Films under fire
If you looked at Hollywood's artistic community, you'd believe that many were procrastinators, putting off making the best films of the year until the last possible second, just making it in under the wire for Academy consideration, while the rest of the year is filled mostly with mindless junk. One of the results of this is a wealth of great motion pictures in January and this year is no exception with five excellent films. All of these are contenders for the industry's biggest prize, the academy's best picture Oscar.
First of all, there is Barry Levinson's (Rain Man) offering entitled Wag the Dog. Starring Dustin Hoffman (Outbreak, Hook) and Robert DeNiro (Goodfellas, Godfather II) as a Hollywood producer and an underhanded campaign manager, respectively, it is perhaps the year's best political satire. Shot in just 29 days (no small feat as many an industry representative will attest), it is of astounding quality with a cynical view of media manipulation which smells frighteningly realistic in light of Bill Clinton's recent problems.
The folks at Gracie Films have also put together a wonderful romantic comedy, by far topping their offering last year of Jerry Maguire. This time, James L. Brooks (producer of The Simpsons, Jerry Maguire) takes the director's chair to bring us As Good As It Gets, starring Jack Nicholson as a grinch-like obsessive-compulsive, and Helen Hunt as the waitress with whom he finds himself, unconsciously, falling in love. Nicholson pulls off a tremendous performance in a smart, funny, and heart-warming film which, while owing some elements to the Maguire format (single mom, etc.), goes light-years beyond it in terms of quality with a fascinating, quirky cast.
Another romance now playing is James Cameron's (True Lies) Titanic, a film which is exactly that in every sense of the word. The scope of the film is amazing, and the audience's breath is easily taken away by the faith and skill with which Cameron replicates the disaster in the film's second half, and the touching (while fictional) romance in the first. The film, which cost an estimated 200 million dollars and involved the construction of a nine-tenths model of the ill-fated ship, was shot in a specially made 64 million litre studio in Mexico, and is an example of how big-budget Hollywood ought to work combining all of the best the industry has to offer.
Once again this year, Steven Spielberg (Schindler's List, The Lost World) creates a strong contender in Amistad, a story of slavery in the first half of the nineteenth century. The plot includes a lengthy legal proceeding, spearheaded by property lawyer Matthew McConaughey, (Contact, A Time to Kill), as the abolitionists try to secure the slaves freedom. The large cast of the film means that some of the actors we would like to see more of, such as Morgan Freeman and Anthony Hopkins, are made insignificant. However, it does not take away from a powerful account which, while painted with something other than Spielberg's usual brush, is still moving. Finally, there is Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting, the product of a collaboration between Matt Damon (The Rainmaker) and Ben Affleck. It is the heartfelt tale of a young, though economically disadvantaged, genius (Damon) who slacks off, gets in trouble with the police, and works as a janitor who solves the trickiest of math proofs in his spare time. Fiercely independent, he doesn't care what he says or who his words hurt. As a condition of his parole, he must meet with a psychologist (Robin Williams) who must provide stability in a life out of control. Of the five, it is definitively the best written and also the most poignant.
These are all four-star films, truly the pick of the crop of 1997, a welcome sight at the theatre after such disappointments as The Lost World, Gattaca, Bean, The Postman and, especially, Seven Years in Tibet. All are so outstanding in their own genre that it is difficult to choose. However, if forced, I would extend my praise to Cameron's Titanic with Good Will Hunting and As Good As it Gets as close seconds. Titanic has the best of both worlds. Yes, it is big-budget Hollywood but it is also superbly directed and, while unoriginal in terms of writing, will likely figure well at this year's Oscars. And its release date, originally scheduled for July, was put off until December in true artistic style! In conclusion, we of the planet Earth have been truly blessed with some spectacular filmmaking talent this year. Keep up the good work, Hollywood!