|The Ten Best Films of 1996
by Jack Sommersby
"If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: infinite."
From a one-handed bowler to an ex-CIA assassin to man-eating lions to Adam Sandler to a B/W Western, only 1996 could have produced such a lot!
And the winners are...
1. Dead Man
2. The Long Kiss Goodnight
3. Carried Away
5. The Ghost and the Darkness
6. Jack & Sarah
7. The Cold Light of Day
8. Adrenalin: Fear the Rush
9. Happy Gilmore
Actor: Peter Gallagher (To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday)
Actress: Geena Davis (The Long Kiss Goodnight)
Supporting Actor: Gary Farmer (Dead Man)
Supporting Actress: Amy Locane (Carried Away)
Director: Renny Harlin (The Long Kiss Goodnight)
Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man)
Cinematography: Robby Muller (Dead Man)
Editing: William C. Goldenberg (The Long Kiss Goodnight)
Score: James Horner (To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday)
Nudity: Amy Locane (Carried Away)
While one wouldn't be particularly surprised to learn that somebody by the likes of Pauly Shore perpetrated a perfectly godawful thing called Bio-Dome on filmgoers in 1996, they might be dismayed to learn that a filmmaker as immensely talented as Brian De Palma went the big-paycheck commercial route with the atrocious Tom Cruise star vehicle Mission Impossible.The talent-deprived Michael Corrente proved Hollywood's low standard for hiring directors with the joylessly arid David Mamet adaptation American Buffalo. The hit-and-miss Barbet Schroeder took down high-echelon talents Liam Neeson and Meryl Streep with him in the maddeningly unfocused murder mystery/domestic drama Before and After. John Schlesinger nosedived with the grade-D Death Wish clone Eye for an Eye, with Sally Field in the Charles Bronson role (uh, yeah). The impersonally slick hackmeister Tony (Top Gun) Scott made mince meat out of Peter Abrahams' pungent suspense novel The Fan. Roland Emmerich's Independence Day and Jan De Bont's Twister were indicative of hundred-million-dollar special effects and buck-fifty screenplays. Bill Murray's career-low Larger Than Life desperately paired him alongside an elephant. The Piano's Jane Campion's sister, Anna, proved talent doesn't always fall off the family tree with her calamitous debut psychological drama Loaded; but Jane herself also dirtied her hands with her indifferent, miscast adaptation of Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady. Ron Howard took a promising premise in the kidnapping-thriller Ransom and fatally failed to develop it. Shine was a heavy-handed biopic that proved Scott Hicks a most joyless literal-minded director. Andrew Bergman flailed away at locating the proper tone for the groan-inducing Striptease. And Up Close and Personal was an unwise A Star is Born updating that did the seemingly impossible: unflatteringly photographing Michelle Pheiffer. (As for the much-praised The English Patient and Fargo, blatantly self-conscious attempts at art unfortunately don't automatically equate into works of it.)
Fret not, though, for there were several that would make recommendable home-video rentals and a few permanent additions to that home-video collection. The underrated Eric Red followed his possessed-arm horror flick Body Parts with the sly, scary werewolf tale Bad Moon. Chris Farley and David Spade, along with some ace comic support from Gary Busey, made Black Sheep an ingratiating delight. John Woo's Broken Arrow was perfectly satisfying big-action junk food, and Andrew Davis' Chain Reaction was as slightly underpraised as his The Fugitive was slightly overpraised. Alexander Payne's sharply observant dark comedy Citizen Ruth took both sides of the abortion debate to task. The crisp Executive Decision proved yet again that Kurt Russell is one of our most appealing action heroes, and the taut medical thriller Extreme Measures proved Hugh Grant could handsomely excel with non-comedy material. James Foley's boyfriend-from-Hell thriller Fear benefited from superb direction and performances. The Frighteners was a damn good comedy chiller from Peter Jackson. Eric Roberts delivered an excellent performance as an AIDS victim in It's My Party, as did Sharon Stone as a death-row inmate in Last Dance, along with Richard Dreyfuss as a thirty-year high-school music teacher in Mr. Holland's Opus. Mother was writer/director/star Albert Brooks' finest comedy since 1985's Lost in America. Mulholland Falls was a stylish and snazzy crime drama/whodunit set in 1950s Los Angeles. Normal Life showcased a dynamic Ashley Judd as the more volatile half of a Bonnie and Clyde bank-robbing husband-and-wife duo. Eddie Murphy excelled in his multiple roles in The Nutty Professor, and Peter Gallagher delivered a sensational, star-making performance as an eccentric, grieving widower in To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday. Star Ray Liotta and director John Dahl gave the nuttily scripted techno-thriller Unforgettable plenty of verve and tension. And Emilio Estevez directed and starred in the The War at Home, a bracing, upsetting character study of an emotionally unstable, just-returned Vietnam veteran.
It's a real pleasure starting off a top-ten list with something by the likes of Adrenalin: Fear the Rush, which was written and directed by Albert Pyun, a veteran filmmaker who blows both hot (The Sword and the Sorcerer, Postmortem) and cold (Omega Doom, Crazy Six); here, he's engineered an intense, nerve-frying apocalyptic thriller that's engrossing from first scene to last. Natasha Henstridge and Christopher Lambert gamely portray futuristic cops who have only six hours to take out a "virulent microphage"-infected madman trapped in an abandoned underground prison. The hunters soon become the hunted, though, as their quintessentially violent opponent (who it seems was a former inhabitant of this dank and dark dungeon-resembling abode) turns the tables and starts gruesomely picking the six cops off one by one. (Call it Alien in a Gulag, if you will.) At a mere seventy-seven-minute running time, the flimsy story is incidental in that Pyun and his usual team -- cinematographer George Mooradian, editor Ken Morrisey, composer Tony Riparetti (all working in top form) -- impressively shroud the film with heaping helpings of tension, atmosphere, scares, and a doom-laden omnipresence that'll give you the heebie-jeebies. A mini-classic.
Debuting writer/director Julian Schnabel's Basquait is a sweetly affecting biopic of New York painter Jean-Michel Basquait, who died of a heroin overdose at the untimely age of twenty-seven. The beauty of the film is while it follows the typical doomed-artist template -- we must see their rise to fame so we can also see their descent from it -- doesn't quite nail down the exact reasons for its subject's downfall. It could have been due to the high-pressure art world (especially the pit-viper art dealers) or his genuine inability to find compatibility in a personal relationship with anyone (when he's rebuked by his girlfriend for having painted on her expensive red dress, he's floored that he did anything wrong, because it seemed, to him, a natural thing to do). The way the multi-talented Jeffrey Wright plays him, Basquait may have just been too "out there" for this world -- a lavishly gifted young man operating on a wavelength he had little control over. Schnabel doesn't make the mistake of serving up the well-adjusted art-world players as Basquait's inferiors -- he finds humor in their self-absorbed obsessive streaks -- and his refusal to literally define the cause of Basquait's downfall comes off as less opaque and more as a willingness to admit to not having all the answers. Well-etched supporting turns by David Bowie as Andy Warhol and Dennis Hopper as Bruno Bischofberger.
After having found Adam Sandler a grating titanic terror in Billy Madison, Airheads and Mixed Nuts, I was far from expecting to find him tolerable, much less quite funny, in Happy Gilmore, the best golf-comedy since 1980's Caddyshack. He plays a no-talent hockey player with a very short temperamental fuse who discovers his undisciplined-yet-powerful arm strength allows him to wallop golf balls from tee-off onto the putting green in just one mighty swing. Still, Sandler isn't too hot on the sport of golf, but he enters into a professional career of it to raise $270,000 to get back his loving granny's repossessed house. There's a problem, though: he's so spastically uncouth, he can't sink a putt a mere two feet away. The film is chock-full of many humorous moments (my favorites: the TV censors having a field day bleeping Sandler's endless profanities after he misses easy putts; he and The Price is Right's Bob Barker beating the holy crap out of each other in the middle of a celebrity game), and the supporting actors are given lots of room to shine (particularly Rocky's Carl Weathers as Sandler's exasperated coach, and Ben Stiller as a loathsome martinet of an orderly running a sweatshop out of granny's nursing home). Directed with agility and bounce by Dennis Dugan, who also scored with 1992's dandy laugh-a-thon Brain Donors.
The psychological thriller The Cold Light of Day finds Richard E. Grant (in a knockout performance) as a detective convinced that the man his department has arrested and charged for a series of child murders is not the true culprit. When the man commits suicide, the case is quickly closed, but the detective, after resigning, purchases a gas station in the vicinity of the murders; he becomes romantically involved with a woman and her young daughter, and soon moves them in with him in an attempt to use the child as bait to flush out the killer he knows is still out there. If the story seems familiar, it should, for it's based upon the same novel by Friedrich Durrenmatt that Sean Penn's 2001 The Pledge was, but this is the superior adaptation. Where Penn's film was marvelously atmospheric but emotionally opaque, this one is moderately atmospheric and emotionally rich. Grant's intenseness holds us, but it's both his complexity and accessibility that move us -- he conveys an inner turmoil repulsed at his child-endangering scheme that's eclipsed by an insatiable need to protect, in a sense, all children. Taut, terrific entertainment.
Writer/director Tim Sullivan's comedy/drama Jack & Sarah would at first glance seem nothing more than a British, gender-switching Baby Boom -- Richard E. Grant (superb again) playing a successful, demanding young lawyer forced to take care of his newborn daughter after his wife dies during childbirth, which starts taxing both his professional and social life -- but is considerably enlivened by Sullivan's expert shuffling of tone and a willingness to embrace story familiarities while giving them some fresh spins (not to mention forgoing goo-goo-ga-ga adorable-baby moments). Judi Dench is crowd-pleasingly feisty as Grant's straight-shooting mother, Ian McKellen completely winning as a homeless alcoholic who becomes Grant's faithful household servant, and Samantha Mathis a down-to-earth screen joy as Grant's live-in nanny who eventually becomes the object of his romantic affections. Teeming with well-elicited pathos but never audience-pandering bathos, it makes for that rare heartfelt cinematic experience that genuinely cares about character development and simply makes you feel good to be alive.
The Ghost and the Darkness boasts an uncommonly intelligent, literate script by the usually unctuous likes of the overemployed William Goldman, along with well-calibrated direction by the talented Stephen Hopkins, whose work is usually better than the material. Based on a true story and set in 1896 in British East Africa, Val Kilmer stars as a British military engineer assigned to supervise the construction of a landmark bridge. Passionate over his work and long harboring a love of Africa, the engineer eagerly takes to the arduous task; despite numerous logistical problems, his steady progress impresses even his bullying boss back in England. But something most troublesome soon thwarts that progress: a pair of fearless, man-eating lions start attacking the work camp, whether it be night or day, with the body count of slain workers soon surpassing the three-digit mark. The engineer teams up with big-game hunter Michael Douglas to take out these most fiendish felines, whom are reputed by the natives to be supernatural creatures -- demons, mind you, sent on a mission to stop colonialism by the white man. Hopkins, like the engineer, builds with economic precision while forgoing unnecessary bravado: he has in his mitts such a terrifying story, he needn't go in for extraneous flourishes -- the visual sophistication (with maestro Vilmos Zsigmond's lighting a considerable asset) and lean narrative drive perfectly feed off one another. And while the man-vs.-beast encounters are undeniably nail-biting, the crux of the film lies with the characters, with Douglas giving a bravura star performance and Kilmer (one of the best actors on the planet, given the right role) creating a caring, contemplative hero all too willing to shoulder the blame on his conscience-laden shoulders. A grand, underrated widescreen adventure.
Bobby and Peter Ferrelly's delightful Kingpin is by far the best of their mostly hit-and-miss no-holds-barred comedies, which have ranged from Dumb and Dumber (which I kinda liked) to Me, Myself and Irene (which I really kinda didn't). Here, Woody Harrelson stars as a young, naturally-gifted bowler whose lifelong dream of playing on the professional circuit are tragically dashed due to the underhanded tactics of rival Bill Murray (he abandons and leaves his partner to an angry mob of local bowlers they've just scammed, who amputate his bowling hand in the ball-retrieval machine); ten years later, he's a quintessential mess of a has-been -- drunk and depressed and so broke he couldn't get out of sight if it cost a dollar to leave the state -- who befriends Randy Quaid, a by-the-letter Amish man with the potential to be a great bowler. Harrelson trains him, Quaid starts winning, and they steadily progress to the big match in Vegas where old arch-nemesis, big-shot bowler Murray awaits. The Farrellys may set their sights low (prosthetic-hand gags out the ka-zoo abound, of course), but the majority of their comic set pieces here work, and work exceedingly well, at that: Harrelson's once-famous last name, Munson, widely used as a word synonymous for "loser"; Murray telling a waitress to wipe off her noxious perfume before returning to the table with his Tanqueray and Tab; the appallingly attention-drawing comb-overs of its hero and villain; dialogue you shouldn't laugh at but do ("You don't mow another guy's lawn!"), and even a hot-coffee-to-the-face bit manages to be side-splittingly funny. But this, if anything, is Harrelson's show. Having steadily and impressively improved as an actor this same year in The People vs. Larry Flynt and Sunchaser, he does the unthinkable here: creating a believable, layered, lived-in characterization amid the urination and blunt-object-to-the-groin gags that's unexpectedly affecting and touching in the end. He's phenomenal -- so, mostly, is Kingpin.
Dennis Hopper gives the performance of his life in Carried Away as a meek, reticent schoolteacher in a rural Texas town living out a meager existence. His job is about to disappear, his mother is dying, and his six-year romance with fellow teacher Amy Irving is entering the marry-me-or-else phase. Enter newly-arrived seventeen-year-old vixen Amy Locane, the derring-do daughter of retired Army colonel Gary Busey, who starts a torrid affair with Hopper, who's too fundamentally weak to resist yet whose long-dormant life force is awakened through the experience and the trials and tribulations stemming from it. In a crass screenwriter's hands, the story (an adaptation of a typically pleasing Jim Harrison novella) could have easily dwindled down to a third-rate Lolita smothered in seedy opportunism, but Ed Jones has developed it maturely in fleshing out the characterizations three-dimensionally and resolving the conflicts in unexpected, believable ways. Immense credit is also due director Bruno Barreto for forgoing sensationalism for coherence, for sustaining dramatic and visual richness, and for helping in drawing out first-rate work from his sterling cast (and that includes Busey, who's uncommonly subdued in a rare domesticated role). Re-establishes Hopper as something other than a stock-villain casting joke, and certifies Amy Locane as the most talented and beautiful actress of her generation.
After their big-budget box-office flop Cutthroat Island, husband-and-wife team director Renny Harlin and star Geena Davis scored a spectacular comeback with The Long Kiss Goodnight, a high-octane, mammothly enteratining action extravaganza. Davis plays an amnesia-ridden ex-CIA governmental assassin whose memory of her former self starts returning to her right when her duplicitous former employer learns of her unexpected still-breathing existence as a schoolteacher and dispatches an elite team of well-armed agents to cancel her ticket. Davis teams up with wisecracking, low-rent private eye Samuel L. Jackson to learn more of her past and keep one step ahead of her adversaries, who meet a colorful array of demises by Davis' ever-prevailing alter ego -- who's utterly dismayed over the frumpy butt she's acquired over the course of the last eight years of parenting and PTA meetings. Unlike the mediocre The Bourne Identity, this is a film where its lead character's identity crisis is given proper dramatic weight -- when she gradually regresses back to her former violent self, it excites but also horrifies her, and also makes her question whether the life she's made for herself since is worth preserving and fighting for. I'm usually not a fan of Davis', but she's undeniably dynamite here: tough, touching, sexy, funny, an exciting screen presence for once. And she's ably matched by the indispensable Jackson, who gets most of the screamingly funny lines in Shane Black's crackerjack screenplay ("Yes, I'm a Mormon. That's why I just smoked a pack of Newport and drank three vodka tonics."). One bravura, creatively staged action sequence after another, and a pair of wonderfully off-beat heroes giving the proceedings plenty of gravitas and heart. The best of its kind since the original Die Hard.
And topping off the year is the masterpiece Dead Man, a B/W existential Western from eclectic independent writer/director Jim Jarmusch. Set in the Pacific Northwest in the 1870s, a top-form Johnny Depp headlines a grade-A cast as an unattached, unfulfilled Cleveland accountant who travels by train out to a remote outpost with the promise of a new job, a new start, but finds himself with a serious gunshot wound, wrongly accused of a double murder, on the run in unknown frontierland from a trio of professional bounty hunters, and befriended by an alienated-by-his-tribe Indian outcast who believes the accountant, named William Blake, is the reincarnation of the late English poet/painter. Seen as already being dead and destined to pave his way to his grave with blood rather than words, Blake effortlessly acquires a talent for gunplay and a taste for violence -- he becomes, in a sense, a walking dead man avenging the wrongs inflicted from the white man onto Native Americans and their native land during the Machine Age. While Jarmusch's films can be overdeliberately paced and too self-consciously minimalist, Dead Man manages to masterfully blend its various elements (the grotesque violence, colorful characters, droll ironic humor, piquant dialogue) into an overall whole that's rapturously well-controlled and realized, an art-house film that doesn't sink under the weight of pretentiousness yet remains deftly communicative without defining itself to death. Robby Muller's brilliant photography, a juicy supporting cast to go agog over (especially Gary Farmer, in a star-making performance as the Indian who calls himself Nobody), a magnificent eye for period detail, and a truly evocative score by Neil Young help make this a one-of-a-kind entertainment that will drive some people up the wall, out of the theatre, or into the throes of filmgoing heaven, just like all risk-taking works of art are forever destined to.
@ Jack Somersby, 2005
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originally posted: 01/31/05 13:20:30
last updated: 03/06/14 09:49:44