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LEADERS OF THE PACK / A whirl in the time machine: Film Of The Year

IT WAS the best of American times, and the worst of European. Hollywood still packed people in for pap - Indecent Proposal, The Firm - but showed that not all box-office sell- outs are artistic ones too. Jurassic Park became the most successful film of all time, and you could at least see why; though Roberto Rodriguez's El Mariachi, made for dollars 8,000, reminded you that a fresh eye is as special as any effect. The Fugitive, which was nit-picked on for its plot when its realism lay in character, vied with In the Line of Fire for best thriller. In a seat-clutching finish, Clint and co just took it - along with the Maureen Lipman award for creative use of telephone.

The French cinema went round and round in eternal triangles. But Un Coeur en Hiver gave the genre an icy twist: a lover who never declared his hand. It was more a poker match than a movie, and I still haven't worked out whether Daniel Auteuil was bluffing. Also flying the French flag, last year's winner Krzysztof Kieslowski again took us to another plane in Three Colours: Blue. Its searing final montage was the sequence of the year.

Repression was the year's theme - a symptom of our pent-up Aids age? - wherever you travelled. In Australia Gillian Armstrong rummaged behind the laid-back facade of a Sydney menage in The Last Days of Chez Nous. It felt like early Jane Campion - jagged, unsettling, and funny. In New Zealand Campion herself flowered into a masterly middle period with The Piano, an avowedly feminine epic in which emotions burst out that the characters didn't know they possessed. Its only fault stemmed from its intelligence: the composition was so meticulous that the film was a little uptight.

This was where my film of the year had the edge. Harold Ramis's comedy Groundhog Day unwound deliriously even as the noose seemed to tighten around its hero's neck. Bill Murray, as the weatherman locked into a recurring day, at last found a theme worthy of his sly, sour wit. Big ideas - Time, Fate - were addressed, but nimbly, hauntingly, showing up the lunges at profundity of Sleepless in Seattle. Like Citizen Kane, Groundhog Day saw that film is a time machine and took us for a whirl around its possibilities. It was a breeze you wanted to blow for ever.

(Photograph omitted)