Owen Gleiberman's picks -- The EW critic ranks a Steven Spielberg war piece, Jim Carrey's serious turn, and ''Shakespeare in Love'' among the best. Plus: His picks for the five worst films of the past 12 months

1 Saving Private Ryan
Movie the Year
When I went to see Steven Spielberg’s cataclysmic World War II masterpiece on opening weekend (it was my second viewing), most of the audience sat right through to the end of the closing credits. Few of us moved, or even spoke. We were too thunderstruck. Any movie that can create in its viewers this hushed and staggering a contemplation of the defining military conflict of the 20th century is nothing less than a seismic work of art. Yet such is the nature of our myopic media culture that I now feel compelled to defend Spielberg against the charge that he has filmed two extraordinary battle sequences and sandwiched some Hollywood combat clichés in between. I could go on about the performances (Tom Hanks’ authority and clandestine turmoil, Jeremy Davies’ terror), but the ultimate brilliance of Saving Private Ryan is the way it depicts the horror of World War II right alongside its heroism — indeed, the two are organically intertwined. As a vision of hell, the opening D-Day massacre may, in movie terms, rank with Picasso’s Guernica, but when it’s over, the spectre of war doesn’t disappear. It haunts the soldiers’ every breath. The final battle is wrenching in a less existential, more clear-eyed way. That’s because the men now know each other, and they understand why they’re fighting: not to save Private Ryan but to save what he stands for — the belief that another man’s life is really your own.

2 Happiness
It’s perfectly accurate to describe Todd Solondz’s gleefully twisted mosaic of lust and despair as a black comedy. Somehow, though, that fails to do justice to its fearless, mordant intimacy — the cathartic feeling this filmmaker gives you that he is putting his squirmiest sick-puppy secrets right up there on screen, and that a few of those secrets may just mirror yours. The oft-quoted exchange between Lara Flynn Boyle’s poet-masochist Helen and Jane Adams’ waiflike Joy (Helen: ”I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing with you!” Joy: ”But I’m not laughing!”) incarnates Solondz’s prickly fusion of cruelty and compassion. His characters may not be laughing, but we in the audience are laughing at them and with them: at their cluelessness, with their loneliness, at the extremes to which they’ll go to dream their way out of both. Linked together, these desperate souls form a daisy chain of neurosis. To be drawn into the film is to become part of the chain — and, in Solondz’s most daring gambit, to view the forbidden compulsions of a pedophile (played with queasy sympathy by Dylan Baker) not simply as a crime, but as a projection of the all-too-human gap between desire and fulfillment.

3 The Truman Show
A nightmare that looks like a daydream, Peter Weir’s hypnotic entertainment-age fairy tale enfolds you inside a television series that never stops, but the film isn’t really about television. It’s about the homogenized consciousness that TV makes possible, a consciousness that is currently revamping the world into an insidious consumer mirage. As Truman Burbank, a man who has spent every moment of his existence surrounded by actors, and is therefore programmed — without knowing it — to behave like one himself (literally as the star of his own life), Jim Carrey, with his pristine boyishness and question-mark soul, creates a new kind of hero, a Capra-meets-Serling zombie saint who awakens to the reality that his very imagination has been molded in plastic. Dismissed by some as superficial, The Truman Show will, I think, appear only more prophetic as time goes on.