1996 was a good year for popcorn blockbusters and hip French movies. It was the year that a bunch of great or at least interesting directors made their first features. It was the year that Woody Allen made a movie that inspired strong feelings in people who aren’t me. It was the year that great films were booed at Cannes. It was the year that some movies won awards at Sundance only to be promptly forgotten. In other words, it was a year like any other. And every year has it secrets.
What follows is a short, completely capricious guide to films that premiered in 1996 and, for whatever reason, didn’t get their due in these United States. There are stone-cold masterpieces here, as well as at least one film that’s actually pretty bad. The only kind of movie culture I can support is the kind that can appreciate both.
Bertrand Tavernier’s period films have so much integrity that they make most other attempts at historical drama look like awkward dress-up. Here, he tackles the bleak aftermath of World War I, focusing on a reluctant military prosecutor and the stubborn, fearless, ambiguous title character (Philippe Torreton), who leads a vicious French special unit trained to sneak into the trenches and slash throats. Tavernier’s camera can turn on a dime, wobbling and leaping from one point to another, giving exchanges in nominal peacetime the same air of pent-up aggression as the vividly staged battle scenes—shot in long handheld takes—that bookend the film. Completely engrossing and blissfully free of a single figure of audience identification.
The old conundrum: How can something so bad feel so good? This cash-grab sequel to The Crow—penned by David S. Goyer before he managed to hack his way to the top—is almost inane enough to pass for crazy, and it looks like a druggy concoction of German expressionism and midnight MTV. French cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier, who was then best known for the movies he’d shot for Leos Carax (Lovers On The Bridge, Mauvais Sang), did some of his most gorgeous work on this movie, with hyper-saturated lighting and shallow depth of field as delicate as sashimi. Toss in dreamlike miniature and model effects and Thomas Jane jerking off in a pageboy wig, and what you’ve got is a small wonder of trashy, unregulated filmmaking.
“When I’m dead, I’m gonna roast in hell. I believe that. But the trick is: Get used to the idea.” Abel Ferrara’s first attempt at a period piece applies his brand of dank, claustrophobic back-alley opera to the Bronx underworld of the 1930s, where hoods argue over each other and think out loud, their hair slicked back by a mixture of sweat and pomade. Ferrara’s direction whips up the male cast to the point where everyone looks like they might puke or throw a punch at any moment, and yet still leaves plenty of room for nuance. The silent notes of defeat and resignation are powerful. Case in point: An all-time-great gecko-eyed death stare delivered late in the film by Christopher Walken, who had previously starred in Ferrara’s King Of New York.
Edward Yang’s Stateside reputation rests on his final film, Yi Yi: A One And A Two, and to a lesser extent on the epic-length A Brighter Summer Day, but in a logical world, this cosmopolitan, darkly comic ensemble piece about expats, disaffected youths, and gangsters in Taipei would be the most popular point of entry. Yang’s direction shifts seamlessly with the narrative, from the mural-like Hard Rock Cafe sequence, which introduces most of the characters and relationships (imperiously presided over by a framed portrait of Prince), to the increasingly stark and stylized staging of the movie’s second half. But it is never less than pointed. Films about “how we live today” get a bad rap in the United States, mostly because Americans are inexplicably bad at making them. This is how you do it right.
Charles Burnett has never been mainstream, but somehow, after the tremendous To Sleep With Anger and the Samuel Fuller-esque LAPD drama The Glass Shield, he found himself directing an adaptation of a young-adult novel—Gary Paulsen’s Nightjohn, about a 12-year-old girl taught to read by a fellow slave—for the Disney Channel. Remarkably, Burnett reappropriates the fairytale palette that has swaddled depictions of the antebellum South since Gone With The Wind. He snatches it out of the plantation house and applies it to scenes of slaves meeting or working in moonlight, creating a sense of denied life coming out in secret. “The sort of film that often gets undeservedly overlooked,” goes The A.V. Club’s original review.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the master of the skin-crawling static wide shot, has often cited Don Siegel, Robert Aldrich, and the noir films of Richard Fleischer as his biggest influences. The connection to classic American tough-guy movies isn’t always apparent in his celebrated horror films, but it’s all over the body of work he produced in relative obscurity before he finally caught a break with Cure. This one stars Japanese genre-movie mainstay Shô Aikawa as a cop whose family was killed by the yakuza. It may be the most generic trashy pulp vengeance yarn imaginable, but Kurosawa’s direction is cold-blooded and very disquieting, especially when it comes to violence. Arresting use is made of empty warehouses and parking garages—a geometry of unease.
A sniper-spotter duo camp out in the top floor of a futuristic, unfinished skyscraper, thinking about where their last mission went wrong. Directed by Russell Mulcahy, the smoke-and-mirror stylist whose career never recovered from the commercial failure of The Shadow, this unusual Dolph Lundgren vehicle is an early example of an action-movie mood piece, preceding John Hyams’ seminal (to action buffs, at least) Universal Solder: Regeneration by a decade and change. The unique set—multi-level, dominated by a big oval window—inspires widescreen compositions with the graphic sensibility of diagonally cut comics panels, colored in by a metallic palette of yellow and blue. A treat for anyone who thinks that Lundgren’s scowl is inherently poignant.
Does anyone care about Chen Kaige anymore?
Farewell My Concubine may have been better received, but the Chinese director’s follow-up is the more ravishing movie; set largely in 1920s Shanghai, it doesn’t evoke a past era so much as a universe of indulgences, temptations, and sumptuous textures lost to time. A perfume- and opium-scented reverie of dapper gigolos, neon signs, and brocaded screens, with lighting so diffuse that it looks like it would leave a powdery, luminescent residue on your fingers, the movie is barely involving as narrative and intoxicating as everything else. Shot by Christopher Doyle, the Australian-born, Hong Kong-based cinematographer best known for his work with Wong Kar-Wai.
Like Bertrand Tavernier, André Téchiné has never really gotten his due in America, perhaps because his films arrive with the same reek of César Award nominations. Never mind: Téchiné is even more of a master, opting for personal turmoil over pathology. This Faulkner-esque drama about cops-and-robbers loners in the outskirts of Lyon is something of a masterpiece. Broken up into parts, it examines the events surrounding a botched heist from different characters’ points of view. The point isn’t to set up a twist; in fact, the heist is the least involving part of the plot. Instead, Thieves develops into an intricate, fatalistic examination of life and circumstance, in which the genre elements (the crooks, the law, theft, etc.) become metaphors rich with insight.
Next guest: At long last, Reckless Kelly.
Purchasing via Amazon helps support The A.V. Club.