For film, 1996 wasn’t so much a bad year as it was an ominous one. The ratio of good to bad movies wasn’t unusual, nor was it surprising that a dumb movie (Braveheart) took the Best Picture Oscar, or that another dumb one (Independence Day) was the box-office champ. Among major-studio releases, the most bloated of ’70s cinematic trends, the disaster flick, made a impressive box-office comeback with such unimpressive films as Twister, Independence Day, and Daylight. Though Merchant/Ivory didn’t do their part, there was also a boom in Brit-lit, notably Shakespeare. And of course, all summer long the big action films climaxed with a guy sitting at a computer keyboard, valiantly typing against all odds.
Still, it’s been years since Hollywood’s most lucrative films merited much thought. The real aesthetic action has long been at less profitable levels, and it was among smaller films that things seemed to go especially wrong this year.
Locally, the Biograph closed (not for good, co-owner Alan Rubin promised) and the Washington Post’s Style section announced that it would review only “significant” films. The latter move amounts to a direct assault on arthouse cinema, as the section demonstrated by reviewing such dreck as The Associate and The Preacher’s Wife at the expense of this year’s Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner, Breaking the Waves. As usual at the Post, “significance” is measured by the size of the film’s ad budget. Since this edict went into effect, Style has not reviewed any independent or foreign films, although it did try to pretend that The English Patient, a wholly owned product of the Walt Disney Co., was an indie.
The most menacing trend, however, was national: the rise of cookie-cutter low-budget “independent” films, mostly nasty, witless films noirs (the neo-Tarantinos) and sententious musings on young and not-so-young love (the ersatz-Allens). While challenging foreign-language fare is increasingly ignored by the distributors of arthouse films, local theaters were filled by gangsta pap (2 Days in the Valley, Bottle Rocket, Curdled, Bound, and The Funeral) and big screen, small-concept sit-coms (Beautiful Girls, If Lucy Fell, The Truth About Cats and Dogs, Denise Calls Up, Heavy, Walking and Talking, She’s the One). Semiboldly, such films as Palookaville, Loaded, Feeling Minnesota, Trees Lounge, and Swingers combined the two.
Not all these films—”Stepford indies,” Michael Atkinson called them in Spin—were terrible, and some were even pretty good. Most of them, however, simply took up space in a year when such first-rate foreign films as Horokazu Kore-da’s visually and emotionally stunning Maborosi (Hirshhorn), Abbas Kiarostami’s seriously playful Close-Up (American Film Institute), and Olivier Assayas’ joyously jumpy Irma Vep (Smithsonian Associates) got only one or two screenings at nonprofit venues. Of the three, only Maborosi has an American commercial distributor.
I actually didn’t see very many films this year at the city’s repertory venues that might have contended for a place on my Top 10 if they had been commercial bookings. Still, there were plenty of excellent retrospectives (including Werner Herzog, Kiarostami, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Francesco Rosi) that included Washington premieres, and I was happy to be able to see Bab El-Oued City (Hirshhorn), The Blade (Freer), Bombay (Filmfest DC), Drifting Clouds (AFI), Karaoke (Hirshhorn), Madagascar Skin (Reel Affirmations followed by a throwaway commercial run), Signs of Fire (AFI), The Society of the Spectacle (WPA/Corcoran), Somebody up There Likes Me (Sackler), and The Tree, the Mayor, and the Mediatheque (AFI, post-Christmas ’95).
Every year, a few films are released in the last weeks of December, usually only in New York and L.A., in order to qualify for that year’s Academy Awards. This month, there seem to be more of them than ever: La Ceremonie, Citizen Ruth, Everyone Says I Love You, Evita, Hamlet, In Love and War, Losing Chase, Marvin’s Room, Mother, Night Falls on Manhattan, The Portrait of a Lady, Rosewood, Slingblade, Some Mother’s Son, The Substance of Fire, Unhook the Stars, Les Voleurs, and The Whole Wide World are all scheduled to open in New York before New Year’s, and many of them have been screened for Washington critics. Though some of them will probably appear on other Top 10 lists, they won’t be on this one. This is a list of films that opened commercially in Washington in 1996, and thus includes films that were on other Top 10 lists last year. To do anything else, it seems to me, is to make a list for industry publicists, not for Washington City Paper readers.
Also note that I’m not a compulsive listmaker and point-totaler, and recognize the arbitrariness of any Top 10 list. To emphasize rather than disguise that arbitrariness, the following list is in alphabetical order:
Chungking Express Writer/director Wong Kar-Wai’s deliriously whimsical diptych about disconnected people in overconnected Hong Kong is an eccentric cousin of the conventional Hong Kong action movie and odd Asian echo of the French New Wave.
Dead Man Though punctuated by corny gags, Jim Jarmusch’s gloriously strange absurdist comedy manages to convey the seriousness of Jarmusch’s interest in transcendence.
Dead Man Walking Writer/director Tim Robbins’ film is remarkably true to the flood of messy emotions—rage, fear, confusion—unleashed by murder and execution, and an anti-capital punishment film as steely as any pro-execution text.
I Can’t Sleep A murder mystery that’s not a thriller, director Claire Denis’ rich, impressionistic film is contemplative rather than visceral, and the briskest scenes offer laughs, not chills.
Ma Saison Preferee A quietly potent tale of grown-up sibling strife, this Andre Techine film about a brother and sister who are estranged because they love each other too strongly is intimate, unforced, and bracingly ordinary.
Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud Claude Sautet’s account of the near-miss romance between a retired businessman and an underemployed 25-year-old is both haunted by and reconciled to regret.
The People vs. Larry Flynt A mainstream epic that just happens to have a pornographer as its hero, Milos Forman’s film finds truth (if not beauty) in American eccentricity.
Rendezvous in Paris The three episodes in this Eric Rohmer charmer share only one central character—Paris itself—but they demonstrate how essential the city’s rich public sphere is to the director’s world of chance encounters and spontaneous infatuations.
Secrets and Lies The plot is farcical but the emotions are authentic in writer/director Mike Leigh’s tale of family revelations, which is rich with everyday comic and poignant moments.
The White Balloon Director Jafar Panahi and scripter Abbas Kiarostami’s tale of a 7-year-old girl who wants to buy a goldfish emphasizes spontaneity and artlessness, yet suggests a lot more about life in Tehran than the story actually recounts.
There were many films almost as good as these 10, or that had significant flaws but were powerful experiences nonetheless. These include The Ashes of Time, Basquiat, Breaking the Waves, Brother of Sleep, The Crucible, Cyclo, Flirt, Institute Benjamenta, Hate, I Shot Andy Warhol, Lamerica, Land and Freedom, A Single Girl, Small Faces, Stalingrad, Theremin, Trainspotting, 12 Monkeys, Vukovar, and Welcome to the Dollhouse.
Not especially potent but agreeable viewing were Big Night, Celestial Clockwork, Cold Comfort Farm, Flirting With Disaster, Jerry Maguire, Nico Icon, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Stealing Beauty, and That Thing You Do! I also quite enjoyed the entirely indefensible Foxfire.
I won’t pretend to know what the worst movie of the year was, although Little Indian, Big City was stunning—next year comes the Disney remake!—and I was struck by the awfulness of the latest efforts from former big shots Francis Coppola (Jack) and Robert Altman (Kansas City). I also finally got to see the semilegendary The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and could barely sit through its leaden caprice.
Among the films that didn’t live up to their mostly favorable reviews were Girls Town, Lone Star, Fargo, Emma, Tin Cup, and Dadetown, although I will concede that the latter was intense in its irksomeness. The hype of the year, though, has to be The English Patient, which plays like an Alain Resnais film for junior-high-school girls. In partial recompense for its initial gush, the Post ran a piece noting that the real-life counterpart of the film’s romantic hero was actually a full-fledged Nazi (rather than a mere part-time collaborator like his cinematic counterpart). You needn’t know that, however, to find this movie deplorable. Its notion that an adulterous affair is more important than World War II is profoundly immoral, and its fragmented narrative is only a temporary cover for a story and a worldview that are pure romance-novel posturing. If love means never having to say you’re sorry for leading the Nazi tanks into Egypt, then The English Patient is the year’s biggest ’70s disaster flick of all.