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.

Bottle Rocket still feels like an indie film: Since it's exactly the sort of thing I generally prefer to slick studio product, it would be churlish to criticize Sony/Columbia for making it. But the film's fate is a perfect example of what happens when you get what you pray for: The studio had no idea how to release it; if Miramax or Fine Line had put it out, it would have been seen by far more people.

Three Lives and Only One Death Chilean expatriate director Raul Ruiz has made upwards of 50 films: While his movies regularly appear at festivals, they rarely get a theatrical release in the United States. Ruiz's latest--which was apparently Marcello Mastroianni's last performance--is so thoroughly delightful that, with luck, it will lead to a Ruiz retrospective or at least to the reissue of some of his earlier work. Despite the director's avant-garde reputation, Three Lives is at least as accessible as Luis Bunuel's final art-house hits, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Phantom of Liberty. The film--which has the structure of a four-part anthology--combines the virtues of Hollywood entertainment while stripping away the barnacles: Playing with our ossified expectations of film narrative, it gives us a fresh sense of the possibilities of the medium. Each story is filled with plot twists and sensational elements--murder, sexual mystery, the supernatural--but these only set the stage for the film's real strategy, about which Ruiz starts dropping hints a third of the way through. Small details that seem confusing or arbitrary at first stick in our minds and fall into place by the end.

Fargo It has taken me most of the year to come to terms with Joel and Ethan Coen's story about a dim used-car salesman (William H. Macy) who hires two professional thugs (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife (Kristin Rudrud) for ransom. The film is hysterically funny, operating in a deadpan tone throughout, but I was extremely bothered by what I took to be the Coens' usual contempt for their own characters. The meanness of their approach here seemed relentless, finding endless sport in the people of Minnesota and North Dakota for having funny accents, funny taciturn ways, and funny subhuman stupidity. But I've come around: The key is the protagonist, small-town police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). Marge is the most Minnesotan of all; the filmmakers--and the audience--unquestionably love her.

Cold Comfort Farm After a long series of aesthetic and commercial flops, director John Schlesinger made a terrific comeback with this hilarious adaptation of Stella Gibbons' 1932 spoof about a stylish 1930s bachelorette (Kate Beckinsale) who heads off to Cold Comfort Farm, a doom-enshrouded outpost right out of Thomas Hardy. All the locals labor under a sense of constant foreboding, haunted by dark secrets from their past; confronted with such gloom, our heroine, who hates a mess, implacably goes about cleaning up everyone's lives. The past has no chance against the efforts of a practical, modern young woman. The film's Wodehousian humor is very, very British, though on the broader end of the Brit spectrum. And the cast--which includes such usual suspects as Freddie Jones, Ian McKellen, Joanna Lumley, Stephen Fry, and Miriam Margolyes--is essentially flawless.

Flirting with Disaster An adopted yuppie (Ben Stiller) goes in search of his genetic parents, accompanied by his wife (Patricia Arquette), their new baby, and a flaky psychologist (Tea Leoni). Along the way, the not-very-compatible foursome become involved with a pair of "unusual" federal agents (Richard Jenkins and Josh Brolin) and two aging hippies (Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda), not to mention Mel's adoptive parents (George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore). As the many screwups bring forth the various couples' most suppressed tensions, everyone comes dangerously close to cheating on everyone else. Director David O. Russell made a startling debut with 1994's low-budget Spanking the Monkey. While his first foray into the big time doesn't have quite as subversive an edge, it is nonetheless hilarious--a terrific updating of ancient farce conventions for the '90s.

Big Night It's hard not to love Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott's comedy-drama about two Italian immigrant brothers (Tucci and Tony Shalhoub) trying to save their New Jersey restaurant from bankruptcy. It's a small-scale, perfectly balanced ensemble piece in which each performer gets his or her moment without ever disrupting the flow of the story. As the film leads us through the preparations for the big night, Tucci and Scott manage almost offhandedly to paint a portrait of a community of immigrants in the process of becoming assimilated. The one real flaw is some unbelievable behavior that sets the plot in motion. Still, the final scene--a single, five-and-a-half-minute, nearly wordless shot--is so gently moving that it eradicates any nagging doubts about the story's plausibility. The sterling cast includes Ian Holm, Minnie Driver, Isabella Rossellini, and Allison Janney.

Welcome to the Dollhouse Gawky 11-year-old Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) lives a hellish existence in a northern New Jersey suburb. Not smart, pretty, or socially adept enough, she is ridiculed at school, overlooked at home, and going through puberty without a clue what it's about. What's even more interesting and horrifying is that she's just as bad as everyone else. Just as her schoolmates take out their petty hostilities on her, she turns around and dishes out the same to the few targets even more pathetic than she. A simple plot synopsis fails to convey the flavor of writer-director Todd Solondz's hilarious and brutal angstfest. As one friend said: "This sure puts Sixteen Candles in perspective." Indeed, Solondz is a leading candidate for the anti-John Hughes. There is no separating the pain from the humor in his direction. When the story threatens to turn serious, he keeps us off-balance, as unsure how to react to Dawn's world as Dawn herself is.

Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud Laid-off editor Nelly (Emmanuelle Beart) makes ends meet through a succession of odd jobs, while her husband (Charles Berling) sits around the apartment all day watching TV. Nelly eventually leaves him and takes a job as editor/word processor for the much older Monsieur Arnaud (Michel Serrault). Arnaud--divorced, retired, and wealthy--fills his time composing memoirs of his years as a judge and a businessman. As their work relationship becomes increasingly personal, their behavior speaks ever so discreetly about their mismatched feelings. Director Claude Sautet (Un Coeur en Hiver) has come up with another engrossing and subtle tale. Once again, the film's tone is so delicately balanced that it's hard to classify it as either comedy or drama. Sautet has an uncommon faith in the audience's intelligence, and from that faith comes the leisure to present human behavior with all its ambiguities and ambivalences.

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