MOVIES : 91 YEAR IN REVIEW : The Top 9 in a Year That Came Up Short

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<i> Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic</i>

Yes, comparisons are odious, lists are invidious, and actors who turn down awards ought to get Nobel Prizes for pointing out that competition between artistic entities is very much beside the point. And 10, why 10? Is this something we have Moses to blame for, or maybe the Babylonians?

Still, there is an undeniable fascination to 10-best lists. For the reader, they are a way of taking stock of a critic’s taste and comparing it, invariably disparagingly, to one’s own. For the writer, they are a way of rethinking the past year, of putting it in some kind of perspective.

Yet because 10-best lists are by nature so arbitrary, they are sure to frustrate everyone concerned, even the critic, either by what’s included or by what’s left by the wayside.


This year, the 10-best task was tougher than usual because of a painful dearth of quality films. Even within the industry, there is a lack of excitement about current product, and those who are involved in early handicapping of the upcoming Oscar race predict the most wide-open best picture field in years.

Even if you factor in the traditional “the sky is falling” attitude of the business executive corps, the pickings are remarkably thin, and as a silent tribute to 1991’s weakness, this particular 10-best list is going to contain only nine selections.

In alphabetical order (to take a little edge off the inherent arbitrariness), the choices are:

* Beauty and the Beast. Disney’s 30th full-length animated feature is the most satisfying since the studio’s Golden Age. Aside from displaying a magical and detailed visual style, “Beauty” manages to adroitly serve two masters, providing a satisfyingly old-fashioned story for the tykes and a batch of clever and effervescent songs for the older set. Disney is hoping for a best-picture nomination, which would be a first for an animated film, but clearly well-deserved.

* Boyz N the Hood. Hollywood social consciousness at its very best. Though “Boyz’s” up-from-the-underclass melodramatic plot is certainly a familiar one, writer-director John Singleton has transposed it to an unfamiliar neighborhood--the violent, gang-ridden ghetto that is South-Central Los Angeles. And he has been able to portray from the inside the gritty no-exit feel of the place, making us empathize with his characters’ despairing hopelessness and allowing us to wonder, along with them, how long this must go on. A best-picture long shot.

* La Belle Noiseuse. A four-hour film with subtitles is not something a well-adjusted person looks forward to, but this latest by Jacques Rivette, one of the founders of the French New Wave, turns out to be totally engrossing--a powerful, passionate piece that examines the almost old-fashioned conception of the artist seeking truth in his work no matter what the human cost. Beautifully acted by the veteran Michel Piccoli as the painter and vibrant Emmanuelle Beart as his model.


* City of Hope. A socially conscious melodrama and the flat-out most ambitious American film of the year, “Hope” has the temerity to seriously address major social issues and the pizazz to do it in a dramatically involving way. Filled with enough characters and incidents to stock a Victorian novel and made with remarkable technical facility, the film is a tribute to the ever-increasing stature of writer-director-actor John Sayles, a quiet man who tends to get overlooked in the rush to find the latest sensation.

* Life Is Sweet. No one makes films quite like British director Mike Leigh, and it shows. Rather than write scripts, he builds them from scratch, using actors in extensive improvisation to, in effect, “grow” his characters--in this case, a marvelously eccentric working-class family--from the ground up. It is a technique that sounds like a blueprint for failure, but Leigh’s perfect psychological pitch, his affinity for the truth in human relationships, allows him to succeed against all kinds of odds.

* Paris Is Burning. A documentary that revives the venerable tradition of taking the viewer to hidden, forbidden worlds, but turns it on its head by showing us a self-contained universe tucked away right in the heart of New York City. Producer-director Jennie Livingston adroitly demonstrates how the subculture of black and Latino drag queens holds up a crooked mirror to straight society. Funny, pointed, poignant, “Paris” will end up breaking your heart.

* The Rapture. Writer-director Michael Tolkin’s first feature drove all kinds of people crazy for reasons ranging from the aesthetic to the theological. Yet the audacity of what it attempts and by and large successfully pulls off remains in the mind long after the negative voices have trailed off. For this is a film of theological ideas, intent on looking into what we believe and why we believe it, determined to explore the most basic issues of heaven, hell and the hereafter. Don’t look for this one on the Disney Channel.

* Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The top-grossing film of 1991, and it deserves every single penny. Expertly delivering the kind of high-impact thrills the action audience has come to expect from director James Cameron, “T2” is a worthy if expensive sequel to its cult favorite progenitor. Bristling with stunts and an eye-popping series of special effects, not to mention a reprise of the role Arnold Schwarzenegger was clearly born to play, “T2” demonstrates why the pure adrenaline rush of motion is something motion pictures can’t live for very long without.

* Thelma & Louise. Last on the list, first in my heart, the picture of the year without a doubt. A neo-feminist road movie, starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon and directed by Ridley Scott, “Thelma” was energized by Callie Khouri’s out-of-the-blue script and a sensibility that made its points about women in society while scrupulously avoiding being preachy. A film that never loses touch with its audience or faith with its better instincts, “Thelma” manages to cleverly piggyback political concerns onto a hell of a wild ride.


Though they did not have the weight or make the kind of impact that would land them on the list, several other films provided enough satisfaction to merit a mention. These range from the serious (“Black Robe,” “The Doctor,” “Bugsy,” the splendid Russian “Taxi Blues”) to the thankfully entertaining (“Dead Again,” “The Commitments,” “Soapdish,” “A Rage in Harlem”). And a special word must be said for “Antonia & Jane,” a tiny, eccentric picture from Britain that provided some of the year’s biggest laughs.

If a 10th film just had to be put on that list, however, it would be none of the above, but rather the version of “Blade Runner” that played briefly at the Nuart. Close to the director’s cut but not quite there, this 10-year-old landmark of visionary filmmaking was a revelation when shorn of its voice-over and its arbitrary ending. Warner Bros. plans a wider release of Ridley Scott’s approved cut early in 1992. And who knows, if that year proves as lean as this one, it just might come in handy when 10-best time rolls around.