Independents' day

Small films have their big night in '96

Now and again, as I sit here on my power perch--having just praised some pleasing cinematic trifle with a mot so bon it could singlehandedly vault the producers into new tax brackets or having characterized some hack with invective withering enough to permanently brand his pathetic career like some Puritan mark of shame--I feel the kind of exhilaration and awesome responsibility usually reserved for prison-camp triage officers and college admissions personnel.

Then, of course, the medication begins to take hold, slowing down my overactive neurotransmitter reuptake. The walls return to their drab perpendicularity, and my fantasies of cineastic world domination gently ebb.

Just as well, I say: The opinion part of criticism--as opposed to the description, analysis, and context parts, among others--is a largely individual business that can be affected by personality, class background, experience, mood, hormonal balance, number of hours of sleep, elapsed time since last sexual encounter, quality of said encounter, recent exposure to tainted food products, or simple orneriness.

It's the job of a professional to filter out or compensate for as many of these factors as possible, or at least to flag them for the reader. ("Despite a witty script, incisive direction, and dazzling performances, Purple Like Grapes is sabotaged by uncomfortable seats....")

The greatest factor in trying to assemble a top 10 list is quite obviously what films one has seen. Nobody, not even Roger and Gene, sees everything. So when I fail to mention your favorite, assume that I somehow missed it, not that I'm an intractable philistine.

The most noticeable change in my list from last year is the proportion of studio films. Last year, for the first time in the '90s, Hollywood (in the strictest sense) was responsible for at least 50 percent of my favorites. This year, only one studio release, Bottle Rocket, made the cut; and that one, for better or worse, felt like an indie film that got studio backing by accident (see below).

There were a number of solidly entertaining big-deal films, such as Twister and Independence Day (which did, er, rather well) and The Long Kiss Goodnight (which didn't). But unlike, say, Speed, none left enough of an impression to make me rush back for a second viewing...or to make my list.

Nope: This year's best news was a slight upswing in the number of first-rate foreign films to get commercial distribution stateside. (There wasn't much room for the number to decrease.) France was particularly well represented. The most memorable English-language films came from the major independents such as Miramax, New Line/Fine Line, Gramercy, and October--if most of those, now owned by studios, can truly be considered independents.

The usual cautions apply: These are my choices for best, which generally--but not always--coincide with my favorites. The list has shifted several times in the making and is likely to shift (in my head) again. By tomorrow morning, it could be as much as 50 percent different.

Breaking the Waves The two-hour, 40-minute English-language film from Danish director Lars Von Trier is the sort of deep-dish drama I usually loathe. But Von Trier manages to take on such issues as "God: Does He exist? And what does He want with us?" without ever growing oppressively pretentious. Emily Watson, in her film debut, gives an astonishing performance. She is in nearly every scene, mixing elfin appeal and slightly lamebrained good cheer with a sense of doom and insanity.

Chungking Express Wong Kar-Wai's 1994 award-winner, released here this year by Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder division of Miramax, is not only atypical of Hong Kong cinema, it's essentially sui generis: a romance and a comedy but not a romantic comedy, a story about cops and smugglers but not an action film, an art film that doesn't try to bludgeon you with its artiness. It contains two different stories that have only the most tangential plot connection: The first and lesser story concerns a lovelorn cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro) with his cap set for a nameless smuggler (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia) in a blowsy blond wig. In story two, a fast-food waitress (Faye Wang) repeatedly sneaks into the apartment of Officer Number 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), whom she barely knows but has a crush on. Despite their lack of overt connection, the two stories fit together thematically; Wong depicts an intense urban world in which people are jammed together so tightly they are frightfully isolated. That may sound depressing, but it's not. Poignant and winsome are more like it, with an amusing script, dazzling visuals, and an irresistibly winning performance from punkish, gawky Faye Wong.

Bottle Rocket This relatively low-budget story about a group of altogether believable wanna-be criminal masterminds was co-written by director Wes Anderson and pal Owen Wilson; Wilson and his brother Luke play the two leads. (Lumi Cavazos, James Caan, and Bob Musgrave costar.) The whole thing began as a 13-minute black-and-white short before Sony put up a few million for the feature version. Its tone has elements of Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers but without Jarmusch's self-conscious artiness or the Coens' hip snottiness. While the characters are clearly portrayed as barely functional, there is never even a trace of condescension; the filmmakers really like, even admire, these guys--and so do we.

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