The arrival of January 1 means several things: the vengeful onset of winter, the beginning of the January movie season (easily one of the worst months of the year for quality releases), and the annual tabulation of "best of" and "worst of" film lists. Of course, coming up with a Top 10 list doesn't require you to be a critic, or even a movie buff. In fact, I've seen Top 10 lists from people who haven't seen ten movies all year. Since everyone has an opinion, everyone has a de facto "best of" list, even if they haven't bothered to write it down.
So what of the year that has just shuffled by? Viewed subjectively, it was weak, even considering the sudden upsurge of quality releases during the final three months. For the first three quarters of 1996, crap was being hurled at us from every direction, irrespective of whether the distributor was large or small. The turning point was the October release of Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies, the first Top 10 film since January's 1995 leftovers (Dead Man Walking and Land and Freedom). Secrets and Lies opened the gates for quality, and good movies poured through in a flood. It's unfortunate that they couldn't have been spread out a little more evenly over the entire year.
Some numbers (for anyone who's interested): of the 261 non-festival films I reviewed this year, I would heartily endorse 49 of them (18%), give a solid "thumbs up" to another 78 (30%), and give qualified recommendations to 55 (21%). I'd rather not even think about the other 40% -- "unspectacular" is too kind a word.
Likewise, there are some '95 holdovers that made the '96 list, with two of them landing in the Top 10. That pair -- Dead Man Walking and Land and Freedom -- made their obligatory end-of-the-year stopover in New York and Los Angeles but didn't reach anywhere else until January (or, in some cases, February). Likewise, Antonia's Line (winner of the most recent Best Foreign Film Academy Award), Restoration, The Chinese Feast, Last Summer in the Hamptons, and For the Moment could all be considered pre-1996 releases, although they appear on my "master survey" for the year just gone by.
In actuality, Twister was the second natural disaster movie of 1996. The first one, Ridley Scott's entertaining-but-uneven White Squall, vanished from theaters so quickly that hardly anyone noticed it. And, when it came to manmade disasters, Sylvester Stallone, trapped in the partially collapsed Holland Tunnel, was looking for Daylight this Christmas. Judging by all the empty seats in theaters showing the movie, he didn't find it.
Independence Day was preceded by The Arrival, a more intelligent, low-key alien invasion story that seemed, in part at least, inspired by The X-Files. It's not a classic, but it is well-paced and largely believable. If you're looking for a video rental, The Arrival makes for a much more entertaining evening than ID4's overrated special effects.
Star Trek fans were treated to Star Trek: First Contact a few days before Thanksgiving. After doing stunningly good business on its first weekend of release (a Trek tradition), the per-screen average dropped dramatically. By Christmas, the movie was all-but-dead, but its more-than-$80 million gross guaranteed another outing for the crew of the Enterprise, probably in 1999. First Contact takes a slightly different approach to the aliens-invade-Earth plot. This one involves time travel, with the evil Borg shuttling back to the 21st Century to "assimilate" the Earth. Fortunately, Captain Picard and his faithful followers are on hand to thwart the dastardly plan.
Mars Attacks!, Tim Burton's meandering, dull spoof of alien invasion movies, tried unsuccessfully to ride ID4's coattails. Unfortunately, not only did it arrive too closely behind the Star Trek movie, but its not-very-funny, satirical sense of humor turned off more people than it attracted. It's also possible that, by December 13, audiences were getting a little tired of this sort of thing.
Despite his modesty on the subject, Kenneth Branagh is clearly responsible for the recent, renewed interest in cinematic Shakespeare. With Hamlet, he has crafted the definitive motion picture interpretation of the play. Big, bold, and vibrant, Hamlet is the movie event of the year, not just because of its four-hour length, but because of its near-perfect blend of strong performances, eye-popping set design, and Shakespearean dialogue. Hamlet's not just the best play-turned-movie of 1996, it's the best movie, period.
The Bard isn't the only author to have a stage work remade into a screen story. In fact, this was a bonanza year for movie adaptations of plays. David Mamet, using Dustin Hoffman as a lead, gave us the talky-but-compelling American Buffalo. Herb Gardner took Grumpy Old Men Walter Matthau and Ossie Davis and plugged them into his New York-based I'm Not Rappaport. Arthur Miller added a contemporary spin to The Crucible. All of these are effective. Alas, there is one play that should have been left alone: Two Deaths, featuring Michael Gambon in a tale about food and sexual obsession that feels like a poor man's version of the far better The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.
The Jane Austen frenzy, begun in 1995 with Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility, continued with a big-screen version of Emma and a superlative TV miniseries based on Pride and Prejudice. Actually, had Pride been a theatrical release, it would have been a Top 10 entry, but the four-and-a-half hour running length prevented any motion picture distributor from even trying. With regard to Austen's two other novels, a movie version of Northanger Abbey is in the works, but no one is attempting Mansfield Park.
In addition to the Shakespeare and Austen binges, other classics to get the big-screen treatment this year included Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady, Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm, Daniel DeFoe's Moll Flanders (although little of the source material was left intact in the screenplay), Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame ("Disney-fied" in an animated feature), and Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (done using Kermit, Miss Piggy, and friends).
Two Roald Dahl tales, James and the Giant Peach and Matilda, were successfully adapted, as well as a the obligatory Stephen King story, Thinner (which managed to avoid the Bottom 10). A couple more John Grisham novels made their way to the silver screen (A Time to Kill, the best Grisham adaptation yet, and the subpar The Chamber). And, although Michael Crichton wrote a screenplay (Twister), none of his books were translated into features.
Other notable books turned into 1996 movies: Clifton Taulbert's beautiful and moving Once Upon a Time... When We Were Colored, Valerie Martin's eerie, haunting Mary Reilly, Lorenzo Carcaterra's searing Sleepers, Louise Fitzhugh's insightful Harriet the Spy, A.S. Byatt's disturbing-yet-fascinating Morpho Eugenia (called Angels and Insects), Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night, and Richard Feynman's series (called Infinity).
The Preacher's Wife, That Thing You Do!, and Grace of My Heart all rely heavily on music and musical numbers, but they are really dramas that include songs. In the case of The Preacher's Wife, a remake of The Bishop's Wife, the musical numbers seem to be an unnecessary inclusion designed more to sell soundtracks and showcase Whitney Houston's voice than for any other purpose. Perhaps I'm just naturally cynical...
The first imitator was Last Dance, a significantly weaker (but not disastrously so) film. Sharon Stone is surprisingly effective as the woman awaiting execution. What hurt this movie, in addition to its release so soon after Dead Man Walking, is a horribly inept performance by Rob Morrow and a screenplay that can't resist some last minute Hollywood-style twists. At one point, I thought the conclusion of Robert Altman's The Player was going to prove prophetic. Then there was The Chamber, the worst of the bunch. Silly and derivative, its only saving grace is a wonderful performance by Gene Hackman.
Some Mother's Son, Terry George's fine directorial debut about the IRA hunger strike of 1981, doesn't deal specifically with Death Row inmates, but ten men who embarked on the no-food protest perished. Much of this movie is set behind bars, and, despite obvious pro-Republican leanings, Some Mother's Son presents a taut and moving account of one woman's struggle with politics, religion, and her responsibility to her son.
The best of 1996 was Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, one of the most eye-opening and thought-provoking documentaries that I've ever seen. I have placed it alongside The Thin Blue Line and Crumb at the top of the all-time documentary heap. Other highly-recommended entries are Anne Frank Remembered, a brilliant pictorial study of the most famous Holocaust victim; The Celluloid Closet, a fascinating essay about homosexuality in the movies; Microcosmos, a wonderfully engaging look at the rites and rituals of insects; The Leopard Son, an examination of life on the Serengeti; and The Hamster Factor, a day-by-day journal of the making of Twelve Monkeys. Additional 1996 documentaries took on such diverse subjects as Oliver North for Senator (A Perfect Candidate), the "real" Heidi Fleiss (Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam), and the effects of technology on modern life (Synthetic Pleasures).
Sleepers, based on Lorenzo Carcaterra's novel of the same name, purports to tell of the author's experiences as a boy. However, shortly after the book was published, most of its "factual" information was discredited. That didn't stop the film makers from pretending that their movie is based on true events. In fact, the most obvious flaw with this film is this claim. In all other respects, it's a powerful look at guilt, religion, and the ease with which criminal justice system can be perverted.
Fargo, one of the year's most critically-acclaimed (and, in my opinion, overrated) films also pretended to be based on real events. As it turned out, however, Joel and Ethan Coen were playing a joke on audiences. They later confessed that the script was the product of their twisted, fertile minds, and that the "based on a true story" caption was designed to make mischief.
The best of the six sequels was Star Trek: First Contact, the first Trek outing in about a decade to be more than a stale, workmanlike adventure. First Contact isn't a great movie, but, warts and all, it is entertaining, which is more than can be said for many of the year's other follow-up movies.
John Carpenter, who brought us Escape from New York some fifteen years ago, re-teamed with Kurt Russell in the campy Escape from L.A., which, like the Star Trek movie, is a lot of fun, but signifies very little. It was also a box-office disappointment. For, even though Carpenter's science fiction original has developed a loyal, cult-like following, that group's enthusiasm was virtually impossible to translate to the general public, which stayed away from Escape from Los Angeles.
There was a significant quality drop from Star Trek and Escape to the rest of the pack. A Very Brady Sequel has about twenty minutes of worthwhile humor, but the rest is a throw-away. D3: The Mighty Ducks is a complete waste of time and celluloid. The Evening Star is a huge disappointment, vainly trying to copy the successful formulas of its predecessor, Terms of Endearment. And The Crow: City of Angels is a shameless attempt to draw back the audience from the original movie.
The most disappointing Disney effort of 1996 was The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In order to make it suitable for children, they stripped away the most poignant and effective aspects of Victor Hugo's novel, leaving behind a transparent, cartoonish shell of the book. To add insult to injury, Demi Moore's all-too-recognizable voice makes it difficult to sympathize with Esmeralda. Whatever happened to the creativity which was evident in The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin?
When it came to quality, there was also a marked decline. This is the first year since I started publishing Top 10 lists that not one foreign film made the cut (for the record, I had one in 1992, two in 1993, five in 1994, and two in 1995). The two best foreign language films to reach U.S. shores this year were Ma Saison Preferee, Andre Techine's powerful study of love and family dynamics, and Antonia's Line, which won the 1996 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Other noteworthy entries: Eric Rohmer's delightful Rendezvous in Paris, Wong Kar-wai's lyrical and visually dynamic Chungking Express, Hirokazu Kore-eda's poetic Maborosi, Giuseppe Tornatore's The Star Maker, Mathieu Kassovitz's Hate, Claude Sautet's Nelly & M. Arnaud, Jean-Paul Rappeneau's The Horseman on the Roof, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's Cold Fever, Patrice Leconte's Ridicule, Jafar Panahi's sublime The White Balloon, and Joseph Vilsmaier's Brother of Sleep.
Returning in 1996 with new prints were: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Vertigo, Taxi Driver, Purple Noon, Switchblade Sisters, The Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito, The World of Apu), The Music Room, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Of these, my strongest recommendation goes to Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy -- one of the most amazing movie- going experiences of the entire year. All three parts of the series would have been in my Top 10 had they been eligible. (Note: Sony Pictures Classics, which re-released the films, distributed them erratically, but they are available on video tape.)
Then there were the remakes. Some, like Barb Wire (Casablanca), Diabolique, and 101 Dalmatians, are so bad that I don't really want to remember them, let alone re-hash the experience of sitting through them. Others, like The Adventures of Pinocchio, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and The Nutty Professor, are merely uninspired. Finally, there are a few -- The Birdcage, Ransom, and The Preacher's Wife -- that actually provide a couple hours of reasonable entertainment.
It all started in mid-May with Twister, the adrenaline and special effects leader of the summer, followed by the disappointing Mission: Impossible. Both of these were box office blockbusters, but the next big release, Dragonheart, was a flop. Sean Connery, who provided the dragon's voice, did have a $100 million-plus movie, however, in The Rock, where he and co-star Nicolas Cage broke into Alcatraz. Jim Carrey flopped big time as The Cable Guy. Arnold Schwarzenegger was back in the incredibly stupid (but still fun) Eraser and Disney released Hunchback. Striptease, which boasts Demi Moore's surgically- enhanced assets, and The Nutty Professor closed out June. Next came the overhyped and not-very-good Independence Day and the equally mindless Phenomenon. Together, these two accounted for a sizable portion of the Fourth of July crowds.
After the release of ID4, the hype died down. During the next few weeks, A Time to Kill, Multiplicity, The Frighteners, Kingpin, Jack, and the summer's one great movie, Courage Under Fire, showed up in multiplexes. With the exception of the John Grisham-inspired movie, none of these generated much box office excitement. August, as usual, was the slowest month of the summer, with distributors dumping garbage into the overheated market. This included unpromising pictures like Chain Reaction, Solo, and The Island of Dr. Moreau.
Kansas City is another movie that has received lavish, and largely-undeserved praise in some quarters. Robert Altman's latest, while watchable, was a huge disappointment. Aside from the jazz music, there's not much reason to see this picture. Likewise, Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty turned out to be a vapid and uninteresting affair. These two veteran directors were not in peak form during 1996.
Possibly the most disappointing film of the year was Tim Burton's poorly-constructed Mars Attacks! What could have been a wonderfully biting sendup of alien invasion movies turned out to be a weak, boring, largely-unfunny affair. A few clever images don't make for a worthwhile movie, as Burton of all people should know. Good idea, poor execution.
Phenomenon broke the $100 million plateau and garnered a number of positive critical notices, but I found it to be not only syrupy but lacking in anything resembling intelligent scripting. Likewise, The First Wives Club made a ton of money, but it was easily among the most lame big-budget comedies of the year. Simply put, the movie isn't at all funny, but the subject matter -- ex-wives taking revenge on their former husbands -- proved to be a lightning rod for female movie-goers.
Trees Lounge, which seems like a vague and uncertain attempt to recapture the feel of a John Cassavetes film, arrived in theaters stillborn. As much as I wanted to like this film, the directorial debut of the omni-present Steve Buscemi, I found it to be plodding and totally lacking in characters worth caring about. Another small film that let me down was Swingers, which entered the market with incredible pre-release hype. While the movie has a number of funny sequences, it didn't strike me as being either remarkable or especially insightful.
One of the best first-half-of-the-year movies was John Sayles' Lone Star, a brilliantly-scripted, wonderfully-acted ensemble piece that reveals unexpected truths and multi-layered characters as it delves into a long- buried mystery. Sayles may not be a master of camera placement or editing, but he can tell a gripping, intelligent story with the best of them, and Lone Star is among his top efforts.
Although Hollywood often turns out big-budget crap, there are times when major studio films display a little magic. Jerry Maguire and Bound are two such examples. Jerry Maguire, a slick, intelligent drama/romantic comedy, gives Tom Cruise his best role in years. Bound offers more twists, turns, and erotic fun than anything this side of John Dahl's The Last Seduction.
If you like to laugh, Robin Williams' The Birdcage (a remake of La Cage aux Folles), Ben Stiller's Flirting with Disaster, and Stanley Tucci & Campbell Scott's Big Night, represent the best in intelligent humor, reminding us that it doesn't take flatulence to generate laughter. Other memorable comedies include Albert Brooks' witty Mother (with a fabulous performance by Debbie Reynolds); Ridicule, a biting French satire; Cold Comfort Farm, where something nasty was waiting in the woodshed; 2 Days in the Valley, a bizarre ensemble apparently inspired by Quentin Tarantino; and The Chinese Feast, about love, food, and cooking contests in Hong Kong. Who could forget the delightful The Truth About Cats and Dogs, this year's best formula romantic comedy, which features a star-making performance from Janeane Garofalo? And Kenneth Branagh's A Midwinter's Tale shows that the director isn't always serious about how he approaches Hamlet.
For those who prefer solid dramatic material, Carried Away tackles the issue of a student/teacher affair from an intelligent, sensitive viewpoint. Manny and Lo presents a delightful fable of two girls living on the run. Michael Collins and Some Mother's Son approach the question of Irish patriotism from different, yet complimentary, perspectives. Nobody Loves Me, a somewhat obscure German import, offers a perceptive portrayal of a delightfully neurotic character who believes herself to be unloved and unlovable. Heavy, starring Pruitt Taylor Vince, paints a touchingly realistic picture of a shy, overweight man. Trainspotting, the British import, accomplishes the unlikely task of transforming heroin addiction into material for an offbeat comedy. From the Journals of Jean Seberg mingles fact and fantasy by presenting a fictionalized view of what the world might have looked like through the eyes of actress Jean Seberg. Unhook the Stars, Nick Cassavetes' directorial debut, puts his mother, Gena Rowlands, squarely in the spotlight, where she shines. Sling Blade gives us a sort of anti-Forrest Gump. Girls Town describes itself aptly as not being Beverly Hills 90210. James Earl Jones and Robert Duvall cope with their unlikely relationship as brothers in A Family Thing. The People Vs. Larry Flynt effectively re-iterates hard truths about the First Amendment. And Marvin's Room gives us a trio of great performances, by Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, and Diane Keaton.
That's not to say that these are all the worthwhile movies of 1996, but they're the highlights -- a good starting place for anyone scouring theater listings and video store shelves for something worth watching.
10. Two if By Sea: Dennis Leary and Sandra Bullock display absolutely no romantic chemistry in a movie that plods along, going nowhere and making us groan rather than laugh. Had it not been for Bullock's surprising 1995 success, this movie would doubtlessly have been headed direct-to-video. It's not even worth renting.
9. Barb Wire: Pamela Anderson Lee does Humphrey Bogart in this ill-conceived remake of Casablanca. Unfortunately, for a project that would seem to have a lot of potential as a campy classic, the opportunity is wasted. The result is a dull and unimaginative film that should be avoided at all costs.
8. High School High: It's been a long time since a Naked Gun-type movie has gotten more than a few forced chuckles out of me. This one, featuring John Lovitz as a high school principal in a Dangerous Minds sendup, is so depressingly awful that I barely cracked a smile. The good scenes -- what few there are -- were shown in the previews and TV commercials.
7. Kazaam: Shaquille O'Neal as a genie. Need I say more? Disney strikes again with their most inane feature of the year.
6. Mr. Wrong: Keep Ellen DeGeneres on TV and away from the big screen. One would think that this premise -- Bill Pullman playing a "nice guy from hell" -- might have some potential, but DeGeneres turns it into a very unpleasant ninety minutes.
5. Camp Stories: Herb Beigel wanted to film his childhood experiences at a Jewish summer camp. What he ended up doing was creating a cliche-riddled, horribly-acted, torturously bad viewing experience.
4. Bad Moon: Some guy in a wolf costume goes around ripping people apart. Unlike Barb Wire, which is just plain boring, this one is a delightfully campy romp. Rent it on video if you're in the mood to see something shockingly bad. It's a laugh-a-minute, although I'm sure that's not what the film makers had in mind.
3. Little Indian, Big City: This film would be horrible even if it wasn't dubbed. Little Indian, Big City is an idiotic tale about a father who brings his jungle-raised son back to live with him in Paris. It's not funny, warm, or remotely likable. Disney, in its infinite wisdom, has remade the film, so we're going to be forced to live through this nightmare again in 1997.
2. Phat Beach: A 1990s version of the genre that won't die: the beach movie. Difficult as it is to believe, this is worse than all of its less-than- illustrious predecessors. (Anyone remember Beach Blanket Bingo or Hardbodies?)
1. Adrenalin: Fear the Rush: 1996's most truly inept movie. A bunch of morons crawl around in dank, damp spaces trying not to get butchered by a mutant psycho serial killer. It's far too long and repetitious to be fun, but it does boast, among other things, the worst acting jobs and the most lame script of the year, and is legitimately on par with last year's worst film, The Mangler.
10. The English Patient: This dazzling, passionate love story, based on the novel by Michael Ondaatje, tells the tale of an "English" airman who lost his memory and was badly burned in an airplane crash. With shining performances by Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas, we are drawn into a truly classic love affair. Directed without a trace of manipulation by Anthony Minghella, The English Patient is a tonic for the romantic who appreciates an intelligent motion picture event.
9. Breaking the Waves: Most people seem to have the same reaction upon first watching Breaking the Waves: they're not sure exactly what to think of it. With time, however, comes the realization that it's a remarkable film -- admittedly flawed, but gripping and powerful nonetheless. Breaking the Waves, from director Lars Von Trier, explores the many facets of love and asks questions about the role of sacrifice in redemption. Emily Watson's riveting performance in the lead role is one of the best of the year.
8. Jude: This low-profile film, Michael Winterbottom's memorable adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, illustrates with brutal clarity how society destroys those who refuse to conform to its rules and structure. Powerful performances by Christopher Eccleston and Kate Winslet as two doomed lovers infuse the bleak screenplay with a sense of life, longing, and poignancy. The haunting finale is apt to linger in the viewer's mind.
7. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills: The only documentary in the Top 10, Paradise Lost asks a host of telling questions about the American legal system. Film makers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger don't have many answers, but, as this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale unfolds, it becomes shockingly clear that justice means very little when a community is out for blood.
6. Land and Freedom: This is the latest in a line of gritty, uncompromising films from British director Ken Loach. Land and Freedom tells the story of English communists who fought in the Spanish civil war against Franco. As with all of Loach's movies, this is more about ideas than action. By turns passionate, tender, and thought-provoking, Land and Freedom reminds us that the gulf between reality and idealism is a gap that often cannot be bridged.
5. Courage Under Fire: Occasionally, Hollywood manages to come out with an intelligent, insightful motion picture. Courage Under Fire is one of those rare examples. With strong performances by Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan, Edward Zwick's motion picture turns into an excursion into redemption and an examination of the nature of absolute truth. Taking a leaf from Kurosawa's Rashomon, Courage tells one event from a series of different perspectives. The result is both compelling and fascinating.
4. Dead Man Walking: Punishing and insightful, Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking may be the most important movie ever made about Capital Punishment. Surprisingly even-handed in its treatment of the subject, the film approaches all of its characters like real people rather than types representing particular ethical positions. Susan Sarandon won an Oscar for this role, but, as the inmate awaiting a lethal injection, Sean Penn is every bit her equal. This film may not change your mind about Capital Punishment, but it will certainly force you to think.
3. Secrets and Lies: Sublime and warm- hearted, Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies is characterized by actress Brenda Blethyn's stellar performance. The movie, which deals with the fragile, uncertain relationship between an adopted woman and her birth mother, is played out with careful attention to emotional honesty and believability. This remarkably realized, deceptively complex story is likely to satisfy even the most demanding of movie-goers. It won the 1996 Palme D'Or at Cannes.
2. Shine: The true story of pianist David Helfgott, Scott Hicks' Shine is easily 1996's most uplifting motion picture. A tale of tragedy and triumph, it traces the history of David's rise and fall as a child prodigy, then his re- emergence from obscurity years later. With arguably the year's best performances in both the actor (Geoffrey Rush) and supporting actor (Armin Mueller-Stahl) categories, Shine is the kind of movie that offers both heart and spirit the opportunity to soar.
1. Hamlet: Easily the most majestic motion picture of the year, Kenneth Branagh's definitive Hamlet is so engrossing that, even at four hours in length, it's possible to sit through the movie and hardly be aware of the passage of time (I've already done this twice). Tremendous production design, costumes, and attention to detail highlight the movie. Assisted by a corps of accomplished stage and screen thespians, Branagh gives a bravura performance in the lead role. Hamlet is the kind of movie that fills both the eyes and the heart, and reminds one of the level of depth and richness that motion pictures are capable of.
Next: "Who Should Be Nominated"
© 1997 James Berardinelli