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World-class Feast Amid A Famine Year

December 29, 1985|SHEILA BENSON

If critics were groundhogs, one look at the shadow cast by the films of 1985 would be enough to turn them around for a decade or two. This has been, unequivocally, the year of the great famine, in American films in particular.

One after another fad was rushed to the fore, then discarded: teen comedies, teen sex comedies, voyeuristic teen sex comedies, and seriocomedies of teens awakening to sex in clumps and/or in shopping malls. The pumped-up, muscle-bound movie lumbered into view and is with us yet; other factions are still concerned with taunting us into World War III.

It seemed that almost every time you looked to a serious American film to save the day, it was a hope aborted. With few exceptions, they felt hollow, manufactured, not made from an overwhelming desire to tell a certain story in a certain way.

I suspect this is going to result in more foreign films crowding 10-best lists of the nation's critics than we've ever had before. Quite rightly, too. This year the majestic ballast of thought, integrity, seriousness of purpose and execution has come from Japan, West Germany, France and England.

It was also a year in which the elder statesman set the pace for the striplings: 71-year-old Kon Ichikawa, 79-year-old John Huston, 75-year-old Akira Kurosawa. As subject matter, age, for once, had an honored place: in the central couples of "Cocoon"; in "The Shooting Party," whose indelible exchange took place between James Mason and John Gielgud; in "Emerald Forest," where the father/shaman certainly knew best; with the wily, croaking Don in "Prizzi's Honor"; in the wonderful emeritus professors of "Creator," and in "A Sunday in the Country" as an elderly, honored painter took up his brushes with an air that said challenges still lay ahead of him.

Critics may feel infinitely more geriatric this December than any of us did last January--please do not forget that 1985 was the year of "Perfect," "Stick," "Red Sonja," "Spies Like Us," "National Lampoon's European Vacation," a fourth Rocky, another Rambo and a Swedish ninja.

But for the good news, from a very personal viewpoint these motion pictures seemed the finest of the year, with enough substantial candidates left over to make a serious runners-up list:

1--Kon Ichikawa's The Makioka Sisters is the year's indispensable movie: the complex, interdependent lives of four aristocratic sisters just before World War II, adapted from the novel of Junichiro Tanazaki and consummately well acted. Like Japanese Chekhov, unhurried and subtle, it is also slyly funny and sensuous. Tanazaki regarded women with adulation and the director's use of color, design and costuming gives that fervor an almost palpable presence. The result is almost swooningly beautiful, but beauty with a rigorous purpose.

2--Akira Kurosawa's Ran is a universal, elemental study of war, love and death that sums up the director's lifelong concerns. As writer-director, Kurosawa has taken the Lear story from Shakespeare and gone with it to the edge of the abyss; "Ran's" epic violence has a purging effect. As the Lear-like Hidetora, Tatsuya Nakadai is poignant and terrifying, never less than noble, and Kurosawa's addition of a new character, the dangerously vindictive Lady Kaede, gives the story fullness and balance. Both sumptuous and austere, "Ran" is Kurosawa in complete control of his creative powers and even, seemingly, the elements themselves.

3--Bertrand Tavernier's A Sunday in the Country takes place in one afternoon at the comfortable country house of the painter, M. Ladmiral, an honored and passed-over contemporary of Renoir and Monet. Beneath its tranquil surface--a predictable visit of a dutiful son and his family and the unpredictable visit of a sunnily outrageous daughter--this is a film about love and risk, about age and compromise. It is a cry for bravery at any age, for striking out into the terrifying unknown. In its every detail, it is masterly and deeply, deeply moving.

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