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A Critic's Top 10 Films of 1991

The Monitor's David Sterritt looks back on a lackluster year to movies that sparked his enthusiasm

IT was the worst year for movies in I don't know how long!

Critics love to say things like that, because it reminds their friends and families - who get to choose the pictures they see - how hard it was to sit through all the mediocrities (and worse) of the past 12 months.

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But there is such a thing as a bad year, and 1991 was certainly one of them. As someone who enjoys a good Saturday-night entertainment as much as anybody, I found it unusually hard to suggest films for casual outings with friends and family. As a programmer of the New York Film Festival, moreover, I found excellence to be equally rare on the international art-film circuit.

Is there a particular reason for the current slump in quality? There don't appear to be new or dramatic factors at work, but a few familiar bugaboos have been kicking around: the trend toward higher-than-ever budgets, the resulting need for every major release to become a major hit, and the market-minded caution this induces in filmmakers who might otherwise be more bold, provocative, and freewheeling.

Since this situation also annoys many filmmakers, it may change for the better as the '90s proceed. In the meanwhile, there are good movies to be found, and I had no trouble choosing candidates for my list of the past year's 10 best pictures. In alphabetical order, they are: 'Barton Fink'

Those energizing adjectives I just mentioned - bold, provocative, freewheeling - abound in this offbeat fantasy by director Joel Coen and producer Ethan Coen, who wrote the screenplay together. The hero is an intellectual New York playwright who goes to Hollywood during the 1940s, moves into California's creepiest hotel, and enters into a reluctant friendship with the insurance agent who lives next door. Brilliantly acted by John Turturro and John Goodman, among others, the movie is also a masterful work

of visual art, swinging from hilarity to surrealism as it approaches a climax that defies description. 'La Belle Noiseuse'

Loosely based on Balzac's story "The Unknown Masterpiece," the plot focuses on an artist whose finest work has lain unfinished for years, and on a young model who inspires him to complete it. Jacques Rivette, perhaps France's greatest living filmmaker, has turned this story into a meditation on creativity, filling much of its four-hour length with leisurely views of the painter immersed in the artistic process. The result is an unusually demanding and exceptionally rewarding film, with the audacity to su ggest that contemplation is as central to cinema as the action and emotionalism that most movies take for granted. 'Boyz N the Hood'

The most exciting development of 1991 was the release of several worthwhile movies by minority-group filmmakers, and this is the best of the bunch. Fascinating characters, a complex view of race relations, and a firm antiviolence message are among the virtues of the drama, which centers on an African-American teenager growing up dangerously in the Los Angeles inner city. It was directed by John Singleton, a newcomer of enormous talent. 'The Double Life of Veronique'

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The title refers to two women with the same name, who live in different countries and have never heard of each other, yet seem to be connected by an intangible link until one of them meets an untimely death. The allusive and open-ended story doesn't always make sense, even on its own dreamlike terms. But it's a fine vehicle for the poetic sensibilities of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski, and an ideal showcase for Irene Jacob, who radiantly plays both heroines of the tale. 'Homicide'

Director David Mamet explores his Jewish identity in this hard-hitting story of a Chicago cop whose investigation of a seemingly small-time murder turns up a tangled web of anti-Semitic bigotry and violent Jewish resistance. The stylized, clipped-and-cut dialogue bothers some moviegoers, but Joe Mantegna's performance and the ever-increasing tensions of the plot give the movie an inescapable momentum. Rarely is a melodrama so smart and suspenseful at the same time. 'The Indian Runner'

Who would have expected Sean Penn, a Hollywood maverick known for punchy performances and naughty off-screen behavior, to write and direct one of the year's most thoughtful family dramas? The main characters are two brothers - a responsible citizen and a misguided drifter - with a relationship that's deeply troubled and deeply loving. Audiences shied away from this one, but it's sure to be more valued in time to come, for its own virtues and for introducing Mr. Penn as a filmmaker of extraordinary promis e. 'JFK'

Does it give us the definitive version of John F. Kennedy's assassination? Of course not. But it has the courage of its convictions, and backs this up with a rousing dose of outrageousness, blaming the murder on everyone from the CIA and the FBI to Lyndon B. Johnson and the military-industrial complex. It's guaranteed to shake up old assumptions, and to dazzle with the year's most energetic editing style. Just when we thought Oliver Stone had run out of interesting things to say about the '60s, he shows

us there's life in the old rabble-rouser yet. 'Ju Dou'

Chinese film appears to be in a holding pattern these days, stymied by censorship and uncertainty about the future. But that didn't stop Zhang Yimou from directing this perversely beautiful fable about a young woman sold into marriage with a nasty old man. The story is sometimes as unsettling as a David Lynch shocker, but Gong Li gives an exquisite performance, and the images are magnificent. Asian cinema has given us nothing more impressive in recent years. 'Let Him Have It'

Those words were shouted by a London teenager during a botched burglary in the early 1950s, and became the crux of a trial that changed British attitudes toward capital punishment. Peter Medak's drama follows the facts of the case, tracing the protagonist's relationship with ill-chosen friends, aloof authorities, and above all his family, whose love and concern aren't enough to stave off calamity. While the film is not consistently gripping, it is well-crafted and acted with conviction. The last half-hou r is desperately moving, leading to a brief coda that ranks with the year's most astonishing scenes. 'Opening Night'

This movie was made in 1978, but it had its theatrical premiere in 1991, earning critical acclaim - which indicates that John Cassavetes was ahead of his time with this searing drama about an aging actress coming to grips with life, art, and anxiety. Like all films by the late Mr. Cassavetes, this one is eccentric and uneven. It's also an emotional adventure of enormous range and intensity, spearheaded by Gena Rowlands. If the legacy of 1991 includes nothing else, a heightened appreciation of Cassavetes 's career would justify the whole year. He stands with the most underrated of American filmmakers, and the time is ripe for a reassessment. Ratings were published when the films were originally reviewed. Please note that many of these movies require viewer discretion.

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