As I noted in my last piece celebrating movies turning 10 this year, our current situation has us all looking back on simpler, pandemic free, times. In that piece I highlighted a number of great films that would add to the anxiety of our situation, whether it be by direct relationship to our current reality (Contagion) or simply by injecting vague dread into your day (Kill List, Melancholia, Take Shelter, etc.).
In going over some of my favorite films turning 25 this year though, I discovered that they are almost all lighthearted, even when their subject matter isn’t. From a self-aware horror comedy to surprisingly cozy movies about heroin and multiple homicide, 1996 gave us a number of movies that will put a smile on your face (for at least some of their runtime) and leave you with an abundance of quotable lines.
1996 also marked a year of important feature directorial debuts from women, early career highlights from modern favorites, and late career highlights from two horror masters. It was a good year for movies.
10. The Stendhal Syndrome
Director: Dario Argento
A later film from Italian horror master Dario Argento (director of the original Suspiria) and starring his daughter Asia Argento (who has had a significant career as an actor and director as well), The Stendhal Syndrome is an ambitious semi-surreal giallo film.
The film’s plot is somewhat convoluted so I won’t go over it here in detail. Suffice to say that police investigator heroine Anna (Asia Argento) is on the trail of Alfredo (Thomas Kretschmann), a serial rapist and murderer. And when she experiences the titular Stendhal syndrome, a psychological phenomenon which causes one to be physically overcome by a work of art, Alfredo uses this against her.
There are twists and turns throughout, and while the film is by no means an easy watch as it dives into subjects of sexual assault and lingering trauma, it does engage these subjects in a unique and interesting way that will leave you uncomfortable but thinking well after the movie ends.
Director: Lana & Lily Wachowski
Bound is one of the most important underappreciated movies of all time. As the first film from sibling directors Lana and Lily Wachowski, Bound is what gave them the chance to prove themselves before going onto make a little movie called The Matrix. But beyond being the first film from a filmmaking team who are now household names, Bound is an incredible film in its own right.
The story is a rather simple tweak on a noir classic: a gangster’s moll with a heart of gold meets someone who she promptly falls for and they decide to rob the gangster together so that they can be free and in love. The tweak in Bound is that that someone isn’t a man, it’s a woman. Corky (played wonderfully by Gina Gershon) is an ex-con working as a handywoman in the building where Violet (Jennifer Tilly, doing the most with her signature voice) and her gangster boyfriend Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) live. Violet is immediately attracted to Corky and makes a move, one thing leads to another and soon enough the two are hatching a plan to steal two million dollars from Caesar. From there the film turns into a series of fantastically staged suspense sequences and well worn but equally well loved plot points from noir stories.
Bound is an important movie and a must watch for a number of reasons: it’s the first film from the team who made The Matrix, who also happen to be the world’s most famous trans filmmakers, it’s a genre film lesbian romance, and it’s one of the best examples of neo-noir.
8. The Craft
Director: Andrew Fleming
The Craft’s reputation may precede it 25 years later, especially with last year’s attempt to cash in on that reputation with the soft reboot The Craft: Legacy. But even if you only know The Craft from the memes or because of the reboot, it’s worth taking the time to watch this delightful time capsule genre mix.
The story focuses on Sarah (Robin Tunney) who after moving to LA has to start going to a new Catholic high school. The fact that it’s a Catholic school doesn’t really play for much beyond giving the characters reason to wear near identical monochrome schoolgirl outfits. Sarah soon befriends a group of girls who also aren’t too happy with their lives for a variety of reasons. As their friendship grows, the girls reveal to Sarah that they are witches who, with her as their fourth, can begin to cast spells. At first these abilities seem to be wholly good, but of course nothing is so simple.
The Craft is extremely fun as both a high school movie and as a movie about witchcraft, but what makes it stand out are the aforementioned outfits, the soundtrack (featuring songs from Letters to Cleo, Jewel, and Portishead), and the performances (especially Fairuza Balk’s iconic turn as Nancy).
7. I Shot Andy Warhol
Director: Mary Harron
Another feature debut from a woman whose second feature went on to become a modern classic. I Shot Andy Warhol is the first film from American Psycho director Mary Harron and like Bound, it is criminally underseen and underappreciated both as the first film from a talented director and as a great film on its own.
I Shot Andy Warhol focuses on a period in the life of Valerie Solanas (Lili Taylor) as she navigates New york in the late 1960s attempting to make a name for herself as an author and playwright. Solanas is most famous for writing SCUM Manifesto and, as the title suggests, shooting Andy Warhol. But the film is genuinely interested in exploring the woman behind the controversy and Taylor does an incredible job bringing her to the screen in all of her complexity. That complexity is also visible due to the script, by Harron and co-writer Daniel Minahan, which seeks to paint an honest and empathetic portrait of a woman who was brilliant and mentally ill, whose work is both foundational to what feminism has become and swaths of which are rejected by a number of today’s feminists.
I Shot Andy Warhol is a simultaneously fun and uncomfortable viewing as it takes us through the world of Warhol’s Factory and allows us to spend time with capital C characters who were also real people, like Solanas, Warhol, and Candy Darling. It’s necessary viewing for any fans of American Psycho and feminists who want to learn more about one of the most important figures in the movement’s history.
Director: Doug Liman
While Bound and I Shot Andy Warhol are the feature debuts from directors who hit it big with their second films, Swingers is Doug Liman’s second film that brought him to a larger audience, winning him the Best New Filmmaker award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. Though it is a bit odd that the director of The Bourne Identity, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and Edge of Tomorrow made a name for himself with a raunchy comedy.
Swingers also brought Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreu to a larger audience. Neither had starred in a film before and in Swingers both deliver surprisingly emotionally honest, and hilarious, performances. Favreu also wrote the film, his first feature as a writer, and it’s hard to believe that we would not have the same MCU we do if Swingers didn’t exist.
Swingers is a raunchy hang out comedy about a group of actors living in LA who are seeking to make ends meet, and to meet women along the way. None of them are particularly successful but they have each other and they have real friendships that lend the movie its surprisingly affecting emotional core. The movie is also super quotable, with a unique slang focused around “money,” so the dialogue often sounds ridiculous in an endearing way. It also contains one of the greatest simultaneously hilarious and painful scenes in any movie.
Director: Wes Craven
Like The Craft (which also stars Neve Campbell, 1996 was a good year for her), Scream’s reputation likely precedes it at this point. 25 years later Scream’s status as a horror classic cannot be argued even though it plays into tropes that characters in the movie call out as tired and overplayed. Of course much of this has to do with genre veteran Wes Craven’s masterful directing and Kevin Williamson’s sharp script that perfectly balances horror with commentary.
Scream is not the first slasher to play with meta-comedy, my favorite early example remains Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, nor is it Craven’s first foray into meta territory, that would be his return to Freddy with New Nightmare, but it has become the poster child for both of these sub-genres within horror. Part of that is of course the film’s popularity, by all accounts more people have seen Scream than either of those other films, but what really makes Scream work is the deep love that it has for the films and tropes that it lampoons.
Scream begins with an explicit conversation about scary movies and in a later scene, the characters watch John Carpenter’s Halloween. Scream doesn’t subtly allude to anything, it’s up front about how much it loves the slasher genre and that love is palpable throughout. The other thing that makes Scream special, and that its sequels brilliantly capitalize on, is a focus on the characters being hunted by the killer and a whodunit style plot as opposed to a focus on the slasher. This turn of focus, and the fact that this cast (led by Campbell and including Courteney Cox, David Arquette, and Matthew Lillard in one of his best roles) is charming and fun to spend time with makes it easy to actually get invested instead of simply waiting for the next person to be killed off.
While Scream made fun of slashers and their many sequels it also birthed its own franchise, one that is set to continue with a fifth entry next year, the first film without Wes Craven.
4. Romeo + Juliet
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Like Swingers, Romeo + Juliet is a second film in a director’s career that brought them a much larger audience. Baz Luhrman is now synonymous with lavish sets, stylish costumes, and fantastic soundtracks and all of that can be seen in Romeo + Juliet.
The film is perhaps still the boldest reimagining of a Shakespeare play. While Akira Kurosawa placed King Lear and Macbeth in feudal Japan with Ran and Throne of Blood, and more than one film moved the story of Macbeth into a modern gangster setting, none of them did so while maintaining Shakespeare’s language and blasting the volume on a quintessentially current (for 1996) soundtrack like Romeo + Juliet.
The film’s cast deserves, and has received, as much credit as Luhrman for making this gun toting and ecstasy fueled vision of a Shakespearean classic work. Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes are of course iconic in the title roles, but the real standouts are Harold Perrineau as Mercutio and John Leguizamo as Tybalt. They give the absolute most to these characters and make sure that you’re thoroughly entertained even if you don’t understand a word of the dialogue.
3. The Watermelon Woman
Director: Cheryl Dunye
The Watermelon Woman is the final feature debut from an important woman filmmaker on this list and unlike the other two which were followed by much greater successes, The Watermelon Woman is (at this point) Cheryl Dunye’s most significant film. Sadly it is still underseen, especially considering that it is the first feature film made by a black lesbian, but that’s what these lists are for.
The film focuses on a fictionalized version of Dunye (played by Dunye herself) as she investigates the history of a black actress of the early 20th century and develops a relationship with Diana (Guinevere Turner), a white woman. The film mixes documentary style talking head interviews that Dunye conducts with both fictional and real scholars (Camille Paglia makes an appearance as herself) and a romantic comedy plot that explores the burgeoning interracial relationship between Cheryl and Diana.
What is remarkable is how deftly the film maneuvers between these two aspects, it never becomes too didactic or academic and manages to keep the viewer invested in the love story despite the much larger concerns that the investigatory documentary is addressing. The Watermelon Woman is absolutely necessary viewing for anyone interested in queer cinema and is an educational and fun watch for anyone just looking for a great movie.
Director: Danny Boyle
Trainspotting is unlike anything else. The way the film, based on a novel of the same name by Irvine Welsh, mixes comedy and tragedy makes for a singular experience. It honestly makes no sense that a movie about heroin is this fun.
From its iconic opening monologue set to Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, Trainspotting is honest about its sneering tone and laugh in your face nihilism, and this makes much of the film a delight. But there’s no escaping the downsides of heroin and when things begin to take a turn, the fact that the first half of the film has been so aggressively carefree and full of frantic momentum makes the tragedy hit that much harder.
Trainspotting may not be the most devastating film about drug use, that title likely still goes to Requiem for a Dream, but it is without a doubt one of the best, and may well be the most joyous.
Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Fargo, depending on who you ask, is the Coen brothers’ masterpiece. I am not one of those people (I myself go for No Country for Old Men or Miller’s Crossing), but there is no objective argument against Fargo being their best.
Fargo brings together Coen regulars Frances McDormand and Steve Buscemi on opposite sides of a criminal mess that’s too complicated to detail briefly. But the plot doesn’t really matter because while it lends the film an exciting chaotic energy, what makes the movie so great are the performances. McDormand won the Oscar for Best Actress for her role as pregnant police chief Marge Gunderson, Buscemi does some of his most deranged work outside of Billy Madison, and William H. Macy plays a bumbling fool who has gotten himself involved in something much more dangerous than he ever anticipated. These performances also sell the quotable dialogue, from every “oh yeah” to a line about a woodchipper.
Fargo is top tier Coens no matter what your favorite of theirs may be, and it’s worth celebrating on its 25th birthday.
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