Our smorgasbord of 1990s nostalgia, two weeks of Top 10 lists for every year in the decade, is beginning to reach its end, but we pick up today with 1997. It was the year of the start of the second Clinton term, the first cloned animal with Dolly the sheep, the arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet (and the resulting suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult), the murder of Gianni Versace, and the election of Tony Blair in the UK.
In the movie world, we arguably saw the start of the new blockbuster era: the “Star Wars” films were re-released in new Special Editions (to help build excitement for the first prequel, which began filming), “Jurassic Park” sequel ‘The Lost World‘ made a record $90 million on its opening weekend, and “Titanic” became the biggest movie in history, and the first to make a billion dollars.
Those films didn’t make the cut (and neither did other ’97 movies like, uh, “Beverly Hills Ninja,” “The Beautician And The Beast,” “B*A*P*S,” and “Anaconda”). To find out what did, take a look below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments.
Upset? Outraged? Can’t wait for more? You can catch up on 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994 from last week, and can always visit our 2000s series while you wait for more: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.
10. “Eve’s Bayou” (1997)
Initially most recognizable as Clarice Starling’s friend in “The Silence Of The Lambs,” the last couple of decades have seen actress Kasi Lemmons become better known for her work behind camera than for the work in front of it, beginning with her striking debut “Eve’s Bayou.” A remarkably assured and complex film for a first feature (Roger Ebert called it the best of its year), it’s a sprawling coming-of-age melodrama about a middle-class African-American family in 1960s Louisiana. Eve (the tremendous Jurnee Smollett) is the middle daughter to doctor Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) and Roz (Lynn Whitfield), who one day discovers her father’s infidelity with a family friend, beginning a series of events that take in burgeoning sexuality, voodoo and murder. If you didn’t know better, you’d assume that Lemmons’ film was adapted from an acclaimed novel: it finds an enormous amount of breadth and depth in a lean 109-minute running time, creating (with the help of Amy Vincent’s photography and Terence Blanchard’s score) an indelible atmosphere. Lemmons weaves her story with a maturity that belies it being her first feature, and gets some killer performances from her cast, including a young Meagan Good as Eve’s sister, and Jackson giving one of his very best turns. Lemmons’ later, very good features “The Caveman’s Valentine” and “Talk To Me” went disappointingly underseen, but her debut is a reminder that she’s as strong as anyone out there.
Though Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s true horror masterpiece, “Pulse,” would come at the turn of the millennium, his earlier “Cure” is much more than just a warm-up for it. The great Koji Yakusho stars as Takabe, a closed-off police detective with a mentally ill wife (Anna Nakagawa) investigating a series of murders of people killed with an X carved into them, which would seem to be the work of a singular culprit, except they’re provably committed by a different person each time. Soon enough, Takabe and psychologist Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) find the common thread — a seeming amnesiac named Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara) who may in fact be a master hypnotist. It sounds like something cheap and schlocky, a monster-of-the-week “X-Files” episode at best, but Kurosawa makes something infinitely more interesting: a bleak, dread-filled picture that uses its high concept to dig into something more existential about our free will and the viral-like nature of violence. Kurosawa’s cool, meditative style isn’t for everyone (it’s hard not to see him reflected in his hero), but if you buy into him as many others have done — Bong Joon-Ho called it one of the best films ever made — you’ll be haunted by “Cure.”
8. “Nil By Mouth”
Twenty years on, Gary Oldman has still only directed a single feature, risking the sense that he’ll end up as a sort of Charles Laughton figure when it comes to his helming career. We maybe wouldn’t put “Nil By Mouth” right next to “The Night Of The Hunter” when it comes to single directorial efforts by acclaimed British character actors, but it’s certainly a movie that suggested that Oldman was just as talented behind the camera as he is in front of it. It’s an autobiographical, kitchen-sink-ish drama about a family in South East London: the violent Ray (Ray Winstone), his wife Val (Kathy Burke, winner of Best Actress at Cannes), her junkie brother Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles) and so on. It’s a bleak, difficult, numbing watch, but one of unsparing honesty, without either the faux-naif romanticism or the unconvincing amped-up grittiness that British movies of this type can sometime fall into. It feels, simply, like life captured, more Cassavetes than “Kidulthood,” and we’d love to see what Oldman could do if he was allowed to direct again.
7. “Little Dieter Needs To Fly”
The 1990s were a time of transition for Werner Herzog: after the passing of his collaborator/nemesis Klaus Kinski in 1991, Herzog focused mostly on documentary, making only a single fiction feature in the decade, 1991’s minor “Scream Of Stone,” ahead of his meme-like reinvention in the 21st century. His (mostly barely feature-length) non-fiction work of the period has its ups and downs, but the highlight is undoubtedly the stunning “Little Dieter Needs To Fly.” It focuses on the titular Dieter Dengler, a German-born man who moved to the U.S. at 18, joined the U.S. Navy, and was shot down in Laos where he was captured, imprisoned, and eventually escaped. Herzog would go on to make the same story as a bigger-budget feature eight years later with the Christian Bale-starring “Rescue Dawn,” but this is the definitive take, in part because of the chemistry and kinship between Herzog and Dengler, in part because the extraordinary story feels all the more powerful and unsentimental coming from the mouth of the man who lived it, and partly because of the borderline-uncomfortable, utterly fascinating way that Herzog films reconstructions using locals (anticipating “The Act Of Killing” to some extent). An undervalued gem.
6. “Happy Together”
Capping off an extraordinary run of prolific filmmaking of the highest quality (he made as many films between 1994 and 1997 as he did between 1998 and the present, and we’d argue of a higher consistent quality), Wong Kar-Wai’s fifth and final film of the 1990s remains one of his most woozily beautiful, and is a key text of ’90s LGBT cinema, and hell, of ’90s cinema in general. It follows a tempestuous, on-off couple, Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung, who tragically killed himself in 2003) and Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) as they try to salvage their relationship with a trip to Argentina. Captured with Christopher Doyle’s luminous, deeply intimate, stunning photography, it’s a love story as a clenched fist, two people caught in a self-destructive spiral, unable to pull away from each other, or to stay together, and gradually coming to a realization of that, with tremendous performances from the two leads making this feel like one of the more curiously relatable, saddest, yet strangely satisfying relationship movies of the period. His next film, “In The Mood For Love,” would prove a bigger leap forward, but this is still a beautiful little thing.