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Our Critic's TOP TENOF '94

Hollywood churned out some solid attractions, but offbeat pictures like `Red' and `Crooklyn' brought lasting distinction to a ho-hum year

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 6, 1995



NEW YORK

Critics, audiences, and scouts for the upcoming Academy Awards race generally agree: The past 12 months have been a mighty undistinguished period for high-quality motion pictures.

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Hollywood touted prom-ising productions with its usual might and main, and moviegoers lined up for some of them in impressive numbers. But in the end, few of the year's attractions proved as exciting or memorable as ticket-buyers hoped they'd be.

Not that 1994 was a total loss. Major studios churned out some solid entertainments during the warm-weather season, capitalizing on political skulduggery in ``Clear and Present Danger'' and serving up colorful performances in ``The Client,'' which wrought major improvements on John Grisham's dull novel.

``Quiz Show'' and ``Disclosure'' plugged into important social issues, with varying degrees of thoughtfulness, and late-year releases such as ``Nobody's Fool'' and ``Death and the Maiden'' showed that long-established actors like Paul Newman and Ben Kingsley were more than ready for meaningful new challenges.

Hollywood also found the nerve for a bit of controversy. Oliver Stone pushed multiple hot buttons in ``Natural Born Killers,'' a ferocious look at mass-media glorification of crime, and Quentin Tarantino took a much-needed step toward artistic maturity in ``Pulp Fiction,'' an intricately structured blend of outrageous mayhem and glimmering morality. Both showed more brilliance in style than in content, but at least they gave audiences something to debate - as did ``Forrest Gump,'' the year's most vivid triumph of sentiment over substance.

The very best achievements of 1994 tended to be less flashy than these also-rans, but each contributed something special that's likely to be remembered after more superficial achievements have lost their momentary glow. Herewith are the year's finest films, in no special order, with runners-up mentioned along the way:

`Ladybird, Ladybird'

As one of Britain's most socially alert filmmakers, Ken Loach is ideally suited for this fact-based tale of a working-class mother whose children are seized by welfare authorities. Crissy Rock gives a sizzling performance as the aggrieved parent.

Another worthwhile drama based on real events is Peter Jackson's hard-hitting ``Heavenly Creatures,'' which recounts an awful crime without losing compassion for the misguided youngsters who commit it.

`Crooklyn'

Most critics rejected the meandering story of this delicate drama and positively howled at its most audacious device - a distorting lens that twists part of the movie into a claustrophobic shape that mirrors the heroine's psychological distress. What naysayers missed was the warmth and wisdom Spike Lee brings to a subject Hollywood rarely approaches: the experiences of an African-American youngster in an ordinary urban household.

Other first-rate movies dealing with youth and family in 1994 included Boaz Yakin's startling ``Fresh,'' about a boy's childhood in a drug-infested neighborhood, and Gillian Armstrong's vibrant ``Little Women,'' an exquisitely filmed version of Louisa May Alcott's novel.

`Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould'

At a time when high culture has all but vanished from theatrical movies, this Canadian feature by Francois Girard takes an unconventional look at a great pianist, composer, and philosopher of music. It probes his quirky personality as well as his professional accomplishments. The results are as sassy and surprising as Gould himself, if not as bold or brilliant.