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Hollywood is getting smarter and dumber as only an industry that seeks out young talent but places its bets on formulas can. The business’ selective memory serves its sloth—a single hit fires the starting gun for a string of samies. Since the industry can’t or won’t admit that it makes crappy movies about 85 percent of the time, the burden is on American moviegoers to part with their hard-earned cash for every goddamn movie based on an old television series or a new paranoia if they did it once. And the studio execs don’t smarten up after spectacular failures like Dragnet and Car 54, Where Are You?; they just get more and more incensed that we’re not lining up for Lost in Space. The funniest part of watching all that money being pissed away on Matt LeBlanc’s morphing helmet, Téa Leoni’s pastel suits, and Brad Pitt’s lip gloss is that when we refuse to respond, biz insiders blame the public.

If Steven Spielberg was gratified by the success of Saving Private Ryan—which deserved its massive audience even though it pretended to an ambiguity Spielberg is incapable of demonstrating—he should have been; critical elitism aside, the number of butts in seats sometimes provides a measure of a film’s value. Oprah had no such luck with Beloved, but a phalanx of bizzers defended her long, dreary, often berserk vanity project by disdainfully claiming that this country can’t handle films about slavery. If that helps numb the pain of losing all those millions, let them have their little fantasy.

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This year boasts no solid Top 10, but its honorable mention list is gratifyingly long. At the same time Hollywood was making big-budget pukers that no one had asked for, it was quietly churning out a string of almost consistently decent action flicks: Films like Ronin, Small Soldiers, The Mask of Zorro, Enemy of the State, and The Siege harbored an unusual number of good, sometimes complicated ideas. Romantic comedies continued their downward plummet, crash-landing at You’ve Got Mail, but anything with Drew Barrymore glowed with her cheerful, honest radiance. “Little” movies tried to subvert or reinvent filmic convention in the dark corners of the industry’s consciousness, where no one would notice that British imports Shooting Fish and I Went Down were more stylish than stateside films with five times their budgets, or that actress Hope Davis proved she’s really a movie star in the delightful romantic comedy for cynics Next Stop, Wonderland, or that Stanley Tucci’s The Impostors has more laughs in its first seven minutes than there are in Holy Man’s two hours, or that Tamara Jenkins knows more about teenage girls than a roomful of Riley Westons.

And the year’s not over. Shakespeare in Love is pretty bloody good; the fabulous Rushmore will be released for a week this month only in Los Angeles, for Academy Award consideration; The Thin Red Line isn’t even finished yet; and the division of duties here at Washington City Paper sometimes leaves us scrambling to catch up with movies we haven’t been assigned, so you’ll have to take someone else’s word for the greatness of A Simple Plan.

THE MOST IMPORTANT

MOVIE OF THE YEAR

Without mention of which every critic in the country would be remiss, and about which there is nothing more to say:

Saving Private Ryan

The rest, in chronological order:

The Big Lebowski Joel and Ethan Coen stop sniggering at the little people with this shambling, funny, candy-colored film, which plunks Jeff Bridges down in the character of a self-amused loser gone willfully to seed and lets him spark comic fires against John Goodman and Steve Buscemi, to the accompaniment of the soundtrack’s good-time doper music.

The Butcher Boy Neil Jordan’s dark, difficult adaptation of Patrick McCabe’s novel does the author justice. It’s the story of a young Irish sociopath crazed on Catholicism and dreams of nuclear war—riveting, rhythmic prose with a mise en scène alternately grim and ecstatic.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Despite Terry Gilliam’s formalist lack of engagement, Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro make heavenly hash of old film conceits in this vertiginous adaptation of the Hunter S. Thompson book. Depp’s “Raoul Duke” channels Thompson’s fractured, compelling, but unlikable WASP persona—old-man pants, lockjawed mutter and all—with absolute dedication and fearlessness, and Gilliam, the designated driver, keeps looking at his watch, reminding us that their behavior is the only sensible response to a place like Las Vegas.

Happiness Todd Solondz tells the truth with every frame in his unsettling domino chain of thwarted desire, tracking the intersecting quests of nine characters as they strive for satisfaction and find only violence, domination, or heartache. The film’s controversial reputation is well warranted, but it’s no peep show—just a beautifully crafted demonstration of how buoyantly hope floats.

Velvet Goldmine This outrageous, elaborate, and oddly sentimental tribute to the musical footnote that was glitter rock could only have been made by someone who didn’t live through the era, and Todd Haynes’ lavishing of nostalgia on every aspect of that trend makes for a swooningly fierce advocacy of sexual freedom and musical excess—or is it the other way around?

Love Is the Devil Gritty and intelligent, this slice of the British painter Francis Bacon’s life is directed by first-timer John Maybury as if it were one of the artist’s paintings come to life, pulsing with human meat, writhing with emotion—it is a love story, one of the greatest—and experienced in a cage of tilted perspective and oppressive boundaries.

PROOF THAT THERE IS A GOD

There are three Fiennes brothers.

PROOF THAT HE IS A CRUEL GOD

Ralph Fiennes in The Avengers

BUT I’M NOT GOING TO HELL, BECAUSE I’VE ALREADY BEEN THERE

Let’s Talk About Sex CP