December 19 - 26, 1 9 9 6
[Arts 1996]
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Darkness on the big screen

[Breaking the Waves]

Breaking the Waves

At a certain point the extremes of depravity and beatitude meet. They do so in Lars von Trier's exhilarating and exhausting Breaking the Waves. On a remote and barren island off the northern coast of Scotland in the 1970s, a simple-minded, perhaps divinely inspired young woman (the brilliant, divinely inspired Emily Watson, in the finest performance of the year) offends her fundamentalist community by marrying an outsider, a worker from an offshore oil rig. He's paralyzed in an accident, and she offends everyone even more by agreeing to his demand that she sleep with other men and tell him about it. Balancing primordial emotion with relentless cinéma-vérité style, Breaking the Waves transforms melodrama into religious revelation.



The Coen brothers' masterpiece adds to their usual mix of treachery, capricious fate, detached irony, casual absurdity, and surreal imagery the key missing ingredient -- humanity. It comes in the form of Frances McDormand (an outstanding performance by an actress in a year rich in them) as a pregnant small-town sheriff who tracks down a trio of would-be kidnappers and inadvertent murderers (William Macy, Steve Buscemi, and Peter Stormare, all repellent and endearing) across the snowy voids of Minnesota via logic and basic decency. Most disturbingly, it's the latter quality that gives Fargo its greatest chill.

Ulysses's Gaze

Some say art died with the Holocaust. Certainly the abominations committed then and up to the present day have raised questions about the value of aesthetics. Theo Angelopoulos makes a case for art in his thrilling and profoundly moving Ulysses's Gaze, in which Harvey Keitel plays a Greek director obsessed with locating the first film footage shot in his country. His odyssey takes him into encounters with three different women (all played hauntingly by Maia Morgenstern); this involves him in different disasters of history that culminate with a rendezvous in Sarajevo that is devastating and triumphant. Illuminated with images that amaze and arrest, Gaze is a film you cannot tear your eyes from.


Yet another brilliant performance by an actress turns Ang Lee's effervescent and limpid adaptation of Jane Austen's finest novel into the year's purest entertainment. Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role of the headstrong, brilliant, meddling, uncomprehending, and utterly endearing provincial English heiress offers vivacity, wit, and luminous vulnerability. With a supporting cast bringing to hilarious and sometimes pathetic life Austen's lovingly and acidly limned eccentrics, this is light entertainment in every sense of the word -- it diverts and reveals.


The old stereotype of genius being akin to madness gets an emotionally draining but inspiring overhaul in Scott Hicks's telling of the true story of David Helfgott, a piano prodigy whose mind snaps under the combined pressures of his monstrous father, a Holocaust survivor played frighteningly by Armin Mueller-Stahl, and his own compulsion to master Rachmaninov's forbidding Third Piano Concerto. With Geoffrey Rush's performance as Helfgott (already recognized by critics' societies) and Hicks's musically structured direction, Shine is as demanding and rewarding as the Rachmaninov itself.

Paradise Lost

Two years ago Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were robbed of an Oscar nod for their Brother's Keeper, clearly one of the best documentaries of the year. If the same happens here it will be an artistic injustice on a par with the legal one that is the subject of their Paradise Lost. In a small Arkansas town three young boys are found murdered and sexually mutilated. Suspicion falls on a trio of teens because they wear black, listen to Metallica, and have an interest in witchcraft. With unbelievable (doubts about the film's credibility have been its strongest criticism) serendipity, Sinofsky and Berlinger gain access to the suspects, the victims' families, and the authorities, and with twists and revelations rivaling Perry Mason they unfold a revelatory tale of human folly.


Human folly gets a rapturously sordid spin in Danny Boyle's adaptation of Irvine Welch's Trainspotting. A kind of combination of Leaving Las Vegas and A Hard Day's Night, it's an episodic account of the aimless, ruthless, self-destructive misadventures of a cadre of Edinburgh drug addicts and layabouts, those who "choose not to choose life." At once uplifting and soul-crushing, Trainspotting does justice to both the agony and the ecstasy of nihilism and addiction; its motto is "Just say know."

The People vs. Larry Flynt

Addiction is cut with pornography in Milos Forman's depiction of the life of the publisher of Hustler, who took on the likes of Jerry Falwell to protect his right to free speech and bad taste before falling victim to a would-be assassin's bullet that paralyzed him from the waist down. Woody Harrelson puts in his best performance to date as Flynt; he's irresistibly boorish, subversive and hilarious. Courtney Love is a revelation as his wife; both innocent and utterly debauched, the performance might not be acting at all. It's Forman's best film; ranging from brilliant satire to sudden poetry, with soundtrack including cheesy 70s hits and religious music by Antonin Dvorák, this is a superb meeting of the sacred and profane.


Continuing in this Top 10 list's theme that life sucks is Michael Winterbottom's lyrical and crushing adaptation of Thomas Hardy's finest novel, Jude the Obscure. Although missing some of the obscurity, it captures Hardy's Olympian pessimism with its opening overhead long shot of Jude the boy lost in a barren field about to be beaten for his humanity. Christopher Eccleston prevails in the title role as the stonecarver whose desire to be a university man is thwarted, as is his ambition to be both carnal and pure, to be united in love but untainted by the social bond of marriage (embodied in his love for Sue Bridehead, who's played by a coltish and perverse Kate Winslet).

Twelfth Night

Some levity returns, but also a twinge of darkness, in Trevor Nunn's glorious adaptation of Shakespeare's gender-bending comedy. Imogen Stubbs triumphs as Viola, the shipwrecked maiden who poses as a soldier with the expected mistaken-identity twists -- here given a gender-twisting spin that is as unnerving as it is entertaining, ending with a recognition scene that is rapturously moving. With Helena Bonham Carter, Richard E. Grant, Nigel Hawthorne, and Ben Kingsley, this is a Night suffused with day and melancholy, the finest Shakespeare adaptation of the year.

-- Peter Keough

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