Best of the Year? It's Just Too Close to Call

Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

In a movie year with a deeply split personality, dividing the best film honors into two parts seems not only appropriate but inevitable.

For while it's difficult to deny that 1996 saw the dumbing down of Hollywood studio product reach the usual new and ever more depressing lows, it's also a fact that more good films than the average made it to screens.

True, even nominally savvy and self-respecting stars like Robert De Niro and Wesley Snipes found themselves in unspeakable drivel like "The Fan." And "Independence Day," with a feeble script that should've caused embarrassment instead of shouts of joy, earned such an unspeakable amount of money it wouldn't be surprising if those frightful aliens showed up just to demand profit participation.

But on the other hand, when it comes down to assembling a 10-best list, there are many more viable candidates than is normally the case, enough to put together a top 20 if the occasion called for it.

1/2. When it comes to picking the film of the year, the decision to split the title between "THE ENGLISH PATIENT" and "SECRETS & LIES" not only fit with the spirit of 1996, it also made sense because, despite some inevitable overlap, each one represented a distinct strand of the moviegoing experience, fulfilling complementary hungers in the starved-for-excellence viewer.

Directed by Anthony Minghella from Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning novel, "The English Patient" speaks to the need for the epic in general and the large-scale romantic opus in particular. Rising to crescendos of emotion usually reached only by tenors and sopranos, stars Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas (both, ironically enough, considered not major enough for studio financing) spar in spectacular physical surroundings and demonstrate that "the heart is an organ of fire." This is a film that captivates as only the grandest and most consuming passions can.

"Secrets & Lies," on the other hand, is content to stay within the confines of today's residential London. But as directed by Mike Leigh, this piercingly honest film is more than acute in terms of character. Its focus on one woman's search for family expands the boundaries of psychological truth on film, balancing humor and pain without ever tipping over. All its people, but especially stars Brenda Blethyn and Timothy Spall, have a heft and texture that none of the year's other filmed protagonists can equal.

The rest of 1996's 10-best list consists of the following:

3. SHINE. Beautifully acted by Geoffrey Rush as a once-brilliant pianist trying to cope with the damage done by Armin Mueller-Stahl's rigid father, this piece by Australian director Scott Hicks is popular filmmaking at its smartest and most persuasive. Rare as it is these days to find honestly sentimental work that doesn't insult an audience's intelligence, its easy to forget that this was once all in day's work for the studio system.

4. LAMERICA. A profound emotional experience that ranks with the masterworks of Italy's cinema. A story of Albania after the fall of communism, it touches on questions of personal and national identity, on the immigrant's desire to better himself and the stranger's parallel passion to return home. Almost a year late in arriving in Los Angeles, but no less welcome for that.

5. THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT. Czech-born director Milos Forman turns out to be the ideal person to tell the classically American story of a combative pornographer who surprised even himself by doing something significant for society. Woody Harrelson and Courtney Love connect beautifully as the outlaw couple in love, while Forman supplies a level of respect for the 1st Amendment that other directors couldn't have managed.

6. JERRY MAGUIRE. Tom Cruise stars as a sports agent whose life unexpectedly crumbles in a heady and surprising film, full of humor and emotional texture, that takes full advantage of writer-director Cameron Crowe's ability to write characters who are distinct and fully alive. Praise also goes to an exceptional group of co-stars, starting with Renee Zellweger, this year's well-deserved Cinderella story.

7. TRAINSPOTTING. A drop-dead look at a dead-end lifestyle in the slums of Edinburgh that is both exuberant and pitiless, flush with the ability to create laughter out of unspeakable situations. Not the box-office sensation it was in its native Britain, where it ignited strong controversy about its attitude toward heroin, but still perhaps the most irresistibly energetic film around.

8. LONE STAR. Few things were more satisfying this past year than seeing John Sayles, the godfather of the American independent movement, put together yet another involving, socially conscious film (this one a thriller set in the Texas border country) and see it connect with a large audience. It's about time.

9. NELLY AND MONSIEUR ARNAUD. Seventy-two-year-old Claude Sautet, the poet of French bourgeoise life, has an unerring instinct for the vagaries of the human heart. He brings a tone of satisfying ambiguity to this description of the hopes and longings of an unlikely pairing, Emmanuelle Beart and silver-haired Michel Serrault, a man who could easily be her grandfather. Also deserving of special mention in an especially good year for French films were "RIDICULE" and the one-of-a-kind "AUGUSTIN."

10. LAND AND FREEDOM. A working class "Lawrence of Arabia" set amid the international volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, the film enlarged the scope of Ken Loach, the role model for an entire generation of British directors, without compromising on the political and aesthetic beliefs he's become celebrated for.

If the list could be expanded by just one, the pick would (naturally) have to be split in half between Baz Luhrmann's full-tilt

boogie version of "WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S ROMEO & JULIET" and Neil Jordan's powerful combination of history and drama, "MICHAEL COLLINS."

Given how strong a year 1996 was, it wouldn't be fair to stop here. Several other films deserve mention, starting with three that just happen to begin with the letter 'f': "FARGO," the Coen brothers' bravura return to form; "FLIRTING WITH DISASTER," a joyous new kind of screwball farce by David O. Russell; and "FLY AWAY HOME," proof once more of Carroll Ballard's sure touch with the animal kingdom.

Then come the pictures that debuted at Sundance and show why that festival continues to have a reputation for showcasing the best of American independent films: Todd Solondz's Grand Jury Prize-winning "WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE;" Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott's "BIG NIGHT," which established that sometimes spaghetti wants to be alone; and Lisa Krueger's wacky and gentle "MANNY & LO." And though they didn't get Sundance visibility, "BOTTLE ROCKET" and "SWINGERS," a pair of films about guys at loose ends, were equally satisfying.

If 1996 had a pernicious trend, it was the tendency of the studios, fearful of the short attention span of Academy voters, to squeeze more and more of their better pictures into the last six weeks of the year. As a result charming films like "MICHAEL," a witty romantic fable that features John Travolta at the peak of his powers, get lost in the crowd. On the other hand, the fact that the worthy "COURAGE UNDER FIRE" and its resonant Denzel Washington performance are not now on everyone's lips tends to prove the studio's point.

Finally, a word should be said about what still looks to be the most exciting motion picture event of the year, the splendid restoration of Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 "VERTIGO," more powerful and persuasive than ever and a tribute to why we care about the art of film in the first place.

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