Eight for '98

A Simple Plan. (Scheduled to open in Houston on January 8) Adapted by Scott B. Smith from his own best-selling novel, this tale of greed and skullduggery in wintry Ohio harks back to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but it is truly a story for our time. A proper, educated small-town citizen (Bill Paxton) discovers how relative morality can become when he, his unemployed brother (Billy Bob Thornton) and his brother's hard-drinking best friend (Brent Briscoe) stumble upon a downed plane carrying filthy lucre. Director Sam Raimi and his cast (including Bridget Fonda as Paxton's surprisingly avid librarian wife) come up with feats of imaginative empathy. Unlike Linda Tripp, even when they do their worst, they are us. Thornton, in particular, is nothing less than astonishing. With a naturalness that comes from intense artistry, he brings his deceptively slow character into an unflinching focus. By the halfway point we see, with heart-rending clarity, which brother is humane and wise.

Without Limits. The second screen biography in as many years of the late Steve Prefontaine, the legendary distance runner often called the James Dean of track, is that rarity: an edgy inspirational movie, no goop allowed. Pre, as he was nicknamed, was a notorious front-runner -- he would race full-tilt from the starting line rather than strategize his way to victory. Director Robert Towne (who co-wrote the script with a friend of Pre's, Kenny Moore) depicts his rebellious hero as an icon of youth who shows he has the mettle to grow up, then dies before he gets the chance. With the superintense Billy Crudup in the central role, it's almost a secular Passion play. Pre nails himself to a cross of his own making: his belief that he can achieve anything through resolve alone. The movie develops its own nonmoralistic trinity, with Pre as Will, his University of Oregon coach Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland) as Reason, and Pre's Catholic girlfriend Mary Marckx (Monica Potter) as Faith. Their conflicts get articulated in dialogue but played out in motion, usually on the track; you might say that Pre's Gethsemane comes after a heartbreaking loss in the 1972 Munich Olympics. Without sentimentalizing runners, Towne treats their eagerness to push past the boundaries of known pain as the purest of quests. Crudup and Sutherland are extraordinary -- they remove any hint of cliche from the student-mentor relationship. This movie gives us sport not just as competition or as spectacle, but as existential ballet.

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