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


December 29, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

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."

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