Comfortably numb

The best films of '97 either provoked or entertained

In 1997, both the big studios and the independents got stuck in their respective sewers of cliche--conflagrations, computer graphics, and crazy comedies on the one hand; on the other, dysfunctional families, kooky proles, and drop-outs.

Some of the most highly promoted and lauded films from either the big-studio or indie filmmakers, such as Titanic and Boogie Nights, turned out to be sorry excuses for "events." What I want from a Titanic movie, or from any reality-based disaster film, are the facts of life and death, and "the reasons why." That's what I got--unfortunately, not from James Cameron's $200 million mega-epic, but from rewatching the 1958 British black-and-white classic A Night to Remember, which calmly laid out the ship's misfortunes.

With nearly two additional hours of screen time, Cameron doesn't even touch on crucial elements that the British team conveyed as a matter of course: like the presence of another ship, the Californian, only 10 miles away, maddeningly oblivious to distress calls because 24-hour radio operation wasn't yet required. Cameron so single-mindedly wants to blame the ship's demise on upper-crust arrogance and sloppiness--on the owner's determination to make headlines by reaching New York in record time--that he slights the array of details that would actually catch you up in an absorbing web of suspense.

He doesn't give much credence to the traditional Titanic myth of honest boatmen doing their professional duty and aristocrats and plutocrats alike behaving according to the standards of high-society chivalry. So instead of people looking straight-on at their mortality and trying to keep their footing when their world takes a catastrophic tilt, he provides unrelieved chaos and the sham romanticism of vagabond artist Leonardo DiCaprio saving the body and soul of Philadelphia crumpet Kate Winslet. Billy Zane, as Winslet's sadistic fiance, is so obviously sexually confused, I expected him to put on a dress when escaping with the women and children. No such luck: Apart from the penny-dreadful dialogue, Titanic isn't good for a laugh.

And what of Boogie Nights? People desperate for amusement--or somehow genuinely tickled--argued that this candy-colored promenade through the '70s porn boom was something other than an inflated version of the alternative-family fantasies that have inundated art theaters in the '90s. I agreed with porn aficionado and Salon columnist Susie Bright, who wrote, "With as much affection as Anderson shows for his little porn stars, they sure are a bunch of dopes. They are so stupid--it's like one big, unending Polish joke. If you have a big dick, you must be an idiot."

With few exceptions, the handful of prestige moviemakers who possess the clout to do an artist's work have ascended to a gassy high ground. If Buddhism encourages its followers to remain focused and serene amidst a welter of contemporary complexities, it inspires directors like Jean-Jacques Annaud in Seven Years in Tibet and Martin Scorsese in his Dalai Lama hagiography Kundun (opening next week) to evade complexities altogether in favor of exotic filigree. The erudition of the East becomes fodder for designer religion, a sort of Gucci Buddhism. It resembles nothing more than the "Circle of Life" in the once-again-hot The Lion King, supposedly moving us all "from despair and hope/Through faith and love/...In the circle of life."

Buddhists want to free us from our egos. That may be a noble goal for most people, and a necessary one for Oliver Stone, who once described himself as an "incipient Buddhist" (before tanking with U-Turn). But it's generally a fatal one for directors, who forget everything they know about human nature once they partake of cosmic wisdom. Kundun gives nonviolence a bad name: In it, the Dalai Lama doesn't even seem to master nonviolent resistance--his version comes off as glorified passivity.

Kundun is a one-of-a-kind movie (and we can hope it will be the only of its kind): an official film biography of the head of a religion. But it fashions a lousy case for that religion as the basis for a theocracy. A coddled Tibetan boy gets snatched out of obscurity, initiated into esoteric rites, schooled in Karma 101, and abruptly accepted as the savior of his nation. The Dalai Lama keeps asking what his people think about the threat of the Chinese Communists, but Scorsese's dramatization doesn't demonstrate that he's capable of leading them. (The Lion King's Simba was more credible.) About the only thing that makes this a religious experience is that you have to take everything on faith.

Ever since the we-are-the-world '80s, America's leading pop citizens have striven to find altruistic causes so pure they can't be tainted with political controversy. (Wag the Dog spoofs this impulse toward easy, unassailable charity: At one point in this unfettered political farce, musical superstars band together like the Quincy Jones gang to support a humanitarian mission--to Albania--that doesn't exist.) The movies I loved, or at least liked, this year--including TV films such as Anjelica Huston's Bastard out of Carolina, and lively diversions such as Austin Powers and Breakdown--were bold in their ambition to provoke or to entertain, and steered clear of sanctimony. At a time when special-interest sensitivities are heightened and mass-audience sensibilities are degraded, provocation and entertainment have never been more of a challenge.

L.A. Confidential. To set a hard-boiled cop film in the behavioral sink of postwar Los Angeles and leave an audience wised-up and semi-hopeful would be enough of an achievement. Doing it with the crispness and emotion of classic Hollywood and conjuring a futuristic take on the '50s makes director Curtis Hanson's adaptation of James Ellroy's sprawling novel the best movie of the year. Hanson and Brian Helgeland's screenplay trims Ellroy's narrative and turns his gutter-literary language into juicy period patois. Hanson's design is subtle and sophisticated. Each of the tarnished cops (Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, and Guy Pearce) have defining moments that are silent: Spacey deciding to leave a tabloid payoff on the bar, Crowe staring wretchedly in the mirror after administering a beating, Pearce realizing that a trusted mentor is a killer. And no special-effects extravaganza matched the action moviemaking of this film's final half hour, culminating in an epic shoot-out in which every bullet counts.

The Wings of the Dove. Director Iain Softley and writer Hossein Amini's adaptation of Henry James' 1902 masterpiece is as deft and emotionally fluid as Hanson's adaptation of Ellroy; indeed, it also registers as a sort of "neo-noir." It centers on a couple of smart, tainted Londoners--a poor relation (Helena Bonham Carter) and her struggling journalist lover (Linus Roache)--who romantically hoodwink an innocent, ailing rich American (Alison Elliott), with disastrous consequences for themselves. In an age when most English Lit adaptations buckle under the weight of dogged reverence for the source material, it's astonishing that this imaginatively faithful film has been attacked for deviating from the book--or, in other words, having an original interpretation of it. Updating the novel ever-so-slightly (to 1910), Softley and Amini have made a marvelous movie about the psychological toll of modernism.

Wag the Dog. Barry Levinson's best movie since Diner, this is a free-swinging satire of image-making in politics and showbiz, with Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman hitting the comic empyrean as a low-key, new-style D.C. spin doctor (De Niro) and a hopped-up, old-fangled Tinseltown producer (Hoffman). Each is as loose as a free-range goose, wringing appreciative groans from their characters' attempt to concoct a phony war in Albania to distract the public from the president's alleged misconduct with a schoolgirl. The movie's hidden irony is that it's a celebration of competence--these marketers know precisely how to manipulate American beliefs and appetites. Abetted by super-shrewd (and hilarious) supporting characters (played by Ann Heche, Willie Nelson, Andrea Martin, and Denis Leary), De Niro and Hoffman cajole and improvise their way to a successful stage-management of international mock-warfare. As interpreted by Hoffman and written by David Mamet (who worked from Hilary Henkin's adaptation of a Larry Beinhart novel), the producer is a summary figure for an age of unmoored careerism and affluence.

Amistad. "You'll fuck it up, because you're too good with the camera." So the great Australian director Fred Schepisi told Steven Spielberg before Schindler's List. Spielberg later said the remark "inspired me to do the film myself, the way I ended up doing it." Perhaps Schepisi's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith helped inspire Spielberg's slave-ship saga Amistad: its peak scenes have the immediacy, period veracity, ferocity, and tenderness of Schepisi's overlooked epic. Spielberg's powerful rendering of an 1839 slave mutiny and its aftermath has roused the usual knee-jerk pundit reactions; one wonders what current columnists would have made of Abel Gance if they were writing at the premiere of Napoleon. Would they have cried "Falsifier! Middlebrow!"? Spielberg has a pernicious sentimental streak (augmented by John Williams' music). But he also has native intelligence and an uncanny instinct for summing up the sweep of history in signal images--like the slave leader Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) burying his blade into the captain of La Amistad. Hounsou and Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams are brilliant: At first they look like matched opposites of intuitive and cerebral leadership; by the end they're more like spiritual twins.

Nightjohn. Sometimes a filmmaker can pour ideas he was hatching for one movie into another that gets funded. While developing Nightjohn (which premiered on cable, where it still shows up), the gifted Charles Burnett must have used his research for an unrealized project about Frederick Douglass to add texture and detail to Gary Paulsen's teen novel. Despite awkward, prosy patches, Burnett delivers a surprisingly full account of slave life in the 1850s, as well as a potent fable of literacy. Carl Lumbly brings bedrock conviction to Nightjohn, who feels that his people can't begin to know who they are (or what they can do) until they can spell their names. Lumbly makes you believe that this Johnny Appleseed of reading and writing would return to slavery from a free life up North and risk mutilation for his teaching. For one whole astonishing minute, Bill Cobbs, as a slave called "Old Man," bitterly spits out the alphabet, conveying hidden danger and tragedy in every letter.

When We Were Kings. Athletic feats are often described as poetry in motion, but an Ali fight, good or terrible, was an act of imagination that the imaginer worked out before our eyes. That was never more the case than with his most astonishing triumph, the "Rumble in the Jungle"--the Oct. 30, 1974, title bout with George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, that climaxes Leon Gast's exuberant and thrilling documentary. (It won last year's Academy Award for best documentary, but only played in wide release this year.)

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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