Was 1996 a good vintage for cinema? With two decades since passed, now seems as good a time as any to ask the question.
There are reasons it could be claimed as a vintage year for British cinema. Danny Boyle had built on the promise of Shallow Grave (1994) with his era-defining Trainspotting, which felt like a homegrown answer to the confident panache of Tarantino’s first movies. Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies became the first UK film to win the top prize at Cannes in 10 years; a success which was followed by Oscar nominations and BAFTA wins. And if we ignore Miramax’s money and claim the year’s best picture Oscar winner, The English Patient, as British too – on cultural and talent grounds – 1996 looked rosy enough. A case of quality rather than quantity, but rosy nonetheless.
How many of the year’s American films now look like classics? Fargo’s one, that seems sure – and there are other films from the indie sector that deserve to be better known, from John Sayles’ Lone Star to Allison Anders’ Grace of My Heart. Three future big names made striking debut films: Wes Anderson with Bottle Rocket, Alexander Payne with Citizen Ruth, and Paul Thomas Anderson with Hard Eight. The most successful films of the year in box office terms, meanwhile, were Independence Day, Twister, Mission: Impossible and Jerry Maguire.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
At the arthouse, the situation was patchier – at least among the films that were picked up for distribution here and remain available. Lars von Trier made the sensational and divisive Scotland-set drama Breaking the Waves, while the foreign language Oscar went to the now little-seen Czech film Kolya. France had a solid run with Ma vie sexuelle…, Irma Vep and L’Appartement, with Belgium’s Dardenne brothers having their first breakthrough with La Promesse. The great Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf managed a highly regarded double that year, with A Moment of Innocence and Gabbeh; for shame, neither is easy to see at the moment. The same is true of Goodbye South, Goodbye by Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien, which French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma named one of the three best films of the whole decade. Hopefully attention for Hou’s latest, The Assassin, will prompt greater interest in his older films; for now, English-only speakers will have to take Cahiers’ word for it.
But these are 10 you can see from the class of 96 that still stack up nicely…
Director David Cronenberg
While the idea of banning a film in Britain seems quainter by the year, several features were initially refused a video release under John Major’s Tory government, including Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Natural Born Killers (1994), for their violent content. The year before censorious attitudes mellowed under the new Labour government, David Cronenberg’s superb Crash, a dark tale of people getting their sexual kicks from car crashes based on J.G. Ballard’s novel, sparked off hysterical reactions in the tabloids and a ban by Westminster Council.
Studies of alienation don’t come much bleaker, as antihero James (James Spader) becomes involved with the deviant clique. It’s still shocking, especially the scene where James penetrates a scar on a woman’s leg. There are moments of sick comedy, while the nihilistic final scene, where husband and wife finally connect, is deeply disquieting. There hasn’t been a film like it since.
Drifting Clouds (1996)
Director Aki Kaurismäki
Arguably Aki Kaurismäki’s masterpiece, this is a comedy so outwardly poker-faced that at least one critic mistook it for a relentlessly grinding study in social-realist gloom. True, the premise whereby a married couple (head waitress Ilona, bus driver Lauri) are simultaneously thrown on the mercy of Helsinki’s precarious job market hardly suggests a rib-tickler, but the film’s wry spirit is summed up by the line “Life is short and miserable – be as merry as you can”.
Kaurismäki is constantly alive to tiny absurdist touches, such as Ilona being told that she’s too old to start a new career, her protesting that she’s only 38 and getting the deadpan reply “Precisely – you could drop dead at any moment.” And while outright merriment is admittedly in short supply (and in any case seems distinctly un-Finnish), it concludes with one of the most radiantly happy endings of any film in living memory.
Director Joel Coen
Viewers playing Coen Brothers bingo can call ‘house’ just a few minutes into Fargo. For many of Joel and Ethan’s cinematic trademarks are evident almost immediately and don’t let up until the end credits: awkward and macabre comedy, beautiful, evocative Roger Deakins cinematography, and a typically excellent and hilarious performance from Steve Buscemi.
Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand on Oscar-winning form) is a pregnant police chief investigating a triple murder. She’s the film’s smartest character and a beguiling counterpoint to William H. Macy’s anxious, duplicitous car salesman Jerry and Buscemi’s garrulous kidnapper Carl Showalter. The latter pair try to outsmart everyone else while Marge goes about her business calmly and methodically. Elsewhere, the story is peppered with gruesome shocks and delightful, exaggerated Minnesota accents and speech rhythms, the latter another great example of the filmmaking sibling’s distinctive approach to storytelling.
Fargo’s nimble plotting and playful misdirection almost echoed into real-life at 1997’s Oscars ceremony. The brothers edit their films using the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes and wanted their Miller’s Crossing (1990) star Albert Finney to collect the award as ‘Jaynes’ had they won. In the end their cutting chops lost out, but they picked up the best original screenplay award.
From Dusk till Dawn (1996)
Director Robert Rodriguez
The first half of the narrative is fairly straightforward, as gangster brothers-on-the-lam Seth and Richie Gecko (played, in something of a genetic stretch, by George Clooney and Tarantino himself) take preacher Jacob Fuller (Harvey Keitel) and his kids hostage. This being a Tarantino screenplay, things take a turn for the surreal after the group seek refuge at desert bar Titty Twister which, it turns out, is a favourite with the local vampires…
It’s certainly not high art, but From Dusk till Dawn is memorable precisely because it’s so outrageous; everything, from the costumes and the cinematography to Rodriguez’s adrenaline-fuelled direction, a riotous assault on the senses. It’s also an important early entry in Tarantino’s canon, showcasing a talent for arresting dialogue and colourful characters alongside the uncompromising determination that has become his trademark.
Kansas City (1996)
Director Robert Altman
With films like McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and The Long Goodbye (1973), Robert Altman was known for his revisionist approach to classical Hollywood genres, reappropriating them for an anxious age defined by Nixon and the Vietnam war. Made over 20 years later, Kansas City is somewhat of an outlier in this respect. A terrific period gangster picture, set when the eponymous city was one of the cradles of modern American jazz, the film saw Altman revisiting the Depression-era milieu of Thieves like Us (1974). Yet, unlike that earlier tale of outlaws on the run, Kansas City is more interested in paying tribute to traditional Hollywood forms than it is in re-thinking them.
From the irresistibly lurid B-movie plot to the exaggerated tenor of the performances, this is the only time Altman allowed his art to be truly dictated by the past. It’s no coincidence that the city was also his hometown.
Mission: Impossible (1996)
Director Brian De Palma
For all the Burj Khalifa-straddling acrobatics of a franchise increasingly reliant on a misplaced sense of scale, it’s easy to forget that the series’ greatest coup d’espionage lies in smuggling a full-blown Brian De Palma flick into the inelastic remit of a tentpole star vehicle. Revisiting the first Mission: Impossible film 20 years on proves as much a reminder of De Palma’s consummate technical skill – not least in the directorial sleights of hand that led to charges of confusion from the inattentive back in 1996 – as of the woeful trend towards visual incoherence in its blockbuster descendants.
De Palma’s mastery of cinematic space bears itself out in the rush of a pre-credits set-up, which employs such CV-echoing tics as false sets, POV-tracking shots and (literally, in this case) masked and mistaken identities. The glee with which he approaches the film’s central set-piece – a raid on an impenetrable vault – is at once a model of economy and the very explication of Hitchcock’s definition of cinematic tension.
Secrets & Lies (1996)
Director Mike Leigh
Following his radical 1993 film Naked, Mike Leigh returned with the chaotic family drama of Secrets & Lies, which was nominated for five Oscars, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the BAFTA for best British film. At its centre are wedding photographer Maurice (Timothy Spall) and his disappointed, boozy sister Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), whose life takes a surprise turn when young optometrist Hortense (a radiant turn from Marianne Jean-Baptiste) comes looking for her birth mother after the death of her foster parents.
Delicately navigating issues including class, race, adoption and antisocial behaviour, Secrets & Lies is packed with stellar performances, with Blethyn’s scene-stealing Cynthia earning her the lion’s share of the awards, including an Oscar nomination. Innovatively shot by Leigh regular Dick Pope, it lays bare the secrets, lies and loneliness of its cast of characters – including the assortment of people we see sitting for Maurice’s photographs – with great empathy and affection. The music by Leigh’s long-time musical associate Andrew Dickson tenderly underscores the emotion.
A Summer’s Tale (1996)
Director Eric Rohmer
If staycations are your thing, you could hardly do better than kicking back with a DVD of Eric Rohmer’s 1996 film A Summer’s Tale and vicariously basking in the pleasures of a French beach holiday. The light, rhythms and heightened significances of a long spell by the seaside have never been so evocatively captured, except in Rohmer’s own Pauline at the Beach (1983) and The Green Ray (1986).
Even for Rohmer fans, his talky dramas in which characters tie themselves up in knots over affairs of the heart can be hard in retrospect to tell apart. Their concerns are timeless; his approach unwavering. But this one is placed very much mid-90s by the Definitely Maybe poster we see repeatedly in the room where self-obsessed student Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud) is staying for the summer. He’s not much of a Britpop man himself, but a budding writer of sea shanties, whose earnest romanticism is tested by the attentions of not one but three potential lovers over the course of an amorous August. Shot in Academy ratio by Rohmer’s regular latter-day cinematographer, Diane Baratier, with long travelling shots tracing Gaspard’s anguished walking and talking, A Summer’s Tale was one of 1996’s least showy but most seductive releases.
Director Danny Boyle
In many ways, Trainspotting was the most important British film of the 90s. Yet as Irvine Welsh, the author of the film’s source novel about a feckless group of Edinburgh junkies, correctly wrote: “An ‘important’ picture nobody wants to see is ultimately just a self-important picture that nobody wants to see.”
Scriptwriter John Hodges wisely distills the spirit of Welsh’s book and fills scenes with dark, often grimly ironic comedy rather than attempting a straight social-realist adaptation. The result is a brisk, breathless dive into addiction, a tale full of antiheroes who remain likeable even when they’re soiling their girlfriend’s bedsheets or stealing to fund their next fix. From director Danny Boyle to actors Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle and Kelly Macdonald, everyone involved went on to bigger successes but none has been as impressive since. Masahiro Hirakubo’s knife-sharp editing keeps the pace relentless while Kave Quinn’s production design unforgettably depicts heroin squalor. David Bowie, heavily referenced in the book, deemed the script “cool” and was a key figure in getting the music of his friends Lou Reed and Iggy Pop on the film’s excellent, best-selling soundtrack alongside Blur, Pulp and Underworld. Two decades later, the film and its music still pack a mighty hit.
Walking and Talking (1996)
Director Nicole Holofcener
Before Girls (2012-) and Frances Ha (2012), there was writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s first feature. Recalling Claudia Weill’s sadly neglected 1977 film Girlfriends in both tone and plot, it centres on the relationship between Amelia (Catherine Keener) and Laura (Anne Heche) as Laura moves out of their apartment and in with her fiancé.
A smart New York comedy with a sharp sense of humour, it explores female friendship (and female neuroses) with painfully accurate attention to detail. There’s a confident looseness to the film’s naturalistic dialogue and proto-mumblecore rhythms, helped along by the chemistry between Keener and Heche. But it’s Kevin Corrigan who is the film’s unsung hero, as a geeky but good-natured movie rental store clerk who Amelia dubs “The Ugly Guy”). The film also saw the beginning of a fruitful Scorsese-De Niro style collaboration between Holofcener and Keener, who have worked together on all four of Holofcener’s subsequent films.