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.
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:
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.
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.
`The Shawshank Redemption'
Crime, punishment, and transcendence are the concerns of this thoughtful prison drama, which focuses on two convicted murderers who become friends behind bars despite their widely divergent backgrounds. Based on a Stephen King story, the screenplay lapses into trashy sensationalism at times, but its basically humane values never disappear for long. Morgan Freeman is superb as an aging convict, and Roger Deakins's cinematography is magnificent. Frank Darabont directed. `Red'
Poland's most mystical filmmaker, Krzysztof Kieslowski, concludes his ``Three Colors'' trilogy with this stunningly photographed drama about a young student, an aging judge, and other characters whose lives seem enigmatically intertwined. Irene Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant head the excellent cast. `Vanya on 42nd Street'
A modest yet magical film of Chekhov's great drama ``Uncle Vanya,'' performed without sets or costumes in a run-down Manhattan theater. Wallace Shawn reveals a whole new depth to his talent, even if the climactic scene takes his abilities a bit beyond their limit. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent. In all, a major victory for the much-maligned genre of filmed theater. Louis Malle directed.
`Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle'
Directed by Alan Rudolph, this ambitious film biography captures both the energetic wit and the underlying melancholy of author Dorothy Parker and her circle of sharp-tongued cronies - celebrating their talents while keeping a cautionary eye on the cynicism that undermined their chances for real happiness in life. Jennifer Jason Leigh gives an affecting though repetitious performance, and Campbell Scott is a revelation as her one close friend.
Another worthy biopic is Tim Burton's offbeat ``Ed Wood,'' about a real-life filmmaker whose life was as bizarre as his grade-Z movies. Johnny Depp plays Wood as an incorrigible movie fan who loves cinema so much that even the mistakes look great to him. Martin Landau steals the show as horror star Bela Lugosi, giving a bravura performance that deserves every award there is.
The movie is marred by outbursts of needless vulgarity, however, especially when Bill Murray's character is on the screen. But ultimately its sheer friendliness carries the day. `To Live'
Zhang Yimou, China's greatest contemporary filmmaker, looks at several decades of recent Chinese history through the eyes of a flawed hero who gradually matures as the story proceeds.
Although it's less resonant than such masterpieces as ``Ju Dou'' and ``The Story of Qiu Ju,'' there's much to savor in this sweeping yet intimate saga.
`What Happened Was ...'
Desperate for companionship, two office workers have an awkward dinner together, and by the time it's over we feel we've glimpsed the deepest recesses of their lonely souls.
Director Tom Noonan wrote the poignant screenplay, based on his original stage play, and takes the role of the male character opposite Karen Sillas, an actress of extraordinary gifts. The movie is small, sincere, and riveting from start to finish.
Movies don't get more personal than this unusual documentary, made by Nanni Moretti, a respected Italian director who deserves more attention from American audiences.
The first section finds him touring Rome on a motor scooter; the second brings him to a yuppie colony on an offshore island; the third chapter chronicles a bout with illness, leading to a life-affirming conclusion.
It's charming and engrossing all the way.