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MOVIES: ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING

MOVIES: ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING

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So Ed says to Johnny, "How bad a year was it at the movies?" So Johnny says to Ed: "It was so bad that . . . Meryl Streep turned into Arnold Schwarzenegger. So bad, in fact, that all Top 10 lists this year are slightly fake." In fact, if it weren't for the annual crunch of December movies that won't actually open here until mid-January, it would be close to a landmark triumph for mediocrity. Without further ado, the year's 10 best, in alphabetical order:

1. "Clerks," directed by Kevin Smith. It cost $28,000 to make, and it's nothing but two hours of the lifestyles of two sullen twentysomething store clerks in Leonardo, N.J. And it's hilarious.

2. "Eat Drink Man Woman," by Ang Lee. Not only is its Chinese food mouthwatering, it is, in its quiet way, one of the loveliest films I know about fathers and daughters.

3. "Forrest Gump," by Robert Zemeckis. Can a $300 million movie be this good? Sure, why not? The distinction being lost these days is that between the innate absence of intelligence and the surrender of it by those who are weary of it. The latter is an ancient and honorable artistic tradition and it seems to me what "Forrest Gump" is really about, even though the assumption that the movie represents the former may have been what made it popular.

4. "Hoop Dreams," by Steve James (to open in Buffalo on Jan. 13). A three-hour documentary about high school basketball that is several terrific movies in one: 1) an audience-rouser that has you rooting like a fool, 2) one of the subtlest portraits of African-American life on film, and 3) a scathing look at the emptiness inside the value system of American sports.

5. "The Last Seduction," by John Dahl (also the winner of this year's award for the best movie almost certain to miss Buffalo altogether. Buffalonians had a couple of chances to see it on HBO). Buffalo actually figures in this exhilaratingly pitiless film noir, but it's Linda Fiorentino's portrait of the ultimate in spider women that makes it so much more memorable than Dahl's other ballyhooed film, "Red Rock West."

6. "Legends of the Fall," by Ed Zwick (to open in Buffalo Jan. 13). Zwick's movie of Jim Harrison's novella is a spectacular wallow in the sentimentality of the New Machismo. Anyone with finely developed sensibilities and taste would no doubt deplore it. I loved it.

7. "Nell," by Michael Apted. Jodie Foster in a wild-child tale that is captivating when it's about language and civilization and more than a bit embarrassing when it's about "feelings." As acting stunts go, Foster's has it all over Dustin Hoffman's in "Rain Man."

8. "Pulp Fiction," by Quentin Tarantino. He all but invented a new, obscene form of blood humor and energized actors and audiences alike. As Chuck Berry would say in the song that accompanies the movie's most delightful scene, "It goes to show, you never can tell."

9. "Quiz Show," by Robert Redford. It took a superstar as director (Redford) and a former film critic (writer Paul Attanasio) to remind us of the voluptuous pleasures of well-drawn social portraiture.

10. "Speed," by Jan De Bont. In the new class of movie that is less a work of art than engineering, this, for 1994, reigned supreme.

Of the movies she reviewed, Melinda Miller nominates "Jason's Lyric" and "I Like It Like That" as among the year's best. And Scott Thomas nominates "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and the much-praised "Little Women" as definite year-end bests.

And Richard Huntington would definitely add the current Chinese film "To Live" to that list of the year's very best.

Close but no cigarillo: Robert Benton's wonderful adaptation of Richard Russo's "Nobody's Fool," with a terrific performance by Paul Newman as Hud-grown-old (scheduled to open Jan. 13); Woody Allen's hilarious TV movie "Don't Drink the Water"; Alan Rudolph's "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," Peter Jackson's "Heavenly Creatures," Barry Levinson's "Disclosure," Tom Noonan's "What Happened Was . . . ," Kenneth Branagh's much-abused and abandoned "Frankenstein," Nanni Moretti's "Caro Diario," Michael Tolkin's "The New Age," Frank Darabont's "The Shawshank Redemption," Boaz Yakin's "Fresh," Kryszstof Kieslowski's "White" (so where's "Red"?), Disney's "The Lion King," Mike Newell's "Four Weddings and a Funeral," Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker's "Naked Gun 33 1/3 : The Final Insult" and James Brooks' "I'll Do Anything."

Big doings: Spring is the season. That's when Rochester's Bill Coppard, proprietor of that city's Little Theater, is scheduled to open a passel of new art screens in the Market Arcade.

Up the river: That's where Meryl Streep felt she had to go in search of the big money in "The River Wild." She didn't find it. Undoubtedly, it'll be much easier to find with Clint Eastwood in Madison County.

Performers of the year: Paul Newman in the upcoming "Nobody's Fool," Jim Carrey, Jodie Foster in "Nell," Martin Landau in "Ed Wood," Samuel L. Jackson in "Pulp Fiction," Linda Fiorentino in "The Last Seduction," Paul Scofield in "Quiz Show" and Emma Thompson. (Take a look at "Junior." If this woman doesn't deserve a big comic vehicle of her own, movies ought to go out of business.)

Money, money, money: Jim Cameron's "True Lies" is a movie made by big money for the purpose of making big money. Human beings are almost incidental to it, which is why its conjugal interrogation scene with Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis is so strange and cruel.

Zzzzzzzzzz: The much-awaited, much-ballyhooed "Wyatt Earp" practically defied you to stay awake. Most people wisely chose to find their sleeping draughts elsewhere. Louis Malle's "Vanya on 42nd St." inflicted Wallace Shawn on Anton Chekhov with lamentable results.

How inane does a movie have to be to become "outane"?: Whatever the answer, several movies seem to want to find out: Ron Underwood's "Speechless" and its pseudo-journalistic companion movie "I Love Trouble," Tim Burton's "Ed Wood" (except for Martin Landau's terrific performance as Bela Lugosi), Garry Marshall's "Exit to Eden," Warren Beatty's ultra-fatuous "Love Affair" and Bernardo Bertolucci's "Little Buddha."

Worst of the year: One of the richest years in the past decade for truly awful movies. Melinda Miller nominates " 'Blank Check' and 'Baby's Day Out,' whose meannness and/or greed, not to mention cruelty to bad guys, may signal the end of the 'Home Alone' imitator genre. 'Trial by Jury' tried to bring back the '40s detective movie and the career of William Hurt and succeeded at neither. 'Dumb and Dumber' is simply the dumbest."

Scott Thomas' contribution to the year-end worst list is "Blankman" starring Damon Wayans.

It's unfair to nominate "Holy Matrimony," atrocity that it was, because its reception in Buffalo, among other places, convinced Disney to send it straight to video. Deran Serafian's "Gunmen" was almost as bad, as was Dennis Hopper's "Chasers." But then, nobody ever pretended those movies had any chance to be good.

Truly superlative garbage takes a ton of money, even more hype and a breathtakingly cynical assumption of the audience's gullibility. So no matter how godawful they were, Luc Besson's "The Professional" and George Gallo's "Trapped in Paradise" don't really qualify, either. "Bad Girls," in fact, was so awful that it was almost good.

Nevertheless, a truly unholy trinity of big-time foulness took legendary honors this year: "The Flintstones," Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" and, by dint of all the idiotic hype, the clear winner, "Interview With the Vampire."

How bad were movies this year? Take a look at "Interview With the Vampire" and "The Flintstones" and ponder this: Both were hits.

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