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1994: YEAR IN REVIEW : No Weddings, No Lions, No Gumps : This critic’s best film of the year, the documentary ‘Hoop Dreams,’ handily slam-dunks superstar box-office performers in an otherwise indifferent year.

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

Can a documentary be considered the best film of the year?

It depends on the documentary, and it depends on the year. And in 1994, everything points to the landmark American doc “Hoop Dreams” as the No. 1 pick for the preceding 12 months.

While the studios may feel differently, with both “The Lion King” and “Forrest Gump” headed for the $300-million domestic gross mark and several more lined up at $100 million or better, those whose pockets aren’t being lined almost universally consider 1994 a grim stretch for mainstream pictures.

Making this year seem even worse is the absence of quality product in the holiday season, traditionally the time for the best the studios have to offer. That something called “Dumb and Dumber” might be the hit of the moment certainly tells you the direction in which Hollywood is pointing.

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But no matter how inept these studio warhorses might be, many people still can’t imagine that a documentary could be a better choice. Still regretting the time spent watching drab items like “My Friend the Atom,” audiences mistakenly think they know what documentaries are like: undeniably worthy but inevitably soporific.

Which is one of the reasons “Hoop Dreams” is such a revelation. A window into the lives of a pair of standout Chicago high school basketball players that took seven years to make, it combines the excitement of competition with a provocative examination of the complexities of urban life. Rife with incident, filled with compelling personalities and the ups and downs of outrageous fortune, “Hoop Dreams” is as out-and-out entertaining as any film of the year, and it offers more substance than almost any that could be named.

There is yet another reason to anoint “Hoop Dreams,” and that is to call attention to the critical mass of exceptional documentaries that visited Los Angeles this past year, a group whose strength was matched only by the timidity of most audiences.

Besides “Hoop Dreams,” “Freedom on My Mind,” “The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl,” “High Lonesome” and the brilliant “Black Harvest” all suffered from the refusal of moviegoers to believe that nonfiction films can be as satisfying as they are. If “Hoop Dreams” does no more than help convert the heathen, it will have done a great deal.

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Trailing behind at a respectful distance:

2) Red. An adult fairy tale that focuses on the need for human connection even the most detached lives are prey to, this last installment of the “Three Colors” trilogy underscores Krzysztof Kieslowski’s position as the most accomplished director working today. A master whose hallmark is unobtrusiveness, Kieslowski is that rare artist with a virtuoso’s exhilarating grasp of all aspects of filmmaking.

3) Quiz Show. Though it did not catch on with ticket buyers, this examination of the rigged TV programs of the late 1950s is the best film to come out of the studio system this year. Directed by Robert Redford from a script by Paul Attanasio and starring Ralph Fiennes as a trapped Charles Van Doren, “Quiz Show” is a Hollywood rarity: a thoughtful, absorbing drama about moral ambiguity and the affability of evil.

4) Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. Audacious, playful, as confident as it is smart, this unconventional biography of the virtuoso pianist was superbly orchestrated by Canadian director Francois Girard. A glimpse into what it might be like to be a genius, “Gould” not only knows exactly what it wants to do but also just how to go about doing it.

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5) Heavenly Creatures. Hysteria and obsession are staples of moviemaking, as are strong emotional attachments and sensational crimes. But what director Peter Jackson and stars Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet have done in this nervy look at the most celebrated criminal case in New Zealand history is different. They’ve shown those states from the inside, made us feel sensations as intensely as the protagonists, and that is quite an accomplishment.

6) The Blue Kite. Though it got less publicity than last year’s “Farewell My Concubine” or this year’s “To Live,” Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang’s look at recent Chinese history is the most authentic, the most accessible and the most powerful of the three. Other Asian films worthy of honorable mention are the delightful “Eat Drink Man Woman” from Taiwan and Vietnam’s glowing “The Scent of Green Papaya.”

7) Four Weddings and a Funeral. A light, smart romantic comedy of the type Hollywood used to specialize in but can’t seem to manage anymore. Deftly written by Richard Curtis and directed by the versatile Mike Newell, “Weddings” made Hugh Grant into an international star and reminded everyone how much simple fun going to the movies could be.

8) Clear and Present Danger. The most satisfying adventure movie of the year, directed by Philip Noyce and notable for its pleasantly complex story line, crackerjack action sequences, character nuances and the way it reconfirms Harrison Ford’s position as the Good Housekeeping seal for genre entertainment. Tom Clancy never had it so good.

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9) Vanya on 42nd Street. A movie of a staged reading of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” that was not originally intended for an audience, this is a melding of cinema and drama that does honor to both disciplines. Beautifully directed (by Andre Gregory on stage and Louis Malle behind the camera) and consummately acted, it has the unfair advantage of Chekhov’s marvelous words. They really don’t write them like that anymore.

10) The Madness of King George. One of the last films to open in 1994 (arriving in theaters on Wednesday) is one of the best. It’s also an adaptation of a play, this one by Alan Bennett that was a recent sensation on the London stage. One reason for the raves was star Nigel Hawthorne, who repeats his performance as the troubled 18th-Century monarch and enlarges our experience of what exceptional acting can accomplish.

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If there were room for more films on this list, candidates would include Tim Burton’s dark madcap farce “Ed Wood”; “I Like It Like That,” director Darnell Martin’s scintillating debut, and a double bill by noirmeister John Dahl, whose “Red Rock West” and “The Last Seduction” both hit the big screen in 1994.

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And for the second year in a row, special mention must be given to the dead/alive British film industry, which, in addition to “King George” and “Four Weddings,” contributed “Bhaji on the Beach,” “December Bride” and Ken Loach’s marvelous “Raining Stones” to local screens.

Finally, no mention of 1994 would be complete without reference to the slick Katzenjammer Kids of screen violence, Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.” They came, they killed, they conquered almost everyone, but at the end of the day, after the shock has worn off, it remains an open question how much substance was lurking behind all that bloody style.*

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Top 10 Lists

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Here are the top films of the year as selected by The Times’ other film reviewers:

PETER RAINER

1. Vanya on 42nd Street

2. The Madness of King George

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3. Time Indefinite

4. Blue Sky

5. The New Age

6. Sunday’s Children

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7. Cobb

8. Widows’ Peak

9. Hoop Dreams

10. Red Rock West

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KEVIN THOMAS

1. Red

2. Pulp Fiction

3. Heavenly Creatures

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4. To Live

5. Vanya on 42nd Street

6. Totally F***ed Up

7. Ed Wood

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8. Bullets Over Broadway

9. Little Women

10. Four Weddings and a Funeral


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