Bits and Pieces

No great feature films this year! Only some very good ones: Ma Saison Preferee (a 1993 film by Andre Techine), Big Night (Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott), James and the Giant Peach (Henry Selick), Flirting With Disaster (David O. Russell), Rendezvous in Paris (Eric Rohmer). (I omit festival-only screenings from this list, my favorite being Anna Benson Gyles' Swann at Mill Valley.)

Many other films had strong openings and then trailed off. The opening, movie-theater sequence of David Koepp's The Trigger Effect set a nice bitter tone that lasted longer than the film's good ideas did. The first 20 minutes or so of Mike Judge's Beavis and Butt-head Do America are hilarious. The alleged greatness of Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves really lies in its first hour, which places Emily Watson's wonderful performance in its Calvinist context, and not in its last third, at once grueling and silly. All of this is a roundabout way of saying that my favorite moments this year, not only better than the films they're surrounded by but better than any single feature, came in short sequences in flawed movies: the jazz duel in Robert Altman's Kansas City, the heartbreaking conversation between Nick Nolte and Kirsten Dunst in Mother Night. Or in individual performances: Watson's, Nolte's, Chloe Sevigny's in Steve Buscemi's Trees Lounge, the last one of several appealing performances by adolescents this year, only she had to do hers believably making love to her sweaty, pop-eyed director. (Brrrrrr!)

The best documentaries I saw were "Typically British", on the English film industry, by Stephen Frears, and When I Was 14, on a Holocaust survivor's return to Germany, by Jim Goldner. My favorite premiere revival was Frank Borzage's Lucky Star (1929) at the Castro's annual Silent Film Festival. There were also several excellent short films: Downwardly Mobile (Steven Hosford) and Newton's Law (Jessica Sisson) at the S.F. State Film Finals, and finally what is in my opinion the single best film of 1996, David Munro's First Love Second Planet, an outstanding cinematic depiction of the aftereffects of early childhood trauma on the emotional lives of adults.

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