Top 50 of 1970s
In all its glory, here are my choices for the top 50 elite films of the 1970s. This is the fourth such list I’ve made now, and it just doesn’t get any easier. As with the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the list has been submitted for the Criterion forum’s Lists Project. I made an intentional effort to abide by my own subjective whims this time, placing little or no emphasis on canon. My tastes are my tastes, but the goal was to balance between favorites and acknowledged quality while trusting that what I like deserves to be here. The strength of American films, combined with the R1 unavailability of several well-regarded foreign films of the decade, has resulted in a list heavily favoring the English language. Not a problem in my book because I love what was going on in Hollywood during this time. In all, there are only 9 foreign language films among these 50, with another 8 in the list of 25 also-rans I posted previously. I do hope a few people find the list and my justifications/appreciations interesting to look through, read, or browse for recommendations. I know I enjoy the whole process. Any writing I’ve done on a particular film is linked to below.
1.) The Godfather Part II (Coppola, 1974) – I’ve resisted the idea for years that Coppola’s sequel is superior to the first film, but I don’t think I can really deny it any longer after spending a full night with the two parts. This is a richer, more focused effort that completely understands what it wants to project and does so brilliantly. The acting has an understated balance often missing from the earlier film and the tragedy cuts far deeper. Michael’s reveal to Fredo that he knows and Michael’s slap of Kay both send chills down my spine. I don’t particularly see this entry as being about family so much as it is about America. I’m prone to reading the American experience into numerous films, but this must be one of the most glaring. From young Vito’s entry at Ellis Island to Michael’s returning the favor of betrayal as he sits in ominous solitude, Coppola’s film completely embodies a certain side of the possibilities offered by the country.
2.) The Godfather (Coppola, 1972) – Long having been one of my very favorite movies, the adaptation of Mario Puzo’s best-selling (but inferior) novel probably has as lofty a reputation as any piece of 20th century art. Impossible to encapsulate in such a short space, The Godfather’s memorably quotable screenplay (perhaps second only to Casablanca) begins with the immortal words “I believe in America,” but it’s the nonverbal power of the baptism scene that makes good on the film’s opening line. It remains one of cinema’s dazzlingly brilliant sequences. There’s a point where there’s possibly still room to turn back and then there’s running full speed ahead. The ambiguity and moral conflict is so murky that half a dozen viewings and I still don’t know if I’m rooting for the Corleone family.
3.) The Long Goodbye (Altman, 1973) – Here’s what Robert Altman’s films can do to a person. You see something and enjoy it well enough, then watch it again a year later and recognize it was much stronger than you first realized. Another year passes, and you’re ready to consider it one of the finest films of the decade. Nearly all of Altman’s films improve on repeated viewings, but I’ve gotten it into my head that this is his best. It’s full of sly truths, an epic central performance from Elliott Gould, and has a pleasingly bizarre supporting cast lead by a toasted Sterling Hayden. It really is amazing to sit back and see what Altman does to the detective genre.
4.) Being There (Ashby, 1979) – A film that never peaks, always steadily rising until it literally walks on water. I find it incredibly sad that both Peter Sellers and Hal Ashby were unable to make anything of substance afterwards despite both still being relatively young. Sellers, of course, died in 1980 and Ashby followed just a few years later, but couldn’t continue making the kinds of films he so brilliantly crafted in the ’70s. Sellers seems like he’s actually gone crazy while the cameras happen to be rolling. His Chance is a reactionless blank canvas where everyone projects their own thoughts and inclinations. It’s rare for me to proclaim that I really love a film, in the sense that I feel both an emotional connection and would argue that it’s justified. I love Being There. I loved it the first time I saw it and I loved it the most recent time I saw it.
5.) Avanti! (Wilder, 1972) – A final masterpiece from one of cinema’s finest directors. Billy Wilder hit a creative roadblock after One, Two, Three that lasted the rest of the decade. His films were commercially successful, for the most part, but a little out of touch with a changing Hollywood. Too mean, too quaint, nothing that really stretched his talents. Then he had a very difficult time with the release of a heavily-edited version of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and stayed in Europe to once again re-team with Jack Lemmon. The result was a still-neglected gem that effectively modernized Lemmon’s growing crustiness with the hidden heart Wilder liked to slip into his ’60s films. I think I hold the movie up a bit higher than most anyone whose opinion I’ve read, but there does seem to be a quiet contingent privy to the film’s considerable charms.
6.) The Passenger (Antonioni, 1975) – None of Antonioni’s other films have struck me like this one. I don’t know if it’s because of Nicholson or exactly what the cause is, but this movie mesmerizes me. I see the alienation in his character more than the comparatively empty protagonists of other Antonioni films. The plot here helps a great deal, which is reminiscent of Hitchcock but told in an entirely different style. And just an extraordinary ending that might cause you to shake your head, rewind the disc, or both.
7.) Nashville (Altman, 1975) – It’s a bit on the surreal side for someone who grew up in middle Tennessee to watch Altman’s 24-character tapestry. Though my understanding is that the city wasn’t fond of how the film turned out, the critical consensus usually places it as the director’s finest. No serious arguments here, even if it’s not my absolute favorite. I don’t think Altman ever made a film so deeply and powerfully emotional. Gwen Welles breaks my heart, especially with the stripping scene coming just after Keith Carradine’s performance of “I’m Easy.” What had been this sprawling, unassuming epic suddenly converges into a dark place that becomes increasingly confusing and upsetting. Watching the final series of events, you’re filled with dread – knowing what’s about to happen, wanting it not to, and being unable to stop it.
8.) Chinatown (Polanski, 1974) – I don’t feel as much emotional connection to Chinatown as I do the films above it here, but it’s certainly on the same level artistically as anything past the Godfather films, in my estimation. What I like a great deal about the movie is how Nicholson makes Jake Gittes, a character that could have easily become bland (see The Two Jakes for evidence of that), an audience surrogate who’s neither too smart nor too stupid despite the notoriously curvy plot. He’s almost entirely grey and, thus, the perfect protagonist. The obvious thing to love about Chinatown is Robert Towne’s script, tweaked and improved by Roman Polanski. It’s truly a Hollywood miracle that works with a big concept (pre-war Los Angeles) while also achieving the more intimate character details that keep the viewer interested.
9.) Mean Streets (Scorsese, 1973) – There’s a rawness at work here that isn’t present in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. This is less polished and feels more free. Despite my strong admiration for Scorsese, some of his signatures have gotten a little stale over time. Not so in Mean Streets, where the ferocious immediacy remains alive and well. The Catholic imagery is fresher here and, for all its rough edges, the film never recedes into the methodical violence of one upping the director’s legacy, which was obviously almost nonexistent at the time. I don’t think this was Scorsese’s peak for sure, but I do prefer it to Taxi Driver, and I think it remains his most personal film.
10.) Husbands (Cassavetes, 1970) – Am I allowed to declare this as Cassavetes’ best film? I hope so. It’s just a shame that it’s so difficult to track down (illegally downloading it onto your computer doesn’t count; if you’ve only seen a film in a poor quality version on a small screen in the wrong aspect ratio then you haven’t really seen it at all). Months after seeing Husbands, I still think about it constantly – wondering about the characters, about myself.
11.) Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet, 1975) – I tend to think this is Pacino’s best work on screen. Watching the actor he’s become today (and the past two to three decades), his performance here seems totally foreign, like it was an entirely different person. Yet, in Lumet’s sweaty slice of how not to rob a bank, Pacino brilliantly reveals a flustered humanity that’s thrilling to watch. You can just see in his eyes that things are gradually slipping out of his control. It’s impossible not to consider the life and career of John Cazale while watching, too. He turns “Wyoming” into something hilarious and heartbreaking.
12.) Le cercle rouge (Melville, 1970) – Because Jean-Pierre Melville was to make only one more film, Un Flic, and it was arguably inferior to his past efforts, this is a more appropriate culmination of the director’s career. A bare plot, bare acting, minimalist to a fault. There’s also a lengthy heist sequence conspicuously reminiscent of Rififi. I lean towards the opinion that the story here is a little weak, but it’s executed with such stoic professionalism that it hardly matters. The brilliance of Melville’s film is in the details, the pared-down, detached expressions of grey fate. It’s cops and robbers transformed into the tragedy of life.
13.) The Man Who Fell to Earth (Roeg, 1976) – To really appreciate Roeg’s film, I had to read Walter Tevis’ novel, included with the Criterion Collection’s essential release. In most every way, that’s not a good sign. Yet, I found myself so mystified, frustrated even, while initially watching the movie that it seemed like a good idea to explore the source material. After reading it and being entirely caught up in the story, I realized that Roeg had indeed captured the book while instilling the film with his own peculiar vision. David Bowie is really the only choice for the lead role and both Rip Torn and Candy Clark are vital elements of this difficult, if rewarding, puzzle. Ultimately, reading the book confirmed a deep connection I felt with the film and its protagonist. It also established a curiosity with Tevis, an alcoholic writer from Kentucky who also wrote the basis for The Hustler.
14.) Paper Moon (Bogdanovich, 1973) – Even more than in the near-perfection of The Last Picture Show, Bogdanovich and his vital collaborator/wife Polly Platt hit upon something timeless here. A period piece in black and white that could have been made this year or several decades ago. Tatum O’Neal’s Oscar win may be what Paper Moon is now known for, but it should be regarded more highly. Just the fact that Ryan O’Neal is tolerable is a significant accomplishment. Some movies I just absolutely cannot comprehend how someone who enjoys film would not embrace completely and this qualifies.
15.) The Conversation (Coppola, 1974) – Staggering paranoia from Coppola and Walter Murch, but unthinkable without Gene Hackman. This isn’t a film where I particularly value the intricate plot so much as I do the central performance. Harry Caul is one of the great characters to emerge from Hollywood’s renaissance and his saxophone-playing wiretapper contributes a great deal of pathos-laden tragedy to what makes this decade so noteworthy for American cinema. The Conversation is a film that never deteriorates, always improving on multiple viewings, and seems conspicuously detached from Coppola’s other work. Along with Nicholson, Hackman is one of the definitive actors of this decade.
16.) The Marriage of Maria Braun (Fassbinder, 1979) – “The Mata Hari of the economic miracle.” Fassbinder’s first entry in his BRD trilogy is perhaps his best film and contains a wild throwback of a performance from Hanna Schygulla. The whole movie is like a classic Hollywood tale modernized with wondrous colors and copious sexuality. It’s also a fairly obvious allegory on the divided Germany, including an ending awash in metaphor and mystery. Schygulla is exceptional and Maria Braun is one of film’s all-time best characters.
17.) Harold and Maude (Ashby, 1971) – Half an hour in, when Bud Cort slowly cuts his eyes from the horrified blind date his mother has set up for him to gently glance at the camera and give a slight grin, I fell in love with Harold and Maude. It’s not a perfect film. The flaws are obvious, but they hardly matter. With Cort, Ruth Gordon, and what I’m prepared to call the finest set of songs in the history of film, courtesy of Cat Stevens, it’s not difficult to forgive a little unevenness along the way. Some movies I’d argue their merits against detractors, but others, like this one, I’m content appreciating regardless of what higher-minded people think. Funny, warm, and entirely idiosyncratic - this is how you do life-affirming.
18.) Manhattan (Allen, 1979) – No opening titles, just a blinking sign with the film’s name displayed vertically. This is a love letter from a man to a city, photographed with immaculate beauty by Gordon Willis. Of all Allen’s films, I think this is the one most open to repeated viewings. The story is simple, but complex the way any human relationship is and it’s ultimately secondary to the blacks and whites and greys. Literally like watching a collection of moving photographs. The Allen-Hemingway relationship makes me cringe a little, but I like where it ends up.
19.) California Split (Altman, 1974) – The Altman waters run deep this decade. This is the fourth one of these lists I’ve done and it’s the first time I’ve let a single director occupy six slots. He’s special, though. No director better represented the new Hollywood that emerged from the late ’60s until the early ’80s. I find this to be a particularly “Altmanesque” film in that the protagonists are likable screw-ups thrust into a defining situation. Elliott Gould picked up where he left off with The Long Goodbye and continues his streak as the definitive Altman hero. It’s a shame they never worked together again aside from his cameos in Nashville and The Player. Certainly Gould’s career suffered as a result, and you could argue Altman’s did as well despite making several more essential films.
20.) That Obscure Object of Desire (Buñuel, 1977) – Fernando Rey, two actresses playing the same woman, and an enigmatic sack. This was Buñuel’s last film, but it remains one of my favorites from the director. The idea of the Rey character abstaining with these two beautiful women is quintessential Buñuel. And maybe it’s just me but I never believe anything Buñuel said about his films. He claimed the dual actresses were completely random, but I just can’t agree. Like Welles, he’s someone whose interviews I take with roughly a pound of salt. Regardless, this is a fine film whether one or two actresses portray the character.
21.) A Woman Under the Influence (Cassavetes, 1974) – If they had shiny gold statues for strongest performance of the decade by gender, I’d vote for Gena Rowlands here. I find something worth admiring in all Cassavetes films, but it’s fairly obvious how good this one is. Peter Falk’s turn should be applauded, as well, and he’s stronger here than in Husbands. The “influence” of the title isn’t addiction, but mental illness and Cassavetes perfectly conveys the discomfort in dealing with disorders of the mind. Few, if any, filmmakers so astutely capture pain and transfer it to the viewer as Cassavetes.
22.) The French Connection (Friedkin, 1971) – It’s the car chase. It’s the “pick your feet in Poughkeepsie” line. It’s Hackman, really. His Popeye Doyle, a racist, almost intolerable despite being strangely charismatic NYC cop, is one of the decade’s truly great screen creations. I’ll admit to being a Hackman apologist (though who isn’t?), but this is tops right here. I defy anyone to watch Friedkin’s film and not emerge entertained. I’m also a crime genre enthusiast, but, again, putting on my best objectivity eyes I don’t understand any possible dissent. Additionally, Roy Scheider and Fernando Rey are essentially perfect and that ending is unbeatable. I hesitate to add that the sequel has thus far eluded me because sometimes I just need a certain amount of Popeye Doyle and I know where to look when the call comes.
23.) The Conformist (Bertolucci, 1970) – Gorgeous to look at, with a dazzling color palette and amazing cinematography from Vittorio Storaro, and also quite captivating. I’m not sure what’s not to like here, actually. Jean-Louis Trintignant’s performance and character are compelling, as are the deep political overtones. Stefania Sandrelli is, well, Stefania Sandrelli, one of the great beauties in film. Bertolucci and Storaro turn a film noir premise on its head by adding depth and awe-inspiring colors. It’s a nigh-on perfect film and repeat viewings are essential.
24.) Vengeance Is Mine (Imamura, 1979) – Anyone paying attention here has realized that Shohei Imamura is one my favorite directors. I’m in constant frustration that his films are largely unavailable, for the most part sitting unreleased by Criterion, and I enjoy his work more than the traditional Japanese masters like Kurosawa and Ozu. When Imamura made a potentially career-ending flop with the epic Profound Desire of the Gods, he whittled away for several years making documentaries before returning to fiction with this film. It’s a serial killer docudrama that shows no obligation towards portraying the heinous main character as anything except objectively cold. It’s not that Imamura shows any real sympathy here, just that he doesn’t favor any emotion at all. The director was always the consummate cultural anthropologist.
25.) McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Altman, 1971) – Typically unsentimental, Robert Altman blazed through the western with deliberate abandon. Warren Beatty’s McCabe enters as a legend and exits as a bit of a humbled dimwit. Who knew prostitution could be such a fertile topic for exploring the birth of the Pacific Northwest? This is a uniformly excellent film, amazingly released just after Brewster McCloud. Leonard Cohen’s songs are beautiful insertions and Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is simultaneously striking and dirty. I’m slightly less enthusiastic about the picture than those who proclaim it to be Altman’s one or two best, but the director’s decade of the ’70s was so fertile and diverse that it’s like spinning a wheel to determine what ranks where.
26.) All the President’s Men (Pakula, 1976) – I’m going to tread into the kind of hyperbole I normally loathe, but so be it. No film has ever managed to make events where the viewer already knows almost exactly how the outcome will turn out so exciting and consistently engaging. Credit goes to Alan J. Pakula, one of the decade’s essential directors, and his stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, who give performances that at once seem thankless but, with closer scrutiny, reveal themselves as perfectly balanced. This is a movie I could watch anytime, anywhere and be perfectly happy.
27.) The Last Picture Show (Bogdanovich, 1971) – Largely plotless, but endlessly watchable. The familiarity of the large ensemble helps, but the performances here hold everything in place. Bogdanovich, as he did with some frequency, was working in a different era, exploring a period that was gone even in the ’70s. Few movies can lay claim to presenting that small town albatross that hangs over young people with such clarity and truth. Plus, any movie that won Ben Johnson an Oscar is okay in my book.
28.) Killer of Sheep (Burnett, 1977) – What strikes you when watching Charles Burnett’s student film made at UCLA, a perpetual rarity only made widely available last year, is how different it is from other movies of the decade or before. It’s amateurish, to be sure, but seeing Burnett adopt neorealist methods for the story of working class blacks in Watts, told with an unmistakably humanistic approach, is a high point in truly independent filmmaking. It’s not even a matter of race so much as economic levels. These are people largely unknown to audiences, a little less so now than thirty years ago, despite their lives more closely resembling society at large than the constant parade of cops, lawyers, and other white collar fantasies usually visible on screen.
29.) Amarcord (Fellini, 1973) – Fly-on-the-wall storytelling from a director long since unconcerned with traditional filmic devices. Both nostalgic and foreboding, Fellini’s movie manages to retain a naughty sweetness in the face of public-approved fascism. The image of Gradisca in her red dress sashaying through the deep white remnants of unseasonal snow is gorgeous. There’s a little magic in here.
30.) Annie Hall (Allen, 1977) – It’s very difficult for a comedy to withstand the enormous reputation of Allen’s well-loved film, but this one mostly does. Woody’s Alvy Singer is, like most of his characters, a bit of a clueless bastard, but just his ability to even land Diane Keaton’s Annie plays like nerd manna from heaven. A certain kind of person loves Allen because he’s not movie star material, but he frolics around in that refined space like he belongs. I like Woody because he’s funny and his observations are often hilarious, few more so than the Marshall McLuhan bit famously portrayed here. I’ve been to theaters like that and it’s painfully true (and funny).
31.) The Getaway (Peckinpah, 1972) – A little dialogue goes a long way when it’s being spoken by Steve McQueen. Sam Peckinpah’s directing-for-hire gig has a lot of life in it, punched up by Walter Hill’s script and a noir-like plot. Good guys, bad guys, who cares. If McQueen is the star, he’s automatically the one we’re rooting for and his performance here ranks among the actor’s best. I like Junior Bonner, but I like this better.
32.) Star Wars (Lucas, 1977) – I don’t know if it’s gotten to the point that I have to defend Star Wars after George Lucas screwed up his own meal ticket, but I’m prepared all the same. If we never knew of Yoda or Ewoks or Jar-Jar Binks or prequels, Star Wars would still be a great film. It would still be a dynamite action movie cloaked in science fiction but really closer in spirit to the western genre. With Alec Guinness adding a healthy dose of credibility and a director who’d previously made a pair of very good movies, this is a movie that doesn’t need a postscript on its original title or an excuse for inclusion amongst the other films on this list.
33.) The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Wilder, 1970) – Even in its truncated form, Billy Wilder’s uncharacteristic detour remains a sad and entertaining look at the fictional detective. The episodic format works and the performances by Robert Stephens as Holmes and Colin Blakely as Watson are nearly without improvement. It’s easy to claim this seems like it was directed by someone other than Wilder, but, if you look closer, his fingerprints are all over it. The loveless male protagonist who values his career over his personal life. The woman he finds in the process and has difficulty connecting with. The little and subtle touches of humor, often wistful and at the expense of the main character. Though it’s far from my favorite of his films, in many ways, it’s Wilder’s most interesting insight into his own personality because it is so removed from much of his work.
34.) Network (Lumet, 1976) – A bedrock of madness sculpted by Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet, with five Oscar-nominated performances (three winners). None of these people are easily liked or related to, but the script, direction, and actors elevate what could have been a huge mess into a film that’s become iconic, if slightly dulled after 30+ years. The Howard Beale storyline has become quaint, with the smaller subplot where terrorists are given their own television show now seeming to be more compelling. Beale is still a far cry from the blowhards of today’s cable news because he was working on a far more dangerous, provocative plane than the current gasbags, even if the bombast is entirely recognizable.
35.) F for Fake (Welles, 1974) – Best appreciated by those who hold Welles in especially high regard? I can only say that as an unabashed Welles admirer, his blurring of fiction and documentary was a revelation when Criterion released their two-disc set a few years ago. Not only is the film supremely entertaining (a quality usually present in his films that Welles is never given enough credit for), but it’s also thought-provoking and a continuation of the director’s legend building.
36.) Lacombe, Lucien (Malle, 1974) – Pauline Kael’s comments about the “banality of evil” are forever etched in my brain and they’re immediately what I associate with Malle’s film. Movies, before and, especially, since, have been harping on the incredibly mundane nature of evil, but I think this is near the top in terms of portrayals of the absurdly random nature of being bad. I like that Malle never tries to explain or justify or condemn Lucien. The audience can form their own opinions. Malle is just the one chronicling it all. This is where he’s not given enough credit in my opinion, in his repeated refusal to judge those deemed poison by society. His films often allow darkness to flourish without apology.
37.) Cría cuervos (Saura, 1976) – Ana Torrent and her sad little eyes. This is a captivating story about three young girls, with Torrent at the forefront, whose parents have both died. Geraldine Chaplin plays both the girls’ mother and Torrent’s character as an adult. Descriptions are a tad irrelevant because I think Saura was aiming to capture a mood more than a story, something he does brilliantly. I don’t know if it was the balancing of tone or the repeated use of a pop song, but I was reminded of Wes Anderson’s films, only in Spanish and a bit more somber. I doubt anyone else would make that connection. Maybe some really bizarre Anderson-Almodóvar hybrid.
38.) Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979) – I haven’t seen this in a little while so the placing is a little suspect. Despite not finding a chance to re-watch the film, I knew it had to be here somewhere as it’s the darkest of all significant Vietnam films and plays more like the disintegration of the soul than the typical war movie cliches.
39.) 3 Women (Altman, 1977) – Eerie and evocative continuation of what Altman did with Images a few years earlier. The director claimed that he was inspired to make this from a dream he’d had and it plays out in that manner, very dreamlike. The title is a little misleading as the film centers more on a pair of women, with the third playing a smaller, but vital role. By the end, though, the viewer questions everything about what’s just been seen and it becomes difficult to entirely grasp it all. Confusion might be the popular way to characterize the reaction, but it’s really more of a hypnotic experience where you’re slowly drawn into something foreign and unexpected.
40.) The Sting (Hill, 1973) – Find a more purely entertaining and satisfying movie this decade, one you can completely lose yourself in without feeling guilty, and I’ll switch places with it in this slot. I couldn’t and I’ve loved The Sting as long as I’ve enjoyed watching movies. Movie star charisma goes a long way and Newman and Redford combined make your television glow just a bit brighter. The period costumes, the score, the smart double cross of a plot – this is just a fun movie that holds up really well.
41.) Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Peckinpah, 1974) – Warren Oates plays Sam Peckinpah. The actor imitated his friend and frequent collaborator with this performance and it adds a poignant layer to a film that already has a good deal of emotion you wouldn’t normally expect to find in an otherwise surreal and violent movie about a guy driving around with a severed head. These are two of Oates’ finest hours. He’s bizarre, darkly comic, and tragic. In retrospect, I might have ranked this a few spots too low.
42.) Blazing Saddles (Brooks, 1974) – Not only is this still an extremely funny film, but it’s one that remains shockingly iconoclastic. The humor walks, trots, and gallops depending on what level best fits the situation, often trying all three in a trial and error type of action. Then after assaulting the viewer with repeated jokes that aim at desensitizing our prejudicial red alerts, Brooks takes a sharp turn into some kind of multi-layered looking glass. It would be remarkable enough that the humor holds up over thirty years later (most of the decade’s comedies don’t even come close), but Blazing Saddles is special because it’s deceptively ambitious, akin to what Chaplin or Keaton might have done had either been in the prime of his career during this time.
43.) Solaris (Tarkovsky, 1972) – The slow pace typical of Tarkovsky’s films works exceedingly better here than in the other efforts I’ve seen from the celebrated director. Based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel, the film has a pronounced narrative that takes its time without overwhelming the viewer. Filled with profound and thoughtful scenes and images, none more so than the sequence in the library, it’s a thoroughly powerful experience. I found it to be somewhat transcendent in the sense that I could appreciate the film despite having little interest in science fiction or Tarkovsky and having earlier enjoyed Steven Soderbergh’s version a great deal.
44.) The Candidate (Ritchie, 1972) – Politics, for better or worse (mostly worse), slithers through my veins. I don’t think there’s yet been a more dead-on or better film about campaigning and the election process than this. It’s also a great star vehicle for Robert Redford, the kind requiring a strong performance without much stretching. Most of all, though, it’s a deeply, depressingly cynical look at a process that should have nothing to do with who leads and makes policy. The last audible thing Redford’s Bill McKay says is one my favorite closing lines in all of film. “What do we do now?”
45.) Brewster McCloud (Altman, 1970) – In some ways, this is like Altman’s Citizen Kane. After the roaring and unexpected success of M*A*S*H, he was able to do whatever he wanted and wow is there a stranger non-genre studio film this decade. The idea of Bud Cort living in the Astrodome, building wings so he can fly while a series of strange murders occur is a little out there. Throw in, among other things, Rene Auberjonois repeatedly interrupting the film as a bird/man narrator/teacher and Michael Murphy as a Detective Frank Shaft who looks strangely like Steve McQueen’s Frank Bullitt and it becomes obvious that no one at the studio was minding the store whatsoever. Thank goodness for that! It’s not just that the film is weird that makes it good. There’s really an odd, but compelling story about Cort’s Brewster and, like he would as Ashby’s Harold, the actor makes the viewer sympathize with his social awkwardness.
46.) Sleeper (Allen, 1973) – Woody does sci-fi. In terms of pure laughs, this may be Allen’s funniest. It was his first teaming with Diane Keaton, who never looked more beautiful. I find the film to be somewhat atypical of the director while retaining much of the charm that makes his work so appealing. In short, it’s a little less whiny and more universal, more classical. That’s not a knock against his later films, which I mostly enjoy, but Sleeper is the Allen film to watch if you’re not interested in his neuroses.
47.) The Parallax View (Pakula, 1974) – Deeply paranoid and engrossing, this is more in line with John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate than Pakula’s other conspiracy-laced efforts of the ’70s. Me against the world-type cinematography from Gordon Willis, possibly the key eye of Hollywood’s rebirth this decade, and an otherworldly creepy indoctrination montage that remains almost unbelievable in both execution and inclusion in its entirety. Warren Beatty is the weakest link, but even he turns in an appropriately clueless performance.
48.) Five Easy Pieces (Rafelson, 1970) – Deservedly considered the film where Jack Nicholson broke free from his Corman days and became a movie star in the process. Like a lot of the lower-budget ’70s pictures, this one has some warts, but Nicholson’s character is the kind rarely seen in American film period – not just before but also since. We spend an hour and a half with him, but we hardly get to know the man. This guy who’s been running his entire adult life from anything that reminds him of home is the same when we leave him as he was when we were introduced. Few “popular” films (and this one somehow landed four major Oscar nominations) feel so little like movies.
49.) The Landlord (Ashby, 1970) – Beau Bridges is a bored and rich 29-year-old who lives with his conservative parents and decides to buy a Brooklyn tenement building. His black tenants don’t initially warm to their new landlord, but Bridges’ Elgar Enders has his sheltered life altered forever. Maybe because it’s not available on DVD, Hal Ashby’s directorial debut has little reputation despite being a terrific movie that deftly shifts in tone, including a surprisingly uneasy climax. At its heart it’s a comedy, and always an Ashby one. There are some mild undertones of The Graduate, with a deeper humanity being substituted for the self-importance of Nichols’ film, but this is largely an original, still unique peak into class and race divides.
50.) Two-Lane Blacktop (Hellman, 1971) – By the time Warren Oates utters “[t]hose satisfactions are permanent,” it’s obvious there’s something special about Monte Hellman’s movie. Not only does the film meander beautifully, seemingly about nothing and everything all at once, it features a performance from Oates that makes you crumble. People who really like movies tend to really like him as an actor, with his GTO being a perfect example of why he’s held in such high regard. You’re not sure who this character is or where he keeps getting all those sweaters, but, the more you see of him, the more you start to like him, rooting for him to “get healthy.”