Many critics have argued, oddly, that 1996 was more or less a sub-par year for movies. Maybe it was the plethora of lame Hollywood offerings that they were responding to, but to ignore the incredibly deep independent film offerings this year would be more than just a little myopic. Some people go to movies to escape reality and others go to be wooed by special effects and the possibility of seeing their favorite celebrities naked for a few short moments. But for whatever reason I prefer to go to the movies to see the best actors an actresses in the business recreate reality on the screen. Most of the movies on this list are in fact mere slices of life whose success is almost entirely dependent on the strength of a few individual performances. If you haven’t yet seen many of these movies because you didn’t believe the hype, then I would seriously urge you to reconsider. Each of the movies that comprise this list are truly thoughtful, imaginative and remarkably acted masterpieces that, I assure, become classics over time.
- The English Patient (Dir. Anthony Minghella)
In the years best and most melodramatic love story, the adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s remarkable novel, Ralph Fiennes is surrounded for nearly three hours by two of the most beautiful women in Hollywood today- Juliette Binoche and Kristin Scott Thomas. ‘The English Patient’ takes place in the lushly captured Northern African desert and in the Tuscan countryside. As a badly scarred patient (Fiennes) lies dying, attended by an English nurse (Binoche) the story of how he came to be there and the love affair that precipitated his accident. Brilliant costumes and cinematography, combined with a cast of stunning performances, make ‘The English Patient’ the Hollywood film of the year.
- Dead Man (Dir. Jim Jarmusch)
For years director Jim Jarmusch has been making some of the weirdest films in the business. Having established himself as the consummate independent filmmaker, Jarmusch works outside the studio system honing his craft for a small but knowledgeable audience. In ‘Dead Man,’ his black and white surreal western starring Johnny Depp, Jarmusch has created a landscape filled with strange characters including a literature quoting Indian named Nobody, and a misplaced accountant from Cleveland named William Blake. The film is shot in striking black and white, features a string of cameos including Robert Mitchum and Crispin Glover, and some of the sharpest cinematography of the year. This is not a film for anybody who needs a soft brainless rental, but more a fascinating piece filled with an unending string of historical irony and sarcasm.
- Kolya (Dir. Jan Sverak)
This may very well be one of the finest Czech films I have ever seen. I admit this isn’t saying all that much given the scarcity of Czech films released in the state. ‘Kolya’ is a the poignant story of Czech musician, forever the bachelor, who agrees to marry a Russian to give her citizenship. Shortly after the marriage the woman splits town for Paris leaving behind her five year old child. In what follows Director Sverak has created a wonderful relationship between two people who never would have known how much they needed each other had not fate intervened. Reminiscent of the relationship between the little boy and old man in ‘Cinema Paradiso,’ ‘Kolya’ illuminates love and friendship without seeming cliche or overly sentimental. This is a great film- and one well worth searching out in the theater.
- Everybody Says I Love You (Dir. Woody Allen)
For the record I believe that almost everything Woody Allen has ever touched turns at least some shade of gold. Additionally I must admit that I’m not a big fan of musicals which is further testament to the strength of this film. For ‘Everybody Says I love You’ Allen has assembled an odd cast of characters ranging from Julia Roberts and Edward Norton to Goldie Hawn, Natalie Portman and Alan Alda and created his best film since ‘Manhattan.’ Once again exploring the New York where he seems to find endless inspiration, Allen and company combine a palatable slate of songs with his sophisticated dialogue and emotional insight. Chalk Woody up with another entry for ‘date movie of the year’ and one which can’t help New Yorkers feel proud to call these streets home.
- Lone Star (Dir. John Sayles)
Over the past fifteen years director John Sayles has quietly established himself as one of the premiere filmmakers in the business. With ‘Lone Star,’ however, Sayles reached a larger audience than ever before by weaving together an amazing story of stories which follows the sheriff in a small border town in Texas as he digs through history to solve a murder case from thirty years before. With a uniformly excellent cast characters Sayles deftly handled the complicated race relations that exists between the Mexicans, white Americans and African-Americans throughout the state of Texas. Serving as the writer, director and editor John Sayles has made a pseudo-western so original and creative that I’m sure Clint Eastwood will think twice before deciding to direct another one of his own.
- Fargo (Dir. Joel Coen)
For years the Coen brothers have been creating wildly creative and imaginative films, so it is no surprise to find ‘Fargo’ to be one the years weirdest slickest films. Capturing Minnesota’s regional naivete and dialect with razor sharp accuracy, the Coen take what might seem like a formulaic kidnapping plot and turn it into a surreal adventure through the blinding white of a mid-western winter. Fantastic performances by police chief Frances McDormand and bumbling kidnapper Steve Buscemi and extremely clever dialogue allow ‘Fargo’ to become a comedy, a drama, and a slightly gory thriller. Merely describing ‘Fargo’ will never do it the justice it deserves. This is a cerebral sarcastic voyage into the absurd that could only have come from a team as bizarrely creative as the Coen’s and will inevitably find its way into the archives of film history.
- Secrets & Lies (Dir. Mike Leigh)
As the much anticipated follow up to director Mike Leigh’s ‘Naked,’ ‘Secrets & Lies’ packs the same emotional punch by creating a character so compelling and ‘real’ that it often feels as if the audience has been given the opportunity to be voyeurs watching through a peephole into real lives. If protagonist Brenda Blethyn doesn’t win best actress for her role as a sad lower class single British mother than the Academy will have once proven itself incompetent. ‘Secrets & Lies’ discloses a world of secrets that have kept the main characters from happiness for most of their adult lives. It is the story of a white mother who is reunited with her half black daughter who she had put up for adoption years. As the story unfolds we see are faced with the fragility humanity and the demands of ones family. By and large this is movie about people and one which succeeds triumphantly in exploring the universal need to love and be loved.
- Big Night (Dir. Stanley Tucci & Cameron Scott)
The story of a two brothers and their struggling Italian restaurant set somewhere on the Jersey shore during the fifties, ‘Big Night’ is a film that deserves every bit of the enormous critical praise and modest commercial success that it received. In the tiny genre of ‘culinary art film’ whose only real historical competitors include ‘Babettes Feast,’ ‘Tampopo,’ and ‘Eat Drink, Man Woman’ this film achieves, more than other this year, the prize for best illuminating the human capacity for passion. Faced with a unsophisticated clientele who fail to realize the true genius of authentic Italian cuisine, brothers Primo and Secundo are faced with one final chance to save their bankrupt American dream by preparing one final meal for a famous jazz musician who is supposed to revive the restaurant by spreading praise about the genius of meal. For the brothers great food is more than just a luxury, it is a passion. Throughout the movie, which revolves around the preparation of this gorgeous meal, we are shown depths of the human soul-pain, sorrow and temporal elation. This film will not doubt leave the viewer ravenous for both food and life.
- Sling Blade (Dir. Billy Bob Thornton)
In what might be one of the ‘least seen best movies of all time,’ writer-director-star Billy Bob Thornton has created one of the most patient and curious movies of the year. Set in a small town in Arkansas (Thornton’s home state) ‘Sling Blade’ tells the story of Karl, a retarded man played by Thornton, who has just been released from a state institution after thirty years for killing his mother and her lover as a young child. Thornton’s depiction of Karl is a performance rivaled only by Geoffrey Rush in ‘Shine’ and Brenda Blethyn in ‘Secrets & Lies,’ and the one I would argue deserves serious consideration as Best Actor this year. Karl’s reentry into society is pocked with cast of wonderfully weird and sometimes cruel characters including the surprise performances of the year from Dwight Yoakim and believe it or not “three’s Company’s’ John Ritter. This is a gutsy film that tells a wonderful story and one I hope begins to receive the credit it sincerely deserves as a rental over the few years.
- Shine (Dir. Scott Hicks)
Shine is the story of the life of Australian piano virtuoso David Helfgott. By dividing his life into three pieces, childhood, adolescence and the present, the audience is able to better understand both the genius and tragedy of his incredible life. After a emotional breakdown as a teenager Helfgott was forced to spend much of his adult life quietly forgotten in an institution, until reemerging as a musician and only recently. Without asking the viewer for pity or sympathy, director Scott Hicks has succeeded brilliantly in creating a movie which rides a gentle and powerful emotional wave that is bound to leave the audience choked up which tears of joy more than few times over the course of the film. Both as a film and a tribute to a truly gifted musician, ‘Shine’ is wonderfully flawless art.
Angels & Insects, Trees Lounge, Walking and Talking, Palookaville, Breaking The Waves, Bottle Rocket, Heavy