Critic Michael Sragow picks his best films of the year, in alphabetical order:
Babe: Pig in the City. As a fairy tale of an imperiled innocent in a chaotic and threatening metropolis, George Miller's follow-up to Babe ranks with Carol Reed's Oliver! and is the most genuinely Dickensian film to emerge since that one did 30 years ago. It's a continually surprising and inventive call for interspecies understanding and civility. There hasn't been a scene all year to match the deep-seated humor and solemnity of a host of disenfranchised city animals lining up for food and expressing their appreciation to Babe, their provider, with the simple, resonant words, "Thank you, pig." Miller has given us a radical alternative to the moral gas-baggery of writer William J. Bennett (Death of Outrage, The Book of Virtues). In fact, this film is so vital and moving that even Bennett might be compelled to say, "Thank you, pig."
A Bug's Life. In the wonderful world of Pixar computer animation, artistry and gimmickry mesh: A thing of beauty is a toy forever. With a lyric combination of flash and filigree, director John Lasseter and company energize this tale of a heroic young ant who enlists circus bugs in a fight against tyrannical grasshoppers. The show-biz pastiche outstrips anything else like it this year (except for the sections of Shakespeare In Love that aren't overburdened with Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes). The slapstick recalls Chaplin and Keaton, and the luxuriant imagery makes you feel as if you're in a restorative light bath.
The General. (Scheduled to open in Houston on February 19) Not content with a docudrama depiction of the notorious criminal Martin Cahill, who cut a larcenous swath through Dublin in the eighties, director John Boorman depicts him as a Jovean figure, as hearty as he is sinister. The result is a marvelous, multifaceted movie, with a savage intelligence and a core of mystery. The events are rooted, ruthlessly, in the schisms of contemporary Ireland. Yet Boorman's treatment of them is so incisive and so expansive that the movie sweeps us up in the exuberance of an archetypal chieftain, then forces us to face the consequences of his outlawry. Brendan Gleeson is the perfect actor to anchor this tumultuous saga. He's as comically self-contained as he was in the bravura, self-destructive The Butcher Boy, and as salty as he was in the slight, entertaining I Went Down. But he's also wily and charismatic -- a performer on the crest of a roiling wave.
Home Fries. I don't know when writer Vince Gilligan (a contributor to TV's The X Files) first dreamed up this delicious deadpan farce about an unmarried burger-joint waitress (Drew Barrymore) and the family of the man who impregnated her. But coming when it does, it's a great relief -- a big-studio release that blows away a whole spate of independent dysfunctional-clan comedies, including the frantically overrated The Opposite of Sex. Luke Wilson and Jake Busey conjure a hilarious, itchy intimacy as mismatched brothers, and Catherine O'Hara gets laughs where you least expect them as their peerlessly manipulative mom. Under Dean Parisot's deft, unforced direction, Barrymore has never been more adorable. And when the besotted Wilson is with her, his steady, intent attempt to work things out brings the film a quality similar farces desperately need: an uproarious, stalwart sanity.
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The Mask of Zorro. In part this is an exciting throwback to the days when action sequences were splashily choreographed, not spliced together in the editing room, and when swashbucklers stressed (in the words of film historian Brian Taves) "the purity of the hero's motives, his physical and mental agility, impeccable manners, and often witty speech." But it's also an ingenious update, since in this film the original wearer of the mask of Zorro (Anthony Hopkins) must instruct his successor (Antonio Banderas) in agility, manners and wit -- bringing audiences up to speed at the same time. Hopkins and Banderas have a joyous old pro/upstart chemistry, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, as Hopkins's daughter and Banderas's lover, has the sparkling, mischief-tinged beauty of every boy-adventurer's dreams.
Out Of Sight. Ever since the sexual revolution, the makers of romantic comedies have twisted themselves into pretzels trying to concoct new reasons for their would-be lovers to delay gratification. (For the latest contortions, see You've Got Mail.) But this adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel pulls off these curlicues without breaking a sweat: The hero (George Clooney) just happens to be a handsome bank robber, the heroine a dishy cop (Jennifer Lopez). Director Steven Soder-bergh and screenwriter Scott Frank understand that the secret of lasting movie romance lies in putting appealing personalities to the test; they show us how, under pressure, an attractive man and woman become formidable characters. We don't merely hope that these two get together; we hope they do so without violating the best parts of themselves. With Ving Rhames as Clooney's standup partner, Don Cheadle as a gutless boxer turned manager/ thug, Albert Brooks as a smarmy Michael Milliken-like financial wizard, and Wendell B. Harris as an officious FBI man, this movie has star power and bench strength. It's an elegant entertainment -- it transforms affectation into artistry.
A Simple Plan. (Scheduled to open in Houston on January 8) Adapted by Scott B. Smith from his own best-selling novel, this tale of greed and skullduggery in wintry Ohio harks back to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but it is truly a story for our time. A proper, educated small-town citizen (Bill Paxton) discovers how relative morality can become when he, his unemployed brother (Billy Bob Thornton) and his brother's hard-drinking best friend (Brent Briscoe) stumble upon a downed plane carrying filthy lucre. Director Sam Raimi and his cast (including Bridget Fonda as Paxton's surprisingly avid librarian wife) come up with feats of imaginative empathy. Unlike Linda Tripp, even when they do their worst, they are us. Thornton, in particular, is nothing less than astonishing. With a naturalness that comes from intense artistry, he brings his deceptively slow character into an unflinching focus. By the halfway point we see, with heart-rending clarity, which brother is humane and wise.
Without Limits. The second screen biography in as many years of the late Steve Prefontaine, the legendary distance runner often called the James Dean of track, is that rarity: an edgy inspirational movie, no goop allowed. Pre, as he was nicknamed, was a notorious front-runner -- he would race full-tilt from the starting line rather than strategize his way to victory. Director Robert Towne (who co-wrote the script with a friend of Pre's, Kenny Moore) depicts his rebellious hero as an icon of youth who shows he has the mettle to grow up, then dies before he gets the chance. With the superintense Billy Crudup in the central role, it's almost a secular Passion play. Pre nails himself to a cross of his own making: his belief that he can achieve anything through resolve alone. The movie develops its own nonmoralistic trinity, with Pre as Will, his University of Oregon coach Bill Bowerman (Donald Sutherland) as Reason, and Pre's Catholic girlfriend Mary Marckx (Monica Potter) as Faith. Their conflicts get articulated in dialogue but played out in motion, usually on the track; you might say that Pre's Gethsemane comes after a heartbreaking loss in the 1972 Munich Olympics. Without sentimentalizing runners, Towne treats their eagerness to push past the boundaries of known pain as the purest of quests. Crudup and Sutherland are extraordinary -- they remove any hint of cliche from the student-mentor relationship. This movie gives us sport not just as competition or as spectacle, but as existential ballet.