Titanic (1997 USA)
Titanic is my generation's Gone with the Wind, a sweeping epic of an awful event unfolding on a grand state with nothing less than survival at stake. I much prefer the James Cameron of True Lies and T2 and I still think Titanic was wildly overrated when it came out, but after watching it yet again last night, there are aspects of it that have not only endured, but have flourished.
I saw it the night that it came out in a movie theater in Ponca City, Oklahoma with a close friend, his sister and her friend, and we couldn't quit laughing, to the point that people who bought into the story were glaring at us and even hissing. At one point the lady in front of us told us to shut up or get out, so we did our best to muffle our howls at the terrible dialogue; the one-dimensional cruelty of Billy Zane's Cal, the wealthy man Rose (Kate Winslet) is set to marry; and yes, the Celine Dione song "My Heart Will Go On" in all of its cheesy earnestness.
Personally, I loathe all but the most spare uses of irony and I abhor sarcasm, but 1997 was peak Irony Age, and Titanic was as earnest as virgin drinking a glass of whole milk in a soda fountain. Cameron's attention to detail went full-blown madman in Titanic, its $200 million cost thought surely to sink it, yet it of course went on to become the biggest movie of all-time, something for which Cameron seems to have a knack. Cameron's fanatacism regarding historical accuracy in his sets decor, colors and scale are now the stuff of legend, and even if you are like me and giggle at the silly first half of the film, it's difficult to not be impressed by its crescendo at the end.
Leonardo DiCaprio was a quickly-rising star - he'd had multiple notable roles, including going Full-Retard in What's Eating Gilbert Grape and the Latin-infused take on Romeo & Juliet - but I doubt even he was prepared for the avalanche of publicity and fame that was awaiting him the moment he drifts to the bottom of the freezing ocean. He used it as a springboard for both fame and money, and most notably starting a professional relationship with Martin Scorsese that has spanned several excellent films and memorable roles.
DiCaprio was a known quantity, having been readily appearing on American TV and movie screens for more than a decade by the time he played Jack, but Kate Winslet was an unknown for most American film-goers; she'd had several roles, but the only notables preceding Titanic were roles in Hamlet and Heavenly Creatures, the latter of which being her best-known work pre-Titanic. Now, as I noted in my review of The Mountain Between Us, she's regarded as arguably the best actress of her generation.
What's particularly impressive about seeing Titanic nearly 20 years to the day after having originally seen it is how quickly-paced it is for a three-hour movie. I've been re-watching sections of the new Barry Lyndon BluRay Criterion, and it can be painfully so, and was intended that way. Tarksovsky said of Stalker he would have made the front section of his masterpiece even more dull so as to rid the theater of people who didn't really want to see it in the first place. Cameron has no such designs - the film literally never misses a beat, as there's not a slow or dull moment to be had. From the poker game that lands Jack on the doomed ship to the flat characterizations of Cal, Rose's mother and several other antagonists, the film moves at a breathtaking pace making it anything but boring.
Like Michael Bay, Cameron has little interest in pleasing critics or snobs. He makes highly entertaining movies on a grand scale, and like Bay, he is very good at what he does. I still think T2 is his magnum opus, but Titanic is its own special kind of gem.