On the fringes

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

In Hollywood, writer-director Garson Kanin's wonderful book of film-biz reminiscences, Kanin tells of a mortifying incident in the career of John Forsythe. In the early '50s, the young actor, while working on a film, entertained his colleagues with a Bogart impression. When the great star visited Forsythe's set one day, onlookers insisted that Forsythe repeat his imitation, though neither man was particularly enthusiastic about the idea. At the end of Forsythe's shtick, Bogart scowled at him and said, "Kid, one of us stinks."

That's pretty much how I feel about 1997's crop of films: Could they really have been that mediocre, or was I just in an ornery mood? It's hard to say. But one of us is in bad shape.

In either case, seeing 200-plus films was a more dispiriting experience this year than in any of my previous 12 years as a critic. There were some pretty good films, but nothing great. Most of the most interesting work came from independents; on the fringes, there were a number of intriguing ultra-low-budget productions and foreign films that found their ways to domestic screens for the first time--many of which bore copyright dates from as long ago as 1994.

The qualification rules for my list are a liberal version of the Academy's rules for Oscar eligibility: Films must have opened in Los Angeles commercially during the calendar year (after all, some of the year's best films don't make it to Dallas, or many other major markets, for months) and must have played for a week--unless there's something I really love that doesn't quite qualify.

The usual cautions apply: These are my choices for best, which generally--but not always--coincide with my favorites. The list has shifted several times in the making and is likely to shift (in my head) again. By tomorrow morning, I could hate them all.

L.A. Confidential. Curtis Hanson's breakthrough film has its flaws, but it's a solid police thriller, elevated by uniformly terrific performances. Hanson and co-screenwriter Brian Helgeland may have trimmed down and simplified the plot of James Ellroy's novel, but it's hard to imagine a more complicated story remaining coherent on the screen. Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Kim Basinger, and James Cromwell (proving again that he's not limited to Farmer Hoggett roles) are all unforgettable. There's one slightly cheap device near the conclusion--involving the mortality of a central character--that is unworthy of the rest of the picture, but it's not enough to sour the impact of the whole.

Lost Highway. OK, so most of the world hated this one. Sure, it made no rational sense: This is a David Lynch film, for cryin' out loud. But, for the first time since Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, America's premier surrealist was doing material that seems to really have sprung from his soul. Lost Highway is nowhere as perfect as Blue Velvet, but it does take us to a frightening, skewed world that only Lynch could have imagined. It's a fascinating trip, one that I gleefully took three or four times. And Lynch continues to be the only film artist currently working who seems to understand the full power of the medium: His use of sound, music, narrative disruptions, and special effects is far more interesting than that of anyone else out there.

Schizopolis. Steven Soderbergh's low-budget personal project is the best thing he's done since sex, lies, and videotape--maybe the best thing he's done, period. Schizopolis is essentially the comedy equivalent of Lost Highway, a portrait of complete psychological disintegration as seen from the inside. (Given that neither Soderbergh nor Lynch could have seen each other's film in time, it's amazing how many plot elements the two works share.) It's also one of the few recent films to embrace and celebrate the liberating influence of Richard Lester's '60s and '70s work. At first glance, Schizopolis may seem like no more than a grab-bag of tricks and gimmicks, but repeat viewings reveal a more coherent pattern.

Face/Off. After the relative disappointments of Hard Target and Broken Arrow, John Woo finally gets to strut his stuff in a Hollywood film. All his trademark elements are present in Face/Off--not just the usual jazzy pyrotechnics, but heightened melodrama, great performances, and genuine emotional content. John Travolta and Nicolas Cage are both obviously having the times of their lives in their Jekyll-and-Hyde roles. It's a vindication of Woo that his most Woo-ish Hollywood film has also proved to be by far his biggest hit.

Men in Black. Even by the standards of the director of the Addams Family films, Men in Black is shallow--but gloriously so. Barry Sonnenberg's special effects extravaganza is nearly perfect commercial entertainment--with a witty script from Ed Solomon, winning performances from Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, and an exhausting pace.

Happy Together. I've had my ups and downs with the work of Wong Kar-Wai, the least typical of Hong Kong directors. He's arty, pretentious, slow as molasses, and utterly unconcerned with his audience. But when his stuff works, it achieves a degree of mood and feeling that few directors can rival. While it lacks the pleasures of Chungking Express, still his best film, Happy Together is a one-of-a-kind portrait of a disintegrating relationship: It practically aches with a sense of loss, regret, and missed opportunities.

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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