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The Best 10 Movies of 1996

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The best scene in this film is probably the one where the pregnant police chief goes to question the car dealer who has hired a couple of guys to kidnap his wife. The chief asks her questions according to inexorable procedure, very business-like. The dealer grows increasingly so nervous--he's so taut we're waiting for him to explode. She asks sensible questions in a sweet voice. He answers in tortured evasions. What's best about the scene is that it's in complete command of the characters. We know these people, how they're thinking, how they feel. Frances McDormand, playing the chief, doesn't use the kind of overbearing tone another actor might have brought to the scene; instead, she seems to sense that sweetness will more quickly crack this guy. And William H. Macy, as the dealer, projects guilt and nerves so urgently we almost feel like kidnappers ourselves. Ethan and Joel Coen's "Fargo" is a remarkable tour de force: A comedy, a police procedural, a violent crime thriller and a human-interest melodrama, all wrapped up in a vivid sense of time and place, of frigid midwinter Minnesota, where even the police chief needs a jump for her car battery in the morning. This is clearly the year's best film.

Lars von Trier is one of the few new filmmakers with the courage to tackle the big questions in the kinds of heart-rending films Bergman made. This movie, set in a stark northern rural area of Scotland, tells the story of Bess (Emily Watson), a simple girl who marries a worker (Stellan Skarsgard) on an offshore oil rig and is ecstatically in love. Then he suffers a serious accident, and she tries to help him, debasing herself in an attempt to coax a miracle out of God. As in "Fargo," this film sees its location perfectly, and we feel it could have been set nowhere else. The dour church elders censure Bess, but we see that according to her understanding of the world, she is a saint. We are presented with big questions (why does the husband make his cruel request?) but they are the questions that life sometimes poses for us. And Watson's performance is heartbreaking. It is not so much acting as being. We respond to her trusting, open eyes; her simply joy in love; her anger at separation; the simplicity of her conversations with God; the totality of her sacrifice.

Mike Leigh devises his films by bringing together the actors for a long period of improvisation, during which they learn as much as they can about their characters. Then they create a screenplay which starts in the middle and circles through all of their lives--as it can, because it knows where they live, what they think, how they would react. This film begins disarmingly at a family funeral in London. One of the mourners is a 30ish black woman (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) who has just lost her foster mother and now decides to contact the woman who gave her up for adoption. Her search leads to a harassed, muddled, white working-class woman (Brenda Blethyn), who lives with another daughter who seems in a perpetual rage. We meet the mother's family: A brother she loves but never sees, and his wife, who lives with pain and fear. This sounds grim, but somehow "Secrets and Lies" is a comedy at the same time it is everything else, and there is subtle humor in the scene where mother and daughter are first united, and in the virtuoso family barbeque that ends the film. Like so many great films, this one creates its world so fully that we're drawn into it; by the end of the film, we almost feel related to this family.

Coiling back through the past, John Sayles' story examines its own secrets and lies. The bones of a long-missing sheriff (Kris Kristofferson) are found outside down, and the current sheriff (Chris Cooper) begins an investigation. As he begins to reconstruct what might have happened, we meet the people of the town--today's, and those of the previous generation, when thee-way racial tension among blacks, whites and Chicanos was a fact of life. Sayles sees the whole community here: The Mexican restaurant, the black juke joint, the Army base. And as the sheriff begins to unravel long-buried events, he encounters once again the Mexican-American woman (Elizabeth Pena) he loved when they were both in high school. It is breathtaking the way Sayles weaves all of these stands together into a portrait of this town, and then brings everything together into an astonishing conclusion.

For sheer refinements of cruelty, little can match the way unpopular kids are treated in junior high school. All children of that age are intensely insecure--they're growing into things they don't understand--and one way they defend themselves is by the pack instinct. Todd Solondz's film remembers with brutal honesty just what it was like. And yet (this seems to be a theme this year) the movie works as a comedy and drama at the same time. Heather Matarazzo stars, as Dawn, a gawky teenage girl who nurses a hopeless crush on the lead singer in her brother's garage band. She's insulted at school, excluded from social groups, even dismissed by her own family, but she dares to dream. And we are reminded not only how vulnerable adolescents are, but how resilient.

This is the kind of movie that wrings you out and leaves you gasping. It exploits the techniques of pure cinema: Of slapstick, suspense, and the caper film. It mostly takes place inside a Chicago apartment building, where a mid-level Mafioso (Joe Pantiliano) lives with his girl friend (Jennifer Tilly). Coming up in the elevator one night, they are joined by a new tenant (Gina Gershon), who has just been released from prison. The two women immediately become the closest of friends, and conspire against the guy to steal a lot of the mob's money. That story, in itself, would be fairly routine. But the Wachowski Brothers, in their first feature, have written a script in which split-second timing and mounting suspense build and build to the breaking point, while the rattled mobster desperately tries to hold his life together and fend off both the Mafia and the cops. "Bound" was the most purely entertaining movie of the year.

Kenneth Branagh's film is enormously ambitious--the first full-length, uncut "Hamlet" on the screen--and he approaches the material with such joy and energy that we get a rare idea of the whole arc of the play. Many of the scenes that are usually cut deal with Claudius, who has killed Hamlet's father and married his mother. The character often comes across as simply a usurping villain, but here we see Claudius more as an orderly and not unreasonable leader, a center of authority against which Hamlet reacts. Branagh, as the prince of Denmark, brings in a subtle theatrical touch (there are times when Hamlet's strategy includes self-dramatization). He surrounds the performance with inspired casting choices, especially Kate Winslet as Ophelia and Julie Christie as Gertrude. And he shoots on location at Blenheim Palace, where Churchill was raised--a stately country home that suggests a more ordered state than the rough Gothic settings of such earlier films as Zeffirelli's "Hamlet" with Mel Gibson. This version is as much about politics as the libido, and as the court buzzes with intrigue, Hamlet's rage is fed.

It is as difficult to make a perfect musical comedy as to make great drama. Tone is everything. Woody Allen's first musical is enchanting from its first words (which are sung) to the magical dance sequence near the end. Many of his films involve complex family and romantic relationships, and this one has the divorced Woody contemplating a fling in Venice with a much younger woman (Julia Roberts) before toying with the possibility of falling in love again with his first wife (Goldie Hawn). But she is happily married (to Alan Alda), and besides, there are romances in the younger generation to attend to, as children from various marriage try to sort out where they belong and how they feel. Allen scores his musical with great songs of the past, and allows his actors to sing them; they may not all be great singers, but they are actors, and know emotion, and how to deliver a lyric, and the movie knows how songs are not only about performance but also about emotion: Don't we all sing sometimes, no matter how badly, when we're happy?

Sometimes documentaries astonish me with what they get people to say and do in front of a camera. Here is a film in which the subjects reveal themselves so completely on camera that we gain a whole new understanding of how sex, fame and money interact in Hollywood. British filmmaker Nick Broomfield reconstructs the story of Heidi Fleiss, the notorious young madam to the stars, it a way that sees her more as pawn than queen. We see Madame Alex, the famous madam of the previous generation, and the film alleges that a sometime producer named Ivan Nagy masterminded a takeover of Alex's business, using Fleiss as his front. Nagy himself is a fascinating character, part charm, part sleaze. Even after it appears that he has been responsible for Fleiss's jail sentence, she (ital) still (unital) seems under his spell, and there is a moment when he smiles at the camera and we are looking at pure, sinister manipulation. Broomfield paid these people (including even former L.A. police chief Daryl Gates) to appear in the film; we see them pocketing the money, obviously thinking they're getting the best end of the deal. They're wrong. For sheer hypnotic fascination, this is one of the year's most skillful films.

The older brother (Tony Shalhoub) is a great chef. The younger brother (Stanley Tucci) would like to be a great restaurateur, but is too much in awe of the cooking. And so their restaurant is slowly failing, in part because their customers don't know what good cooking is (one customer orders risotto with a side of spaghetti and meatballs). "Big Night" follows the tangled financial and emotional problems of the brothers, as a competitor (Ian Holm) offers to "help" them by arranging for a visit from the famous Italian-American entertainer Louis Prima. The movie, co-directed by Tucci and Campbell Scott, is enormously ambitious: It is about business, about great cuisine (the cooking scenes are masterful) and about affairs of the heart, as Tucci juggles his commitments to Minnie Driver and Isabella Rossellini, and Shalhoub shyly courts a woman who sells flowers. Everything comes together in a virtuoso final scene in which an Italian feast celebrates many endings and a few beginnings. As in "Like Water for Chocolate," we are reminded that food can be as sensuous as sex on the screen.

At all the film festivals I attend, there's always something called the "Special Jury Prize," which is not quite the grand prize, but by no means second place. It indicates a film with special qualities that the jury wants to single out. In recent years I've declared myself a jury of one, and offered my own jury prize, which can be read as a five-way tie for 11th place. "Antonia's Line" was the 1996 Oscar winner in the foreign language category, an extraordinary film by Marleen Gorris about a matriarch named Antonia (Willeke van Ammelrooy) who returns to her Dutch village after the Second World War, and presides over an extended, unconventional family that endures for decades in a joyous celebration of the essence of each of its members. "The English Patient," by Anthony Minghella, told an epic love story by circling deeper and deeper into the memories of a critically wounded man on an Italian deathbed. His great love story, which begins in Cairo and ends in a desolate desert cave, is contrasted with the ongoing lives of the nurse (Juliette Binoche) who attends him, and the bitter man (Willem Defoe) who knows his secret. "Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored" was Tim Reid's heartfelt story of a poor black community in the rural south, in the crucial years between 1946 and 1962. Segregation and racism were facts, but shored up against them were the community's love and solidarity. There were moments here of transcendent emotion. "The People vs. Larry Flynt" was a biopic about a self-proclaimed "scumbag" whose Supreme Court victory was a crucial defense of freedom of speech. Woody Harrelson played the crafty but compulsively honest Hustler publisher, and Courtney Love gave a virtuoso performance as his wife. "Shine" was based on the true story of David Helfgott, an Australian child piano prodigy whose promising concert career was cut short by a collapse brought on by unbearable family pressure. He spends years drifting in a confused neverland, before being rescued by a woman who understands him, and at last resuming his concert career.

Here are the next ten titles on my list of the year's best, alphabetically: "Basquiat" starred Jeffrey Wright in a film by the painter Julian Schnabel, about a homeless New York artist who was befriended by Andy Warhol, gained fame and fortune, and then drifted into a private madness. "Evita" centers on a powerful performance by Madonna as the poor Argentine woman who became the power behind the presidency of her country. Nonstop music, directed by Alan Parker with style and energy. "Freeway" was an overlooked gem, starring Reese Witherspoon in one of the year's best performances, as a runaway who is befriended by a man (Kiefer Sutherland) who turns out to be a serial killer. Directed and written by Matthew Bright (and based on "Little Red Riding Hood"), it never got a proper release. Look for it on video/ opens at the Music Box on Jan. 24. Spike Lee's "Get on the Bus" followed a busload of black men to the Million Man March on Oct. 1995, taking the time of the journey for them to get to know one another, share their feelings, and explore the underlying meaning of the march. Many film performances; Ossie Davis was the center, as an old man who'd never forgiven himself for missing the original March on Washington. "Heavy," written and directed by James Mangold, was another in the year's extraordinary crop of great independent films. It starred Pruitt Taylor Vince as a momma's boy, an overweight short-order cook who looks on yearningly when a new waitress (Liv Tyler) goes to work in his greasy spoon, but still remains under the thumb of his mother (Shelley Winters). An unexpected development takes the film in an astonishing direction. "Manny & Lo," written and directed by Lisa Krueger, was still another great independent film, starring Scarlett Johansson and Aleska Palladino as two sisters who run away from a foster home. When the older gets pregnant, they kidnap the know-it-all clerk in a baby supplies store (Mary Kay Place) to help out, and the relationship that grows between the woman and the girls is unexpected, and original. John McNaughton's powerful "Normal Life" was another powerful movie lost to a bad distribution decision. Based on the true story of a Chicago suburban cop and the weirdly compulsive wife who inspired his secret life of crime, it starred Ashley Judd and Luke Perry is performances of great energy and perceptiveness; the studio shipped it off to cable TV and permitted only a few short theatrical runs. Look for it on video. "Set it Off" told the story of four black working-class women who find themselves robbing banks, without fully counting on the consequences. Queen Latifah's performance as their ringleader was exuberant and convincing; each story transcended the movie's crime material to make the characters real. Janeane Garofolo glowed in "The Truth About Cats & Dogs," the year's best pure romantic comedy. She played a vet who gives advice on the radio. After falling in love with a caller (Ben Chaplin), she makes a blind date, loses courage, and sends her tall, blonde friend (Uma Thurman) in her place. But somehow the guy realizes this image doesn't match the voice; it's a retread of "Cyrano" with a wistful modern touch, directed by Michael Lehmann. "The Young Poisoner's Handbook" was another one of those sly, demented British films about eccentric loners who commit totally original crimes. Hugh O'Conor starred as a young suburban man who discovered he had a "gift" for chemistry, and began a compulsive poisoning career, meticulously documented in his schoolboy-like notebooks. Directed by Benjamin Ross, it was gruesome, but in the deadpan comic way the British like to savor their more unusual crimes.

As I look over the titles above, and those to come, I realize that 1996 was one of the great years in recent memory for independent American films. There aren't many subtitled films on my lists; foreign film distribution has reached a crisis point in America, and one reason may be that the audience has been stolen by American indees. Mainstream Hollywood films tended, more and more, to be formula action pictures ("Daylight") or brainless special effects extravaganzas ("Independence Day," "Twister"). For the moviegoer looking for something more original and challenging, the indee films were there. They were helped by launching pads like the Sundance Film Festival, a larger number of available screens, and a growing after market on video and on cable channels like Bravo, the Independent Film Channel and the Sundance Channel. Between five and seven of my "top ten" films were American independents, depending on how you count (is Woody Allen an indee?). Two others were British indees, and only "Hamlet" was a mainstream production--also British. The majority of my runners-up were also indees. Now look at this list of other good films that opened in 1996, and note that mainstream Hollywood turns up only here and there, and ask yourself if the center of creative gravity is shifting away from the studios. "Angels and Insects," "The Arrival," "Beautiful Girls," "Butterfly Kiss," "Cold Comfort Farm," "Courage Under Fire," "Escape from LA," "Flirting with Disaster," "Fly Away Home," "Hunchback of Notre Dame," "I Shot Andy Warhol," "Jane Eyre," "Journals of Jean Seberg," "Kingpin," "Les Voleurs," "Looking for Richard," "Mother," "Mulholland Falls," "Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud," "Paradise Lost," "Primal Fear," "Rendezvous in Paris," "Restoration," "Ridicule," "Sling Blade," "Space Jam," "Star Trek First Contact," "The Phantom," "The Rock," "Trees Lounge," "Twelfth Night."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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