It seems impossible to believe that at some point in the future, people will actually have 2010s nostalgia and will talk about today’s fashions and fads (peplum skirts and fascism) with a kind of misty-eyed, can-you-believe-that-was-us? fondness. But then, we thought the same thing in the ’90s and now here were are, more than halfway through our ’90s nostalgia series, prompted by the sudden run on ’90s revivals at the box office (everything from “Ghost In The Shell” to “Beauty And The Beast” to “Power Rangers“).
Right now, we’re up to 1996 (you can check out 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1995 at your leisure), the year the Unabomber was finally arrested and Jim Carrey became the first actor ever to receive a $20 million paycheck for a single film, only for that film to turn out to be “The Cable Guy.” “Independence Day” ruled the box office, while Pamela Anderson‘s “Casablanca” reworking “Barb Wire” became the immediate punchline for half the year’s jokes; the first clamshell phone was sold and a McDonald’s promotion led to the Great Beanie Baby Wars of 1996, which claimed so many lives. But 1996 also had some stellar surprises up its sleeve for cinephiles. Here are our ten favorite films that premiered that year.
There were a lot of gently humorous, heartwarming foreign-language films that broke through to some degree in the U.S. in the 1990s — just check the decade’s Foreign Language Oscar nominees for a veritable cascade of winsome. But we’re highlighting the 1996 winner “Kolya,” from Czech director Jan Sverák, not because of the weapons-grade adorability of the five-year-old title character (the angelic Andrej Chalimon) nor the familiar narrative of a thawing relationship between him and his reluctant stepfather, Louka (Zdenek Sverák). What elevates this lovely film are its details: the fabric of life in pre-Velvet Revolution Czechoslovakia and the idiosyncracies of these characters are foregrounded by Sverák’s amused camera. The overflowing ashtray of the bureaucrat investigating Louka’s case (he fake-marries a Russian woman so she can get Czech papers, but ends up in charge of her little son when she flees to East Germany); the way cellist Louka knocks the whistle off a boiling kettle with the tip of his bow; Kolya blowing his cover by running out to greet some Russian soldiers — what the film may lack in edge, it makes up for in authentic observation, heartfelt wisdom and, of course, that lightning-in-a-bottle turn by its tiny star.
9. “Irma Vep”
Falling somewhere in between Rainer Werner Fassbinder‘s “Beware Of A Holy Whore” and François Truffaut‘s “Day For Night” (even borrowing Truffaut talisman Jean-Pierre Léaud), Olivier Assayas‘ loose-limbed, raffishly cool “Irma Vep” is meta on top of meta: a film about films about filmmaking. Maggie Cheung plays a version of herself, coming to France to shoot a film based on Louis Feuillade‘s pivotal silent serial, “Les Vampires,” for Léaud’s obsessive but potentially has-been director. She befriends the no-nonsense costume designer (Nathalie Richard) who has a crush on her, and spends much of the film squeakily encased in a PVC catsuit shooting this rather dubious-looking movie. “Irma Vep” has an entirely offbeat vibe: a plot that goes nowhere, a series of relationships that nearly happen but don’t quite, and a sideswipe of satire at the French film industry that is, at best, pretty inside-baseball. It can seem insubstantial, like a trick of the light (and the experimental imagery, in which the footage has been scratched and bleached, reinforces that) and indeed was largely written off as a bauble at the time. But it’s precisely because of its ephemerality that it is so enigmatically fascinating: it feels like a delicious, undefinable sliver of cinema at its most rarefied but paradoxically most free.
8. “Secrets & Lies”
At this point, it’s an article of faith that Mike Leigh wouldn’t know how to make a bad movie, but 20 years ago, when he arrived at the Cannes Film Festival for only the second time and walked off with its top prize, that truism was not yet set in stone. Coming just three years after his excoriatingly brilliant “Naked” (see our 1993 list), “Secrets & Lies” seemingly occupies a less scabrous register, yet it pulses with life and finds just as much painful emotional truth in its constantly surprising, thrillingly real characterizations. Featuring a blistering performance from Brenda Blethyn as Cynthia, the downtrodden white, working-class woman whose family tensions are dredged to the surface when the black middle-class biological daughter (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) she gave up for adoption suddenly seeks her out, it’s a veritable riot of issues — race, class, gender, the sins of the past, familial resentments and responsibilities. But because of the dexterity of the performances (Leigh regular Timothy Spall and Claire Rushbrook are also extraordinary in support) and the utterly convincing chemistry that exists between the characters in every moment, it somehow combines into a desperately moving, holistic single story about seeking grace in a greasy spoon cafe, and finding redemptive, restorative connection at the bottom of a cup of tea.
7. “The Portrait Of A Lady”
If there’s a real conundrum in Jane Campion‘s career apart from “why does she not have all the Oscars,” it might just be “where is the critical rehabilitation project for this brilliant, bafflingly lambasted film?” Her adaptation of Henry James‘ rather trying novel takes liberties with the text, to be sure, but, starring a potentially career-best Nicole Kidman (which ain’t nothing), it is also an absorbing, psychologically rich and profoundly rewarding tragedy. Kidman’s Isabelle Archer breaks the mold of costume-drama, literary-adaptation heroines by being only marginally likable, and when she is brought to her knees (at one point literally when her sadistic husband, played with reptilian relish by John Malkovich, simply steps on her overelaborate skirts as she’s trying to walk away) it is explicitly the fall that comes after her pride. Ably supported by a steely, Oscar-nominated turn from Barbara Hershey, and a heartbreaking one from Martin Donovan, ‘Portrait’ is a stunningly mounted period film that places a real, complicated and difficult woman in the place where we might normally expect a corseted damsel. Seeing her intelligence, pride and willfulness batter itself to exhaustion against the bars of a cage of her own making makes for a completely singular cautionary tale.
6. “Drifting Clouds”
The eccentric genius of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki has always been to bake morsels of the most pointed social critique into the moreish dough of his deadpan absurdist comedies, like raisins in a cookie. And if you’re unfamiliar with his work, “Drifting Clouds” would be an excellent entry point, comprising many of the Kaurismäkian staples — including his usual formal, non-naturalistic performance style from a few of his familiar repertory troupe of actors — in a blissfully droll and unsentimentally moving dramedy. His most recent films “Le Havre” and this year’s “The Other Side Of Hope” both deal, in their oblique and idiosyncratic ways, with the refugee crisis, but back in ’96, it was the issue of economic pressure squeezing the little guy that was preoccupying Kaurismäki, and “Drifting Clouds” is one of his most direct and heartfelt films on that topic. It follows a married couple, who experience a huge strain on their previously contented relationship when he is laid off due to downsizing and she loses her restaurant job when the place is sold. The plodding quotidian rhythm quickly becomes part of the film’s laconic, humdrum brilliance, as the impeccably hangdog performers and the beautifully structured tableau-style framing somehow dam up an enormous amount of affection for these goodhearted people and the decent, ordinary struggles they (stone)face.