Comfortably numb

The best films of '97 either provoked or entertained

Conspiracy Theory. Directed by Richard Donner, co-produced with him by Joel Silver (the pair created the Lethal Weapon franchise), and written by Brian Helgeland (co-writer of L.A. Confidential), the best of '97's summer movies gives slick a good name. It doesn't have the shock or originality of a classic like The Manchurian Candidate, but it doesn't deteriorate into a mass of effects either. The cogs interlock; the loose screws enhance rather than detract from the alternate-universe plausibility of the unhinged cabby hero, Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson), a paranoid whose delusions about government plots have a scary way of coming true.

The Designated Mourner. In David Hare's spare, absorbing version of Wallace Shawn's spiky, paradoxical stage play, Mike Nichols' portrait of an educated yet hollow and debased Everyman is a film-acting debut that makes other movie turns look like puny dry runs. He locks us into the melodious whining of the anti-hero, Jack, a "former student of English literature who went downhill from there." Jack, his wife Judy (Miranda Richardson), and her poet-intellectual father Howard (David de Keyser) describe both a marital and a political catastrophe--a crackdown on dissident thinkers in the unnamed country where the piece takes place. Judy and Howard become martyrs; Jack drops them at crisis-point. Together, they generate an apocalyptic heat.

Rough Magic. As she showed in her debut film, the seductively enchanting High Season (1987), director Clare Peploe knows how to use exotic locales to catalyze farce, mystery, and lovemaking. This comically haywire highwire act, set in the atomic '50s, is about magic as illusion and magic as genuine miracle, and it shuffles the two inventively. Bridget Fonda plays an L.A. magician's assistant who runs from her uranium-honcho fiance to Mexico, where she teams up with Alex Ross (Russell Crowe, also from L.A. Confidential), a Bogart-cynical reporter; and Doc Ansell (Jim Broadbent), a British quack on a quest for a mind-blowing Indian elixir. As the movie roves into the Mayan heartland, it generates a mystic aura.

Old Man. Arliss Howard gives a staggering performance as a convict who rescues a pregnant woman during the horrifying 1927 Mississippi flood. What starts as a mission of salvation becomes a picaresque adventure, as he and the woman (and soon her baby too) drift on and off the Mississippi River--the Old Man of the title--into uncharted swamps. This fellow is determined to bring his human bounty back and do good time. Dramatizing the sustaining power of an ordinary man's self-made ethic has defeated many an American writer, but in his original story, Faulkner did it without sentimentality or false rhetoric. And in John Kent Harrison's movie version, which premiered on the Hallmark Hall of Fame, the prisoner gets a taste of tenderness as he forges a bond with his traveling-mate. This may be a TV film, but it has a spaciousness and lift that belong on the big screen.

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