As Good as it Gets - Three people strike an unusual friendship after one of them is robbed and beaten nearly to death. What follows is an engrossing and rich dramedy that offers a panoply of powerhouse performances that showcase the talents of the cast as they weave from comedy to drama. The script is strong and richly defines the characters. Jack Nicholson plays the part of a embittered bigot insanely well, but manages to find the nugget of humanity within the character so as to make him not wholly repugnant and offers glimmers of inner human decency. Helen Hunt gives a career best performance as the romantic lead of the film. I had seen both of those performers give strong performances before, for me Greg Kinnear was the big surprise. When this movie came out, I could not believe that the Talk Soup guy had it in him. He plays his part with vulnerability and hits the dramatic beats exceptionally well.
Chasing Amy - Kevin Smith writes and directs a film that is often thought of as one of the two movies wherein Ben Affleck woos a lesbian (the other being Gigli), but that is a huge oversimplification. The premise of 'guy falls in love with a lesbian' is a punchline and a dated, somewhat deplorable one at that. No, this is a film that is actually about male sexual insecurity. The criticism this film faces (particularly in recent years) is that it opts for the the least interesting character to center focus the story on (one that Smith would go on to later acknowledge in Jay and Silent Bob Reboot). Alyssa Jones would be a more interesting perspective as she is the lesbian in question that begins to fall for Ben Affleck of all people. Or Banky who it is heavily implied is nursing a loving interest for his best friend Holden. That, too, would make for an interesting perspective about navigating sexual identity. I don't find this criticism to hold much water because, while a film set around the perspectives of Alyssa or Banky would be interesting and something I would like to see, the film was never really about sexual identity, but rather sexual insecurity. Holden is made an interesting main character because it is rare to see a male in a sexually vulnerable position and his reaction to that vulnerability is what causes the movie to play out as it does and carry with it an important message.
Smith had been given great praise for his dialogue and gritty filmmaking aesthetic when he debuted Clerks, but when his first Hollywood film Mallrats bombed there was some question as to his credibility. What this film proves is that Smith can make a fine film and is an excellent writer when he has something personal to say. It is not lost on me that the film's title character is a artist who discovers great and swift fame but is petrified of selling out and thus ditches his 'dick and fart joke' material in favor of writing a personal story about love from a distinctly male perspective. Smith had something to prove with this film and he brought it from a very personal place. He was trying to work out his own inner insecurities both as a filmmaker and personal insecurities in his love life and what comes of it is one incredibly strong screenplay. The film hits its comedic scenes well and the opening bit about the 'tracer' is laugh out loud funny. It is the dramatic scenes that feel incredibly raw and straight up palpable. The performances from Ben Affleck, Jason Lee and Joey Lauren Adams are fantastic and I maintain that the latter two were robbed of Oscar nominations (as was Smith's screenplay for that matter). Just check out this scene and tell me that they are not exceptionally performed and written.
The film has several scenes that have this level of power in writing and performance. There is a lovely subplot with one of their friends played by Dwight Ewell is a strong and largely unsung performance, that really adds texture to the film. And Jay and Silent Bob show up for what might be their strongest piece of work. Mewes is fun as ever, but it is Smith who really delivers in the scene. Needless to say, this is what I consider to be the best picture of 1997 and the best film that Smith has made.
Good Will Hunting - Chasing Amy may not have earned Affleck and Oscar but he did not go home empty handed that year. Both Ben Affleck and Matt Damon won the Oscar for their screenplay for this fine film (produced by Kevin Smith). The film finds a young genius wasting away in his hometown when he has so much potential. His potential is wasted in angry brawls and fear of taking the next step that plagues many young people on the precipice of greatness. A wise psychologist is able to bring this gifted young man to see he is worthy of a better life. Robin Williams gives an incredible performance as the psychologist and Matt Damon is wonderful. Minnie Driver also acts as a guiding force in Will's life and adds a strong presence to the film. Affleck has the strongest scene with Damon where the two get real with each other about how Will is wasting his life. This is a strong film and shows off the talents of its stars as both actors but creative forces behind the camera.
L.A. Confidential - A wonderful crime thriller and modern day noir that hosts some spectacular performances and strong camera work. The film escalates its sense of tension wonderfully and really sells the last 20 minutes. Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger shine in the film. This is one of the finest mystery/thrillers of the 1990's.
Scream 2 - Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson continue their dissection of the horror genre and in doing so make a movie that is almost as good as the first film. A copycat killer has set their sight on Sidney just as the release of the movie based on the murders in the first film debuts. Some people think Gale might be involved as she is an opportunist and might be fashioning a real life sequel. Others think that the killer may be from her hometown looking to finish what was started. The who-dun-it game is strong with this one, but the ultimate reveal is fairly easy to figure out if you pay attention (they practically telegraph the identity of the killer). What makes this film really gel is how it dissects the nature of sequelizing a film and the film pokes holes in the concept of the sequel as a petty cash grab, sighting that the few sequels that work do so because they have something important to contribute. This film does step up because it also uses the killer's motivation to attack how the media covers true-crime, as well as how the media often points the finger of blame at media violence when the ultimate staging of blame may be a little closer to home. Like with the first film, the cast is great. The dynamic of the survivors from part one is great and they all shine in their roles but it is newcomers Timothy Olyphant, Jerry O'Connell and Liev Schreiber that really elevate the film. I also like how this film really places focus on elevating character. There is a major theatrical production that is placed in the center of this film that could easily be lifted out but it is left in because it advances Sidney's character. Few horror films can say that. Lastly, the clips from the movie within the movie are fabulously bad, littered with celeb cameos and all directed by Robert Rodriguez who was supposed to direct the first Scream. The level of meta this film gets is staggering.
Best Picture & Biggest Box Office : Titanic - James Cameron made waves with this film that remained the highest grossing film of all time for 12 years until Cameron dethroned himself with Avatar. Half historical epic chronicling the tragedy of the Titanic, and half coming of age romance, Titanic genuinely delivers. It could not have done so without the star power of Leonardo DiCarpio and Kate Winslet. The two are magnetic. Winslet, particularly, gives a refined and breathtaking performance. The love story is passionate and palpable. When the film turns to action, Cameron outdoes himself in delivering some of the most intense and powerful sequences of disaster carnage. This movie earns its accolades.