Personal best

From a year full of startling and memorable movies, here are our favorites

Matt Zoller Seitz
When H.L. Mencken wrote that criticism is prejudice made plausible, he was onto something. Like music, movies are more often fueled by passion than intellect. They invite, even demand, borderline-irrational gut responses.

As a result, it's always difficult to come up with year-end "Best" lists--especially when you consider the amazing variety of emotions summoned by a medium as diverse and complex as film. Once you get past rudimentary questions like, "What does this movie promise it's going to do?" and "Does the movie actually do it, and by what means?" you're left pondering such imponderables as mood, rhythm and artistic commitment, and you soon arrive at the same base conclusion as any moviegoer: either the picture struck a personal chord, or it didn't. Period, cut, print.

(In alphabetical order)
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The trailer made me worry that this movie would use its central premise (three drag performers from urban Sydney, Australia travel into the outback and wow the yokels) for cheap, one-note laughs. But writer-director Stephen Elliott surprised me in countless ways. He put a very wide screen to very good use, creating the most visually sumptuous comedy in years, and he treated his heroes, their friends and families, and their various foils with decency and respect.

Bitter Moon/Savage Nights. A couple of silly, violent, perverse, sexy, and deeply personal movies about screwed-up fringe dwellers, told with stargazing, overwrought emotion. The first is about a bitter would-be novelist who gets sucked into a psychosexual whirlpool in modern-day Europe, and the second is about a bisexual, HIV-positive musician, filmmaker, and hopeless hedonist living out his final days in early-'80s Paris. But they have more in common than tone. Bitter Moon's director, exiled filmmaker Roman Polanski, and the creator of Savage Nights, writer-director-star Cyril Collard (who died of complications from AIDS shortly after his first and only feature premiered in Europe), might have been demonically possessed when they made these pictures. You don't so much watch them as witness them, like train derailments or volcanic eruptions. Even if you end up despising them, you damn sure know you've seen something unique.

The Bride with White Hair. At heart, this Chinese action melodrama about two assassins (Leslie Cheung and Bridget Lin) working for rival medieval clans who fall madly in love is yet another retelling of Romeo and Juliet. But director Ronni Yu, who shot the entire picture on freakishly stylized indoor sets, and staged the love scenes and combat sequences with the bold eye of a modern dance choreographer, lent the proceedings an enchanted aura of feverish dreaminess. Along with The Crow, this was the most visually exciting feature film of the year.

The Crow. The plot is just a bloody MTV crossbreeding of the Dead Girlfriend pop song genre and a Charles Bronson revenge flick: a grunge guitarist named Eric Draven (the late Brandon Lee, in a sexy, touching, and scary star turn that hinted at great things to come) returns from the dead to avenge the murders of himself and his fiancee at the hands of slimy criminals. But director Alex Proyas drenched the story in apocalyptic longing and staged the hero's tragic quest with such jaw-dropping visual panache that the film attained an operatic grandeur. It's the best comic book movie ever made.

Heavenly Creatures. From New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson came this sublimely woozy retelling of that country's most sensational murder, which saw two teenage girls named Pauline and Juliet murder a parent they feared might break up their passionate friendship. What I loved about it--even more than Jackson's stunning grasp of film technique and his obvious sympathy for his obsessive heroines--was the way he recaptured the yearning, burning, almost religious myopia of adolescence.

The Lion King. Yes, it contains the same basic elements as nearly all Disney animated features. But sonnets and haiku and ballads are all constructed from the same raw materials, too, and infinite variation is still possible if the artists are skillful, brave, and full of passion. The most emotionally powerful animated feature since Dumbo, the film also had a dark, epic look that linked it to the finest works of Welles and Kurosawa.

Little Women. Mix together a smart director (Gillian Armstrong), a sharp screenplay from a classic novel, and a cast full of radiant women (including Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst, and Susan Sarandon). The result? The best old-fashioned studio movie of the year.

The Lost Words. The best no-budget indie of 1994, this story of a depressed New York musician (amusingly played by singer-songwriter Michael Kaniecki) coping with a disintegrating love life was as funny and smart as the best of Woody Allen and Albert Brooks, with a bitter edge that helped director Scott Saunders steer clear of sentimentality. Nice soundtrack, too.

Pulp Fiction. In the postmodern spirit of writer-director Quentin Tarantino, here's a list within a list, citing things I loved about his lurid, ludicrous, overlong, crudely funny, amazingly supple second feature: 1) You honestly can't guess what's going to happen next. 2) John Travolta dances again. 3) Uma Thurman drawing a square in the air. 3) "Royale with cheese!" 4) "Zed's dead, baby...Zed's dead." 4) The gimp. 5) "Feel that? That's pride fuckin' with ya!" 6) "I hid it...in my ass." 7) "Now that's a tasty burger!" 8) Pumpkin and Honey Bunny sucking face before they rob a diner. 9) Bruce Willis singing along with the Statler Brothers' "Flowers on the Wall." 10) Samuel L. Jackson, who quotes the Old Testament with such terrifying conviction you'd think he wrote it.

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