A Four-Star Waste

My first impulse in putting together a 10-best list for 1996 was to dispense with the new stuff altogether and go for the revival gold. The best films of 1996 were the re-released restorations: Vertigo, Strangers on a Train, Lolita, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, and Taxi Driver. The movie business has finally figured out how to turn out new classics -- just re-release the old classics.

OK, there were a few good for-real new movies in '96 -- enough even to make it to 10. But primarily I look back on '96 as the Year of the Overrated. All sorts of bad movies were overrated. Good movies were overrated too. The rate of inflation this year reached an all-time high.

The bad overrated stuff emanated primarily from the indie sector -- all those Sundance festival winners and trendoid offshore entries. Welcome to the Dollhouse was a geeky piece of pseudo-hip condescension; I Shot Andy Warhol seemed to imply that he deserved it; Walking and Talking had altogether too much of both; Sling Blade would probably not be taken as seriously if Billy Bob Thornton were named Robert Thornton; Swingers didn't swing; Manny & Lo should have been called Sweet'n Low.

Lone Star had the spaciousness of a novel -- a bad novel. It was a puny-spirited epic, but it had impeccable PC credentials and the John Sayles imprimatur, and a lot of critics joined the conga line for it. Trainspotting had its conga line too -- the frenetic nightmarishness and kapowie visuals resembled jacked-up Kitchen Sink realism for trendsters who don't like to take their social-problem dramas straight. But it's not the radical leap it wants to be: Instead of flushing themselves down the kitchen sink, its Angry Young Druggies flush themselves down the crapper.

The startlingly vacuous Chungking Express was another lickety-split con job; it got huzzahs for its pretty people and exotic camera moves -- those Hong Kong directors sure know how to keep you from being bored.

Lest you think the indie scene was a total waste I hasten to add that, unlike the past few years, there actually were a few films that deserved their high praise -- as well as a few yet to be recognized for their excellence. The Whole Wide World is a first feature directed by Dan Ireland, and it's passionately sweet; Vincent D'Onofrio as the tragic, real-life Conan the Barbarian pulp writer Robert E. Howard and Renee Zellweger as his entranced, perplexed soul mate are wonders. Big Night is as chock-full of marvelous performances -- from Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub, Ian Holm, and many others -- as its signature dish, timpano, is with culinary goodies. Matthew Bright's explosively deranged and almost totally neglected black comedy Freeway, starring Reese Witherspoon, upended "Little Red Riding Hood." In its own small-scale way, it was the most satisfying rejiggering of a fable since Phil Kaufman set his Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the human-potential-movement campgrounds of San Francisco.

Both Bottle Rocket and Palookaville had stretches of inspiration and good ensemble work, though the low-budget buddy-movie syndrome, especially when the buddies are required to pull off "cute" crimes, is starting to get to me. So are the low-budget layabout loafer films -- a buddy-movie subgenre -- but at least one of them, Steve Buscemi's Trees Lounge, was well-observed and -acted. I'm not usually a big fan of Buscemi -- he overdoes the grunge -- but his work in that film as actor, director, and writer was refreshingly modest.

Often what separated the films I liked from the ones I liked less was a sense of caring. You get the feeling even in the smartest of the new movies that the filmmakers are playing footsie with a flip postmodernism. Fargo gets points in my book for daring to be un-PC, but the Coen brothers' snideness does not wear well. The film is nasty fun, but that's all it is. The same could be said for Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth, a sharp abortion-rights satire that finally ends up outsmarting itself.

If we're going to have target practice in the movies, I say choose the broadest targets and make everything as demented and foolish as possible -- in other words, Mars Attacks! Tim Burton's film is great sophomoric vaudeville, and I can't buy the criticism that it's just an Ed Wood movie writ large. Give me a break. If Ed Wood had been handed a megamillion-dollar budget, he would not have made Mars Attacks! He would have made Congo.

A high quality of caring shows up in Ron Shelton's Tin Cup and helps to lift it out of its weight division. The film is a heavyweight posing as a lightweight. Shelton keeps things shaggy and low key, but there's something ardent going on in this comedy. Kevin Costner's golf pro is a marvelous romantic conception: valiant, beseeching, goofy. It's a full-scale comeback for Costner, his best performance since Bull Durham.

The quality of caring is also what makes Carroll Ballard's Fly Away Home soar above its trite, earthbound script. Ballard on the wing is a sight to behold. There's a joyousness, and a deep mysteriousness, in the way he enters the world of children and geese and sets them off into the sky. The best parts of Fly Away Home are rhapsodic.

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