Personal best

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

True Lies. For once, ultra-expensive effects and stunt work are used in service to a smart script, which made some uncomfortable for its cartoonish depiction of Arab terrorists and a rather elaborate, mean-spirited revenge plot against an innocent woman. But the villains were terrorists first and Arabs by circumstance, and Jamie Lee Curtis deflated the misogyny by cutting a wide path of sympathy and strength for her initially hapless character. True Lies was preposterous--for entertainment's sake--yet consummately in control of its own intriguing contradictions (an American treatment of a French screenplay, a virtuoso leading lady who romances a smirking Frankenstein of a leading man).

What Happened Was... Hollywood character actor Tom Noonan made his debut as writer-director with this claustrophobic thrill-and-chill ride set on the first date between a cocky legal assistant (Noonan) and a passive-aggressive secretary (a scorching Karen Sillas). Conversation between the two traverses much territory (education, class, the self-delusion necessary to contemporary urban survival) without feeling contrived or stagey. The title comes from a grisly story read by Sillas; rarely in recent cinema has so much been conveyed about a character through metaphorical language.

Widow's Peak. The year's best script belongs to playwright Hugh Leonard (Da), who created a mythical 1920s Irish village ruled without mercy by a matriarchal clique. Joan Plowright as the moralizing grande dame, Natasha Richardson as the flirtatious new arrival, and Mia Farrow as the resentful eccentric all converge in a convoluted plot that intrigues but still manages to tie up its many loose ends.

Zero Patience. Canadian activist-filmmaker John Greyson plunders history, medicine, and the media to create a moving musical epic about Gaetan Dugas, the man initially (and mistakenly) believed to have brought the HIV virus to North America. Its occasional moments of naivete are charming rather than distracting--no small feat for a film with explicit political criticisms. Fiercely literate, but grounded in a frankness almost guaranteed to alienate the uninitiated (most notably "The Butthole Duet," a song about anal sex between singing sphincters), this is the bravest, most important movie yet about the AIDS epidemic.

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