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by James Arnold

Looking Back on the Best of '96

Everyone Says I Love You
The English Patient
The New Ratings Game
Jerry Maguire
The Flix of '96

Ralph Fiennes (left) and Kristin Scott Thomas star in The English Patient, a haunting love story that is set in North Africa and Italy before and during World War II.

EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU (A-3, R): Woody Allen offers a light escape from winter troubles. The tunes are vintage 1930's, the singing is improvised by non-singing actors, the backup dancing is by pros, the orchestrations are superb and most of the numbers range from pleasant fun to broad hilarity.

The splendidly-used locations include not only Manhattan (predictably), but also Venice and Paris. The plot is gentle satire, with Woody's familiar affluent Park Avenue neighbors enduring and sometimes enjoying the ups and downs of romantic love from spring to Christmas.

Among them: Goldie Hawn and Alan Alda as trendy liberal parents involved in stereotypical causes like prison reform; Edward Norton and Drew Barrymore as engaged lovers; Woody himself as Goldie's owlish ex-husband, unlucky in love, now guiltily pursuing unhappily married neighbor Julia Roberts.

This moral comedy has singing and dancing highlights, with some comic special effects. Love makes us a bit foolish, especially in a world of fast-changing attachments more suitable to teenagers. Recommended for mature viewers.

JERRY MAGUIRE (A-3, R): A brash sports agent (Tom Cruise) saves his soul, vowing to turn off the greed and treat his clients with respect. Then he struggles to make a living in a corrupt world.

This upbeat romantic comedy by writer-director Cameron Crowe (Say Anything) somehow combines deft insights into our culture with broad entertainment likely to please a wide audience. But don't expect the moral tone of The Sound of Music. Cruise's Jerry has a womanizing past, and his relationship with idealistic widow-single mom Renee Zellweger is quite explicit.

The characters are fleshed-out well beyond average. Cuba Gooding, Jr., scintillates as Jerry's one loyal client, a charismatic wide receiver who hasn't yet become a star; Regina King is wonderful as his insightful wife; Bonnie Hunt shines as Zellweger's sympathetic sister-in-law and Beau Bridges chills as the unscrupulous dad of a top-draft-pick college quarterback. Overlong but sharp comedy with moral bite; problem sex situations and language; recommended for mature audiences.

THE ENGLISH PATIENT (A-4, R): A mystery pilot, badly burned, is shot down in North Africa during World War II. He suffers from amnesia but under the care of a Canadian nurse in a bombed-out monastery in Italy, he begins to remember. In flashbacks, we see a tragic love story.

The past story is a smoldering, adulterous affair in the Egyptian desert and ancient archaeological caves between the patient (Ralph Fiennes) and the wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) of the expedition leader. Meanwhile, in the present, the nurse (Juliette Binoche) falls in love with a demolition expert. Another scarred victim (Willem Dafoe) looks for a man who betrayed him.

This gripping tale is full of atmospherics, period music and superb camera work by John Seale in the desert, and exotic locales. All the great morally complex themes--love, adultery, courage, war, nationality, friendship, betrayal--are told in the grand style. Satisfactory for adults.

THE FLIX OF '96 (one more look back):

The Best (of those reviewed here): Dead Man Walking, Anne Frank Remembered, Lamerica, Lone Star, Big Night, Michael Collins, Everyone Says I Love You, Jerry Maguire.

Not Far Behind: Sense and Sensibility, Fargo, The English Patient, The Postman, Fly Away Home.

Worth Mention (with some reservations): Tin Cup, Leaving Las Vegas, That Thing You Do!

The Year's Major Question: Do cows moo as they fly over? (Twister)

The Internal Revenue Service Award for Most Incomprehensible Logic and Prose in a Screenplay: Mission Impossible.

Major Sightings: single moms, e.g., Kyra Sedgwick (Phenomenon), Elizabeth Pena (Lone Star), Meg Ryan (Courage Under Fire), Moira Kelly (Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story), Renee Zellweger (Jerry Maguire) and many others.

Favorite Female Actors (unlikely to be Oscar-nominated): Irma T. Hall, as the blind aunt who reconciles feisty white and black half-brothers (Family Thing); Anna Paquin, as the child Jane Eyre and as the girl who saves the wild geese (Fly Away Home); Stockard Channing, as the competitive news anchor (Up Close & Personal) and as the mean, pitiless madame Mrs. Allworthy in Moll Flanders; and Elizabeth Pena, as the struggling history teacher, mom and star-crossed lover (Lone Star).

Favorite Male Actors (unlikely to be Oscar-nominated): W. H. Macy, as the unwise principal (Mr. Holland's Opus) and the scheming auto dealer who gets things rolling (Fargo); Sam Neill, as the profligate but shrewd King Charles II (Restoration); and 80-year-old amateur Carmelo Di Mazzarelli as the mysterious Spiro, symbol of all the 20th century's displaced victims (Lamerica).

The Year's Better Metaphors for Grace or God's Footsteps Award: Love finds Ben and Sera, like a flower budding through a cracked sidewalk, in Leaving Las Vegas; the imaginary friend--a guardian angel figure, a symbol of something good for children (Bogus).

The Fred and Ginger Traveling Trophy for Dancing by Non-dancers: Gerard Depardieu and Whoopi Goldberg (Bogus), Woody Allen and Goldie Hawn (Everyone Says I Love You).

Lines to Remember: "If a sparrow dies in Central Park, I feel it." (Al Pacino, as New York mayor, in City Hall)

"It's the best job in the world...everybody's always happy to see you." (Flower deliveryman, in Bed of Roses)

"In case you survive, no one will believe what we've done to you." (Nazi guard to Jewish prisoner, in Anne Frank Remembered)

"We got one, bay-bee!" (Dusty, who suffers from Dick Vitale syndrome, in Twister)

"In Italy, is it true that everyone has water and a telephone?" (Hopeful Albanian immigrant, in Lamerica)

"To eat good food is to be close to God." (Big Night)

"She died because of me, because I loved her, because I had an East European name." (The English Patient)

"A few words on a piece of paper aren't worth dying for." (Michael Collins)

Doting Grandfather Award (for best A-2 movies): My runaway favorites (for preteens) were Bogus and Fly Away Home. For more mature young folks, consider Sense and Sensibility, The Postman, Dragonheart, The Phantom, Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story.

The Over-the-Rainbow Award for Best Use of Music or Song: the soft jazz in Leaving Las Vegas; the variety, from Beatles to Beethoven to Gershwin, in Mr. Holland's Opus; and the inspired use of "Be Not Afraid" in Dead Man Walking.

Among Many Contributors to Film Culture Who Died in 1996: Producers Ross Hunter, Pandro S. Berman; title artist Saul Bass; French directors Rene Clement (Forbidden Games) and Marcel Carne (Children of Paradise); cinematographer John Alton (the American in Paris ballet); writers Liam O'Brien (Young at Heart), Steve Tesich (Breaking Away) and Stirling Silliphant (In the Heat of the Night); critic Walter Kerr; actors Gene Kelly, Martin Balsam, Haing S. Ngor, George Burns, Greer Garson, Ben Johnson, John Abbott, Jo Van Fleet, Claudette Colbert, Joanne Dru, Juliet Prowse, Dorothy Lamour, Marcello Mastroianni.

Memorable Moments and Images: The death scene (Dead Man Walking) in which Sister Helen offers the intense Christian compassion that will be a convict's last earthly image; at King Arthur's ancient Avalon, the hero-dragon rededicates himself to earning his right to heaven (Dragonheart); the hero's descent into New York's homeless underground (Extreme Measures) is déjà-Dante all over again; the hero's death (Michael Collins), intercut with his beloved's shopping for a wedding gown as Sinead O'Connor sings a lament for a lost love; the scene where the nurse (English Patient) swings by a rope with a torch in the dark, gasping in delight at ancient paintings of saints high on the walls of an Italian chapel.

THE NEW RATINGS GAME: The industry's self-imposed ratings system (announced just before Christmas) goes into effect this month.

Let's be clear. Like the almost 30-year-old movie-rating system on which it's based, the TV system is advisory for parents and designed only to protect children. Movies and TV are unfettered for "adults," which means ages 17 and up.

Two categories will be applied only to shows intended just for children: TV-Y (O.K. for all kids) and TV-Y-7 (O.K. for ages 7 and up). That could help you through the Saturday morning cartoons.

The other four resemble the movie categories: TV-G (suitable for all viewers), TV-PG (warning of a possible problem), TV-14 (unsuitable for viewers younger than 14), TV-M (adults only).

The ratings assume that, as kids get older, they're able to deal with more intense levels of sexuality (both talk and behavior), violence and forbidden language.

Who will make these judgments? Yeah, the networks, syndicators and cable operators. But there will be pressure from competitors, advertisers, a ratings oversight board, even the public through an 800 number for complaints. The advertisers could be crucial, since they are precisely what makes TV content different from movie content. Producers, in fact, fear that the pressure will be to move in the direction of PG or audiences for ads will be too small.

Most sitcoms would be TV-PG. (Don't most movie parents consider PG an "innocent" rating?) Thus, Cybill would be PG, with perhaps occasional episodes at PG-14. (Give me a break; that's an adult series.) Also at PG-14 would be Melrose Place, NYPD Blue and The X-Files.

"Trash talk TV" (Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones) will apparently be rated TV-14, which implies that general sleaze is just fine for kids from 14 to 16. And that raises this issue: What would be TV-M? Theatrical movies? Late-night talk? Soaps? You can bet there will be a lot of TV-M during fringe "adult" hours.

Starting in 1998, parents will have plenty of help enforcing this system when they buy TV's equipped with the V-chip. (It will presumably block out any category that can be devised.) President Clinton's opinion that the system is better than the present haphazard "warnings" and deserves a 10-month trial seems fair.

Responsible parents already know what their children are watching, set limits and emphasize the positive. Many of good will are going to be frustrated by the lack of precision such as what kind of sexuality and violence are in a program? Moreover, the movie example can be frightening, because few would argue that movies have gotten notably "better" since 1968. With the new ratings, we'll close our eyes, hold hands and go. For now we don't really have other options.

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