20 YEAR RETROSPECTIVE: The 10 Best of 1997
In a new annual series, Every Movie Has a Lesson is going to look back twenty years to revisit, relearn, and reexamine a year of cinema history to share favorites, lists, and experiences from the films of that year.
Before 2017 ends, I wanted to take some time to turn back the clock and reminisce. Twenty years ago this year, I graduated among the Class of 1997 from Peotone High School in Peotone Illinois and began my freshman year of undergrad at (the now closed) Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana. As I describe in my “About Me” section here on the website, it was the year before, 1996, when I really got my start loving, following, and writing about movies. Still, because of the personal milestones, many of which connect to a movie memory in the background, 1997 will always be a special year for me.
In this editorial, I am going to provide a sort of personal retrospective. I was new to the enormity of film back then, and I can plainly see that my tastes have changed over time. Some films have gotten better and others have become worse. Twenty years is more than enough time to examine a film’s staying power and maybe even label a few masterpieces. Daydream with me while I review down the year in parts and lists. Feel free to comment and share your 1997 favorites as well!
MY PICKS FOR THE 10 BEST FILMS OF 1997
I firmly believe in the difference between a list of “favorites” and a list of the “best” of any given topic. Those are two lists with far different qualifications. Allow me to put my 38-year-old film critic hat on today and challenge my 18-year-old past self of yesteryear writing for The Observer at Saint Joseph’s College to make a list of “best” instead of “favorites.” Twirling my invisible mustache of maturity, this would be my definitive year-end-style “10 Best” list for 1997:
1. L.A. Confidential
3. Good Will Hunting
4. As Good as It Gets
5. love jones
7. The Rainmaker
8. The Game
10. Donnie Brasco
At #1 by a country mile, L.A. Confidential is director Curtis Hanson’s unquestioned masterpiece and one of my Top 5 all-time films. I was lucky enough to join my film critic peer Jeff York of The Establishing Shot and the International Screenwriters’ Association earlier year to see it on the big screen for the first time in twenty years when it played for the Noir City Chicago Festival at the Music Box Theatre. It was an absolute treat. Jeff and I spun a podcast on the experience here. L.A. Confidential was a door-opener for my fertile mind into old Hollywood, music, film noir, detective stories, and new actors like Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce.
Behind it at #2 and flaunting its record-tying Oscar haul, I refuse to deny the scope and power of James Cameron’s Titanic. I don’t find it unfashionable to enjoy or to admit enjoying. I know I saw it in tears four or more times (even on a pair of dates) in the theater across 1997 and 1998. Five years ago, for the historical disaster’s centennial anniversary, I got to see the film again on the big screen and reviewed it officially on the website. To me, it holds up.
Elsewhere on the list, Good Will Hunting is as intimately powerful and moving now as it was then. Donnie Brasco might be my #1 Depp career performance and the title became a college nickname for me as I tirelessly promoted folks to see the film. As Good as it Gets has one of the best scripts of zingers I’ve ever seen. The smooth and slick The Rainmaker from Francis Ford Coppola tops my personal list of the best John Grisham adaptations. I’ve been a lifelong fan of both Robert Zemeckis and David Fincher. As a big science guy who’s not very religious, the utterly compelling and heartfelt Contact changed the way I look at the world. When Interstellar arrived a few years ago, Contact was the first comparison I though of. Andrew Niccol’s stoic Gattaca inspired my sense of science fiction just as strongly. David Fincher's follow-up to Se7en, The Game, is an all-time great mindf--k film that few people make any more with much audacity and smarts.
The final film of my top 10 list is a hidden gem at #5 that few have heard of, namely Theodore Witcher’s Chicago-set romantic drama love jones. Far too often, so-called “black movies” carry stereotypes of needing to about loud Madea-like family, tied to some racial angle, or set in urban gang violence or poverty from low socioeconomic neighborhoods. Witcher’s film has zero of that, and it’s impressively incredible for it. Set to a topical soundtrack mix of new and old and featuring cultured, passionate, and staunchly middle-class black Chicagoans navigating the ups and downs of romance and personal successes without a single lame trope, love jones is as perfect an independent film as I’ve ever seen. The writing, tone, and maturity are top-notch.