L.A. Confidential (1997; directed by Curtis Hanson)
The Ice Storm and "L.A. Confidential" were the two best films I saw in 1997. This is about the only thing they have in common, except that each has an incredible cast.
When this movie came out, some reviewers compared it to "Chinatown," but I think that's somewhat off. Both are period pictures set in Los Angeles, but "L.A. Confidential" is more cynical and far more violent. Despite the Water Department storyline, "Chinatown's" concerns are primarily personal, while "L.A. Confidential" is concerned with a bigger picture.
The story is set in the 1950s, but the view of the L.A.P.D. is definitely informed by more recent events. Racism and corruption are pretty much taken for granted, the rule rather than the exception. Of the three main characters, Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a thug, Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is a sanctimonious, opportunistic prig, and Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is suavely corrupt, taking money from a sleazy tabloid in addition to the television show for which he is the technical advisor. But the corruption clearly comes from much higher up, because right at the beginning Captain Smith advises Exley not to try to become a detective unless he is willing to plant evidence, beat suspects and shoot men in the back.
The entire cast is first-rate, including wonderful supporting performances by James Cromwell, Kim Basinger, David Strathairn and Danny DeVito, but the most amazing performance is Kevin Spacey's. At one point, Exley asks him why he became a cop, and it's a joy to watch the play of emotions across his face before he answers. Given everything we've seen of Jack Vincennes, the only possible response is "I don't remember," but Spacey shows every step of Vincennes realizing this for himself. His performance is full of great moments like this.
Russell Crowe, however, gives the most moving performance, and the most frightening. No alien, no monster, no computer-generated bogeyman is ever as frightening as the right actor in the right role, and Crowe makes Bud White very touching, but also very scary. By the time of the famous interrogation scene, we've already seen enough of Bud White to know what he's capable of, and when he bursts into the interrogation room, knocks Exley aside, empties his gun except for one chamber, sticks the barrel in he suspect's mouth and starts pulling the trigger, it is easy to imagine him blowing the man's head right off. But he's equally powerful in the scene where he and Exley question the DA (ending up with the poor man dangling upside-down out the window of his own office), though that is very different because White is in complete control, just doing what he does very well.
Of course, no amount of acting means anything without good writing, and the writers (Hanson and Brian Helgeland) deserved the Oscar they won for the adaptation of James Ellroy's novel. 1997 was a good year for Helgeland, since he also wrote the underrated Conspiracy Theory that year.
With Kevin Spacey: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
With Russell Crowe: The Insider
With James Cromwell: The Green Mile
With David Strathairn: Limbo