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JASON'S BEST: The Ten Best Films of 1997 (Return to Jason's Best Main Page)


THE TEN BEST FILMS
OF 1997

1. CONTACT


This year, for the first time ever, I have to declare a tie for the title of best film of the year. Robert Zemeckis's intelligent, thought-provoking, and emotional film, CONTACT, is one co-choice for the best film of the year. Carl Sagan's novel is brought to the screen in what ranks as one of the most thoughtful and intelligent science fiction films of all time, right after the King of the genre, 2001 : A SPACE ODYSSEY. And the film deserves to be placed in that echelon because like 2001, it examines intelligently our place in the universe, and ponders with intelligence the idea that we are not alone in the universe. Jodie Foster gives a strong and emotional performance as Ellie Arroway, a scientist who intercepts the first known transmission from deep space to Earth. It appears to come from the star Vega, and what's brilliant about the film is that it examines two different things : how humankind would react to such a message (knowing for the first time that we are not alone in the universe) and examining the debate that ensues between science and religion. And in both respects, it brings some really fresh ideas and events to the screen.

What Zemeckis shows in the film as humankind's reaction is about precisely what would really happen -- general panic, religious extremists trying to tear down the scientific efforts, basically every human coming out with their own intepretation of what it could be. And this leads to a very surprising and welcome ongoing debate throughout the film about the existence of God, and the faith in something we cannot see, and the brilliance of the film is that it does not take sides. In the end, Ellie, who is an atheist, is in tears trying to explain something she experienced for which she has no proof and in essence, put her faith in the beings sending the message, much like Palmer Joss, her romantic interest and a believer in God, puts in faith in a Supreme Being. This debate is allowed to go on with both sides presented, and that is so rare for a mainstream Hollywood film to present.

This film deals with huge ideas, as Carl Sagan always did in his writings. The opening shot of the film is extraordinary -- the camera pulls back from Earth in a very long shot, attempting to show how puny we are in the grand scheme of the universe. But in the end, there's still hope. The most brilliant thing about this film is Ellie's journey into the stars, and the mystery of her trip. According to the people on Earth, the pod never left, but she did arrive somewhere. Was it a hoax put together by a millionnaire? Did she see what she wanted to see? Or did she actually visit this world and get a glimpse of a larger universe, filled with beings all pondering the same questions, and all finding the only hope in each other? Like the brilliant and mysterious final journey through Jupiter in 2001, the journey in CONTACT leaves the audience to decide what really happened, and by the end, we have a new hope. Zemeckis does an incredible job, and the writing is first rate -- it's a unique film, and it should be treasured for all time as a classic. CONTACT is one of a small handful of films that prove the film form is one of the greatest of art forms, capable of portraying the biggest ideas possible. And CONTACT brings to the screen that awesome sense of wonder we all get when we look up at the stars and wonder.

1. TITANIC


This film shares the honor as best film of the year with CONTACT, a film which may stay in my memory longer and end up being more beloved than CONTACT, and I didn't think that would be possible. This is the film that now takes over the mantle of the title "Most Expensive Movie Ever Made." It was delayed and missed it's summer release for a winter release, overran its budget to end up costing over $200 million to make, and garnered negative criticism even before it was released. But what happened when it was finally released -- critics loved it, and praise was showered over its director, James Cameron, usually known for high budget action films like the TERMINATOR films and TRUE LIES, and deservingly so. When people talk about the magic of the movies, this is exactly what they are referring to. The film of course is the re-telling of the 1912 tragedy aboard the maiden voyage of the largest ocean liner of its day, the RMS Titanic, which sank after hitting an iceberg, killing 1523 people of the 2228 aboard. But more than just showing the disaster, this film is something really different. At its heart, this film is a classic Hollywood love story, the love story between a poor young man travelling in third class, who won his ticket on the Titanic at a poker game, and a beautiful young woman travelling in first class about to be engaged to a rich snob.

They meet, fall in love, all very believably, mostly due to the performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. The story of the romance is actually told in flashback, after a present day discovery of the Titanic lying in its watery grave 2 1/2 miles beneath the Atlantic Ocean (and actual new footage shot of the actual Titanic at the bottom of the sea is shown, providing a chilling reminder of its doom). Rose is 101 years old in the present day, and tells the story to researchers trying to make money off of Titanic's artifacts. The film is not in a hurry to tell its story, and is actually a charming love story until about 90 minutes in, when the Titanic strikes the iceberg and the journey towards tragedy begins. And at this point, TITANIC becomes something I have never before experienced or seen in a film -- Cameron films the sinking almost in real time, over an hour, showing the people knowing that death is facing them, and generating a constant panic that the audience experiences along with the passengers which never lets up. You feel as if you are really experiencing this tragedy as it actually happened, which is also due to the incredible visual effects and Cameron's attention to detail. It is chilling, incredibly moving and sad, and powerful. Incredible filmmaking from James Cameron. And great performances by all, especially DeCaprio and Winslet.

The myth of the Titanic I suppose provides us several lessons on man's attempt to overachieve technically, but this film means so much more. Because for once it puts the human story into the tragedy in an absorbing way, not only in truly experiencing the horror that 1500 people endured on their way to death, but also the stories of the people, and with Rose and Jack, the love that lasts forever, a true lesson for us all and a hope that love is the only thing that will live on, and losing a person is never the end, as long as they stay in our dreams.

3. GOOD WILL HUNTING


This film was one of the best examples of good screenwriting that I have ever seen. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck not only starred in this incredibly funny and intelligent drama, but wrote its screenplay, and the dialogue in this film is some of the most witty and intelligent ever to be found in a film -- it will be a shame if this screenplay is not honored with an Oscar. The story, while routine compared with other films, actually comes off as fresh and new, as a college mathematician and a therapist attempt to stear a young, extremely brilliant, but troubled young man (played by Matt Damon) into the right course in life. The scenes and the relationshiop that develops between the therapist (brilliantly played by Robin Williams in what may be his best performance to date) are the real triumph of this film, and again, all credit due to the writing. It's a heartwarming story of love also, with a very good supporting performance by Minnie Driver. This little film seemingly came out of nowhere and genuinely surprised me. I found myself smiling so much during the film, and because of the incredible writing -- a lot of lessons on good screenwriting can be learned from this film.

The dialogue and the characterizations are very realistic, particular Robin Williams's therapist, a man of deep hurt and emotion, whose own life is changed by his experience with Will Hunting. And I think all of us could have our lives changed in a positive way by Will Hunting, because in the end, we learn to follow our hearts and triumph over adversity, the overiding theme to this thoughtful and magically powerful film.

4. BOOGIE NIGHTS


27 year old newcomer Paul Thomas Anderson created the critical darling this year, a stunning independent film called BOOGIE NIGHTS, a film which examines the rise and downfall of a young man enticed into the adult film industry, to become Dirk Diggler, and slowly fall from grace. Anderson is definitely a student of film, as he makes a film which could almost pass for Martin Scorsese's work. Anderson covers a huge canvas, showing the adult film industry at its heydey in the 1970's, recreating the time with incredible attention to detail. Mark Wahlberg, due to his natural large endowment, becomes the most successful new star in adult films, under the tutilage of porn film director, Jack Horner (played brilliantly by Burt Reynolds). The film is very detached actually, in showing the downfall of the adult industry, especially at the critical turning point of the 1980's, when the arrival of video changed adult films forever, and the characters of the film also experience the downfall, either through suicide, drugs, or murder. The film is truly powerful, with an incredible group of characters, and I will remember it most for its representation of a rise and downfall, and perhaps redemption -- one of the most powerful themes one can portray in films.

5. AMISTAD


Steven Spielberg returns to serious drama, for the first time since SCHINDLER'S LIST, making a similar film dealing with historical intolerance. This time, the true story of the slave revolt aboard the Amistad slave ship in the early 1800's. The film lacks the true emotion and singular power of SCHINDLER'S LIST, but is still an extraordinary film, as the slaves are brought to trial, and are eventually represented before the Supreme Court by none other than the former President, John Quincy Adams, played extremely well by Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins's speech is truly memorable, and the case is historic, and the story an incredibly painful and powerful reminder of a nation so torn apart by intolerance.

6. U-TURN


Oliver Stone's first foray into making a genre film, U-TURN was a dazzling, searing, and dark film which showed Stone as a filmmaker without his usual political messages to go along with it. Although it doesn't hold a candle to Stone's earlier epics and films, U-TURN is memorable due to the bizarre and strange characters that populate the film, as a drifter heads into Superior, Arizona (played by Sean Penn) and falls into a web of murder and conspiracy. It's an extremely well made film noir, with a haunting musical score by Ennio Morricone, and a truly memorable performance by Billy Bob Thornton as a bizarre auto mechanic. While a lot of critics decided to blast Stone with this film, they forgot to really look at the film for what it is : an incredibly well made film noir, and another great effort by Oliver Stone.

7. WAG THE DOG


Barry Levinson's film, WAG THE DOG, is an intelligent and scathing look at a political system and a media intertwined. Robert De Niro works for the President, and decides to orchestrate a war to help the President. Of course, he doesn't want a real war, so he goes to Hollywood, enlists the help of Dustin Hoffman, a top Hollywood producer, and through filmmaking magic and techniques, a war is orchestrated. Very biting humor, wonderful performances (especially Hoffman and De Niro together), and a story which really makes you wonder just what is the truth anyway.

8. COPLAND


Sylvester Stallone gave an incredible performance and gained 40 pounds to play a small town cop out to police the big town cops who live in his town across the border from the big city. The film gives us an eye-opening look into the personal world of cops, and besides Stallone, incredible performances come in from Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, and Ray Liotta. We know the conspiracy, but we watch Stallone face off against the odds to bring justice.

9. MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING


This was an incredibly warm and very different comedy starring Julia Roberts, with an unexpected ending, but an ending that's for once true to the characters and the story. This time around, Julia is out to try to steal the man she thought all her life she was going to marry, when he announces he's found someone to marry. It's amazing to watch the transformation that Roberts' character makes throughout the film, and incredibly fun performances, especially by Rupert Everett, contribute to some downright funny and touching scenes.

10. PRIVATE PARTS


Yes, don't say "What??", this was one of the year's best films. Based on his bestselling novel, the King of all Media, Howard Stern, has his life story told on screen. For one, it's a downright hilarious film (as Stern himself is), but the film also is very well-written, detailing Stern's rise to success. But the film has a heart, as it shows the softer side of Howard Stern, a side we don't often see, as a man completely dedicated to his wife. Paul Giamatti turns in one of the funniest performances by an actor as Pig Vomit, the NBC exec who does everything in his power to get Stern fired. A really enjoyable film.




Honorable Mentions

THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE
BREAKDOWN
AIR FORCE ONE
DANTE'S PEAK
KUNDUN
DONNIE BRASCO
CONSPIRACY THEORY
G.I. JANE
L.A. CONFIDENTIAL
THE GAME