In a ripping good speech at the center of Fred Schepisi and John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation (1993), the con-man anti-hero deplores "one of the great tragedies of our time: the death of the imagination." Placing the onus for its demise on Star Trek and Star Wars, he declares that imagination now represents "something outside ourselves, like science fiction or some new use for tangerine slices on raw pork chops," when it should be "the passport we create to take us into the real world" -- the "most personal link" between "our inner lives" and "this world we share." In short, it's "God's gift to make the act of self-examination bearable."
Movies such as Danny DeVito's Matilda and Henry Selick's James and the Giant Peach transcend the con-man's objection to special-effects films. They're imaginative in a Star Wars sense and in a Six Degrees of Separation sense: They employ movie arts and crafts "to make the act of self-examination bearable." DeVito's Matilda, which features a magical performance by Mara Wilson as an unappreciated, telekinetic girl genius, and Selick's James and the Giant Peach, which uses puppet animation to bring to life the jumbo garden creatures who befriend a persecuted orphan, will endure as the kind of unruly classics that kids treasure more than official blockbusters such as the horrid new 101 Dalmatians. In its "human" portions, Selick's film would have benefited from DeVito's surprisingly sure-footed touch for live-action grotesquerie; but there's been no more moving or wizardly sequence in movies this year than Selick's musical number "We're Family," about a boy's mind encompassing the cosmos. This year, with Matilda and James and the Giant Peach, it was Roald Dahl, not Jane Austen or Henry James, who brought out the best in moviemakers.
The cornball ad line for movies of urgent social import used to be "This is a story that must be told!" In 1996, did they have to be told so baldly and badly? Feature films such as The People vs. Larry Flynt (and even the vaunted Lone Star) proved that in moviemaking, unlike speed-walking, heavy hands detract from the power of an exercise. Documentaries generally served profound or controversial subjects with greater acuity. Including them in this list would increase its length by a third. For now, let me acknowledge Jon Blair's Anne Frank Remembered, which both salutes the spirit of the Holocaust's most famous victim and restores her to flesh and blood; The Gate of Heavenly Peace, Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton's political epic about Tiananmen Square, which assembles a tragic panoply of undisciplined idealists and rational reformers (among the student-led protesters) and well-meaning moderates and obtuse paternalists (in the government); and Paul Seydor's The Wild Bunch: An Album in Montage, which turns a look at genius director Sam Peckinpah making his masterpiece into a work of affective poetry.
Dziga Vertov was an avant-garde documentarian, but he respected popular art for its "unity of form and content." Few movies display that virtue better than the restored 1996 prints of Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the rare musical romance about first love and adult love that honors each, and Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, a sensuous thriller about l'amour fou and life as a puzzle with a piece missing. At a time when movies are dominated by technology and glamour in the mainstream and obscurantism and primitivism at the fringe, no pastime could better keep the art of film alive than studying the work of such masters as Demy, Hitchcock, and De Sica (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis). To use the wonderful sobriquet Vertov coined to describe his rival creatures, fiction filmmakers: They were all "enchanter-directors." In 1996, directors as different as Danny Boyle and Danny DeVito became their heirs.