The Man Who Viewed Too Much
24 January 1997

My 1996 Top Ten

In a recent letter to me, my fellow net.critic and occasional correspondent Scott Renshaw jokingly claimed to be looking forward to the next edition of "Mike D'Angelo: Arthouse Contrarian." He was referring, as those of you who've been reading my reviews over the past twelve months know, to my singular lack of enthusiasm for many, if not most, of the year's most conspicuous critical favorites; such acclaimed films as Fargo, Dead Man, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Breaking the Waves, Shine, Trainspotting, and The English Patient failed to make my cut, and several of those named I actively disliked. (None received a rating higher than ***.) For whatever reason -- and I should stress that this is highly unusual -- my own taste was simply not in sync with that of most of my peers; the result is the most eclectic top ten list I've ever compiled. It's also a list about which I'm not terribly excited, to be perfectly honest; I wouldn't have been able to find a place on last year's list for most of the films below, and while I was very much impressed by the pictures in slots #1-5, none of them truly wowed me in the way that Exotica or Red or Heavenly Creatures or Schindler's List or Naked did, to name a few recent masterpieces. Don't get me wrong: all ten of the films on my list are well worth seeing, and I recommend the first eight without even the slightest reservation. (I had to choose among several extremely flawed movies to fill the final two slots.) All in all, however, the year just past was probably the least interesting and rewarding I've experienced since I began paying close attention to the medium in 1988, at least so far as new releases were concerned.

In part, this was because 1996 was the year in which Hollywood finally hit rock bottom. In 1995, a remarkable five studio pictures ended up making my top ten list, with two in the top three; this year, I can only find room for two, and they're the two heavily flawed films in the #9 and #10 positions previously mentioned (one of which utterly flopped at the box office). Meanwhile, three of the year's most excruciating pictures -- Twister, The Rock, and The Nutty Professor -- cleaned up, guaranteeing that we'll see plenty more plotless, joyless, lifeless f/x extravaganzas in years to come. Whoopee. Studio output in 1996 was so uniformly mediocre and/or dreadful that even the freakin' Golden Globes focused on independent releases, awarding three of its top dramatic awards to films released by Miramax, Fine Line, and October. Part of me is thrilled -- while I'm not as enthusiastic about these films as most everybody else is, I'd rather see folks like Mike Leigh and Lars von Trier and Anthony Minghella being lauded than, say, Rob Reiner and Ron Howard and Mel Gibson -- but at the same time, I'm a bit depressed: I love good Hollywood movies, and I'd like to be able to see more of them, even if it would inevitably mean that Leigh and von Trier would have to be content with citations from critics' groups.

Looking at the ten movies on the list, I see that seven of them grossed less than a million dollars in North America -- a rather foreboding statistic, since distributors won't exactly be lining up to find other films just like them. ("And if we really promote the hell out of it, I honestly think it might make as much $275,000!") I also see, to my dismay, that I once again found room for only one foreign-language title (well, one-and-a-half, really), and no room at all for films directed by women; the last one to make the grade was Darnell Martin's I Like It Like That two years ago. (The best I saw in '96 were Mary Harron's abrasive I Shot Andy Warhol, Moufida Tlatli's reflective The Silences of the Palace, and Hettie Macdonald's tender Beautiful Thing.) One of these years, I hope to have a roster that isn't utterly dominated by films made by white American males, but for the moment I can console myself somewhat with the knowledge that the homogeneity isn't deliberate: I go with my gut, and have no conscious control over which movies make the strings of my heart go 'Zing!'

I do have conscious control, however, over my eligibility rules, which are as follows: Films released commercially in New York City in the calendar year 1996 were considered, with the exception of those featuring copyrights more than two years old. (This exception ruled out the likes of Andre Téchiné's Ma Saison Préférée, Nikita Mikhalkov's Anna, and Peter Sehr's Kaspar Hauser -- none of which were in strong contention anyway, although I quite liked the first. Many critics don't make this distinction -- Amy Taubin of the Village Voice, for example, included Jane Campion's 1986 feature 2 Friends on her list this year, arguing that it had never before been released in the U.S. -- but I've always thought it dirty pool to compare contemporary films with those made five or fifteen or fifty years earlier, as the benefit of hindsight tends to unbalance the scales.) I also considered films less than two years old that did not receive commercial distribution, provided that those films are not currently scheduled for commercial release in 1997. To date, I've never actually included an undistributed film on one of my lists -- heck, I only started seeing movies at festivals and specialty houses a couple of years ago -- and I thought for a while that Olivier Assayas' spectacular Irma Vep, which I caught at the '96 New York Film Festival, would be the first...but at the eleventh hour, to my simultaneous elation and disappointment, Zeitgeist Pictures picked it up for an April '97 release in New York; look for it to feature very prominently in next year's lineup. Similarly, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne's terrific La Promesse, another NYFF alumnus, will have to wait.

I believe that's quite enough ado; here, then, are my favorites, listed in ascending order for maximum suspense:

10. Jerry Maguire (Cameron Crowe) The first eight slots on my list were a cinch, and the ninth, once I managed to overcome a few cowardly misgivings, wasn't too taxing, but I flirted with an aneurysm trying to determine which film to place here. The People vs. Larry Flynt was one possibility, but the more I thought about the film, the more disturbed I became by its omissions and rationalizations, and the less impressed I was by Milos Forman's too-literal direction. Also very much in the running was Mike Leigh's much-heralded Secrets & Lies...and, truth be told, it would almost certainly have found a place even higher on the list had I never seen any of Leigh's previous films. Compared to his High Hopes and Life Is Sweet and Naked, however, I found his latest a mild disappointment, and a second viewing only served to highlight its flaws, particularly the atypically saccharine conclusion. That left the popular Tom Cruise vehicle Jerry Maguire, which is certainly among the year's smartest and funniest big-budget pictures; it suffers from some of the same problems as Secrets & Lies, including major ending trouble, but somehow it's easier to forgive them in a bubbly Hollywood confection than in Leigh's Bergmanesque chamber drama. Crowe's film also introduced me to two talented actresses, the luminous Renée Zellweger and the hilariously brittle Bonnie Hunt, and for that I am forever grateful.

9. The Frighteners (Peter Jackson) This is where I'm gonna lose some of you, and all I can say is: Bye now. No, it's not Heavenly Creatures by a long shot; and yes, it occasionally drags, and sometimes makes no sense, and suffers from a conclusion so stupid and simple-minded that it makes you wish it were one of those ridiculous "interactive movies," so you could see it again with all of your friends and collectively vote to give it the sharp, sober denouement that it deserves. But when it works -- sakes alive! (I love that phrase.) Every action director in the business should be obsessively studying Jackson's work in this picture, which is a model of taut, fluid, expressive filmmaking; the final confrontation in the abandoned chapel, which takes place simultaneously in the past and present, ranks alongside the chase scene in Se7en as one of the most thrilling adrenaline rushes in recent cinema. Screenwriters, meanwhile, should pay close attention to the series of narrative events in The Frighteners that constitute what used to be known, in the days before cinema-as-spectacle hijacked the Hollywood imagination, as a "plot." Easily, easily the best of the expensive summer blockbuster-hopefuls; naturally, it was trashed by the critics and ignored by the public, who just wanted to see that damn flying cow over and over again. A pox on every one of you. (Hey, I told you some people were gonna bail here. They don't want to go any further anyway.)

8. Land and Freedom (Ken Loach) Ken Loach is frequently confused with Mike Leigh, though in fact the two directors have little in common apart from making films about the British working class and sporting five-letter surnames beginning with 'L.' While I've long been an admirer of Loach's gritty, humanistic dramas, I've tended to prefer Leigh's angrier, less naturalistic approach in the past; ironically, it wasn't until Land and Freedom, in which Loach abandoned contemporary England to make a stirring and unabashedly leftist period picture about the Spanish Civil War, that I truly became a believer. (Much of the film is in subtitled Spanish -- hence my qualification above about including ?one-and-a-half? foreign-language films on my list.) Excellent throughout (apart from a superfluous present-day prologue and epilogue), the film is perhaps most memorable for its central ?town hall? debate about land collectivization (your eyelids are drooping already, I know, but stay with me, because you?re mistaken), which was the most passionate and explosive scene I saw all year -- if only our political candidates cared this much about the issues we face, or were half as eloquent. As David, the idealistic young Brit who impulsively joins the fight against fascism only to encounter endless bickering and betrayals among ever-splintering factions, Ian Hart demonstrates decisively that he can play a character who isn?t John Lennon; the rest of the cast, most of them non-professionals, do themselves proud, and Tom Gilroy, as a pragmatic American, wins my annual award for Best Performance in a Role Too Small to Attract Any Critical Attention or Win Any Awards.

7. From the Journals of Jean Seberg (Mark Rappaport) The first of three documentary-related films on my list -- an utterly unprecedented occurrence, as I'm partial to narrative fiction -- Mark Rappaport's inventive, idiosyncratic kaleidoscope of a movie uses Jean Seberg?s bizarre and ultimately tragic life as a springboard for discussion of a dozen disparate topics, ranging from the use of gender roles in cinema to the nature of the medium itself. In fact, one of the few things the film is not about is Seberg (the journals of the title are a fiction, and Mary Beth Hurt, speaking directly to the camera, plays Seberg as if she had survived to the present day and had been forced to teach an introductory film course using clips from her own work), which irritated several critics who were apparently expecting to see a biographical portrait. Their loss: funny, incisive, sarcastic, and bold, it?s among the most original and illuminating titles in the relatively new and increasingly intriguing "personal-essay" genre. Created on videotape, the film was transferred to 16mm celluloid for its brief theatrical release, and it looked terrible; if you can find it on videotape (and I was pleasantly startled -- nay, ecstatically shocked! -- to find a copy of Rappaport?s similar [but much inferior, largely because it?s so much more limited in scope] Rock Hudson's Home Movies at my local Blockbuster last month, while home on Christmas break), grab it -- it?s one movie that you can see for the first time on your television set absolutely guilt-free.

6. Sling Blade (Billy Bob Thornton) One of the things I like best about watching a story unfold is being surprised; most of the films I love take me to places I?ve never been before, or veer in directions I could never have anticipated. It?s rare for me to fall for a movie during which there was never any doubt in my mind about where I was or where I was headed...and yet Sling Blade, the directorial debut of the prodigiously talented actor/writer Billy Bob Thornton, is such a movie. Utterly predictable (though not necessarily moment to moment -- I'?m referring here to its general story arc), it's also utterly captivating, unfolding at a measured, relaxed pace that respects the slow, ambling mind and gait of its protagonist, Karl (played by Thornton himself, in a performance so believable and gripping that Tom Hanks, if he'?s seen it, has probably tossed his Oscar for Forrest Gump into the ashcan). Godfrey Cheshire, a critic for New York Press who hails from North Carolina, claims that this is one of the only recent movies about the South made by somebody with a feeling for the region, and while I, a Californian by birth and a New Yorker by inclination, can't confirm this supposition, it certainly feels more accurate, and more truthful, than most of the other Dixie-set pictures I've seen. John Ritter partially atones for his television career with a surprisingly low-key and moving turn as a gay friend (ironic, no? yes, he really is gay here) of the family that adopts Karl; country singer Dwight Yoakam, meanwhile, as the family's resident scumbag, gives what is hands down the best performance by a famous musician I've ever seen -- and yes, that includes Courtney (and even Rick Springfield in Hard to Hold). Keep an eye out for it; as I write, it's still slowly making its way across the States in platform release.

5. Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai) Speaking of films that veer in unexpected directions, Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express -- which, sporting as it does a 1994 copyright date, just barely met my eligibility requirements (it would likely never have been released in the U.S. had Quentin Tarantino, for whom Miramax will do virtually anything, not been so taken by it) -- moves like a balloon that's been filled to capacity with air and then released without being tied shut, creating a trajectory guaranteed to put a crick in the neck of anybody attempting to follow it. I refer neither to its plot nor to any complex characterizations; in fact, its two tales of unrequited love are simple (though powerfully affecting), and their respective characters, idiosyncratic without being self-consciously "wacky," are virtually opaque. It's the film itself that's so erratic; if it looks as though it were invented on the set from day to day, that's because it was, and at its best it feels as euphorically spontaneous and uninhibited as early Godard. Wong has both more interest in and more command of film technique than Godard has ever demonstrated, however, and Chungking Express is a formal triumph as well as an informal one; its genius is best exemplified in what one of my correspondents, inspired to see the film by my initial gushing review, dubbed "The Shot": an amazing, breathtaking moment in which time slows to a crawl while a woman watches the man she adores sip a cup of coffee. ("So they shot it in slow-motion, big deal, " you're thinking. But you're mistaken.) Alternately playful and somber, it's a giddy, memorable rush. Let's hope someone as powerful as Tarantino gets excited about his latest, Fallen Angels, which at this writing still has no U.S. distributor.

4. Lone Star (John Sayles) You know you truly love a film when snide dismissals of it begin to anger you. Lone Star is John Sayles' biggest commercial success, having grossed about $13 million in North America (it was made for a pittance, less than half that), and it's been well-received critically as well...but there's been something of a backlash of late, with various voices criticizing Sayles for being "uncinematic" (read: "not flashy enough") and "too literary" (read: "concerned with more than one thing"). Even some of those who raved about the film upon its release seem to have abandoned it, their focus having shifted to newer, more colorful trinkets. Fuck 'em, I say: if this isn't one of the year's very best movies, then I'm a monkey's uncle, and I swear to god that shambling hairy thing is no kin of mine. As intricate, dense, and leisurely as a novel -- and I mean that as a goddam compliment -- Lone Star managed to be about something -- namely, the ways that our history affects us, as well as the ways that our perception of the world shapes our history -- without ever becoming didactic or simplistic, which is no mean feat in a mere two hours and change. As if that weren't plenty, it's also a first-rate mystery (even if I did guess the identity of the culprit) as well as a showcase for some of the year's finest acting (Frances McDormand excepted -- I love you, Frances, but stay out of naturalistic films, or learn how to act naturalistically). The final scene, which is memorable not so much for the revelation it features as for the remarkable decision that that revelation provokes, made me want to stand up and cheer. I adored it, and anybody who tries to tell me that it's not Movie enough for them is gonna be asked to step outside (not that I'll follow).

3. Dadetown (Russ Hexter) I have nothing to say about Dadetown, save this: See it. And rest in peace, Russ.

2. Citizen Ruth (Alexander Payne) And the cheese stands alone. Nobody else cares about this film. Not only does nobody apparently want to see it -- it's grossed a miserable $200,000 or so to date, which would just about cover a typical Hollywood catering bill -- but the critics, while generally enthusiastic, have utterly ignored it in their top ten lists and their endless discussions of worthy Oscar candidates (the latter despite a ferocious, gutsy performance by Laura Dern that, while perhaps not in the league of those by Emily Watson and Brenda Blethyn, is easily one of the year's strongest). Citizen Ruth is rapidly becoming a lost film, destined to sit unmolested at the bottom of the video store shelf, gathering dust...and that saddens me, because it doesn't deserve such a fate. It's not a new Wilder or Sturges film, but it's the closest equivalent I've seen in many years: an incredibly corrosive, hilariously outrageous, unforgettably inspired satire, tackling an issue which at first glance seems entirely inappropriate for the genre but which in retrospect was clearly crying out for such treatment. It's also one of the most confident and assured film debuts I can recall; Alexander Payne, working with a script he co-wrote with Jim Taylor, demonstrates a intuitive filmmaking sense while avoiding the "just-got-the-film-school-diploma" pyrotechnics that generally mar the attempts of first-timers. The film isn't perfect -- I could have lived without the Burt Reynolds character and his adolescent lackey, for example, who belong in some other, much less intelligent picture -- but on the whole it ranks highly among the best contemporary comedies, and it deserves a less ignominious fate. Please, if it turns up near you, make an effort to see it. I wouldn't steer you wrong.

1. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky) Easy choice. No other film I saw this year was half as mesmerizing, or offered such a profound and contradictory glimpse of human nature; it grabbed the pole position back in mid-March, when I saw its screening in the annual New Directors/New Films series, and never relinquished it. The third and final of the documentary-related titles (Dadetown was the second), it's ostensibly the story of a potential miscarriage of justice, following in close detail (and with unprecedented access) the trials of three teenagers charged with the grisly murder and sexual mutilation of three pre-adolescent boys. The trials are fascinating, no question, but they're only the tip of this chilling iceberg; Berlinger and Sinofsky are relentless in their exploration of every facet of the unfolding events and those affected by them, and their uncanny ability to earn the trust of the community allows the filmmakers -- and their camera, and hence us -- to be privy to emotionally charged moments the likes of which I never expected to see on a movie screen. The pair have been criticized in documentary circles for their tactic of fashioning a narrative for their films during the shooting process -- the press kit for Paradise Lost quotes them talking about their daily "story conferences," in which they determine what they ought to shoot and why, in the grand scheme of the movie, they ought to shoot it -- but the results (see also their excellent Brother's Keeper, circa 1992) speak for themselves. I have no idea whether the film is an "accurate" representation of the Robin Hood Hills tragedy, and frankly I don't care, since the same would be true of any documentary (or, indeed, virtually any experience in life); what matters to me is whether or not it's a compelling representation of the case and the community, and any steps taken to make it more interesting or entertaining -- short of actually staging events or falsifying information -- are okay by me. The running time is a lengthy two-and-a-half hours. I could have watched two or three more, sans intermission, standing, with a three-pound sack of flour slung over one shoulder. Stunning.


Honorable Mention: In addition to the aforementioned Secrets & Lies and The People vs. Larry Flynt, either of which could easily have ended up in the #10 slot in place of Jerry Maguire, I enjoyed the everlovin' heck out of (in no particular order) Nicholas Hytner's The Crucible, Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!, Mathieu Kassovitz's Hate, Eric Rohmer's Rendezvous in Paris, and Claude Nuridsany & Marie Pérennou's Microcosmos. And while my dismay at its apparent celebration of masochism and martyrdom prevents me from embracing it as I would like to, I must admit that Breaking the Waves is the "best" film I saw in 1996, even if not one of my favorites.

Last year, I compiled a complementary "ten worst" list, and had no trouble scaring up ten titles that made me wish I'd been hit by an unlicensed cab en route to the theater; fortunately, I managed to avoid most of 1996's rotten eggs, so this time it doesn't seem worth the effort. Dirk Shafer's unfunny and offensive mockumentary Man of the Year was the only film to receive my lowly * rating, but my anger toward it has largely subsided, and another film has usurped its place in my cinematic doghouse: because of its contempt for its audience, and the havoc its phenomenal success will likely wreak on commercial cinema for years to come, I unequivocally declare Twister the year's most reprehensible movie.