400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.

Considering Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married (133 screens), Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky (60 screens), Penelope Cruz in Elegy (21 screens) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (52 screens), Kristin Scott Thomas in I've Loved You So Long (20 screens), Meryl Streep rising above the ineptitude of Mamma Mia! (178 screens), and several others, it has been an exceptionally good year for roles for women -- all except The Women (164 screens). To date, I've spent a good deal of time railing against that movie, without ever asking: what happened to some of those amazing actresses that they should end up here?

Meg Ryan, for example, was once a top star -- one of a trinity of "America's Sweethearts" (with Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock) -- and a sure thing. She was irresistibly adorable, and she mastered a kind of self-conscious, nervous eye-flick that won over audiences time and again. And she made her debut in the final film by George Cukor, for goodness sake! Her highest point was probably When Harry Met Sally... (1989), where her effortless performance was not as easy as it looked. She had a hard time branching out into serious films, mainly because her cute, sweet, funny quality made it seem as if she had a lack of depth, and she looked out of place in hardcore, delirious movies like The Doors (1991). Her last ten years has given us a string of flops. But I maintain that her best films are the ones that nobody understood.

p class="MsoNormal">My favorite is Joe Dante's Innerspace (1987), a fun sci-fi comedy full of Dante's satirical touches in which Ryan first found her footing. She made three movies with Tom Hanks, and two of them were hits, but the third, Joe vs. the Volcano (1990), is the only really interesting one, casting Ryan in three hilarious roles and using a strange brackish sense of humor and a bold color scheme; it deserves to be a cult classic. Addicted to Love (1997) looked and sounded like another of her romantic comedy staples, but it reveled in its dark, depraved nature, and used the idea of watching movies as a device of jealousy and longing. After that, she was outstanding, and deserved an Oscar nomination, for Jane Campion's underrated In the Cut (2003), which baffled nearly everyone who saw it.

Check out Ryan again in these roles, and you'll see just what was missing in The Women. Then there's Annette Bening, who oozed crafty sex appeal in The Grifters (1990), earned an Oscar nomination and quickly got stuck in more upright roles in more respectable films: beaky girlfriends and suffering housewives. She's still occasionally brilliant in something showy like Being Julia, but she's already gone into Bette Davis territory (and she's too young for that). Soon she'll be serving rats to Joan Crawford.

Eva Mendes is still a big question mark, but I think I've discovered something about her. She's unquestionably sexy, perhaps one of the sexiest women of our time (a writer friend once compared her to Jessica Rabbit), but she has a very vivid intelligence and a sharp sense of humor. In real life this makes her even sexier, but somehow in her movies these assets clash. She has a hard time posing and pouting for the audience because her eyes always reveal that she's above it all; she's laughing at the situation. She never quite clicked as the villainess in The Women (originally played by Crawford) and most of her movies have been pretty bad (except three: We Own the Night, Hitch, and a small, potent part in Training Day). She has yet to find a great role that might allow her to combine these things. She still has time.

categories Columns, Cinematical