The Smaller, the Taller

Now and again as I sit here on my power perch, having just praised some pleasing cinematic trifle with a mot so bon it could singlehandedly vault the producers into new tax brackets, or having characterized some hack with invective withering enough to permanently brand his pathetic career like some Puritan mark of shame, I feel the kind of exhilaration and awesome responsibility usually reserved for prison-camp triage officers and college admissions personnel.

Then, of course, the medication begins to take hold, slowing down my overactive neurotransmitter reuptake. The walls return to their drab perpendicularity and my fantasies of cineastic world dominion gently ebb.

Just as well, I say: The opinion part of criticism -- as opposed to the description, analysis, and context parts, among others -- is a largely individual business that can be affected by personality, class background, experience, mood, hormonal balance, number of hours of sleep, elapsed time since last sexual encounter, quality of said encounter, recent exposure to tainted food products, or simple orneriness.

It's the job of a professional to filter out or compensate for as many of these factors as possible, or at least to flag them for the reader. ("Despite a witty script, incisive direction, and dazzling performances, Purple Like Grapes is sabotaged by uncomfortable seats....")

The greatest factor in trying to assemble a Top 10 list is quite obviously what films one has seen. Nobody, not even Roger and Gene, sees everything. In 1985, my most frenetic year, I saw perhaps 80 percent of what opened; this year there were so many new films that the number amounts only to about 50 percent.

The most noticeable change in my list from 1995 is the proportion of studio films. Last year the big guys were responsible for at least half of my favorites. This year only one studio release, Bottle Rocket, made the cut, and that one, for better or worse, felt like an indie film that got studio backing by accident.

There were a number of solidly entertaining big-deal films, such as Twister and Independence Day (which did, er, rather well) and The Long Kiss Goodnight (which didn't). But this year's best news was a slight upswing in the number of first-rate foreign films to get commercial distribution stateside, particularly from France.

The qualification rules for my list are a liberal version of the academy's rules for Oscar eligibility: Films must have opened in Los Angeles commercially during the calendar year and must have played for a week -- unless there's something I really love that doesn't quite qualify.

The usual cautions apply: These are my choices for best, which generally -- but not always -- coincide with my favorites. The list has shifted several times in the making and is likely to shift (in my head) again.

1. Breaking the Waves. The 160-minute English-language film from Danish director Lars Von Trier is the sort of deep-dish drama I usually loathe. But Von Trier manages to take on such issues as "God: Does He exist? And what does He want with us?" without ever growing oppressively pretentious. Strangely, despite the film's ironic view, which carefully straddles the fence throughout, Von Trier chooses to end it on a simplistic, greeting-card image of faith. Emily Watson, in her film debut, gives an astonishing performance. She is in nearly every scene, mixing elfin appeal and slightly lamebrained good cheer with a sense of doom and insanity.

2. Chungking Express. Wong Kar-Wai's 1994 award-winner, released here this year by Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder division of Miramax, is not only atypical of Hong Kong cinema, it's essentially sui generis: a romance and a comedy but not a romantic comedy, a story about cops and smugglers but not an action film, an art film that doesn't try to bludgeon you with its artiness. It contains two different stories that have only the most tangential plot connection. Still, the two stories fit together thematically; Wong depicts an intense urban world in which people are jammed together so tightly that they are frightfully isolated. An amusing script, dazzling visuals, and an irresistibly winning performance from punkish, gawky Faye Wong.

3. Bottle Rocket. This relatively low-budget story about a group of altogether believable wannabe criminal masterminds was co-written by director Wes Anderson and pal Owen Wilson; Wilson and his brother Luke play the two leads. (Lumi Cavazos, James Caan, and Bob Musgrave costar.) Its tone has elements of Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers but without Jarmusch's self-conscious artiness or the Coens' hip snottiness.

4. Three Lives and Only One Death. The films of Chilean expatriate director Raul Ruiz rarely get a theatrical release in the United States. Ruiz's latest -- which was apparently Marcello Mastroianni's last performance -- combines the virtues of Hollywood entertainment while stripping away the barnacles: Playing with our ossified expectations of film narrative, it gives us a fresh sense of the possibilities of the medium.

5. Fargo. It has taken me most of the year to come to terms with Joel and Ethan Coen's story about a dim used car salesman (William H. Macy) who hires two professional thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife for ransom. The film is hysterically funny, operating in a deadpan tone throughout, but I was extremely bothered by what I took to be the Coens' usual contempt for their own characters. The meanness of their approach here seemed relentless (finding endless sport in regional accents, say). But I've come around: The key is the protagonist, small-town police chief Marge (Frances McDormand); she's the most Minnesotan of all, and the filmmakers unquestionably love her.

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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