The Top Ten Films of 1996
Throughout 2016, we’ll be taking a look at what Flickchart users think are the best movies of ten, twenty, thirty, and even one hundred and twenty years ago.
Last year we highlighted the best movies of 1925, 1935, 1945, 1955, 1965, 1975, 1985, 1995 and 2005. Now it’s the Sixes’ time to shine as we explore your favorite films that are celebrating big anniversaries in 2016.
If movies that came out in 1996 were people, they wouldn’t yet be able to drink legally in the United States, but they’d be so close that if you can remember seeing them in theaters this sentence has probably made you feel old. 1996 was the year that President Bill Clinton was elected to a second term, and the Summer Olympic games were held in Atlanta despite a pre-9/11 terrorist bombing. The Nintendo 64 entertainment system debuted that year, and the O.J. Simpson trial got underway in Los Angeles. The internet was in less than 20% of American households, and just over a third of homes had a computer — there were so few online listicles like this one that “listicle” wasn’t even a word!
Last but not least, some of Flickcharters’ favorite movies, and some of our bloggers’ too, first hit theaters 20 years ago. They are:
10. Mission: Impossible
What other films based on a 1960s television series have launched a modern film franchise with such style and panache? (Star Trek doesn’t count; it’s always been far more successful on the small screen.) Mission: Impossible leans heavily on Tom Cruise‘s star power, to great effect, even if this first film’s plot is a little impenetrable on first viewing. (Just what the heck is a “NOC list”, anyway?) It doesn’t matter; it’s rip-roaring entertainment. Cruise’s great mid-film, gravity-defying stunt has rightly achieved “iconic” status, and signaled that “impossible” would translate to “outrageous” for this franchise in all the best ways. With last year’s Rogue Nation making our Top 20 list of the Best Films of 2015, Ethan Hunt shows no sign of slowing down 20 years on. Thank goodness. — Nigel Druitt
9. The Rock
That may be an easy proclamation to make, but it’s also a little too easy, selling short a hardworking director who prides himself on his craft no matter how his massive, box office-dominating films about giant shapeshifting robots may sit with critics. Bay is a director who is all about the popcorn and the spectacle. He makes films that are squarely aimed at entertaining the lowest common denominator, and he succeeds. The difference with The Rock is that his crowd-pleasing talents are in service to a script that is actually good, enabled by a cast of excellent actors at the top of their game who are having a tremendous amount of fun. Nic Cage and the one and only Sean Connery are among the great action movie odd couples, and Ed Harris manages to bring pathos to his scenery-chewing villain role. As with most action films of the ’90s, The Rock hits all the Die Hard buttons, but it hits them exactly right. It is easily one of the best straight-up popcorn action flicks of the decade, and perhaps ever. — Nigel Druitt
Swingers is a film about struggling actors trying to make it big in Hollywood, and it had the real-life effect of putting writer/actor Jon Favreau, actor Vince Vaughn, and director Doug Liman on the map. The movie arrived while the 1990s swing music revival was well underway; Swing Kids and The Mask had highlighted the genre in 1993. The Swingers soundtrack featured tracks from classic swing musicians (and introduced many to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy). The story takes place in Los Angeles and follows Favreau’s character, who can’t seem to do a lot of things — he can’t seem to get over his ex-girlfriend, he can’t seem to meet anyone new, and he can’t seem to get his career on track. Vaughan plays his new best friend, who is full of positive energy and crazy ideas that don’t always work out, but he sure keeps things from being boring. The film is made with style, energy, and self-deprecating humor. The contrasting positive and negative outlooks of the main characters provide a compelling balance, and no matter how often they screw up, I find myself rooting for them to succeed. Maybe tomorrow will be the day things will finally fall into place? — Ben
7. Bottle Rocket
Nothing about Wes Anderson‘s debut Bottle Rocket betrays the picturesque dollhouses he’d become famous for constructing until you notice that one of the film’s primary settings is clearly a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The attention to detail and affection for the underdog that Anderson possesses appear as early as this debut, though, and Bottle Rocket‘s sharpness and affection make one wish Owen Wilson were still writing screenplays with the acclaimed director. Luke and Owen Wilson co-star not as brothers but as best friends with brotherly affection; the distance they experience because of their anxieties and neurotic tendencies form the core relationship of the film. These would-be bandits have such strong comedic writing as to make the film perhaps Anderson’s most delightful. There’s a hint of the sorrow that dominates some of Anderson’s later films, but Bottle Rocket maintains a bittersweet tone warmed by the most summery yellows of his entire career (captured by ace cinematographer Robert Yeoman.) The final sequence caps one of the funniest movies in an auteur’s filmography of farces. — Alex Christian Lovendahl
6. Happy Gilmore
Looking at Adam Sandler twenty years ago, it’s hard to believe that he’d ever be one of the biggest comedy stars of all time, or that his career would become so antiseptic and, well, bad as it has become today. But the 90s ended up being the highlight of Sandler’s comedy career, giving us the childish Billy Madison, the effective romantic comedy The Wedding Singer, the simplicity of The Waterboy and the rage-filled golfer of Happy Gilmore. Sandler excelled at those lazy weekend type of movies, the ones that come on TV all the time that you can’t seem to change the channel away from, which helped Happy Gilmore gain the notoriety is has today. Happy Gilmore is hilariously simple: a hockey player who can’t skate tries out golf. That’s pretty much it. Sandler kept things easy with Happy Gilmore, and that’s really where he excels. It’s a shame that that version of Sandler ever went away. — Ross Bonaime
5. Waiting for Guffman
Mockumentaries can be found everywhere these days, but back in 1996, we hadn’t quite gotten to peak saturation. Waiting for Guffman is the first one directed by Christopher Guest (though he was an actor and writer in This Is Spinal Tap 12 years earlier). It succeeds wildly, thanks to its hilarious cast and its pitch-perfect dialogue. As someone who has seen and been involved in her fair share of local amateur theatrical productions, I can’t help laughing every time Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara dish out terrible acting advice to Eugene Levy, or whenever Guest waxes poetic about his art. The movie even shows us a lot of the final production, and it is every bit as hysterical and awful as we were promised. It’s a great movie for any audience, but for theater lovers, it’s a must-see. — Hannah Keefer
4. From Dusk Till Dawn
Quentin Tarantino may have only directed 8 films by his count, but that’s partly because Robert Rodriguez stepped up to direct what otherwise could have been QT’s follow-up to Pulp Fiction. Tarantino had already partly cannibalized his years-old From Dusk Till Dawn script, taking pieces for other projects (including Pulp Fiction; according to Rodriguez, the Ezekiel speech from that film was originally intended for Keitel’s character in Dusk). Lovers of weird, cult cinema owe a debt to Rodriguez for his intervention, because From Dusk Till Dawn is unique: a sleazy heist horror that comes with a wad of religious, sexual, and racial themes. From the jump cuts in the motel room where the fugitive Gecko brothers (George Clooney and Tarantino) keep their hostages to the snake dance in a stripclub-turned-abattoir to the matte painting reveal of a Mesoamerican ruin, this is an insane ride that defies easy categorization. You could, broadly, call it a comedy; it is one of Tarantino’s funniest scripts, and even the darker material of the first half acquires a retroactive irony in the second. The cast is deep and impressive, featuring the likes of Cheech Marin in three roles, a then barely-known Salma Hayek, the ubiquitous Danny Trejo, and Harvey Keitel and Juliette Lewis as a pair of unlikely heroes. Even if you know the big spoiler, the film must be seen to be believed. Like Fargo, this 1996 film has also inspired a current TV series. — David Conrad
3. Independence Day
Roland Emmerich loves to destroy things. It might be a city or it could be the whole freaking earth, but no one can make things go boom quite like he can. And nowhere does he do it better than in Independence Day, the quintessential alien invasion film. Between Bill Pullman’s rousing speech, Will Smith’s sheer charisma and the awesomeness that is Jeff Goldblum, the movie treads a fine line, focusing on the bleak odds for humanity’s survival while keeping a sense of humor. And it’s that humor that has helped the movie stand the test of time. Who hasn’t seen a joke or two about Goldblum’s use of an Apple Macintosh Powerbook to hack into the highly, technologically advanced alien mothership? But the fact that the movie isn’t afraid to have a laugh ensures that it survives others having a laugh at it. At the same time, the film isn’t afraid to take a serious moment to show us the effect of the death and destruction the aliens are wreaking. With effects that still hold up and an underdog story that works on multiple levels, Independence Day created powerful visuals that are still remembered today, and a story that can still leave you cheering. — Naomi Laeuchli
Trainspotting is the second partnership of director Danny Boyle and actor Ewan McGregor. Their first outing, Shallow Grave, is a black comedy thriller made with style and dark wit. In Trainspotting (adapted from Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name), they apply a similar black comedy lens to a crime drama involving heroin addicts, with fantastic results. The film (set in Scotland in the 1980s) takes an intense look at the travails and exploits of a group of young people whose lives revolve around heroin (getting it, using it, dealing with the consequences). While certainly not a documentary, the film’s portrayal of drug addiction rings true. The story runs from entertaining to serious to sad to hilarious, with moments that are thrilling, terrifying, disturbing, and downright bizarre. Boyle infuses the film with a visual energy that matches an at-times manic plot. The soundtrack is incredible (there was so much good music used in the movie they eventually released two volumes). If you’re a fan of Danny Boyle, Ewan McGregor, or entertaining crime films, keep your eyes peeled for Trainspotting. It’s worth a look. — Ben Shoemaker
From the start of their careers, the Coen Brothers distinguished themselves with sharp, creative scripts, a wry and often dark tone, and explorations of what makes society tick. They honed their skills slowly over the course of the 1980s and early 90s until in 1996 they put out what many consider their first true masterwork, Fargo. Fargo is a simply brilliant film. The simple crime story is about a car salesman who hires two criminals to kidnap his wife in order to collect ransom money from his wife’s extremely wealthy father. The Coens use this frame to explore their well-written characters as well as the implications that these characters’ actions have for society as a whole. We have William H. Macy playing the car salesman with just the right mixture of down-troddenness and greed that makes his character sympathetic and relatable, while also showing what leads to his downfall. Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare impress as the two criminals with sharply contrasting personalities that make for witty and entertaining scenes. But the show-stealer here is Frances McDormand as a police officer investigating the kidnapping. McDormand delivers a truly amazing performance, making Marge Gunderson one of cinema’s new great heroes. Her combination of keen wits, relentlessness in her work, and cute North Dakotan accent come together to make her a memorable character who audiences get behind completely. No review of Fargo would be complete without mentioning the wonderful camerawork from the Coens. Scene after scene shows their ability to film in a way no other director would have been able to do. The burying of the case of money along the road, the large sign leading into town, and many more shots demonstrate their creativity behind the camera. This quirky and dark crime film now stands as one of the best movies ever made and has recently inspired a highly successful and acclaimed TV show. Fargo showed the world that the Coen Brothers were brilliant filmmakers, yet it was only a preview of more great films to come. — Connor Ryan Adamson
I grew up watching classic films almost exclusively, but that started to change in the mid-1990s, when an explosion of Jane Austen films lured my mom out to the theater with me in tow. I enjoyed all of them well enough (okay, she got way more out of Persuasion than I did), but Emma was an instant favorite. A headstrong yet very flawed heroine, matchmaking plots gone wrong, and a slow-building but immensely satisfying romance all make it one of my favorite Austen stories, and the movie did not disappoint. It’s quite possibly Paltrow‘s best performance (and I say that with no irony, as I quite enjoy her work most of the time, and am an outspoken Shakespeare in Love apologist), and I wish Jeremy Northam were in more stuff. I didn’t understand how rental windows worked in the VHS days, and I asked every week at my local (retail) video store if I could buy Emma yet. Every week.
Hannah: The Birdcage
By 1996, Robin Williams had a decent reputation as a dramatic actor as well as a comedic one, but chances are, if he was in a comedy, he was going to be the funny one, the one making silly faces and voices and tossing out one-liners like there was no tomorrow. The Birdcage is one of the rare exceptions. Here he plays the straight man to Nathan Lane‘s wackier character, and the dynamic works brilliantly. An adaptation of the 1973 French play La Cage Aux Folles, the film features Williams and Lane as a flamboyantly gay couple. When Williams’ son invites his conservative soon-to-be in-laws over, the men must try to present themselves as a more traditional family. Williams and Lane are the centerpieces, with Lane hamming it up in a deliciously campy fashion and Williams frequently losing patience with him, but the supporting cast rounds it all out, including Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest as the conservative parents and Hank Azaria as a Guatemalan housekeeper who gets some of the best lines. It’s just a funny, funny movie that sometimes goes unmentioned when remembering Williams’ filmography.
Scream was the first horror film I ever saw and considering its insane amount of references and playing with the genre, it’s shocking I loved it as much as I did. But Wes Craven understood that to make a great parody, you must also make a great version of whatever genre you’re spoofing, even if it means poking fun at yourself and your past as well. Watching as a kid unaware of the films that were being mentioned, I still adored what Scream was doing, even if I didn’t understand it fully. Watching Scream now, having seen most of the films that are brought up, I adore it even more, to the point that it remains my favorite horror film ever. It is easily one of the most brilliant parodies and fascinating horror masterpieces in decades.
David: The English Patient
A Seinfeld bit and two decades of “Worst Oscar Winners” listicles have done enough damage that even Roger Ebert’s 4-star review offers little relief to the long-suffering English Patient fan. Yet when revisiting the film, it is hardly possible to care what people think. John Seale’s cinematography arrests the vision, Gabriel Yared’s poetic score drowns out the naysayers, and Juliette Binoche‘s seraphic performance soars above the din. Admittedly, the postwar storyline featuring Binoche caring for the dying patient (Ralph Fiennes) and observing the Sikh munitions worker (Naveen Andrews) works better than the flashbacks in which Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Willem Dafoe are variously wounded by the vicissitudes of war, but that disconnect is part of the film’s meaning; it is impossible, really, to recapture the memories of the dead and dying, to understand their lives and the lives of the people they knew, when those lives are shattered by conflict and ended by the frailty of the human body. Yet lost lives and past battles have a way of rippling forward through time. Binoche loses a friend and nearly a lover to old ordnance, while Dafoe and the patient carry ghastly injuries for what remains of their lives. The English Patient is a beautiful but melancholic reminder that while the past is largely inaccessible, we are doomed to live in the present it creates.
Much as I love Apollo 13 (a mainstay of my Top 20 since I first joined Flickchart), even I have to admit that, as a director, Ron Howard sometimes comes across as a little. . . vanilla. Then I see something like Rush and suddenly remember that, oh yeah, I’ve seen Ransom, a film that not only has some teeth, but is one I can love while forgetting that it was directed by Opie. This movie brings us Mel Gibson at his unhinged best, as a desperate father searching for his kidnapped son. He’s ably supported by a cast of great character actors, including Delroy Lindo and a wonderfully vile Gary Sinise, but it’s Gibson’s show to win or lose, and he turns in one of his very greatest performances. Howard’s direction is taut and tense, in a film that immediately hooked me in 1996, and kept me coming back for more. It’s a long-time favorite deserving of another viewing, soon.
Naomi: Primal Fear
There are some films that are remembered mostly for their ending. Primal Fear is one of these. People remember the end. They remember the end and they remember Edward Norton. This was his film debut and his performance more than earned the Oscar nomination that went with it. But the movie is so much more than one performance and even more than its end. It’s a movie that looks at the goodness of people, and their evilness. It’s a movie that asks hard questions and knows it can’t give the answers. Richard Gere gives one of his best performances as a lawyer who sums up his character and the moral dilemma of the movie in one moving speech:
“I choose to believe in the basic goodness of people. I choose to believe that not all crimes are committed by bad people. And I try to understand that some very, very good people do some very bad things.”
His belief is a choice, and like all beliefs, there are moments of doubt. That dark moment of doubt in a belief that is central to your being, without which you would be left in a world you could not tolerate, is at the heart of Primal Fear.
Connor: Jerry Maguire