1996 Ten Best Movies

Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Devos: Comment je me suis dispute...(ma vie sexualle) (That's the French title.)

It would be the responsible thing to re-visit my #1 title of 1996, but it’s one of those film-watching experiences – a single viewing at the New York Film Festival in 1996 – that sit in the memory as a kind of perfect collision with  a movie, and in some strange, admittedly absurd way I’m almost hesitant to trample on that. Despite its elusive, discursive structure, How I Got Into an Argument…My Sex Life had me utterly hooked within the first couple of minutes, and after its 178 minutes (178 minutes? seriously?) had passed, I had that uncanny sense that time had been suspended for the duration. Director Arnaud Desplechin did that again with Kings and Queen, which ended up atop my 2005 accounting.

Desplechin spoke at a press conference after the NYFF screening, and he pinpointed what is moving about this wildly funny film: that the characters aren’t deep, but their effort to be deep is touching. And he noted the French-ness of making a film consisting of grad students, philosophy professors,  conversation in cafes, aimless sex lives: “For a French guy, this sort of film is like a Western for Americans.” And in America, naturally, the title was switched to My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument.

Other first encounters: I was instantly pro-Breaking the Waves, a typically divisive Lars von Trier offering, which I have re-visited and which is just as alive and crazy-like-a-fox as it was on first viewing; Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket was plopped into a small Seattle screening room without advance festival hype (something that would never happen today) and played like a lead balloon to an audience of critics who would probably love Anderson’s subsequent films; Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence wouldn’t be distributed in the U.S. for at least three or four years after it was minted, but when it finally arrived it proved to be an amazing experience.

And some pretty good titles in the middle-range, too. The ten best movies of 1996:

1. How I Got Into an Argument…My Sex Life (Arnaud Desplechin)

2. Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier)

3. A Moment of Innocence (Mohsen Makhmalbaf)

4. Fargo (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)

5. Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson)

6. Flirting with Disaster (David O. Russell)

7. La Promesse (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

8. Secrets & Lies (Mike Leigh)

9. Waiting for Guffman (Christopher Guest)

10. Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion)

Campion’s film is not perfect, but seems widely misunderstood, and takes a precise approach to the vast Henry James novel, using the art of fine cinematic distillation to aim at the book’s achievements. Just missing the list is Dan Ireland’s The Whole Wide World, Nicole Holofcener’s Walking and Talking, Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh, and Hettie McDaniel’s tiny gay coming-of-age picture, Beautiful Thing, which has a real buoyancy to it.

Barely missing the list: Citizen Ruth, Alexander Payne’s first feature, and The People vs. Larry Flynt; two uneven and politically-minded comedies that present unpleasant protagonists and make us, weirdly, root for them.

Kind of a classic year for comedy, if you look at some of those titles. And also factor in these titles: Jerry Maguire, Love Serenade (this is a hilarious and sinister Aussie thing, please see it), Albert Brooks’s Mother, Swingers, the uproarious first half of Kingpin, and Beavis and Butt-head do America.

The English Patient won the Oscar, and I actually thought the movie was just fine. Cronenberg’s Crash and Altman’s Kansas City were hard films to warm up to, but not duds; Hate and Ponette added to the French honor roll; and Sling Blade felt like a genuine American original. Plus, David Twohy rolled out The Arrival – what’s not to admire about a year like that?