So many movies, so few standouts. In the big-screen year that was 1997, Hollywood proved yet again that when it comes to classic cinema, original ideas are few and far between.
We were unmercifully pummeled with dingbat sequels this year, proving that lightning does not strike twice when we're dealing with a dampened-down Sandra Bullock (Speed 2: Cruise Control), pointless dino-violence (The Lost World) or a batty frat-boy fantasy (Batman and Robin).
Equally annoying were the sell-out antics of Will Smith, who used the obnoxiously cool Men in Black as a self-promoting launching pad for his joke of a hit single and recently released album.
On a high note, indies continued to thrive, if not commercially, then creatively. David Arquette provided a poignant and colorful Dream with the Fishes, Aussie filmmaker Shirley Barrett enchanted with her quirky Love Serenade, and Martha Plimpton and Kevin Anderson radiated a raw, unflinching power in the Eye of God.
Low-budget underdogs also rose to new heights, courtesy of Shall We Dance?, The Full Monty and Mrs. Brown, with each far exceeding box-office expectations.
As always, there were a number of actors and actresses who delivered standout, starmaking performances, or simply looked great up on the big screen.
Mark Wahlberg turned quite a few heads with his sexy-sweet turn as Dirk Diggler, the clueless stud at the heart of Boogie Nights. And Joan Cusack, always a scene-stealer in films like Working Girl and Addams Family Values, shot to new comic heights as the frail, newly slimmed down gal pal in In and Out.
Julia Roberts was thankfully romantic, and comic, in that Wedding Movie, and Mel Gibson, on-call action stud, showed us a sensitive, affecting side as the paranoid cabby in Conspiracy Theory.
So, in trying to pick the year's ten best, much consideration must be given to every venue: the obvious indies, sleeper hits, even big-budget Hollywood events. Inevitably, there will always be a few shut-outs.
A newly energized Roberts barely missed the elite group with her two '97 entries, My Best Friend's Wedding and Conspiracy Theory. Gay-themed films were also prevalent, courtesy first-rate fare like Alive and Kicking and Hollow Reed. And who can ever forget Christopher Guest's spirited small-town romp, Waiting for Guffman?
We must also note that films like the epic Titanic and Ralph Fiennes'Oscar and Lucinda, while possibly damn good, haven't been released yet.
So, without further ado, here are my picks for 1997's best films. You may scratch your head in wonder, but each of these movies possessed a few qualities that made them stand out from the rest:
10) Shall We Dance? - The subtle, unassuming Japanese hit was simply enchanting, relying as much on graceful performances from its lead actors as it did elegant ballroom dancing. Strong supporting players and fluid direction were equally affecting.
9) Soul Food - First-time filmmaker George Tillman scored big with his humble tale of a loving, fighting black family, which featured impressive work from Vanessa L. Williams, Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long and Michael Beach. A strong, realistic script, though, truly brought this heaping helping to a simmer.
8) The Full Monty - By now, everyone knows the story of six out-of-shape Aussie steelworkers whose strip routine garners big laughs. But there's also a heart inside those red g-strings, and some deft acting from unknowns like Robert Carlyle and Mark Addy.
7) In And Out - This gay tour-de-farce was a funny, heartwarming surprise, thanks largely to first-rate work from an agile Kevin Kline, a sexy Tom Selleck and a ditzy, doting Debbie Reynolds. As the bride-to-never-be, Joan Cusack was a comic knockout in an Oscar-caliber performance.
6) In The Company Of Men - Delicious, devilish fun that never looks back. This white-collar love triangle turned sour never lets up, and features a self-assured, charismatic performance from Aaron Eckhart, along with strong support from Matt Malloy and Stacey Edwards. Nameless corporations never seemed so menacing.
5) Boogie Nights - Paul Thomas Anderson's late '70s porn opus was a bit heady for some mainstream moviegoers, who found it offensive and overlong. But true connoisseurs reveled in the razor-sharp black comedy and a sexy, star-making performance from Mark Wahlberg, whose mix of endearing naiveté and overblown ego was truly remarkable.
4) Selena - The Tejano singer seemed to do no wrong in this lively bio-pic, and that was just fine with the legion of fans who still adore her. Gregory Nava's slick direction and a confident, truly astonishing performance from Jennifer Lopez ensured that Selena's unbreakable spirit was preserved.
3) The Wings Of The Dove - Iain Softley's lush, exquisite adaptation of Henry James classic novel was a sumptuous, spellbinding treat, and should ensure a few major nods come Oscar time. Helena Bonham Carter's riveting work, in particular, will keep your eyes transfixed on the screen.
2) Ponette - Death, religion and the inquisitive mind of a child meld beautifully in this poignant French import, which focused on a child's attempted understanding of her mother's tragic demise. Young actress Victoire Thivisol gives a shattering performance of unthinkable depths.
1) The Ice Storm - Director Ang Lee charmed American auds in 1995 with his light touch on Emma Thompson's adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. This time, he sets a darker, albeit equally winning tone, on the '70s sexual revolution in suburbia.
Flawless performances from Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver and, particularly, Christina Ricci meld with breathtaking photography and an evocative score to create one of the year's most unsettling, affecting pieces of work.