No One Saw the Best Movies of 1997
Our second installment of looking at films in the fall of 1997: 'The Ice Storm,' 'The Edge,' and Errol Morris, of course.
The fall of 1997 was, simply put, one of the most remarkable movie-going seasons of our time: Boogie Nights. Jackie Brown. The Sweet Hereafter. Wag The Dog. Eve's Bayou. Good Will Hunting. The Ice Storm. Amistad. As Good as It Gets. Gattaca. And so many more, culminating with what became the highest-grossing movie of all time: the long-delayed, oft-trashed, yet eventually unstoppable Titanic. Each week yielded another remarkable motion picture—sometimes two or more, taking bold risks, telling powerful stories, introducing formidable new talents, and reaffirming the gifts of master filmmakers. This series looks back at those movies, examining not only the particular merits of each, but what they told us about where movies were that fall 20 years ago, and about where movies were going.
In the warm glow of nostalgia, it's important to remember that when it comes to great movies, people often just don't go see them. LA Confidential, which we revisited two weeks ago, was nominated for nine Oscars, but it opened in fourth place behind the forgotten Wes Craven-produced Wishmaster, The Game, and In & Out—the latter of which wasn't even the best Kevin Kline movie released that fall (read on). The fall's top spots would be filled by genre junk like The Peacemaker, The Jackal, Kiss the Girls, and I Know What You Did Last Summer. It's helpful to consider when contemplating the riches of this season that most moviegoers were basically out to lunch.
They weren't even going to see the good genre movies—pictures like Lee Tamahori's The Edge, which opened September 26 and landed in the same fourth-place slot as LA Confidential. In the film, Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins) is a billionaire accompanying his supermodel wife (Elle Macpherson) on a photo shoot in the Alaskan wilderness, where he begins to suspect she's having an affair with her photographer Bob (Alec Baldwin).
The night they arrive, Bob dubs Charles "a good companion, a good friend, and a good sport"—notions that are tested after a plane crash leaves Charles, Bob, and his assistant Stephen (Harold Perrineau) stranded in the wild. Charles is a guy who knows everything and freely offers up trivia in the form of non-sequiturs like "The inside of a banana peel will shine shoes." "I seem to have retained all these facts," he explains before their accident, in a rather broad bit of foreshadowing, "but putting them to a useful purpose is another matter."
He finds that purpose in the woods, and The Edge becomes an old-fashioned Boy's Adventure Story in which our heroes must rely on their wits to make a fire, create a makeshift compass, and kill a giant Kodiak bear. The looks on their faces when they first lay eyes on the creature say it all, and one of the film's true earmarks is that it uses a real animal (Bart the Bear, who also starred in Jean-Jacques Annaud's The Bear). If it was made a few years later, they'd have probably tried to CGI the damn thing.
And the weight and power of that animal registers in the performers, both in the proximity and intensity of their interactions. The bear is a genuinely terrifying presence, and Tamahori's use of scary music (the score is by LA Confidential's Jerry Goldsmith), shock edits, and carefully crafted suspense veer the attack scenes into horror movie territory. Hopkins is subtly excellent, too; as Charles, he's seen as awkward in social situations, but once he's fighting for his life, he becomes gregarious and empowered up to the moment when he announces, "Today, I'm gonna kill the motherfucker."
The proud deployment of that 12-letter word was inevitable considering the script was written by David Mamet, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Glengarry Glen Ross. (In what may be an inside joke, one of Baldwin's first lines is in reference to his watch.) After collaborating on The Untouchables, producer Art Linson challenged Mamet to direct his gift towards writing action movies. The Edge has a handful of prototypically Mamet exchanges, with parse dialogue of quick wit and rhythmic repetition that director Tamahori melds smoothly with the film's action elements.
In retrospect, The Edge is most interesting as a hinge in Mamet's career; the following year, he'd write John Frankenheimer's Ronin and, in later years, would write and direct Heist, Spartan, and Redbelt. It's not hard to read Charles' journey in The Edge as analogous to its author's: the library-dwelling intellectual using his wits to brave rougher elements. But even more than that, The Edge reflects the evolving ideas of onscreen masculinity and cinematic heroism. Charles isn't motivated by rage or revenge, but by the wish "to do something…unequivocal."
Based on Rick Moody's novel, The Ice Storm is set in suburban Connecticut over the Thanksgiving holiday in 1973—signified by the characters' collective fashion sense and the presence of Richard Nixon sweating on television, fourteen-year-old Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci) announcing "He should be shot" like a modern-day resister well-versed in the emoluments clause. (Ricci co-starred in Addams Family Values four years earlier, and her family dinner prayer here is a worthy companion to AFV's unforgettable Thanksgiving pageant.)
The key image of The Ice Storm appears early: during a neighborhood dinner party, the hosting family's teenagers finish off the grown-ups' drinks in the kitchen and spy on their parents smoking weed. Everyone in the movie wants to be a different age than they are: the parents are trying desperately to hold on to their youth, while the teens and pre-teens are eagerly leaping into dry-humping and hand jobs. When Wendy makes the "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" offer to neighbor boy Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd), his hands shake so badly he can't even unbutton his pants—so he yells at her, " WHAT DO YOU WANT?"
Among its many virtues, The Ice Storm keenly captures the sheer, visceral terror of puberty—of grappling with these urges, trying to do what you think you're supposed to, and lashing out when you can't. (Sandy's much more comfortable with Wendy later, as they play with his toys and hold hands—just being kids. Sometimes these things just happen too fast.) The adults don't tremble anymore, but they're barely any savvier. They fool around, but there's something sad and obligatory about their couplings; at one point, neighbor Jim (Jamey Sheridan) sighs, "Somehow it seemed a little better in my imagination." Isn't that always the case?
In a film filled with piercing performances, Joan Allen stands out as Elena Hood, mother to Wendy and Maguire's Paul, presenting a shell of happiness and contentment while tipping off the discontent underneath. Kevin Kline plays her husband Ben, who's having an affair with their neighbor Janey (Sigourney Weaver); Elena figures it out pretty early in the film, asking "Is that a new aftershave?" The camera holds on her as he gives an unsatisfying answer and walks way, and we don't need to be told that she knows. Not long after, she's caught shoplifting from the town pharmacy—needing to act out in some way and take some kind of control, even if only fleetingly.
Janey deals with her own general dissatisfaction by taking ownership of her sexuality—and she's already impatient with her and Ben's increasingly stale affair. "You're boring me," she informs him. "I have a husband. I don't particularly feel the need for another." The next time he bores her, she just bails, sneaking out of her own house as he waits in her bed. "A more pressing engagement overcame me," she later explains, icily.
Director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus explore much of the same suburban ennui territory American Beauty would mine two years later—right down to the brightly-polished surfaces and overwhelming sameness; one of Lee's best images finds Ben on the platform of the commuter train amid a sea of businessmen, identically attired in their natty trench coats.
Stories like these always culminate in a tragedy of one kind or another, and we spend much of The Ice Storm waiting for something bad to happen to these people. When it does, the emotional weight falls on Kline, and in the film's extraordinary closing scene, he simply looks at his wife, and then at his children, and then he begins to weep. It's overwhelming, for the character and the viewer; finally, after all this time, he lets himself feel something genuine.
You know that feeling when you're talking about that thing in your life that you devote way too much attention to, and you gloss over the details and speak about it in broad generalities so you don't alienate them with your own compulsiveness? That's not what Errol Morris is interested in. His documentary Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control lets his four oddball subjects talk and talk and talk, diving into all the nooks and crannies of their field while making contrary assertions like "If you analyze life too much, it becomes meaningless."
Morris, whose previous credits included the wonderfully humanist Gates of Heaven and the true-crime trendsetter The Thin Blue Line, focuses on four men: animal trainer Dave Hoover, topiary gardener George Mendonca, "naked mole-rat" specialist Ray Mendez, and robot scientist Rodney Brooks. Their specialties are so singular that it's obvious why Morris is so interested in them; any of these men could've been a subject for his IFC series First Person. The question is why he puts these four particular people together.
At one point, Brooks describes a "group experiment with the robots" in which they're basically wound up and let go, and it sounds an awful lot like Morris's approach to making this film. He loves juxtapositions, and throughout he uses images of one story to accompany, with great accuracy, the theorizing of another. (The film is stylishly photographed by Robert Richardson, the regular cinematographer for Oliver Stone; the pair were then in the midst of their JFK/Natural Born Killers mixed-media madness, and Richardson was apparently instructed to go wild.)
The film is not a biography of these people, or even an exploration of any explicitly stated themes. The subject, such as it is, is the unblinking pursuit of obsessions, no matter how peculiar they may be—and Morris captures these people not only telling their stories, but sharing the theories they've cooked up in years of work, mostly by themselves. But through them, he's ultimately asking the giant question: What constitutes consciousness? And seen through that lens, Fast, Cheap is about nothing less than our grand experiment – the struggle not only to be human, but to create order in a world bereft of it. That's pretty heady stuff for a mainstream audience, so maybe it's not surprising that, on this weekend 20 years ago, people went to see Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd chasing a serial killer instead.
Next time, we'll examine the sensual pleasures of Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights and Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together. Follow Jason Bailey on Twitter.