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Bugsy to Terminator, psychopaths filled the screens THE YEAR IN REVIEW Stephen Hunter


It was a very good year for psychopaths: Hannibal Lecter, Max Cady, the Bad Terminator, Bugsy Siegel and Oliver Stone.

As for the rest of us, it was only OK.

The best film of the year was not even American: the stunningly brilliant "Black Robe," from Australian Bruce Beresford, shot in Canada and set in that country in the 1630s, a powerful and brooding meditation on culture shock and notions of ethno- and religiocentricism that made poor Kevin Costner's "Dances With Wolves" look like "Mary Poppins Sucks a Lollipop."

On the other hand, the worst film of the year, although American, was not directed by an American. This is Kenneth Branagh's utterly preposterous and lame "Dead Again," which managed to beat out several other candidates for the honor by its unique combination of brazenness and utter lack of technique.

It was a good year for disappointments. "Hook" was a wonderful disappointment. I love going to a movie theater with my daughter, the two of us beaming with hope and yearning, our souls opened wide to the stars -- and getting squashed flatter'n a bug on a road. "Hook" is like a trip to Disney World on a hot, sweltering day in July with lots of . . . other people's children.

It was also a pretty good year for Ye Olde Sure Thing. Disney's revitalized cartoon boys came through with an instant classic in "Beauty and the Beast," with gorgeous animation, a story with deep morphic resonance and a refreshing lack of sentimentality.

Another Sure Thing that worked: "Terminator 2." Barry Levinson says, "Come on, sure, he's nice and now he's a good guy but . . . he's a robot!" He is. Like Ditmar the Metallic Man in "Secret Legions from Mars," 1934, Republic Pictures. But the James Cameron movie, though a bit soggy through the second act, delivered exactly what it had to -- a poem of action so sinously sleek and astonishing that it defied you not to put your beliefs on the shelf and just enjoy.

Not a very good year for our old friends, the cops. They're conspirators in "JFK," they're boobs and crooks in "Bugsy," they're morons and dwarfs in "The Last Boy Scout," and even vTC the "bad robot" in "Terminator 2" disguises himself as one. Yet whom do all these swell movie stars and directors call when their $4,000 security alarms go off? Their agents?

It was a very good year for banter. In fact, American movies have almost totally yielded to banter in place of dialogue. "The Last Boy Scout" is pure banter. Even in "Bugsy," surely the most literate and adult movie of the season, the tete-a-tete between Bugsy (Warren Beatty) and Virginia (Annette Bening) is nothing but straight '30s meet-cute dialogue. If you can write wisecracks, you can make a million bucks a year in Hollywood. That is . . . if you can get an agent.

And speaking of "The Last Boy Scout," which nobody is taking seriously, will someone please point out that the movie it most resembles is "JFK," which everybody is taking seriously? But why? Both movies are big on swirling action set pieces, broiling ambience, cutting rhythms so fast the naked eye cannot begin to follow or fathom them, all adding to the illusion of coherent narrative rather than any substance. That's entertainment today, folks.

And speaking of "JFK," what's so irritating about Oliver Stone's crockudrama isn't the movie itself, which is great fun to sit through and represents no more fogging of the past than Hollywood typically brings to historical subjects ("Bugsy," by the way, is about as inaccurate factually as "JFK"), but the director's many self-important appearances on the talk-show circuit.

Whoa. Enough. Somebody put a bag over this bozo. If I hear, "Well, because so many people are trying to destroy my movie, that obviously proves that . . ." one more time, I think I'll blow my cookies. Does it not occur to this genius that if he tells lies, the people he tells lies about might get a little ticked? Does he think the First Amendment only covers liberal conspiracy cultists?

It was a terrific year, as usual, for stupidity. Once again, paging Mr. Stone! There's the matter of motive in your "JFK" -- the idea that President Kennedy was inclined to stop the Cold War and that he was killed by the military-industrial complex. Now really. Doesn't this presuppose that it was possible to stop the Cold War in 1963 by American presidential initiative?

But of course the men running the Kremlin in those days were hardly the weenie-apparatchiks of the Gorbachev era: They were hard-liners who were only seven years removed from sending several tank armies cruising through Hungary and were at that time arming North Vietnam to the hilt for its coming tilt with the U.S. Here's how they would have reacted to a show of weakness by Kennedy: "Ah, Dimitri, they have approached with a white flag. You may fire when you are ready."

Equally stupid: People who claimed to be "victims" of Macauley Culkin's death in "My Girl": Hey, read the reviews or take your chances.

The best of '91 . . .

1. "Black Robe." Bruce Beresford's haunting study of culture conflict in the 17th century.

2. "Bugsy." Barry Levinson's brilliant evocation of a celebrity-mad gangster with Warren Beatty's best performance since 1967.

3. "Beauty and the Beast." S'wonderful, s'marvelous.

4. "Silence of the Lambs." S'not wonderful, s'not marvelous, s'scary as hell.

5. "JFK." Rude, crude and deceitful, but it made me think harder and more passionately than any film in years.

6. "Boyz N the Hood." Black and beautiful, the story of a father's strength and guts in saving his son from the madness of the 'Hood.

7. "Cape Fear." A bit showy but De Niro's white-trash bad boy is truly frightening.

L 8. "Terminator 2." Chitty-chitty bang-bang for the big boys.

9. "My Own Private Idaho." The boys are back in town, in this strange, touching, broken-hearted movie.

10. "City Slickers." Whining urban middle-agers go cowboy . . . but they still whine. Very funny.

. . . and the worst

1. "Dead Again." Dead before and dead after.

2. "Shattered." Like "Dead Again," a dense, glitzy, incoherent noir knock-off, though not quite as pretentious.

3. "Curly Sue." Icky.

4. "Whore." Just sitting in the theater may make you itch in places you shouldn't scratch in public.

5. "The Marrying Man." Bad Neil Simon is worse than bad root canal work.

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