best film:  Breaking the Waves is a monumental achievement, the pinnacle of Von Trier’s career thus far, Dogme 95, and by a slight edge over Goodfellas, every other film in the 1990’s. Emily Watson’s debut (she had a tv credit two years prior) is on par Maria Falconetti in the passion of joan of arc and one of the best 5-10 screen performances of all-time. Ebert and Scorsese did a top 10 of the 1990’s show together and they both named breaking the waves on their top 10 (the only other films to get mentions on both were Malcolm X, and fargo… ebert named goodfellas but Scorsese didn’t name his own film of course). On the surface breaking the waves is a sort of bizarre, extremely well-acted spiritual drama. However, if you consider the dedication to the aesthetics involved (again it’s the absolute pinnacle of the Dogme 95), realism style of shooting and the enchanting chapter breaks, it’s one of the great candidates for the being the cinematic equivalent of being the great novels on film. It’s ambition embodied in style and narrative.

most underrated: Speaking of dedication to an aesthetic… The Dardenne brothers’ debut film, La Promesse, was a new neo-realism (yes I know) punch to the face. It’s an absorbing moral drama of grand proportions told in a rigorous style. It’s a worthy picking up of the baton from Rossellini and De Sica and should definitely be ranked in the top 500-600.  Currently however, it can’t be found anywhere in the TSPDT consensus top 1000.

most overrated: Makhimalbaf’s a moment of innocence has some funny moments but it’s not even in my archives let alone worthy of the lofty position of #377 of all-time (current ranking on TSPDT). This ranking is good enough for 3rd on the 1996 list and I don’t have it in my top 30. I’d much rather they give some additional love to David O. Russell’s flirting with disaster which is another underrated film from 1996.

gem I want to spotlight:  I went back and forth between Jerry Maguire and Scream for my #10 slot below and told myself whichever one I didn’t choose I’d choose here to spotlight. Scream won out so I’m singling out Cameron Crowe’s Maguire here. Writing and acting won’t always get you on a top 10 (case and point here) but rarely have those two things been better in 1996 than in this film. Cruise is just magnificent and this is no small achievement for Cuba Gooding Jr or Renee Zellweger either. Many lines went straight off the screen and into pop culture and cinematic history and rightly so—a very good and entertaining movie.

 trends and notables:  1996 gave us the single best film of the 1990’s so it is truly the year of Breaking the Waves and auteur enfant terrible Lars Von Trier. It’s an epic achievement as I said above.  It’s also the first archiveable film (that I know of) of an important film movement: Dogme95.  Dogme 95 isn’t as important as Italian neorealism or the French new wave but its rigid formula proved to be both effective and an important Hollywood antithesis. Right behind that the story is of 1996 and the archiveable debuts for the young talented auteurs. I’m sure I’m missing years but in 1959 we had Truffaut, Resneis and Cassavetes. In 1984 we had Coen brothres, Von Trier, Zemeckis, James Cameron, Jim Jarmusch and Miyazaki. 1996 gives us both Wes and PT Anderson. That alone is worth noting as they are both top 50 all-time filmmakers. Hard Eight and Bottle Rocket aren’t earth-shattering debuts but their talent is evident. They’re much older and overall I don’t think they quite stack up to PT and Wes, but the Dardenne brothers certainly had a stronger debut in 1996 with La Promesse. David O. Russell gives the world his first archiveable film with flirting with disaster and Nicholas Winding Refn (how could you not be a great auteur with a name like that?) arrives with pusher. Olivier Assayas exploded onto the international cinema scene with Irma Vep as well. Lastly, we have Alexander Payne with citizen ruth (love the bold move of echoing citizen kane with your debut film).  I think that’s short of 1984’s list but not by much. After breaking the waves and “the year of new auteurs” for a generation here with clearly have a big bounce-back films from Cronenberg and the Coen brothers. Cronenberg’s 1993 film M. Butterfly broke a streak of 7 archiveable films from him so to see him come back with crash here in 1996, right up there with his finest work, was both a relief and impressive to see. The Coen brothers had given us 4 straight not only archiveable films, but top 10 films, and then fallen back to earth a little bit with 1994’s big budget the hudsucker proxy. I love the hudsucker proxy and think it’s light years better than m butterfly and it’s in my archvies, but it’s not a top 10 film and it’s not fargo. For Mike Leigh I think 1996 is the peak. It’s not necessarily that I think secrets & lies is his best film, it’s mainly that it comes smack between 1993’s naked and 1999’s topsy turvy so we’re talking about a very high artistic quality period for Leigh. For actors we have some big debuts and actors having tremendous years. It’s the archiveable debut for Matt Damon in courage under fire. Yes, of course he’d be a breakout in 1997’s good will hunting but he’s solid here and already in 1996 had some good acting PR when the story broke that he collapsed while preparing physically for this role.  It’s the debut for Emily Watson of course in breaking the waves but she’s never had a vehicle or performance since to touch this one. Perhaps most notably it’s the archiveable debut for Edward Norton in 1996 with no less than three archiveable films. For Norton it’s primal fear (deserving oscar nom), everyone says I love you and the people vs. larry flynt. Edward Norton would go from unknown to one of the best actors working in just 2-3 short years. Perhaps the only actors to have a bigger 1996 are Tom Cruise and Norton’s co-star and screensharer in a few pivotal scenes in primal fear: Frances McDormand. Cruise had the 1-2 artistic and box office punch of jerry Maguire and mission impossible and McDormand not only won the oscar for fargo but was in lone star and the previously mentioned primary fear as well.

best performance male:   1996 had 6 very high quality performances (in superb films) but no #1 blow out performance. If forced to choose who stands above the rest I’ll go with Tom Cruise in jerry maguire. Cruise is unbelievably dynamic in the role—pitch perfect for his skill set. Behind him is probably Ralph Fiennes in the English Patient which is a David Lean-size epic and this is a throw-back, and sensational, performance. He’s somewhere in-between3 Peter O’Toole in Lawrence and Omar Shariff in doctor zhivago which is a massive compliment. I think Steve Bucemi gives the second best performances in fargo after McDormand and William H. Macy is third so they’re good enough to quality here. Ewan McGregor is superb as our narrator and lead through Danny Boyle’s wild trip down the path of heroin addiction. Elias Koetas has his Frank Booth or Bobby Peru moment (albeit in a Cronenberg film instead of Lynch) in crash. He’s mesmerizing on screen. Timothy Spall is my final mention here for his career-defining work in Mike Leigh’s secrets & lies.

best performance female: Congrats to the academy here in 1996 for getting it mostly right with them nominating four out of my five mentions here. Emily Watson, as I said above, gives one of the all-time great performances as Bess in Lars Von Trier’s breaking the waves. It would take a performance of that magnitude to beat out Frances McDormand in as Marge Gunderson in Fargo. McDormand is a great actress and frequent collaborator with the coen brothers and this is her best work and perhaps their greatest single character. Behind McDormand and Watson we have Brenda Blethyn with her hair on fire in Leigh’s secrets & lies. Her character is hard to handle but her skill and leigh and her’s characterization is brilliant. Kristin Scott Thomas opposite Fiennes in the English Patient is worthy of a spot here as well. The one the academy left out is Neve Campbell for her work in Scream. Horror films aren’t known for their acting performances necessarily but Campbell is excellent here and deserves mention.


top 10

  1. Breaking the Waves
  2. Fargo
  3. Crash
  4. The English Patient
  5. Trainspotting
  6. La Promesse
  7. Secrets and Lies
  8. Flirting with Disaster
  9. Lone Star
  10. Scream


Archives, Directors, and Grades

A Summer’s Tale- Rohmer R
Big Night R
Bottle Rocket- W. Anderson R
Bound- Wachowski R
Breaking the Waves- Von Trier MP
Citizen Ruth- Payne R
Courage Under Fire- Zwick R
Crash- Cronenberg MS
Everyone Says I Love You- W. Allen R
Fargo- Coen MP
Flirting With Disaster- O. Russell HR
Fly Away Home- Ballard R
Hamlet- Branagh R
Hard Eight- P.T. Anderson R
Irma Vep- Assayas R
Jerry Maguire – C. Crowe R/HR
La Promesse- Dardenne HR
Lone Star- Sayles HR
Michael Collins- Jordan R
Mission Impossible- De Palma R
Portrait of a Lady- Campion R
Primal Fear R
Pusher- Refn R
Scream- Craven R
Secrets and Lies- M. Leigh HR
Shine R
Sling Blade R/HR
Swingers R
The Crucible R
The English Patient- Minghella MS
The Funeral- Ferrera R
The People Versus Larry Flint- Forman R
The Pillow Book- Greenaway, R
Trainspotting- D. Boyle MS


*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the