ARTS / Perplexingly good double act: Film of the Year

A YEAR of disappointments began with the sad news that Oliver Stone had not solved the murder of John F Kennedy. Stone himself may think otherwise, having boiled the suspects down to the CIA, the Mafia and half the US government. Other dud solutions: Barbra Streisand cracking the code of Nick Nolte's childhood in Prince of Tides, Bridget Fonda doing the same to Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female, and Batman making a hash of the Penguin case. That movie should have been Bat v Cat, and no holds barred.

Like Tim Burton, Martin Scorsese was way off form; Cape Fear made him look like a nasty little show-off, which is not the case. Still, his next film is The Age of Innocence, a fascinating prospect; not even Scorsese can wangle rape and tattoos into Edith Wharton. Much more inspiring was Clint Eastwood's return to the Western in Unforgiven - a grizzled and leathery work, with particularly strong playing from Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman. If anything, it was too tightly packed: it kept on telling a bitter fable about the decline of the Wild West, and the last breath of old illusions. It seldom relaxed into plain story- telling, which is why I preferred The Last of the Mohicans - a less clever film, but far more stirring and unabashed. Michael Mann will always come up with something stylish, but there was more to this; it marked him out as the last of the Romantics. Notice how Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't ask Madeline Stowe for a kiss, or come up and gaze into her eyes; he just marches past her, through the flaming fort, takes her arm - and she follows him, off for a long embrace, as if she'd planned the whole thing.

More love and death from the Continent: around the turn of the year we had Toto the Hero shading into Delicatessen and everything was set fair for a great European renaissance. It never happened, but there was a pocketful of miracles. Les Amants du Pont-Neuf barely hung together, but that was no surprise: it travelled a long way, from scrawny documentary to pompous dream. If you like movies to knock you over the back of your seat, the sequence on the Seine is for you - the quiet Juliette Binoche letting rip, just for once, with the sky on fire behind her. Maurice Pialat is a great and daunting director, and many viewers were put off by the length and severity of Van Gogh. Of the many films made about the artist, this was the strongest; more than that, it painted a difficult and downbeat picture of genius, of beauty cracked from side to side.

If you found that hard to watch, how about The Double Life of Veronique? This was directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, whose forbidding Dekalog took us as deep into the soul of a Polish housing estate as most people would like to go. Veronique was much more spirited - it could hardly be less - but also more perplexing. Having seen it three times, I am really none the wiser; but I am much the happier. Irene Jacob played the two identical, unrelated girls and somehow sparkled with melancholy, a kind of joie de mourir. This is my film of the year: it makes you work hard, but repays the effort. It's still on at the MGM Swiss Centre, as if to prove that great films just won't go away.

(Photographs omitted)