On the fringes

Most of the year's best films were from the outside looking in

Amistad. Steven Spielberg's latest plea to be taken seriously isn't as satisfying or subtle a work as Schindler's List, but it's still a creditable examination of a historical event that touches on the central hypocritical issue of American democracy. Despite a few excessive Spielberg moments--after all these years and all his success, Spielberg seems to feel that we won't get his point unless John Williams' music underlines it in triplicate--Amistad would be worth seeing merely for the opening 20-minute sequence and the slave-ship flashback, two brilliantly realized scenes with almost no dialogue.

Deconstructing Harry. Woody Allen still writes the funniest scripts in the business, but, ever since his public troubles five years ago, they are undermined by the inevitable comparisons to his private life. Deconstructing Harry is even more disturbingly self-referential than his last few films, since it centers around a self-referential writer. Allen may play the character as a schmuck--he even considered calling the movie The Worst Man in the World--but the film still comes off as an exculpatory plea.

Chasing Amy. After the debacle of his first studio film, Mallrats, Kevin Smith returned to his low-budget roots with the most believable twentysomething romantic comedy yet made. The cast and the dialogue were hilarious: Jason Lee's neurotic sidekick stole the show from stars Ben Affleck and Joey Lauren Adams. Except for a wretched plot development near the end, this was the best romantic comedy of the year.

Hercules. It's a discouraging sign that the best Disney animated feature since Aladdin somehow made less money than its three immediate predecessors. Disney's always been great at art and schmaltz and a good deal less adept at humor, but Hercules is truly funny. James Woods' villain is a voice-over performance that rivals Robin Williams' work in Aladdin; and the leading lady was the best Disney heroine since Belle in Beauty and the Beast.

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