CRITICS' TOP PICKS FOR FALL

Eighty-six films are scheduled for wide release during the next few months. Of those, the following are worth a look, according to critics: * OCTOBER

``M. Butterfly'' - Jeremy Irons and John Lone star in the screen adaptation of David Henry Hwang's Broadway hit about a French diplomat who fell in love with a Beijing opera singer who turned out to be a man.

``Short Cuts'' - This follow-up to Robert Altman's critically acclaimed ``The Player'' includes the director's familiar ensemble casting (with Tim Robbins, Lyle Lovett, Anne Archer, Andie McDowell, Jack Lemmon, and others.) An amalgamation of Raymond Carver short stories.

``Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas'' - By all accounts one of the oddest animated features in Disney history. Includes stop-action puppets in a macabre musical fantasy that involves the kidnapping of Santa Claus. * NOVEMBER

``The Remains of the Day'' - Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson reunite with ``Howards End'' director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. An adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's best-selling novel about a perfect butler who learns too late that he has wasted his life.

``The Piano'' - Holly Hunter plays a mute woman in turn-of-the-century New Zealand who arrives for an arranged marriage to a wealthy landowner (Sam Neill) who refuses to transport her most-prized possession, a piano.

``George Balanchine's The Nutcracker'' - Macaulay Culkin is a student at American Ballet Theater in this feature-length version of New York City Ballet's holiday classic. * DECEMBER

``The Pelican Brief'' - Author John Grisham's bestseller about a law student and a newspaper reporter on the trail of conspiracy. Stars Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington.

``Angie, I Says'' - Geena Davis stars in the saga of an Italian-American Brooklynite's unpredictable reaction to becoming pregnant. Co-stars Stephen Rea, Oscar nominee for ``The Crying Game.''

``Schindler's List'' - Steven Spielberg directs the Steven Zaillian adaptation of Thomas Keneally's novel about a Nazi who secretly saved the lives of 1,300 Jews. Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley star.

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