Best of '96
here it is time for the annual recap of the stuff I liked (as opposed
to my normal practice of tempering everything I say with the views
of the paying audience that I sit with) from the preceding year.
That would be 1996 by Oscar(r) rules, meaning that some of the films
listed below won't be coming to your local theaters until sometime
in January or February. Or March.
are the films I consider the Best of the Year (in alphabetical order):
NIGHT, the story of two immigrants (Stanley Tucci and
Tony Shalhoub) whose dream of running an authentic Italian
restaurant is about to collapse. The story is so simple and the
characters so well defined that, at its end, a stock still camera
watches the brothers silently prepare and eat breakfast. It reads
like nothing but is as impressive an ensemble piece of acting as
I've seen all year. It's hard to tell where the script leaves off
and the "acting" begins.
UNDER FIRE, a "Rashoman" style mystery set in flashback
during the Gulf War. Strong performances by Denzel Washington
and Lou Diamond Phillips as investigator and witness to the
death of a Medivac chopper pilot nominated for the Medal of Honor.
Meg Ryan rocks as the pilot, playing her singular role three
different ways. Well written, directed and acted across the board.
To be honest, I don't like musicals. I walked into this one cold
and, much to my surprise, liked it. A lot. Adapted by Alan Parker
from the Weber/Rice opera, it is a feast for the eye. The surprise
is not that Madonna performs well (see my review for more),
but that Antonio Banderas steals the show.
A black comedy about a man who arranges the kidnap and ransom of
his wife. He hires white trash and everything goes wrong. Again,
strong work across the board especially the character performances
by Frances McDormand as the local cop who solves the crime,
and Steve Buscemi as the more talkative of the bad guys.
MAGUIRE is the kind of film Oscar eats for breakfast. Then again,
Golden Boy has been weird the last two years. If Tom Cruise
(was) ever going to bring home the statue, it's for this enervating
story of a slick sports agent who, upon declaring a set of values
specific to his workplace, gets fired and finds himself having to
apply those same values to the one client he has left.
PEOPLE V. LARRY FLYNT considering it is based on the court fights
of a pornographer, was terrifically touching. In every directing
or writing or acting class I took in my film school days (and sometimes
after) every teacher emphasized the same principle: at it's heart
*every* story is a love story. Say all you want about the First
Amendment, this is a love story.
SUBSTANCE OF FIRE. The best of the year. A man's obsession with
the past could destroy his family and, more so, himself. One of
the few play adaptations so seamless that you cannot tell. Ron
Rifkin is compelling as the father, but Timothy Hutton is
outstanding as the son who by feint and subterfuge holds the family
together as long as he can.
WAR AT HOME is the only film this year that had me bawling like
a baby. For those of us who lived during the Vietnam Era the story
of a vet in a long line of vets (Martin Sheen) and his son
(real life son, Emilio Estevez) is a powerful and shocking
one. If you think you see what's coming before it happens, you'd
be wrong. Sheen gives his best performance since, perhaps, The Execution of Private Slovick.
Who thought a film about smack addicts could be so repulsively funny?
the story of an Australian piano prodigy and his domineering father.
The performances by Geoffrey Rush and Armin Mueller-Stahl
the hard part: my Top ten list actually ran Fourteen titles and
I'm just too lazy to round up to Fifteen. So, the runners-up:
CRUCIBLE. Arthur Miller's adaptation of his stage play works
as well as a writ against Fundamentalism as it did against Communist
witch hunts when it was written. It's the performances that sing:
Paul Scofield, so rarely seen on screen makes his presence felt
strongly. Daniel Day-Lewis is the man forced to get involved. Winona
Ryder is the accuser whose words eventually trip her up. Joan Allen,
who follows the moral code of the time (and brings about the ending
which I won't tell if you aren't familiar).
SAYS I LOVE YOU is, for this Woody Allen fan, the most satisfying
of his recent works. You'll learn how not to propose marriage. You'll
learn why Republicans are the way they are. You'll wet yourself
when you see Allen's take on rap music and suffer when Julia Roberts
sings. To be fair, she sings in Michael Collins, and pretty well
Albert Brooks' story of a man who moves back in with mom to find
out why he cannot have successful relationships. Debbie Reynolds
curses. Nuff said.
BLADE. Written, Directed and Starring Billy Bob Thornton with
a surprising supporting performance by John Ritter. Just when you
think this tale of a mentally-slow murderer is really a sweet tale
of redemption, Thornton drops a symbolic clue that falls with horrifying
power. More below.
THE BEST OF THE BEST:
that my picks are solely my own choices (and here you get to see
more of Cranky's personal tastes than you will all year long), it
is time for The Cranky Critic to once again test his psychic powers
and call the Academy Awards winners two months before the nominations
FILM OF 1996
The Substance of Fire (dead heat w/ Sling Blade)
Oscar: The People vs. Larry Flynt (dead heat w/ Jerry Maguire)
(and frankly, add Trainspotting and you've got the top five. It's
going to be a real interesting Independent Spirit Awards this year.)
Cranky: Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade
Oscar: Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire
is going to be interesting. Antonia Banderas stole Evita. Geoffrey
Rush was outstanding in Shine. But I don't know if you can beat
Cruise's performance. Once you see Thornton, you'll understand the
potential for an upset. But it isn't going to happen.
Cranky: Frances McDormand in Fargo
Oscar: Courtney Love in The People vs. Larry Flynt
Love, too, but I'm being cruel. My thinking is the same as when
I picked Kathy Bates for Misery all those years ago. No one'll believe
that Love has any other shot at it. McDormand could.
Cranky: Gary Sinise in Ransom
Oscar: Gary Sinise in Ransom
of the matter is, this was the hardest category to call. I had nine
other superb performances on my list. I sat down and started listing
what made each one great. When I got to Sinise, well, that was that.
[Don't believe me? You try: David Bowie in Basquiat; Steve Buscemi
in Fargo; Lou Diamond Phillips in Courage Under Fire; Dustin Hoffman
or Kevin Bacon in Sleepers; Timothy Hutton in The Substance of Fire;
Armin Mueller-Stahl in Shine; John Ritter in Sling Blade and Paul
Scofield in The Crucible]
Cranky: Mary Tyler Moore in Flirting with Disaster
Oscar: Lauren Bacall in The Mirror Has Two Faces
Cranky: Stanley Tucci & Campbell Scott - Big Night
Oscar: Cameron Crowe for Jerry Maguire
the breakfast scene at the end of Big Night carefully. Not only
is it superb acting, but it is confident directing. The only real
competition, though, is Milos Forman for The People vs. Larry Flynt.
Cranky: Sling Blade
Oscar: Jerry Maguire
I thought JM was delightful. See Sling Blade. When the symbolism
Feel the shivers -- you'll know what I mean.
Cranky: The Substance of Fire
Oscar: The Crucible
you think for a second that Arthur Miller *isn't* going to get it?
The Academy can't be that ignorant. (Well, it can, but I don't think
Oscar calls are subject to revision when the real list comes out.