Kooky Proles and Gucci Buddhism

A neo-noir, an Ur-neo-noir, and a black political satire color a pallid year of retreads, bogus events, and charity cases.

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 like Anjelica Huston's Bastard Out of Carolina, and lively diversions like 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 semihopeful 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 so subtle and sophisticated that each of the tarnished cops (Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, and Guy Pearce) has 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 shootout 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" -- maybe even the Ur-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. 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. The emotional textures of rapture and waste reminded me of Lillian Hellman's elegiac, tormented accounts of her longtime affair with Dashiell Hammett in An Unfinished Woman and Pentimento.

Wag the Dog Barry Levinson's best movie since Diner -- a free-swinging satire of image-making in politics and show biz, 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, oldfangled Tinseltown producer (Hoffman). Each is as loose as a free-range goose, wringing appreciative groans out of 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 supershrewd (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, 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 but has been screened at film festivals), 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. And Allison Jones is pleasingly unactressy as Sarny, his 12-year-old disciple. With these two and Lorraine Toussaint (as Sarny's surrogate mother) providing a strong core, Burnett is able to throw the supporting cast some brilliant bits. 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. The scenes between the driven plantation owner (Beau Bridges) and his restive son recall the eloquent tension of the Southern major and his son in The Ox-Bow Incident, which I mean as high praise.

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