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CrankyCritic®com Best of '96

Well, 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.

Here are the films I consider the Best of the Year (in alphabetical order):

BIG 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.

COURAGE 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.

EVITA. 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.

FARGO. 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.

JERRY 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.

THE 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.

THE 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.

THE 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.

TRAINSPOTTING. Who thought a film about smack addicts could be so repulsively funny?

SHINE, the story of an Australian piano prodigy and his domineering father. The performances by Geoffrey Rush and Armin Mueller-Stahl are riveting.

Here's 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:

THE 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).

EVERYONE 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 at that.

MOTHER. 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.

SLING 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.

AND THE BEST OF THE BEST:

Remembering 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 are announced:

OUTSTANDING FILM OF 1996

Cranky: 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.)

OUTSTANDING ACTOR
Cranky: Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade
Oscar: Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire

This 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.

OUTSTANDING ACTRESS
Cranky: Frances McDormand in Fargo
Oscar: Courtney Love in The People vs. Larry Flynt

I loved 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.

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR
Cranky: Gary Sinise in Ransom
Oscar: Gary Sinise in Ransom

Truth 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]

OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Cranky: Mary Tyler Moore in Flirting with Disaster
Oscar: Lauren Bacall in The Mirror Has Two Faces

DIRECTING:
Cranky: Stanley Tucci & Campbell Scott - Big Night
Oscar: Cameron Crowe for Jerry Maguire

Watch 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.

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Cranky: Sling Blade
Oscar: Jerry Maguire

and I thought JM was delightful. See Sling Blade. When the symbolism Feel the shivers -- you'll know what I mean.

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Cranky: The Substance of Fire
Oscar: The Crucible

Do 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 it is).

My Oscar calls are subject to revision when the real list comes out.

The Cranky Critic website is Copyright © 1995  -  2017  by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.