I'll dispense with proper opening commentary, instead making whatever points I need to about "Film: The Year That Was 1997" as I go along. Those interested in "rules" and such would be advised to consult my 1994 Top Ten List. Oh, the number in parentheses following each film is the number of times I've seen the film as of this writing.
It more or less seems to have become a tradition in the past three years for me to award the top spot on my list to a film so blatantly falling outside my "pool of eligibility." 1995 offered a pretty serious violation with Les amants du Pont-Neuf, which not only sported a 1991 copyright, but didn't even benefit from a theatrical screening in Chicago -- it still hasn't -- and was something I just happened to catch on video. Slightly less perverse in the latter regard, The Decalogue finally made the rounds of projection booths in the US in 1996, but a shocking *eight years* after its making! Some people (i.e., my pal Mike D'Angelo) were outraged (i.e., we've had recurrent friendly debates on the topic) at such ridiculously ill-dated inclusions. But such were those years, veritable cinematic wastelands, that I felt a need in both cases to "make a statement," mostly about terrible film distribution in this country, but also as a testament to the towering greatness of those two films.
All fine and good. But why, you ask, is it necessary to once again violate the rules? Well, it isn't really, except in one important respect. From my perspective, 1997 was actually a pretty good year film-wise -- I even had a disastrous (purely internal, of course) infatuation with this girl showing up at Facets every night during the Francesco Rosi retrospective who turned out to be none other than Irene Jacob in town for the shooting of U.S. Marshals; painful at the time, but worth a couple of laughs now -- with a whole slew of worthy contenders for this list. But while I would rank 1997 as easily the best overall year for film since 1994, I found it lacking when it came to Great Films. Plenty of Damn Good Films, for sure, but rather short on for-all-timers. And that, of course, is where A Brighter Summer Day comes in, admittedly dragging a 1991 copyright with it, but premiering in Chicago last year (in its complete 4-hour cut and with the director in person) as part of the terrific Edward Yang series at the Film Center. (Incidentally, some other awesome, fairly comprehensive retrospectives to make their way to Chicago last year included ones on Kenji Mizoguchi, Buster Keaton, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.)
A Brighter Summer Day is set in Taipei over the course of a school year in 1960-61, and focuses on the first generation of children growing up after the 1949 exile of their parents from the Mainland. Though, of course, some of it is over the head of this Western viewer, the film is rich in commentary on the confusion and uncertainty that perpetually haunts the Taiwanese identity as a result of this exile. (Yang's later, and also brilliant, A Confucian Confusion -- his own English-language title for the film -- continues the examination into the 90's, mixing in the effects of the rapid, 20-year rise of Taiwan as a world-class economic power.) Centered around the character of Xiao S'ir (a nickname which in ideograms looks something like a smiley-face), A Brighter Summer Day follows the various exploits of a wide-ranging cast of vividly-drawn characters (which also include, as Jonathan Rosenbaum aptly points out, "a samurai sword, an old radio, a tape recorder, an Elvis Presley song, and a stolen flashlight"), all leading up to a climactic murder apparently drawn from a real event that occurred during Yang's youth.
Of course, I can't begin to do justice to the film; these comments are far too lame a springboard for that. Also, one of the things I've noticed about Yang's films is the way they *absolutely demand* multiple viewings for further appreciation and comprehension. Impressive on first viewing, A Brighter Summer Day's epic, novelistic sweep was doubly so on a second viewing, where it was much easier to follow who the various characters were and what their agendas were. But that doesn't mean I've even begun to scratch the surface as to all the implications of events. Immensely satisfying over the course of two viewings, ABSD will have much to offer me in the future, I suspect.
There may be no such thing as a "perfect film," but for my money Chris Smith's American Job, in terms of execution and achievement of ambition, came closer than any other 1997 film. (We'll overlook the fact that it was really made in 1995, and hasn't yet benefited from proper distribution channels. It appeared with three other films, including The Delicate Art of the Rifle [see below], as part of the Fuel Film Tour at Facets in October.) Made for probably less than 1/10,000th of the cost of the #10 film on my list, American Job is a stunningly brilliant look at a milieu that most of us have at one time or another flirted with: the minimum-wage job. Feeling at times almost like a documentary, American Job so acutely captures the environment and its people that it transcends its apparent light-hearted surface, and becomes a profound commentary on and a testament to those individuals permanently bound to the lifestyle (of which the filmmakers themselves have confessed to being a part). Benefiting from assured direction and expert editing, the film also features one of the most apt performances of the year by Randy Russell, who also co-authored the screenplay. As the passive, aimless, ambitionless Randy (also the character's name), drifting from job to job to job, Russell's deadpan-yet-amiable performance is, like the film itself, as close to perfection as I can imagine. It's been four months since I saw the film (twice, two days apart), and I still vividly recall it, almost better than the film I saw earlier today, actually. And the ending -- quiet, understated, perfect -- resonates whenever I walk out of a convenience store or fast food restaurant.