My father has mentioned to me that he doesn't remember a whole lot about the Reagan era - particularly in global or political terms. He blames this on the circumstantial evidence that, for him, the 1980s began with a marriage, a child, a career, and new hobbies & interests, and it was these life-changing distractions that made up the DNA sequence of all his thoughts and feelings.
Now, I don't know about you, but I can certainly identify with the notion that my time on this planet is best defined to me as exactly that: my time. There isn't a song or show or sociopolitical event that is better felt or realized in my own heart & head without the context of my unique journey. And so: Bennett Media.
Sorry for the heavy-handed intro, but I felt the need to justify the inescapable reality that, for me, 1996 was largely a personal experience, and I'm able to talk best about it through that idiosyncratic filter. I was 13 - but being 13-year-old me in 1996 is something that only I can talk about. But I can talk a good game.
I was the fat kid -- and it happened nearly overnight. And I point out that it was a swift transition because I wasn't emotionally prepared for it; I went from a generally happy disposition without much real fear or sadness, to becoming the epicenter of verbal abuse mixed with frigid apathy. In the throws of puberty, it's traumatizing to learn who your real friends are - especially when you find you have none. Fortunately, I'd already had some of the intellectual tools necessary to combat a hostile world - the primary one being my ability to immerse myself in leisure and recreation and allow my passions and obsessions to be at the forefront of my concerns. The irony was that my greatest passion and obsession at that time was The Beatles.
I don't know how well you remember the 1990s, but we didn't have "Classic Rock" (that soft, PC phrase that carries an air of respectability). Back then, we only had "Oldies," and there was nothing uncooler than music that was more than 5 minutes old. Even the kids still stuck on Nirvana were ostracized for being weird. And because my wardrobe consisted of a dozen-or-so XL Beatle tees, I invited a whole new spectrum of ridicule into my already-compromised existence.
In hindsight, if there's any pride to be had it's that, as shy and socially defeated as I was, I contemptuously carried on without ever compromising my passion or my fashion. What I was getting from various avenues of art was more rich and satisfying than some misguided approval from my unqualified peers. And it wasn't some brave choice that I made - the stuff I loved and the need to express it is, to this day, a power beyond me. Thus and so, here we are.
Suffice to say I didn't pay a whole lot of attention to the music of '96 as I was comfortably cloaked in "Oldies" - and that was my central preoccupation. I'd broken up with video games years before. My real artistic endeavor at that time was transforming my bedroom into a Magical Mystery Museum. But even still, this was the mid 90s, and the sorcery of Cinema still had me under its spell - due largely to my fresh infatuation with newcomer Quentin Tarantino. In fact, I found his first two features so exciting and so sparkling that I may've started to cultivate a new & improved cynicism regarding film, and the ever-widening gulf between 'Summer Blockbusters' and 'Indie Gems' was starting to come into focus for me.
This year gave us The Rock, Twister, Mission: Impossible, Eraser, and, oh yes, Independence Day. And for the first time since Home Alone, I found the globally-popular stuff to be laughably stale -- like, nearly the entire catalogue... And I was bummed - not just because I wanted better movies, but I was then shackled with this thought of "Oh, great, a whole new medium to alienate me from everyone else..." However, also thanks to Quentin, "smaller" movies with bigger ideas and better rewards were being made at a higher rate and becoming more accessible to us small-town folk; Blockbuster actually made room on the shelves for films that had those "award laurels" on the cover, and there were still enough Mom & Pop rental places to fill in the rest. Cable channels like Showtime and Starz were doing things like "Independent Showcase" and "Underground Fridays" (or stuff to that effect). This was the silver lining of my favorite decade of Film: when Hollywood would fumble, the rest of the industry would swoop in with a turnover; there was not never anything good (unravel that double negative).
I hafta say, of all these "Top" however-many-movies from each year that I've done, this one is the most eclectic, the most nuanced from movie to movie (which proves the preceding, longwinded point). 1996 confronted me with some challenges, but compensated for them with some Cinematic Triumphs that have been with me ever since.
Scream established a new path for Horror - one that I would not follow. Romance was getting lighter and dumber. The sultry John Grisham vibe continued to be the apex of Drama. Sequels were sparse. Our only real Superheroes were Barb Wire and The Phantom. Industry auteurs like Carpenter, Tim Burton, and Coppola hit the wall & never regained consciousness, while new talents like The Wachowskis and the Andersons (plural) gave us fresh and provocative stories from the recently-revived Crime genre. TV adaptations kept happening - with mixed results. Eddie made a comeback, and Jim Carrey got "serious."
Are any of these trivial milestones worthy of my love...? Here's my Top 25 from 25 years ago.
1. Hard Eight
I'll admit it, I saw Boogie Nights first. But that's what prompted me to hit the books and answer the question, "Who the hell is this guy and what else has he done?" Lo and behold, he'd done one other movie that, because I sorta worked in a video store at the time, I'd actually heard of. It may have a noticeably smaller budget and plays out at a cautiously experimental pace, but for me, it has the same energy and visual hallmarks of all his earlier stuff - and that's when I dug him the most. This is a freshman feature film from a guy who'd been ready to make movies his whole life, and the result is a palpable product of that passion. I was never more excited in my life than to see what this filmmaker did next...
My journey with these filmmakers didn't play out in quite the same way (but that's a different story), so we'll talk about this: the only contemporary movie I've seen that captured the idea of a classic "Pulp Fiction" better than Pulp Fiction. I'd seen plenty of violent Gangster movies with multiple plot twists and engaging dialogue, but few that looked this good, and none that were this funny. It doesn't necessarily satirize or reinvent the genre, but rather plays out like a situation comedy - with very tense and gruesome situations. And sexy results!
3. Executive Decision
Plane-hijacking movies were going strong (until they conspicuously weren't fun anymore). But none were as fun or clever as this one. Action movie stakes kept climbing - after a parade of "Die Hard on a ____", now we were doing "Speed on a ____", and they were doin' it well. Every sequence of this film is taut & layered enough to each be their own individual movie. And just when you think they've exhausted every set piece a nail-biter can throw at you, there's more. And then, somehow, there's more.
I was aware of their movies, but I wasn't aware of them - and then suddenly, like everyone else, I was.
I braced myself for the impact of a serious Thriller, and instead got pragmatic human drama and comedic genius. Its setting and characters and tone are unique in the film world, but now feel entirely comfortable in their very specific filmography.
End of story.
5. The Birdcage
Do you remember just how big Robin Williams was around this time? And yet somehow this movie managed to be bigger and louder than he. An Americanized remake, but more than that, an updated version that, even then, felt so categorically 1996. I liked it pretty immediately, but now standing back from it, I see it as a bright spot in the careers of all involved.
Punk, Grunge, Garage, and Metal were all dead or dying as I entered my teens -- instead, I had Trainspotting. No kid at that age wants or needs another tale of the dangers of drug use... But a jet-black Comedy with grossout humor, a killer soundtrack, and shades of surrealism (about the dangers of drug use)? Beautifully fucking illustrated.
7. Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie
People are typically possessive of their little cult niches -- me, I'm pleased when the stuff I like goes mainstream. But in this case, that wasn't the case; I could hardly believe my little TV show had made it to a screen big enough for the whole world to see. And in the end, it was still just the MSTies and me who'd heard of it, saw it, and devoured its refreshing mint flavor.
The formula was: a talented lead actor, some cutting edge visual effects, and absolutely no story to support any of it. This equation used to annoy me to the point that I considered the movie somewhat 'less than' - until I decided that I don't ever really care about story, and that any added depth or arc would've taken away from what is positively a Michael Keaton tour de force.
9. That Thing You Do!
On the list of fake band biopics (and that's a long list), this is one of the best, if not the. Tom Hanks was the #1 human being on the planet at that point, and the fact that he used his artistic integrity to generate a Lite Comedy Period flick was such a killer move. The fact that it was also full of little Beatles references couldn't have hit me at a better time.
As a side note: just for fun, check out the 40-minute-longer 'Extended Cut' if you haven't already. It's at least as good as the Theatrical Cut, but in different ways.
10. From Dusk Till Dawn
Frankly, Four Rooms didn't exactly satisfy my newfound craving for Quentin. This, on the other hand, was like the appetizer that's filling enough to be a meal. I could go on about my brief crush on this film and how it reignited my interest in Horror and all that, but I wanna use this space to say (without an inch of irony or hyperbole) that Quentin Tarantino as Richie Gecko is not only the best performance in this movie, but one of the best of the 1990s. I don't know if this is a popular view or if it's ever truly considered by others, but as an actor, he proved once and for all (but not before and never again) that he understands the meaning of the words "low profile."
A handful of the funniest Comedies came out this year, but this one really stands out (against all genres) for how small and intimate it is. As the rest of the world fought aliens and chased tornadoes, Albert Brooks faced down Debbie Reynolds in a tense, funny, and touching tale of familial bonds and self-discovery.
My niece was 2 years old at the time, which made me aware of stuff I might not have sought out on my own.
Danny DeVito's bent sense of humor was a beautiful match with Roald Dahl material (Tim Burton waited too damn long), and stories where the smart kids are the heroes were always gonna have a warm effect on us nerds and outcasts.
13. The Cable Guy
Audience reaction to this movie was that it was "too dark to be funny" and "Jim's worst film to date." This sentiment confounded me more than the universal adoration for Independence Day; my initial and ongoing reaction was & is that Jim's a phenomenal actor, and that this accessibly lite and charmingly absurd Comedy was a monumental step in the right direction.
14. The Nutty Professor
This time, I was on the same wavelength as everyone else: a fan of the original, apprehensive about this one, and then pleasantly surprised. Eddie hadn't found a good script in some time, and this one had the correct balance of story, sentiment, comedy, and slapstick that, just for a moment, made "90s Eddie Murphy" a concept that coulda gone somewhere...
15. House Arrest
I was, like, 5 minutes too old for this subject matter, but the movie as a whole has no age limit. It's like a much-less-sparse Home Alone; a child's fantasy story about correcting domestic friction through the use of zaniness and hijinks. But the real draw is its adult cast of character actors that's too long to list (but too great not to mention).
I always like to nominate at least one movie that best represents the vibe of its respective year, and because of my age at that time, this is the most 1996 movie on this list.
16. The Long Kiss Goodnight
Shane Black screenplays (as similar as they all are) are hit-or-miss -- and I'm sure a lotta that has to do with who's behind the camera. So with that equation, I'd submit that Renny Harlin may just be the man for the job (that job being mixing ridiculous action set pieces with ridiculous dialogue). It's a comforting collaboration that culminates into a melodramatic orgy of bullets and car chases and fireballs and one-liners and some weird Family schmaltz; there's no real meat here, but it's got every dipping sauce you love.
17. The Crucible
I'd love for this to be higher on the list, but the truth is that it's really no fun to watch. (That ain't opinion, that's fact.) Though when the mood does strike me, there is an undeniable joy in Miller's words delivered by this sprawling dream cast -- almost enough to distract me from the tense and frustrating (and true) storyline.
18. Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy
I feel like I've been pushing this flick for years - but you've really gotta know & love them first, because while this is some pretty solid sketch comedy stretched out into a feature, a lot of its weaknesses are able to find their footing in fan service and familiarity.
Like MST3K, this was another movie that reassured me that all my little cult interests and off-center obsessions were valid and worthy of the mainstream. (No one really saw these movies, but it was a nice gesture.)
Bad press and unfair comparisons to the previous year's infamous stripper movie denied this film any room to breathe. It's decidedly unsexy, and when it tries to be a Drama, it looks stupid. But as a Comedy (which it clearly is) it's nearly 100% - due largely to ace performances from Ving Rhames, Robert Patrick, and Burt Reynolds (in his actual comeback role).
Dirtier, darker, and meaner than Dumb and Dumber - and yet, somehow more refined. It may be as funny as their freshman film - but with much-less-likable characters. Nevertheless, that's part of its charm; no one isn't enjoying their turn as an asshole or imbecile, and their joy is palpable.
Stage-to-film adaptations usually require some fancy camerawork and extra locations to make the transition a little more seamless. None of that is needed (or present) in the movie version of Chazz Palminteri's play about a hitman and his target (Cher) shooting the breeze. If you haven't seen it, imagine the Big Kahuna Burger scene stretched out over 90 minutes.
22. Happy Gilmore
It's not exactly a dazzling observation: silly-high-pitched-voice Sandler was never funny (to me). Screaming-violent-rage Sandler, on the other hand, was and is.
The sharpest and brightest element of this movie is its expert and abundant use of Chris "Shooter" McDonald who brings a touch of finesse to this abrasively broad Comedy. And the other great thing about it is that it's an abrasively broad Comedy - without trying to be too much else. I suppose if that's not enough for you, then you're too good for your home.
23. Bottle Rocket
Partly a very sweet love story, but packaged and sold as a crime caper; not the first to mix these two genres, but the first to be painted in that now-all-too-familiar dry wit. And you gotta remember: a 'heist' move in the mid 90s that didn't degenerate into a circus of violence was such a lovely surprise.
24. The Frighteners
Critics and commercials tried to sell it to us as Ghostbusters meets Beetlejuice -- it was neither. Actually, it was option "C": a dark Mystery/Thriller, more along the lines of a Giallo Lethal Weapon. (Okay, that might be a stretch.) Point is, it really wasn't like other movies, so it didn't suffer from comparisons. I think we were all impressed and delighted with an 'edgier' Alex P. Keaton, but personally I only knew Jeffrey Combs from Castle Freak and wasn't fully aware of the extent of his "choices" as a performer. He steals the show.
25. The Craft
I think this movie touched a nerve with kids who weren't me; young people love fables about finding friends and besting their enemies and being part of a clique - except this clique turns out to be a buncha jerks. But that's the main conflict in the movie, and that's the movie I enjoy. And to be fair (and crude), when I was whatever age I was, the main draw was pretty goth girls doing supernatural stuff.