Thursday, May 6, 2010

Year in Review: 1996

1996 contains the best film by my favorite filmmaking brothers, the best film from one of the only truly independent filmmakers working right now, and one of the best from the best Canadian director in history – and that’s just the top 3 films! There is a wealth of cinematic richness coming for 1996.

10. Everyone Says I Love You (Woody Allen)
Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You is one of the most enjoyable films he has ever made. It is a musical where all the stars in the film do their own singing – whether or not they are very good (the lone exception being Drew Barrymore who apparently was really, really bad). The film revolves around the lives and loves of an extended family, set in New York, Paris and Venice. The entire cast – including Allen, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman, Goldie Hawn, Edward Norton, Tim Roth (who I especially like as a criminal), Alan Alda and Gaby Hoffman are all delightful. Sure, you could dismiss Everyone Says I Love You as meaningless piffle if you wanted to, but couldn’t you say the same thing for most great musicals? Allen’s film is quite simply a joy.

9. Paradise Lost (Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky)
Paradise Lost is one of the best documentaries of the 1990s. It focuses on a case in Arkansas where three teenage boys were arrested and convicted of killing three preteens boys – on no physical or eyewitness evidence at all, but rather on a dubious confession by one of the three (who is mentally handicapped) and the suspicion of the townspeople who didn’t like the teens because they dressed in black and listened to heavy metal music. The case has become famous – spawning numerous books and a sequel to this film in 2000 (and apparently, another one coming soon), but the boys still remain in jail – the “ringleader” Damien Echols on death row. The film is an incisive examination of small town bigotry and justice gone crazy.

8. Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier)
If Dreyer were alive today, he might well make a film like Lars von Trier’s brilliant Breaking the Waves. Emily Watson gives an astonishingly good performance as a woman who has held onto her virginity until her wedding night with husband Stellan Skarsgaard. Her new found sexuality excites her, but when her husband is paralyzed from the neck down, and asks her to start having sex with other men, she is confused and hurt – but does so anyway. Breaking the Waves is a rather profound little film that daringly connects sex and spirituality. Von Trier has always been a provocateur, but when he wants to, he can make brilliant movies like this one.

7. Bound (Andy & Larry Wachowski)
Before the Wachoski’s would become world famous for The Matrix movies, they made this brilliant little neo-noir – which is way better than any of their other movies. Jennifer Tilly plays the girlfriend of a gangster – Joe Pantiliano – who is tired of living with a man with his short of a fuse, and decides she wants to steal a bag full of money that he is supposed to give to his bosses – and make them think that he stole it – to get out. In order to do so however, she needs help, so she seduces the recently paroled new handiwoman next door – Gina Gershon. Yes, Tilly and Gershon are beautiful woman, and their sex scenes in the movie are hot, but that’s not the only reason to love this film (although it is a good one). The noir storyline is brilliantly handled by the Wachowskis, who twist the story in every which way they can. The acting is superb as well by the three leads. Most impressive though is the astonishing visual look of the film – dark blacks, deep crimsons, shadows and intrigue. Why can’ t the Wachowskis make something like this again rather than crap like Speed Racer?

6. Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh)
Out of all the screen versions of Hamlet, I think Kenneth Branagh is far and away the best. It isn’t only that it is the only complete version put on screen – although that certainly helps – but also because Branagh has cast brilliant actors in all the key roles, and has found an interesting way to direct each and every scene. Yes, Branagh is probably too old to play the title role, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t great in it – far better than Laurence Olivier’s Oscar winning performance from 1948. Kate Winslet is his equal as the tragic Ophelia, and Julie Christie (Gertude) and Derek Jacobi (Claudis) are also brilliant in the movie. What sets Branagh’s Hamlet apart however is the brilliant staging of the movie. This is a remarkably visual film, making the most of the lush settings, and the brilliant cinematography. No, Branagh didn’t really need to fill every single role with a movie star – but with a few exceptions (Billy Crystal and Robin Williams spring to mind) each and every one of them delivers a wonderful performance. This is easily the best Hamlet ever put on screen – and could just be the greatest Shakespeare of all time.

5. The People Vs. Larry Flynt (Milos Forman)
Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt is a wonderful biopic on the famed publisher of Hustler magazine. Larry Flynt was controversial when he first started publishing the magazine – it was far too dirty and disgusting, and the religious right set their eyes on him. Flynt had to battle them in court constantly for the right to publish what he wanted to, and even after an assassination attempt left him paralyzed, he continued. Woody Harrellson gives a remarkable performance as Flynt – larger than life, a joker, a pervert, a drug addict and everything else. Courtney Love is equally great as his first wife, who cannot quite pull out of the tailspin that she finds herself in as Larry does. Edward Norton – as part of his breakout year – is also good as the boyish lawyer who fights for Larry, no matter what. Forman’s direction of the movie is assured and the screenplay intelligent. No, The People vs. Larry Flynt does not reinvent the wheel – but what it does, it does amazingly well.

4. Welcome to the Dollhouse (Todd Solondz)
Todd Solondz’s breakout film as a director is this incredibly dark comedy about a young girl (Heather Mattarazzo is a brilliant performance) who is picked on mercilessly by EVERYONE in her life. Her parents are proud of their oldest son, who gets great grades, and adore their younger daughter, who is a ballerina, but seem to hate poor Dawn, their middle child. She has a crush on a “rock star” who is nice to her, but breaks her heart. The local bully tells her to show up at a certain place so he can rape her, and she does. At least she’s getting attention. Welcome to the Dollhouse is a difficult film to watch – how can one teenage girl put up with everything that she does? Like all of Solondz’s movies, Welcome to the Dollhouse is a moral puzzle that you have to try and figure out. Solondz seems to have been forgotten by most critics – but I still count myself as a fan – and Welcome to the Dollhouse is one of the big reasons why.

3. Crash (David Cronenberg)
There is probably no way to describe David Cronenberg’s Crash without making it sound perverted. It is, after all, about a group of people who are turned on by car crashes- the crunching metal and broken glass offers some sort of release for them, and often they will have sex right in their destroyed vehicles. James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger are the couple at the center of the movie – whose sex life is already messed up when the film starts, and gets more screwed up when they fall in with the crash group – lead by Elias Koteas and Holly Hunter. Cronenberg’s film, although it contains a lot of sex, is not an erotic film – the sex here isn’t sexy, but disturbing, and allows us to see past the sex into the obsession that drives it. Cronenberg has always been obsessed with strange sex – and here combining the hard metal of the cars, with the soft flesh, he has created a truly warped film. The film is one of Cronenberg’s masterpieces – and deserves to be seen and remembered way more than that other movie called Crash.

2. Lone Star (John Sayles)
John Sayles’ Lone Star is a murder mystery, where the solution of the crime is nowhere near as interesting as everything that comes before it. Set in a small Texas town, the film stars Chris Cooper as the local sheriff – son the infamous former sheriff (seen in flashback played by Matthew McConaghey – in one of the only good performances in his career). One a skull is found buried in a shooting range, it brings back the disappearance of the former sheriff (Kris Kristofferson), the man his father replaced and became a legend because of. So Cooper digs into the past, and it brings back even more than just the death, but old feelings that he never got over. Lone Star is an intelligent film – a mystery, where the solution doesn’t really matter, but the journey does. Sayles has been one of the truly independent filmmakers in America for decades now, who can always be counted on to make an intelligent movie. Lone Star is the best one he ever made.

1. Fargo (Joel & Ethan Coen)
The Coen Brothers are among my favorite filmmakers of all time, and Fargo is the best film that the brothers have ever made. Frances McDormand is simply brilliant as a pregnant, small time Police Chief who has to solve a grizzly double murder on her beat. The whole thing got started because William H. Macy’s desperate used car salesman hired two men (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stomare – a study in contrasts if there ever was one – to kidnap his wife to get his rich father in law to pay the ransom, and hence get him out of his multiple schemes that have resulted in massive debt. Fargo is at once one of the best dark comedies in history – utterly hilarious moments are littered throughout the movie – as well as an expert character study for all the principles involved. Fargo is really a neo-noir, but set in the frozen wasteland of Minnesota, where everyone is dressed in parkas, and talk in funny accents, instead of being hard boiled cops and crooks in New York or LA. There is not a moment wrong in the film – it is quite simply one of the very best films ever made.

Just Missed The Top 10: Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson), Mother (Albert Brooks), Waiting for Guffman (Christopher Guest), Get on the Bus (Spike Lee), Big Night (Campbell Scott & Stanley Tucci), Jude (Michael Winterbottom), Trees Lounge (Steve Buscemi), Scream (Wes Craven), Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch), Michael Collins (Neil Jordan), Swingers (Doug Liman), suburbia (Richard Linklater), Looking for Richard (Al Pacino), Secrets and Lies (Mike Leigh), Trainspotting (Danny Boyle), La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: The English Patient (Anthony Minghella)
Good god, was I ever bored by The English Patient. Typically I like Anthony Minghella’s films, but for me The English Patient is a needlessly complex, long winded and mind numbing experience. I even watched the film a second time to see if I missed something – I didn’t. I remember watching that classic Seinfeld episode where Elaine has to sit through the movie again and again and while everyone else around her is crying, she’s going crazy she hates the movie so much. Oddly, I think that helped to hurt the films’ reputation – do you hear anyone talking about the film anymore. Yeah, me either. This is one of my least favorite best pictures winners ever.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Geoffrey Rush, Shine
Geoffrey Rush had been doing solid work on screen in Australia and on stage everyone for years, but this was the role that brought him to a wider audience. And he is excellent as a piano prodigy with mental issues. Having said that, I think that Noah Taylor, who plays the younger version, is perhaps even better than Rush – his character was more complex, because by the time Rush got to play him he was off the deep end. A good performance by a great actor, but like many people who have won for playing a mentally ill person, I find the performance a little one note. Personally, I would prefer Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade (although that has some of the same problems about being one note) but really think that Woody Harrelson deserved this for The People vs. Larry Flynt.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Frances McDormand, Fargo
An inspired choice by the Academy. They had more Academy friendly roles by Kristen Scott Thomas and Brenda Blethyn – perhaps even Emily Watson but her role is very sexual – but they made the right call by giving it to McDormand’s lovable pregnant Sheriff, who is both hilarious and heartbreakingly real. McDormand is one of those rare actresses who can seemingly do anything, as she has proved time and again, and her great career richly deserves an Oscar - and I'm glad she won for Coen brothers movie, since she often does her best work with with them. One of the best performances of the decade, and a great job by the Academy.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Cuba Gooding Jr., Jerry Maguire
I enjoyed Jerry Maguire as much as the next person – but I do not think that it was anywhere near Oscar worthy in any category. Yes, Cuba Gooding Jr. is fun in the role of as a football player whose ego far exceeds his talent. In fact, I would argue that Gooding played that role as well as it could be played. But really, an Oscar? When you had William H. Macy in Fargo and Edward Norton in Primal Fear nominated? Seriously? Has there ever been an actor whose career crashed and burned faster than Gooding's did coming off of an Oscar win? You almost feel sorry for the guy when he turns up in movies like Boat Trip, Shadowboxer or Norbit.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Juliette Binoche, The Englist Patient
I love Binoche – more so in her French films that the English ones – but I still do love her. And considering she is playing a Canadian in this film, I should love her character even more. But good god, her section of The English Patient was mind numbingly boring. Had they jettisoned her subplot – which in my opinion goes nowhere very slowly – the film might have worked for me, as the main thrust, although deliberately paced, is at times at least interesting. But her segments of the film always bring it to a dead stop. She does what she can, but I still think the movie is stinker. Who would I have given it to? No one who was nominated that’s for sure, as they picked a rather mediocre crop, even if I did like Marianne Jean Baptiste and Joan Allen in their roles. But Courtney Love in The People vs. Larry Flynt and Kate Winslet in both Hamlet and Jude are better than any of the nominees.

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