A Year in Cinema: Film Festivals of 1996
No preamble necessary – we’re back to breakdown the film year in fests of 1996. Let’s jump in.
1996 – Pre-Cannes
Awards Front-Runner: Sense and Sensibility
Critical Darling: Shine; Welcome to the Dollhouse
Breakout Potential: Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman); Brad Pitt (12 Monkeys) and George Clooney (From Dusk Til Dawn)
Indie Darling: I Shot Andy Warhol
Peaked Here: Welcome to the Dollhouse; Spitfire Grill
Under the Radar: Walking and Talking; Hard Eight
Change Gon’ Come: Vin Diesel (Stray); Jackie Chan (Rumble in the Bronx)
1996. The whiplash-inducing swerve toward stylized violence that followed the breakout of Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 Sundance smash Reservoir Dogs finally started to fade, restoring the Park City festival to its comfort zone: character-driven indie dramas. Scott Hicks’s Shine started one of the most successful year-long slow-rollouts in history at Sundance, proof that sometimes an extremely public bidding war (Harvey Weinstein was thrown out of a restaurant on the town’s Main Street) can do more for a movie than a festival award (it didn’t win one). Shine would go on to build public and critical support block-by-block over the next 9 months, a shining (sorry) example of a campaign put together by Ira Deutchman at Fine Line Features that culminated in seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Director, and a win for Geoffrey Rush in Best Actor.
Where Shine walked the line between mainstream and arthouse, the major awards went to films at the far ends of that spectrum: Todd Solondz’s dark comedy Welcome to the Dollhouse took home the grand jury prize, while the crowd-pleasing, big-tent Spitfire Grill won the audience award. As always, early season was filled with small films that would make their mark over the coming months and years, even if they didn’t take home trophies.
Walking and Talking marked the arrival of two fresh, major talents – writer-director Nicole Holofcener and lead Catherine Keener. I Shot Andy Warhol bounced from Sundance to Berlin to Cannes, a small but successful hit that pulled in a few million at the box office, just enough to help director Mary Harron make her follow-up four years later: American Psycho. And cruise-controlling through Sundance was the debut of Paul Thomas Anderson, Hard Eight. The list goes on.
Outside of Park City, one movie stood out as a heavyweight champ of the season: Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. The winner of Berlin’s Golden Bear, Sense would go on to become Lee’s biggest global hit, reaching audiences 5-fold compared to his prior pictures, and would pave the way for his transition to Hollywood in the coming years. And speaking of coming attractions to Hollywood: Berlin saw the premiere of Brad Pitt in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys and a special showing of From Dusk Til Dawn starring a pre-movie-stardom George Clooney. Back in Park City, Jackie Chan finally achieved his US breakout with Rumble in the Bronx, while a young actor named Vin Diesel popped in his debut as writer-director-actor, Stray, more than a year before his breakout in Saving Private Ryan.
1996 – Cannes
Awards Front-Runner: Secrets & Lies; Fargo
Critical Darling: Irma Vep, Breaking the Waves
Breakout Potential: Emily Watson, Breaking the Waves; Liv Tyler, Stealing Beauty
Indie Darling: Lone Star
Peaked Here: Kansas City (Robert Altman)
Under the Radar: Sydney, Irma Vep
Change Gon’ Come: The Next Generation of Auteurs (Audiard, Russell, PTA, Ozon, Ramsay, Corsini, Dardennes)
A quarter-century ago, two stories were being told at Cannes. On the surface, the star-studded festival saw a cadre of established filmmakers break-out with mid-career peaks, finally finding the perfect narrative vehicles for their unique voices. In competition, Mike Leigh tore through the Croisette with Secrets & Lies, taking home the Palme d’Or and carrying the momentum all the way through to the Fall. The Coens brought Fargo and went home with the prize for Direction – a film that many would still call their best (or at least top 2) 25 years later. And a pair of auteurs, Lars von Trier and Olivier Assayas, took up the mantle for bold, inventive European filmmaking with Breaking the Waves (2nd place at the festival) and Irma Vep, respectively.
These are the films that defined the conversation at Cannes and in the back-half of 2021. Secrets & Lies was an Oscar favorite, earning nominations for Leigh (writing and directing), Brenda Blethyn and Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s acting, and Best Picture. Fargo was the Coens’ first ever box office breakout, earning a cool $60 million, and it won the brothers a Screenplay Oscar and Frances McDormand her first Best Actress Oscar. Meanwhile, Breaking the Waves kick-started Emily Watson’s career – she was nominated for an Oscar – and even earned a Best Motion Picture – Drama nomination at the Golden Globe Awards. It also earned Best Director from NY Critics and Best Picture from the National Society of Film Critics.
Beneath the surface, another story was being told – one that wouldn’t unfold completely for years to come. This second story is one of endings and beginnings. Eventual Cannes favorites came to the 1996 version with their first or second films: Jacques Audiard’s A Self Made Hero, the Dardenne brothers’ La Promesse, and Catherine Corsini’s telefilm, Youth Without God. There was a shocking amount of talent in the shorts section – Lynne Ramsay’s Small Deaths won the top shorts award (good eye for talent, Cannes!) and Francois Ozon’s A Summer Dress played Critics’ Week. And on the American front, David O. Russell played his second feature, Flirting with Disaster, while Paul Thomas Anderson brought his debut, Hard Eight, straight from Sundance. Cannes also saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty featuring a 19-year-old Liv Tyler.
On the endings side, Cannes saw some of the final films from great directors. Michael Cimino brought Sunchaser, and despite living for another two decades, would never direct another feature film. The festival also featured Arthur Penn’s final TV movie – he wouldn’t make another feature film either – called Inside. And though he would go on to direct a handful of movies after this, Cannes marked the penultimate film that Robert Altman would both write and direct – Kansas City, which played in competition.
Cannes of 1996 is what Cannes is meant to be: a place for young filmmakers to grow; for established auteurs to peak; and for aging directors to take their final bow.
1996 – Fall
Awards Front-Runner: Shine
Critical Darling: Secrets & Lies
Breakout Potential: Swingers Gang (Jon Favreau, Doug Liman, Vince Vaughn)
Indie Darling: The Watermelon Woman
Peaked Here: Michael Collins
Under the Radar: Sling Blade
Change Gon’ Come: Nick Cassavetes, Unhook the Stars; Oscar Isaac, Illtown
25 years ago, the Fall film festivals didn’t have quite the same cache as they do today. These were important places to debut films, for sure, but in 1996, most of the major players that would define the year in cinema either opted for earlier festivals or waited to be released directly into theaters.
The Golden Lion at Venice went to Michael Collins, while the acting prize went to Liam Neeson for his portrayal of the titular character. The film has been largely lost to history, but it’s a delicate, important depiction of the fight for Irish independence – and marked a momentous moment for Irish cinema. On the home front, perhaps the most splashy premieres were a pair of debuts – Doug Liman’s Swingers and Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade. The former found an immediate and lasting audience, essentially singlehandedly creating the careers of Liman, Jon Favreau, and Vince Vaughn. The latter, through the sheer force of will of Harvey Weinstein and Miramax, would eventually become an unlikely Oscar player and launch the career of Thornton.
Elsewhere, hyped up films found negative response or limited audiences. Tom Hanks’s directorial effort earned strong reviews but failed to hit the mark with audiences. Unhook the Stars was the first directorial effort from Nick Cassavetes, starring his mother Gena Rowlands – it might not have succeeded, but ultimately paved the way for The Notebook. A film that premiered nine months earlier, Shine, won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF – a good awards indicator, but usually an award that goes to a film that premiered at the festival. It’s a sign of the paltry selection of new-to-the-festival-circuit films.
The most exciting development in the Fall festivals - then unknown to the world - was the first-ever screen appearance for Oscar Isaac in Nick Gomez's Illtown. Gomez was on his way down after the smash-bang success-and-failure of Laws of Gravity six years earlier, but Isaac - playing "pool boy" was at the beginning of a long, successful career. 25 years later and he's debuting three projects at the Venice Film Festival: The Card Counter, Dune, and Scenes from a Marriage.
But overall, unlike recent years, the landscape didn’t change much with Fall film festivals in 1996 – from an awards, box office, or cultural imprint perspective. Check back soon for our final installment to see if things were different in 1971.