The Year in Film

Born-and-bred Scandinavian-Minnesotan that I am, I've kept my feelings about Fargo bottled up until the last possible moment. And now that moment is upon me. Uff-da. The story of a Scandinavian-Minnesotan who's so violently repressed that he'd rather have his wife kidnapped than ask her dad for money, Fargo is something I might have preferred to avoid altogether, were it not for the film's enduring ability to polarize us locals, as well as its appearance on some national Top 10 lists (e.g. Rolling Stone and SPIN) and its recent award from the New York Film Critics Circle.

Those big city-type reviewers sure do love this movie about a state full of dimwits and one pregnant sheriff. But in these parts, as far as I can tell, the Coen brothers' dumb-and-dumber satire is most beloved by those Minnesotans who either didn't grow up here or who, like the filmmakers, have since split for warmer climates. Per usual with the Coens' films, appreciation of Fargo appears to hinge on the viewer's degree of hipness or distance from the material.

Speaking of famous turncoats, it seemed odd last spring when the host of Prairie Home Companion went public with his view that Fargo was "a strange movie." You'd think Garrison Keillor would sympathize with the practice of selling us idiot yokels to a national audience. On the other hand, for Keillor to deem the Coens' comedy a fraud would be a shrewd way to profess kinship with his hypersensitive hometown fans, and to imply that his own humor, by contrast, involves Minnesota in-jokes rather than jokes on Minnesotans. Choose your side, love it or leave it.

Ultimately, whether you "get" the joke of Fargo might be a question not just of where you're from, but where you're at. Was it any wonder that the Coens opted to schmooze the press at Cannes but not here? Myself, I'm aware that my intense dislike for this film--for its smug, misanthropic way of equating accent with intellect, and its monotonous litany of grotesque Midwestern caricatures--gives me a feeling of guilty brotherhood with fellow Nice guys like Fargo's own Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), a Minnesotan of such pent-up rage that the mere task of ice-scraping his car is enough to send him over the edge.

Certainly, the defensive quality of in-state Fargo loathing (my own included) has seemed to fit the subject at hand. Blame it on the climate. And while our distinctly Midwestern fear of hickdom would be reason enough to make us snippy about the movie, this was also the year that the glut of "local" film product turned the pleasure of feeling Minnesota into a challenge. The truly funny thing about the year's made-in-Minnesota movies is that the joke really is on us. The flurry of studio production might have temporarily boosted our economy, but I'd guess that in the long run the local tourist trade will suffer for the representation of our hamlet as a frozen hellhole, and ourselves as northern crackers. But we'll survive. It helped that the timely Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie returned the industry's gaze by poking fun at cheesy Hollywood fiction-making. And looking on the bright side, the likes of Fargo would be a small price to pay if they eventually inspired a few truly Minneapolitan indies with national crossover potential--which seems likely, although we won't know for sure until hometown features like Acid Snow, Homo Heights, and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse are unspooled later this year.

In the meantime, we can still bask in the unprecedented glory of IFC Presents IFP/North, the two-hour collection of well-made Minnesota shorts that was nationally cablecast on the Independent Film Channel last month. (The IFC plans to repeat the show January 19.) And in terms of film exhibition, the local scene has never been more vital, as U Film Society, Oak Street Cinema, Red Eye Cinema, and Walker Art Center all offered essential calendars of new and repertory material. In particular, were it not for U Film's Mpls./St. Paul and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender festivals, we would probably never have seen such gems as From the Journals of Jean Seberg, A Single Girl, and Hustler White (which had extended runs in other U.S. cities in '96, and thus are eligible for my year-end lists)--or such '95 rarities as Jean-Luc Godard's JLG/JLG, or unreleased indies like Chris Smith's American Job and Rachel Reichman's Work.

Unfortunately, U Film is still plagued by a programming sensibility that's alternately hasty, brilliant, overambitious, and inconsequential--which is largely a function of its diminished exhibitor status relative to the corporate competition. But whatever the case, any theater offering so many unique titles should be supported unconditionally, especially since most big-studio fare barely rates a blip on the artistic scale. The disparity between the arthouse and the multiplex has always been profound, but I'm struck by the fact that, for the first time in three years, I couldn't honestly come up with a single Hollywood movie for my Top 10 list--or even my Top 20. Thus, I made a separate list of films (see "Hollywood 10 Best") that seemed good or great primarily by mainstream standards. (Spike Lee's Get on the Bus, ranking sixth, is technically a Columbia picture; but as it was financed by the auteur and his associates and sold after completion, it's hardly the typical studio film.)  

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

TOP 10
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.

7. From the Journals of Jean Seberg. Cinema studies docs were abundant this year, but Mark Rappaport's "fictitious autobiography" combines political film theory and free-associative gossip into a sharp critique of Hollywood misogyny. The fact that there's plenty to disagree with here serves to further its point that the power of interpretation is infinite, and available to anyone.

8. Secrets & Lies. Besides being the best acted movie in recent memory, Mike Leigh's hopeful family portrait is a triumph of sustained tone, where neither humor nor pain seems to exist without the other. In a more honest world, this would be a model of narrative filmmaking.

9. When We Were Kings. This documentary portrait of the most compelling boxing match in history--the 1974 fight in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman--is no mere sports highlights reel, but an astonishing collection of archival footage: candid interviews with the two tough-guys, play-by-play commentary by none other than Norman Mailer, and concert scenes of James Brown and B.B. King, who accompanied the fighters on an unprecedented cross-cultural roadshow. Among this film's many nostalgic elements is its reminder of how much more possible it was then for celebrities to talk politically about race without fearing for their livelihoods. When We Were Kings opened on the coasts last month to qualify for Oscar nomination, and is slated for a wide release in mid-February.

10. Flirting With Disaster. In a year of great comedies, this consummately screwy farce was the funniest--and also the most harrowing. Writer-director David O. Russell erects a pup tent of sexual hysteria and manages to keep it up, forgive the pun, for a full 90 minutes.

Runners-up (alphabetically): Brother of Sleep, Hustler White, Land and Freedom, Ma Saison Préférée, Microcosmos, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, A Single Girl, Walking and Talking, The White Balloon, and The Whole Wide World.

Hollywood 10 Best (in order of preference): Tin Cup, The People vs. Larry Flynt, The Cable Guy, Kingpin, Mars Attacks!, Jerry Maguire, Star Trek: First Contact, Harriet the Spy, William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, and Multiplicity.

Better Than You Heard. These 10 deserved a better rap than they got: Barb Wire, Before and After, Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, Escape From L.A., From Dusk Till Dawn, Mary Reilly, The Mirror Has Two Faces, Mulholland Falls, The Rich Man's Wife, and White Squall.

You Must Remember These. In another strong year for local repertory film, the standouts included: Kieslowski's "short films" and the Mpls./St. Paul and LGBT festivals at U Film Society; the Twin Cities Black Film Festival at the Parkway Theater and Oak Street Cinema; the National Film Registry tour, the Pan Asian Film Festival, the "Century of Cinema" series, and the Gordon Parks, Spike Lee, and Chris Marker/William Klein retros at Walker Art Center; Olympia and the "Masquerade Freak Show" at Red Eye Cinema; "The Masterworks of Satyajit Ray" at Lagoon Cinema; "Sultry Sirens of the Silver Screen" in Mueller Park; Eisenstein at the MIA; Bigger Than Life at the Minnesota History Center; Planet of the Apes in Stevens Square Park; Vertigo at Suburban World; Too Late Blues in Loring Park; Raging Bull with Thelma Schoonmaker at MCAD; and Cassavetes, Chaplin, Crawford, Tarkovsky, Powell/Pressburger, "Blaxploitation Classics," and the "Festival of Silent Film" at Oak Street Cinema.

Musts to Avoid. To clarify, Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead was a '95 release, Evita at least had some unintended humor, and I didn't see Dear God. So the 10 worst of the year were: The Crow: City of Angels, Executive Decision, The Fan, Heaven's Prisoners, It's My Party, Jingle All the Way, 101 Dalmatians, She's the One, Sleepers, and Up Close and Personal.  

Best As-Yet Unreleased Movie of the Year. A mock-documentary portrait of a minimum-wage worker who endures a succession of banal service jobs, Milwaukee auteur Chris Smith's American Job is a brilliantly ambiguous mix of comedy and social realism, and the year's most flagrantly independent film. In fact, American Job (which premiered a year ago at Sundance and played twice at the Mpls./St. Paul Film Festival) hasn't been picked up for release, and might never be--and that's an unmistakable sign of its greatness. But ironically, as Smith has been working on his follow-up with the help of some new friends in high places, this underdog movie about a slacker seems to have given its maker a career.

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