The Sleep of the Just

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 the Dalai Lama is 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. The Last Emperor wasn't a great movie, but at least it had some distance from its subject. Kundun is like The Last Emperor without a payoff: Once again the Communists move into a cloistered city and confront the hereditary ruler, but this time he doesn't get reeducated. The Dalai Lama says he was ready to reform his country before the Communist takeover, but the film doesn't deliver the dramatic and social-political goods to back him up.

Ever since the we-are-the-world Eighties, 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 past 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.

Here then are my top ten films of 1997:

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 Fifties 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's Jack deciding to leave a tabloid payoff on a bar top, Crowe's Bud staring wretchedly in the mirror after administering a beating, Pearce's Ed 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 "neonoir" -- maybe even the Ur-neonoir. 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, for 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 long-time 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, old-fangled Tinseltown producer (Hoffman). Each is as loose as a free-range goose, wringing appreciative groans from their respective characters' attempts 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 Anne 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 (1993). Spielberg later said the remark "inspired me to do the film myself, the way I ended up doing it." Perhaps Schepisi's 1978 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. Granted, Spielberg has a pernicious sentimental streak (augmented here by John Williams' music), but he also has native intelligence and an uncanny instinct for summing up the sweep of history in signal images -- such as 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.

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