In terms of Hollywood trends, 1996 was, once again, the year of the white guy. A Time to Kill and Ghosts of Mississippi saw fit to tell the tale of racism through the eyes of Matthew McConaughey and Alec Baldwin; John Travolta had two spiritual awakenings this year, in Phenomenon and Michael; Mel Gibson and Arnold Schwarzenegger suffered serious threats to their privilege in Ransom and Jingle All the Way;and Hollywood's most obviously patriarchal genre, the disaster film, was revived in Independence Day, Daylight, and Executive Decision. With fear as the primary emotion in guy movies, some of the year's better ones, like Multiplicity and The Cable Guy, at least acknowledged this strain on the male psyche as a kind of pathology. The sports comedies Tin Cup and Jerry Maguire supplied opposite takes on the quest for male responsibility, the former being honestly unresolved about how to grow up, and the latter encouragingly optimistic.
Speaking of quests, it seems to me that all the great films this year convey a sense of investigation on the part of filmmaker, character, and viewer. And since these films were, to varying degrees, independent of studio compromise, they could avoid pat resolutions in favor of reflecting on the process of investigation itself. In a way, you could say that Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves and Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady are emotional disaster movies, ones that confront both the characters and the audience with a series of formidable challenges. In von Trier's film, there's a beautiful moment when the two main characters, the lovers Bess and Jan, are sitting in a theater watching a Lassie movie, and Jan looks lovingly over at Bess, who's gape-mouthed and transfixed, thoroughly under the spell of this flickering shadow play. This moment comes closest to summing up Breaking the Waves, a movie that's in love with the ability of cinema to astonish, to take us on a trip.
Likewise, the other best films of the year introduce difficult circumstances and trust us to work out our own resolutions. There's Dead Man's invitation to navigate its dreamlike world, for instance; or Wong Kar-Wai's Ashes of Time, providing a temporal puzzle to solve; or the suggestion, in the documentary From the Journals of Jean Seberg, that film history isn't fixed, but can be infinitely deconstructed and redrawn at will. I'm reminded that what I love about great movies is their potential to liberate, their ability to take you somewhere real that you haven't been (unlike, say, Fargo), and then, instead of telling you how to feel, allow you to wander around and make up the rules as you go along. CP
1. Breaking the Waves. Danish auteur Lars von Trier went to Scotland to make this spiritual love story, the most intense and immodest movie of the year. For now, it should suffice to say that the film opens next week at Lagoon Cinema.
2. The Portrait of a Lady. With this haunted, lacerating adaptation of the Henry James novel, Jane Campion manages to exceed even the impeccable standards set by The Piano and An Angel at My Table. Constructing a horribly believable, patriarchal maze of a narrative for the 19th-century title character (Nicole Kidman), then following her through it for two-and-a-half hours, the director chooses in almost every moment to convey meaning and mood in visual terms; there are shards of light here that seem to communicate more than a lot of films do in their entirety. It's clear that Campion is the rare filmmaker who's equally adept with novelistic storytelling and abstract symbolism, drawing on both to achieve a masterpiece. It opens at Lagoon Cinema in two weeks.
3. Chungking Express/ Ashes of Time. The central figure of Hong Kong's pomo new wave, director Wong Kar-Wai adds a distinct literary sensibility to the sensational visual aesthetic of John Woo et al, as well as his own visionary gift for stretching time and space to new ends. The two movies he directed in 1993 both had their belated U.S. releases this year: The screwball Chungking Express fuses Breathless and Bringing Up Baby, critiquing the modern tendency to displace our emotions onto consumer goods and pop songs; while the epic Ashes of Time stir-fries Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns and throws in a pinch each of Kurosawa and Peckinpah for extra spice.
4. Dead Man. So delicate and dreamlike that it sometimes hardly seems to exist, Jim Jarmusch's anti-Western is the rare American film that totally depends upon the viewer's active participation. As the camera professes its soft-focus crush on cowboy-cum-model Johnny Depp, the actor comes across as both a "stupid fucking white man" and a matinee idol of the most purely sensual kind.
5. Girls Town. As the grittiest entry in the burgeoning genre of girl cinema, this mold-breaking indie dares to reveal the virtues of acting up. And as an unfashionably soulful counterpart to Kids and Welcome to the Dollhouse, it believes that being "real" isn't enough these days.
6. Get on the Bus. Trading his strenuous ambiguity for a documentarian's distance, Spike Lee delivers a film about the Million Man March that's more inclusive than the event itself, while staying true to the complexity of the issues at hand. The fact that several of Lee's passengers don't quite make it to the end of the line is his way of saying that this story is still being written.