One of Us Stinks

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 star himself visited Forsythe's set one day, onlookers insisted that Forsythe repeat his imitation, though neither man was particularly enthused 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 as mediocre as I remember? 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 this year was a dispiriting experience. There were some pretty good films, nothing great. Most of the interesting work came from independents; on the fringes, there were a number of intriguing ultra-low-budget productions and foreign films, some two and three years old, that found their way to domestic screens for the first time in 1997.

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 are all unforgettable. There's one slightly cheap device near the conclusion 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, after all. But for the first time since Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks America's premier surrealist was doing material that seemed to 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 I took gleefully three or four times. 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 the work of almost anyone else out there.

Schizopolis Steven Soderbergh's low-budget personal project is the director's best work since sex, lies, & videotape, perhaps the best thing he's done, period. Schizopolis is essentially the comedy equivalent of Lost Highway -- a portrait of complete psychological disintegration, 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.

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 jazzy pyrotechnics, but heightened melodrama, great performances, and genuine emotional content. John Travolta and Nicolas Cage are having the times of their lives in their Jekyll-and-Hyde roles.

Men in Black Even by the standards of the director of the Addams Family films, Men in Black is shallow -- but it's gloriously shallow. Barry Sonnenfeld's special-effects extravaganza is a 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. Happy Together lacks the pleasures of Chungking Express, still his best film, but the new work remains a one-of-a-kind portrait of a disintegrating relationship, aching 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 Spielbergian 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.

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