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The Year in Film – 1996

Mention of 1996 will always leave a sour taste in the mouths of critics.

In a year with almost 300 films released, I only bothered to see fewer than 100 of them at the theater (typically I see half). And with low-lights like Feeling Minnesota and Spy Hard, the ones I did see have formed a kind of crust of bad cinema on my brain. Of course, this is probably just punishment for all of my complaining about 1995, a year in which we actually had to turn to a talking pig for a Best Picture nominee.

I don’t know how 1997 is going to shape up, but I have my fingers crossed. Then again, I guess that never really worked in the past.

Oh well.

Without further ado, here’s my look back at 1996, top ten style. It’s my chance to rave about the 5 percent of last year’s movies that weren’t crap — the stuff I’d actually pay to see again, the stuff I want on videotape.

This year’s ten is a solid one, and some of these are already winning Golden Globes and Big Time critics’ awards. Some are personal treasures that you probably missed or haven’t heard of. But that’s what we have Blockbuster for, right?

Happy moviegoing.

1. Fargo
What more can I say about Fargo? My praise for this tale of murder and intrigue in the Great White North knows no limits, and rightfully so. The winner of dozens of critics’ awards and a sure contender for Best Picture, it just doesn’t get any better than this.

2. Welcome to the Dollhouse
Newcomer Todd Solondz hit the ground running with his powerful black comedy about life as a junior high outcast. I’ve watched the Dollhouse video about a dozen times, and it gets more hilarious and poignant with each viewing. Along with Fargo, my only five-star ratings of the year.

3. Trainspotting
Bob Dole said no; audiences said yes. Dole missed the point, though, because Danny Boyle (director of Shallow Grave, filmcritic.com’s #1 pick of 1995) has crafted a movie about the heroin subculture that may shock your senses but really opens your eyes as to the dangers of the drug. Surreal and majestic, and really in need of subtitles.

4. Swingers
It’s money, baby. Everyone knows that L.A. night life is twisted, but who knew a movie about it would be so hilarious? This low-low-budget exposé of some of Los Angeles’s less functional twentysomethings is nonstop fun — and a happy ending to boot.

5. Ed’s Next Move
You have never heard of this film, unless you saw my review. Its blink-and-you-missed-it theatrical release was truly unjust for such a touching and humorous romantic comedy about life in that other big city — New York. A fresh up-and-comer cast plus John Walsh’s great ear for dialogue made this one of the best date movies of the year.

6. Shine
The cryptic story of the cryptic life of cryptic Australian pianist David Helfgott doesn’t sound like a natural, but it’s truly a winner. Geoffrey Rush’s performance as the not-quite-together virtuoso makes him my early pick for Best Actor. Hell, I’ve even started listening to Rachmaninoff.

7. The English Patient
Another big favorite of audiences and awards groups. A shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination, this grand and sweeping epic of an amnesiac burn victim in WWII, his life, and his loves, it’s a Lawrence of Arabia for our time, only with better makeup effects.

8. The People vs. Larry Flynt
Another out-of-nowhere idea for a movie: the legal struggles of porn king Larry Flynt? Even Courtney Love couldn’t ruin the film, try as she might. And Woody Harrelson — an actor? Keep surprising me with movies like this, Hollywood, and I’ll be your best friend.

9. Big Night
Working up an appetite while watching a movie has never really been an issue, until the dinner sequence of Big Night. Italian delicacies combined with the touching story of two immigrants trying to face down the competition with their restaurant make for one sumptuous package.

10. Flirting With Disaster
Forgotten by most because it was released at the beginning of 1996, you must see this film if for no other reason than to see Téa Leoni’s top-flight comedic performance. The rest of the film is no slouch either, following an adopted man’s cross-country search for his natural parents. Mary Tyler Moore’s infamous bra-shot is just a hint of the comedy to come.

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