“How many stars would you give it?”
“Yeah. I mean, it was great.”
1996 was the first year I remember consciously lying to myself about liking a movie. I'd had my suspicions before. Two years earlier, I'd had an internal debate about whether to award the live-action adaptation of The Flintstones with three-and-a-half stars or simply three, even though I'd laughed only once over the course of its 90 minutes.
But that was 1994. That was so long ago. I was in seventh grade then. I was young and naive. There was no way I could've fully grasped the concept of ticket-buyer's remorse, let alone be ready to suffer from it. No, this was completely different. I was in tenth grade. I could almost drive a car. I was practically a man.
Besides, The Flintstones was a movie for children. It was based on a cartoon, and an old one at that. It hardly mattered. This time, the movie in question was meant for adults. It was nearly three hours long. It was R-rated. It was critically acclaimed. It was an Independent Film™ released by Miramax.
It was, therefore, important.
And it was particularly incumbent on me – a fifteen-year-old living in the suburbs of Charlotte, NC – to recognize good cinema from bad. Granted, this was very much a self-imposed burden, though I did have somewhat of a reputation to maintain as a young cinephile. Now, when I say “reputation” and “cinephile,” I mean I was the kid who was all too eager to prove how much he knew about movies. You know the kind. A nice lady at church innocently, but mistakenly, refers to The American President as All the President's Men, so I heroically swoop in to rescue everyone from her flagrant stupidity.
“Actually, All the President's Men is a 1976 Alan J. Pakula film starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford.”
I think we all learned an important lesson that day. History really is written by the victors, folks.
But having knowledge of these trivial details often duped people (myself included) into believing my opinion somehow carried extra weight. This was probably made worse by the fact that I declared my college major at the age of twelve (Film Directing!) and that I listened almost exclusively to film scores – where my Goldsmith Heads at? Would it surprise you to know I also wrote scripts? Okay, I once wrote four pages of a Usual Suspects rip-off, but still...movies were my life.
Yet, here I was, riding home in my dad's Honda Civic, unable to come to terms with my true feelings about the film I just watched. And the world was waiting...
“How many stars would you give it?”
“Yeah. I mean, it was great.”
Except I didn't think The English Patient was great, and I didn't think it deserved four stars. It's clear to me now, twenty years later, that I was the unfortunate victim of peer pressure. I caved. I'll freely admit it. In my defense, though, my peers had been very aggressive. One of them had even called the movie “a most remarkable film...that has the sweep of epic films from another era.”
Right now, you're probably thinking, “Wow. Jonathan had unusually articulate classmates.” I should probably clarify. None of my chump high-school friends had seen the movie. My “peer group” at the time consisted of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly, and Lawrence Toppman of The Charlotte Observer. I was self-aggrandizing from a very early age.
Toppman had given it four stars. Siskel and Ebert seemed just as enthusiastic. (Gleiberman had been slightly less effusive. He only gave it a B. Still, a positive review.) Three out of my four personal tastemakers agreed: The English Patient was a great movie.
I panicked. And I lied.
I lied to my dad. To myself. To my peers. To the world.
A lot can happen in twenty years. In that span of time, you might've graduated from film school. You might've started losing your hair. You might've been married for five years and divorced before you turned thirty. You might've been laid off from a very comfortable job. You might've written a few screenplays and moved from North Carolina to New York with the hopes of getting them produced. After three years, you might've moved back to North Carolina, a more confident and determined writer. Any or all of that might've happened to you.
Twenty years is a long time.
According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The English Patient was the best film of 1996. These days, however, it routinely shows up on “Worst Best Picture Winners” lists. At this point, its greatest and most lasting cultural legacy is arguably the fact that Elaine Benes hated it on Seinfeld. (“Quit telling your stupid story about the stupid desert and just die already! Die!”)
I saw The English Patient in 1996, and I haven't seen it since. One of two things is likely: 1) I was too young to fully appreciate what it had to offer; or 2) I genuinely disliked the movie. I'm curious to revisit the film, twenty years later, well after the cinematic dust has settled, completely untethered to any of-the-moment narrative. And that's what I plan to do.
But what of my other 1996 opinions? What about my claim that Citizen Ruth remains Alexander Payne's best film? What about the time I told my brother The Frighteners was better than Independence Day, or The People vs. Larry Flynt was better than Amadeus? Is Kingpin as funny as I once thought? I'm curious about all of this, too.
2016 seems like as good of a year as any to investigate, so I'm giving myself a long-term viewing and writing assignment: The 1996 Redux Project. I'll be compiling a list of the popular, acclaimed, and otherwise notable films from that year, some of which I'll be revisiting, and some of which I'll be seeing for the very first time, and I'll be writing about the experience here in semi-regular installments.
Sadly, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert are no longer with us. Owen Gleiberman no longer writes for Entertainment Weekly, and I haven't kept up with Lawrence Toppman's reviews for many, many years. But I no longer feel the need to weigh my thoughts against anyone's or have my views reflected back at me. I've learned to trust my own critical instincts.
I think it's important to pass our opinions through a retrospective gauntlet. Our memories can betray us and nostalgia can be a scourge. People change. Tastes change. But the films remain the same. It took roughly twenty years for Citizen Kane to be named the greatest film of all time. How will an entire year of movies look so many years later?