Down for the Count
My first impulse in putting together a ten-best list for 1996 was to dispense with the new stuff altogether and go for the revival gold. The best films of 1996 were the re-released restorations: Vertigo, Strangers on a Train, Lolita, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, and Taxi Driver. The movie business has finally figured out how to turn out new classics -- just re-release the old classics.
Okay, there were a few good for-real new movies released in '96 -- enough even to make it to ten. (By released I mean movies that screened somewhere, even in very limited runs, and not necessarily in Miami.) But primarily I look back on '96 as the Year of the Overrated. All sorts of bad movies were overrated. Good movies were overrated too. The rate of inflation this year reached an all-time high.
The bad overrated stuff emanated primarily from the indie sector -- all those Sundance festival winners and trendoid offshore entries. Welcome to the Dollhouse was a geeky piece of pseudohip condescension; I Shot Andy Warhol seemed to imply that he deserved it; Walking and Talking had altogether too much of both; Sling Blade would probably not be taken as seriously if Billy Bob Thornton were named Robert Thornton; Swingers didn't swing; Manny & Lo should have been called Sweet 'N Low.
Lone Star had the spaciousness of a novel -- a bad novel. It was a puny-spirited epic, but it had impeccable PC credentials and the John Sayles imprimatur, and a lot of critics joined the conga line for it. Trainspotting had its conga line too -- the frenetic nightmarishness and kapowie visuals resembled jacked-up Kitchen Sink realism for trendsters who don't like to take their social-problem dramas straight. But it's not the radical leap it wants to be: Instead of flushing themselves down the kitchen sink, its Angry Young Druggies flush themselves down the crapper.
The startlingly vacuous Chungking Express was another lickety-split con job; it got huzzahs for its pretty people and exotic camera moves -- those Hong Kong directors sure know how to keep you from being bored.
Lest you think the indie scene was a total washout, I hasten to add that, unlike the past few years, there actually were a few films that deserved their high praise -- as well as a few yet to be recognized for their excellence. The Whole Wide World is a first feature directed by Dan Ireland, and it's passionately sweet; Vincent D'Onofrio as the tragic, real-life Conan the Barbarian pulp writer Robert E. Howard and Renee Zellweger as his entranced, perplexed soulmate are wonders. Big Night is as loaded with marvelous performances -- from Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, Ian Holm, and many others -- as its signature dish timpano is with culinary goodies. Matthew Bright's explosively deranged and almost totally neglected black comedy Freeway, starring Reese Witherspoon, upended Little Red Riding Hood. In its own small-scale way, it was the most satisfying rejiggering of a fable since Phil Kaufman set his Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the human-potential-movement campgrounds of San Francisco.
Both Bottle Rocket and Palookaville had stretches of inspiration and good ensemble work, though the low-budget buddy-movie syndrome, especially when the buddies are required to pull off "cute" crimes, is starting to get to me. So are the low-budget layabout loafer films -- a buddy-movie subgenre -- but at least one of them, Steve Buscemi's Trees Lounge, was well envisioned and acted. I'm not usually a big fan of Buscemi -- he overdoes the grunge -- but his work in that film as actor, director, and writer was refreshingly modest.
Often what separated the films I liked from the ones I liked less was a sense of caring. You get the feeling even in the smartest of the new movies that the filmmakers are playing footsie with a flip postmodernism. Fargo gets points in my book for daring to be un-PC, but the Coen brothers' snideness does not wear well. The film is nasty fun, but that's all it is. The same could be said for Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth, a sharp abortion-rights satire that finally ends up outsmarting itself.
If we're going to have target practice in the movies, I say choose the broadest targets and make everything as demented and foolish as possible -- in other words, Mars Attacks! Tim Burton's film is great sophomoric vaudeville, and I can't buy the criticism that it's just an Ed Wood movie writ large. Give me a break. If Ed Wood had been handed a megamillion budget, he would not have made Mars Attacks! He would have made Congo.
A high quality of caring shows up in Ron Shelton's Tin Cup and helps to lift it out of its weight division. The film is a heavyweight posing as a lightweight. Shelton keeps things shaggy and low-key, but there's something ardent going on in this comedy. Kevin Costner's golf pro is a marvelous romantic conception: valiant, beseeching, goofy. It's a full-scale comeback for Costner, his best performance since Bull Durham.
The quality of caring is also what makes Carroll Ballard's Fly Away Home soar above its trite, earthbound script. Ballard on the wing is a sight to behold. There's a joyousness, and a deep mysteriousness, in the way he enters into the world of children and geese and sets them off into the sky. The best parts of Fly Away Home are rhapsodic.
Ballard's film wasn't the only one that kids could pop their eyes at. James and the Giant Peach was a wildly imaginative wingding -- better than that other Roald Dahl adaption, Matilda, though that film had its moments. (Danny DeVito's direction can be as obnoxiously in-your-face as his acting.)
Hollywood used to be good at action-suspense, but this year there was only one film with crackerjack thrills. Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible had three extended set pieces that really soared. They could almost stand by themselves, and it might have been better if they had, because the rest of the movie was Mission: Incomprehensible. Still, the film is a masterpiece next to that attention-deficit-disorder opus The Rock, in which director Michael Bay finally achieves what so many before him have vainly attempted: His entire movie is a trailer for itself.
Last year family films and literary adaptions rose up. There were a few decent family offerings in 1996: A Family Thing had James Earl Jones and Robert Duvall and the marvelous Irma P. Hall; Unhook the Stars had a surprisingly moving and untricky performance from Gena Rowlands; Mother was Albert Brooks gone primal; Marvin's Room was graced by a great performance from Diane Keaton.
The adaptions from literary classics continued to provide "quality" fare -- it was a good year for high school honors English field trips to the multiplex. The Portrait of a Lady is Jane Campion's best, and best-acted, film -- Martin Donovan and Barbara Hershey are especially fine -- but it's still too much Jane Campion and too little Henry James for my taste. (The maundering, peekaboo feminism of The Piano drove me up the wall and through the roof.)
Emma was sprightly but thin. Jane Eyre and the adaption of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent were drowsy pieces of work. Kenneth Branagh, who cut nary a line from his Hamlet, came up with a novel -- and boneheaded -- way to play the great introvert of the stage. He plays Hamlet as a total extrovert -- a man with no interior life. Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet was Shakespeare for the hearing- (and brain-) impaired.
Hollywood tried to be Important this year by homing in on ethical dilemmas -- such as, When is it okay to be a rat? (This is a question of vital importance in the movie business.) There was The Crucible, of course. Sleepers was a bogus ethical drama based on a bogus memoir. The John Grisham adaptions A Time to Kill and The Chamber and the courtroom thriller Primal Fear got all hot under the collar about the Tough Questions as a way to gild their melodrama.
Many of the films I liked best this year were the ones that didn't try to be Important. The documentary When We Were Kings, about the 1974 Ali vs. Foreman fight in Zaire, gives us Ali in all his jokester glory; the film is quite literally a blast from the past. John Schlesinger's Cold Comfort Farm is one of the funniest British comedies ever made, with a cast -- including Eileen Atkins and Ian McKellen -- that seems enthralled by its own inspired nuttiness. David O. Russell's Flirting with Disaster was the right kind of Hollywood family film -- unsoppy and rude. It turned a young man's search for his biological parents into a stunning burlesque complete with Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin as Sixties washouts (both) in extremis.
The search for biological parents is also at the core of Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies, and sometimes it's just as funny as Flirting. But Leigh's film is richer and more expansive, if draggier and more self-righteous. Secrets & Lies is one of the best films of the year, yet it's also one of the most overrated: It pushes its "realistic" family crises at us as if no one else had ever done this sort of thing before in the movies.
Shine, about a cracked-up pianist, plugs into an art-house wooziness I thought had been long gone from our shores. Cliches spring eternal. This fable about the romance of derangement is a piece of bubbleheaded uplift with an Aussie overlay. At least A Song to Remember didn't go in for all this leaping-about-holy-fool stuff. Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves is a piece of bogus religiosity that, like Shine, carries art-house whiffs of a bygone era. Ingmar Bergman, Carl Dreyer, and Robert Bresson did it better. Von Trier plays with religious torment in a way that makes you think he's neither religious nor tormented.
And then there's The English Patient, with its teeny, tony attempts at emotion, its desert vistas shaped like curves of flesh, and its scarred, fated hero -- a Freddy Krueger look-alike for highbrows. This is the kind of movie in which the heroine (Kristin Scott Thomas) can pine away to nothingness in a cave and still manage to compose perfect prose in her diary. The romance between Juliette Binoche and her Sikh lover is the kind of Victorian exotica that went out with Turhan Bey. It's a masterpiece manque.
Next year, instead of a lot of phony masterpieces, I'd settle for a few real ones.
And revivals don't count.
Peter Rainer's Top 10 of 1996
(in alphabetical order)
Cold Comfort Farm
Flirting with Disaster
Fly Away Home
Secrets & Lies
When We Were Kings
The Whole Wide World
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