best film:  Boogie Nights from Paul Thomas Anderson

P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights is that sonic boom giant masterpiece from a wunderkind filmmaker under 30 like Citizen Kane, The 400 Blows, Jaws, Breathless, Battleship Potemkin that leaves us all a little speechless. I think in 1997 there were those who cried “Scorsese Jr.” with how many similarities there are between the film and Goodfellas but now, with the benefit of hindsight, it is impossible to deny this accomplishment. The opening dance club set piece shot is beyond description in its beauty. It is an exquisite slice of cinema. The film has countless other segments (the awkwardly long, long take on Mark Wahlberg, that just pauses there for like 45 seconds, the entire changing of the decades sequence where William H. Macy kills himself) of cinematic genius. It is one of the greatest films of the 1990s.

  • Though it is not P.T. Anderson’s true debut (Hard Eight in 1996), Boogie Nights marks the inauguration of a nearly unrivaled cinematic talent
  • PT Anderson is clearly excited to make this film and is in love with his camera, film history (the work of Scorsese, Altman, Ophuls), these characters, this era, and this story(or stories).
  • A high-wire act of virtuoso camera movement
  • He humanizes these characters (the actors, obviously, should get a ton of credit for it)—in nearly every role of the 12+ ensemble it’s hard to picture another actor playing these parts—we have the romanticism of the first half of the film and the fall from grace and struggles in the second half (filled with ego, drug abuse (instead of use)) before the pleasingly uplifting but tempered coda (to The Beach Boys “God Only Knows”).
  • The film and PT have the camera romanticism and Bordwell definition of cinematography of Scorsese—but it’s also an ensemble piece like Altman (and yes—Goodfellas)
  • Sarris- “Not since the mysteriously reclusive Terrence Malick has there been such an explosion of sheer talent on the American movie “
  • I think it has aged so well because we’re not in 1997 anymore where many critics attacked the film for being a copy of Goodfellas or Pulp Fiction. I would never put the film ahead of Goodfellas but it benefits from not coming out in that film’s wake (much like Casino now).
  • The opening shot (a tour of the dance club) borrows from the Copacabana shot from Goodfellas, we also have shots (at least three scenes) of Dirk talking to himself in the mirror (from Raging Bull), and we have the I Am Cuba scene of the camera jumping into the pool in a long take (more so than The Graduate).

3 ½ minute opening shot is a wonder. It combines some slight Touch of Evil (opens with shot of car driving down street and characters getting out) to Goodfellas (entering and touring club) and then has a 360 shot introducing three more characters (there are eight (8) in total in the scene), and then ends with a slow-motion finish introducing the main character—jaw = on the floor.

  • I did not notice this before but we have the exaggerated sound and mini-montage editing of the drinks, drug use, clinking of the class, coffee— much like Aronofsky’s Requiem For a Dream (this is three years earlier)
  • The soundtrack needle drop use is dazzling (also led to Scorsese and Tarantino comparisons). I have always loved soundtrack, but this is the first time I have really paused on Michael Penn’s mournful pipe organ (“the big top”) intro. There is melancholy there and it comes back at the end. I think it shows the highs and lows of the characters. It also would come back with Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and that organ music Barry plays.
  • This ensemble piece is a surrogate family (like Goodfellas again)—Jack’s (Burt Reynold) house is the center, he’s the surrogate father, and Moore is the surrogate mother
  • Early in the film we have Wahlberg getting thrown out of his house by his mother and then we juxtaposed this scene with Reynolds welcoming him with open arms in the next
  • Another Scorseseism (from Agnes Varda’s Cleo) is the triple take repeat edit montage intro of the Colonel—Same again later with the Phillip Baker Hall character
  • So we have four (4) huge formally important tracking shots—one is the intro to the film and tour of the club, the second is the intro of the party at Jack’s, the start of the high 70’s period (this makes a great bookend with #4 tracking shot I’ll get to in a moment, the third is the tragic death of Little Bill (I’ll get to that scenes importance in a second) and then the final tour of Jack’s house again with the family restored.
  • That second key tracking shot has the pool I am Cuba tracking shot in the pool- another starry-eyed intro into an inviting world/family
  • It is a hilarious screenplay. Jack says “The Colonel puts up all the money for the films. It’s an important part of the process”
  • PTA is not just laying the visual formal work with stupefying tracking shots (he is)—he’s busy even outside of that- we have long sedentary takes to hold and emphasize (PSH breaking down in the car after going after kissing Dirk—a long hold during Jessie’s Girl on a Dirk zoning out- a shot I love) but there’s other magnificent busyness and cinematic affectations of film style- an iris in on Dirk when Scottie first meets him, the name “Dirk Diggler” in lights and the dance sequence in the club with the choreographed dancing like out of a musical.

The casting of Wahlberg is not that far off from reality—21 years old he was picked up for the Calvin Klein underwear model stuff

  • This is a family— Moore calls him “my baby boy” and there’s that “will you be my mom” sequence with her and roller girl. In the last tracking shot, through Jack’s house again, there’s no drugs, booze, loud music (somber Beach Boys) we have Cheadle’s son in the pool and Jack telling Roller Girl to clean her room.
  • Great formal rigor in the rise and fall. Halfway into the film we have the New Year’s party at Jack’s. This is hugely significant. It’s the turning point to the 1980s, it’s the first time we see Dirk doing coke with Amber (his addiction starts), we have Macy’s suicide/murder, we have the introduction of the really only evil character in the film, Todd Parker, and we have Jack meeting Baker Hall who talks about how film is ending, and video and amateurs is the way to go in the 1980s. It is a major turn.
  • There is a real depth here with identity—“Brock Landers is a character I’m playing. I’m Dirk Diggler” (which, of course, he isn’t)
  • Another brilliant 360 shot as they plan the Molina drug robbery
  • PT’s choice to have the firecrackers in the Molna scene ratchets it up

 

most underrated:   Leaving Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting off the TSPDT top 1000 completely is a miss by the consensus. Make no mistake about it, this is a top 1000 film arguably on acting and writing alone (the famous writing screenplay Oscar win for young Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) but Van Sant is no slouch behind the camera. This may not be as cinematic and formally astounding as say Elephant but from the gorgeous opening title sequence to the attractive photography this is no “point and shoot” drama as well.

A spectacular shot in Good Will Hunting- the film made instant stars of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck

Van Sant’s is more than just a caretaker. There are great instincts and flourishes throughout from the opening credits to the Elliott Smith music to close the film.

 

most overrated:  WKW’s Happy Together is the #1 film of 1997 according to TSPDT and #337 overall. I want to be wrong here- but I just do not see it. Again, I hope I am retracting this choice with the next revisit but I think critics are rewarding it more so for its landmark status for Queer Cinema or New Queer Cinema- (and it is that) than for its artistic merit.  Another highly overrated film is Harmony Korine’s Gummo. It is subversive, sure, but it really hard to look at it’s so ugly. Give me Korine’s Spring Breakers and the visual beauty there any day of the week over Gummo which I do not have in the archives at all– but  it lands on the consensus list at #678. Wow that’s wrong.

gems I want to spotlight:    Three gems that could not be more different here for this category in 1997. Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry is minimal in its approach rigorous and ambitious in the film form qualities. This is Kiarostami’s best work. Another gem from 1997 is John Woo’s un-minimal (is “maximal” a word?) Face/Off. It is brash, loud, and frankly inconsistent at times- but it is intoxicating to watch the stylistic ambition. These two films would make a great double feature and sometimes when I’ve seen too many dumb Hollywood movies recently, I feel like I need to cleanse myself with a Kiarostami film—and vice versa— sometimes when I have seen too many understated/slow foreign/indie films I feel like I need Face/Off.  I also want to mention the sci-fi Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law film Gattaca here as a 1997 gem. It has developed a following in the decades since its release and deservedly so.

 

John Woo’s Face/Off — a great piece of cinema despite the ridiculous plot. And coming off Pulp Fiction and Cage’s recent run of successes (a best actor win in in 1995, The Rock in 1996) these are two of the biggest stars in Hollywood in 1997

beautiful coloring in this landscape photograph here from Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry

Kiarostami’s peak also marks a major achievement for Iranian cinema

Gattaca has no shortage of images that measure up to just about any film from 1997

I think I was so blown away by a newcomer named Jude Law in 1997 that I failed catch some of the astonishing visuals

architecture and world building in Gattaca

 

 

trends and notables:

  • Titanic and James Cameron won virtually every Academy Award in 1997 and blew up the box office but 1997 will always be the year of Paul Thomas Anderson and the arrival of a true cinematic genius (a word I probably throw around here on The Cinema Archives too often – but it definitely applies here). PT Anderson is a one of the best.
  • Titanic is a great film even if it is not 1997’s best, Cameron’s best, or better than some of the films it passed up on the all time box office list. It further propelled the careers of DiCaprio and Winslet who would be two of their generation’s greatest actors.

mock it if you will- but I don’t think there’s much arguing with the beauty of Celine Deion vocalizing the justifiably iconic James Horner score. It’s not quite as good as Gone With the Wind– it isn’t as well written and I’ll take some of the shots and sequences in GWTW over this but it’s not a terrible comparison—both superbly produced. Both won a ton of Oscars (11 here, 8 for Gone With The Wind). were among the biggest box office films of all time, and include personal dramas with a historical backdrop– the artistically rendered backdrops and sunsets (both fabricated backgrounds (one with computers)). Both films have size, scale (tons of extras), opulence and spectacle in the set design.

A dozen transcendent-level establishing shots of ships– immaculate computer simulated crane shots

  • As I said above, 1997 is peak Kiarostami – an important artist in cinema realism’s history
  • Chang-dong Lee’s Green Fish is not a massive splash quite yet- but the Korean New Wave is a real— and coming.

 

The opening tracking shot of Jackie Brown with Pam Grier in profile against the beautifully colored backdrop at LAX is the best shot of the film—stunner- part The Graduate and part Point Blank—two minutes of her being proud. Jackie Brown sort of quietly makes Tarantino three for three making top 10 of the year films.

  • For first time actors in the archives, 1997 would mark the start for Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz (Live Flesh for both and Open Your Eyes for Cruz) — both are very noteworthy. I need to give Romper Stomper another look but for now I have 1997 as the arrival to the archives for Russell Crowe—and what an archiveable debut with his work in LA Confidential. Nearly as captivating is Jude Law in Gattaca would be his first archiveable film and the clear advent of a future star and great actor. Above Chang-dong Lee and Green Fish get a mention as well as a quick note and forerunner to the Korean New Wave—with that comes the wave’s most important actor- Kang-ho Song, who gets his first archiveable film in Green Fish as well.

 

David Lynch’s shot choices are imaginative and his execution sharp  Lost Highway

this is his best film since Blue Velvet

Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter is an emphatic follow-up to 1994’s Exotica—Egoyan proves himself to one of cinema’s finest directors during this stretch of time in the mid-1990s—compiling now twin achievements of pain and loss.

The color – clearly an artistic dedication to a color design—like Mike Leigh’s Naked in 1993 with black. It is almost always on the characters clothes—bathing the frame in the color like a collection of artwork—the Otto’s A-shaped house, the ride at the fair near the end of the film. The story is patiently told—tasteful, sensitive and chilling.

Like Exotica, this starts with a tracking shot during the credits laying out the color design that is going to fill the frame throughout the next nearly two hours. This is a washed out blue—almost like a sky blue- if you’re familiar with Steve McQueen’s work (McQueen debuted more than a decade after this film of course so this is a comparison, not influence)—it is the color in Shame.

 

 

best performance male:   Rumor is that DiCaprio passed up on the role of Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights for Titanic. I know that I would not want to see anyone else playing lead in Paul Thomas Anderson’s opus- Mark Wahlberg gives the best performance of 1997. Burt Reynolds’ work in the same film may very well be the second best performance of the year behind Walhberg. This is the best work of the career of both Wahlberg and Reynolds. After the dueling male leads so to speak in Boogie Nights, Matt Damon and Russell Crowe in Good Will Hunting and LA Confidential deserve mention here. The last mention for this category in 1997 goes to Homayoun Ershadi for his work in Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry.

 

best performance female:. There are five stout performances in this category in 1997. Julianne Moore leads the way with her performance in PTA’s ensemble film. Kate Winslet may actually be stronger in Heavenly Creatures in 1994 but either way she’s overdue for a mention here and I’d give her the second slot in 1997 for her work in Titanic.  She does some heavy lifting in this three hour romance epic. Patricia Arquette was close to breaking into this category earlier in the decade with her work in True Romance and Ed Wood but she lands fully and deservedly for her work in David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Kim Basinger (along with Crowe) stood out in L.A. Confdential even when others like Guy Pearce and Kevin Spacey put in good work. The last mention goes to Parker Posey for Henry Fool. This is also sort of a lifetime achievement award for Posey’s indie goddess status in the 1990s. She had worked with Hartley, Baumbach (Kicking and Screaming), and was an important park of Linklater’s ensemble in Dazed and Confused.

 

this is a brave performance from Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway– I am sure many actresses would not touch this role

 

top 10

  1. Boogie Nights
  2. Lost Highway
  3. Taste of Cherry
  4. The Sweet Hereafter
  5. L.A. Confidential
  6. Titanic
  7. Good Will Hunting
  8. Jackie Brown
  9. Funny Games
  10. Face/Off

 

Danny DeVito and Kevin Spacey in 1950s Los Angeles in L.A. Confidential. A strong counterpoint to auteur cinema with sublime acting and writing.

Kundun marks the only collaboration between Scorsese and Roger Deakins

From Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm– a perfect frame with the doorway ajar and Kevin Kline in soft focus

a brilliant sequence in Kon’s Perfect Blue…

…so much so that it would inspire Darren Aronofsky to use it in 2000’s Requiem For a Dream

a strong cinematic painting from Hana-bi

from Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke

And one from Almodovar’s Live Flesh

 

 

Archives, Directors, and Grades

Taste of Cherry- Kiarostami MS
Affliction- Schrader R/HR
Afterglow- Rudolph R
Amistad- Spielberg R
As Good as It Gets -J. Brooks R
Boogie Nights – P.T. Anderson MP
Career Girls – Leigh R/HR
Contact- Zemeckis R
Deconstructing Harry- Allen R
Donnie Brasco – Newell R
Face/Off- Woo HR
Funny Games- Haneke HR
Gattaca- Niccol R/HR
Genealogies of a Crime – Ruiz R
Good Will Hunting- Van Sant HR/MS
Green Fish – Chang-dong Lee R
Hana-bi- Kitano R
Happy Together- WKW R
Henry Fool- Hartley HR
Jackie Brown – Tarantino HR
Kiss the Girls – Fleder R
Kundun– Scorsese R
L.A. Confidential- Hanson MS
Life Is Beautiful- Benigni R
Live Flesh- Almodovar R
Lost Highway- Lynch MS
Love and Death on Long Island -Kwietniowski R
Mother and Son – Sokurov
Mr.  Jealousy- Baumbach R
Open Your Eyes- Amenábar HR
Perfect Blue- Kon HR
Princess Mononoke – Miyazaki R/HR
Starship Troopers- Verhoeven R/HR
The Apostle- Duvall R
The Boxer- Sheridan R
The Castle- Haneke R
The Eel- Imamura
The Game- Fincher R
The Ice Storm- A. Lee HR
The River – Ming-liang Tsai R/HR
The Spanish Prisoner- Mamet R
The Sweet Hereafter – Egoyan MS
The Wings of a Dove- Softley R
Titanic  – Cameron HR/MS
Ulee’s Gold- Nunez R
U-Turn- Stone R
Wag the Dog- Levinson
Ossos – Costa R

 

 

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives