1996 at the Movies: Five Forgotten Gems You Should Watch

Looking back a quarter century ago, 1996 gave us a fantastic year of movies. It was ruled by sci-fi ground-breakers, action blockbusters, and period epics. Independence Day and Twister dominated the box office while The English Patient took home the most Oscars, including Best Picture. But in a year with such classic movies as Mission: Impossible, The Nutty Professor and Fargo, some films were inevitably bound to be overlooked and underappreciated. Here are five forgotten gems from 1996 at the movies.  

Big Night (1996) Dir. Campbell Scott, Stanley Tucci

Image is from the frilm 'Big Night' (1996). Two chefs sit opposite one another with their hands to their chests and talk to one another. They sit either side of a white, clothed, table which is covered with half-eaten food.
Image courtesy of Rysher Entertainment

Two restaurant owners— brothers Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) — are Italian immigrants in 1950s New Jersey. Their cuisine is authentic, brilliant, and unpopular with the local clientele. As a favour, the brothers have been granted an opportunity to impress one very important customer (bandleader Louis Prima) with their sensational food. The fate of the restaurant— and their future in America— hinges on one big night. 

Written and co-directed by Tucci, Big Night portrays one of the finest examples of food significance in movies. Yet, it is not a movie about food. The fare in this film does not function as a prop, but rather as another character. Disappointment and jubilation are major themes in Big Night and are most effectively expressed through its food. In addition to the cooking scenes, the perfectly placed acting will surely leave audiences craving another course. Big Night was snubbed at the Oscars; however, it currently holds a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 96%. 

2 Days in the Valley (1996) Dir. John Herzfeld

Image is from the film '2 Days in the Valley' (1996). A blonde woman wearing a silver dress sits in a car with a stern expression.
Image courtesy of MGM

Set in the San Fernando Valley, the plot of this film is full of twists and filled with twisted characters. The players include a sadistic professional killer, an Olympic skiing hopeful, two aggravated cops, a suicidal television producer, an art dealer’s assistant, and a has-been mobster. When wild circumstances coincide, they all interact and intersect over two days in the valley. 

The premise for 2 Days in the Valley is difficult to explain, but easy to enjoy. It features multidirectional storytelling that is reminiscent of the Tarantino style and the characters are bizarrely entertaining. The ensemble cast is one of the strongest of 1996, with great performances by James Spader, Teri Hatcher, Danny Aiello, Jeff Daniels, and Charlize Theron. While the intricate story entices the audience, the sincere characters make them care about it. 

American Buffalo (1996) Dir. Michael Corrente

Image is from the film 'American Buffalo' (1996). Two middle ages men stand side by side, looking at something in the distance. They appear to be in a shop, and a fan stands behind them.
Image courtesy of Capitol Films

Don owns and operates a junk shop, but is open to alternate ways to make a buck. He has a heist in mind for someone who he feels wronged him, but he can’t do it alone. Enter Teach, a poker buddy of Don’s who is chronically broke and always up for an opportunistic score. The action soon centers around Don, Teach, and Don’s teenage lackey, Bobby, as the three would-be thieves put their plan together. As tempers rage and ideas are argued, the three men engage in a majestic bout of verbal combat.

American Buffalo is adapted from the 1975 David Mamet play of the same name. It features only three actors in one setting; however, Mamet’s legendary dialogue is on full display and the dynamic disputes provide more than enough fireworks. The film stars Dennis Franz and Dustin Hoffman, who play excellently off of each other. Viewers are left both delighted and exhausted by their epic battle of semantics and warped logic.   

Bottle Rocket (1996) Dir. Wes Anderson

Image is from the film 'Bottle Rocket' (1996). Two men sit beside each other at a counter and appear to be mid-conversation. Behind them are shelves filled with medicine and signs for prescriptions.
Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Not only was Bottle Rocket the first collaboration between brothers Owen and Luke Wilson with director Wes Anderson, it was the first feature film for all three of them. Written by Anderson and Owen Wilson in 1993, the movie revolves around friends Dignan (Owen) and Anthony (Luke). Dignan wants desperately to be a world-class criminal. The problem is that neither man has the experience or wherewithal to pull the kind of grand capers Dignan envisions. Anthony goes along, but mostly to look out for Dignan. As the two encounter the growing pains of criminal life, such as the “practice” robbery of Anthony’s family’s house, they develop different perspectives and ambitions. The result is a charming movie with organic comedy, captivating characters and unique storytelling.  

Bottle Rocket is not a great movie, but it is a precursor to great things to come. In his original 1996 review, Roger Ebert stated “I have a certain affection for it, and I’m looking forward to whatever Anderson and the Wilsons do next.” Since Bottle Rocket, Owen and Luke Wilson have both gone on to become international movie superstars, and Wes Anderson has been nominated for seven Academy Awards.

A Family Thing (1996) Dir. Richard Pearce

Image is from 'A Family Thing' (1996). Two middle-aged men sit at a table and have a discussion. One is a police officer, the other is a man with a small cut on his forehead.
Image courtesy of United Artists

Earl is a white Arkansas man in his 60’s whose entire existence gets suddenly upended after his mother dies. He receives a posthumous letter from her where it is revealed that his biological mother was African-American and that he is actually half black. The woman who Earl knew as his mother had one last wish— that he search out his half-brother in Chicago and know him as his family. As Earl sets off for Chicago, he doesn’t know if it is out of obligation to the mother that he knew, or to the one that he never knew existed.

Written for the screen by Billy Bob Thornton, A Family Thing is a heart-warming story with heart-breaking realities. Earl locates his brother and, in the process, finds the parts of himself that he never knew were missing. The brothers are played masterfully by Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones. As unlikely as it appears that the pair are related, it is effortless to believe that the two are brothers. The film was overshadowed by Thornton’s magnum opus, Sling Blade, which was released the same year. However, with its sense of tolerance and immense racial undertones, A Family Thing seems even more relevant today than it did twenty-five years ago.