Tom Jolliffe celebrates the cinematic delights of 1997…
1997. It doesn’t feel that distant but we’re now talking 20 years. This was the year I left school. That officially makes me old as fuck I believe. Lady Di passed, Tony Blair became PM, Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule, Mike Tyson had a Holyfield Ear pie and more. The Spice Girls reigned supreme. Hanson were Mmmbopping all over the place and confusing horny teenagers who thought the girl singing lead was hot.
In film, the year is significant. This was the year the Titanic did the opposite of sink (erm… float). James Cameron’s historical (which icebergs aside wasn’t that historical) epic was seen by pretty much everyone on Earth. It probably grossed a further Trillion Wibblewangs outside the Milky Way (I just invented an alien currency). It thundered away as the highest grossing film ever (if you don’t account for inflation and bums on seats). It also gave the world that wretched Celine Dion song that puts the hairs on the back of my backside up when I hear it. For the biggest film ever it wasn’t great, nor for die hard Cameron-ites, was it as inherently cool as his Terminator films or Aliens.
There were plenty of cinematic gems that year though. For the Brits, it was the year The Full Monty created something of an archetype, so that any half reasonable British comedy drama that came out for the next decade would end up being dubbed “the new Full Monty.” None were as good though, nor so effortlessly crowd pleasing.
You may think of the tail end of the last century as a declining wasteland of creativity but there were a lot of films which were good and had a spark of originality. Looking back there’s a sense of franchising, but in actuality this was a point where a few well known and successful franchises began. Men In Black confirmed Will Smith as a box office titan. Mike Myers was still funny and began his iconic 60’s spy spoof, Austin Powers. There was also Starship Troopers which launched a franchise, albeit one which diverted quickly into straight to video land. It also continued a few franchises, but to mostly disastrous effect. A horrid Jurassic Park sequel as well as franchise killing sequels to Alien (Resurrection) and the infamous Batman and Robin (which would both require rebooting afterwards). Nipples. Crotch shots. Alicia Silverstone, bad ice puns and a hideously miscast George Clooney.
Nic Cage might be the DTV king these days with a prolific output of theatrically bypassed guff but in 1997 he was a box office dynamo doing two of the finer late 90’s action efforts with Con Air (brilliantly cheesy) and Face/Off. Likewise things were better for Bruce Willis and Luc Besson who did the bizarre but enjoyable, The Fifth Element. It wasn’t a huge success financially but it remains a cult favourite in a time where Willis was peaking.
We had some nice underrated films like Gattaca, The Game, Event Horizon (which remains, far and away the best film Paul WS Anderson has done) and the brilliant black comedy, Grosse Point Blank. There was also the oft overlooked crime drama, Copland. You know, the “Stallone goes fat” film? It was also a film which introduced cinema to James Mangold who is currently still glowing in the positive reviews that Logan received earlier this year. The film came at a time Stallone’s career as an action star was dwindling in a mire of bad choices and audience tastes changing and an era when any notion of him being a good actor was being forgotten. Critics were shredding him, film upon film, but he took the calculated gamble to do Copland, a film on a relatively small scale, but character driven and he was given the opportunity to go toe to toe with the likes of Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, more than holding his own. Elsewhere, Tarantino released Jackie Brown which came out to a lukewarm reception on all fronts. It had the unenviable task of following Pulp Fiction. Regardless, in retrospect it’s an underrated and extremely good film.
Not only was 97 the year Mangold broke out, but another important modern director came to attention. He’d gained a little notice from the small indie film he’d done previously, called Hard Eight, but it was Boogie Nights which really marked Paul Thomas Anderson down as a creative beacon. One of the most exciting, cult worthy débuts since Tarantino. Inventive, engrossing and memorable (with a frankly exceptional soundtrack), Boogie Nights turned Marky Mark into a bonafide actor and revitalised a struggling Burt Reynolds. It vies close with L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson’s gripping crime saga) for film of the year. Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce both emerged from Ramsay Street as two fine talents, and Crowe in particular was seen as an edgy actor with huge potential. Likewise L.A. Confidential further cemented Kevin Spacey as one of the finest character actors of that era. He was clipping home runs all over the place over that time period. Another film that pushes those close for the title is Good Will Hunting. Robin Williams had never been better (and he’d already more than proved himself as a fine actor, capable of more than silly voices). The film also launched Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (not just in front of the camera, but they received the Oscar for their script).
Other fine works emerged in 97. Jack Nicholson on top form in As Good As It Gets. Studio Ghibli’s, Princess Mononoke, which was one of their first films to gain a significant amount of Western attention (and they would later become even more successful with Spirited Away). Pierce Brosnan had a solid sophomore effort as Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies and Jim Carrey continued to be funny and saccharine in Liar Liar.
It’s not a year one thinks back to off hand as being massively memorable, but sifting through the memory banks more deeply and we see some find cinematic outputs in a year that on the whole looks significantly stronger than the present. The cinematic landscape has also changed significantly even if the seeds of where we are now were clearly being sewed at that point.