Critical Mass Nasty and nice, here they are, the Top 10 films; Movies

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The season of joy has passed, and the more somber season of review is upon us. In arts and entertainment, 1996 was marked by many a going (Horn & Horn lunchroom, Shakespeare on Wheels, the announcement of David Zinman's departure) and an important staying (the Lucas Collection). Bad guys (Jack Valenti with his Hollywood-friendly TV ratings system) were as likely to make news as angels (John Travolta in "Michael"), and personalities (the Michael Jackson marriage saga) got more attention than performances (Alanis Morissette's best-selling album). Here's a closer look at the year's highlights and low lights, courtesy of The Sun's critics.

Having written a total of 13 paragraphs to introduce 10-best listsI find myself unable to think of a single word to introduce the 14th, other than the baldly, blandly descriptive following: Here it is. More or less in descending order. My opinions only. No angry phone calls because your favorite wasn't here. No harassment because the movie you hated the most is. If you feel you have to express yourself, write Stephen Hunter, The Baltimore Sun, Fairbanks, Alaska, 12345. Be sure to mark the envelope "Do Not Forward." Thank you very much.

"Bound": It was nasty, spicy, hot, astonishing, more or less representing the same demimonde values as "Pulp Fiction" and "The Usual Suspect." A lesbian film noir, it followed as a mobster's moll and a professional thief bond to boost a couple of mil from her abusive husband and his bosses. Brilliant performances by the usually dithery Jennifer Tilly and the always inspirational Gena Gershon. Great second-banana turn by Joe Pantoliano, who is very smart but not quite smart enough. A debut film by the brothers Wachowski, following in the footsteps of the brothers Coen (op. cit.).

"Emma": The wondrous Gwyneth Paltrow was Jane Austen's nearly clueless heroine, who cannot see what is before her eyes in her own house (the delicious Mr. Knightley, her brother-in-law) and runs about trying to fix other people's lives while ignoring the disrepair of her own. This one wins in a hairsbreadth over Ang Lee's "Sense and Sensibility," which didn't have Paltrow's giddy charm at the center of it. Plus, if I named two Austen movies to this list, the guys would laugh at me in the locker room.

"Cold Comfort Farm": John Schlesinger's direction of the Stella Gibbons parody of Serious Lit was the zingiest thing this old boy had done in years. It takes the character who is usually the most despised, little Miss Know-It-All, and re-imagines her as heroine. Kate Beckinsale was extremely good as Flora Poste, who takes one look at the squalid ruin of the farm with which she has a distant connection and decides to get everybody properly cleaned up, matched up and buttoned up. They will be happy if it kills her! It almost does, but getting there is half the fun.

"Land and Freedom": Ken Loach's superb dramatization of the Spanish Civil War and its nastily complex issues was formally a 1995 film, but it was a genuine spring film for Baltimore, in more ways than one: Calendar aside, it was about the spring of revolutionary hope in the Spanish Revolution of 1936 and its ultimate destruction by Stalinism, whose agents may have used the war as a pretext to lure its enemies on the left out for the squashing. Ian Hart played a Liverpool working man caught in the rat hunt of revolutionary Spain. This was the best historical movie of the year, much better than the self-important, &r; over-publicized "Michael Collins."

"Flirting With Disaster": Probably the best American comedy of the year. Ben Stiller played a moony, New-Age kind of guy who wanted to find himself by finding his birth parents, but his odyssey soon turned into a posse, picking up new recruits at every turn in the road. Meanwhile, Stiller was trying desperately to be virtuous for his wife and newborn son, but was increasingly tempted by the next roadside attraction and the one after that, too. Stiller is the weakest link in a biting satire from David O. Russell that also featured Tea Leoni, Patricia Arquette and an off-the-wall Mary Tyler Moore.

"Michael": A great performance by John Travolta as the hipster ++ angel of the title, a shaggy beatnik who would look more comfortable behind a sax than a psalm. In the presence of three seemingly cynical reporters, Michael's coolness eventually convinces them he's the real thing. The movie features an almost flawless sequence as the ultra-cool Travolta mesmerizes a roadhouse with his dance moves, seducing the women en masse and enraging the men. But William Hurt and Andie McDowell are equally convincing as lost souls, each harboring a bitter secret, who may be the secret object of Michael's time on Earth. This is certainly the best film Nora Ephron has ever directed and much more unified as to mood and tone than the spotty but successful "Sleepless in Seattle."

"Trees Lounge": Punk-weasel Steve Buscemi turns out to have a surprisingly sophisticated, supple, human directorial gift. I really liked this movie, an exploration of the life the Long Island working-class guy might have had if he'd stayed on that island instead of moving to the one called Manhattan, where he found work as an actor and became the leading star of the independent film world. A series of improvisations, it comes slowly to evoke a whole universe surrounding a bar and lounge, revealing the interconnectedness of everybody even as lives and families are breaking apart. Buscemi, as the small-time hustler he would have been, is the centerpiece, but there are brilliant visits by Daniel Baldwin, Mimi Rogers and others.

"Big Night": The astonishment of the year. Directed by actors Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott and co-written by Tucci and a cousin, it was low-key, disciplined and ultimately both delightful and powerful. Set in an Italian restaurant, it followed as an artistic brother (Tony Shaloub) tried to make great food while his poor brother (Tucci) tried to control the commercial prospects without insulting his high-strung sibling. The action revolves around an attempt to put on a feast for bandleader Louis Prima (the setting is the early '50s) in order to get the restaurant some publicity. But the movie is put together with almost endless charm as these two desperate men try to make it in America.

"The English Patient": This film will likely suffer a little backlash now that it's come out that the man on whom it was modeled was really a Nazi spy, not a mad lover who made a deal with the devil out of romantic obsession. Well, so what? The story's the thing: This one is ravishingly told and ravishingly made, about a disfigured survivor of an air crash whose life reassembles itself in his mind while galvanizing the lives of those about him in a ruined Italian monastery during 1945. The movie is romantic, beautiful, sumptuous and enthralling, and remains about the shortest two-hour-and-45-minute movie ever made.

"Fargo": It. The one. The best. Got here in February and it's lingered in the memory and will not go away. The Coen brothers bring their wondrous sense of irony, strangeness in ordinary American places and the obdurate courage of regular people, and turn it into a compelling chronicle of a caper gone tragically nuts. Frances McDormand is brilliant as a pregnant small-town police chief who sees through the deceptions created by a Minneapolis used car salesman when he hires thugs to kidnap his wife so he can extort money from his gruff father-in-law. The Midwestern types are dead on, and not so much parodied as celebrated. Great performances, particularly by William Macy as the schemer, Steve Buscemi (again!) as a thug and Harve Presnell as the father-in-law.

Simply the best

1. "Bound"

2. "Emma"

3. "Cold Comfort Farm"

4. "Land and Freedom"

5. "Flirting With Disaster"

6. "Michael"

7. "Trees Lounge"

8. "Big Night"

9. "The English Patient"

10. "Fargo"

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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