Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Best and Worst Movies of 1996

Here's yet another list of movies, this time from the year 1996.  As with the other movie lists I've done from the 90's, I start out with my picks for top ten favorite films, followed by the Best of the Rest, my picks for the worst from the year, and comparisons to the biggest Oscar wins and Best Picture nominations, and the biggest box office hits of the year.  Surprisingly, the winner of the Best Picture Oscar wound up on my stinkers list.

The Best Movies of 1996

I'm a sucker for dragons.  I even liked Dragonslayer from 1991, Reign of Fire from 2002, and Eragon from 2006 (and I realize some of these aren't the best in film fantasy) and one of my favorite animated films of recent years was How to Train Your Dragon.  This movie starring Dennis Quaid and an appropriately nasty David Thewlis was one of the best dragon movies of all times.  They even made a talking dragon (voiced by Sean Connery) actually work!

Critics weren't all that enchanted, but I was hooked, both by the Andrew Lloyd Webber music, and Madonna's singing and acting.  In fact, until Ann Hathaway sang "I Dreamed a Dream" in Les Miserables, I had never seen someone cry so convincingly through a song the way Madonna did when her character, based on the real Eva Peron, grew weak and feeble towards the end.  And who knew Antonio Banderas could actually sing!  I sure didn't, but he was very impressive in this film.

Joel and Ethan Coen really hit on something here.  Taking the funny, backwoods flavor and speech patterns of Raising Arizona and moving it to the snowy climate of Fargo, North Dakota, and then mixing in crazy kidnappers and outright shocking violence was almost a stroke of genius.  If it wasn't for the extreme violence, you might think you're watching a full-out comedy, particularly the way Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, and Steve Buscemi play their parts, along with all the funny-talking extras.  That Frances McDormand and the others manage to bring a bit of realism to it all by the end is amazing enough, but I like the way it ends so simply, expounding upon the evils of greed and where it leads you, and championing the simple way of life.  The Coen brothers still haven't made a better film.

The Frighteners
Before tackling Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, and almost a decade before he brought King Kong back to the big screen, director Peter Jackson took on ghosts in this thrilling, haunting supernatural comedy.  Michael J. Fox was back in fine form after a string of lesser roles and films, managing to tap into the charm that made his Alex Keaton and Marty McFly characters so loved.  Some of the ghostly histrionics were a bit on the silly side, such as the ghosts Fox's character Frank Bannister lives with, but some were quite chilling, such as the Grim Reaper.  There's a few interesting twists and turns, and it all makes for quite a fun and funny ghost movie that is just about perfect for Halloween.

Happy Gilmore
Adam Sandler's star was on the rise, but only a few die-hard fans were noticing.  Along with his run on Saturday Night Live, he had small parts in a few forgettable films, and then started taking on a few bigger roles, such as Billy Madison, which wound up on my stinkers list from 1995, linked here.  This was really the film that first made him a movie star, and paved the way for other great Sandler films that followed it, such as The Wedding Singer, Mr. Deeds, Anger Management, and 50 First Dates.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
In my mind, after such a great return to the hand drawn animated film with movies like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, Disney took a step sideways instead of forward with their last film, Pocahontas.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame shows them getting back on track.  The animation is breathtaking, the story is involving, and the music is first rate.  In fact, I'd say that, as animated films go, this one actually winds up rivaling the 1939 Charles Laughton version, which I also loved.  Who would have thought that Disney tackling a classic monster story would work, but work it did, and then some!

Critics definately weren't kind, and there is no sense of realism whatsoever, but who cares?  Michael Keaton is great as a Doug Kinney, an overworked family man trying to juggle his job, his wife, and his children.  When a mysterious doctor offers to clone him, he accepts, and soon there's two, and then three of him walking around.  He sends one to work, who becomes a bit gruff and rough around the edges, and the other back to the house for domestic duties, and this one starts to act a bit feminine.  As if this weren't confusing enough for his wife, the clones then decide to make another clone, who becomes an inferior copy of a copy. The resulting antics are hilarious!  "I like pizza Steve!"

After toying with self-reverential, metaphysical concepts for his Nightmare on Elm Street franchise with Wes Craven's New Nightmare, Wes Craven did the same thing for all modern slasher films with this great, fun film that was both a satisfying shocker and a parody of and homage to other classic slice'n'dice thrillers.  The characters here aren't just killers and victims; they absorb modern pop culture, particularly horror films, and spew out references fast and furious, while delivering a clever shocker of their own!

Sling Blade
Hands down Billy Bob Thorton's best film to date (still), this strange little film was brilliant in it's execution.  Billy Bob's performance borders on parody, but is ultimately unforgettable, and the others, from a young Lucas Black to Dwight Yoakim to John Ritter, all do very impressive work here.  I won't give away the ending here, but the question after watching it may haunt you long afterwards:  Did Karl do the right thing in the end?

Star Trek: First Contact
The term "Star Trek" these days, for some, is treated like a fungus.  Some people even treated the J.J. Abrams 2009 re-imagined blockbuster like so much flotsom simply because it was "Star Trek".  I think psychologists should start investigating "Trekphobia", the irrational fear of all things "Star Trek".  That includes the Star Treks that came along after the original series, such as the latest Star Trek film Into Darkness, and the next gen cast who star in this film, First Contact.  This is by far the best of the Star Trek films featuring that cast.  This fast paced and exciting movie doesn't deserve any disdain from a clueless public who doesn't understand what's so great about Star Trek.  As with the best of Trek, this one would still be a great science fiction film without the Trek affiliation.  In fact, given the usual backlash these days, it would probably be all the better and popular without it! 

Best of the Rest:
101 Dalmatians
The Arrival
Ghosts of Mississippi
Gulliver’s Travels
Joe’s Apartment
Mars Attacks!
Primal Fear
The Rock
A Very Brady Sequel

Dalmatian puppies, comedic little alien invaders with bulbous brains, and singing cockroaches highlight this list of the best of the rest, and don't discount the Bradys!  Other fun movies include a good b-movie about aliens starring Charlie Sheen, before he lost his mind, Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery in the cool action/thriller The Rock (no affiliation with the wrestler/movie star of the same name) and Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt in a blockbuster about storm chasers, Twister.  Of the more serious films, James Woods gives a startlingly villainous performance in Ghosts of Mississippi, and Edward Norton is never less than mesmerizing in Primal Fear.  Over on TV, Ted Danson starred in a very impressive version of Gulliver's Travels that was visually stunning, well written, and quite faithful to the source material - especially if you're going to compare it to the Jack Black version from 2010.  

The Worst:
Bad Moon
The English Patient
The First Wives Club
The Island of Dr. Moreau
Jingle All the Way
Mary Reilly
Romeo + Juliet
Spy Hard

The only horror movies on the list this time are Bad Moon, a werewolf film that probably shouldn't include the ironic word "Bad" in the title, and maybe The Island of Dr. Moreau (starring Marlon Brando as "The Island" a friend of mine joked - ha ha!), which had much more emphasis on Brando's strange performance than it did on the horror movie aspects of the tale.  Brando gave a very strange performance.  Meanwhile, Julia Roberts gave a very subdued performance in the atrocious and dreary Mary Reilly starring Julia Roberts, and she famously couldn't hold an Irish accent (she's no Meryl Streep!)  This was a retelling of the Jekyll and Hyde story from his maid's point of view that actually manages to make John Malkovich, of all people, boring in the role of the famous doctor and his monstrous other half.  The rest of the choices are a little bit more light and whimsical, but completely forgettable, such as The First Wives Club, Jack (starring Robin Williams as an overgrown kid - literally), the inane Jingle All the Way (like alcohol, watching this thing will actually make you lose brain cells), Spy Hard (even worse, except for the hilarious Weird Al Yankovic opening number that parody's James Bond intros, linked here), Michael starring John Travolta as a bizarre archangel, and an insult to the real thing, and Romeo + Juliet, which is really just another exercise in Baz Luhrmann style over substance, something the critics are currently claiming about his recently released The Great Gatsby.  Finally, The Engish Patient, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, is interminably long and boring.  The movie is almost as interesting as the poster of it above... almost.  If you've seen the funny Seinfeld episode where Elaine groans through the whole movie (linked here), and then must endure everyone talking about it, then you know how I feel too!

Oscars and Box Office

I find it interesting that Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet wasn't nominated for Best Picture or any best acting awards, so the critics shouldn't blame me for not putting it on my list of favorites.  I liked it, but I actually preferred the Mel Gibson version from 1990.  I guess they didn't love it all that much either, or they might have given it more honors at the Oscars than just nominations for Adapted Screenplay and technical awards.
As for the films at the top of the Oscar and Box Office lists that I didn't mention above,  Tom Cruise was in Jerry Maguire AND Mission Impossible, and I didn't care much for either one.  Speaking of blockbuster action films, Eraser starring Arnold Schwarzenegger was merely okay.  Ransom was pretty good too, if mundane, and The Nutty Professor wasn't the best Eddie Murphy movies I've ever seen, but it's also not the worst.  It was better than the sequel.  Independence Day was a special effects blockbuster without much heart and too "Roland Emmerich", which is now synonymous with overdone Hollywood effects without much heart.  Finally, I never saw Secrets & Lies or Shine, though I'd still like the see the latter since I'm a fan of Geoffrey Rush.  I did see Emma and wasn't all that impressed.  Anyway, here's Box Office and Oscar lists from 1996:

Notable Oscar Films                                     Biggest Box Office Hits
The English Patient                                            Independence Day
Fargo                                                                    Twister
Jerry Maguire                                                     Mission Impossible
Secrets & Lies                                                     The Rock
Shine                                                                     The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Sling Blade                                                           101 Dalmatians                                  
Evita                                                                      Ransom
Emma                                                                    The Nutty Professor
The Nutty Professor                                           Jerry Maguire
Independence Day                                              Eraser

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