A Film Snob's Favorites of '96
Last year's Dumb and Dumber neatly defines the progress
of the Hollywood film. This year we got our Independence Day, and
who knows, maybe we deserved it. Meanwhile, fewer and fewer theaters will
dare to show even the best foreign language films.
But now's the time for me to shower praise on my favorite
films of the year. Insert disclaimer here about how every "best of"
list reflects the particular tastes and prejudices of the author, blah
1. Lone Star (John Sayles).
One of our best and most independent writer/directors weaves a complex
tapestry about the people of a Texas border town and how they come to
terms with the past. The dialogue is the most adult and intelligent of
the year, the acting is superb (Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Pena and Joe Morton
stand out), and the picture manages to delve into a lot of compelling
issues without being in the least didactic. I'd like to see anyone else
try to juggle this many stories with such a satisfying result - Sayles'
work reminds us that solid storytelling counts for something.
2. The City of Lost Children (Jean-Pierre Jeunet
and Marc Caro).
The Delicatessen duo offers a dazzling fantasy adventure
in which a wicked scientist kidnaps children in order to steal their dreams.
At the film's center is a tender friendship between a childlike sideshow
strongman (Ron Perlman) and a beautiful waif (Judith Vittet). It's about
the loss and regaining of innocence, and it has a sense of fun and a sense
of the awful. The amazing animation and special effects serve a genuine
artistic vision - I was enraptured by the spectacle of this dark fairy
3. Lamerica (Gianni Amelio).
The story of an unscrupulous young Italian businessman (Enrico Lo Verso)
who is swept away against his will in a flood of poverty-stricken Albanian
refugees. The film's great achievement is the way it captures the terrible
experience of mass emigration, all the while focusing, without sentimentality,
on the feelings of individuals struggling for a better life. The ending
is among the most beautiful and eloquent gestures in recent memory.
4. Secrets and Lies (Mike Leigh).
This movie is so wise about the unspoken feelings in families, so adept
at undercutting false assumptions, that it's easy to overlook how damn
funny it is. Leigh is proving to be one of the world's foremost directors,
especially in stimulating marvelous performances from actors. Brenda Blethyn
is both heartbreaking and hilarious as a mother who finally meets the
daughter she gave up for adoption long ago.
5. Dead Man Walking (Tim Robbins).
A film about a nun who becomes the spiritual counselor of a murderer on
death row could have gone wrong in a lot of ways, but Robbins avoided
these traps, and the result is a work of remarkable seriousness and honesty.
Sean Penn is stunning as the killer, and Susan Sarandon anchors the film
as Sister Helen. A movie that provokes thought rather than telling you
what to think.
6. Anne Frank Remembered (Jon Blair).
The first eyewitness account of Anne Frank's life is also one of the best
films about the Holocaust ever made. The story of her life in the annex
focuses on her as a person, a girl with ordinary desires and faults, rather
than on the symbol she became. The testimony concerning her life after
her family was betrayed and sent to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen vividly
brings to life the suffering and states of mind of death camp inmates.
7. Chungking Express (Wong Kar-Wai)
This wistful comedy romance is filled with swirling colors, distortions
and dreamlike reflections. There are two stories about the coincidences
that bring people together - the second one, with Faye Wong as a girl
who gets hold of the key to a man's apartment and rearranges it to the
tune of "California Dreamin'," has a delicious kick to it. Wong loves
everyday objects and the messy beauty of urban living, and his film was
a breath of fresh air in the stifling summer season.
8. I Shot Andy Warhol (Mary Harron).
An edgy and inventive portrait of Valerie Solanos, a disturbed street
person and author of the protofeminist "Scum Manifesto," conveys
its protagonist's deep rage and dismay, and is also very funny without
taking a superior attitude to the material. Lili Taylor's performance
has passion, intensity, comic verve, and pathos. The picture's willingness
to take chances is invigorating.
9. Rendezvous in Paris (Eric Rohmer).
At 76, Rohmer seems to be getting younger. These three tales of couples,
their mating dances, disappointments and evasions, all show an alertness
and compassion about relationships - free of romantic illusions, but not
cynical. The direction has a deft, light touch - this is one man's personal
vison, a small film with more on its mind than most big budget affairs.
10. The Flower of My Secret (Pedro Almodóvar).
Almodóvar subdued his usual campy style to make this elegant and
often serious film about the travails of a middle-aged writer of romance
novels. The story in some ways resembles the romance genre, except that
Almodóvar pays tribute to the real passion and loneliness behind
the cliches. There's a lot of heart as well as humor here, Marisa Paredes
is a revelation in the central role, and the film perhaps marks a new,
more mature phase in the career of Spain's impish director.
And now, if you please, the runners-up:
11. Welcome to the Dollhouse (Todd Solondz).
A dark comedy of acute discomfort, demonstrating how truly miserable growing
up can be. Heather Matarazzo plays Dawn, the girl everyone picks on at
junior high. The style of the film is raw, and the laughter uneasy, tinged
with the pain of recognition. So often we are given the spectacle of plucky
kids triumphing over adversity - Solondz will have none of that, and that's
partly what makes his movie so good.
12. Mina Tannenbaum (Martine Barraque).
A lyrical film, from a first time writer-director, about the friendship
between two young women, and the hurts and betrayals that come between
them. Fine work by Romane Bohringer in the role of Mina, a brilliant artist
with wounds that won't heal. The sequences with the girls growing up together
in the 70s are quite funny. Later in the film Barraque introduces a sense
of loss, a realization of how we take the most precious things for granted.
13. Georgia (Ulu Grosbard).
Jennifer Jason Leigh is Sadie, a messed up singer with not much talent
but a lot of passion and pain. One of those terrific performances that
take you all the way inside a character until you've changed your mind
about her. A smart screenplay by Barbara Turner.
14. Looking for Richard (Al Pacino).
Pacino and friends explain Shakespeare's Richard III for you. You
might expect dull solemnity, but the picture is energetic and fun. There
is an excitement of discovery here. The rehearsals really crackle, and
Pacino is a fierce Richard. Plus Kevin Spacey and Alec Baldwin proving
15. Cold Comfort Farm (John Schlesinger).
A delightful farce, based on the Stella Gibbons novel about a plucky society
girl who sets out to reform her brutish country relatives. Kate Beckinsale
is perfection as the unstoppable Flora, the supporting cast is a hoot,
and the whole production is fresh, funny and full of zest.
16. The Celluloid Closet (Rob Epstein
and Jerry Friedman).
A documentary about the depiction of gay people in Hollywood film, based
on the Vito Russo book. Fascinating clips from the silent days onward,
and provocative interviews with Jay Presson Allen, Suzy Bright, Harvey
Fierstein, Gore Vidal, and many others. A much needed eye opener.
17. Martha and I (Jiri Weiss).
One of Czech cinema's grand old men gives us this story from his youth.
A Jewish doctor divorces his wife when he catches her in an affair, then
shocks everyone when he marries his stout German housekeeper Martha, played
with affecting simplicity by Marianne Sagebrecht. When Nazism casts its
shadow, the film becomes an elegy for these fragile people, and for the
lost Jewish culture of Weiss's homeland.
18. Nadja (Michael Almereyda).
I guess every list should have a guilty pleasure, and this is mine - an
avant-garde vampire spoof with deadpan humor, elegant and scary black-and-white
imagery, and extensive use of Pixelvision, shot with a Fisher-Price toy
camera. Elina Lowensohn is a wonderful vampire, spooky and dreamlike.
Peter Fonda has most of the good lines as a spaced-out Van Helsing. The
film falls on its face at times, but I still smile when I remember it.
19. Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud (Claude
The friendship between an unhappily married young woman (Emmanuelle Béart)
and a wealthy older man (Michel Serrault), presented with subtlety and
assurance. Serrault takes charge and gives a finely modulated performance.
The film consists largely of conversations, the drama of how people communicate
or miscommunicate in their ordinary affairs.
20. Palookaville (Alan Taylor). I couldn't
resist the sad sack humor of this movie about three Jersey City losers
who try to become criminals. With all the overwrought Tarantino imitations
we've seen in the last couple years, the goofiness of the film's big heist
is a welcome respite. The David Epstein screenplay is based on stories
by Italo Calvino.
Most Overrated: Fargo. Yes, the Coens are slick.
But not much else that I can see. What's the next stage for them - cartoons?
Most Underrated: The City of Lost Children.
I can't shake the feeling that if this movie had been in English, it would
have been a hit.
Interesting Failure Award: Dead Man. Jim Jarmusch's
mystical/satiric anti-Western starts very strong, and Robby Muller's black-and-white
images still haunt me. Too bad the movie meanders into the cosmic land
of Boring. But I've got to hand it to Jarmusch - he never plays it safe.
Best Trailer: Mars Attacks!
Worst Trailer: The Evening Star.
Ho-Hum Award: Tin Cup.
Hey, Let's See How Much Talent We Can Waste:
The First Wives Club.
Please God End Their Careers:
Arnold Schwarzenegger & Sylvester Stallone.
Let's just put them in a movie together so they can kill each
Best Rock Soundtrack: Transpotting. It's not
just that the music is excellent, but the way the songs fit seamlessly
into the film's texture.
Best Performance in a Not So Good Movie:
Queen Latifah in Set It Off.
The New Sugar Substitute: Anything from Touchstone Pictures.
Most Annoying Film I Saw This Year: Twister.
I'm from the old school that believes movies and amusement park rides
are two different things.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer, 1928) with live
orchestra and chorus performing "Voices of Light" - an oratorio written
for the film by Richard Einhorn. The print was almost pristine - a recently
discovered copy of Dreyer's first version. And seeing this masterpiece
on a big screen with live music was an experience I'll never forget.
Runner-up: Mamma Roma (Pier Paolo Pasolini). The great iconoclast's
second film, made in 1962, finally crossed the water this year, thanks
to Martin Scorsese. And a powerful piece of work it is, with that force
of nature Anna Magnani at her best.
And goodbye Krzysztof, Claudette, Marcello.......
Chris Dashiell, 1997