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Bards and Bullets

Frances McDormand
Michael Tackett

Woman With a Star: Frances McDormand's Marge Gunderson in 'Fargo' was 1996's best poster child for old-fashioned common sense and doing what's right.

From 'Twelfth Night' and 'Richard III' to 'Lone Star' and 'Fargo,' 1996's best films delivered both substance and groundling appeal

By Richard von Busack

SEEING TWO movies that work halfway is almost the same as seeing one movie that works all the way. I kept despair at bay during a paltry 1996 with a healthy diet of OK commercial fare, moderately interesting imports and some flawed successes like Mars Attacks! and Cyclo.

In 1996, there was almost always something to laugh at: the cold-bloodedness of Kingpin, the sharp farce of Flirting With Disaster, the sensational glower of Bill Murray in Larger Than Life. Also "not to be despised," as they say in the Hong Kong­movie subtitles, was Roberto Benigni's Statue of Lechery play in The Monster.

The year past also included some lesser-known performers who made an impression. The so-so Primal Fear was enlivened by Edward Norton's bifurcated psycho. Harve Presnell was memorable as the piratical father-in-law in Fargo. The young Natalie Portman was wise in a stupid role in Beautiful Girls and seriously funny in a silly role in Mars Attacks!.

Since the major independent film outlets are owned by The Mouse--like Miramax, Time/Turner and Fine Line/New Line--it would be a good time to thank Strand, Greycat and October Films for doing their best to survive as independents in the era of the Big Boys. Also thanks to the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto--which plans an Orson Welles series some time in the next few weeks--and Geoff Alexander for his Cine16 series of 16mm finds.

The year's revivals--Eyes Without a Face, Vertigo, Purple Noon, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, even Switchblade Sisters and David Lynch's underrated Fire Walk With Me--all brought back the familiar old reaction of being thoroughly hypnotized by a movie.

THE OSCARS can bring a crowd out for a little film like no amount of advertising can. Still, the Oscars also set off a stampede of prestige films, trying to squeeze into that window of opportunity in the last week of the year, because of the rule that a film must play in Los Angeles or New York before Jan. 1.

My feeling is that since I'm writing for a northern California paper, I should consider only movies that opened in northern California during the calendar year. Otherwise, I would have put Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet on my Top 10 list, despite Kate Winslet's haphazard Ophelia and a Gertrude (Julie Christie, who at least looks Danish) lost in what Branagh calls "an underwritten character."

If Hamlet had opened this December in the valley, there would have been three movies about Shakespeare on my Top 10 list. I'm not some sort of a crank about the Bard. I was talking to documentary filmmaker John Barnes, who once made an educational film on Hamlet, and he said, "Every night, I'd go home with that poetry ringing in my head." That's the appeal of Shakespeare--it's so much nicer to have his poetry ringing in one's head than, say, explosions.

Shakespeare wrote for the groundlings--a matter stressed by the same kind of mind that likes to remind you that Jesus Christ was the world's great salesman. Still, Shakespeare used language to please himself. The modern movie has, on the whole, extraordinarily good acting, frequently inspired direction, beautiful use of music and of imagery--but the writing is desperate, often really abject. No wonder filmmakers were racing each other back to the Bard.

The groundling appeal was never so evident as in the least of 1996's adaptations, William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, in which adolescents got the teen-love double suicide they long to witness. And now I've blown the ending, which is something, despite my other faults, I try never to do. There is a new urban legend about an East Bay theater where some prankster stood up and shouted, "They both kill themselves in the end," and more than a few of the incensed audience asked for their money back since the plot was spoiled.

So I'll be careful not to blow the ending of Hamlet when it comes time to write about it. Presumably, Shakespeare piled up the bodies for his ending for the same reason the Coen brothers accumulated seven corpses in Fargo--to please the groundlings. And with mention of Fargo, the Top 10:

Fargo and Lone Star--A pair of Westerns. Fargo's appeal was the old one of the man on a horse, the realistic botched shoot-outs and the evil railroad boss (in the form of Harve Presnell). The surprise in the genre: Frances McDormand's Marge Gunderson evolving from some Midwestern dialect joke--a blank white face mirroring a blank white landscape--to the most tall-standing badge-wearing hero of the year. Fargo was the year's best discourse on living on the right side of the law, what it costs and what it's worth.

In Lone Star, John Sayles turned the myth of the West inside out, his sometimes too-wordy approach mitigated by the fact that no one else does what he does. Sayles balanced his politics with objections and second thoughts--countering his own arguments with opposites. No one else making movies this year could have come up with a line as reasoned as "It's always heartwarming to see one prejudice overcome by another."

Secrets & Lies--The virtuosic scene of the barbecue was filmed during a heat wave; the scene of the reunion at the cafe was shot over the course of eight hours. If this doesn't impress you, be reminded of the episodes in Mike Leigh's masterpiece that seemed of more importance than other people's two and a half-hour movies: the incident with the scarred woman took up about one minute of screen time, the story of the drunk ex­business partner took up perhaps four. No one who saw this movie is likely to forget it.

Trainspotting--Twenty years ago, the New York Dolls' Johnny Thunders (I think it was) recorded a song called "No Christmas for Junkies." Despite this all too true sentiment, wouldn't it have been great to see Renton, Sick Boy and Begbie decked out with stupid-looking airbrushed Santa hats in adverts for a Christmas revival of Trainspotting, this year's alternative feel-good movie?

Welcome to the Dollhouse--The working title was "Faggots and Retards." Heather Matarazzo's performance as the benighted Wiener Dog was (along with Brenda Blethyn, Emily Watson, Renee Zellweger) another reason to believe that the Year of the Woman in cinema had truly arrived.

Richard III--The only movie of 1996, beside Paradise Lost, that should have been longer. Ian McKellen demonstrated the way Shakespeare on film has the advantage over the stage by underscoring Richard's impotence with a snappish tug at his zipper and the word "withered." Isn't Kristin Scott Thomas more attractive when she has a hunchback as her leading man instead of a burn victim?

The Big Night--A morsel. A tasty coating of Louis Prima worship on the outside, a crunchy moral about the constant pressure to compromise through the bait of money. That's the theme of all of the best movies in America: Greed, Citizen Kane, The Godfather.

Twelfth Night--Included for two of my favorite lines: Sir Toby Belch (Mel Smith, always to be honored for his 1989 farce The Tall Guy) upon hearing that his butler Malvolio is a Puritan, "O if I thought that, I'd beat him like a dog"; and Maria's rejoinder to an outburst by the self-same Puritan, "Go shake your ears." Now, if you ever meet Pat Robertson, you'll know what to say.

The Flower of My Secret--Pedro Almodovar's most serene film demonstrated a shift in his abilities, into higher drama than just jokes and decor (both of which were sharp), as he becomes enamored of serious emotion and composition. He is broadening and mellowing his scope without losing his pointed humor.

Breaking the Waves--There wasn't a better film this year that I had more reluctance in recommending, even though the frightening fate of Bess was more a part of the story than the grisly docking of Willem Dafoe's thumbs in this year's erstwhile romantic classic The English Patient. There was room to talk about whether director Lars Von Trier's irony or his sincerity was too much of a good thing, but no one could equivocate about the purity of Emily Watson's acting as poor crazed Bess.

AS FOR the 10 worst movies--decisions, decisions. When I first started reviewing, it was my ambition to see every movie ever made, but I'm a lot less resilient now, and so I dodge a few of the films whose reputation precedes them--including any with sunglasses-wearing animals on the poster.

This qualification stuff is not easy. There's a difference between the slight, musky aroma of a The Long Kiss Goodnight and the robust eye-burning stench of a Bordello of Blood.

The box-office hits were bad enough, too. Twister wasn't the worst thing I saw all year, but it included one especially bad scene: the usually sure-fire "vegetarian served a big bloody piece of meat" gag. I saw Five Easy Pieces in revival last week and was amazed by Lois Smith's subtle, beautiful playing of Jack Nicholson's terminally abashed sister. That's when I realized how much talent was being squandered in Smith's globby role as the Earth mother whose cooking makes Jami Gertz turn up her fancy little nose.

Mostly, when I think of bad movies--was Chain Reaction really worse than The Glimmer Man?--I can remember staring out at the sunlight either at Winchester Boulevard under a smoggy sky or in the huge depressing parking lot at the Century 16, thanking my lucky stars that I'd emerged intact from another fiasco. Post-traumatic stress syndrome wipes out the memory.

O.K. It hasn't opened yet (and I'm breaking my own guidelines because you deserve an early warning), but Evita to start with--there won't be another filmed musical for 20 years after the bomb-bay doors open on this one. To quote Jim Jarmusch's running "gag," only a "stupid white man" could have made the nearly unwatchable Dead Man. You won't see many movies pitched lower than Joe's Apartment or more lofty about serial killing than Butterfly Kiss.

There was the aptly titled Loser, an argument for the abolition of film festivals. Glory Daze, a.k.a. Last Call, featured the memorable scene in which the girlfriend apologizes for being mad that the hero told her to shut up--"I guess I violated the Prime Directive of being a girlfriend." Space Jam, The Spitfire Grill, The Stupids, Too Much, Multiplicity--what is there to say except that Tom Arnold's existence remains a bigger mystery than where the water came from on Mars.

There were, in short, enough movies to provide that burn-down-the-theater, murder-the-concessionaires, blind-yourself-like-Oedipus sensation that's meant by the phrase "Escape to the Movies." No doubt there's worst yet to come; Demi Moore is still considered a hot property. Steel yourselves.

1996's Top 10
Secrets & Lies; Breaking the Waves; Trainspotting; Fargo; The Big Night; Welcome to the Dollhouse; Richard III; The Flower of My Secret; Lone Star; Twelfth Night

1996's Roll Call of Shame
Evita; Dead Man; Joe's Apartment; Butterfly Kiss; Glory Daze; Loser; Space Jam; The Stupids; Too Much; Multiplicity

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From the Dec. 26, 1996 to Jan. 1, 1997 issue of Metro

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