A Fine Year for Film

The Monitor's top-10 movies go a long way toward debunking the myth of a cultural wasteland

IT was a good 12 months. Instead of facing a shortage of material to fill out my list of the past year's top achievements, as sometimes happens, the challenge in summing up 1993 was to pare at least a dozen contenders to just 10, the number dictated by movie-critic tradition.

Also encouraging were certain tendencies in the movie world - not new, but certainly going strong - that gave the lie once again to the small band of cynical critics who claim that contemporary movies are forever at war with decent, positive values.

From the religious concerns of ``Household Saints'' to the quiet compassion of ``The Remains of the Day'' and the life-affirming joy of ``The Long Day Closes,'' the year gave clear evidence that thoughtfulness, uprightness, and old-fashioned optimism are anything but strangers to the commercial screen.

Bestowing special praise on precisely 10 movies is an arbitrary custom, of course, and in ways a silly one. Several entries on my runner-up list are a mere squeak below the very best, and all are well worth viewing. Some have already entered the video market, and others will be available on cassette when their wide-screen careers have ended.

Herewith my favorites, listed not by merit (that would be splitting hairs too exactingly) but in alphabetical order:

The Age of Innocence, directed by Martin Scorsese. In the year's most amazing change of pace, a filmmaker known for the streetwise hustle of ``Taxi Driver'' and ``GoodFellas'' turned Edith Wharton's subtle satire of 19th-century manners and morals into a feast for the eyes and a rhapsody for the imagination. Exquisitely photographed by Michael Ballhaus and edited with audacious vigor by Thelma Schoonmaker, the film offers a New York portrait as vivid as any in Scorsese's canon, and definitively disproves the notion that violence and vulgarity are indispensable aspects of his cinematic vision. The foremost American filmmaker of his generation has shown a whole new side of his creative personality, auguring much future excitement for him and us.

Household Saints, directed by Nancy Savoca. Impossible to squeeze into any of the usual categories, this remarkable film begins as an ethnic comedy about an Italian-American woman coping with the domineering habits of her self-absorbed father, her brash young husband, and her superstitious new mother-in-law. The movie catches fire in its second half when the heroine has a daughter. The little girl turns out to be consumed by a burning love of God -

which makes her surprised family more nervous than proud, and confuses even her parochial-school teachers with its strength and intensity. One needn't applaud every dramatic, cinematic, or religious detail in Savoca's tale to be profoundly moved by the film. It attempts to deal humanely and sincerely with spiritual issues through the inherently physical medium of cinema. For all its flaws, there hasn't been a braver or more touching film in ages.

In the Name of the Father, directed by Jim Sheridan. Based on real events, this full-throttle drama tells the story of an apolitical Irish youth who's wrongly arrested for a bombing linked to the Irish Republican Army. He spends 15 years in prison before the illegalities in his conviction - and that of his equally guiltless father - are brought to light. Despite its topical subject, the film is about ideas rather than ideology, focusing not only on the facts of the hero's case but on his growth to maturity and responsibility under horribly adverse circumstances. Daniel Day-Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite head the excellent cast.

The Long Day Closes, directed by Terence Davies. The year's most underrated British film is an exquisitely wrought journey into the filmmaker's own boyhood, almost plotless but filled with touching images and sensitively selected music. One sequence, an overhead moving-camera shot that glides from a school to a church to a movie theater while Debbie Reynolds sings ``Tammy'' on the soundtrack, is as visually and emotionally rich as anything the cinema has given us in recent memory. A sequel to Davies's darker and more wrenching ``Distant Voices/Still Lives,'' this adventure in autobiography deserves a far wider audience than it has received so far.

Naked, directed by Mike Leigh. This sizzling melodrama is for the adventurous only: a portrait of wasted youth and misspent intelligence, centering on a wired-up young British man who barges into London for a weekend of confrontations with acquaintances and strangers. At first his aggression and misogyny seem as gratuitous as they are offensive. But it soon becomes clear that Leigh and his cast are etching an angry critique of contemporary ennui, aimlessness, and materialism; to fault them for pulling no punches - or for spicing their tale with bitterly hilarious wordplay - is to miss the depth of their anger at social structures that allow such dissipation of individual energy and resourcefulness. David Thewlis gives a brilliant and blistering performance as the antihero.

The Remains of the Day, directed by James Ivory. Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson are perfectly matched as an emotionally repressed butler and an affectionate housekeeper. The two work at an English estate where their employer, a self-important aristocrat, spends the years before World War II trying to align British policy with Hitler's power-hungry machinations. Working with his usual partners, (producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala), director Ivory turns Kazuo Ishiguro's articulate novel into a sensitive study of how such respected values as loyalty, dignity, and traditionalism may be turned to the darkest of purposes when the motivations behind them are tragically skewed.

Ruby in Paradise, directed by Victor Nunez. Ruby is a young woman from the Tennessee mountains, and paradise is what she's vaguely hoping to find when she moves to northern Florida, takes an unassuming job in a gift shop, and starts to explore the opportunities and limitations posed by the everyday world around her. Nunez unfolds her story at a leisurely yet steadily absorbing pace, allowing Ashley Judd to develop one of the year's most luminous performances in the title role. Made on a low budget by artists with high hopes and towering talents, this is another undersung gem that deserves much wider fame.

Schindler's List, directed by Steven Spielberg. After years of wide-screen video games like ``Jurassic Park'' and the Indiana Jones pictures, the master of movie manipulation makes his first genuinely grown-up film, and it's a marvel of compassionate storytelling.

Liam Neeson is riveting as a Nazi industrialist who saves hundreds of Jews from extermination, and Ralph Fiennes matches him as the death-camp commander who is his closest friend and most dangerous foe. The movie can be faulted for never modulating the helplessness of its Jewish characters, and for overdoing its reverence toward the ultimately inexplicable Schindler, especially in a gushy climactic scene. But these are quibbles with an achievement of extraordinary merit.

The Story of Qiu Ju, directed by Zhang Yimou. After the studied formalism of his popular ``Raise the Red Lantern,'' the most gifted of today's Chinese filmmakers has mastered an opposite style, giving this carefully structured story the look of an off-the-cuff documentary. The heroine is an ordinary woman who's determined to get justice for a minor wrong inflicted on her husband by their village chief. Against all advice, she refuses to give up her quest no matter how many miles must be traveled - and how many layers of government bureaucracy must be negotiated - along the way. The great Gong Li gives another inimitable performance, leaving behind her usual glamour but sustaining every speck of her fine talent.

What's Love Got To Do With It, directed by Brian Gibson. Rock-and-roll biographies often make engaging movies, from ``The Buddy Holly Story'' to ``Great Balls of Fire,'' and this excellent drama - based on Tina Turner's early tormented relationship with Ike Turner, her mentor and husband - is no exception. Angela Bassett gives a forceful yet superbly nuanced portrayal of the heroine, and Laurence Fishburne is flat-out brilliant as her abusive partner. Equal honors go to director Gibson for weaving story, acting, and music into a whole that's dazzlingly effective even if soul music isn't your usual brand of excitement.

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