Howard wanted to write a Western epic. In a barren year for big-screen Westerns, I took comfort in a quote by Owen Wister, who created high-class cowboy fiction in The Virginian and summed up the future of the Western hero this way: "He will be here among us always, invisible, waiting his chance to live and play as he would like. His wild kind has been among us always, since the beginning: a young man with his temptations, a hero without wings." That exuberant Westerner did show up in grand style this past summer, but not as a cowboy -- as a golfer. In Ron Shelton's Tin Cup, Kevin Costner reclaims his standing as a premier romantic comedian and digs into new levels of grittiness as a self-destructive golf pro on an armadillo-overrun driving range. Shelton turns Costner's attempt to win the U.S. Open (and the heart of a fascinating therapist, Rene Russo) into a unique oscillating odyssey, with a resolution more pointed and humorous than Tom Cruise's in the end-of-year hit Jerry Maguire. In Tin Cup Costner wins self-knowledge -- accepting that in significant ways he'll never change.

Larry and Andy Wachowski's beautifully barbed caper movie Bound features another variation on the Western hero, this time a James Dean rebel who's actually a Midwestern lesbian. After the debacle of her diva turn in Showgirls, Gina Gershon shows glorious gumption as leather-jacketed Chicago handygirl Corky, who plots to get her lover Violet (Jennifer Tilly) away from Violet's Mafioso male mate (Joe Pantoliano) and to separate him from two million dollars. The Wachowski brothers play with the medium in a Coen-head fashion, but unlike the Coens they don't lose their burlesque zest, and they play fair with their characters. The plot relies on the trust lovers place in each other and the trust audiences place in filmmakers. Here it pays off bigtime.

If Bound expresses the Tinker Toy side of the Coen brothers' sensibility more exuberantly than they did in Fargo, John Schlesinger's Cold Comfort Farm brings off a slier parody of rural life. Based on Stella Gibbons's 1932 novel, the movie is quirky and beguiling, a pastoral spoof that's also a comedy of errors -- and corrections. Those fulfilling the clan pledge that "there will always be Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm" include a pontificating patriarch (Ian McKellen, at his hilarious best), his joyless wife (Eileen Atkins), their sons (Rufus Sewell and Ivan Kaye), and a maddeningly elfin girl named Elfine (Maria Miles). Anyone who has unwittingly entered a group that's proudly and collectively insane can identify with the sophisticated city cousin (Kate Beckinsale) who eventually makes stabilizing their existence seem as simple and ingenious as getting the table right for a dinner party. The ensemble is superb -- alternately larger than life and smaller than life and, by the end, deliciously life-size.

Although Trainspotting director Danny Boyle's anti-moralistic approach to heroin addiction and dazzling homage to Richard Lester's Sixties visuals won deserved plaudits, what I loved most about the movie was its language. John Hodge's adaption of Irvine Welsh's sprawling novel provided a rush of invective juicier than any I've heard in a movie theater since Tony Richardson's film versions of The Entertainer and Look Back in Anger. Hodge gives musical and incantatory rhythms to the narration of Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), the one junkie who might survive addiction. His opening rant ("family Christmas, indexed pension, tax exemption, clearing the gutters, getting by, looking ahead, to the day you die") lodged inside me the way "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" did while watching Evita -- though in Trainspotting's case, it was pleasurable.

City Hall stars the equally catalytic John Cusack as a Louisiana-Irish good ol' boy and right-hand man of Al Pacino's Greek-American New York mayor. Directed by Harold Becker from a script Becker credits to Bo Goldman (who shares screen credit with Ken Lipper, Nicholas Pileggi, and Paul Schrader), this movie has less control of its story line but more energy, skipping along on a rush of Yiddish-flavored blarney. The succulent language taps into essence-of-New-York and revitalizes the mythology of America's urban melting pot. When Pacino explains the concept of menschkeit to Cusack -- "A man's life is not the bricks, it's the mortar; it's what lays between" -- he conjures a lost world of man-to-man understanding.

In a ripping good speech at the center of Fred Schepisi and John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation (1993), the con man antihero deplores "one of the great tragedies of our time: the death of the imagination." Placing the onus for its demise on Star Trek and Star Wars, he declares that imagination now represents "something outside ourselves, like science fiction or some new use for tangerine slices on raw pork chops," when it should be "the passport we create to take us into the real world" -- the "most personal link" between "our inner lives" and "this world we share." In short, it's "God's gift to make the act of self-examination bearable."

Movies such as Danny DeVito's Matilda and Henry Selick's James and the Giant Peach transcend the con man's objection to special-effects films. They're imaginative in a Star Wars sense and in a Six Degrees of Separation sense: They employ movie arts and crafts "to make the act of self-examination bearable."

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