Here they are, in reverse order:
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.
© 1997 James Berardinelli