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The best of 1995

5. Martin Scorsese's Casino has been repeatedly assailed for being "too much like GoodFellas." Such criticism is puzzling: For many, GoodFellas was to the '90s what Raging Bull was to the '80s and Taxi Driver to the '70s--a template film, the Rosetta stone by which contemporary American moviemaking must be interpreted. All three films, not coincidentally, were directed by Scorsese. Assume for the sake of argument that Casino really isn't anything more than a longer, more violent version of GoodFellas. Why blame Scorsese, or denigrate the film, for being that good again? In any event, Casino is more ambitious, more essentially realized, than any other Scorsese film except his woefully underestimated masterpiece, The Age of Innocence. It's got everything--style, wit, sex, violence--in a sea of fine acting, sharp dialogue, and perfectly placed music. It's the most uniquely, purely cinematic experience you could entertain--and be entertained by--in 1995.

4. Terry Zwigoff's Crumb--a brilliant, hilariously painful, and uncomfortably poignant portrait of underground cartoon artist R. Crumb and his disturbingly charming, dysfunctional family--is to the documentary form what Ulysses is to the alphabet: a near-perfect application of its tools. The film is a scathing, brilliant, witty, and insightful dissection of Robert Crumb, a cranky, middle-aged man whose cartoons are brave, frank visions of his own misguided life. Crumb is his comics and, from his point of view, nothing in his doodles is exaggerated. As Zwigoff peels away the layers of Crumb's psyche, you come to see just how raw this movie--and this man's life--truly is. Perhaps most troubling of all is the sense of self-awareness on Crumb's part: He realizes his predicament without the slightest idea of how to escape it. Kierkegaard's comment--"the single characteristic of despair is...it is unaware that it is despair"--has an eerie prescience in this context; he could have been writing about Crumb's family.

3. The Mystery of Rampo, a comparatively obscure Japanese picture, was the year's most intriguing mystery--a jet-black jigsaw puzzle which must be assembled in a dark room. Director Kazuyoshi Okuyama's contemplative, abstract rumination on art and reality challenges the viewer to decipher its semiotic puzzles the way Rubik's Cube challenged architecture students' understanding of spatial relations. Based upon the writings of the respected Japanese novelist, Rampo is similarly dense but not forbidding, idiosyncratic but accessible--a deliberately paced whirlwind of imagery, thought, and emotion as rewarding to feel as it is to watch.

2. If The Mystery of Rampo was dizzying imagery and beautifully opaque themes, The Usual Suspects was entirely satisfying, a filmic sleight-of-hand that reinvigorated the sleepy conventions of the detective genre. At its heart, The Usual Suspects' gimmick--the uncertainty of what really happened during an abortive heist--is no more inventive than the sled Rosebud in Citizen Kane. What makes Bryan Singer's film such a hoot is how obvious everything is once you know the score. No one thing makes it wonderful; the mood and pacing, the performances, dialogue, and plotting all combine, solidifying into a prism of refracting glass, tinted by memory and imagination.

1. No doubt there are purists who might object to the selection of La Belle et la Bete (Beauty and the Beast), Jean Cocteau's 1946 masterpiece, as the best film of 1995, but it meets all the relevant criteria: It was released theatrically in Dallas during 1995, and an audience was able to watch it on a large screen. Moreover, its present incarnation differs from a mere revival of an existing film; the La Belle et la Bete that played at McFarlin Auditorium for three nights in October was an entirely new creation of cinema and music, helmed by composer Philip Glass.

Glass took Cocteau's original French dialogue, composed a new score around it, and employed four live opera singers and five musicians to perform on stage while Cocteau's film played behind them. Cinema or theater? Both. Using minimalistic staging and boiling the film's themes to abstraction with his eloquent score, Glass reinvented the movie by turning down the sound and forcing us to revisit it afresh. Cocteau's themes are beautifully showcased within the constraints of the classic fairy tale: La Belle represents culture, la Bete nature, and the castle is the surreal, heady, impressionistic mind of the artist trying to reconcile the two. This isn't the giddy adventure of a Disney musical for kids, but a complex manifesto of genius at work. Glass' version of La Belle et la Bete is as much a "new" film as any documentary consisting solely of stock footage--it is a reinterpretation of existing material, and without question the finest 90 minutes of filmgoing you could enjoy in Dallas during 1995.

As a footnote, I must give mention to the year's supremely awful cinematic experience: Showgirls. Hands-down the worst, Showgirls is a sexfest that fails to titillate, a cautionary tale that merely endorses the sordid lifestyle of its characters, and the showcase for a performance, by Elizabeth Berkley, of such painful amateurism that it merely evokes pity.

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