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The 10 Best Films of 1996

The 10 Best Films of 1996


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“By the current timetable of cultural recycling, pop artifacts tend to look their most dated—no longer fresh and new, but also not yet easily filed as products of their time—roughly 15 to 20 years following their initial conception.” So wrote Slant‘s Eric Henderson in his intro to our list of the 100 Best Films of the 1990s. Five years after that list’s publication and we’re feeling, on the 16th anniversary of this site’s inception, a little nostalgic. Which is why, every day for the next two weeks, we’re looking back at one year from the 1990s, to celebrate the films—from the cerebral Iranian puzzle box, to the Hong Kong mixtape, to the American cine-savvy royale, with and without cheese—that inspired many of us to write about film in the first place.

Like we do today with our year-end lists, the year of U.S. theatrical distribution was for the most part used to determine what year a film belonged to. But in cases where a film took more than a year to reach America, the year of its first prominent theatrical engagement, either in its country of origin or beyond, was used. And given the abundance of riches we had to choose from, prior to each Top 10 is a list of 10 honorable mentions—the majority of which were shortlisted for our 100 Best Films of the 1990s back in 2012 but didn’t garner enough support to make the final list. Ed Gonzalez

Honorable Mention: Bottle Rocket, Citizen Ruth, Flirting with Disaster, From the Journals of Jean Seberg, The Funeral, Mahjong, The Man on the Shore, Rendezvous in Paris, Portrait of a Lady, and The Cable Guy

The 10 Best Films of 1996


Ashes of Time

Ashes of Time doesn’t starve for hyperkinetic genre calisthenics: In an early sequence, a warrior (Tony Leung Ka Fai), his mane and robes flowing for the tilted camera, slashes the air with his sword and precipitates an earthquake that vanquishes an army of horsemen. Wong heightens action tropes the way Sergio Leone found arias in western showdowns, though in his version of the Hong Kong martial-arts netherworld the mandatory melees play second fiddle to the characters’ melancholic languor. Asked to deliver a sword-fighting extravaganza, Wong perversely blurs, fractures and pixilates the choreography while having his all-star cast lounge around in overlapping reveries, soaking in the director’s themes of memory, being and love. (The “tumult of the heart” referenced in the opening Buddhist crawl is the focus.) No less than the romantics of his later films, Wong’s ancient warriors are obsessed with time and passion; icons out of old Shaw Brothers movies, they find the rigidity of their archetypal roles gradually eroded by the transience of their emotions. Radically (almost maddeningly) disjointed but never less than intoxicating, Wong’s most obscure film is a trance worth falling into. Fernando F. Croce

The 10 Best Films of 1996


La Cérémonie

The highlight of Claude Chabrol’s late career, La Cérémonie is a taut, chilling thriller that’s nearly perfect in every regard. The story, based on Ruth Rendell’s novel A Judgement in Stone, sets up increasingly uncomfortable class tensions that pit a wealthy family against their new maid, Sophie (Sandrine Bonnaire), and her new friend, Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), a postal worker the family distrusts. Thanks to stellar performances and a masterful script that Chabrol co-wrote with psychologist Caroline Eliacheff, La Cérémonie gives us characters who are elusive but nonetheless understandable; in the absence of details about Sophie and Jeanne’s culpability regarding their possibly murderous backgrounds, we still feel as if we could make up our minds about them. No second is wasted: Every line, scene, object, and expression makes narrative sense, connects with something else, or adds subtext (differences in the way characters watch TV speaks volumes about their place in the world). Illustrative of this connectedness is one of La Cérémonie’s best lines, a kind of blackly comic and ironic double entendre when you consider the film’s violent finale. After a priest scolds Jeanne for wicked behavior at a clothing donor’s house, she asks, “You don’t want our help?” To which the priest responds, “Maybe you should get some help.” Kalvin Henely

The 10 Best Films of 1996


Goodbye South, Goodbye

Perfectly poised between motion and stasis, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1996 triumph watches as its small-time gangsters alternate between just hanging around, waiting for something to happen, and traveling (via train, motorcycle, whatever) in lovingly composed compositions that bring both modes indelibly to life. Boredom and desperate economic transaction are the defining features of the film’s characters—and arguably of the late-20th (and early-21st) century—and Hou’s achievement is to get at this itchy restlessness while giving the viewer ample space to luxuriate and observe. If Hou’s distanced, long-take aesthetic was one of the defining modes of 1990s cinema, then it never feels more purposeful than in this film, whose exactly modulated rhythms speak to the experience of not simply a few Taiwanese hustlers, but to a shared sense of global discontent. Andrew Schenker

The 10 Best Films of 1996


The White Balloon

A director with a special talent for pulling the rug out from under his audience, employing unexpected tonal shifts and fourth-wall-collapsing left turns, Jafar Panahi crafts films in which deceptively gentle subject matter masks withering critiques of his nation’s rule of law. Like his countrymen Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi, and Mohsen Makhmalbahf, he subverts the censorship of an oppressive political system by cloaking these attacks in seemingly innocent children’s tales. The White Balloon contains probably the slyest, most bracing of all Panahi’s reversals, as the story of a small girl hunting for a big goldfish on New Year’s Eve briefly gives way to that of a balloon-selling Afghan child, who we then realize has been lurking at the film’s margins all along, selling his wares while more fortunate kids run about in search of a pet. It’s a reminder that for every family just scraping by, there are others who are in even worse shape. Jesse Cataldo

The 10 Best Films of 1996


Vive L’Amour

There’s a certain tendency among art-house movies to use long takes of their protagonists crying as an emotional, sometimes even narrative, climax. A strange habit, perhaps, and one that few use to fuller effect than Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive L’Amour, a film in which a shared loneliness would unite the characters if any were aware how close they are to others in the same situation. That the three leads all unknowingly live in the same Taipei apartment amplifies this irony, but not in a way that makes us laugh; ditto the title, which similarly underscores just how alone everyone is. From this communal isolation comes a great deal of beauty as well, much of it wordless as people drift past one another like ghosts. Tsai trusts his actors (not to mention his audience) enough to let their gestures and expressions mostly speak for themselves, hence the cathartic importance of the scene alluded to above: In a film so beautifully restrained, such an outwardly emotional act as this speaks volumes. Michael Nordine