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BEST & WORST MOVIES OF 1995

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OK, so maybe you think naming "Toy Story" as the best movie of the year is frivolous. My only defense is that I loved it. And let's be honest about one of my least favorite words - "best" is a subjective term if ever there was one.

Of course, I realize there won't be many - if any - critics around the country placing Disney's computer-animated feature at the top of their annual "10-best" lists. Critics tend to lean toward more "realistic" movies for that, downbeat, depressing pictures like "Leaving Las Vegas" or "Georgia." Both of those films (which have yet to open in Salt Lake theaters) center around characters who are on nonstop roads to self-destruction, with excellent performances by Nicolas Cage and Jennifer Jason Leigh, respectively - but they are not movies you will return to with friends and family in tow.In the eyes of most critics, upbeat, feel-good pictures have no place on top 10 lists - much less in the No. 1 spot.

Still, "Toy Story" was my favorite 1995 cinematic experience.

Here's a movie that provoked laughter, thrills, excitement and deep-rooted nostalgia. Is there anyone who didn't have a few favorite toys as a child? Is there a parent who didn't enjoy playing with his own youngsters and their favorite toys?

And, really now, haven't we all suspected that toys get up and run around and have lives of their own when we leave the room?

For me, "Toy Story" most satisfactorily pushed all the buttons, tugged at all the emotions. There were other, more serious movies this year that I saw again and thoroughly enjoyed - and most of them are on the list that follows. But "Toy Story" is the one I will probably return to most often, and I expect that its charm and warmth will continue to touch me for years to come (though, of course, no film's staying power can be accurately judged by anything less than time).

As for the worst film of the year, that choice was also easy. There are few movies as outrageous as "The Scarlet Letter," Demi Moore-style. A more practical choice for the filmmakers would have been to make this same movie but without the names of Nathanial Hawthorne's characters, simply admitting that it's an entirely different story. As it is, this "A" stands for something other than "adultery." It represents Hollywood's arrogance in its purest form.

As for the rest, rounding out this annual "Best & Worst" ritual? Well, here goes:

THE REST OF THE BEST

2. "Smoke"

This engrossing, low-key exploration of the art of storytelling, with emphasis on characters (in every sense of the word), just gets better with repeat viewings. Harvey Keitel heads a wonderful cast that includes William Hurt, Stockard Channing and Forest Whitaker. (Available on video in April.)

3. "The Secret of Roan Inish"

A lovely Irish fable from independent filmmaker John Sayles, a family film in the best sense of that overused phrase. (Now on video.)

4. "Unstrung Heroes"

Diane Keaton directed this affecting comedy-tragedy, a true coming-of-age drama that touches the heart but is also very funny much of the way. (No video date announced.)

5. "Sense and Sensibility"

Without a "Howards End" or "Remains of the Day" or any other worthy Merchant-Ivory effort this year (you may recall that "Jefferson in Paris" was both an artistic and financial flop), it fell to Emma Thompson to create her own British period vehicle - so she did. Thompson adapted Jane Austen's novel as a screenplay and stars in this funny and engrossing romance in the Merchant-Ivory style. (Scheduled to open locally Jan. 12.)

6. "The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl"

A remarkable three-hour documentary about a remarkable filmmaker, the controversial 90-year-old German actress and director who made Hitler look good - too good - in "Triumph of the Will" and who still denies any complicity in the Nazi atrocities. Utterly fascinating from start to finish. (Now on video.)

7. "Dead Man Walking"

Writer-director Tim Robbins doesn't appear in this surprisingly balanced exploration of the death penalty, but he certainly makes his mark as a filmmaker. And Susan Sarandon delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as a nun who becomes a reluctant advocate for a condemned killer, sharply played by Sean Penn. Based on a true story. (Scheduled to open locally Feb. 2.)

8. "Othello"

An accessible Shakespeare tragedy that may alienate purists but, the filmmakers hope, will perhaps be embraced by a wider audience than usual. Laurence Fishburne, the first black to play the title role on film, is excellent, but Kenneth Branagh's Iago is absolutely magnificent. (Scheduled to open sometime in late January or early February.)

9. "A Little Princess"

A box-office flop but one of the best-reviewed movies of the year, this grand "children's story" transcends that label to become a most enchanting tale for every age. (Now on video.)

10. "Apollo 13"

Director Ron Howard is at the top of his game with this ensemble retelling of the ill-fated moon mission, with a top-notch cast headed by Tom Hanks. (Now on video, and available in letterbox form.)

THE REST OF THE WORST

2. "Kids"

Despite the propaganda push that tried to portray this look at teen sex as a cautionary tale, it's pure exploitation all the way.

3. "Fair Game"

As an actress, Cindy Crawford is a fine model.

4. "Strange Days"

A major stumble for producer/writer James Cameron (the "Terminator" films, "True Lies"), this gruesome futuristic yarn is nearly unwatchable except for Angela Bassett's first-rate supporting performance.

5. "Judge Dredd"

Sylvester Stallone at his worst, posturing and spouting dumb one-liners in the service of a ridiculous story, which is cribbed from too many other sci-fi pictures.

6. "Jury Duty"

Pauly Shore. Need we say more?

7. "Assassins"

Sylvester Stallone's second-worst movie of the year, as he and Antonio Banderas play warring hitmen who are better at typing one-handed on their laptops than at shooting each other.

8. Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls"

Jim Carry in a sequel. Need we say more?

9. "Never Talk to Strangers"

Antonio Banderas' second-worst movie is actually a vehicle for that "Hand That Rocks the Cradle" villainess, Rebecca De Mornay. She developed this project herself. The question remains, "Why?"

10. "Congo"

Despite its huge box-office success, this idiotic adaptation of Michael Crichton's jungle novel couldn't be sillier, from the high-tech communications glitches to the phony, supposedly intelligent gorilla.

BEST FOREIGN FILMS

"To Live," "Red," "Burnt by the Sun," "Armour of God II: Operation Condor," "City on Fire," "The Postman" and "Double Happiness."

BEST RUNNERS-UP

"Crimson Tide," "Vanya on 42nd Street," "Once Were Warriors," "The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain," "Picture Bride," "The Usual Suspects," "Get Shorty," "Living in Oblivion" and "Pocahontas."

Other enjoyable '95 flicks included "While You Were Sleeping," "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," "Devil in a Blue Dress," "Babe," "Outbreak," "Miami Rhapsody," "The Net," "French Kiss," "Forget Paris," "Batman Forever," "A Month by the Lake," "The American President," "GoldenEye," "Jumanji," "Balto" and "Sabrina."

WORST RUNNERS-UP

"Houseguest," "The Jerky Boys," "Billy Madison," "Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh," "Major Payne," "Gordy," "Species," "Lord of Illusions," "National Lampoon's Senior Trip," "The Tie That Binds," "Halloween: The Curse of Michael Meyers," "The Brady Bunch Movie," "Born to Be Wild," "Bad Boys," "Top Dog," "Village of the Damned," "Johnny Mnemonic," "Mad Love," "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie," "First Knight," "Under Siege II: Dark Territory," "Bushwacked," "Virtuosity," "Mortal Kombat," "Dr. Jekyll & Ms. Hyde," "The Big Green," "Jade," "Mallrats," "Vampire in Brooklyn," "Casino," "Money Train," "Tom and Huck," "Waiting to Exhale" and "Sudden Death."

*****

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Hicks' Picks

10 best movies of 1995

1. Toy Story

2. Smoke

3. The Secret of Roan Inish

4. Unstrung Heroes

5. Sense and Sensibility

6. The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl

7. Dead Man Walking

8. Othello

9. A Little Princess

10. Apollo 13

Hicks' Picks

10 worst movies of 1995

1. The Scarlet Letter

2. Kids

3. Fair Game

4. Strange Days

5. Judge Dredd

6. Jury Duty

7. Assassins

8. Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls

9. Never Talk to Strangers

10. Congo