Boy oh boy, are these people clueless.

The movie under discussion is Crash. It’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen and certainly the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. This Crash is mightily different from the Crash of 1996 by director David Cronenberg. The earlier work is about the aftereffects of an automobile accident and stars James Spader, Holly Hunter, and Elias Koteas. This new Crash is about the collision of various lives. It’s a film about secrets held by a rainbow coalition of characters, most of whom are philosophically unhappy in the city of huge illusions. That most of them are racists turns the movie – and Los Angeles - on its head. Underneath the glamour and the glitter is an ugly reality. The residents of L.A. hate each other for the color of their skin.

The man behind Crash is Paul Haggis, who has directed the feature with a sure hand. That he’s Canadian might be important in the overall scheme of things, although I think it’s safe to say that hatred certainly runs rampant in Toronto, too. There’s another city of illusions. Haggis was born in nearby London, Ontario, so he’s a neighbor of ours. He’s also the screenwriter of another controversial movie that had folks churning, the recent Academy Award winner Million Dollar Baby. The guy likes his ideas, that’s for sure. Want something headier than euthanasia? Try racism.

Haggis is in his mid-fifties and he’s been writing for America television for decades. He got his start in the world of sit-coms, including The Facts Of Life, One Day At A Time, and Diff’rent Strokes. He moved up a bit in the idea department to The Love Boat, which mixed comedy and drama. Then came solely dramatic entertainment with L.A. Law and thirtysomething. As well as being a writer, he’s been a TV producer. Of course, not everything he touched was golden. Anyone remember Due South, EZ Streets, or Mister Sterling? Haggis gave up TV work to concentrate on movies. He hit one out of the park with Million Dollar Baby. Maybe the long road is the right road in terms of honing one’s craft. Assuredly, movie audiences were starved for a film with ideas and style.

Well, with Crash, Haggis, who co-wrote the screenplay with Bobby Moresco, has delivered a thinking-person’s dream. Agree or disagree with the premise, the arguments, or the logic, you can’t deny that the film’s a challenging and utterly engrossing enterprise. Some will compare it to Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, both long and sprawling, but Crash is a riveting exercise pared down to the bones. The movie clocks in at around 110 minutes. But it’s as deep with ideas as you could possibly want. It’s also brilliantly acted by a cast that – to a person – has rarely been better.

The film opens at a crime scene high in the Hollywood Hills overlooking the twinkling lights of L.A. We’re on Mulholland Drive, the scene of so many noir moments in the history of both Los Angeles and the movies. Crash then backtracks to earlier in the day and proceeds to tell its dense story returning to the crime scene at the movie’s end. Clean and simple screenplay threads lead to other threads as characters intersect. It’s like watching an ant farm, and take that as high praise.

Throughout the film, deluded characters interact, with the automobile as the main metaphor of passing lives. Most of them are clueless as to their own complicity in the pall cast over human contact and relationships in Los Angeles. It’s a melting pot that isn’t melting. Power-hungry politicians, greedy young men, frustrated Brentwood snobs, nasty cops, desperate seniors, and others participate in the charade that the American - California - Los Angeles dream is working. This seething cauldron of whites, blacks, middle-Eastern shopkeepers, and Asians are drowning in delusion. When was the last time you heard a line in a movie, spoken by an angry woman still obsessed with Persian dominance, that Iranians are not Arabs? I daresay never.

Don Cheadle, who also co-produced, is a black police detective who’s not a bad guy most of the time. However, when it comes to his sexual relationship with his Latina cop partner (Jennifer Esposito), he’s a pig. He’s offered an important job by a minion of the L.A. County District Attorney, who needs a black face for publicity purposes. The minion is played by Buffalo’s William Fichtner, a graduate of Maryvale High School. The D.A. is Brendan Fraser who’s married to a very pampered, nasty, racist woman, played by Sandra Bullock. They are mugged, an embarrassing moment for a Los Angeles D.A. to be sure. The muggers are acted by rap star Ludacris and Larenz Tate, who spend their screen time bickering with each other. Their comic dialogue is a running commentary on life in divided L.A. At one point, Tate’s character says that buses have big windows strictly to humiliate black passengers, who constitute a high percentage of bus riders. Tate believes the white couple walking in front of them (Bullock and Fraser) think the black youths are thieves as a natural progression. Of course, they are thieves, so they steal the couple’s oversize SUV, a road-hogging Lincoln Navigator. When Bullock has to change the locks to her house, she accuses the Latino locksmith of being a gangbanger and ready to sell the house keys to other gangbangers.

There’s more. Enter another well-off couple in a deluxe car, a television director (Terrence Howard) and his drunken wife (Thandie Newton). They’re the kind of black couple who only have white friends. However, the wife is ready to demean her husband’s faux blackness and sexual ability after a racist cop (Matt Dillon) stops their car and frisks the wife with abusive gusto. His partner is a young cop (Ryan Phillippe) who is angry with himself, his partner, his state-in-life, and possibly confused about his sexuality. How he handles it all is key to what happens in the movie. Peripheral characters include Cheadle’s mother, Dillon’s father, and a black social worker who knows how to use bureaucratic power to the highest degree. Add to the mix the aforementioned Iranian store owner who has a chip on his shoulder – the Latino locksmith ticks him off. There’s also an older Asian gentleman run over by Ludacris and Tate (in a particularly grizzly moment that is shockingly comic). It all serves to create a film that is furiously white hot in both its dramatic impulses and scathing satire.

Haggis, who was once car-jacked himself while driving with his wife in L.A., understands the bitter underpinnings of his characters. As the parallel narratives mount, believable coincidences deliver a powerhouse ending that makes you realize there are no tidy resolutions for a messy social fabric that is only working on the surface. Beautifully acted, stylishly directed, and utterly gripping, this is a movie for the ages. By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor

Drive down most streets in Los Angeles and you’ll be surrounded by palm trees, massive jade plants, spreading eucalyptus, and something called a bougainvillea vine. It’s enough to make you think you’re traveling through a sprawling botanical garden. One of the interesting things about Angelenos is how they seem clueless to the problems in their midst. Many houses - and the reality of gritty street life - are protected by incredibly tall, flowering hedges. In this desert landscape by the ocean, personal green space is a given.

Of course, few of the plants are native species. Most of the palms are imported. The eucalyptus is an Australian wanderer. This also tells you something about Los Angeles. It’s a city built mostly on dreams and illusions. Truck in the fantasies. With its huge estates and ribbons of highways that often float into the hills, not the mention the constant cooing of morning doves, there’s something surreal about the place. The sun shines most of the time and the city hugs you with its climatic warmth. There is a reason movies are its golden industry. And I don’t just mean commercial studio productions. L. A.’s San Fernando Valley is the center of the pornography world. Plastic surgery can turn any dork into a stud; can turn any flat-chested Kansas brunette into a breathy blonde with breasts. No wonder getting Botox seems comparable to taking vitamins.