Hype, Hype, Hooray

Remembering 1996's overlooked--and way overrated--films

Hollywood tried to be Important this year by honing in on ethical dilemmas--such as: When is it okay to be a rat? (This is a question of vital importance in the movie business.) There was The Crucible, of course. Sleepers was a bogus ethical-drama based on a bogus memoir. The John Grisham adaptations A Time to Kill and The Chamber and the courtroom thriller Primal Fear got all hot under the collar about the Tough Questions as a way to gild their melodrama.

Many of the films I liked best this year were the ones that didn't try to be Important. John Schlesinger's Cold Comfort Farm is one of the funniest British comedies ever made, with a cast--including Eileen Atkins and Ian McKellen--that seems enthralled by its own inspired nuttiness. David O. Russell's Flirting With Disaster was the right kind of Hollywood family film--unsoppy and rude. It turned a young man's search for his biological parents into a stunning burlesque, complete with Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin as '60s washouts (both) in extremis.

The search for biological parents is also at the core of Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies, and sometimes it's just as funny as Flirting. But Leigh's film is richer and more expansive, if draggier and more self-righteous. Secrets and Lies is one of the best films of the year, yet it's also one of the most overrated: It pushes its "realistic" family crises at us as if no one else had ever done this sort of thing before in the movies.

But if you are true connoisseurs of the overrated, look no further than Shine and The English Patient.

Shine, about a cracked-up pianist, plugs into an art-house wooziness I thought had been long gone from our shores. Cliches spring eternal. This fable about the romance of derangement is a piece of bubbleheaded uplift with an Aussie overlay. At least A Song to Remember didn't go in for all this leaping-about, holy-fool stuff.

And The English Patient, with its teeny, tony attempts at emotion and its desert vistas shaped like curves of flesh offers a scarred, fated hero who is a Freddy Krueger look-alike for highbrows. This is the kind of movie in which the heroine (Kristin Scott Thomas) can pine away to nothingness in a cave and still manage to compose perfect prose in her diary. The romance between Juliette Binoche and her Sikh lover is the kind of Victorian exotica that went out with Turhan Bey. It's a masterpiece manque.

Next year, instead of a lot of phony masterpieces, I'd settle for a few real ones.

And revivals don't count.

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