For some movies out there, it's better you burn the envelope

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As this is Oscar time, today and tomorrow are the days w celebrate good movies of last year. But before we move too far into our glee, before we get too teary-eyed with gratitude for those film artists who went a little bit further and tried a little bit harder, let's not forget the wonderful folks who make all those good movies possible.

Yes, those wonderful folks who make bad movies.

It's every critic's civic responsibility and deepest professional pleasure to assemble a year-end list of the anti-good, the bad and the really ugly. So here's a recap of those flicks that left a certain stink in the mind -- the odor of banality, greed and stupidity.

Who can forget "Out on a Limb," except everybody. I almost forgot about it entirely, so utterly preposterous and achingly innocuous was it. Matthew Broderick, that aging juvenile, starred in a crass farce set in a small town in the Northwest. As I recall, he spent most of the first half of the movie naked. As if that weren't bad enough, it was based on a most wondrously repellent Hollywood conceit: that people in small towns are all morons and hicks and fools and genetic mutants.

"Cool World" wins the disappointment-of-the-year award. It was hotly anticipated -- a phantasmagorical animated film noir with tough detectives, hot, earthy babes and fallen heroes, all in an arty workup of the world of '40s movies, except in full color with glorious art. A cartoon masterpiece for those of us who've survived puberty! Early footage looked ravishing. What promise!

The great radical animator Ralph Bakshi, of "Fritz the Cat" and "Wizards" fame, was lured back to the business by an ample Paramount budget, and worked with Kim Basinger, Gabriel Byrne and Brad Pitt. I drove 30 miles down North Carolina's Outer Banks to see it on my vacation. It was . . . horrible. Whatever Bakshi once had, he has lost. It's the work of a man lacking passion and rigor, merely drifting along, enjoying the ride. The artwork was shaky, the central conceit never made sense, the performances were baffling, and the whole thing was a travesty. But at least when I got out, I was still in the Outer Banks.

"Man Trouble" should have been disappointing, but it wasn't, because word circulated early that it was a doggie-bow-wow. When the studio won't even screen a Jack Nicholson movie, you know something's pretty suspicious.

Nicholson played a disheveled guard-dog trainer who fell in love with Ellen Barkin, an opera singer. Dog trainers and opera singers frequently get together in real life, so that was no problem, right? But . . . there was no movie here. It was all attitude and shrieks. Want more bad news? It was written by Carol Eastman, the brilliant screenwriter of "Five Easy Pieces." How the mighty have fallen.

There was one delicious moment in "Whispers in the Dark." That was when Alan Alda got a pike in the head and flopped in the surf with this huge medieval instrument projecting from his skull. been dreaming of such a moment for years. Who said they don't make 'em like they used to? Give the people what they want and they'll stand in line! Unfortunately, there was a movie wrapped around this one brilliant image, and it starred Annabella Sciorra, an otherwise fine actress who has the taste of a fish when it comes to picking projects. She played a psychiatrist who realizes her new boyfriend -- that perfect guy -- is the same one who is abusing one of her patients and may even be a killer. A listless, incomprehensible thriller whose only saving grace was that Alan Alda turned out to be the bad guy.

Look, this is the best job in the world, but imagine it's 9 a.m. on a Saturday. You're at the Senator, that glorious art moderne monument on York Road. You're bleary-eyed and you've got a headache. In the darkness, shapes are seething and writhing. God, they're the worst thing in the world: other people's &L; children. On screen, there's an explosion of sound and color and nonsense. It's so loud it makes your head hurt even more. The children -- millions of 'em -- begin to chant and buck and fight among themselves. Their parents lose control. It's like a pint-sized Hieronymus Bosch painting, a hellscape with kids. And up there -- pounding on the table, loud as it is able, boomlay, boomlay, boomlay BOOM! -- in nuclear airburst red is . . . "Rock-A-Doodle," the worst animated cartoon ever made. You want this job? Well, you can't have it. But that Saturday morning, it was yours for a song. Too bad you weren't there to claim it.

Nothing ran through "A River Runs Through It." Overrated and overlong, it was a monument to the dreariness of WASP self-importance. It managed to make even Wyoming look bad. Robert Redford, that earnest paragon, made a movie that tried to echo the concept of still waters running deep; the problem was, still waters don't make good movies. They may make good novels, as was the case with the Norman Maclean book on which the movie was based, but the virtue of prose is clarity and precision and courage; the virtue of film is movement. Thus, "A River Runs Through It" was a beautiful corpse from the second Redford gave up on telling the story and began instead to read it, in solemn voice-over, behind the inert action. It was the longest 2 1/2 hours of the year.

I know many of you loved "Scent of a Woman." I know it's nominated for best movie. I know Al Pacino will probably win an Oscar for it. It's still lousy.

Pacino overacts to make up for a character that makes no internal sense. The various episodes in his wanderings through New York add up to nothing and in some cases are distinctly uncomfortable (the scene in which he attacks his brother's son at Thanksgiving, for one). And the frame story -- an honor violation that dogs his companion, Chris O'Donnell -- was the most contrived gimmick in movies last year. The movie has one brilliant scene -- romantic, powerful and seductive -- in which the old blind guy romances a beautiful young woman in a posh bar by teaching her the tango. It's a shame screenwriter Bo Goldman couldn't have mined more consistently the deep vein of pathos and yearning that he uncovers here. Also, this was the most overpraised film of the year; it was as if the majority of critics were afraid to attack a piece with such a pedigree.

The least-overrated movie of the year and certainly the year's worst, if it weren't so utterly trivial, was "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery." This was the absurdity with Tom Selleck as the king of Spain -- yeah, right -- Rachel Ward as his wife the queen, the Graf Zeppelin Marlon Brando as the head of the Inquisition, and some poor smiler (George Corraface) as CC, who sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and discovered the New World. Except it wasn't so new to the people that lived there. It's not that the movie was politically incorrect, merely that it was bad: a bloated, '70s-style epic low on the brain food and launched into an unsympathetic decade. It sunk without a trace, except for the bubbles of mirth from the critics.

"Hoffa" was another bloated monster without much in the way of redeeming factors. It seemed to represent playwright David Mamet's anti-PC sensibility, his willingness to find heroic all the manly sins -- pugnaciousness, aggression, surliness, violence, sociopathy -- that are so out of favor now. Just didn't work. Jack Nicholson played Jimmy Hoffa in one strident tone; director Danny DeVito gave himself entirely too many close-ups and reaction shots; and as any kind of account of the American labor movement, it was utterly worthless.

Finally, "Basic Instinct." Don't tell me how much it made, I don't care. It was sleazy junk that played with the worst stereotypes of sexuality and rode the oldest of male fears -- the femme fatale, the black widow -- all the way to the bank, laughing. Michael Douglas was creepy, Sharon Stone icy, and the whole thing basically a con job.

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