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Best of the '90s #7 (part 2)

We continue our look at the best movies from 1996

#5 WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S ROMEO + JULIET – It blows my mind that R+J doesn’t get more respect. Taking the Shakespearian language but putting it in a modern day context; fantastic performances by Paul Sorvino, Pete Postlewait, Harold Perrineau (before he lost his son Walt), John Leguizamo (who either seems Oscar worthy or terrible, but its great here), Paul Rudd and Miriam Margoyles. And then there’s the wonderful chemistry of Leonardo DiCapprio and Claire Danes. The fish-tank scene is one of the most romantic EVER. And we’re not even counting the most startling use of soundtrack of the entire decade (with the possible exception of PULP). I have never seen music so important or woven into the framework of a movie like R+J. I have to tell you a quick story about the film. I took my sisters to see it. They knew nothing of Shakespeare. One sat silent, enraptured. After about ten minutes the other one turns to me, and in all seriousness, asks, “Why are they talking like that?”

#3 (tie) SECRETS AND LIES – The most difficult aspect of this film is the accents the characters have. It’s almost impossible to understand them the first half hour. My advice: use captions until you get a feel for the London feel. The reason you should make the effort: an incredible film, a character study of a family trying to cope with a secret from long ago. There are no explosions or special effects, violence or sex, just a well-acted film, a delight for all serious movie fans.

#3 (tie) BREAKING THE WAVES – I have a love/hate relationship with director Lars von Trier. He despises America, and some day I’ll tell you about the ordeal it was to watch his vitriol in DOGVILLE. However, I want to talk about BREAKING THE WAVES. It was filmed digitally, which in ‘94/’95 was a brand new format. The quality of the film shows it, often coming in grainy. The scene or section separations are pointless as well. But if you care about films you need to see BREAKING THE WAVES, for it contains the single best acting performance I have ever seen by a woman. In her first role, Emily Watson is breathtaking. She plays Bess, a girl who’s “touched,” as they call it. Bess talks to God, and God talks back, a device that would seem fake in any other movie, but somehow works. I’ll leave it to you to discover what happens in the film, but I put the film—sometimes difficult to watch—this high because the performance is so damn good you can scarcely believe it.

#1 (tie) THE ENGLISH PATIENT – In the late ‘90s it became the fad (everywhere from late-night comedians to Dawson’s Creek) to trash THE ENGLISH PATIENT, to call it boring. All I can say is that people who find this film boring reveal their own ignorance. I’ll admit there is a poignancy of the forbidden love that will not be understood by those who didn’t go through it. However, I can’t see how any fan of movies could not be swept away by the story. (Not for nothing, but the film did win 9 Oscars.) Taken from an impossible to adapt book, THE ENGLISH PATIENT is a grand romance on many levels, in an around a cruel war. Featuring one of the best soundtracks in history and arguably the best collected acting of the decade, this is one patient you should definitely admit.

#1 (tie) HAMLET – When the ’96 Awards season came around, Kenneth Branaugh’s HAMLET was nary to be found. It’s a damn shame, because this film is probably the best Shakespeare to EVER hit the big screen. Featuring virtually every word of the Bard’s best play, Branaugh brings Denmark to life in glorious 70 millimeter. Though a bit old, his Hamlet seems to truly encompass the insanity of the Danish Prince. Kate Winslet has never been better as Ophelia, and that’s saying something. (The steaminess between the two, including Ophelia-nudity is a treat!) The rest of the cast—it would make your eyes pop just to see it—is fantastic, and the sets are brimming with color, sharpness and life. At four hours, it’s a commitment to watch HAMLET, but one you should make.