This time of year, for some reason, all the critics publish their "Best of 1997" lists, ranking their favorite books, movies, albums, and other cultural fare. Slate's editors thought it only fitting to use this special installment of "Summary Judgment" to summarize the Best of everyone's Best of lists--a year-end review of the year-end reviews.
Critics pronounce 1997 a landmark year, studded with career-topping masterworks by literary giants such as Don DeLillo, Cynthia Ozick, Thomas Pynchon, and Philip Roth. Mason & Dixon, Pynchon's epic about the 18th-century surveyors of America, tops most lists. "A book of heart, fire and genius," says the New York Times Book Review. More controversial is Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, a surprise best seller about a Civil War deserter, which, to the dismay of many critics, beat out DeLillo's Underworld for the National Book Award. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post weekly book reviews all leave it off their lists, but Entertainment Weekly considers it the best of a "banner year for adventure stories." (See Slate's reviews of Ozick, Pynchon, Roth, and Frazier.)
Reviewers single out Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, an account of a disastrous and deadly Mount Everest expedition, among the year's best nonfiction. Otherwise, no consensus emerges. The weekly book reviews like such highbrow biographies as Hermione Lee's Virginia Woolf (the New York Times Book Review) and Jorge Castañeda's Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara (Richard Eder, the Los Angeles Times). Other reviewers fill their lists with celebrity memoirs, especially Mia Farrow's What Falls Away--a trend some critics bemoan. "Why not pay real writers to write?" Time grumbles. (Slate reviews Lee's book and Farrow's memoir.)
The neo-noir detective flick L.A. Confidential, based on a James Ellroy novel, crowns most reviewers' 10-best lists. It alone "truly exceeded its advance hype," says People. Canadian director Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, about a school-bus accident, also impresses critics, winning him plaudits as a "postmodern Hitchcock" (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly). Other favorites include Donnie Brasco, The Wings of the Dove, and Face/Off, while the well-reviewed Boogie Nights and Titanic both fail to make many lists. Looking back on '97, critics lament the ubiquity of disaster movies, mindless screenplays, and actor Robin Williams, who, Time magazine says, is waging "a campaign to suck our affection for him to its marrow." (See Slate's reviews of L.A. Confidential, The Sweet Hereafter, Donnie Brasco, The Wings of the Dove, Boogie Nights, and Titanic.)
In a "year dominated by generic" acts and "studio creations" (Robert Hilburn, the Los Angeles Times), critics declare Bob Dylan's comeback album Time Out of Mind and diva Erykah Badu's debut Baduizm the best of the bunch. Badu, "the most thrilling new voice in pop" (Time), wins praise for bucking genres (she blends soul, jazz, and hip-hop) and writing edgy lyrics. Critics also declare 1997--dominated by the Spice Girls--as the "year of the woman" in rock: "Never in pop history have female singers been quite so aggressively, shrewdly marketed on the basis of gender alone" (Karen Schoemer, Newsweek).
Ellen's coming out is hailed as the year's highlight, a "seminal moment" in television history (Howard Rosenberg, the Los Angeles Times). Critics say the sitcom was witless and pointless until it focused on its main character's sexuality; "[e]ver since ... it has radiated with the sheer joy of creative freedom" (Entertainment Weekly). Critics also lavish praise on the animated Fox sitcom King of the Hill, the latest series from Beavis and Butt-Head creator Mike Judge. Its protagonist, a red-neck propane salesman, is deemed the heir to Roseanne and Archie Bunker. Another favorite is WB's tongue-in-cheek action series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, about a 15-year-old super-heroine: "A postfeminist parable on the challenge of balancing one's personal and work life" (Time).
Top honors go to the Riven--an upgrade to the best-selling computer game of all time, Myst--about a person marooned on an island. "Big, bloody and beautiful," says Time. High marks also go to the postcard-sized Palm Pilot, a computer that retrieves e-mail and reads handwriting. Reviewers excoriate Digital Pets, a noisy, interactive version of the 1970s fad the Pet Rock. Digital Pets are labeled the year's worst innovation and a "nightmare for teachers and parents drafted to babysit" (People).
Recent "Summary Judgment" columns
Television--Ally McBeal (Fox);
Art--"Gianni Versace" (Metropolitan Museum of Art);
Architecture--Museum of Modern Art (New York City);
Book--Hogarth: A Life and a World, by Jenny Uglow.
Movie--Good Will Hunting;
Television--Breast Men (HBO);
Theater--The Diary of Anne Frank;
Book--A Certain Justice, by P.D. James.
Architecture--J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles);
Theater--The Old Neighborhood, by David Mamet;
Movie--Welcome to Sarajevo;
Television--Public Housing (PBS);
Book--Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age, by Esther Dyson;
Photography--"Weegee's World: Life, Death, and the Human Drama" (International Center of Photography Midtown).
Movie--Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil;
Movie--John Grisham's The Rainmaker;
Book--Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader, by Dinesh D'Souza;
Music--Standing Stone, by Paul McCartney.