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The Silence of the Lambs and Beauty and the Beast Top the Crew of 1991

By Chris Roberge
Associate Arts Editor
____It's time again for another totally subjective list of the best films of the year, but first, a few disclaimers. Most importantly, there are probably some grave omissions from this list simply because I never had a chance to see some reportedly great movies, including Life is Sweet, My Father's Glory, My Mother's Castle, An Angel At My Table, Paris Is Burning, Rambling Rose and The Commitments. Also, this was a fairly strong year for movies, and as a result there were many very good features that didn't rank with the ten best, such as Ju Dou, Poison and Hot Shots!, to name three wildly different offerings. What follows are the ten most engaging, moving, intelligent and exhilarating films that I saw in 1991.

____1. The Silence of the Lambs

No movie succeeded on as many levels last year as this amazing thriller from director Jonathan Demme. As a psychological shocker, The Silence of the Lambs was immensely more effective than typical serial killer fare, thanks primarily to Anthony Hopkins' great performance as Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a vision of evil incarnate whose gruesomeness is demonstrated most directly by his astonishing intellect and insight. Jodie Foster delivered what was probably the best acting by anyone in 1991 as FBI trainee Clarice Starling. Foster created a woman who was both fiercely motivated and deeply pained, and her intricate and subtle performance was astonishing. Demme's film is much more than a good nightmare, though. A great deal of the story focuses on society's objectification of women and examines how such warped views lead to sexual violence. The Silence of the Lambs was the one undisputed masterpiece of the year.

____2. Beauty and the Beast

With respect to animation alone, Beauty and the Beast ranks with theartistic brilliance of such classics as Pinocchio and Fantasia, and the excellent score and songs by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman were hook-laden enough for kids and witty and inventive enough for adults. But Disney's latest film will be remembered most for the warmth and gentleness of the story. This is one of the most sophisticated works that Disney has ever released, and the characters were wonderfully drawn and realized. Belle's independence and charm were irresistible, and Beast's transformation from a cold and temperamental recluse to a kind and caring soul was genuinely touching. The fluidity, energy and beauty of Disney animation is evident here as it rarely has been before.

____3. Barton Fink

Easily the most hallucinatory film of the year, Barton Fink is a movie to be surrendered to more than understood. The talented team of Joel and Ethan Cohen told an alternately funny and frightening story of a Hollywood scriptwriter suffering from severe writer's block and his very physical neighbor who provides salvation in a very unexpected way. As in most of the Cohens' films, nothing is what it seems, least of all the hellish Hotel Earle, where most of the action takes place. The claustrophobic and collapsing rooms and infinite halls of the decaying hotel perfectly set the story's suffocating tone and deserve to go down in cinematic history.

____4. L.A. Story

Steve Martin spent years writing this film, which is definitely his most personal. It was brought to the screen perfectly by British director Mick Jackson and almost no one saw it at the theater for reasons that totally escape me. L.A. Story was easily one of the year's funniest movies, with wall-to-wall gags presented in the rapid-fire style of The Naked Gun. But what set the film apart as truly great was the wonderful balancing act of tone between hilarious comedy and delicate fantasy. Martin's vision of L.A. was not one of a geographic location, but of an attitude in which people surround themselves with their dreams as a way to shield out all of the less pleasant aspects of life. The search that Martin's character undergoes for true happiness in an illusory setting was thoroughly enchanting.

____5. Thelma & Louise

In a year of strong women in such movies as The Silence of the Lambs, Mortal Thoughts and La Femme Nikita, this film bypassed the subtle approach and literally blew away the competition. As feminist escapism, Thelma & Louise was long overdue, and as a generic road film it was great entertainment. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis were both terrific in the title roles, bringing humor and passion to their characters. The best thing about the story, which many audiences seemed to overlook, was that it wasn't afraid of moral ambiguities. I've seen the movie movie three times, and although I still don't think the opening murder was warranted, I am fascinated by the total lack of options that the patriarchal structure of society afforded these two women.

____6. JFK

Definitely the most controversial film of 1991, JFK was also the most skillfully made. Of course, if the movie weren't the totally engrossing piece of propaganda that it is, then none of the controversy would have existed. Oliver Stone's stylistic barrage of conspiracy theories seemed to implicate everyone in the assassination of John Kennedy, but the group most harshly accused consisted of those people who would blindly follow their leaders. The depth of information crammed into a hypnotic and very fast three hours, the universally-impressive cast, and the amazing filmmaking talent of Stone negate nearly all criticisms of the movie.

____7. Naked Lunch

The perfect companion piece to Barton Fink, David Cronenberg's adaptation of William S. Burroughs' novel focused on the creative process behind the book, rather than on the text itself. While Barton Fink dealt with a writer who could not find inspiration, Naked Lunch involved a man whose entrance into a world of drugs and homosexuality was inspiration enough that his book practically wrote itself. Peter Weller gave a droll performance as the exterminator-turned-writer, Bill Lee; and the drug-induced settings of Interzone were very well made. The man behind the remake of The Fly and Dead Ringers has created another morbidly intelligent, horrific and surprisingly funny film.

____8. Bugsy

One of the slickest and most attractive films of 1991, Bugsy is the oddsmakers' favorite to win the big one at the Oscar ceremony in March, and a victory would certainly not be entirely undeserved. Warren Beatty gave one of his better performances as the gangster, Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, and the terrific Annette Bening created a Virginia Hill who could more than hold her own against her aggresive suitor. In James Toback's witty script, Bugsy is portrayed as a man fascinated with appearances and totally unconcerned with practicalities. Barry Levinson's superb direction managed to both tell a fascinating story about the death of a gangster and the birth of Las Vegas and comment on Hollywood's preoccupation with glamour.

____9. Terminator 2: ____Judgment Day

James Cameron, the current master of the epic action film, topped himself again in terms of sheer adrenaline with the sequel to his excellent Terminator of 1984. The sequel starred Arnold Schwarzenegger again, this time with a more peaceful mission and a few more lines than in the original. Linda Hamilton transformed her Sarah Connor into a killing machine too scared to show emotions, and her intense performance was one of the year's highlights. Terminator 2 had more eye-popping sets and over-the-top stunts and action sequences than almost any movie in history, and the T-1000 is possibly the greatest special effect ever created. The movie cost a ridiculous $95 million dollars to make, but every penny was up on the screen.

____10. Boyz N the Hood

While L.A. Story portrayed the City of Angels as a land of dreams, only nightmares could be found in the streets of Los Angeles in John Singleton's debut film. Dreams existed in the minds of the young black characters, certainly, but they were given little room to flourish into reality. Boyz N the Hood was not a perfect film, and at a few rare times the relative inexperience of its makers showed. But mostly the movie did a powerful and admirable job of encapsulating the fears and frustrations of black life in the run-down neighborhoods of America's cities. In many respects, Singleton's film was among the most thought-provoking and important films of the year, tackling some of the most significant issues.