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Best in movies: A review

January 14, 1998

Best in movies: A review

by Jason Myers

1) "L.A. Confidential" - Cities are characters unto themselves, as this great film about the way rot can reach up from streets and down from skyscrapers to rob and ruin people proves masterfully.

Dante Spinotti's cinematography conveys the hypocrisy and haze, style and sleaze of '50s Los Angeles with an elegant eloquence.

Director Curtis Hanson's sleight-of-hand is turning James Ellroy's captivating, hard-boiled crime novel into a transcendent cinematic study of grace, virtue and justice. Three cops, beautifully portrayed by Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, and an especially affecting Kevin Spacey, hunt for the truth in a series of murders and misdemeanors. They come to find, along with the audience, that reality belongs to the powerful and honor must be attained within. When Spacey, having been asked why he became a cop, tears forming in the corners of his eyes, simply says, "I don't know," it is a moment of trenchant honesty and pain.

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2) "Good Will Hunting" - On the surface, this looks like a postcard to self-esteem and self-help; to popular psychology drivel; to the cardigan sweaters Robin Williams' humanistic psychiatrist character wears, and the warm embraces he gives.

But, in the hands of Gus Vant Sant, purveyor of derangement and delusion, the bittersweetly funny script by Matt Damon (portraying title character Will) and Ben Affleck (playing Will's best friend) becomes a love-hate chain letter to modern life and its confusing complexities. Damon infuses Will, a brash, blue-collar math prodigy, with all the odd, charming nuances of being gifted and being human.

3) "Grosse Point Blank" - Relying on an acerbic deadpan demeanor, John Cusack slyly portrays a shoot-from-the-hip sort of man - professional assassin Martin Blank, returning for his high school reunion after a 10-year estrangement from his home town.

The film is suffused not just with an understated comic grace, a wit which works in ways more subtle and intelligent than movies are supposed to be, but with a life wisdom that is certainly unexpected in a work whose protagonist kills people for a living. It works to develop the strange relationships which ebb and flow from high school and home towns, incisively observing consumerist Americana (Martin's childhood home has been torn down to suffice a convenience store) all the while.

4) "Deconstructing Harry" - Any Woody Allen detractors who argue that he plays variations of the same film to the point of tedium abruptly shut up when they witness this feverish, fiercely funny and profane tone poem to an artist at work.

Playing a troubled writer, aptly named Harry Block, Allen does continue to define neuroses, but with a caustic, cynical obscenity that is at once startling and fresh.

Blurring the ever-blurred line between life and art, he imagines a series of vignettes in which the writer's fictional worlds collide with the factual ones. Harry, Allen, and the viewer emerge stung by the hilarity and peculiarity of trying to separate an artist from art.

5) "In the Company of Men" - In this acidic, enchantingly irreverent observation of corporate America, writer-director Neil LaBute has a sense of humor as black and bitter as coffee brewed with soil.

Two specimens of abhorrent morality and masculinity plot to woo a wallflower, only to break her heart. The only problem is that Howard (Matt Malloy) and Chad, portrayed with a raffish comic verve by Aaron Eckhart, actually fall in love with Christine, a disarming Stacy Edwards. Only the ultimate sadness and sticking place of this film is that they cannot transcend memoranda and macho bravado to express anything but disgust.

6) "Donnie Brasco" - Mike Newell's masterful reworking of the mob movie genre surprises audiences used to cliches and shortcuts. Paul Attanasio's brilliant script helps to underpin the mythic quality too often associated with gangsters, giving this film a tense, real-life energy.

It is, of course, based upon the true story of FBI agent Joe Pistone's infiltration of the New York mafia in the 1970s under the code name Donnie Brasco. As Donnie, Johnny Depp performs with a transfixing ambiguity, as the character struggles with his dual identities, and Al Pacino delivers his most quiet, heartbreaking acting yet as Lefty Ruggiero, a Steinbeckan mafioso.

7) "Face/Off" - John Woo's mesmerizing, beautiful action picture takes the face of good (John Travolta's FBI agent) and transposes it with the face of evil (Nicolas Cage's assassin.) The movie's deftest illusion is that it expands this from a gimmick into a resonant metaphor.

In the end, after the doves and bullets have flown through a church, "Face/Off" is as much an hymn to the lost art of making action films (which are now all senseless, spectacular bores) as to the media-induced glorification of violence.

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