Ty Burr ranks ''Kiki's Delivery Service,'' ''Starship Troopers,'' and ''The Big Lebowski'' among the top. Plus, his picks for the five worst

By Ty Burr
December 25, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

1 Kiki’s Delivery Service (Buena Vista, G)
Video of the Year
In a year in which the animation breakthroughs on the big screen involved computers and bugs (no, not that kind), the video that gave me the purest home-viewing enjoyment was a cartoon about a sweet-faced adolescent witch. Made in 1989. Hand drawn.

Animator Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro) has been called ”the Walt Disney of Japan,” and, ironically, it’s Walt Disney that is finally releasing his films in this country, with new, celeb-studded English-language tracks.

Still, even as the characters speak in the familiar cadences of Janeane Garofalo, Debbie Reynolds, and the late Phil Hartman, Kiki remains a beguiling fever dream of childlike nostalgia. On one level, it’s as archetypal as a Joseph Campbell myth: Thirteen-year-old Kiki (Kirsten Dunst) leaves her parents to find her place in the world, ultimately settling on a coastal city that Miyazaki envisions as a 1950s Europe where WWII never happened. In another sense, it’s a deeply reassuring parable of belonging. And on the visual level, it’s simply astounding, like one of Hergé’s Tintin landscapes unstuck in time, or a Little Nemo in Speed Racer Land. Next year Miyazaki’s ’97 hit Princess Mononoke will be released in U.S. theaters. For now, Kiki serves as a reminder in these antsy times that the best animated films are never about how the dots connect, but where they take you.

2 Starship Troopers] (Columbia TriStar, R)
Neo-fascist tripe aimed squarely at the empty space between the ears of MTV-addled teenagers? A fiendishly encoded critique of American cultural tastes? Or just a genetically superior bugs-from-outer-space flick? At least half the fun of Paul Verhoeven’s pilloried future-schlock epic lies in trying to figure out his intentions. There’s no one answer, either: The director of The Fourth Man and RoboCop is the kind of tricky bastard who’ll throw Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser, M.D.) in an SS trench coat, call him a good guy, then let you stew over your own response. Forget Gus Van Sant’s Psycho — this is the postmodern Hollywood art film of the year.

3 Les Vampires/Irma Vep (Water Bearer, unrated/Fox Lorber, unrated)
Maids and aristocrats, office workers and policemen: In Louis Feuillade’s gloriously surreal 1915-16 serial, the members of the criminal gang known as the Vampires are everywhere and everyone. It’s the first intimation of the Pod People, the first filmed expression of 20th-century paranoia, and, as such, it’s as modern as The X-Files. At the center of the madness is the incredible Musidora as arch-vamp Irma Vep, who’s also the oblique subject of Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep, a bitterly funny after-dinner mint to Les Vampires about a hapless director (Jean-Pierre Léaud) trying to remake the silent classic for the 1990s. Vampires shows French cinema literally being born; 80 years later, Irma Vep caustically presides over its funeral.

4 Eye of God (Peachtree, R)
A small, still slice of American pie, Tim Blake Nelson’s debut skirts art-house/heartland pretensions to end up as a translucently moving vision of faith and bad luck. An Oklahoma burger waitress (Martha Plimpton) marries the born-again ex-con (Kevin Anderson) to whom she’s been writing and — so gradually that it’s almost invisible — Mr. Right turns into Mr. Righteous. Meanwhile, a mournful teen rebel (Nick Stahl) aimlessly drives the back roads by night, spiraling in toward their conjoined fates. Like an infinitely sympathetic surgeon, Nelson intercuts between past, near past, and present, circling around a hideous act of violence until we can no longer look away — and then slips us a scene of overpowering grace in its place.

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