'96 rewound

Good, but not that good

Ballard's film wasn't the only one that kids could pop their eyes at. James and the Giant Peach was a highly imaginative wingding--better than that other Roald Dahl adaptation, Matilda, though that film had its moments. (Danny DeVito's direction can be as obnoxiously in-your-face as his acting.)

Hollywood used to be good at action-suspense, but this year there was only one film with crackerjack thrills. Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible had three extended set pieces that really soared. They could almost stand by themselves, and it might have been better if they had, because the rest of the movie was Mission: Incomprehensible. Still, the film is a masterpiece next to that attention-deficit-disorder opus The Rock, in which director Michael Bay finally achieves what so many before him have vainly attempted: His entire movie is a trailer for itself.

Last year family films and literary adaptations rose up. There were a few decent family offerings in 1996: A Family Thing had James Earl Jones and Robert Duvall and the marvelous Irma P. Hall; Unhook the Stars had a surprisingly moving and untricky performance from Gena Rowlands; Mother was Albert Brooks gone primal; Marvin's Room is graced by a great performance from Diane Keaton.

The adaptations from literary classics continued to provide "quality" fare--it was a good year for high school honors English field trips to the multiplex. The Portrait of a Lady is Jane Campion's best, and best-acted, film--Martin Donovan and Barbara Hershey are especially fine--but it's still too much Jane Campion and too little Henry James for my taste. (The maundering, peekaboo feminism of The Piano drove me up the wall and through the roof.)

Emma was sprightly but thin. Jane Eyre and the adaptation of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent were drowsy pieces of work. Kenneth Branagh, who cut nary a line from his Hamlet, came up with a novel--and boneheaded--way to play the great introvert of the stage. He plays Hamlet as a total extrovert--a man with no interior life. Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet was Shakespeare for the hearing--and brain--impaired.

Hollywood tried to be Important this year by honing in on ethical dilemmas--such as: When is it OK to be a rat? (This is a question of vital importance in the movie business.) There was The Crucible, of course. Sleepers was a bogus ethical drama based on a bogus memoir. The John Grisham adaptations A Time to Kill and The Chamber and the courtroom thriller Primal Fear got all hot under the collar about the Tough Questions as a way to gild their melodrama.

Many of the films I liked best this year were the ones that didn't try to be Important. The documentary When We Were Kings, about the 1974 Ali versus Foreman fight in Zaire, gives us Ali in all his crackerjack jokester glory; the film is quite literally a blast from the past. John Schlesinger's Cold Comfort Farm is one of the funniest British comedies ever made, with a cast--including Eileen Atkins and Ian McKellen--that seems enthralled by its own inspired nuttiness. David O. Russell's Flirting with Disaster was the right kind of Hollywood family film--unsoppy and rude. It turned a young man's search for his biological parents into a stunning burlesque complete with Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin as '60s washouts (both) in extremis.

The search for biological parents is also at the core of Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies, and sometimes it's just as funny as Flirting. But Leigh's film is richer and more expansive, if draggier and more self-righteous. Secrets and Lies is one of the best films of the year, yet it's also one of the most overrated: It pushes its "realistic" family crises at us as if no one else had ever done this sort of thing before in the movies.

But if you are true connoisseurs of the Overrated, look no further than the trio of Shine, Breaking the Waves, and The English Patient.

Shine, about a cracked-up pianist, plugs into an art-house wooziness I thought had been long gone from our shores. Cliches spring eternal. This fable about the romance of derangement is a piece of bubbleheaded uplift with an Aussie overlay. At least A Song to Remember didn't go in for all this leaping-about holy fool stuff. Lars Von Trier's Breaking the Waves is a piece of bogus religiosity that, like Shine, carries art-house whiffs of a bygone era. Ingmar Bergman, Carl Dreyer, and Robert Bresson did it better. Von Trier plays with religious torment in a way that makes you think he's neither religious nor tormented.

And then there's The English Patient, with its teeny, tony attempts at emotion, its desert vistas shaped like curves of flesh, and its scarred, fated hero--a Freddy Krueger look-alike for highbrows. This is the kind of movie in which the heroine (Kristin Scott Thomas) can pine away to nothingness in a cave and still manage to compose perfect prose in her diary. The romance between Juliette Binoche and her Sikh lover is the kind of Victorian exotica that went out with Turhan Bey. It's a masterpiece manque.

Next year, instead of a lot of phony masterpieces, I'd settle for a few real ones.

And revivals don't count.

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