Films worthy of the title 'best' in short supply MOVIES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

These are the times that try men's souls -- and you oughta see what they do to a movie critic's! Why, mine looks like a piece o' bacon so over-crispy it must have been fried at the center of a nuclear blast! Getting up to 10 "best films" of the year out of the wreckage that was 1994 wasn't easy, and you'll see that I resorted to a few gimmicks to reach the traditional double digit. On the other hand, picking the worst films of the year -- that was a horse race!

10. Hong Kong cinema. I begin not with a film but a genre, the genre being gangster movies made in Hong Kong, as imported in a series by the Charles late in the year. The best of these (at least it was the most American in tone and dramatic technique) was probably Jackie Chan's "Crime Story"; the worst was the inaccurately titled "A Better Tomorrow III"; Ringo Lam's "Full Contact" was the most exuberant. But each was a rootin', tootin' good time at the movies and, for a city and a critic unexperienced in their excesses, a real voyage to recover the almost-vanished sense of how much sheer fun a movie can be. Let's hope they can track down a copy of "City of Fire" so fans can make up their own minds whether or not Quentin Tarantino filched from it (a great double feature idea, by the way). And John Woo's last Hong Kong film, "Hardboiled"? They don't come any wilder!

9. "Forrest Gump." Laf's lak a box o' chok-lates: you nevuh know what you gonna git, and Paramount had no idee it was gonna git $300 million with "Forrest Gump." Talk about a cherry inside! This unheralded movie, despised by liberals and beloved by conservatives, dominated American film culture and opened a national debate on values. The great performance by Tom Hanks, another by Gary Sinise, and the brilliant but subtle range of special effects did much to disguise the movie's anecdotal nature and dramatic underdevelopment. It should be said that the Vietnam sequence was probably the best sustained sequence in a mainstream movie this year.

8. "The Hudsucker Proxy." "The Hudsucker Proxy" was beloved by critics and ignored by real people. Your loss, not ours. Engineered by those nasty boys of cinema, Joel and Ethan Coen, and starring Tim Robbins, Paul Newman and Jennifer Jason Leigh, it was a brilliant post-modern riff on the old "business film," as it followed the cynical ploy of a captain of industry (Newman) to promote an idiot (Robbins) as a method of preventing the company from going public. Possibly too clever for its own good, it was nevertheless the most independent-minded of the big studio movies.

7. "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." Lasse Hallstrom's "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" was probably the small-town movie of the '90s. Unlike so many that have come before or after (notably the fast-approaching and much ballyhooed "Nobody's Fool," with Paul Newman), it doesn't romanticize either the cuteness or the squalor of an Iowa burg where poor Gilbert is stuck. Its true subject is virtue. Gilbert (Johnny Depp at his finest) is the solid kid on whom everybody depends, and even if he is crushed by his responsibility, he will not flee it. Hallstrom, who made "My Life as a Dog" in Sweden, has a gift for capturing the rhythms of real life: Nothing about "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" feels forced or phony. And, making it even more extraordinary, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Gilbert's retarded brother with a recklessness and innocent love that is unbelievably powerful.

6. "The Lion King." Not the best of the Disney late-generation animated features, "The Lion King" is still a terrific movie, if for no other reason than that it dares to bring a darkness -- it's "Macbeth" and "Hamlet" combined, with hyenas -- to the largely risk-free world according to Disney. But there were other reasons: two or three animated sequences that boggle the imagination, a bright, innovative score and a brilliant vocal performance by that most languid and debauched-sounding of all Brits, the great Jeremy Irons.

5. "The Boys of St. Vincent." It didn't even get a commercial release in Baltimore, but "The Boys of St. Vincent" arrived courtesy of the Baltimore Film Forum, which sponsored a four-night run at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Still, it's brilliant, big-time movie making. It's an account of the systematic molestation of young children by priests at a Catholic orphanage and, even more monstrous, a police conspiracy to cover it up so as not to offend the powerful church. Henry Czerny, who appeared later in "Clear and Present Danger," was terrifying as the dynamic priest who ran St. Vincent's but could not control his monstrous impulses, even as he knew they were wrong. The movie was full of values seldom seen in American film culture: it was incisive, brilliantly written and crisply, cleanly directed.

4. "Pulp Fiction." "Pulp Fiction" continues the canonization of Quentin Tarantino, who has been declared the great Generation X hope of American movies. It's wild and wildly uneven. Set on a long weekend in the Los Angeles underworld, it's pure post-modernism: hyper-fervid, violent, profane, heartless, cold, violent and finally, oh yes, violent. The movie distends and reinvents time as it tells three stories that themselves are lodged in the DNA of an overarching frame story. The best sequence follows John Travolta on a "date" with Uma Thurman, who is his tough boss' wife. The dialogue between them crackles and shivers with brilliance as we feel two minds -- she's too smart for him, but he's not without subtle resources -- wrapping around each other. The tones vary from high wit and drama to a rather pointless sequence in which Mr. Wolf (Harvey Keitel) helps Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson clean up a nasty mess they've made. The movie is as brazen as they come.

3. "Quiz Show." The $64,000 question is how come "Quiz Show," with all the publicity and the great reviews, died at the box office. And here's the answer: I have no idea. What's wrong with you people? You were watching the Redskins? You were following the CFLs? Well, you should have been going to "Quiz Show," which is smart, tough and compelling. It examines a watershed year in American cultural history, when the big visual medium -- television -- overwhelmed and surpassed print. We watch as Charles Van Doren becomes a celebrity for his game show winnings, while his distinguished and egotistical father, Mark, dribbles away to nothingness. Of course Charles falls, swept down by the quiz show scandal, but the true meaning of the film is that nothing could really stop television from taking over. Robert Redford directs two-thirds of a superb cast (Ralph Fiennes and John Turturro) and survives the third (Rob Morrow).

2. "Vanya on 42nd Street." "Vanya on 42nd Street" is a brilliant homage to the world of theater. It's a nonfiction account of a fiction that becomes that fiction itself while never stopping to be a nonfiction account. Louis Malle visits Andre Gregory's perpetual "work-in-progress" at a decrepit 42nd Street movie palace and watches as a bunch of actors begin a run-through of the great Chekhov play. But then the camera is absorbed into the reading and the movie becomes a beautiful, simple, poignantly acted version of the play -- even as Gregory and a small audience watch from 10 feet away. The acting, notably from Wally Shawn as Vanya, Larry Pines as Astrov and Julia Moore (unbelievable!) as the beautiful Yelena, is absolutely first class.

1. "Hoop Dreams." Boys are playing basketball. The sound of sneakers and scuffles on the asphalt. A man is watching. He has a camera. He is making a movie called "Hoop Dreams," and it is the best of the year. The documentary as work of narrative art, "Hoop Dreams" follows two inner-city African-American teens, both from the eighth grade to their freshman year in high school. Both are "recruited" by Chicago basketball power St. Joe's, where Arthur Agee flubs and has to leave school and William Gates becomes the first freshman to start since Isiah Thomas. The movie stays with each boy, cutting back and forth over the years as their stories take astonishing turns. It's an examination -- much more penetrating than "Cobb's" -- of the role of sports in society and the usage (and wastage) of boys by high-powered, cynical programs. But it's not "60 Minutes" -- it's a movie with heart and soul.

* And, the bad movies: Well, "Natural Born Killers" was a stink and a half. "Being Human," with Robin Williams as "Everyman," was nearly unbearable to watch. "The Specialist," with Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone, was so moronic it made "Rocky" look like Nabokov. But the worst movie of the year cost millions, was aggressively promoted and was totally annoying. Amid the stench of folly there came also the whiff of sadness: This beast hailed from the mind of a beloved moviemaker who made one of the most warmly remembered trilogies in the history of the movies. Ladies and gentleman, I give you "Radioland Murders," produced by George "Star Wars" Lucas. There was indeed a murder: the audience, all six of us.

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