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MOVIES : Year of the Low-Costs : 1992 was memorable for such independent gems as ‘Howards End’ but had its share of stinkers according to survey of 106 critics

Pat McGilligan is the author of "George Cukor: A Double Life," recently published in paperback by HarperPerennial. Mark Rowland is West Coast editor of Musician magazine. They have conducted this annual survey for 12 years

Surprise: 1992 was that rare vintage year for high-quality films, according to the nation’s film critics. Not only did they savor what they saw, the critics reached an even rarer consensus about the highs and lows.

“The best year in years,” declared Todd McCarthy of Variety, “no thanks to Hollywood.”

“What was good in ’92 came from small independents or overseas,” echoed Frank Gabrenya of the Columbus Dispatch.

“If you looked beyond the hacks to the mavericks, it’s a snap to name 10 keepers,” decided Peter Travers of Rolling Stone.

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The Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. named the brooding revisionist Western “Unforgiven” as the top film of the year, citing Clint Eastwood as best director. The National Society of Film Critics seconded that emotion. The New York Film Critics Circle opted for “The Player,” director Robert Altman’s comeback film that skewers contemporary Hollywood.

To take the pulse of a broader sampling of critics, we polled the “best” and “worst” lists of 106 newspaper, magazine and television reviewers from both coasts--and plenty of the fly-over places in between--to tally the year’s cinema gems and stinkers.

The results were striking. Once the voting was opened up outside Los Angeles and New York, a compromise best film of 1992 emerged.

Although “Unforgiven” and “The Player” received widespread acclaim in most markets, they lost a tight race to “Howards End,” the Merchant Ivory team’s immaculate version of E. M. Forster’s novel about British middle-class life before the Great War.

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“The masterpiece of 1992,” wrote Steven Rea of the Philadelphia Inquirer about the movie that earned a spot on 82 of those 106 year-end lists, one of the highest percentage of 10-best mentions in the 12-year history of this poll. (Other films that dominated their respective years in similar fashion were “Ordinary People” in 1980, “Tootsie” in 1982 and “Hannah and Her Sisters” in 1986.)

Eastwood and Altman were not far behind. “The Player” appeared on 80 lists, and Judy Gerstel of the Detroit Free Press anointed Altman “Movie Man of the Year.” “Unforgiven” or “the West as Ingmar Bergman might have envisioned it” in the words of Robert W. Butler of the Kansas City Star in Missouri, made an estimable 76 best lists.

Fourth place, with a spot on 58 lists, went to Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” “the most important film of 1992,” according to Jeff Simon of the Buffalo News in New York. Irish filmmaker Neil Jordan’s thriller mixing I.R.A. terrorism and London’s sexual underworld, “The Crying Game,” came on strong on 54 lists, ranking fifth best of the year.

The rest of the cumulative 10-best list was filled out by Disney’s animation feature “Aladdin” (41 lists); Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s latest collaboration with luminous actress Gong Li, “Raise the Red Lantern” (36); Robert Redford’s faithful adaptation of Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” (35); Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives” (33) and Carl Franklin’s low-budget crime sleeper “One False Move” (31).

Just out of the Top 10 were Quentin Tarantino’s gutsy debut, “Reservoir Dogs” (29 lists); the all-star film of David Mamet’s play “Glengarry Glen Ross” (28); the splashy update of the James Fenimore Cooper classic, “The Last of the Mohicans” (26); Danish director Bille August’s “The Best Intentions” (20), from Ingmar Bergman’s screenplay; and Rob Reiner’s courtroom drama, “A Few Good Men” (18).

As is their prickly wont, the critics permitted only one of the Top 10 money-making films of 1992--"Aladdin"--to cross over onto the collective list. Among the big-money films “A League of Their Own,” and Francis Coppola’s grandiose version of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” scrounged up a handful of “best” votes. Instead, most of the box-office leaders--such as “Batman Returns” ($163.7 million) and “Lethal Weapon 3" ($144.6 million), No. 1 and 2 respectively--became conspicuous targets for some critics’ worst-movies-of-the-year denunciations.

It goes without saying that one critic’s pain is another’s pleasure. “Shakes the Clown,” a relentless comedy about an alcoholic clown, was “absolute excrement,” according to Lloyd Paseman of the Register Guard in Eugene, Ore. But Douglas Armstrong of the Milwaukee Journal couldn’t bear to leave the Bobcat Goldthwait vehicle off his annual best line-up. “What good would it do?” wrote Armstrong. “Tattling witnesses heard me howling with laughter.”

Movies with local tie-ins can have either a positive or adverse effect. Ron Howard’s lavish immigrant-land rush saga, “Far And Away,” turned up with regularity on 10-worst movie lists. But critic Sandi Davis of Oklahoma City’s Daily Oklahoman, in land-rush territory, hailed it as one of the year’s “best.” “ ‘Far and Away’ generally got bad reviews,” admitted Davis, “but we loved it in Oklahoma!”

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Conversely, Rodney Dangerfield’s comedy “Lady Bugs” ticked off Robert Denerstein of the Rocky Mountain News, who nominated it as one of the year’s worst. “Filmed in Denver,” moaned Denerstein, “and ain’t we proud.”

Film critics do like to stick their proverbial chins out and sneak some, uh, dubious titles onto their year-end lists.

Candice Russell of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel (“Newsies”), David Sterritt of the Christian Science Monitor (“Shakers”), Bob Curtright of the Wichita Eagle (“The Babe”) in Kansas, Michael H. Price of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (“Trespass”) in Texas, and Glenn Lovell of the San Jose Mercury News (“Jennifer 8") were among those who managed to bravely list a “best” choice among their ten favorites that somehow got overlooked by every other discerning film critic in the country.

Of course, film critics have even more fun and disagreement picking over the dregs. For one thing, there are more bad films to mull over--more than 150, according to the total compiled from this year’s survey.

“Never has it been so easy to compile a Worst 10,” reported Bill Cosford of the Miami Herald, “Get past the first few on the Best 10, and 1992 is a vast field of formula dreams--cats, bats and lethal weapons. The instincts were mostly basic, the adults consenting foolishly, the movies a titanic snooze.”

It is axiomatic among critics that a nasty brickbat must be especially honed and polished before finding its way into print.

“Children of the Corn 2" was so awful “it makes the original look like ‘Citizen Kane,’ ” observed Michael Medved of TV’s “Sneak Previews.” Ralph Bakshi’s return-to-quasi-animation with “Cool World” had “Kim Basinger as a two-dimensional cartoon character,” noted Jami Bernard of the New York Post. “Finally a role she can sink her teeth into.” The Christmas flick “The Bodyguard” “couldn’t have been any sillier had Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston traded roles,” griped Mike Clark of USA Today.

The bygone year was also unusual in that there were few raging controversies among the fractious fraternity of film critics. None of the five best films drew the usual scattering of gratuitous worst votes, for example. And only Jack Nicholson and Woody Allen seem to divide the critics at the year’s close.

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The prolific Allen had two releases this year: His autumnal “Husbands and Wives” crowned many best lists, while the earlier, expressionistic “Shadows and Fog” was to some critics--sometimes the same ones who loved “Husbands and Wives"--as one of the year’s worst.

Although Nicholson’s “A Few Good Men” did well in the best voting, his bravura “Hoffa” piled up both best and worst nods. And when the worsts were coldly counted, it was a Nicholson film, last summer’s unfunny “Man Trouble,” with Nicholson as a trainer of guard dogs, that blew the most dog biscuits making 20 lists.

“Nicholson looks like he knocked off this dud during a timeout at a Lakers game,” opined Bob Fenster of the Arizona Republic.

Take into account that only half of the critics in the survey stooped to reminiscing about the worst. “I’m the first-stringer,” sniffed one of the film critics in the poll, “I don’t have to see all the junk.”

But what does it matter? Duane Byrge of the Hollywood Reporter saw practically everything, and at year’s end he exercised his freedom of idiosyncratic film criticism. Right up there with “Howards End,” “The Player” and “Unforgiven,” Byrge selected the little-known, and probably-destined-to-remain-little-known, “Chopper Chicks From Zombie Town” as one of 1992’s 10 Best. He really liked it.

THE CONSENSUS THE 10 BEST From 106 film critics’ lists: 1. Howards End (82 lists) 2. The Player (80) 3. Unforgiven (76) 4. Malcolm X (58) 5. The Crying Game (54) 6. Aladdin (41) 7. Raise the Red Lantern (36) 8. A River Runs Through It (35) 9. Husbands and Wives (33) 10. One False Move (31) THE 10 WORST In order of unpopularity: 1. Man Trouble (20 lists) 2. Cool World (16) 3. Raising Cain (13) 4. Radio Flyer (11) Christopher Columbus: The Discovery 6. A Stranger Among Us (10) Shining Through Consenting Adults 9. Far and Away (9) Stop or My Mom Will Shoot! BEST FOREIGN FILMS From 106 film critics’ lists: 1. The Crying Game (Ireland) (54) 2. Raise the Red Lantern (China) (36) 3. The Best Intentions (Denmark) (20) 4. Enchanted April (U.K.) (18) 5. The Hairdresser’s Husband (France) (11) Toto le Heros (Belgium) Proof (Australia) 8. Delicatessen (France) (7) 9. Hear My Song (U.K.-Ireland) (7) 10. Flirting (Australia) (6) Close to Eden (Russia)

Critics in the 1992 Best Movies Poll

Following are the critics whose Top 10 lists were included in the McGilligan-Rowland survey : John Anderson, Newsday; David Ansen, Newsweek; Douglas Armstrong, Milwaukee Journal; Gary Arnold, Washington Times; Joe Baltake, Sacramento Bee; David Baron, New Orleans Times-Picayune; Jami Bernard, New York Post; Jay Boyar, Orlando Sentinel; Joan Bunke, Des Moines Register; Robert W. Butler, Kansas City Star; Duane Byrge, Hollywood Reporter.

Bob Campbell, Newark Star-Ledger; Jay Carr, Boston Globe; Kathleen Carroll, New York Daily News; Mike Clark, USA Today; Carol Cling, Las Vegas Review-Journal/Sun; Joanna Connors, Cleveland Plain-Dealer; Richard Corliss, Time; Bill Cosford, Miami Herald; David Crumpler, Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville); Bob Curtright, Wichita Kansas Eagle; Sandi Davis, Daily Oklahoman; Jim Delmont and Jeff Bahr, Omaha World-Herald; Robert Denerstein, Rocky Mountain News (Denver); Dan DiNicola, Schenectady Gazette; Duane Dudek, Milwaukee Sentinel.

Roger Ebert, “Siskel and Ebert”; David Ehrenstein, the Advocate; David Elliott, San Diego Union; Jim Emerson, Orange County Register; Steve Erickson, Los Angeles Weekly; Russell Evansen, Wisconsin State Journal (Madison); Bob Fenster, Arizona Republic; Lawrence Frascella, US Magazine; Frank Gabrenya, Columbus Dispatch; Jack Garner, Gannett News Service; Judy Gerstel, Detroit Free Press; Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly; Edward Guthmann, San Francisco Chronicle.

Eric Harrison, Arkansas Gazette; John Hartl, Seattle Times; Molly Haskell; George Hatza, Reading (Pa.) Eagle-Times; Hal Hinson, Washington Post; Stephen Hunter, Baltimore Sun; Roger Hurlburt, Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel; Richard Jameson, Film Comment; Michael Janusonis, Providence Journal-Bulletin; Malcolm Johnson, Hartford Courant; Bill Kelley, Sarasota Herald-Tribune; Rita Kempley, Washington Post; Peter Keough, Boston Phoenix; Dennis King, Tulsa World; David Kronke, Los Angeles Daily News; Donald La Badie, the Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.); Joe Leydon, Houston Post; Sherry Lucas, Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger); Jeffrey Lyons, “Sneak Previews”; Glenn Lovell, San Jose Mercury News; Tony Lucia, Reading (Pa.) Eagle-Times.

Michael MacCambridge, Austin (Tex.) American-Statesman; Ted Mahar, The Oregonian; Leonard Maltin, “Entertainment Tonight”; Mick Martin, Sacramento Union; Jack Mathews, Newsday; Todd McCarthy, Variety; Michael Medved, “Sneak Previews”; George Meyer, Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune; Joe Meyers, Bridgeport (Conn.) Post; Howie Movshovitz, Denver Post; Dan Neman, Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch; Terry Orme, Salt Lake Tribune.

Lloyd Paseman, the Register-Guard (Eugene, Ore.); Danny Peary, People; Joe Pollack, St. Louis Post-Dispatch; John Powers, Los Angeles Weekly; Michael H. Price, Ft. Worth Star-Telegram; Peter Rainer, Los Angeles Times; Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer; Eleanor Ringle, Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Candace Russell, Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel; Desmond Ryan, Philadelphia Inquirer; Scott Rosenberg, San Francisco Examiner; Andrew Sarris; Stephen Schiff, National Public Radio; Betsy Sherman, Boston Globe; Barbara Shulgasser, San Francisco Examiner; Jeff Simon, Buffalo (N.Y.) News; Gene Siskel, “Siskel and Ebert”; Russell Smith, Dallas Morning News; Susan Start, Detroit News; David Sterrit, Chistian Science Monitor; Bob Strauss, Los Angeles Daily News; Jeff Strickler, Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Ella Taylor, Los Angeles Weekly; Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times; David Thomson; Peter Travers, Rolling Stone; Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times; James Verniere, Boston Herald; Joel Welinm, Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune; Michael Wilmington, Los Angeles Times; Josef Woodard, Santa Barbara Independent; Philip Wuntch, Dallas Morning News; and Gene Wyatt, Nashville Tennessean.


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