Politics reemerges as a topic in many of 1992's noteworthy films

FOR a while, it looked as if 1992 might blossom into a particularly strong year for American movies.

A wide variety of US filmmakers served up films on all-American subjects ranging from real-estate hustling and computer crime to black nationalism and political skulduggery.

Meanwhile, cinema producers in other parts of the world made Hollywood look even better by turning out less than their fair share of memorable pictures.

Still, if my 10-best lineup seems surprisingly strong on Anglophone achievements, blame it on vicissitudes of timing rather than a major surge in Hollywood's imagination or a full-fledged slump in international-film creativity. As things turned out, the American studios failed to build momentum beyond the first-rate productions mentioned on this page, and powerful movies were indeed made outside the United States during the past 12 months - some of them slated for American theaters in the near future, an d already prime contenders for next year's top-10 competition.

The only trend of 1992 worth special mention is the reappearance of political activity as a topic for movies. Yet this didn't make for a solemn or even a particularly serious year, as writers and directors approached their stories with a laughing eye as often as a furrowed brow.

Herewith the best pictures to be commercially released in the US since last January, listed in alphabetical order:

* American Dream. In the spirit of her classic documentary "Harlan County USA," filmmaker Barbara Kopple set out to chronicle a bitter strike at a Midwestern meatpacking plant, but found the workers to be as disgruntled with each other as with the management they opposed. Her film is a record not only of the union's job action, but also of Ms. Kopple's increasingly complex response to an increasingly tangled American labor scene. (Rated PG-13).

* Bob Roberts. True, the story doesn't make much sense. But this mischievous satire about a conservative millionaire running for Congress had the courage of its convictions, opening in summertime so it could holler its discontent with politics-as-usual amid a real-life version of its own electoral shenanigans. What matters more than the film's unabashedly liberal message is the fact that director Tim Robbins put his movie-star clout at the service of a project that cares about ideas as much as box-office

dollars. (Rated R)

* The Crying Game. This is the year's hardest movie for critics to describe. On one hand, it uses unconventional sexuality as a symbol for moral and political ambivalence, with explicit imagery that mandates advance warning for many moviegoers. On the other, its story - about an Irish terrorist who gets emotionally involved with the lover of a former hostage - pivots on a sex-related plot twist that no reviewer should reveal. Neil Jordan's thriller is flatly directed in spots, but makes a forthright plea

for tolerance and understanding while exploding all sorts of stereotypes. While definitely not for the cautious, it's thoughtful and well-intentioned. (Rated R)

* Glengarry Glen Ross. As in much of David Mamet's work, this film's torrent of four-letter language is less an exploitation of vulgarity than a symptom of the sadly dehumanizing culture in which its characters are trapped. Focusing on desperate real-estate brokers faced with a hopelessly unfair job situation, the picture explores a side of the 1980s that Oliver Stone's upscale "Wall Street" only hinted at. Jack Lemmon heads an all-star cast under James Foley's energetic direction. (Rated R)

* Howards End. Watching this superbly civilized entertainment is like entering a special museum where exquisite performances are matched by settings, furnishings, and props so eloquent that only director James Ivory and his associates could have assembled them. Anthony Hopkins gives the most memorable performance, as an Edwardian gentleman caught in dramatic entanglements, but every character is played with a depth and dignity that does justice to E. M. Forster's novel. (Rated PG)

* Laws of Gravity. Nick Gomez makes the directing debut of the year with this low-budget study of tough guys strutting their stuff in Brooklyn - a subject that other filmmakers have explored but few have mastered with such assurance. The ingeniously sustained camera work deftly captures the interplay between characters and environments, and the performances are extraordinarily rich. (Rated R)

* Malcolm X. Spike Lee's ambitious bio-pic is disappointingly conventional, drawing on longtime Hollywood formulas that many white directors could have handled just as convincingly. Still, the saga of this mercurial African-American leader is absorbing and stimulating every step of the way, and Mr. Lee deserves applause for preserving the full depth and breadth of the autobiography that inspired his efforts. Denzel Washington, a star down to his bones, heads the excellent cast. (Rated PG-13)

* The Player. Robert Altman's comeback to Hollywood filmmaking is an uproarious howl of rage at Hollywood filmmaking, finding commercialism and corruption in every inch of Tinseltown's self-important empire. Capping his own joke, moreover, Mr. Altman has enlisted an army of stars to participate in the put-down. Michael Tolkin wrote the audacious screenplay, and Tim Robbins sets the tone for the dourly hilarious performances. (Rated R)

* Sneakers. This comedy-thriller is rousing entertainment with a surprisingly intelligent subtext. Robert Redford plays a one-time radical whose sell-out to the establishment goes kerflooey when he's hired to help a computer-based espionage investigation. Humor, suspense, and political ideas travel side-by-side throughout the whimsical story, which features a diverse cast under Phil Alden Robinson's snappy direction. (Rated PG-13)

* Toto le heros. A swirling journey through the life of a man who's convinced that his proper home, parents, and identity were swiped at birth by another kid born at the same time. Full of visual and intellectual fun, the movie is almost too inventive for its own good, but Belgian filmmaker Jaco van Dormael makes it work through sheer energy and inventiveness. He's definitely a newcomer to watch. (Rated PG-13)

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