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RATINGS BROUHAHA OVERSHADOWED FINE MOVIEMAKING

EVERYBODY LIKES a good donnybrook -- particularly if you're watching it out of harm's way. (There's nothing like one's own safety on the sidelines to awaken a lively interest in the danger of others.)

1990 was the year of the First Amendment Wars -- of Robert Mapplethorpe's ghost vs. Jesse Helms, the State of Florida vs. 2 Live Crew, Nora Dunn vs. Andrew "Dice" Clay, and the movie industry vs. itself.

In the last, somehow or other, the ratings board decided to throw X ratings at such decidedly serious films as Greenaway's "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover," Almodovar's "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!," McNaughton's "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" and Phil Kaufman's "Henry and June," resulting in all sorts of gymnastic dodging techniques.

The first three were released without ratings, and the last caused an upheaval in the whole ratings system, burying the uncopyrighted X rating forever under the obloquy it always deserved and inventing a new rating for films of uncompromised content -- NC-17 (no one under 17 admitted). It was strictly a cosmetic change except for one small thing: That negligible little alphabetical transformation made it possible for the big movie chains to loosen up and show films they wouldn't show before (and major newspapers to advertise them).

A long de facto commercial censorship of X-rated films was over. Heaven only knows what NC-17 films will bring to your friendly neighborhood multiplex. One thing is certain: It won't be "Debbie Does Denmark" and "Wanda Whips Wall Street."

Away from the heavyweight Main Event, 1990 was, otherwise, a decidedly middleweight year.

The year's best, in alphabetical order:

"Avalon" -- The final third of Barry Levinson's Baltimore trilogy was a profoundly moving evocation of the intimate Old World sense of family that was ultimately buried in America by TV and the flight to suburbia.

"Awakenings" (to open in Buffalo Jan. 11) -- Penny Marshall's careful and often brilliant adaptation of Oliver Sacks' memoir of a medical miracle withdrawn features two performances that are no less magnificent for being in such conventionally juicy roles -- Robin Williams as a nerdy but compassionate and brilliant neurologist, and Robert De Niro as a man coming out of a three-decade coma caused by post-encephalitic syndrome.

"Cinema Paradiso" -- Giuseppe Tornatore's film was a tidal pull of nostalgia for life's first movies.

"Dances With Wolves" -- Kevin Costner's huge epic was the most beautiful (and most financially successful) western in more than a decade and, therefore, something of a modern movie milestone.

"GoodFellas" -- Martin Scorsese's funny, brutal and pitiless tour through three decades in the life of the mob, from adolescent romance to paranoia and squalor, had a tone of its own.

"Mr. and Mrs. Bridge" (scheduled to open in Buffalo Feb. 1) -- James Ivory's beautiful adaptation of the remarkable Bridge novels of Evan S. Connell features a hugely underrated performance by Paul Newman that may well be the summa of an acting career which finally gained depth in the '80s.

"Monsieur Hire" -- Patrice Leconte's short, icily brilliant film about voyeurism as a prelude to kindness (and victimization as an entree to murder) was the great noir film in a year jammed to the rafters with film noir.

"Mountains of the Moon" -- Bob Rafelson's enigmatic epic on the strange case of Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke and their expedition to the source of the Nile is as close as modern filmmaking gets to the grand manner of David Lean. (Even Lean himself finds it difficult these days.)

"Reversal of Fortune" -- Barbet Schroeder's deliciously perverse and unexpected film about the Claus Von Bulow case featured the wittiest and cleverest performance of the year by Jeremy Irons.

Close, but no cigar

Mike Figgis' "Internal Affairs," Phil Kaufman's "Henry and June," Warren Beatty's "Dick Tracy," Joe Dante's "Gremlins 2," Sidney Lumet's "Q & A," Paul Mazursky's "Enemies: A Love Story," Paul Verhoeven's "Total Recall," Fred Schepisi's "The Russia House," Lawrence Kasdan's "I Love You to Death," Andrew Bergman's "The Freshman," Charlotte Zwerin's "Thelonious Monk -- Straight No Chaser," John McTiernan's "The Hunt for Red October," Peter Greenaway's "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover," Peter Medak's "The Krays."

Best movie that still hasn't played Buffalo

Always a tough one. Now that the city has only one carelessly programmed art screen, the choice is vast. That Almodovar's "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" didn't play here is foolish enough. Even more sinister, though, is the absence of James Foley's "After Dark, My Sweet," whose director first fell in love with movies as a student at the University at Buffalo. His movie contained the year's most startling, out-of-nowhere performance -- by Jason Patric as an itinerant fighter roped into a kidnapping scam.

Tell Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem to dust off the picket signs

The catastrophic lack of major female roles in 1991 films may result in Kathy Bates ("Misery") or Anjelica Huston ("The Grifters," which is scheduled to open in Buffalo Jan. 23) receiving an Oscar by default in April. Their only competition looks to be from Cher and Winona Ryder in "Mermaids," Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman," and either Meryl Streep or Shirley MacLaine in "Postcards From the Edge."

Is that all there is?

Hopes were high and expectations were massive. But when "The Godfather, Part III," "Presumed Innocent," "The Two Jakes," "Texasville" and "Havana" showed up, the letdown, for many, was even larger.

Something old, nothing new, something borrowed and everything blue

Except for a funny, left-field performance by Anthony LaPaglia, Alan Alda's "Betsy's Wedding" was still more proof that moviemaking is not Alda's forte. When Penny Marshall and Rob Reiner are much better at something, it's an indication that fate is trying to tell you something.

Amour, toujours amour

Love -- and sex -- made a major comeback in the year's biggest films, "Ghost" and "Pretty Woman." Dennis Hopper's Texan junk noir drama "The Hot Spot" was the year's merriest slice of sleaze.

I don't think we're in Kansas anymore

If, 20 years ago, someone had told you that Penny Marshall (one-time Laverne of "Laverne and Shirley"), Rob Reiner (one-time "Meathead") and Clint Eastwood would turn out to be among the most distinguished directors in Hollywood, you'd have thought them crazy. But so it is in 1991. Almost anything they direct is, sight unseen, worth seeing.

Only the jokers are wild

David Lynch's "Wild at Heart" was neither all that wild nor terribly heartfelt. Zalman King's numbingly stupid "Wild Orchid" was the year's conclusive proof that some people can even make on-screen sex dull.

Still wild at heart

In a year of unparalleled personal chaos, Marlon Brando appeared in his funniest performance on film in "The Freshman," making grand sport of his one-time glory as "The Godfather's" Vito Corleone.

Days of thunder, nights of whimpering

"Days of Thunder," "Another 48 HRS." and Clint Eastwood's "The Rookie" were about as cynical and commercially calculated as movies get. And all miscalculated -- "Days of Thunder" so badly that tens of millions of dollars in revenue never materialized.

Worst 'Top Gun' ripoff of all time

Even in the year of "Days of Thunder," the winner would have to be the stunningly awful "Fire Birds."

Not-so-divine comedy

Silliness, in the extreme, was attached to the year's newest cinematic fad, adolescent speculations about the afterlife. "Ghost," of course, cleaned up. But, for all its success, "Flatliners" turned out to be two hours of voguing with the Grim Reaper, and "Jacob's Ladder" just kept going down until the finale.

Worst film of 1990

Always a tough choice. If the determining factor were the distance between expectation and realization, Sydney Pollack's eagerly awaited "Havana" would win hands down. But then, how to take into account the distance traveled by Joyce Chopra's hopelessly leaden whimsy "The Lemon Sisters" or "Fire Birds" or "Texasville"? For sheer self-destructive energy, though, no movie of the year matched the final 45 minutes of Kathryn Bigelow's "Blue Steel," in which a tantalizing movie premise was hacked into pieces by absurdly unrelieved slasher movie hokum.

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