FILM: CHRISTMAS VIDEO SPECIAL The best of the year's releases: buffs, Scrooges and kids all catered for as our critics scour the shops for the top holiday rentals

PICK OF 1999

NOTTING HILL (15)

There's a good deal wrong with it, but - and I don't remember when this was last true of a British film - it miraculously does get the essentials right. It's a fantasy, and it helps that Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant are lusciously matched. Yes, he does his sometimes gratingly adorable Hugh Grant thing and, yes, she's made to stand a lot on humdrum West London thresholds. But they really do have a sexual chemistry. Ultimately, this is an expertly crafted vehicle for Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, and it's for them it should be seen.

GILBERT ADAIR

CRUEL INTENTIONS (15)

A surprisingly winning update of Les Liaisons Dangeureurses. New York teenagers Kathryn (Sarah "Buffy" Michelle Gellar) and Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe) manipulate their perverse way about the crotches of their social set. Enter Annette (Reese Witherspoon) - a smart, smug virgin. Irresistible sport! It's fascinating to see how these young actors have absorbed the performances of Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer in Stephen Frears's Oscar-winning adaptation of 1988.

ANTONIA QUIRKE

LAST NIGHT (15)

Perhaps the most modest and romantic disaster movie ever made. The first feature from the Canadian actor and writer Don McKellar, it's a portrait of ordinary people dealing not merely with mortality, but with the panic of imposed significance. McKellar plays Patrick, who is intent on spending his last moments before the world ends alone. The plan seems to be going smoothly until a distraught woman (Sandra Oh) shows up on his doorstep. DENNIS LIM

THE MATRIX (15)

Working off the paranoid, made-for-movies premise that reality might be the grandest illusion of all, the Wachowski brothers' follow-up to their obnoxious Bound is hot-wired into the intense existential panic that courses through millennial anxiety attacks like The Truman Show and dystopian sci-fi trips from Philip K Dick on. To summarise: the world is in deep trouble, but oh look, a saviour is on hand. The metaphor gets more insane when you consider that "the One" is Keanu Reeves. The visual effects are impressive, but the overall style is wearing. The camera (or computer program, as the case may be) calls more attention to itself than to what's in the frame, all swooping overheads and angles. DL

LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (PG)

There've been alarmingly few dissenting voices in the rush to embrace Roberto Benigni's Oscar-winner as some sort of life-affirming landmark. Benigni relies largely on tedious physical comedy in the first half, in which Guido pursues and weds school-teacher Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). The tone shifts abruptly midway as Guido, Dora and their little boy are transported to the camps. Hideously manipulative and grossly insensitive, Benigni turns the film into a specious story of a father's love; this film doesn't prove that certain subjects are off limits. Just that some subjects should be off limits to certain people. DL

CLASSICS

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (PG)

Frank Capra's depressive masterpiece of 1946: small-town building-society manager James Stewart is saved from suicide by Clarence the clumsy angel. Its heart-warmingness and its heart of utter bleakness make for perfect Christmas viewing.

GENEVIEVE FRANCON

ET (U) Aaah: the floaty-fingered star of the BT ads. Two ways to brighten up your umpteenth viewing: watch the young Drew Barrymore find her feet; compare our hero with the scary baby in David Lynch's Eraserhead. GF

ROGOPAG (PG)

Sixties art-house, and the most opposite stuff imaginable to the usual Christmas pud. It's a portmanteau movie, directed by ROssellini, GOdard, PAsolini and Gregretti. Pasolini's bit stars a 1962-vintage Orson Welles as an egomaniacal film director (now where do you suppose that idea came from?). Out now from Tartan Video. GF

LA HAINE (15)

Mathieu Kassovitz's brilliant French film (1995) about three young men - one black, one Jewish (Vincent Cassel, who went on to star in L'Appartement and Elizabeth), one Arab - in the legendarily harsh concrete world of the Parisian banlieues. Genuinely tragic stuff, shot in a stylish black and white. Out now from Tartan Video. GF

TOP TV

THE SIMPSONS' GREATEST HITS (12)

As George Walden, former Booker Prize judge and Tory MP, recently opined, The Simpsons is really the only great popular art-work of our time. This collection spans the full length of the Simpsons era, 1992-98, and includes both the first ever episode and a classic cameo from U2. All power to Matt Groening and his team. GF

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER: SEASON ONE BOX SET (15)

The crossover American teeny show of 1999: glossier than Beverly Hills, wiser than Dawson's Creek and (sometimes) even sharper and sweeter than Friends. An explanation: Joss Whedon, onlie begetter of the concept, previously worked on the marvellous Toy Story. Cheerleader Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is what people call a very special young lady. She's the only person in the world who has the power to save humanity from the kiss of death ... Frights, Valley girls, martial arts, common-sense morals, delicious frocks. GF

ALI G - INNIT (15)

Quite why the 11 O'Clock Show's chief political interviewer deserves the distinction of having his own compilation while Jeremy Paxman languishes uncollected is as mysterious as the secrets of punani. But then perhaps that's the genius of Ali G - he happily delves into those regions most journalists fail to penetrate, no matter how hairy the subject. One day the chief homeboy of the Staines Massive will host Newsnight. These recorded highlights feature revealing interviews with Tony Benn, Judge Pickles, Professor Heinz Woolf, Ron Davies and Rhodes Boyson.

NICHOLAS BATTY

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