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100 Film Critics Can't Be Wrong, Can They? : The critics' consensus choice for the 'best' movie of '88 is . . . a documentary!

January 08, 1989|PAT McGILLIGAN and MARK ROWLAND

Film critics are an unpredictable lot. In Calendar's 9th annual poll of 100 of the nation's newspaper and magazine critics, the sleeper crime documentary, "The Thin Blue Line," edged out the baseball-and-sex romp "Bull Durham" and blockbuster bunny hop "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" as the consensus choice for "best" film of 1988.

The sampling reflects an over-all geographical balance and includes only those critics who submitted year-end opinions.

As usual, there was plenty to feud and fuss about. More than 200 films, a record, received at least one "best" vote from some scribe somewhere--and an equal number scored in the "worst" column. There was more disparity than agreement over-all, except for the surprisingly widespread assessment that, all in all, it was a very good movie year.

"Critics hoisted their thumbs excitedly into the air in these 12 months more often than in any year in recent memory," said William Arnold, Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

The two Kansas City Star critics said they rated more films as 4-star or 3 1/2-star than in any other year of the 1980s. Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer, stated flatly that it was the best year for American movies since 1939, the acme of the Golden Age of Hollywood, the year of "Gone With the Wind."

It was the most populist year of the decade for film critics: Five of the films received solid critical backing, including "Big," "Die Hard," "A Fish Called Wanda" and "Beetlejuice." Loopy comedies and animated features (both Steven Spielberg's (and Universal's) "Land Before Time" and Disney's "Oliver & Company") held their own in the voting with the portentous thrillers.

Among the top-ranked foreign films were the anti-apartheid drama set in South Africa, "A World Apart," Wim Wender's "Wings of Desire" and Louis Malle's "Au Revoir les Enfants." Another, often cited on "best" lists, was "Babette's Feast," the film from Denmark based on an Isak Dinesen short story. It was a safe bet, seeing as how "Babette's Feast" won last year's Best Foreign Film Oscar and finally won wide distribution during the year.

It was a banner year for serious documentaries. Errol Morris' "The Thin Blue Line" placed higher than any other documentary in the history of the survey. (Its circumstantial investigation of a cop-killing not only impressed critics but has, in fact, prompted a retrial for the accused in Texas.)

Other documentaries receiving best votes include "Vincent," "Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam," "The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Heavy Metal Years" and Marcel Ophul's epic "Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie."

The New York Film Critics Circle picked the Anne Tyler adaptation, "The Accidental Tourist," which has opened in only a few cities nationwide, as the best film of 1988. The L.A. critics' association chose the six-hour Dickensian "Little Dorrit," the National Board of Review settled on the civil rights flashback, "Mississippi Burning."

And as usual, critics in smaller markets had to cope with preferential distribution patterns that brought last year's Oscar contenders to their local theaters in 1988. "Moonstruck," "Ironweed" and "The Last Emperor" were among the 1987 sure things receiving solid vote contingents from the "rubes," as Duane Dudek of the Milwaukee Sentinel good-naturedly describes the Johnny-come-lately critics.

Now, they're patiently awaiting "Accidental Tourist," "Little Dorrit," "Talk Radio" and other films acclaimed by the bicoastal elite, but unseen by the vast majority of the land.

But the hinterlanded critics take their jobs just as seriously. Sometimes the two critics for the Omaha World Herald must journey 50 miles to the college town of Lincoln, Neb., to catch a premiere. When "September" finally opened in Omaha, it played for only three days. And the advertising did not even mention Woody Allen's name as director. Though "September" had already been deemed as among 1987's "worst" by many reviewers, World Herald film critic Jim Delmont made the effort to see it, and--surprise--he liked it. A lot.

When Delmont and colleague Jeff Bahr came up with their "best" this year, as a sort of revenge on critical snobbery they settled on 20 titles, only two of which were made outside the United States, and those two, from Great Britain. Four of the World Herald "best" movies ("Coming to America," "She's Having a Baby," "Stealing Home" and "The Good Mother") appear on no other critics' lists in this round-up.

No one haggles over what is or is not permissible. This year, there was an outpouring of mention for John Frankenheimer's resurrected "The Manchurian Candidate." "Ironically, the best film of 1988 was first released in 1962," wrote James Verniere of the Boston Herald.

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The list is always an ineluctable blend of personal and professional gut-reaction.

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