Friday, June 9, 2017

My Top Ten Films of 1996

This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from the years before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.

Fargo - The Coen brothers' most chilly and iconic neo-noir has aged wonderfully, and recently even spawned some unlikely spinoffs. It's still an unusual beast, full of distinctly Minnesotan characters, grisly violence, and tricky questions about morality and ambition. However, I love it best for those little character moments and humorous touches, that make each and every player in a terrible crime deeply human and relatable. Of all the Coens' jaunts into the dark side of America, this one is probably their best realized and remembered.

Big Night - A small film of tremendous heart, directed by Stanley Tucci. It's utterly a foodie movie, but more importantly it celebrates all the things we associate with good food: family, companionship, big events, and big dreams. Tucci and his co-star Tony Shalhoub never had better roles than the clashing restaurateur brothers at the center of the film. The ultimate party that they throw is one of the most fantastic, poignant, and memorably tense evenings I've ever seen caught on film. Or as the film puts it simply, "It was the best. Ever."

The Birdcage - I'm very fond of the original French "La Cage aux Folles," but I will never adore it the way I adore "The Birdcage." The cast is sublime, the script by Elaine May is a treasure, and Mike Nichols' beautifully orchestrated farce is an absolute delight. Nathan Lane and Hank Azaria have never been better onscreen. But perhaps the film's greatest accomplishment was helping to change the LGBT rights narrative without ever being particularly political. It just gave us a loving homosexual couple to root for, one we could all identify with.

Breaking the Waves - Still Lars von Trier's best film, in part because of a career-defining performance by Emily Watson. The first of von Trier's post-Dogme 95 "Golden Hearts" films, "Breaking the Waves" spends most of the narrative charting its heroine's gradual degradation and downward spiral, but it's her spiritual journey that is the most absorbing part of the story. The purposefully rough-looking production only adds to the film's effectiveness, and von Trier manages to walk a fine line between wallowing in the misery and elevating it.

The Pillow Book - This was the Peter Greenaway feature where he started getting more experimental, playing with the cinematic form through new techniques. The subject matter is particularly daring, largely focused on erotic themes, with plenty of nudity, violence, and creative obsessions in the mix. Though the narrative is often impenetrable, it is highly entertaining throughout and gorgeous to look at. The extensive use of Asian artistic influences and forms make "The Pillow Book" unique among Greenaway's films to date.

Secrets & Lies - A fascinating story to watch unfold, in part because everyone involved seems so ordinary, and the twists and the turns of the plotting feel so true to life. Watching the members of a dysfunctional family struggle to deal with their own problems is already compelling before the introduction of a bombshell revelation into their midst. Mike Leigh's penchant for improvisational filmmaking methods works especially well here, adding a real sense of surprise and discovery to the way that every scene plays out.

Hamlet - Shakespeare is no stranger to film adaptations, but it's rare to find a project so committed to the Bard that it doesn't abridge his text. And so, Kenneth Branagh's cinematic "Hamlet" runs over four hours in length. And with a star-studded cast, opulent art direction, and the massive scale of the project, Branagh was surely aiming to create the ultimate prestige project. He's not entirely successful, but his "Hamlet" does offer a wealth of great performances and great spectacle. Billy Crystal's grave digger is a personal favorite.

Lone Star - A Texas murder mystery turns into a law man's voyage of self-discovery and an exploration of the complicated racial dynamics at play in his small town. John Sayles is known for his socially conscious films about culture clashes, but here he also displays his talent for suspense, action, and great human drama. His treatment of his characters is wonderfully sensitive and the story conveys an intriguing sense of place and history. Rather than subverting the traditional American western, it adds some welcome modern dimensions and nuances.

Trainspotting - Whether you remember the film as a drug memoir, a heist picture, or a snapshot of a youthful generation in crisis, what's important is that if you've seen the film, you remember it. Famous for launching a slew of young UK talent into the popular consciousness, including director Danny Boyle and star Ewan McGregor, "Trainspotting" still packs an energetic punch from its iconic opening frames to the final beats of accompanying music. The soundtrack alone guarantees it a permanent place in the pop culture firmament.

A Moment of Innocence - A unique blend of documentary narrative and fanciful memoir sees director Mohsen Makhmalbaf revisit an important incident from his past in an unusual manner. Recreating a memory from both his own perspective and the completely different perspective of a policeman results in plenty of unforeseen drama and self-reflection on the part of both participants. It's both a perfect example of the best of the Iranian New Wave and a deeply personal examination of the inner worlds of two very different men.


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