YEAR IN REVIEW 1995 : MOVIES : A Swine Before Pearls : If wit and imagination are the hallmarks, picking the year’s best movie is easy.

Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

Though it’s become an annual tradition to whine and moan about the deficiencies of Hollywood, this year the studios have let audiences down with a vengeance.

It’s not that anyone expects sensitive, provocative, cutting-edge dramas from the industry’s major players. That’s not their job. But even looked at in terms of providing satisfying mass audience entertainment that doesn’t mock the intelligence of anyone within 100 yards of the screen, 1995 was a noticeably weak year.

The problem stems from Hollywood’s greatest strength, the fact that it is an industry with assembly lines to run and mouths to feed. Asked a few years back why British films are strong even though the country’s film business is weak, director Neil Jordan explained that since it was so difficult getting projects off the ground, nothing got made unless people cared passionately about it. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about most of what the studios offer.


1. In this atmosphere of general gloom, what film was most satisfying, what motion picture gave the most hope, not to mention comfort and joy, to disgruntled viewers? What else but that swine of destiny, “Babe.”

Though it qualified as a genuine sleeper when it opened, “Babe” is no secret anymore. It’s been so successful that its star (actually 48 different piglets) made People magazine’s year-end compendium of “The 25 Most Intriguing People of the Year” and newspapers in its native Australia have taken to calling it “Jurassic Pork.”

But triumph has not gone to “Babe’s” head. The film remains witty, captivating and imaginative. More than anything, its creativity and ability to surprise say more for the future of film as a medium that has not forgotten how to entertain than most of the other runts of this year’s litter.

The rest of 1995’s 10 best list (and not a runt among them) include the following:

2. Heat. An exceptionally good crime melodrama, ambitious and proud of it, in which strong acting from stars Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Val Kilmer complement a meticulously controlled and completely involving piece of filmmaking by Michael Mann. Also notable in the noir category is Bryan Singer’s virtuoso roller-coaster “The Usual Suspects.”

3. Toy Story. It’s always a pleasure to say hello to a new form of visual dazzle, but the real delight and accomplishment of this first full-length piece of computer-generated animation is how much cleverness has been invested in story and dialogue. With Tom Hanks and Tim Allen in starring roles, “Toy Story” is also remarkable for the across-the-board excellence of its voices.

4. Persuasion. Yes, it’s “Sense and Sensibility” that’s getting all the attention, but this version of Jane Austen’s final novel is shrewder, richer and finally more satisfying, partly because the book it’s based on is a more mature work with as much texture and bite as anything Austen wrote. And attention should also be paid to Amy Heckerling’s “Emma"-based “Clueless,” which transports Jane to Beverly Hills.

5. Crumb. A remarkable documentary, unsettling yet unmistakably human, about the troubled and troublesome family of underground cartoonist R. Crumb. More than a biography, it deals as well with larger issues like the concept of the artist as a messenger to society from a personal hell.

6. Il Postino. This Italian film has an unfair advantage: a great comic actor (Massimo Troisi) who knew he was dying and wanted to get, as he himself put it, the last piece of his old heart into this picture. The result is a tender and wistful romantic comedy that gains poignancy and a kind of purity from Troisi’s performance.

7. Safe. Intellectually provocative films are about the last thing we’ve come to expect from American directors, independent or otherwise, but Todd Haynes’ troubling work starring Julianne Moore as an affluent housewife who finds herself allergic to the 20th century is a coolly ambiguous exception.

8. To Die For. A surprising combination of talents (director Gus Van Sant, writer Buck Henry, star Nicole Kidman) have come together to produce a smart black comedy that skewers America’s fatal obsession with television and celebrity.

9. Unstrung Heroes. Diane Keaton’s first drama for the large screen as a director demonstrates the actress’ sure touch with emotion and empathy with eccentric behavior. A singular mixture of slapstick and subtlety, sadness and mad farce.

10. Richard III. Like last year’s “The Madness of King George,” this is a late-arriving British import that didn’t open until Friday. Starring the brilliant Ian McKellan as the Machiavellian English monarch, this film successfully modernizes and energizes Shakespeare in a way that is close to unprecedented.

If this list could legally be any longer it would find room for a pair of beautifully acted films, the Jonathan Pryce/Emma Thompson “Carrington” and the Jennifer Jason Leigh/Mare Winningham “Georgia,” which dealt with unusual relationships in insightful and intelligent ways.

And it’s almost painful to leave off the thoughtful, sensitive “Wild Reeds,” easily the best foreign language film that no one saw. Directed by Andre Techine and a major success in its native France, it is, thanks to several year-end critics’ groups awards, getting a new lease at the Sunset 5 and ought not to be missed.

Aside from film noir, the genre that did best in 1995, at least in terms of quality, was the children’s market. Regrettably, excellent films like “A Little Princess,” “The Secret of Roan Inish” and “The Indian in the Cupboard” could not beg or borrow a following. So much for much-vaunted parental concern about their offspring’s moviegoing habits.

And 1995 was also the year that saw a wonderful, one-of-a-kind documentary called “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey” attempt to find an audience in an unforgiving marketplace. A true story that is easily stranger and more absorbing than most fictions, “Theremin” eccentrically combines science, romance, espionage and Brian Wilson’s “Good Vibrations.” That’s entertainment, for sure.


Kevin Thomas’ Top 10 of ’95


1. “Leaving Las Vegas” 2. “Shanghai Triad” 3. “Crumb” 4. “Last Summer at the Haptons” 5. “The City of Lost Children” 6. “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey” 7. “Wild Reeds” 8. “Farinelli” 9. “Strawberry and Chocolate” 10. “The Mystery of Rampo”