DOCUMENTS OF DISASTER: MY 1997 TOP 10 LIST

Reviewing BOOGIE NIGHTS in the NY PRESS, Godfrey Cheshire described the movie landscape of the last few years as a succession of "lame {Tarantino} wannabes, blockbuster offal and obscure gems." Until the last few weeks of this year, this seemed like a reasonably accurate summary. There were plenty of reasons to feel gloomy about the state of film culture this year. The worst "blockbuster offal" was guaranteed to receive more media attention than any foreign-language films (unless they were being promoted by the mighty Miramarketers, of course.) The co-option and gentrification of "independent film" advanced at full speed, accompanied by the continuing flood of neo-Tradition of Quality MASTERPIECE THEATER rejects. Some of the year's most adventurous local programming, including the Walter Reade's Philippe Garrel and Raul Ruiz retrospectives, played to audiences that averaged two or three dozen. Serge Daney's remark that "The media ask those who know nothing to represent the ignorance of the public and, in doing so, to legitimize it" hit home a number of times, most notably when several mainstream critics offered sweeping judgments about contemporary French film, in the process demonstrating how little they know about it. And the effects of this level of ignorance and xenophobia reach far beyond the tiny microcosm of film criticism.

That said, there were a fair number of reasons not to feel gloomy in 1997. (Certainly, it was a less desolate year than 1996.) American distributors have finally started taking notice of some of the new wave of filmmakers who have emerged from France, Iran and Asia over the last ten years. As much as I tend to complain about Americans' resistance to foreign films, some of my favorites did succeed in reaching enthusiastic audiences. TITANIC and FACE/OFF proved that the blockbusterdom and cinephilia can be reconciled. (And the year's #1 film was the slight but relatively benign MEN IN BLACK, a huge improvement over the likes of INDEPENDENCE DAY or FORREST GUMP.) If the week's multiplex offerings weren't too promising, it was possible, at least in New York, to see a number of landmark retrospectives: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Luchino Visconti at the Museum of Modern Art, Frank Borzage/Margaret Sullavan and the aforementioned Garrel and Ruiz series at the Walter Reade, Luis Buñuel at Anthology Film Archives and a summer's worth of Hollywood B-movies at Film Forum.

The following list consists entirely of films that were released commercially in 1997, although several were barely released. I would've been willing to include undistributed films, but I didn't see any that I liked as much as these ten. However, I did decide to exclude films that will be released this year, several of which would have placed quite highly on this list. It's foolish to try to divine the zeitgeist from a subjective list of the year's best films, so I'll just say that many of the following films are disaster films of one kind or another, addressing the short- and long-term consequences of personal, social and political catastrophes ranging from car, bus and boat accidents to the occupation or dissolution of one's country.


With that in mind, here is the list:

10. TITANIC (James Cameron, USA)

Fittingly, TITANIC beings with a quasi-documentary intro depicting a team of explorers digging through the ship's wreckage. The film itself is a perverse kind of exploration: a small-scale love story blown up to epic proportions, a deliberately naive simulacrum of a melodrama whose story and characterizations could have been devised around the time the Titanic sank. Additionally, Cameron is perverse enough to spend more than $200 million in the course of making a film assailing the brutality of upper-class privilege. (In some respects, it's his equivalent of Francis Ford Coppola's ONE FROM THE HEART and Leos Carax' LES AMANTS DE PONT NEUF.) .Nevertheless, TITANIC is a surprisingly successful reconciliation of CGI and storytelling, a mammoth spectacle that thrills without insulting the audience's intelligence. And in a year where practically every December release ran for more than two hours, its three hours and 20 minutes felt more like 80.


9. SICK: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF BOB FLANAGAN, SUPERMASOCHIST (Kirby Dick, USA)

I wasn't surprised to learn that SICK will be prominently featured in a program about cinema and cruelty at the upcoming Rotterdam Film Festival. As powerful as it is, I've got to admit that much of it is rather difficult to watch - and not just because of the scene in which he nails his cock to a board in close-up. In its own way, the footage of him on his deathbed is just as hard to take. But sitting through SICK doesn't feel like an act of masochism; Flangan's warmth and sense of humor make many of the proceedings go down easier. He had little in common with the Jim Rose sideshow. His "supermasochism" wasn't a fashion statement or an attempt to shock but a deadly serious (and relatively successful) to gain control over his body, tormented by cystic fibrosis, which left him in constant danger of suffocating to death. As a piece of filmmaking, SICK is sometimes fairly crude (it was shot on video, as a matter of fact), but it goes to the heart of a fascinating subject: how does one go on living (and making art) when one's body is occupied territory? Although he eventually died from CF, Flanagan had a few insights into the answer to that question.


8. LA PROMESSE (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium)

Anyone who thinks European cinema consists exclusively of literary adaptations and pretentious navel-gazing must have missed LA PROMESSE. Alas, it's the kind of "small film" that practically begs to be underrated. (It's from Belgium, for Christ's sake, and it wasn't even shot in Brussels!) Its virtues are so simple (solid performances from all three lead actors, extremely convincing fly-on-the-wall camerawork) that they seem artless. It's easy to overlook the rare skill with which the Dardenne brothers make use of them. The artlessness is a veneer: LA PROMESSE may look like a documentary, but it has the suspense and momentum of a great thriller. As a portrait of the new, economically depressed, reluctantly mutli-racial Europe, it has few peers.


7. UNDERGROUND (Emir Kusturica, "Yugoslavia")

UNDERGROUND has many virtues, but modesty is not one of them. Like most films that win the Palme D'or at Cannes, it wears its intention of being a masterpiece on its sleeve. It races through 50 years of Yugoslav history in 170 minutes, with every scene a set piece, every moment a peak and everything paced to evoke a large dose of your favorite stimulant . Beneath an exterior of macho boorishness, something else is brewing: a sense of pain and loss that grows more poignant as the film progresses. For the first two thirds, Kusturica's intentions are fully realized, but the magic realism of the third act often feels like an excuse to evade taking a political stand. (For what it's worth, the politics of the film were widely lambasted when it was released in Europe two years ago, although one must understand Serbo-Croatian to make out some of the supposedly pro-Serb details. When J. Hoberman lamented that Kusturica is "so talented, so politically incorrect," he was erring on the side of kindness. Nevertheless, I don't think the film should be reduced to Kusturica's personal politics. As an allegory, it resonates far behind Yugoslavia. ) Due to a number of circumstances (the foremost being the amount of money its producers wanted for the American rights), it didn't open in the U.S. until two years after its victory at Cannes, and it still has yet to receive a nationwide release.


6. GABBEH (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Iran)

This summer's Makhmalbaf retrospective revealed the immense breadth of Makhmalbaf's talent. He's reinvented himself several times, progressing from the inept FLEEING FROM EVIL TO GOD (a bizarre religious allegory that manages to synthesize the medieval morality play and slasher movie) to the misanthropy and anger of films like THE CYCLIST, THE PEDDLER and SALAM CINEMA, a corrosive documentary self-portrait that made my 1996 Top 10 list, to the subtle humanism of GABBEH and A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE, his two most recent films. The cynic in me isn't surprised that GABBEH is the only one of his films to be released in the U.S. so far. It's "exotic" and picturesque in a way that none of his other films (and few of the Iranian art films I've seen) are. Nevertheless, he's succeeded in reaching an international audience without compromising. GABBEH may be most simply described as an ode to the subversive power of beauty and color, set among a tribe of nomadic rug-weavers in the Iranian desert. It was one of the most poetic films of the year.


5. THE SWEET HEREAFTER (Atom Egoyan, Canada)

If more proof was needed, THE SWEET HEREAFTER is another piece of evidence that Egoyan is one of the great directors of our times. Here, he deals more directly (and more clear-headedly) with emotionally charged material than ever before. Although THE SWEET HEREAFTER is an adaptation of Russell Banks; novel, it follows Egoyan's usual pattern of crisscrossing encounters between troubled obsessives. These encounters eventually amount to something greater than the sum of their parts, even if that something remains elusive. (Unlike EXOTICA, it never reaches a real point of catharsis.) THE SWEET HEREAFTER sometimes over-reaches (Egoyan's portraits of urban isolation ring truer than his portrait of small-town family life here), but even its weaker moments are better than most films' peaks.


4. CRASH (David Cronenberg, Canada)

More than any other 1997 release, CRASH was a victim of the demand for "narrative correctness." Had it been made in the 60s or 70s, I'm sure it would've been more successful with American audiences. These days, any film which pays more attention to atmosphere and texture than to character and story runs the risk of automatically being labeled "boring" and "pretentious." It was the love-it-or-hate-it film of the year, but like many such films, it may be considered a classic in 20 years. If nothing else, its blank surface and affectless characters made a wonderful Rohrsach test.


3. DEEP CRIMSON (Arturo Ripstein, Mexico)

After the past few years' string of awful neo-noirs, the basic material of DEEP CRIMSON (amour fou, a "femme fatale," an outlaw couple on the road) isn't particularly promising. However, Ripstein manages to fashion a haunting film from this well-worn material, adapted from the real-life murder case that inspired Leonard Kastle's THE HONEYMOON KILLERS and transposed to 40s Mexico. Much of DEEP CRIMSON's success is due to the extraordinary performances of Regina Orzoco and Daniel Gimenez Cacho as a mismatched couple (she's a pathologically jealous nurse, he's a pathologically vain gigolo) whose tempestuous affair and foolish moneymaking schemes culminate in a series of murders. Ripstein's blend of sadism and compassion is worthy of Fassbinder. There's plenty of cruelty of work here on both sides of the camera, but there's no condescension. As tawdry as the lovers' dreams are, their love is real, and the film treats it respectfully. Ripstein's been making films for over 30 years without attracting much attention north of the border, but World Artists will be releasing several of them on video this year.


2. CHRONICLE OF A DISAPPEARANCE (Elia Suleiman, Palestine)

It's hard to describe CHRONICLE OF A DISAPPEARANCE without making it sound like a tract. Simultaneously an austere, formalist "meditation on Palestinian identity" and a very witty comedy, CHRONICLE takes the form of a fictional diary. Suleiman plays himself, a Palestinian filmmaker who returns from a lengthy exile in New York to live in Nazareth and East Jerusalem, to observe the daily life of his family, neighbors and friends and to try to gather material for a film. The result is a rare and valuable piece of political filmmaking, reminiscent of Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati, Chantal Akerman and Nanni Moretti. Rather than preaching about colonialism or the brutality of the Israeli army, Suleiman evokes their psychological effects, capturing the rhythm of deracination and alienation. When it premiered last spring at the Museum of Modern Art's NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS series, it felt like a UFO, and I suppose it was lucky to get released commercially at all. Still, I couldn't help being disappointed that, like DEEP CRIMSON, it vanished after a mere two-week run.


1. FAST, CHEAP & OUT OF CONTROL (Errol Morris, USA)

FAST, CHEAP & OUT OF CONTROL cannot be described easily in a paragraph. Even after several viewings, IÕm still not entirely sure what it's "about." It's a documentary, to be sure, juxtaposing interviews with 4 obsessive men (a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, a photographer with an intense fondness for the termite-like "mole rats" and a scientist who designs robots) with a wide variety of stock footage. But it's also science fiction, a bestiary, a 4-ring circus, an elegy, and a philosophical meditation on the human need to connect with something larger (or smaller, as the case may be) than ourselves. Morris structures the film like a tunnel, filled with side paths and interlocking corridors - one can burrow into it like a mole rat. There are many films contained within FAST, CHEAP & OUT OF CONTROL. I've cited just a few of them.


Runners-Up

THE BIRTH OF LOVE (Philippe Garrel, France), FACE/OFF (John Woo, USA), HAPPY TOGETHER (Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong), IN THE COMPANY OF MEN (Neil LaBute, USA), KUNDUN (Martin Scorsese, USA), L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (Curtis Hanson, USA), NENETTE ET BONI (Claire Denis, France), PRISONER OF THE MOUNTAINS (Sergei Bodrov, Russia), SAINT CLARA (Ari Folman/Ori Sivan, Israel), WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY (Cédric Klapisch, France)


Where the fuck are the distributors?

UN AIR DE FAMILLE (Cédric Klapisch, France), BRIGANDS: CHAPTER VII (Otar Iosseliani, France/Georgia/Russia), BUDDHA BLESS AMERICA (Wu Nianjen, Taiwan), COMRADES, ALMOST A LOVE STORY (Peter Chan, Hong Kong), A MOMENT OF INNOCENCE (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Iran), SUZAKU (Naomi Kawase, Japan)


Three long-overdue reissues of French landmarks

CONTEMPT (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963), THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE (Jean Eustache, 1973), LE SAMOURAI (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967)


As enjoyable as a home reenactment of the "hammer of love" scene from SICK

THE END OF VIOLENCE (Wim Wenders, USA), THE FIFTH ELEMENT (Luc Besson, France), IN & OUT (Frank Oz, USA), KISSED (Lynne Stopkewich, Canada), KISS OR KILL (Bill Bennett, Australia)


Three sure shots for next year's list

FALLEN ANGELS (Wong Kar-Wai, Hong Kong), FIREWORKS (Takeshi Kitano, Japan), TASTE OF CHERRY (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran)