best film:  Breaking the Waves from Lars von Trier

Breaking the Waves is a monumental cinematic achievement and even with some very stiff competition, the pinnacle of Lars von Trier’s career thus far. It sets the tone for the Dogme 95 movement as well. Emily Watson’s debut (she had a tv credit two years prior) is on the same tier as Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc as one of the best performances all-time. Roger Ebert and Martin Scorsese did a top 10 of the 1990s show together and they both named Breaking the Waves on their top 10 of the decade.  The only other films to get mentions on both lists were Malcolm X, and Fargo. Ebert named Goodfellas on his list, but Scorsese did not name his own film of course- praise to you Marty. 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 foreshadowing the Dogme 95 realism movement) combined with its grand formal structure and ambitious themes- it is also a candidate for the being THE great novel on film.

Emily Watson as Bess McNeill on von Trier’s journey

von Trier uses repetition in the shot distances and character blocking– ostracized

the church on a hill in isolation

von Trier forms the film with these breathtaking paintings by Danish artist Per Kirkeby paired with seventies rock ballads — an incalculable part of the brilliance of Breaking the Waves



most underrated:   Speaking of dedication to an aesthetic… The Dardenne brothers’ first archiveable film, La Promesse, is an important film in the film realism movement. It is a worthy carrying the torch passed down from Rossellini and De Sica. Despite this, it cannot be found anywhere in the TSPDT consensus top 1000. The English Patient from Anthony Minghella is handsome period piece romantic epic with a classical style that needs top be on the TSPDT top 1000 and is not. Add it to the growing list of Oscar best picture winners that did not deserve to win best picture, but has gone so far the other way, it is now underrated.

The English Patient is a much stronger work of art than its placement on the TSPDT would indicate

  • It is certainly fitting that the first image in their first major film is Jérémie Renier – the most recognizable Dardenne actor (along with co-star Olivier Gourmet here). In true neorealist lineage tradition (Bicycle Thieves), Renier (playing Igor) steals a purse from a old nice lady.
  • Though not their debut, 1996’s La Promesse was the artistic breakthrough film for Belgium realists Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne.
  • Renier is the perfect young actor for the authenticity the Dardennes are going for—he is no beauty, he looks dirty constantly throughout the film.
  • There is a credit for the music but I don’t recall a score being used at all—this is not a melodrama, it is gritty realism.
  • The Dardenne’s utilize the cinema verité style—this is a grainy, unpretty 16mm, unfussy design, tight handheld camera — the Dardenne brothers made documentaries in the 1980s. Their camera is shaking in the back seat of the rickety van as Roger and Igor drive along
  • the subsequent efforts of the Dardenne brothers over the next few decades help create a cohesive vision as well. It is better seen as part of the body of work.


most overrated:   There are only six films on the TSPDT top 1000 from 1996—so the consensus is spot on about 1996 being a weaker year— but even then they make a few mistakes and include both A Moment of Innocence and Secrets & Lies when they should not.


gems I want to spotlight:    Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady simply needs to be rediscovered. It was Campion’s follow up to The Piano in 1993 and it underwhelmed critics and audiences alike at the time of its release. Upon closer examination and study, it may be just as strong as Campion’s previous effort.


one of 1996’s richest cinematic paintings- from Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady

Yet another example of an underrated film that followed up a director’s best work

again and again symmetry in the compositions, rich detail in the period costume work…

…and plush interior design



trends and notables:

  • 1996 produced the single best film of the 1990s and the year is solid across the top six of seven films of the year—but the depth is not there. If you made a top 25 of 1995 and 1996 combined some 15-19 would be from 1995.
  • 1996 is truly the year of Breaking the Waves and auteur enfant terrible Lars von Trier. It lays the foundation for Dogme 95- which may not be as important as Italian neorealism or the French New Wave (or others, I can think of two separate German movements more significant)- but its rigid set of rules proved to be both effective and a vital Hollywood antithesis. I think it is noteworthy to mark The Dardennes again as well- though they are not part of the Dogme 95 movement, these are two (von trier and The Dardeens) strong voices in verité, handheld styles- a focus on the grit, on realism.
  • Right behind von Tier for 1996 is the story of the first time archiveable films (many of them debuts) for some of the greatest auteurs in contemporary cinema. A remarkably high number of them got their start in 1996. I am sure I’m missing years but 1959 was the start of Truffaut and Resnais. In 1984, the Coen Brothers, von Trier, Cameron, Miyazaki and Zemeckis all had their first film in the archives,. Well, in 1996 both Wes and PT Anderson got their start. That alone is worth pausing on- soaking in- as they are both all-time greats. Hard Eight (PT) and Bottle Rocket (Wes) are not earth-shattering debuts, but their talent was evident (with bigger things and their true breakthroughs to come in their sophomore efforts). They are much older and overall do not stack up quite to the level of PT and Wes but certainly the Dardenne brothers land with a big splash in 1996. David O. Russell is next with Flirting with Disaster. Nicholas Winding Refn (who could you not be a great auteur with a name like that?) arrives with Pusher. Olivier Assayas with Irma Vep, Alexander Payne with Citizen Ruth (love the bold move of paying homage to Citizen Kane in the name with your debut). The Wachowskis’ Bound is actually a stronger entry than most of these others, and Baz Luhrmann’s penchant for color and production design is evident in Romeo + Juliet. This is quite a class of incoming filmmakers.


with a fierce dedication to color (black- even the lipstick here), overhead angles, Bound actually makes for the most promising of all the debuts in 1996

Romeo + Juliet – cinematic opulence- Baz would do it all better in 2001’s Moulin Rouge!, his masterpiece, but this is more than just a flawed rough draft—it’s a gorgeous and inspired precursor.

The opening is a jaw-dropper—Luhrmann showing off- jump cut heavy, freeze frames, during a sort of gun-play showdown he emphasize parts of the body in close-up (eyes, feet only) like a Leone film. Flourishes of primary color, expressionistic lighting- fireworks—all Luhrmann trademarks. We have the occasional intentional high-speed overacting which is effective.


  • 1996 marks the bounce back films from Cronenberg and the Coen Brothers. When great auteurs fall flat in their prime (Lynch, Dune in 1984)—watch out for their next film! (Blue Velvet for Lynch). For Cronenberg his M. Butterfly in 1993 broke a streak of seven archiveable films (four landing in the top 10 of their respective years). Crash marks a brilliant return to form- right there with his finest work. The Coen brothers had made four straight top 10 of the year films to start their career but had fallen back to earth a little with The Hudsucker Proxy (still a fine film)- their biggest budget film to date. It is the least of their films at that point in their career—and they return in full fury in 1996 with Fargo– their finest.


Cronenberg’s oblique angles and jarring jumps absolutely impact mood and atmosphere in Crash

these are characters in a haze– an erotic, and dangerous tidal wave pull they cannot quite pull away from- Cronenberg conveys this with his shot choices

Fargo features these stunningly gorgeous reoccurring shots of snow filled parking lots. It a architecture as character  It may also be Carter Burwell’s greatest achievement with the film score— it builds and rolls over the top like Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver score


  • Twister and Independence Day– both sort of disaster films, land as the #1 and #2 films at the box office. It is worth noting what a great year Tom Cruise had in 1996. He is phenomenal in both Jerry McGuire and Mission Impossible– both of them absolute box office smashes.
  • 1997 is really his breakout film with Good Will Hunting, but Damon’s first archiveable film (seems inevitable he’ll get to 30 in his career total at least) is 1996’s Courage Under Fire. He is solid here, and frankly benefitted from some good PR when the story broke that he collapsed while preparing physically for this role. It is the first time in the archives for Emily Watson of course in Breaking the Waves but she has never quite had a vehicle or performance to touch this one- but this would be true for just about any actor- an impossible act to follow. Edward Norton went from unknown to one of the most respected actors of his generation in just a few short years—that all started in 1996 with no less than three archiveable films. For Norton it was Primal Fear (a deserving Oscar nom), Woody Allen’s’s Everyone Says I Love You and The People vs. Larry Flynt. With the first film from the Dardennes and Nicole Holofcener, their frequent collaborators Jérémie Renier, Olivier Gourmet (both Dardennes) and Catherine Keener (Holofcener) get their first archiveable films.


you have the admire the ambition of Kenneth Branagh – a 4-hour, 65mm version of Hamlet — the most notable large format film in the 1990s (admittedly, not a ton of competition here)


best performance male:  The strength in 1996 as far as acting goes is on the female side. Yet, these five actors are certainly worthy of praise. Young (just 25 in 1996) Ewan McGregor may have the strongest work in this category in 1996 for his part at the center of Danny Boyle’s wild trip down the path of heroin addiction in Trainspotting. Ralph Fiennes is here again for the classic David Lean-like size desert epic The English Patient. Steve Buscemi remains absolutely pivotal to the 1990s indie film movement with his performance in Fargo. Buscemi gives the second performance in Fargo and William H. Macy gives the third (both below the untouchable Frances McDormand).  Elias Koetas (who is also marvelous in Exotica in 1994) has his Frank Booth or Bobby Peru moment (albeit in a Cronenberg film instead Lynch) as the scarred and mangled Vaughan in Crash. He is mesmerizing on screen.

Trainspotting is loaded with memorable characters- leading the way is Ewan McGregor  as Renton, but also, Ewen Bremner as Spud, Jonny Lee Miller as Sick Boy, Kevin McKidd as Tommy, Robert Carlyle as Begbie, Kelly Macdonald as Diane and one of my favorites, Peter Mullan as Swanney.

best performance female
: As mentioned in the “best film” section Emily Watson gives one of the best performances in cinema history in Breaking the Waves. It would take something that big to outpace Frances McDormand in Fargo. These are the best two performances of the year, male or female. Kudos to the academy in 1996 not only for awarding McDormand, but also Juliette Binoche (supporting win) and Kristin Scott Thomas (nom) in The English Patient. Kristin Scott Thomas’ works exceeds Binoche’s—but they are both worthy of mention. The final slot here goes to  Nicole Kidman for her work in The Portrait of Lady– this is a 144-minute epic and Kidman is in virtually every scene.

Nicole Kidman was very close to landing in this category for 1995’s To Die For as well.


top 10

  1. Breaking the Waves
  2. Fargo
  3. Crash
  4. Trainspotting
  5. The English Patient
  6. The Portrait of a Lady
  7. La Promesse
  8. Lone Star
  9. Bound
  10. Flirting with Disaster


just one of the many indelible images from Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting

Danny Boyle is even more well known for his editing and pace than his compositions (which are sublime in Trainspotting)- the film opens with running on the street, voiceover narration, very low average shot length

another stunner from Boyle’s film- still his best work to date


Archives, Directors, and Grades

A Summer’s Tale- Rohmer R
A Time to Kill – Schumacher R
Big Night- Tucci, C. Scott R
Bottle Rocket – W. Anderson R
Bound- Wachowski R/HR
Breaking the Waves- von Trier MP
Broken Arrow – Woo R
Citizen Ruth- Payne R
Courage Under Fire- Zwick R
Crash- Cronenberg MP
Everyone Says I Love You- Allen R
Fargo – Coen MP
Flirting With Disaster- D. Russell R/HR
Fly Away Home- Ballard R
Hamlet- Branagh R
Hard Eight – P.T. Anderson R
Irma Vep- Assayas R
Jerry McGuire- Crowe R/HR
La Promesse – Dardenne HR
Lone Star- Sayles HR
Michael Collins- Jordan R
Mission Impossible- De Palma R
Primal Fear – Hoblit R
Pusher- Refn R
Romeo + Juliet – Luhrmann R/HR
Scream – Craven R/HR
Secrets & Lies – Leigh R/HR
Shine – Hicks R
Sling Blade – Thornton R/HR
Swingers – Liman R
The Birdcage – M. Nichols R
The Crucible- Hytner R
The English Patient- Minghella MS
The Funeral- Ferrara R
The Ghost and the Darkness – Hopkins R
The People Versus Larry Flint- Forman R
The Pillow Book – Greenaway R
The Portrait of a Lady- Campion HR/MS
Trainspotting- Boyle MS/MP
Walking and Talking– Holofcener R



*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 top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives