The best film of the year, the most fully realized, the most adroitly balanced between technique (considerable) and narrative (thunderous) and delight (intense), was "Toy Story." Who'd have thought it? Not I, said the critic, who expected a festival of product placement and a platform to sell a new line of Disney plush toys.
The film demonstrated anew the oldest of lessons: that story still matters and that story is really the only thing that matters.
It was really an epic as vast in scale as "Star Wars" or "The Searchers" or "The Pride and the Passion." But like the great epics, its true concerns were intimate matters of the heart, as two men tried to fight their way past vanity, ego and alpha-male impulses to find a brotherhood that would enable them to survive. OK, so they were toys. Buzz Lightyear and Woody the Cowboy were still Everymen.
In short, the computer-generated fable had more heart than any 20 films with real people in them. But it also had a lost value in the Hollywood film: an abundance of charm. Amazing, then, that it was done by a bunch of people sitting at keyboards.
But its best value was the fact that it brought people together, rather than splitting them apart. It didn't seek to make its nut by telling one group they were better yet more misunderstood than another. It wasn't a call for revolution, restitution or revenge. It said the best thing of all, which is, "People, can't we all get along?"
The year's next best films, in no particular order:
"Casino," by the great Martin Scorsese, didn't please many critics, who thought it a rehash of "GoodFellas," and much messier to boot. Not so at all. "GoodFellas" was crafted like fiction, which made it sleeker, neater, more dramatically coherent, easier to swallow. It arrived in the confines of formula and nobody had any trouble with it.
"Casino" followed a different design. It was fictional nonfiction, left messily sprawly and laden with exposition, and it wandered off into the unexplainable, as in Robert De Niro's talk show on local Vega TV, justifiable only because the authentic character also got himself a talk show. More confoundingly, it was narrated in the voices of two men, one of whom turns out to be already dead. Not neat. And much of it was feature writing on the theme of "How to run a casino." Yet working in this non-narrative way, it managed to accumulate details and momentum that were undeniable, so that by the end it was a great rush of destiny. I think you felt the end of its characters as powerfully as you felt anything all year.
"Crumb," which really doesn't belong here but in last year's picks because it was a late '94 movie. But it didn't play Baltimore last year; it played Baltimore this year. Terry Zwigoff's film was more than a documentary on the oddball but ultra-successful counterculture comic artist R. Crumb, whose obsessive visions have fascinated people for decades. Rather, it was an examination of his terrible family circumstances, which felt like something out of Dostoevski. He was only one of three brilliant, sensitive boys, the other two of whom were all but destroyed by an overbearing, abusive father and have retreated into grotesque pathology. Possibly the saddest movie of the year and a testimony to the evil that fathers can work on sons.
"Heat" isn't exactly the most original film of the year, as it was based on a made-for-TV movie by the same director (even if nobody connected with the film will admit it). So, it's spoiled goods. It's also a half-hour and two sub-plots too long. But still, it's a hell of a ride. Michael Mann takes you inside two bitterly masculine worlds -- a top-flight professional armed robbery crew and the LAPD robbery-homicide detail. Each outfit is headed by an alpha male, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, respectively. The movie is set up around a big heist, which explodes into a gun battle that turns downtown L.A. into downtown Sarajevo. But as brilliant as the action is, it's the psychology of character and the breadth of vision that make the film so powerful.
"Sense and Sensibility" is by far the best of the three films derived from Jane Austen novels this year -- much more vivid and witty than a very dour "Persuasion," and more convincing than "Clueless," which, after all, was set in Beverly Hills among wealthy California teens. Emma Thompson does a masterful job both as the scenarist and the star. In the former role, she finds a neat, crisp narrative line through the permutations of Austen's plotting; in the latter, as the "sensible" half of a pair of sisters who represent the opposing values of the title, she's stoic, repressed, beautiful and witty, all at once.
"To Die For" is of a piece. You may not like that piece, but that's the piece it's of. Mordant, bristlingly satirical, it's the story of an ambitious, beautiful, stupid young woman who desires fame on television and is willing to go to any lengths to acquire the stuff. Nicole Kidman displays a talent that she's only hinted at in this deadpan story from the subversive director Gus Van Sant. The movie is biting and stings more smartly than any other American picture of the year. Matt Dillon plays her dim husband who gets in the way and must be gotten rid of, but the stunning performance was by Joaquin Phoenix as the brain-dead teen-ager she hustled into doing the deed.
"The Usual Suspects," by Bryan Singer, was the year's cleverest movie, full of new ways of telling the oldest story. The oldest story is the one about the master criminal pulling the strings so subtly that the puppets think they're men; the suspects in this case being a gang of armed robbers on the track of a big heist. Of course the mighty Keyser Soze has a different agenda, one so devilishly well-plotted that he's able to con them into not only pulling the heist but into killing each other, too, and saving him the trouble. The cast was great, with Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Baldwin and Gabriel Byrne. But Singer also did his film straight on, without any of the self-conscious noir shadings meant to announce to the world that he had been to the U.S.C. film school.
"Apollo 13" was the can-do story of the year. A well-done docudrama, it featured the same values as the authentic event it chronicled, which were team play, sound direction by authority, hard work and grace under pressure. The story of an ill-fated space shot that became the world's most dramatic rescue attempt, it was set in a late '60s devoid of smug irony and coy revisionism. No one thinks the sideburns are funny because in the late '60s, sideburns weren't funny. Tom Hanks is very cool and collected as the mission commander, and director Ron Howard does a superb job of keeping the histrionics low and the professionalism high.
"Rob Roy" was the best western of the year, even if it was set in early 18th-century Scotland. Liam Neeson starred as Sir Walter Scott's heroic and honorable sheriff, and Tim Roth was an excellent hired gun. The cattle baron was played by the great John Hurt, and Jessica Lange was the sheriff's wife. OK, so they wore kilts. A great example of old-fashioned storytelling, the movie harked back to the old high days of the intelligent costume drama.
"Smoke" gets in your brain. A provocative but offbeat film from the pen of novelist Paul Auster and the eye of director Wayne Wang, it begins in a Brooklyn tobacco shop run by one Augie Wren -- the brutally charismatic Harvey Keitel -- and curls in and out of the lives of his customers, including William Hurt as a novelist in mourning and Forest Whitaker as a runaway father. It's a movie that's stayed with me when films I gave more stars to have vanished.
And, why not: Worst film of the year? Could be the awful "Four Rooms" that's just opened? Could be the ludicrous dud from Merchant and Ivory, "Jefferson in Paris." Well, no. Let's give worst movie of the year to the horrible "Congo," with its scenes of men machine-gunning apes.