The Smaller, the Taller

6. Cold Comfort Farm. After a long series of aesthetic and commercial flops, director John Schlesinger made a terrific comeback with this hilarious adaption of Stella Gibbons's 1932 spoof about a stylish Thirties bachelorette (Kate Beckinsale) who heads off to Cold Comfort Farm, a doom-enshrouded outpost right out of Thomas Hardy. The film's Wodehousian humor is very, very British, though on the broader end of the Brit spectrum. And the cast -- which includes such usual suspects as Freddie Jones, Ian McKellen, Joanna Lumley, Stephen Fry, and Miriam Margolyes -- is essentially flawless.

7. Flirting with Disaster. An adopted yuppie (Ben Stiller) goes in search of his genetic parents, accompanied by his wife (Patricia Arquette), their new baby, and a flaky psychologist (Tea Leoni). Director David O. Russell made a startling debut with 1994's low-budget Spanking the Monkey. While his first foray into the big time doesn't have quite as subversive an edge, it is nonetheless hilarious, a terrific updating of ancient farce conventions for the Nineties. The cast includes Richard Jenkins, Josh Brolin, Lily Tomlin, Alan Alda, George Segal, and Mary Tyler Moore.

8. Big Night. It's hard not to love Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott's comedy-drama about two Italian immigrant brothers (Tucci and Tony Shalhoub) trying to save their New Jersey restaurant from bankruptcy. It's a small-scale, perfectly balanced ensemble piece in which each performer gets his or her moment without ever disrupting the flow of the story. The sterling cast features Ian Holm, Minnie Driver, Isabella Rossellini, and Allison Janney.

9. Welcome to the Dollhouse. Everyone's adolescent traumas are painfully recapped in this tale of a gawky New Jersey eleven-year-old (Heather Matarazzo). Writer-director Todd Solondz's hilarious and brutal angstfest makes him a leading candidate for the anti-John Hughes. There is no separating the pain from the humor in his direction. Even when the story threatens to turn serious, he keeps us completely off balance.

10. Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud. In this story of the complex, platonic relationship between an editor (Emmanuelle Beart) and the ex-judge (Michel Serrault) she works for, director Claude Sautet spins an engrossing and subtle tale. The film's tone is so delicately balanced that it's hard to classify it as either comedy or drama. Sautet has an uncommon faith in the audience's intelligence, and from that faith comes the leisure to present human behavior with all its ambiguity and ambivalence.

Of films I saw at festivals, the standouts were Tsui Hark's The Blade and Gary Walkow's update of Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground, both of which have yet to be widely distributed.

Two documentaries rocked my world this year. Spread the Word, Fred Parnes's homage to the great a cappella group the Persuasions, gave me at least as much sheer pleasure as anything else on celluloid. And Leon Gast's When We Were Kings, due for wider distribution in February, is a totally involving look at the 1974 Ali vs. Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire.

I also got various kinds of pleasure from The White Balloon, My Favorite Season, Multiplicity, Supercop, Vive l'Amour, Freeway, Mother Night, The Line King, Everyone Says I Love You, Citizen Ruth, Scream, Mother, Thieves, Rumble in the Bronx, La Haine, Kids in the Hall Brain Candy, The Truth About Cats & Dogs, Mission: Impossible, Trainspotting, Shanghai Grand, The Wife, Feeling Minnesota, 2 Days in the Valley, Bound, Microcosmos, Swingers, Trees Lounge, Set It Off, Shine, Star Trek: First Contact, Ridicule, Jerry Maguire, La Ceremonie, That Thing You Do! and The People vs. Larry Flynt.

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