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The Year in Film

Though not great, 1995 still produced some movies worth seeing (and reseeing)

This past year will not be remembered as a vintage one for movies -- or even, judging from recent trade paper reports, for the movie industry -- but if it was not the best of times, it was also by no means the worst of times. Indeed, if you looked carefully enough, and remained patient during the long spells of bad news, missed chances and instantly forgettable mediocrities, you could still find some good, very good and -- believe it or not -- even a few great films.

To be sure, we had to wade through the mire of expensive duds (Judge Dredd, Jade), art-house frauds (Kids, The Addiction) and nonentities that seemed to evaporate even as you watched them (according to my notes, I saw something called The Big Green and something else called Search and Destroy during the past 12 months; I have no clear memory of either film). Miraculously, however, there were a number of other films that respected the intelligence of audiences, and actually challenged us a bit while providing entertainment. No kidding.

Listed in alphabetical order, my choices for the top ten films that opened in Houston during 1995 are:

The American President: Rob Reiner's glossy and classy romantic comedy about a widowed U.S. president (Michael Douglas) and a lovely lobbyist (Annette Bening) is one of the year's most pleasant surprises. Unlike many other contemporary filmmakers who have tried and failed, Reiner (along with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin) smashingly succeeds at striking the same balance of informed sophistication and open-hearted idealism that we've come to associate with the classics of Frank Capra.

Apollo 13: Ron Howard's remarkably compelling account of the near-disastrous NASA mission is an unashamedly old-fashioned drama that pays stirringly heartfelt tribute to heroes both on and above the ground. There's more than a touch of Howard Hawks to the way Howard admiringly views the camaraderie and group effort of dedicated professionals. And there's a refreshing no-frills vitality to the performances of Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton as the endangered astronauts, Gary Sinise as the grounded pilot who struggles to help them and Ed Harris as the Mission Control flight director who simply refuses to allow for the possibility of a failure on his watch.

Clockers: Spike Lee's powerful adaptation of Richard Price's acclaimed novel offers a startlingly fresh and vivid account of life, death and drug dealing on the meanest streets of Brooklyn. Mekhi Phiffer makes an impressive acting debut as an ambitious young "clocker" (street dealer), and Harvey Keitel is even better as the unexpectedly complex cop on his trail. Best of all, there is Delroy Lindo as an ingratiatingly paternal storekeeper who just happens to be the neighborhood's most cold-bloodedly efficient drug supplier.

Les Miserables: Claude Lelouch's audacious epic celebrates the magic of storytelling by showing how Victor Hugo's classic novel shapes and inspires the life of an ordinary Frenchman (a magnificently ravaged Jean-Paul Belmondo) during an extraordinary time (the German Occupation). There are images in Les Miserables that are as hauntingly beautiful as any in the history of cinema. Lelouch is one of the few contemporary filmmakers who remains capable of the grand romantic gestures that made many of us fall in love with movies in the first place.

Sabrina: Sydney Pollack's enchanting romantic comedy is not so much a remake as a reimagining of Billy Wilder's 1954 confection. This time, the focus shifts slightly, away from Sabrina (Julia Ormond), the chauffeur's daughter who turns into Cinderella, and onto Linus Larrabee (Harrison Ford), the fabulously successful businessman who needs a Princess Charming to awaken his dormant soul. Ford's self-effacing performance as a man who may feel unworthy of being loved brings a welcome touch of gravitas to the handsome fluff. The romance is all the more romantic, and the funny stuff all the more amusing, because it is set against the very distinct possibility of unhappily-ever-aftering.

Sense and Sensibility: Ang Lee's stylish version of Jane Austen's 1811 novel, with a screenplay adaptation by star Emma Thompson, is the least stuffy period piece to illuminate a movie screen in recent years. Vital and involving, this is a deeply affecting and hugely entertaining drama that also happens to be one of the year's most exquisitely witty comedies. Thompson is first among equals in a superb ensemble cast that also includes Hugh Grant (no snickers, please), Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman.

Smoke: Wayne Wang and Paul Austen's disarmingly subtle masterwork is an extraordinarily engaging and uncommonly satisfying comedy-drama about the small details that add up to the big picture. Harvey Keitel heads an excellent ensemble cast as the manger of a Brooklyn cigar store that attracts such colorful customers as William Hurt (heartbreaking as a blocked novelist who learns to write, and live, again), Stockard Channing (a brassy ex-girlfriend with an unpleasant surprise for Keitel) and newcomer Harold Perrineau Jr. (a smooth-talking street kid who, like the movie itself, revels in the sheer pleasure of storytelling). Smoke speaks in a clear, quiet voice to our hearts and minds about the things that really matter: redemption, forgiveness, the magic of words, the quiet delights of a new friendship, the ineffable appeal of a good cigar.

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