The flagship film of 1997 was James Cameron’s Titanic, a behemoth that broke all box office records and remains one of three films to have won the record number of 11 Oscars, its haul including best picture and best director. The first film ever to gross $1bn, this Leonardo DiCaprio-Kate Winslet weepie was a bona fide cultural phenomenon in the late 1990s, and, though its appeal was truly international, its release in the UK in late November was arguably buoyed by the communal emotion uncorked by the death of Princess Diana at the end of the summer.
For all its cutting-edge effects, this was an old-fashioned blockbuster set in a similar mould to that bygone record-breaker Gone with the Wind (1939), with star-crossed lovers coming together against a historical backdrop. But it was an anomaly in a year in which Hollywood’s other biggest hits were in the more familiar (then and now) post-Spielberg/Lucas template, from Spielberg’s own The Lost World: Jurassic Park to Men in Black and The Fifth Element. It was also the year that Lucas issued his controversial special editions of the original Star Wars trilogy.
British cinema had a trio of worldwide mega-hits too: one expected (Tomorrow Never Dies) and two less so (Sheffield male stripper comedy The Full Monty and Rowan Atkinson’s Bean, which both took over $250m internationally). Other notable UK films, albeit of now fading familiarity, were Twin Town (forever to be dubbed the “Welsh Trainspotting”), new films from Mike Leigh (Career Girls) and Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo), Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson, Iain Softley’s excellent version of The Wings of a Dove, of-their-moment pieces like Fever Pitch and Spice World, and a couple we’ve singled out to highlight below.
Away from English language cinema and the money-spinners, however, it was also an artistic boom period for certain pockets of Asian cinema, most notably in Japan and Iran. This was signalled to westerners by the top prize at the Venice Film Festival going to Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-bi, while the Cannes Palme d’Or was shared by Taste of Cherry (made by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami during a flush of highly acclaimed 90s features) and The Eel (by veteran Japanese director Shohei Imamura). The fantastic year in Japanese film extended to animation, with key anime titles appearing from Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue) and Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke).
Without further ado, and with no shade intended in the direction of Titanic, the following list ranges over 10 of the year’s most enduring pictures – all now the ripe old age of 20.
Boogie Nights (1997)
Director Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s second feature, following 1996’s Hard Eight, marked him out as a filmmaker to watch and kickstarted a run of modern masterpieces that would include Magnolia (1999), Punch-Drunk Love (2002), There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012).
Expanding on his 1988 short The Dirk Diggler Story, Anderson cast Mark Wahlberg as the wide-eyed and impressively endowed young protagonist who embarks on a career in porn in the 1970s and 80s. Wahlberg gives an exceptional, enthusiastic performance, and is joined by a stellar cast, including Julianne Moore, Heather Graham, John C. Reilly and Burt Reynolds, who shoulder both the humour and pathos of Anderson’s pitch-perfect screenplay. By turns fish-out-of-water comedy, coming-of-age drama and sex romp, Boogie Nights mines both the evolving California mindset, still desperately clinging to the last vestiges of the free love 60s, and the highs and lows of individual ambition to become both a nuanced character study and a colourful slice of cinematic Americana.
Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa
1997 marked a remarkable turnabout in the fortunes of Japanese film, both at home and abroad, with the local box-office dominated by the Studio Ghibli smash of Princess Mononoke, major international festival prizes for Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-bi, Shohei Imamura’s The Eel and Naomi Kawase’s Suzaku, and Masayuki Suo’s Shall We Dance? becoming the top-grossing Asian film of all time at the North American box office. But the film that really marked the arrival of the new Japanese cinema, anticipating the arrival of the J-horror boom with Ringu (1998), was Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure.
This mesmerising psychological chiller saw Koji Yakusho’s haunted police detective, Kenichi Takabe, investigating a mysterious string of homicides across the depopulated cityscapes of a post-bubble Tokyo whose bright city lights have long faded. Unfolding in a spare and detached style, Cure is as much slow-burning character study as a reinvention of the genre, the relationship between Tanabe and his mentally ill wife adding a poignant undercurrent to the overarching air of end-of-the-century pessimism. Astonishingly, the film has never been released in the United Kingdom.
Happy Together (1997)
Director Wong Kar-wai
Director Wong Kar-wai normally prefers to communicate love and desire through longing stares, but Happy Together is by far his most passionate film. The relationship between two Chinese men, who break up, get back together, and break up again as they travel around Argentina, is raw and wild. The problem with Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung) and Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) is that they’re hopelessly addicted to each other.
The movie opens with a sex scene between them – two of the biggest male stars in Hong Kong cinema at the time, in a country where homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1991. It’s some of the finest acting of their careers: Leung a wounded puppy dog, anguished and devoted even though he keeps on being kicked aside; Cheung spoilt and unable to conquer his own demons. A metaphor for Hong Kong’s handover to China, which took place the year it was released, Happy Together is also a heartbreaking portrayal of love and loneliness.
The Ice Storm (1997)
Director Ang Lee
Set in 1973, against the backdrop of the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam war, Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s unflinching look at suburban life deconstructs middle-class America and its crumbling social mores to devastating effect. Not only is the country in turmoil, but the people have been cut adrift too: they’re desperately trying to numb the pain with wife-swapping, barbiturates and alcohol as they’re swept along by the sexual revolution.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, we meet two dysfunctional families living in Connecticut. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) is having an affair with his next-door neighbour, Janey Carver (Sigourney Weaver), while his precocious teenage daughter, Wendy (Christina Ricci), is busy flirting with Janey’s sons, Mikey (Elijah Wood) and Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd). While the parents navigate their way through mid-life crisis, their children grapple with teenage angst, but, in this beautifully bleak coming-of-age drama, everyone seems emotionally frozen and disconnected from each other.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
Director Curtis Hanson
Hot on the heels of The Last Seduction (1994), The Usual Suspects (1995) and Bound (1996), this masterful James Ellroy adaptation was the final great American neo-noir/noir revival feature produced in the 90s – and it may just be the best of the lot.
Directed by the late Curtis Hanson, it’s set in a sun-bleached 1950s City of Angels, where squeaky-clean police sergeant Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) butts heads with rough-but-results-getting Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe) over their investigation of a multiple murder at The Nite Owl coffee shop. With a cast populated by memorable characters, such as Kevin Spacey’s shrewd TV advisor detective, Danny DeVito’s cunning gossip-hound and Kim Basinger’s sultry Veronica Lake-lookalike prostitute, L.A. Confidential is a classy production. Basinger snagged the Oscar for best supporting actress for her work, while Hanson and Brian Helgeland also picked one up for their adapted screenplay. Individual scenes crackle with tough, funny dialogue, thrilling, sharply edited action and fiendish narrative surprises. One watch and you’ll be mouthing “Rollo Tomasi” with a smile forevermore.
Lost Highway (1997)
Director David Lynch
These days, Mulholland Dr. (2001) is widely held up as David Lynch’s masterpiece – it’s one of only two films from the 21st century to have penetrated the top 50 of Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time poll. But four years before his indelible Hollywood odyssey, Lynch served up another classic LA nightmare in the underrated Lost Highway, a menacing miasma of mistaken identity, sinister surveillance, sexual obsession… and Bill Pullman (playing a tortured jazz musician) honking on a saxophone with such vigour you fear he’s going to spontaneously combust.
Lost Highway’s woozy, opaque plot is barely worth sketching out here. Rather, it’s a film of rich, dark moods and remarkable set pieces that strive, with disturbing success, to mimic the amorphously absurd nature of dreams. The highlights are myriad, demonstrating Lynch’s mastery of tone and image: a pasty-faced, bug-eyed Robert Blake orchestrating the most chilling phone call in cinema history; a remote cabin bursting mysteriously into flames; and best (and funniest) of all, a maniacal gangster (Robert Loggia) completely losing his rag with a motorist who dares to overtake him on one of the film’s many lost highways. Altogether now: “I want you to get a fuckin’ driver’s manual! And I want you to study that motherfucker!”
Nil by Mouth (1997)
Director Gary Oldman
Though Gary Oldman hadn’t lived in Britain for many years when he made his directorial debut, and though not a UK penny went into making it, Nil by Mouth proved a revelation in terms of the absolute authenticity of its depiction of certain aspects of British (and, more specifically, south-east London) working-class life. That’s not to say, of course, that domestic violence, drugs, drunkenness and petty crime are the norm for everyone; merely to stress that the extended family and friends on view here (marvellously played by everyone involved), whose lives are shaped and blighted by those factors, are completely credible in terms of their actions and attitudes both to one another and to the world around them.
Firmly grounded in personal memory, Oldman’s spot-on script never preaches or glamorises, while Ron Fortunato’s raw, realist camerawork ensures an urgent, almost documentary sense of the here and now. The results – unremittingly honest, darkly funny and vibrantly alive – make most other accounts of modern working-class life look like naive wishful thinking or condescending caricature.
Taste of Cherry (1997)
Director Abbas Kiarostami
A work of intriguing ambiguities, quiet compassion and austere beauty, the late, great Abbas Kiarostami’s Palme d’Or-winner begins with a man driving around the suburbs and hills outside Tehran, eyeing up men at the roadside and occasionally stopping to offer one a lift and, perhaps, well-paid work. Only after a while it is revealed that his actions have nothing to do with sex and everything to do with a theme prevalent in Kiarostami’s films for a quarter-century: the troubling but inexorably symbiotic relationship between life and death.
For reasons known only to himself, the protagonist is seeking someone to help him commit suicide (forbidden by Islamic law); his encounters, conversations and wanderings constitute a kind of poetic – and, it must be emphasised, wholly unsentimental – disquisition into the value and purpose of life. In formal terms, the film is at once radical and ravishing; dramatically, despite its ellipses, repetitions and rhymes, it is surprisingly engrossing; and, as philosophical cinema, it remains, for all its subtlety and modesty, a magnificent achievement.
Under the Skin (1997)
Director Carine Adler
With the sudden death of her mother, Iris (Samantha Morton) spirals into a messy mania. Disgusted by her sister’s domesticity and jealous of a suspected maternal preference, she rages. Iris’s grief is raw and channelled into a frenzied sexual energy. Swaddled in her mother’s big fur coat and wig, she hunts for men to obliterate her pain, but her descent into obsessive sexual fantasy and cruising drags her into danger.
Massive Attack’s lulling trip-hop track ‘One Love’ soundtracks Iris’s sensory intoxication. Her crisis unfolds against tilted angles, bleached light and 90s styles, infused with the 1970s aesthetic that had swung back into fashion. Iris was Morton’s breakout role, springboarding her career in cinema. Inspired by Estela V. Welldon’s book Mother, Madonna, Whore, and funded by a BFI initiative to encourage female filmmakers, Carine Adler’s Under the Skin is an exploration of grief and violent female sexuality rarely seen in cinema, with the female body as a battleground for self-destruction.
La Vie de Jésus (1997)
Director Bruno Dumont
The grey farmlands of the far north of France have inspired some of the country’s bleakest, bluntest cinema, from Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) to Maurice Pialat’s L’Enfance – nue (1968). With his 1997 debut, La Vie de Jésus, Bruno Dumont announced his arrival as the heir to that tradition with a forthright depiction of the boredom of a group of lads, including Freddy, an epileptic, growing up in the small town of Bailleul, where Dumont himself was born.
This troubling, grim yet often oddly beautiful film also has some kinship with a US debut from the same year, Harmony Korine’s Gummo, in its loomingly physical attention to its characters’ faces and flaws. Locked into a life without promise, Dumont’s protagonists indulge in racism, bullying and sexual harassment to while away the hours, leading to tragedy when Freddy’s girlfriend shifts her affections towards a handsome Arab boy. Controversial for its scenes of animalistic sex in fields, and for that provocative Christian title, Dumont’s film now looks like a wellspring for a certain strain of recent British realism, from Fish Tank (2009) to The Goob (2014).