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The Best and Worst 1994/Video

A roundup of the year's VHS extremes

1994 Video of the year

1. The Carson Collection
Few videos released in 1994 are as soothing as this four-tape set that follows Carson from the early '60s all the way to his final show in May 1992. Eschewing heaviosity at every turn, The Johnny Carson Collection: His Favorite Moments from the Tonight Show (1994, Buena Vista, $59.99) sticks to the marmoset-on-the-head basics. And that's why it works. Now that Dave and Jay are squabbling over the late-night tree house, Carson's droll banality looks like lost grace.

2. Bon Voyage & Aventure Malgache (1944, Milestone, unrated, $39.95) The British Ministry of Information, in concert with the French underground, lured prodigal son Alfred Hitchcock back home from Hollywood, commissioning him to make two short movies glorifying the Resistance. What they got instead were Hitchcock films: mordant little tales in which good and evil are as arbitrary as whichever character is narrating at any particular moment. The government called the shorts inflammatory and barely released them; 50 years later, they bob up on video like very strange notes in a bottle.

3. The Hours and Times (1992, Fox Lorber, unrated, $19.98) A critically acclaimed glance at the early days of the Beatles: BackBeat, right? Well, yes, but don't forget this stunning, hour-long, black-and-white mood piece released to video this year. Jumping off from the factoid that John Lennon and Beatle manager Brian Epstein shared a Barcelona vacation in 1963, Hours presents Lennon (BackBeat's Ian Hart) as a frustrated rebel who realizes, to his confusion, that the gay Epstein will always be considered the truer outsider.

4. La Belle Noiseuse (1991, New Yorker, unrated, priced for rental) For lovers of foreign films who don't live near a big city, New Yorker Video has been a savior with enhanced subtitles. This stunning Jacques Rivette opus concerns the relationship between a stubborn, aging painter (Michel Piccoli) and his equally willful model (the glorious Emmanuelle Béart). It's about the ways that people use art to illuminate life, to control it, or to hide from it.

5. It's All True (1993, Paramount, G, priced for rental) In 1942, Orson Welles left his just-completed Magnificent Ambersons in the silky hands of RKO editors and jaunted off to Brazil to film a parable about fisherman asail on a raft. But It's All True fell apart, Ambersons was butchered by the studio, and Orson's days as Boy Genius were officially over. This tape pieces the surviving footage into a nearly hour-long reconstruction. Is it great Welles? Not quite, in this cobbled-together form. Does it look better than nearly anything else that came out in 1994? No doubt about it.

6. The Jack Benny Program, Vols. 1-5 (1961-1964, MCA/Universal, $14.98 each) Johnny Carson professed to have learned about timing from one Benjamin Kubelsky, a vaudeville fiddler who mutated into the dreamy miser we know as Jack Benny. These 10 shows from the final years of Benny's TV show serve as reminders of a style in which what wasn't said was far funnier than what was.

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