During an evening commute through LA traffic, a friend and I listened to a podcast featuring screenwriter C. Robert Cargill (“Sinister”). In the episode, the writer briefly mentioned that if it weren’t for “Titanic,” 1997 would be considered a great year for films—up there with 1977, 1999, and 2008. Once the episode was over, my friend had me guess which films came out in 1997. With all my guesses, I only nailed “Men in Black,” mainly because I distinctly remember going to see that film.
Today, when people think of “Titanic,” they associate the monumental achievements made by Cameron’s film in both awards and profit, holding the record for most Oscars. Overtime, as films became more accessible via growing home video platforms, a lot older films became rediscovered, many from 1997.
As a result, I decided to make this fun list that picks films from 1997 that are somewhat recognized and beloved today by audiences of all kinds. That means this list will feature something in genre films, arthouse, foreign, and mainstream—something for everyone. With the exception of the top pick, the titles aren’t ranked necessarily by quality.
Instead, I ranked them based on critical retrospectives, awards, and the shock value mirroring the sentiment of “really? that came out in 1997?” based on many Amazon and IMDB user reviews. I will admit, however, that the top five are films are ones that I think are absolute essentials, features that everyone should see.
I figure this list will mostly apply to younger readers, or people terrible with remembering release dates. I know that in my attempt to include a diverse selection of titles that I edged out some other films, so definitely let me know in the comments below!
25. Men in Black (dir. Barry Sonnenfield)
Barry Sonnenfield’s “Men in Black” was a fresh take on the buddy-cop genre that many loved and enjoyed. Starring Tommy Lee Jones and breakout star Will Smith, “Men in Black” is a science-fiction comedy in which the former recruits the latter in joining a secret agency tasked to regulate and protect the Earth from extraterrestrial beings.
While the two have some surprisingly effective chemistry, the film also has a stellar supporting cast, featuring Rip Torn, Linda Fiorentino, and the scene-stealing Vincent D’Onofrio as the memorable bug leader. “Men in Black” also boasts some great special effects and some fun set-pieces.
Unlike the two sequels to follow, the original film hardly has any issue with the pacing and moves along well. I would even go far as to argue that the single released for this is also pretty catchy, being from a time when soundtrack singles for movies were a bigger deal outside a Disney film. Do people also remember they based a cartoon off this as well?
24. Live Flesh (dir. Pedro Almodovar)
Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar’s workman-like schedule of directing films in his career has provided the man several titles per decade since his feature-film debut in the early-1980s. 1997 happened to the be the year when Almodovar’s “Live Flesh” was released.
Starring Javier Bardem, Francesca Neri, and Liberto Rabal, “Live Flesh” is a love-triangle melodrama that infuses elements from Spanish cinema and Douglas Sirk—a formula that’s now signature Almodovar. Rabal plays a youth who gets released from prison, only to see the object of his affection (Neri) with the man he accidentally shot years prior (Bardem).
What’s distinctive of “Live Flesh” from Almodovar’s other melodramas is that the film centers around heterosexual males as opposed to the female perspective that dominates Almodovar’s filmography. Despite all that, “Live Flesh” fits nicely with his other films mainly because he uses male perspective to inform both genders about the female perspective/experience. Despite the over eroticism of the film, “Live Flesh” manages to actually close on a poignant, emotional note.
23. Amistad (dir. Steven Spielberg)
In the 90s, the African-American slave narrative got the big-budget treatment in the form of Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad.” Featuring a cast of today’s biggest stars, “Amistad” follows the story of a group of Africans on trial in the United States after a mutiny led by a captive named Cinque (Djimon Hounsou).
Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Matthew McConaughey, and Nigel Hawthorne are among the many talented actors working in this film. While it wasn’t his first role, Djimon Hounsoun is amazing as the desperate yet tenacious Cinque, able to convey much of his psychology through his body and expressions. What makes “Amistad” really memorable are the scenes that show the experiences of Cinque and his shipmates.
Outside of pure exploitation films, “Amistad” films the actual journey of the “Amistad” with scale and attention. The unflinching look into dehumanizing treatment of the slaves onboard are some of the toughest to watch. While many will remember Hounsoun’s iconic moment in the courtroom, the way Spielberg shoots the slave experience is something truly unforgettable.
22. Funny Games (dir. Michael Haneke)
When it comes to arthouse filmmakers, many lack the prestige and craft of the award winning Michael Haneke. In 1997, he released “Funny Games,” the only film by the Austrian filmmaker to get an English-language remake.
Both versions are about a family on vacation who get approached by two young strangers named Paul and Peter. What starts as a kind introduction soon spirals into an absolute nightmare, as the family soon finds themselves captured and tortured by Paul and Peter, forced to participate in their twisted games.
Haneke has mentioned that both films are a reaction to the uncaring amount of violence that the filmmaker noticed in films. As a result, “Funny Games” is designed so that the violence is meant to provoke a reaction from the audience. It’s a clever way to approach the concept, and Haneke is mostly successful.
That said, much like Hanake’s other films, it’s not an easy film to watch. It feels like an endurance test, but “Funny Games” isn’t shy about it being one. Whether you watch the original or remake, there’s no denying that “Funny Games” is a visceral experience.
21. Selena (dir. Gregory Nava)
As far as music biopics go, “Selena” is one that doesn’t dwell on the specifics of her music. In telling the true-story of the late-Latin artists Selena Quintanilla-Perez, the film focuses primarily on her relationship with her family and colleagues, especially her father, played by the great Edward James Olmos.
Despite not concentrating on any particular album or era, “Selena” opts for more intimate moments in the performer’s life, like her marriage, for example. It’s that kind of honesty that connects with the audience on so many levels. That’s not saying there isn’t any music. The scenes in which Selena performs are beautifully shot, and Lopez completely transforms into the late-singer during those moments.
The film doesn’t dwell too much on her tragic passing, but does enough to be impactful. At the time, it would’ve only been a few years since her passing, so I imagine it really affected audiences—specifically her fans—quite hard. “Selena” is also quite memorable for not only boosting album sales—especially the soundtrack—but also spreading her music throughout the world, reaching people who I assume wouldn’t prior.
20. Fireworks (dir. Takeshi Kitano)
When it comes to Japanese crime films, the name and face of Takeshi Kitano comes immediately to mind. Recently, he’s returned to the genre with his “Outrage” films, expecting to complete a third in finishing his trilogy. In 1997, Kitano peaked with “Fireworks,” arguably one of the director’s best films and one of Japan’s best modern releases. Kitano plays a cop who struggles with depression following a botched operation and his wife’s terminal illness.
Gorgeously shot and featuring a beautiful score by composer Joe Hisaishi, “Fireworks” is a moody crime film that ditches high-octane action for emotion and atmosphere. There’s violence, but it’s hardly glamorized. Aside from being an actor and director, Kitano is also a painter and comedian.
While he saves the jokes for a film like “Kikujiro,” “Fireworks” does incorporate his paintings into the story in a creative manner. For fans of Asian crime films, I recommend “Fireworks,” along with films such as “Sonatine” and “Violent Cop.”
19. Children of Heaven (dir. Majid Majidi)
This Oscar-nominated film uses a family Iran to tell a universal tale about a little boy’s attempt to replace his little sister’s shoes after losing accidentally losing them. It’s not hard to see why this film was so highly regarded after it’s release. For starters, despite being a film centered around children, it’s a film for all ages.
“Children of Heaven” is intimate in its examination of the protagonist’s life in Tehran, but it’s an experience many audiences can share worldwide, especially when considering things such as poverty and familial bond. It’s been compared to films such as “Koyla,” “Cinema Paradiso,” and “The 400 Blows,” and several other films involving children.
Personally, it feels more like “Bicycle Thieves,” but all in all, “Children of Heaven” is a heartfelt example of cinema telling a pure story that has a globally profound effect. Many will argue that this should’ve taken best foreign film in 1997. One of the few categories “Titanic” couldn’t touch during the Oscars.
18. Insomnia (dir. Erik Skjoldbjærg)
“Insonmia” is a Norwegian police procedural starring Stellan Skarsgård, playing a Swedish police inspector who suffers the titular sleep disorder after a botched attempt to ensnare a murderer. Many people might’ve seen story in the form of Christopher Nolan’s remake starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams, but Nolan’s version doesn’t go beyond a well-made thriller.
The original film takes more chances with the formal elements, to the point in which some of the stylistic choices may seem dated. Still, it does lead to some really inspired set pieces. The chase scene that leads into the fog is probably one of the best uses—or in the protagonist’s case, misuse—of sound and spatial awareness that it’s both tense, clever, and thematically fitting.
It’s just awesome to see Skarsgård playing this type of role, completely different from his recent outings with Marvel as the crazy physicist in the “Thor” films. This moody cat-and-mouse film is simply a solid thriller, and those who haven’t seen “Insomnia” should check this out.