1 LIVING IN OBLIVION
[VIDEO of the YEAR] The greatest pleasure of home video is the unexpected discovery — the tape you rent when every copy of Seven is out that expands into a surprise party on your TV. In theory, Living in Oblivion (1995, Columbia TriStar, R, priced for rental) is just another no-budget movie about the dreary perils of making no-budget movies. In practice, writer-director Tom DiCillo has crafted a deadpan, achingly funny dance of egos on a soundstage. Steve Buscemi plays a director who argues with his eye-patch-wearing cinematographer (Dermot Mulroney) about close-ups, with his dwarf extra about motivation, and with himself over whether he should declare his love for his leading lady (the radiant Catharine Keener). Best of all is James LeGros as Chad Palamino, a brainless screen hunk who possibly represents DiCillo’s revenge on the star of his previous movie, one William Bradley Pitt. In the end, Living in Oblivion is a beautifully observed valentine to the dysfunctional family that is every film crew.
(1995, Columbia TriStar, PG, priced for rental) With Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and Clueless all hitting screens in the past two years, Jane Austen deserves a posthumous power table at Drai’s. So how come this British TV movie (released here theatrically) is the only one that rises above the Masterpiece Theatre topiary, getting at Austen’s bone-dry ironies and knowledge of the heart? As the 27-year-old ”spinster” who stands to rekindle a long-dead flame, Amanda Root gracefully embodies the Austen heroine: perceptive, kind, proper, and gleaming with hidden longings.
(1985, Voyager, unrated, $149.95) Even if you’re not a huge fan of Terry Gilliam’s looking-glass fantasy — in which a bureaucratic sad sack (Jonathan Pryce) gets lost in a byzantine future — this laserdisc boxed set is a revelatory chunk of Hollywood history. In addition to a new edit of the film, featuring dazzling visual clarity and pinprick sound, there’s also an hour-long documentary about the skirmishes surrounding Brazil’s theatrical release and — included with fitting perversity — the watered-down cut of the film that Universal initially foisted on the director and the public.
4 THEREMIN: AN ELECTRONIC ODYSSEY
(1995, Orion, PG, $19.98) Leon Theremin’s most famous invention — an electronic musical instrument responsible for the ooo-EEE-ooo on the Beach Boys’ ”Good Vibrations” and countless ’50s sci-fi movies — was weird enough. His life was weirder still: fleeing Lenin’s Russia for the high life in Jazz Age New York, marrying a black dancer, getting kidnapped back home, and being forced to develop surveillance technology for the KGB. At the end of this lucidly bizarre documentary, when the 94-year-old Theremin reunites with his New York circle, it’s as though a secret history of the 20th century has reached closure.
5 THE USUAL SUSPECTS
(1995, PolyGram, R, $19.95) On video you can truly savor the delights of one of the most fiendishly scripted puzzle-box movies of all time. In fact, once you get to the final scene, you’ll probably want to rewind and start all over again, just to see if you missed the clues that point to the real identity of arch villain Keyser Soze.
6 JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH
(1996, Walt Disney, PG, $22.99) Great, twisted minds think alike, and in the case of Peach collaborators, the late children’s author Roald Dahl, producer Tim Burton, and director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas), the result is a dreamlike film version of a seemingly unfilmable classic. This journey aboard a humongous fruit begins and ends in live- action, but the midsection is an animated whirlpool of feverish, delightful imagery.
7 SMOKE BLUE IN THE FACE
(1995, Miramax, R, priced for rental) Smoke, written by Paul Auster and directed by Wayne Wang, is a lovely Brooklyn fable about belonging and redemption starring Harvey Keitel and William Hurt; Blue in the Face is the impromptu gabfest that resulted when the filmmakers kept the cameras rolling and invited friends like Madonna, Lou Reed, and Michael J. Fox to stop by. Both films have the fluky, guarded sincerity of New York at its most genial, and watching them on a double bill makes for a wondrous video experience.
8 MR. BEAN
(1996, PolyGram, unrated, $19.95 each tape) In these six sidesplitting videos — repackaging 12 episodes of his latest British telly show — Four Weddings and a Funeral’s Rowan Atkinson single-handedly revives the tradition of silent clowns Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati with an added edge of pointed Pythonesque nonsense. If you can sample only one tape, go for the holiday special ”Merry Mishaps” (on Vol. 5), in which petulant bumbling snoop Mr. Bean reenacts Jurassic Park in a department store creche and manages to get his head stuck inside a Christmas turkey. Sublimely silly.
9 THE BEATLES ANTHOLOGY
(1996, Turner, unrated, $159.99) Thought you saw the entire 4 1/2-hour documentary when it aired on television last year, after the release of the first Beatles Anthology CD? Here’s the original 10-hour British edit that was subsequently whittled down for the American broadcast. Even if it doesn’t put the story of John, Paul, George, and Ringo into the larger cultural perspective they helped create, this eight-tape boxed set is still bursting with loads of rare concert footage and previously unseen outtakes.
10 ALADDIN AND THE KING OF THIEVES
(1996, Walt Disney, G, $24.99) Atoning for the drab 1994 Aladdin sequel, The Return of Jafar (in which the big blue genie was voiced by Dan Castellaneta, a.k.a. Homer Simpson), the second of Disney’s video-only follow-ups features The Return of Robin Williams to what may well be his liveliest, most representative role. The story’s a little sticky — Aladdin bonds with his nogoodnik dad — and the animation looks slightly second-rate, but we’ll take full-on Williams wherever we can get him.
THE FIVE WORST
1 THEODORE REX
(1996, New Line, PG, priced for rental) Used to be that when a star made an out-and-out turkey, the studio would bury it in Europe or shelve the thing. These days, the movie gets a video premiere for all the world to see. Still, watching this Whoopi Goldberg atrocity — whose $35 million budget makes it the most expensive direct-to-video product ever — is like gawking at a 10-car pile-up. And it’s hard to decide which is worse: the lame future-cop-partners-with-reconstituted-T. rex plot or the pre-Cambrian production values. Even kiddie dino freaks will wish this one extinct.
(1995, Walt Disney, G, $14.99) Let the buyer beware: This one’s about a cute talking pig, and the box art even looks suspiciously familiar. But we know Babe, and this, sir, is no Babe. Instead it’s a broad-as-a-barn country comedy (with Nashville vets Roy Clark and Mickey Gilley in small roles) that trots out its anthropomorphic critters like geeks in a freak show. If Babe is the Citizen Kane of animal movies, this must be Ernest Goes to Jail.
3 O.J. SIMPSON: THE INTERVIEW
(1996, H&K, unrated, $29.99) In which the star of the nation’s longest-running tragisitcom importunes us on the subject of his innocence from his living room, then guides us on a tour through his house and points out where he left the bags. Even if you think he didn’t do it, this is still one ugly piece of home-video exploitation. If you think he did, The Interview opens up the possibility that Simpson may in fact be a better actor than we thought. 4 UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
(1996, Touchstone, PG-13, priced for rental) Television news has become so shallow, so craven in the past decade that it deserves a movie this shallow and this craven. Up Close and Personal takes the true story of self-destructive newswoman Jessica Savitch, guts it of any meaning, and turns it into a zombie remake of A Star Is Born. Michelle Pfeiffer plods gamely through; as for costar Robert Redford, here’s hoping he was paid enough to keep Sundance in business for a few more years.
(1995, MGM/UA, PG-13, priced for rental) Of all the wrongheaded recent cyberthrillers (The Net, Virtuosity, and others), why would we pick this as the runt of the litter? Maybe because its vision of young, amoral computer whizzes has everything to do with mass-media stereotypes and nothing to do with non-virtual reality. A debacle made complete by the filmmakers’ near-total misunderstanding of the Internet, it’s the modern equivalent of Ike-era teen cash-ins like Rock, Pretty Baby.
BEST REASONS TO RENT THE ORIGINAL DIABOLIQUE THE PALLBEARER (THE GRADUATE) MRS. WINTERBOURNE (NO MAN OF HER OWN)
STRANGEST RELIGIOUS RITE NOSFERATU makes the list of Vatican-approved videos.
MOST MOVING BOX ART The cover images for THE PHANTOM, THE ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO, and INDEPENDENCE DAY change when you wiggle them.
MOST WELCOME RETURN After being unavailable for years, PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE was rereleased in a lavish eight-volume boxed set.
MOST UNNECESSARY SEQUELS BLOODSPORT II BODY OF INFLUENCE 2 DRAGON FURY II IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE 2 MIDNIGHT TEASE 2 NEMESIS 3 POISON IVY 2: LILY RED SCORPION 2 REDEMPTION: KICKBOXER 5 SHOOTFIGHTER 2 TREMORS 2: AFTERSHOCKS WHITE WOLVES II BEST OF THE BEST 3 CARNIVORE 3 IRON EAGLE IV
STRONGEST FITNESS PRESENCE Often monopolizing the top 20 list, BMG’s 12-title THE FIRM series veritably kicked sand in the face of other exercise videos.
THE FIVE WORST MOST UBIQUITOUS SPORTS-VIDEO KING Michael Jordan added one more highlights tape to his crown this year. It quickly joined his other three releases in the top 20, where his debut, COME FLY WITH ME, remains after more than six years.
BEST BAD TITLES ALIEN TERMINATOR AMERICAN FLATULATORS BLOOD & DONUTS CYBERSEX KITTENS DIRTY DIAPER DANCING EXPLOSIVE SHORTS FEMALIEN LA CAGE AUX ZOMBIES THE LEGEND OF GATOR FACE LOVE AND HUMAN REMAINS PRINCE BRAT AND THE WHIPPING BOY THE SEXUAL LIFE OF THE BELGIANS SHOWGIRL MURDERS WHERE’S THE MONEY, NOREEN?
GRISLIEST RELEASE OF THE YEAR DEATH: THE ULTIMATE HORROR features footage of executions, charred human remains, rampaging bulls, ad nausea.
GRIZZLIEST RELEASE GRIZZLY ADAMS: THE TREASURE OF THE BEAR