope you’re sitting comfortably… and I somehow forgot to include my beloved Perfect Blue, unless I’ve slipped it accidentally under some other year.
20: The Ice Storm (US) Ang Lee
Ang Lee was never a filmmaker I paid attention too, aware that he was known for romantic comedies and costume pieces. I only came to The Ice Storm because of its cast, but it is Lee’s command of the material and the story which elevates what would normally be a bland drama to one of the best films of the year. From that point on, Lee has been on my radar. The cast is strong – I’d switch out Kevin Kline and Joan Allen most days of the week, but they are good here rounding out a star-studded list – Christina Ricci, Sigourney Weaver, Elijah Wood, Tobey Maguire, Katie Holmes, Allison Janney, Jamey Sheridan. Set in the 1970s, it deals with two variously snobby US families who are struggling to come to terms with the changes of the new generation. The parents are bored with life and experimenting with sex, the kids are bored with life and experimenting with sex… basically everyone is shagging everyone else, getting drunk, getting stoned, but it’s all a big secret bubbling under the surface of the happy families dinner party facade. Of course the latest dinner party is a wife-swapping one. It’s all played against an Ice Storm brewing outside which ECHOES THE ENCROACHING STORM IN THEIR OWN LIVES. Yes, it’s a little on the nose, but I love how there are no easy answers, how some of the characters seem to have given up long before the opening credits, and how there doesn’t seem to be a happy ending in store for anyone.
19: Boogie Nights (US) Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson is someone who seems to be incapable of making bad movies. And yet, it’s Boogie Nights which remains my favourite of his – it’s the most lively, the most honest, and possibly the most straightforward. It’s just a smart, funny, touching, shocking time.
18: LA Confidential (US) Curtis Hanson
I didn’t see this when it was originally released, assuming it was Oscar bait rather than something worthy of my time. Sometimes you get these things wrong. LA Confidential is sure overrated – it was then and it is now, but it’s definitely worth your time. As a big Neighbours fan, I knew Guy Pearce going in to it, and I knew Russel Crowe from the little seen No Way Back. Plus it brought Kim Basinger back to the limelight, which is always a good thing. Like all of James Ellroy’s books, it’s a sprawling crime thriller as eager and quick to violence as it is to inverting noir caricatures. Ellroy’s books are not easy to adapt (as seen by the disastrous Black Dahlia) but this is a perfect blend of what makes his novels work and what makes film special.
17: Cube (Canada) Vincenzo Natali
Some of the best horror movies ever made are basically Westerns. I’d go further and say that they are siege movies at their core, and that the genre has its roots as far back as Homer. The Western genre simply brought the formula to a modern white audience terrified by the threat of ‘the other’ and the American gung ho solution of shooting everything without question to protect your precious ‘things’. Calling Cube a Western, or a siege movie, is a stretch, but that’s what it is at it’s core. It just throws in a high concept, a futuristic slant, and an unknown ‘other’. It’s a great idea for a film, pulled off wonderfully on a non-existent budget, and which managed to influence a host of pretenders over the next twenty years and counting.
Cube follows a group of people – strangers – who wake up in barren cube shaped rooms with no memory of how they got there. They quickly meet up and realize they are in some sort of terrible life size puzzle, surrounded by cube rooms each with their puzzle to solve, each with their own deadly threat. The team have to work together to try to escape and survive, but of course they all have different ideas, approaches, and motives.
Aside from how effective the movie is on such a small budget, I love how the film constantly surprises. Not huge reveal surprises, but in taking character tropes and both living into them but twisting the standard outcomes so that you don’t know how is going to come out unscathed – if anyone. I also appreciate the world building and the ultimate lack of answers provided. It’s not perfect, and you can pick apart some of the performances, some of the dialogue, but that would be missing the good stuff, and the point.
16: Princess Mononoke (Japan) Hiyao Miyazaki
Some would call this Miyazaki’s masterpiece, though such trivialities are near impossible when you have at least five to your name. It’s certainly the first which truly broke through and impacted Western audiences, which is interesting because it’s such a native Asian story. Not for the first time, the film deals with humanity’s interaction with nature, nature personified and mystified, but here is one of the most overt central themes. The film follows a young Prince who is poisoned while protecting his town from a demon – the poison gives him superhuman strength, but it will also kill him as it spreads in his body. As he travels West in search of a cure, he becomes embroiled in a War between another town and the spirits of the surrounding forest land which humans have been stripping and destroying for resources.
You’re not going to get this level of gore and complexity in your standard Disney or Pixar fare. While this is still ostensibly a family film, it’s much more suited to older kids and adults due to some of the violence and twists of the plot. Japanese animation often does go one or two steps beyond what Western tastes would be used to, whether it be in films meant for all ages or adults. It goes without saying that the whole thing is stunningly beautiful, but it’s also epic, emotional, and of course has a memorable Joe Hisaishi soundtrack.
15: Grosse Point Blank (US) George Armitage
Say what you will about hitman/assassin movies – making trained contract killers the good guys in films is morally problematic at the best of times, but the best of these films at least challenges that morality. In any case, they’re always enjoyable even when played for dumb fun and action. Gross Point Blank doesn’t give any shits about serious discussion on morality, instead treating the subject matter with dark humour – quips that John Cusack’s lead character’s profiling indicated an ambiguity that would make him a perfect killer, and the reveals that he left his town behind to protect the people he tolerated from his murderous ways. It’s played for jokes, like much of the film, but it’s done in the best dark taste. Beyond the usual trappings of hitman movies, the story is framed around the dreaded high school reunion. Cusack’s character returns to his home town for the reunion, bringing his work with him and followed by rival assassin Dan Aykroyd.
It’s a caper movie brought right up to date, with both assassins getting in to various scrapes and pissing each other off, all while Cusack is trying to catch up with old friends and flames. It zips along, the action is amusing, the dialogue has the self aware smarts of the 90s, and the cast seem to be having fun. It’s a neat little, little known comedy action drama mash up thing.
14: The Postman (US) Kevin Costner
I wasn’t sure why this was butchered at release, and I’m not sure why it hasn’t been positively re-evaluated since. Sure it’s very long, sure it’s a very personal passion project in a long list of such for Costner, but it’s very good. It’s also more relevant now than ever – get this – in the aftermath of some sort of apocalyptic event centred on the breakdown of the USA as instigated by racist attacks and a rising right wing militia – the population is scattered and reminiscent of how the Country looked in the Wild West. There are parallels which are more obvious now even than they were in 1997 thanks to a bunch of morons in the USA (and elsewhere), but I can only assume that one of the main reasons this failed is because North America does not like to be confronted with its own truths.
This being a Costner movie though, it’s still very patriotic and hopeful and cheesy. But in the shitty times we live in now, a big sentimental feel good movie is what we need. Costner is your atypical post-apocalyptic nameless roamer – he passes his time by acting, panto style, to small crowds but encounter a group of militaristic fascists who want to own the Country. Escaping and hiding out in a Postman’s van, he makes the decision to assume the character of a Postman and tell the people he meets that the US Government has been restored and that good times will be coming back. Yay! It’s a fairly unique film – it feels like a Western, but it’s not. It moves like a drama, but it’s more than that. It’s complex and sparse, well-directed and frequently rather nice to look at. It’s an apocalyptic movie, but without the white boy fanaticism of Ramboing shit up. It’s not as bad, not nearly as bad, as people have said.
13: Con Air (US) Simon West
A lot of people love Con Air more than me. I think it’s great fun – perfectly blending the insanity of 80s action movies, with the high concept meta style of the 90s. Simon West knows action, he knows how to give characters cool names and one liners, and sometimes he gets interesting performances out of interesting actors. He also directed Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up. This is probably his best film – a kind of Die Hard on a plane (Die Hard 2?) but it’s more than that. Mostly it’s an excuse for badasses with badass names to slap and shoot each other. Which is always fun.
12: The Game (US) David Fincher
I’ve never been one of those David Fincher fanboys who worships everything he does – I’ve liked all of his films, but each one has plenty of faults which the fanboys tend to gloss over, ignore, or completely miss. The Game is about as straightforward a Fincher film as you’ll get, even with its outlandish plot and twists, plus it continued the interesting mid-90s Michael Douglas run.
The Game sees Michael Douglas, a wealthy middle-aged bank dude, receiving a mysterious gift from his brother – a gift from some sort of shady shadowy corporate interactive party business. Things quick go array and escalate and Douglas is doing the whole Hitchcock man on the run bit while double-crosses and bluffs abound.
It’s not the most amazing film you’ll ever see, it’s not Fincher’s best, it’s just a lot of fun.
11: I Know What You Did Last Summer (US) Jim Gillespie
Scream is one of my all time favourite movies. I Know What You Did Last Summer – owner of one of the most ridiculous names in movie history – is nowhere near on the same level, but it’s probably the best of all of the post-Scream copycats. It’s essentially no different from any of the thousand of slashers which stank up the 80s, except it’s smarter, has a bigger budget, better actors, but all the tropes are there – boobies, mysterious masked killer, pretty people with boobies being killed by mysterious masked killer.
Any time there’s a thing with Jennifer Love Hewitt and Sarah Michelle Gellar in it, I’ll be there front row centre. There’s a chance you haven’t seen the movie, but there’s also a chance you know the plot; two couples are out driving at night, knock some dude over, argue over what to do, and decide to not tell anyone and get on with their lives. They’re young, affluent, white Americans – how dare some random hobo try to to die under their wheels and mess up their promising futures? Flashforward and oopsy doo – they get notes proclaiming ‘I know what you did last summer’. Oh no! Then people begin being picked off.
It’s not a patch on Scream but it’s easily a step up from most of the higher grade slashers of the 80s. The four central performances – decent – the twists – fine, the kills… okay. It’s not amazing but I have a lot of fondness for it.
10: Face/Off (US) John Woo
This was John Woo’s biggest hit in the US. I don’t think it’s anywhere near as good as Broken Arrow, though it’s leaps and bounds ahead in terms of spectacle and how silly it is. It’s certainly not on a par with his best HK work. But that simply serves to show how strong his other work is, as Face/Off is ludicrous. It’s so much fun, watching Travolta and Cage but ripping out their inner demons and slapping them about for our entertainment. Silly fun character names, silly fun slow mo, ludicrous action, dialogue – everything is over the top, maniacal, silly, fun, and it’s difficult to think of a reason not to watch it.
9: Liar Liar (US) Tom Shadyac
As the 90s drew to a close, Jim Carrey was branching out into more legitimate roles, straighter roles. Liar Liar is a halfway house between his physical comedy and his more sentimental acting chops. It’s very much a comedy above and beyond anything else, but there’s a little more to it than his previous hits. He plays a lawyer who is more focused on his work that his family, frequently breaking promises to his son. It is partly this which eroded his relationship with his wife, meaning they are now separated and she is getting it on with Cary Elwes. His son is sick of all of these lies and makes a Birthday wish that his dad cannot lie for 24 hours. The wish comes true, and Carrey romps from scene to scene unable to lie to clients, rivals, judges, leading to much hilarity.
Carrey is unleashed at various points in the film and these are the best moments – elsewhere there’s a really strong cast including Maura Tierney, Jennifer Tilly, Amanda Donohoe, Jason Bernard, Tex Cobb (!), and Anne Haney. It’s just an all round feel good, warm, funny family film.
8: Life Is Beautiful (Italy) Robert Benigni
Life Is Beautiful has divided fans and critics over the years. I get that some people are pissed off that the film plays for a comedy at points… but for me that only heightens the tragedy. It’s a love story, it has some wonderful comedic moments, but it’s utterly gut-wrenching. It’s another instance of people being pissed off that their favourite film and actor didn’t win an Award because this one did. Of course we know that a character like Guido would not have survived very long in a concentration camp, and certainly would not have got away with most of the antics he does in the movie. But that’s not the point. Do we need another Concentration Camp movie which only shows the horror of the reality? Well, yes, but we don’t only need that. This is one of the best Holocaust movies I’ve ever seen and is all the more brutal and overwhelming because of those scattered soft moments of hope and joy.
7: The Devil’s Advocate (US) Taylor Hackford
I’ve covered this before in my favourite Al Pacino movies, so go read that wherever it is.
6: Donnie Brasco (US) Mike Newell
I’ve covered this before in my favourite Al Pacino and Johnny Depp movies, so go read those wherever they are.
5: Chasing Amy (US) Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith’s early run is pretty flawless. I’ve enjoyed everything he’s done since. But there’s a spirit and an energy to his early movies which is accentuated by the indie nature and intellect pervading those movies. Chasing Amy is my sort of Rom Com, which is to say, it’s not shit like the majority of Rom Coms are. It’s a comedy centred on a romance, but there’s no bullshit. I could have down with someone other than Affleck in the lead role, but fine. Everyone is good, the script is as strong as expected, and it’s genuinely emotional. It hurts. See, it is possible to make a good Rom Com.
4: Lost Highway (US/France) David Lynch
I’ve covered this before in my favourite David Lynch movies, so go read that wherever it is.
3: Cop Land (US) James Mangold
I’ve covered this before in my favourite Stallone movies, so go read that wherever it is.
2: Starship Troopers (US) Paul Verhoeven
I’ve covered this before in my favourite Verhoeven movies, so go read that wherever it is.
1: The Fifth Element (France) Luc Besson
I’ve covered this before in my favourite Besson movies, so go read that wherever it is.
How Many Of My Films Were In The Top 10 Grossing Of The Year: Two
How Many Of My Films Were Nominated For the Best Picture Oscar: One