Film Faves: 1996
For those who are new, each month Film Faves counts down my favorites in a given subject of film. Rather than listing only ten followed up by a list of Honorable Mentions, Film Faves mostly sticks with a list of twelve favorites and leaves it at that. This is not intended to be an objective 'Best of' list, but a way of both expressing a subjective love of film while also writing about a slew of older movies.
This month I am continuing my retroactive march through the ages with a look at the year 1996.
On with it!
This was a year of hits of both mediocre and favorable quality. Of the former, films like Ransom and Twister both hit the top of the box office. Of the latter, well, I'll get to those later.
The awards circuit seemed to favor The English Patient, Shine, and Secrets & Lies.
I believe it was the first year that the cast members of the TV show Friends attempted to cross their star power to films. Jennifer Aniston starred in the Edward Burns film She's the One, David Schwimmer starred in The Pallbearer, Matt LeBlanc starred in Ed, Lisa Kudrow co-starred in the Albert Brooks film Mother, and Courtney Cox starred in Scream. While Cox had the more successful film that year, Aniston would go on to have the bigger success of all her castmates starring in such films as Office Space, Bruce Almighty, and Marley & Me.
1996 has some creative lows including Chain Reaction, The Crow: City of Angels, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Jack, Jingle All the Way, Joe's Apartment, Kazaam, Mars Attacks!, Mr. Wrong, The Phantom, Space Jam, Spy Hard, Striptease, Tremors 2: Aftershocks, and The Trigger Effect.
On the plus side, there were some highs including Big Night, The Birdcage, The Craft, Evita, Fly Away Home, Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, Happy Gilmore, I Shot Andy Warhol, Lone Star, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Rumble in the Bronx, Sling Blade, Swingers, A Time to Kill, Tin Cup, Trainspotting, as well as the aforementioned awards winners.
But here are my favorites of...
This is probably my second favorite Coen Bros film (True Grit is #1). It’s a brilliant little tale about how money can corrupt even the quaintest of us. It starred William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare, and Frances McDormand. McDormand played one of the decade’s best characters, a small-town sheriff who’s pregnant, but much cleverer than appearances would seem. Fargo isn’t brilliant for its story as much as its characters, as is often the case in Coen Bros. films; the characters here are so distinct as to be unforgettable. It’d been more than a decade since I last saw Fargo until recently and, while the details of the story were fuzzy beforehand, the characters always left a mark.
This little-seen documentary is one of the few of the ‘90s to have the magnetism and accessibility of so many documentaries of recent years. In it, Al Pacino, with the aid of friends and fellow actors, uses rehearsals, table reads, re-enactments, street interviews, and more to try to understand, appreciate, and find relevance in Shakespeare’s works, specifically Richard III. Sound boring? Not with Pacino holding our hand along the way, as well as a cast of thespians as impressive as this one: Alec Baldwin, Kenneth Branagh, John Gielgud, Rosemary Harris, James Earl Jones, Winona Ryder, Kevin Spacey, and Harris Yulin. This film successfully conveys the love of acting and the craft these participants so rarely are given the opportunity to express on camera. It’s a joy to watch – and you’ll feel smarter, too!
Primal Fear is a largely ignored courtroom drama about a hot shot lawyer who defends an altar boy accused of the brutal slaying of an archbishop. It surely ranks among the worst movie titles of 1996 and is just this side of being another rote courtroom drama. What distinguishes the film from that its cast: Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Edward Norton, John Mahoney, Frances McDormand, Andre Braugher, and Maura Tierney. Even better than that: the film makes you think it’s just another vehicle for Richard Gere to show off that twinkle-eyed charm. But by the end, it dawns on you this was Edward Norton’s show the entire time. He was roughly 27 when he played the stuttering 19 year-old altar boy, his debut performance. Norton left quite an impression and his career sky-rocketed afterward.
The first in this franchise based on a ‘70s TV series is probably the most interesting because, unlike John Woo’s sequel or even J. J. Abrams’ superior take, it’s the least straightforward, the most complex, and the most intelligent – yet still remains exciting. And it works. Nobody expected a film based on a property about a team of spies would kill said team within the first fifteen minutes! Cynics will scoff at the focus on Tom Cruise – or use the star’s current personal life as excuse to dismiss it. I think that’s shallow and very unfortunate for them because Brian de Palma succeeded here at making one of the best TV-to-film adaptations yet.
This film was a phenomenon unlike anything to come before in a long time. The ads promised a huge cast that would get picked off in a series of apocalyptic explosions and battles with aliens. Who would live? Seeing a bunch of likable actors survive or perish was part of the excitement of this spectacle. Independence Day (or ID4, as the marketing nonsensically called it) was a true event film, the kind we rarely see these days. You absolutely HAD to see it on the big screen (this was a decade or so before large flat-screen TVs were commonplace). Thankfully, it ended up being every bit as fun, quotable, and jaw-dropping as it promised to be.
I remember gathering with my friends back in my high school days to watch this film about a dozen times. We were helpless against its relentless violence, attitude, and Salma Hayek’s table dance. I hesitate to describe much of the film’s story, in case you haven’t seen it, but I will say that a traveling family of three run into a ruthless duo known as the Gecko Brothers (played by George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino) who force them a contact at a bar across the Mexican border. Trouble ensues from there. From Dust till Dawn is such a fun film that takes a wild left turn halfway through and the Tarantino/Rodriguez collaboration (Robert Rodriguez directed) is a great example of a friendship that would later bring us Grindhouse.
I grew up with the Star Trek franchise, but this was the first to feel like an exciting action film. If you liked J. J. Abrams’ reboot Star Trek then you’ll probably enjoy First Contact. It is quite distinct for its mix of Invasion of the Body Snatchers flavor and time travel story. Director and star Jonathan Frakes had a lot to juggle, but he nailed it, creating the best Next Generation film. This one is up there with Wrath of Khan as my favorite Trek films.
Dare I say this is among the best horror films I’ve ever seen? Last weekend opened the door to a series that was firmly shut (both in story and commercially) over ten years ago. While I’ve heard the latest is decent, I’ll always favor the original (however, I’m one of the few that’ll go to bat for Scream 3). As it’s been mentioned quite frequently recently, the horror genre was pretty much running on sequelitis and derivative crap – save for an occasional Stephen King film – by the mid-‘90s. Then one of the most legendary minds of the genre, Wes Craven, revived it while simultaneously skewering it. Non-horror fans will not only appreciate the film’s humor, but also that this slasher film is less about gory killings than creating suspense. This has always helped set Scream apart from the Friday the 13ths and the Saws, which focus more on creative and gory kills than character and story. Plus, Scream has one of the best casts of any horror film ever. It’s a great time.
Baz Luhrman’s take on the tale of star-crossed lovers is the most exciting to date. The first five minutes alone, full of fast-paced editing and a loud, epic score still makes my jaw drop. This film starts out by practically punching you in the face. One could credit this film’s success to its direction: it’s frenetic, creative, with a bold color palette, unforgettable locations, and a great soundtrack. But credit really must also go to a cast that turned something that could’ve seemed like little more than a gimmick into a worthwhile translation of Shakespeare’s text. Paul Rudd, John Leguizamo, Paul Sorvino, Pete Postlethwaite, and, of course, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes are all spectacular. Besides, how can one hate on a film that legitimately made teens interested in such (arguably) incoherent, yet essential pieces of literature?
Welcome to the Rawk! This is my favorite Michael Bay film. Yes, I usually hate majority of what the director represents, but the guy is capable of making a genuinely good action film – and The Rock is his best (Transformers would come 2nd). An affable FBI chemist (Nicolas Cage) is roped into a secret mission to team up with a former inmate of Alcatraz Island (Sean Connery) to break in to the former prison and stop a flipped general (Ed Harris) who threatens to kill the San Francisco population for a cause. The Rock is one of the coolest action films ever made with one of the greatest car chases I’ve ever seen, an amazing cast that brings more than one dimension to their characters (I would argue Ed Harris’ General Hummel is one of the best villains of the ‘90s), and some great dialogue writing (fire off your favorite quote… now!).
Ghost in the Shell is perhaps my favorite anime. I first saw it in college, which involved analyzing the film. It blew my mind. Here was a film with a very simple plot, yet with more philosophical discourse than exposition so that it’s easy to lose track of who’s who and what’s going on. In a future Japan, many government agents have replaced parts of their bodies with cybernetics – some agents are more cybernetic than others. When a hacker called the Puppet Master begins hacking humans and secret agent cyborgs, three agents work together to find and stop him. Along the way, they discover there’s more to the situation than just a talented mind. Ghost in the Shell not only is proof that animation can go beyond the Disney template and tell stories for adults, but it also serves as a great sci-fi film that asks questions about what defines a soul and makes us who we are. A great amount of attention is spent on building the world this story exists in, including a two-minute sequence of a bustling, tech-heavy Tokyo that ends on a shot of a mannequin. Also, Ghost in the Shell contributed to the Kick-Ass Sci-Fi Heroine Club with Kusinagi, a cyborg who will blow your head off and then analyze her own humanity (or lack thereof). Ghost in the Shell is exciting high-brow entertainment at its best.
Forget the You-complete-me’s and the You-had-me-at-hello’s, although that is good stuff in the context of the film. Jerry Maguire is a sports film about self-improvement and taking a risk on someone. The film begins with the epiphany that the main character has lost his way. So, he advocates a business model that is more personal and less greedy and gets fired for it. Maguire (Tom Cruise) doesn’t turn into an amazing dude immediately upon his Mission Statement all-nighter; he just becomes a better businessman. He has quite a way to go as a man. It is through his relationships with Dorothy (Renee Zellweger, who’s never been more amazing) and his only client Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding, Jr. who won an Oscar for his role then quickly lost his way) that Jerry slowly learns to become a better man. After watching this film again recently, it’s incredible to think that this was Cameron Crowe’s next film after Singles, a film that has its strengths but isn’t nearly as solid. Like that film, Maguire certainly is a product of its time, but it has aged better and is anything but the saccharine love story many remember it to be. Some great work by all involved made for one of the best films of 1996.
So, that's the year that was 1996. Did I overlook any films? What were your favorites? Be sure to vote on the poll to the right or write me on Facebook or at email@example.com
Next time on Film Faves: "Houston, we have a problem!"
"What's in the box?"
"Who is Keyser Soze?"