The most difficult cut I've ever made to a Movie Bowl field was cutting Starship Troopers from the 1997 tournament.
Now, the selection process for this most hallowed of pop-culture tournaments is based on a willfully-obtuse college football-style alchemy that uses, to quote the literature, “a mix of box office performance, awards performance, critical reception, long-term popularity, and a vague secret sauce [we're] calling 'canonization'.” A certain level of teeth-pulling and WTF-ness is expected and even encouraged. I've put together 24 Movie Bowl brackets thus far, and 1997 might have been the hardest field to whittle down to 16 participants, save maybe 1987. And to my great chagrin as a cinephile and as the commissioner of this enterprise, Paul Verhoeven's satirical sci-fi masterpiece, one of the all-time great media literacy litmus tests, will be on the outside looking in. With RoboCop losing to The Princess Bride in 1987 and Basic Instinct not even making the field in 1992, this was perhaps the great Dutch provocateur's last real shot at Movie Bowl gold. Unless, that is, the 1990 tournament comes around and people forget how good Goodfellas is. This is one of the many agonies of the Movie Bowl.
So yes, Starship Troopers will be absent from our field. As well as The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Gattaca, and Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, all of which made it to the last round of cuts.
Here's a rundown of the 16 movies in the field.
I. TITANIC, DUH
There's no way Big Jim Cameron (director of the 1984 Movie Bowl winner The Terminator) wasn't claiming the 1-seed. Titanic won more Oscars than I have fingers, had a stellar (ongoing?) half-life in the zeitgeist, and made more money than God. Not even the colossal Titanic Hangover of the early 2000s is enough to pry its ass off pole position. Hell, even Cameron was sick of Titanic: he didn't make a narrative feature for nearly a decade, at which point the whole cycle began anew with Avatar (what is it with Cameron taking on projects so arduous he steps away for years after making them?).
But now, removed from the hype and the Celine Dion and the Leo-mania of it, Titanic can be seen for what it is: a weepie of the highest order spot-welded to a fucking masterclass in disaster film directing by one of the best to ever do it. I am long due for a rewatch.
II. HOW MUCH ANIME DO I WANT IN THIS DAMN THING?
Let me get ahead of this: The End of Evangelion is one of the great movies of the 90s... but you need to watch the series to get the full effect of it: the story, the characters, the context. If you go in cold, like I foolishly did as a budding weeb in high school, you're just watching a free-associative psychosexual mech apocalypse with weapons-grade bad vibes. When Shinji Ikari [REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT] at the top of the movie, it needs to mean something beyond the immediate ick factor. Sorry, nerds, End of Eva joins Starship Troopers on the margins of the big dance. Not terrible company to be in.
Man, talk about a bad vibes double feature. If you ever want to obliterate your soul, now you know how.
But fear not! If you absolutely need that double dose of psychosexual anguish and deep self-loathing in the form of an animated film from Japan, you're in luck! Because Perfect Blue also came out in 1997. I've got a custom marble bust on my mantle of my Mount Rushmore of non-Ghibli anime directors: it goes Masaaki Yuasa (motherfucking Mind Game y'all), Mamoru Hosoda (I'm still a Summer Wars guy), Makoto Shinkai (if his movies don't make you weep, check your pulse), and the late, great Satoshi Kon, a mind-bending visual stylist who never met a reality he couldn't warp with the power of dream logic and subjective perception. Perfect Blue is the darkest of his movies, an entertainment-industry thriller where jealousies erupt, identities blur, and realities break down. Pair it up with Brian De Palma's Body Double and make a fucked-up evening out of it.
But there is a single word that can make any Movie Bowl participant quake in place, and that word is Ghibli. The venerable animation studio has already produced two Movie Bowl winners (1988's My Neighbor Totoro and 2001's Spirited Away, the latter of which also won the inaugural Movie Bowl Tournament of Champions) and is well on its way to claiming its third title with Princess Mononoke. Like, how do you plan against Ghibli? What defence could possibly contain this onslaught? Like, is there a more universally-loved director than Hayao Miyazaki? Maybe John Carpenter. But consider this: for my money, Miyazaki's worst movie (or least heralded, anyway) is Porco Rosso, and that's still a pretty good movie that's head and shoulders above at least a couple of Carpenter's biggest whiffs. Carpenter and Miyazaki both have celestial ceilings, but the latter has the higher floor. That quality control, coupled with a strong visual style and a deep and resonant emotional core, is part of the reason Studio Ghibli is a Movie Bowl juggernaut. I see no reason for this to stop being true here, hence the name of this post.
For good or ill, the Movie Bowl is America-centric, in part because film discourse is very America-centric. Part of the selection process factors in international festival prizes, but nothing helps non-American films break through more than being released by the Criterion Collection. Why them? Well, at the risk of sounding reductive, people watch those movies. They're readily available to buy and stream, so more people watch them, so more people talk about them, so more people have heard of them. It's a cinephilic feedback loop. That said, I understand that a single company like Criterion (an American company, no less) shouldn't have this much pull in the world of art film distribution. But for our purposes, I want the people playing along at home to have at least heard of these. What good is it to include a movie like, say, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure only for it to get bodied in the first round?
That said, if I were making this bracket a year from now, Cure could probably sneak into the field not just on its sterling reputation as one of the great horror movies of the 90s, but thanks to a shiny new release on the best-known boutique label on the planet. But for now, three participants fall under the category of Criterion-core: Funny Games from Austria, Happy Together from Hong Kong, and Taste of Cherry from Iran.
I suppose if we really want to get down to it, Lost Highway (the opening salvo of David Lynch's L.A. Is Hell, Actually Trilogy) and The Game (in which Michael Douglas LARPs a spy thriller, which is exactly as sick as it sounds) are also in the Collection. But I'm a simple bracketologist: I see a film by David Lynch or David Fincher on the master list, I put it in the field. Usually. Sorry, Alien 3.
If we really want to get pedantic about this, Criterion put out a laserdisc of Boogie Nights at one point. It just hasn't made the jump to the smaller discs.
IV. THE NIC CAGE POST-OSCAR ACTION TRILOGY, PTS. 2 AND 3
In 1996, in a move that baffled stuffed shirts but delighted sickos like yours truly, Nicolas Cage cashed in the clout and goodwill his Best Actor Oscar afforded him and proceeded to star in three of the era's most iconic and enduring action movies in a row. Two of them would come out in 1997: the gleefully crass high-concept plane heist joint Con Air and the gleefully absurd high-concept cop thriller Face/Off, also known as the finest moment of John Woo's 90s American tour. Both are included here, even if I don't like Con Air as much as some of my esteemed colleagues. But respect must be paid to one of the great post-Oscar flexes by a performer in living memory, even if I'm not even sure if Con Air gets past Titanic in the first round.
Con Air might have the edge by being leaner (read: shorter) and meaner (read: 90s edgelord shit).
V. THE REST
- If you can make it past the first five minutes of L.A. Confidential and not cringe too hard at the presence of a certain disgraced actor, you'll find there's still a really good movie in there.
- Good Will Hunting is in this tournament; here's your reminder that Ben Affleck has two Academy Awards, and neither is for acting or directing.
- Jackie Brown is so good that most Tarantino haters will cite it as the one of his they can stand.
- I considered cutting The Fifth Element because Luc Besson is very bad at making life decisions but I also knew that if I cut it, you fucking dorks would call for my head. A beloved movie can be directed by an unbeloved person; after all, film is a collaborative medium. Also, did y'all know that Milla Jovovich released a diet Kate Bush album a few years before she was Leeloo? The 90s!
- Men in Black still kind of kicks ass, right? Also, I've heard it said that actors watch Vincent D'Onofrio in this the same way you or I watch dunk compilations on YouTube: just total slack-jawed awe at the physical display.