The Best & Worst Films of 1996
The Hollywood hype machine seems to have operated under the "finish well" philosophy in 1996. Assuming Oscar voters have short memories major studios released most of their prize films in the last three weeks of the year, and many of these films aren't opening wide until some time in January.
But with a few exceptions, the best films of 1996 were not turned out by the studio machine. Conversely, the big studios were responsible for a large number of the stinkers.
So without further ado, the best films of 1996:
"Breaking the Waves." Quite simply the most emotionally devastating film I have ever seen. A naive but faithful and strong-willed Scottish girl in a strict religious community marries an oil rig worker who becomes paralyzed in an accident. Believing herself so in touch with god that she is capable of healing, she sacrifices herself sexually and emotionally to save her husband. There is no better example than "Breaking the Waves" of why film is such a powerful medium.
"Secrets & Lies." A remarkably simple study in family pathos, British director Mike Leigh ("Life Is Sweet") worked largely without a script. His actors ad libed their way through this story of an adopted black woman who searches for her birth mother only to discover she is white, and of her new family who are none too comfortable with each other, let alone their new addition. Guilt, love and jealousy are rarely this pure on the screen.
"Sleepers." Revenge movies are usually a simple lot that trade on adrenaline and empathy, but Berry Levinson's adaptation of the controversial novel "Sleepers" goes far beyond formula. It captures the terror and shame forced on four boys in juvenile prison and the fleeting satisfaction as they plot their retribution as adults, lead by Brad Pitt and Jason Patrick.
"Walking and Talking." That's OK, nobody else has heard of it either. But this little picture that came and went in about a week back in July was the most charming, creative and honest romantic comedy this year. About how the relationship between two best girlfriends changes when one gets married and the other stays miserably single, it is dialogue-driven, funny and absolutely absorbing.
"Bound." Film noir has never looked this good in color. Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon are lovers who find themselves in a labyrinth of lust, money and back-stabbing betrayal when they take off with $2 million in mob money. Driven by a constant, gripping danger as Tilly's mob lover Joe Pantoliano finds them out and their plan unravels, "Bound" is inventive in every respect -- story, editing and especially photography.
"Looking for Richard" will undoubtedly live forever in English Lit classrooms. Directed by Al Pacino, this film is a Shakespeare primer that demystifies The Bard by dissecting "Richard III" -- analyzing it in detail, rehearsing it in modern English and performing it with all kinds of name actors lending themselves to the rolls.
"Tin Cup." Writer-director Ron Shelton returns to his successful "Bull Durham" formula of sports and romance with much the same results. Kevin Costner is a washed up golf pro who is inspired by love (for Renee Russo) to get back in the game and take on his old rival -- and her beau (Don Johnson). While the ideas are recycled the approach is fresh, the love triangle is terrifically balanced and the focus stays on the characters without sacrificing the comedy.
"Lone Star." John Sayles uses a dot-on-the-map Texas border town as a metaphor for America in this multi-leveled, leisurely paced murder mystery. Bouncing back and forth between two generations in two time periods, it touches on many topics in current pop culture -- racism, immigration, dysfunctional families, military base closures, incest, drugs -- and ties the lives of half a dozen people together with the discovery of a skeleton in the desert that brings skeletons out of every closet in the sleepy little berg.
"Trainspotting." While this is certainly not a film to take your mother to, director Danny Boyle's twisted, funny and insightful story of a hip, young Scottish heroine addict is a milestone film that will be imitated and honored by future Quentin Tarantinos. It uses hallucinations, dreams and visual allusions like a punk Jean Cocteau and pays homage to Scorsese and other legendary filmmakers without losing any of its originality.
"Big Night" is one of those movies in which food becomes a character. Its preparation brings scenes to life, its consumption has a Pavlovian effect on the audience and it bring characters together in a way that no other plot device can. Co-written and co-directed by star Stanley Tucci, it is the story of two argumentative immigrant brothers (Tucci and Tony Shalhoub) who have thrown their hearts into a little restaurant in early 1960s Long Island. Insecurity, passion, love, lust, life lessons and the American Dream all play a part leading up to the climax -- a mouthwatering dinner scene.
"Angels and Insects" is a patiently-paced ballet of parallels drawn between the dynamics of family in 19th Century England and the world of insects. About an entomologist who marries into a wealthy family and his discovery of their quirks and prejudices, the film's intimate character portraits and relentless symbolism are captivating. An Oscar nomination is certain for costumes that hint at insect anatomy.
"The English Patient." A beautifully photographed, brilliantly acted romantic epic from the Booker Prize-winning novel by Michael Ondaatje that many said was unfilmable. The story it tells -- of a dying man, burned beyond recognition in a plane crash, who recalls for his nurse the love that cost him his life -- is really much too compelling and complex to describe in a couple lines. Suffice to say this thing has Oscar written all over it. Probable nod for Best Picture, worthy of Best Director and Best Screenplay (both Anthony Mangella), Best Actress (Kristen Scott Thomas) and Best Cinematography.
The worst films of the year are much more obvious, and easier to explain:
"Striptease." It has been six months now and I still cannot remember ever seeing a worse film. Thinly plotted, horribly acted, and to top it off Demi Moore's naked body looks like a tanned hide on a cabin wall. I've never wanted to walk out of a movie so much in my life, so I did.
"Black Sheep." Unfunny second effort from "Saturday Night Live" alumni David Spade and Chris Farley. Fat jokes, fart jokes and nary a smile for almost two hours.
"Eye for an Eye." A bad TV movie of the week about a mother seeking revenge against her teenage daughter's rapist and murderer, who was set free on a technicality. Sent into theaters only because Sally Field and Keifer Sutherland topped the marquee.
"Screamers." Cliche-driven sci-fi tome about a distant space colony under attack from robots gone wrong. They scream when they attack -- thus the title -- yet no one ever hears them coming soon enough to get away.
"Feeling Minnesota." Like something Tarantino might have written when he was 14 and unrequitedly in love with a trampy prom queen, this story of two no-class, petty criminal brothers who let a woman come between them. Starring Keanu Reeves and Cameron Diaz.
"The Arrival." Charlie Sheen takes the whole movie to figure out what the audience has knocked by the end of the opening credits: global warming is an alien plot to take over the world.
"Ed." Two words: animatronic ape. The only reason this monkey of a baseball movie got made was Matthew LeBlanc from TV's "Friends" was signed on.
"From Dusk Till Dawn", a criminals-on-the-run cum vampire flick, was probably spawned from an all night bender during which Quentin Tarantino (writing and starring) and Robert Rodriguez (directing) thought it would be a gas to see if they could make a deliberately lame movie with someone else's money. Congratulations, boys. You did it.
"The Last Supper" is about a house full of left-leaning grad students who have conservatives over for dinner and kill them. It tries to cut a wide creative swath through biting satire, poignant darkness, and aesthetics and come up far short on all counts.
"The Chamber." The first bad movie from a John Grisham novel, and boy is it a stinker. Chris O'Donnell is one of Grisham's handsome, young lawyers driven to take a case beyond his abilities. Gene Hackman is his KKK bomber grandfather on death row. But even with a set-up like that, director James Foley managed to make a movie with no depth, no development and no heart.
"Mrs. Winterbourne." A wealthy newlywed couple dies in a train crash and a pregnant homeless woman (Ricki Lake) takes the identity of the bride and moves in with the groom's family. Sick, no? This was allegedly a comedy.
"Multiplicity." Busy dad Michael Keaton clones himself (times four) to make more time in his life, but every question that would naturally come to the movie-goer's mind is completely ignored. Why aren't all the clones in love with his wife? Why is one of them played as gay? Why did I waste my money on this movie?
"101 Dalmatians." John Hughes writes Cruella DeVil some "GI Joe"-quality dialogue, Disney writes John Hughes a check. Basically 90 minutes of Glenn Glose (as DeVil) repeatedly shouting about doing horrible things to puppies and as a result repeatedly being knocked into vats of goo by cute animals. Very little plot and even less charm.
And finally, movies I'm glad I didn't even see:
"Mr. Wrong," "Mary Reilly," "Up Close and Personal," "Two Much," "Celtic Pride," "The Cable Guy," "The Crow: City of Angels," "Dear God."