Personal best

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

Quiz Show. Outstanding in every way, Robert Redford's rollicking historical melodrama about the quiz show scandals examined the decline of American ethics in the age of TV without pandering, preaching or overstating its case. It also contained more laugh-out-loud dialogue than any five regular comedies, and brooding, introspective moments that made it feel more like a long-lost dramatic masterpiece from the '70s than a recent release.

Red. Polish auteur Krystof Kieslowski's third installment in the "Three Colors" series is a brilliant piece of intuitive, musical filmmaking, and it had a warmth and generosity of spirit missing from some of his previous movies. It's also the finest film about the life pulse of a modern city since Wings of Desire.

Red Rock West/The Last Seduction. Two stunningly tight, spare, nasty little movies by small-town noir expert John Dahl. Both are proof that if you stay half a step ahead of your audience and play every screen second with a straight face, any old genre can seem fresh again.

Speed. The setup sounded like high-concept junk: Keanu Reeves as a tough L.A. cop trying to stop a bus wired to blow if it drops beneath 50 mph. But first-time director Jan DeBont, screenwriter Graham Yost, and a cast full of surprisingly straightfaced performers delivered the year's best action movie--not to mention a film that says quite a bit about the way we live today. Beneath its muscular mayhem is a parable of daily life in a mechanized urban society--a place where machines go haywire, criminals get away with murder, the cops are impotent, good people get maimed and killed, and the best that two lovebirds on a runaway subway car can do is hunker down, hold onto each other and pray for deliverance.

Jimmy Fowler
(In alphabetical order):
Eat Drink Man Woman. Taiwanese director Ang Lee is the preeminent doppelganger of intimate relationships in world cinema--a heterosexual who reshaped his sensibilities to thoroughly inhabit an interracial gay relationship in his hugely successful 1993 The Wedding Banquet, and a man who pumped fulsome blood and breath into his trio of female protagonists in Eat Drink Man Woman, a profound comedy about a grumpy widower sparring with his grown daughters in the new capitalist China.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle. Writer-director Alan Rudolph (Mortal Thoughts, The Moderns) is a man who'd rather watch his characters than try to understand them, which might explain why some critics found Mrs. Parker so off-putting--it contains no easy answers and records events with a historian's leisurely dispassion. This is a visually arresting biopic that takes outrageous liberties with the personalities of the real people it portrays, and offers a sumptuous banquet of tart dialogue and stylized performances in return. As Parker, Jennifer Jason Leigh wears her cinematic acting style--at once low-key and aggressively self-conscious--like an alluring perfume. She manages to be both self-pitying and predatory, and her character's brief post-abortion monologue about dreaming of God with "a mask over his face" is a heartbreaker.

Nobody's Fool. Paul Newman might have played the same character for the last 35 years, but it rarely feels forced or recycled. His cocky, self-centered, but always charming hedonist is a mammoth, Proustian work-in-progress, and in Robert Benton's expertly crafted heart-tugger, Newman forces him to confront mortality through a bad leg, poverty and the shambles of a family he left but can't seem to leave behind. The late Jessica Tandy fires her enfeebled character with a marvelous withered dignity. There's not a wasted gesture or false moment in this movie, least of all from Newman, who at the age of 70 can seduce a camera like never before.

The Shawshank Redemption. Stephen King's novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption contains every prison-drama cliche you can imagine. Screenwriter-director Frank Darabont didn't miss one of them, but he did a hell of a job polishing them like precious stones. He turns a fictional Maine maximum-security penitentiary into a ghost ship where the passengers wander through their decades-long ride in a dreamy series of compromises, tiny tragedies, and even tinier triumphs. The key to the film's sinuous suspense is Tim Robbins' terrific performance as a two-faced inmate who orchestrates a scheme of far-reaching consequences from the penitentiary's heart.

Spanking the Monkey. It seems a small miracle that David O. Russell's bruising, nightmarish black comedy would ever get picked up for distribution, considering its subject matter--the tortured summertime affair between an MIT student and his invalid mother. A huge hit in New York City, the movie turned its protagonist's streak of bad luck into a poker-faced indictment of conditional love. Jeremy Davies, as the son who struggles to escape his family vortex, is a wonder of bottled-up hostility in this unsettling debut feature.

Sunday's Children. Thank the Major Theatre for bringing to Dallas Daniel Bergman's wise, elegant adaptation of father Ingmar's scripted reminiscence about one childhood summer spent with his father, a famous preacher and a man of unpredictable moods. While boasting an art film's pedigree, it reveled in scatological detail that elevated impoliteness to the arena of revelation. The film captured family relationships in all their feverish rhythms.

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