Thursday, November 19, 2020

Best films 1996

Your Politically Incorrect, High-Cholesterol Film Guide To 1996

 Film Year 1996 began well and ended—but I’m getting ahead of my story. 

We saw fairly good genre come out of Hollywood—crime thrillers like Heat and The Usual Suspects, serial killer flicks like Copycat; we saw one fairly good period drama: Sense And Sensibility. Most exciting of all, we saw two--count ‘em, two--excellent Filipino films in February and March: May Nagmamahal Sa Iyo and Segurista, respectively. 

Copycat comes hot on the tail of runaway hit Seven. And while Seven hogged the lion’s share of attention Copycat has no reason to feel second-class: it’s complex, ultimately compassionate filmmaking. Sigourney Weaver and Holly Hunter turn in smart performances as psychiatrist target and police guardian, while Harry Connick, Jr. makes for a remarkably repulsive serial killer. Director Jon Amiel (The Singing Detective) doesn’t try to top the look David Fincher achieved in Seven--that film’s images had an almost palpably corrupt texture--but does come up with a look all his own: brightly lit and subtly menacing.

Heat, at almost three hours in length, is something somewhat new: an epic crime thriller. Writer-director Michael Mann scored a casting coup by having Al Pacino’s police detective hunt Robert De Niro’s bank robber--the two are electric onscreen--but the best performances are by Val Kilmer as De Niro’s colleague and Ashley Judd as Kilmer’s less-than-loyal wife. The film, however, is Mann’s, and with near-fanatical care creates the equivalent of a multimillion dollar episode of Miami Vice.  You see widescreen action take place against the gritty, realistic background of a major US city;  every location--a broken-down drive-in, a nighttime cityscape, an ultramodern bank--stretches across the theater screen in glorious Panoramic detail.  LA never looked so good, even on days when you could see through the smog.

The Usual Suspects is a whoizzit thriller stylish enough to transcend its genre.  Director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie gleefully play with questions on God, identity, and that ultimate of paranoid fantasies—that someone somewhere is calling all the shots, pulling all the strings.  At the same time, Singer and McQuarrie unfold an intricately constructed plot and solicit sterling performances from an eclectic ensemble (Kevin Spacey won that rarity of rarities, a fully deserved Oscar, for his supporting role).  A treacherously entertaining film.

Of the two Filipino films, May Nagmamahal Sa Iyo (Madonna and Child) has the bigger budget and publicity campaign; it’s also skillfully if conventionally made--Filipino drama at its soap opera best. Writer Ricky Lee and director Marilou Diaz-Abaya focus on adoption and child labor, but do so with minimum fuss and maximum drama;  they are helped by Lorna Tolentino’s understated performance, as a mother in search of her lost son.

In Segurista (Dead Sure), writers Pete Lacaba and Amado Lacuesta present that rarity in local cinema: a taut, logical script. Karen (Michelle Aldana) works hard for her money--she’s an insurance agent by day, a Guest Relations Officer (need I elaborate?) by night. Director Tikoy Aguiluz using a documentarylike style shows us three facets of Philippine society:  the Japanese-run karaoke club Karen works for; the Ortigas-Makati world of high finance she aspires to; and the lahar-devastated countryside from which she came. The ending has been criticized as arbitrarily downbeat, but it’s really an Olympian form of irony: that the undoing of a girl who leaves nothing to chance is itself a chance occurrence, the sudden act of a whimsical God.  

Segurista’s fate is not a little ironic.  Neo, Viva’s offshoot production unit, gave Aguiluz a four- to six- million peso budget to do the film:  about the size of one of Seiko’s ST (Sex Trip) pictures.  Neo was probably thinking of making some fast money off the skin-flick trade; instead, Aguiluz gave them what may be the best Filipino film of 1996.  Now Neo doesn’t seem to know what to do with the picture:  Segurista is the Philippine’s entry to the Academy Awards, and Neo has not lifted a finger to campaign for the film’s nomination in Hollywood (which is incomprehensible:  surely the studio would fight for the chance to be producer of the first Oscar-nominated Filipino film?  And since Viva is sole distributor for 20th-Century Fox, a major Hollywood studio, they have more than a chance--if they wanted to.  They don’t seem to want to;  they just sit on their callused behinds and churn out Mikee Cojuangco horrors).

Speaking of Oscars, there was a mini-festival of nominated films--the Mel Gibson egofest Braveheart (winner, Best Picture), the far more interesting Nixon with Anthony Hopkins.  Gibson directs his own performance, paints his face Toilet Duck blue, drops his pants before battle.  The man worked hard to realize his vision and the result is a hundred and eighty minutes of hysterical drumbeating for Scottish independence; all I remember are bared buttocks and the ending: Gibson laid open on a stone table, an excruciated expression on his face as if masturbating--which in effect he has been, for the past three hours.  

Oliver Stone’s Nixon is an altogether different affair.  Ever since JFK and Natural Born Killers Stone tends to overwhelm his subjects with camera pyrotechnics; in the 37th president he's found a subject large enough to justify his hyperkinetic style.  His Nixon is a Shakespearean tragedy where the same qualities that drove the man to presidency--his extreme paranoia, his ferocious determination, his oddly touching puritanism--are the same qualities that bring him down.  As for Hopkins-- odd choice to play Nixon but as the film progresses Hopkins becomes Nixon, in a way no mere physical resemblance can suggest.

Worthier films than Braveheart to win the Best Picture statuette:  Sense And Sensibility, has Taiwan director Ang Lee shaking out the accumulated literary dust in Austen’s novel and sharpening the social comedy (though the best shaking out and sharpening on an Austen novel ever was Amy Heckerling’s delightful Clueless);  Babe is sheer enchantment--not because you saw the technical miracle of a talking pig, but because you saw consistently odd characters living an oddly consistent set of rules in an odd, consistent little world.

Twelve Monkeys is a fine time-travel story with Bruce Willis as time traveler and Madeleine Stowe as his obscure object of desire.  Terry Gilliam takes a screenplay by husband-and-wife team David (Blade RunnerUnforgiven) and Janet Peoples and directs with unusually confident flair: he gets the same effects he used to get in big-budgeted productions like Brazil and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen at a fraction of the cost.  The film has a remarkably fragile mood Gilliam manages to sustain, a sort of haunted nostalgia, with an unusually subtle theme--memory as a source of hope, of pain, of everlasting regret.

Toy Story is the best Disney in years, and it’s not even by Disney but by John Lasseter who, despite Disney’s reputation for micromanagement, tells a simple, cheerfully bright tale of toys fighting for a young boy's heart. Balto, from Spielberg’s Amblin Productions, is the best animated feature of 1996, providing low-key pleasures such as believable characterization, intelligent dialogue, and good old-fashioned storytelling.  

Executive Decision does two things right: kills off Steven Seagal during the first ten minutes of a hijacking, then hands the rest of the picture over to Kurt Russell. Another example of good, old-fashioned storytelling, adding detail after realistic detail to Russell’s dilemma until the audience is literally thrumming with tension.  To Die For marks the comeback of independent film director Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy), and the return to fine form of satirist Buck Henry (The Graduate);  it also settles once in for all the question of who is the more talented of Hollywood’s most celebrated couple—Nicole Kidman or Tom Cruise (if you don’t already know the answer, rent the tape). 

Some of the most overrated films of the year:  Mission Impossible is Brian De Palma at his most commercial and least personal and not a pretty sight.  The film is worth watching for one more glimpse of Vanessa Redgrave, radiating smashing good humor and high-voltage sex appeal without even trying.  As for the star, Tom whatsisname—the one with the squeaky voice—he should take acting lessons from his wife (see To Die For). 

Independence Day is an even bigger boxoffice success with even less to recommend it.  All I can say is that it’s huge it’s loud it's about as interesting as a garbage truck roaring past your house at four in the morning.

Antonia’s Line won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and—surprise, surprise—I don’t like it.  I approve of women in films taking charge of their lives but Antonia doesn’t so much take charge as dominate from first frame onwards.  There’s no real opposition to her, no conflict, therefore no drama.  If Segurista, a far better film, has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning a nomination where “Antonia” walked off with the award, it must take marketing savvy and not artistic quality to win an Oscar.  

While we’re on this joyful note, how about a list of the film people who died this year?  Two great French directors from before the New Wave:  Marcel Carne (Children Of Paradise), Rene Clement (Forbidden Games). Forbidden  may be one of the greatest war pictures ever made, yet features not a single battle;  the film is about two children playing in a make-believe cemetery.  The great Polish director, Krzysztof Kieslowski--his Decalogue was ten one-hour episodes based on the ten commandments;  his Red, White, and Blue trilogy dealt with the three colors of the French flag.  He was planning another trilogy, set in heaven, hell and purgatory--hell being Los Angeles.  There’s Gene Kelly who, of course, needs no introduction;  producer Don Simpson, praying in purgatory thanks to his expensively awful action flicks;  Stirling Silliphant, who wrote the screenplay of In The Heat Of The Night;  and Jamie Uys, South African director of The Gods Must Be Crazy. Each lit the theater screen with his own particular glow, infernal or inspired;  all (except maybe Simpson) will be missed.  

Anyone looking for some new film to cheer him up might find this year’s film festivals a bit disappointing.  The Hongkong International Film Festival had two high points:  Carmen Hinton’s The Gate Of Heavenly Peace, a documentary on the Tiananmen Square massacre, suggests the Chinese students were as responsible for the bloodshed as the Chinese government.  Jan Sverak’s Akumulator 1 is a fantastic philosophical-romantic-comedy-thriller about the evils of television:  think of Tim Burton crossed with Frederico Fellini with bits of Steven Spielberg and early Mad Magazine thrown in and you’ll get the idea.  The rest of the films--Japan’s Mabarosi, Korea’s A Single Spark, and Taiwan’s Super Citizen Ko, among others, are examples of what I ended up calling “The Cinema Of The Comatose”--arty, pretentious films that unreel at a snail’s pace, of a running length longer than the human mind can bear.

Mowelfund’s animation workshop turned out a batch of fresh talents;  their work was exhibited at the Shangri-La mall.  Goethe Institute, which was unusually quiet this year, did conduct a seminar on computer-driven animation for independent filmmakers;  names like Raymond Red and Roxlee attended.  Japan showed five films, the best of which, All Under The Moon, a comedy, didn’t have a Japanese actress in the leading role but a Filipina:  Ruby Moreno, who won more than a dozen Japanese Best Actress awards for her performance.  Even APEC got into the act and conducted a film festival of their own:  Scott Hick’s Shine was included in the program, and early buzz is that the film’s star, Geoffrey Rush, is odds-on favorite for Best Actor at the Oscars;  Ann Hui’s Summer Snow was also shown--excellent film--and Josephine Siao gets my vote for female performance of the year.  Lola, however, a film from Mexico, again has that comatose quality.

The tribute and retrospective on Lino Brocka (who died some time ago) and Ishmael Bernal (who died only this year) was a shockingly good idea—too good, in fact, to be exhaustive (between them, Brocka and Bernal must have done over a hundred films).  Bernal’s Tisoy, Hinugot Sa LangitCity After Dark;  Brocka’s Stardoom, Miguelito, and Orapronobis was but a taste, a sample of what the two directors have achieved over the years; the taste was appreciated just the same, especially in these lean times.

In comparison, the French Film Festival was a pallid affair--five movies from five contemporary French directors, three of which could barely keep me awake.  Once more, that comatose effect.  I thought of Clement and Carne and their wonderful films and missed them all the more. 

The year ended with the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), about which the less is said, the better.

Film year 1996 began well and ended--well I can’t say what I really feel, this being a family newspaper.  In the local film industry there are echoes of hope:  Tikoy Aguiluz’s Dapitan is still under production;  so is Mike De Leon’s Jose Rizal biopic (at least they haven’t been shelved).  Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Milagros is actually finished (but was refused entry into the MMFF for reasons God Only Knows).  There are rumors that Mario O’Hara is doing a film--exciting news, indeed!--but the rumors remain rumors.  The Great Filipino Film is still a vague--if tantalizing--dream.

As for Hollywood--Mission Impossible, Twister, The Rock, Independence Day;  their output will continue until someday, the Americanization of the world is complete.  “Then,” as the president in Independence had promised, “Independence Day will no longer be just an American holiday--”

John Carpenter’s Escape From LA (another pretty good film) proposes a future where Los Angeles--Hollywood included--is hit by the big quake and huge chunks slide into the sea.  This isn’t as unlikely as it sounds;  seismologists have been predicting it for years.  Sometimes  I wonder when this might happen; sometimes I wonder if it couldn’t happen a little sooner.  

First published early 1997 in The Manila Chronicle

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