Films Heard 'Round the Water Cooler

1996 provided a bumper crop of excellent movies that kept viewers talking long after they left the theater

It was a good year for movies that made people think.

This doesn't mean the best pictures of 1996 had messages to please every taste, or that they expressed their ideas in crowd-pleasing ways. Entertainments like "Twister" and "The First Wives Club" sold more tickets than most (maybe all) of the films on the following list.

But the movies named below typically generated lively dinner-table discussions among avid moviegoers, and they're the ones most likely to spark fresh interest when they hit the TV and home-video circuits. Those were the main criteria used in selecting them, along with old-fashioned movie virtues like excellent acting and a concern for human values that speak to the mind and heart as well as the ear and eye.

And of course, creative filmmaking is essential. Processes like editing and cinematography give the story its moment-to-moment shape, making the difference between a vivid experience and a bland one.

In alphabetical order, then, here are one critic's choices for the most thought-provoking pictures of the past 12 months.

Citizen Ruth. Pregnant yet again, irresponsible Ruth Stoops gets a surprising offer from a prosecutor who wants to jail her for drug abuse: Have an abortion and we'll go easy on you in court. Ruth is tempted to accept, but that's before an anti-abortion group takes her in hand, making her a pawn in its ongoing battle with prochoice activists. Alexander Payne's equal-opportunity satire shows that no ideological group has a lock on "values" or "correctness," and that fanatics can be found on every side of an issue. Laura Dern gives an Oscar-calibre performance as the hapless protagonist. (R)

Dead Man. Johnny Depp plays an accountant named William Blake, traveling through the Old West with an Indian named Nobody by his side and a gang of hired gunmen on his trail. Jim Jarmusch's offbeat western was the year's most misunderstood movie. Some called it mean-spirited, but since it shows the decline of Indian civilization from an Indian point of view, feel-good filmmaking would hardly have been appropriate.

Also troubling are a few moments of jarringly explicit sex and violence, but their ugliness is exactly the point: Nasty, antisocial acts are allowed to look as nasty and antisocial as they really are.

At heart, the movie is an attack on materialism in all its forms. Gary Farmer, Gabriel Byrne, and Robert Mitchum lead the supporting cast. Neil Young plays the pulsing rock score. (R)

Get on the Bus. Director Spike Lee provides two hours of richly human drama in this story about a dozen African-Americans headed to the Million Man March. The film is full of fascinating characters like an old man searching for new directions, a teen shackled to his father by a judge's order, and even a black Republican or two. By turns poignant and hilarious, the picture boasts energetic acting by splendid black performers we'd see every month if Hollywood had its wits about it. (R)

Looking for Richard. This production is partly a film version of Shakespeare's tragedy "Richard III" and partly a nonfiction look at Al Pacino's longtime investigation of the play, its meanings for our modern world, and the best ways to get its messages across to contemporary audiences. Winona Ryder and Kevin Spacey are among the players in the dramatic scenes; interview segments focus on Kevin Kline and Vanessa Redgrave, among many others. In all, this was the best Shakespeare movie of a year when everyone from Hamlet to Romeo and Juliet got Hollywood exposure. (PG-13)

Mother Night. Nick Nolte plays the year's most unlikely hero: an American writer who becomes a spy for the Allies during World War II, smuggling secrets out of Germany while serving the Nazi government as a high-powered propaganda artist. Later he returns to New York, becomes an unwilling hero for neo-Nazi zealots, and wonders whether his real identity got lost in all the confusion. Keith Gordon has brought Kurt Vonnegut's novel to the screen with its moody intelligence and dark wit intact. Alan Arkin and John Goodman head the supporting cast. (R)

The People vs. Larry Flynt. Woody Harrelson plays a real-life pornographer who builds a sleazy magazine into a publishing empire. The film's main interest is his lengthy court battle with Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell, pivoting on the question of whether blatantly repulsive speech is protected under constitutional law. The answer is yes, as stated in a unanimous Supreme Court decision written by one of the tribunal's most conservative members. Milos Forman's drama is sure to offend liberals and conservatives with some of the year's most outrageous material, but no other picture positions itself so squarely on the cutting edge of current debates over censorship, free speech, and the effect of mass media on contemporary life. (R)

The Portrait of a Lady. Isabel Archer jeopardizes her bright future by marrying a self-absorbed man who sees her as just an addition to his collection of beautiful things.

The immaculately textured prose of Henry James's novel finds a cinematic equivalent in Jane Campion's rich visual style, which uses unexpected shots and precisely chosen colors to convey the story's complex ideas and emotions. Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, and Barbara Hershey lead the fine cast. (PG-13)

Secrets & Lies. A young Englishwoman decides to find her biological mother, who gave her up for adoption on the day she was born.

Her quest succeeds, giving everyone a major surprise: The daughter is a black professional woman, but her newly found family is white, working-class, and completely unprepared for her arrival in their lives. Mike Leigh's bittersweet comedy gains warmth from heartfelt acting, vivid dialogue, and a deeply compassionate approach to real human problems. (R)

Vertigo. The best of several good revivals was Alfred Hitchcock's drama about a retired detective (James Stewart) who becomes obsessed with a mysterious woman (Kim Novak) apparently under the influence of a ghostly force. At once formally brilliant, emotionally rich, and hugely entertaining, this 1958 masterpiece remains the most profound work by one of world cinema's greatest artists. (PG)

The White Balloon. A little girl wants a new goldfish to make her New Year celebration perfect, but her trip to the pet shop is interrupted by numerous adventures. This is a charming example of Iran's long tradition of making sensitive movies about children. Directed by Jafar Panahi, it's easily the year's most winning advertisement for the joy of international cinema at its best. (Not rated)

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