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The Year’s Best Film—But Which Year?

February 13, 2012

The best film of 2011 is finally hitting theaters in 2012. Let me explain: In a gambit that hardly ever works (although it did for Albert Nobbs‘ Glenn Close and Janet McTeer this year), upstart indie Millennium Entertainment released Rampart for one week in L.A. late last year so it would technically qualify for the Oscars and other awards, then pulled it from theaters and waited for the nominations to come rolling in. That didn’t happen, aside from a well-deserved Best Actor nod from the Independent Spirit Awards for Woody Harrelson, who gives the performance of his life and times as a spiritually desiccated LAPD patrol cop. But this stunning lack of accolades shouldn’t stop you from seeing this powerful piece of pulp art. Imagine Chinatown, if it had been written by Charles Bukowski, directed by Robert Altman and set in 1999.

That was the year of the LAPD’s Rampart scandal, a widespread probe of corruption and abuse. Director Oren Moverman, with cowriter James Ellroy (who’s exorcised the City of Angels’ demons in L.A. Confidential and other criminal masterpieces), creates a fall guy, Officer Dave “Date Rape” Brown (Harrelson)—the nickname doesn’t mean what you think—who may be the target of an election-year conspiracy to deflect attention from the brouhaha.

Dave Brown is unlike any character I’ve ever seen on screen. Yes, he’s a renegade cop, but he’s no Dirty Harry or Popeye Doyle. “I’m not a racist—I hate all people equally,” he tells a DA’s office investigator (well-played by “Fuck the Police” rapper Ice Cube). “And if it helps, I’ve slept with some of your people.” His home life is spectacularly screwed-up—he lives next door to a pair of sisters (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche—the casting of this film is deeply witty) and the daughters he’s fathered with each of them. He’s a boozer, a pill-popper, a womanizer, even a murderer, yet he lives by a code, outdated though it may be, and refuses to change. You may hate him, but you can’t take your eyes off him, and you’ll never forget him.

Harrelson may be the most unlikely great actor Hollywood has ever produced. An amiable sitcom sidekick known for his namesake character on Cheers, he could’ve turned into Tony Danza. Instead, he’s done work as dark and varied as The People vs. Larry Flynt, Natural Born Killers and The Messenger (also cowritten and directed by Moverman and costarring Ben Foster, who produced Rampart and is fantastic as a homeless paraplegic). Harrelson’s equally terrific as McCain-Palin campaign manager Steve Schmidt in HBO’s upcoming controversy magnet Game Change, swiping scenes from Ed Harris and Julianne Moore, who are spot-on as the candidates.

Rampart‘s estimable ensemble also includes Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver, Homicide‘s Ned Beatty, The Wire‘s Robert Wisdom, Audra McDonald and Robin Wright. But Harrelson’s real costar is Moverman—he sets scenes in refreshingly unexpected locations (from a flamenco club to a library to an S&M dungeon) and devises beautifully off-kilter images with cinematographer Bobby Bukowski (The Messenger, Arlington Road). The atmospheric score, by the Tindersticks’ Dickon Hinchliffe (Winter’s Bone), also contributes to the deeply unsettling mood.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if Rampart is the best film of 2011 or 2012. It will stand the test of time as one of the greatest cop movies ever made. Sidney Lumet may be gone, but the spirit of Serpico and Prince of the City is alive and brilliantly unwell.

What’s your all-time favorite cop movie? You have the right to post a comment!

From → Posts

  1. Great review! I can’t wait to see this one if it ever nears close enough to my hometown theater, Harrelson is hit-or-miiss but this seems right in his wheelhouse. To this point, my favorite cop movie has to be Denzel’s first Oscar-winning performance, Training Day.

    • bruceafretts permalink

      I loved Denzel in Training Day, too. But even his character might’ve been scared of Woody Harrelson in this movie.

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