It’s been almost two decades now that I’ve been regularly going to the cinema, attending film festivals and watching videos and DVDs, and I’ve seen a lot of films, some of which I’ve never even heard of since. Therefore, in the first of an irregular series (which, like the others I’ve tried, I’ll probably abandon fairly soon), I thought I’d try to recall various films that I liked at the time, but which it feels to me have disappeared off the cultural radar since. I’ll pick one of my first major years of cinemagoing, 1997, for my first instalment. And again, do be aware my tastes run to arthouse over exploitation… ;)
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (Errol Morris, USA)
I’m going to kick off with a film from a filmmaker who’s hardly languishing in obscurity. Errol Morris continues to make persuasive documentaries, since first gaining prominence with his pet cemetery debut Gates of Heaven (1978) and breaking through to a wider audience with the true crime investigation The Thin Blue Line (1988). However, I wanted to highlight this particular film because not only was it was one of my favourites of that year, it is also a film that I think gets unjustly overlooked in his oeuvre. It takes as its subject a number of people whose work stories all intersect in some way with the creation and control of life, whether a topiary gardener shaping beasts from hedges, or a mole rat specialist, or a robotics engineer. It’s a fascinating and beautiful film which for me ranks as Morris’s greatest, not least because it tries to grapple with the grandest of themes, the meaning (or at least, an understanding) of life itself.
Under the Skin (Carine Adler, UK)
This was another of my favourite films of the year I saw it, and probably my favourite at the film festival that year, yet it seems to have dwindled to obscurity nowadays (not least as there’s another more recent film with the same title, though it’s available on DVD from the BFI). It’s a story about grief which deals with two sisters reacting to their mother’s death, mainly tracking one of them (played by Samantha Morton) down some dark alleys of sexual desperation. It’s downbeat, sure, but no more than any of the contemporary films by male directors about male violence (such as Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth of the same year, for example), while being more subtle in many ways. It’s also anchored by an absolutely fantastic performance by Morton and some bold direction and cinematography.
Al-Massir (Destiny) (Youssef Chahine, Egypt)
I loved this film when I first saw it on the big screen, perhaps partly because I’d not seen anything quite like its blend of classical Hollywood-style melodrama, musical sequences, and thoughtfulness about fundamentalism, all set against an exotic Islamic backdrop. I’ve since watched it again on DVD and maybe that first reaction was rather too strong, yet you’re not likely to see any better films about 12th century Islamic-Spanish philosophers. It’s a big full-bloodedly melodramatic story of love and passion but mostly it’s about protecting the fruits of intellectual labour from the destructive power of fanaticism, and in that respect there’s still plenty that will ring true to modern viewers.
Love and Death on Long Island (Richard Kwietniowski, UK)
With its on-the-money casting of contemporary teen heartthrob Jason Priestley playing a contemporary teen heartthrob (and whatever happened to him, as his acting here is excellent), this UK-Canada co-production flirts with the teen film genre, but has a rather more melancholy disposition. This is largely due to its focus on John Hurt’s character Giles De’Ath (the clue perhaps in the name), an ageing roué who finds himself falling in love with Priestley’s Ronnie. It’s about the intersection of two different worlds, and I remember it being rather touching and sweet and nicely underplayed.
Some Other Films
Other films of which I have rather less strong memories, but which I remember liking, include:
- Waco: The Rules of Engagement — a fascinating documentary about a recent siege in Texas against a group of cult separatists;
- Gummo — Harmony Korine’s first film as director, and still a weird and singular vision of Americana in extremis;
- Post coïtum, animal triste — a French film about an older woman’s adultery with a younger man, which is at least an interesting viewpoint;
- Nowhere — I have a lot of fondness for this particular Gregg Araki film, which finds some kind of liminal zone in a hypersaturated Los Angeles where aliens, apocalyptic fantasies, teen movies and polymorphous perversity all combine.
Top Ten of 1997
Having written all that, my favourite films from 1997 are:
- Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven);
- Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (Errol Morris);
- Ta’ame-Gilas… (Taste of Cherry…) (Abbas Kiarostami);
- The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan);
- Chunguang Zhaxie (Happy Together) (Wong Kar-wai);
- Under the Skin (Carine Adler);
- Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino);
- Grosse Pointe Blank (George Armitage);
- Gattaca (Andrew Niccol);
- Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell).