The best movies by decade, part 5: The 1970s (12-24)

29 Jul

There's only one destination you can be certain you'll meet.

12. Two-lane Blacktop/The Warriors/Jaws—Monte Hellman’s road movie watches like a dream from the counterculture of the late 1960s. James Taylor and Dennis Wilson as drag racing hustlers, Warren Oates as a mid-life crisis drunkard, with Harry Dean Stanton and author Rudy Wurlitzer playing bit parts. A few races here and there, lots of car parts, moments of silence with engine work, a climax that never seems to appear—it’s close to a Samuel Beckett play. Hellman pulls it off, though, and the movie that results is an unforgettable drag racing movie that feels important. And, you get to see James Taylor say, “Fuck.” The Warriors: Walter Hill’s update of The Persian Expedition substitutes the Coney Island Warriors for the Greeks, and a hundred nefarious gangs for the Persians. The results are dazzling. Falsely accused of murdering a charismatic gang leader looking to unite all the gangs to overthrow the police and city government, the Warriors must flee across the city with the entire gang infastructure in pursuit. They meet clown-faced baseball players; switchblade sisters; ultra-violent police; and others. No movie has more expertly bottled thrills, humor, satire, absurdity, and fun than this late night jaunt through the five boroughs. It’s an action movie with ideas, and watches like a science fiction take on urban decay. Jaws: The white whale bites back. One of the first blockbusters is also one of the best. Three men—Robert Shaw, Roy Schieder, and Richard Dreyfess—embark on a hunting expedition of a great white shark. The shark has been eating people at a populated beach, and the men, for different reasons, are determined to destroy it. The movie is long, at times meditative, confined to the boat and propelled by Spielberg’s obsessive attention to filmmaking detail. (Duel was a made for TV film; he mapped out the entire shoot with such accuracy that he filmed on location in ten days.) The movie’s alternating tone is one of its strengths, and the fluffy blockbusters that followed do nothing to diminish this film’s value or quality.

Behind that exquisite face, a remorseless killer.

13. Alien/Murmur of the Heart/Le Circle Rouge—A rigorous exercise in style, set design, audience manipulation, and terror. A group of space explorers come into contact with the remnants of an alien civilization. They explore a giant sarcophagus in wonder and awe, until one of their own is attacked by an alien, which they then bring back to their own ship. Ridley Scott’s complete control over the set, tone, and mood is chilling. The last ten minutes are unparalleled in their intensity. Murmur of the Heart: Louis Malle is the French filmmaker who got away. His career was strange, encompassing deeply personal films, noirs, and even some American movies, including Atlantic City. This is his best film, a coming of age story about a self-involved teenager intrigued by jazz, pop culture, and of course, the opposite sex. But the boy is flawed, possessing a heart murmur, and the health system decides it best to send him to a sanitarium where he can be treated by blasting hoses of cold water. The ending is off (really off; prudes beware), but the journey is funny, savage, and strange. Le Circle Rouge: Jean-Pierre Melville is one of history’s great directors. Here he tells the story of tight-lipped gangsters, including Alain Delon, and their shot at a big score. There’s little backstory, just action, suspense, color, dread. Melville is at times cold. I think Bob Le Flambeur is his best film (besides Army of Shadows) because it is also his warmest. Still, it’s a great movie, thrilling and intense.

Absolutely terrifying.

14. Don’t Look Now/Save the Tiger/Catch-22—Oh my God, it’s scary. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play a married couple recovering from the loss of a child. They vacation in Venice, when weird things begin to happen. Nicholas Roeg shoots this movie on location, with some scenes out of order, and the result is an astonishing horror movie of quality. As Sutherland wanders the Venetian bridges and alleyways, searching for a vision of a red-hooded little girl, the film’s atmosphere of dread builds to a terrifying climax. Save the Tiger: A tiny, mean little picture grounded by the enormous presence of Jack Lemmon. Lemmon plays the half-owner of a fashion line facing bankruptcy, divorce, and the eradication of his own identity. The movie follows him over the course of a few days, facing the hardest decisions of his life, including whether or not to engage in arson to save his business. A fantastic movie, co-starring great comedic character actor Jack Gilford, that watches like a thriller. Catch-22: Mike Nichols directs this excellent adaptation of one of the towering works of 20th Century literature. It seems like an impossible task, but Nichols pulls it off. A great cast, with Alan Arkin, Martin Sheen, Bob Newhart, John Voight, Orson Welles. The movie captures the book’s rhythms, absurdities and rich humor, but offers a quiet beauty to the mix. I’ve never figured out why this movie isn’t thought of more highly (along with the Hospital). Perhaps because the book is so strong?

Klaus Kinski amok in South America.

15. Aguirre, the Wrath of God/The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser—Werner Herzog is the untamed wild man of film. His movies are strange, raw and hit or miss. They often deal with extreme themes. Hauser tells the true story of a grown man who appears in a town without an education and strange mystical mutterings. He slowly becomes mature, and wins over the townspeople, but something evil is stalking him. It’s a great movie, weird and chilling. Aguirre is darkness of a different order. Kinski, besides writing perhaps the best memoir of the business, is an acquired taste, but here he dials it down as a rapacious conquistador driven to discover the lost city of gold. His journey is punishing, there is no plot and little dialogue, but it’s a compelling, uncompromising and powerful work of art.

We all turn into them in the end.

16. The Deer Hunter/Dawn of the Dead/A Clockwork Orange—The third great Vietnam film (behind Apocalypse Now and Platoon). The story follows four men from a broken down mining town (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Cazale and John Savage) before and after their stint in Vietnam. The men wear their scars in different ways. One is confined to a wheel chair; one becomes a thrill-seeking drug addict; and one internalizes his pain into a mental paralysis. It’s a long character study that demands a lot from the reader, but delivers a powerful cathartic message about survival. Dawn of the Dead: George Romero amplified his original zombie concept, adding humor, satire, and existential dread. The result is the finest survival movie ever made, insistent on tabulating the process of daily living, and the need for distractions to maintain sanity. A Clockwork Orange: A cannon of grapeshot blasted into the psyche. Kubrick’s dystopian vision of a future England, besieged by violent, disaffected youth and the extreme response by the system’s hierarchy. Alex (played by Malcolm McDowell) is the leader of a gang of thugs, who spend their days getting inebriated, fighting, or raping. Parts of the movie have dated badly. In my younger days, I loved this movie. I still like it, I suppose, but my fondness for it has diminished. What is Kubrick saying about the human condition? What are his thoughts, his actual beliefs, about right and wrong? Alex being re-unleashed on society, without any rehabilitation, is a chilling indictment of something, I just don’t know what. Doesn’t a murderous rapist deserve to be stripped of his basic defenses?

Hot rods, cool music, and Harrison Ford.

17. American Graffiti/The Last Picture Show/Halloween—George Lucas’s love song to high school, cruising, and early rock n’ roll. The movie’s conceit, tone and approach been copied two dozen times (the best being Dazed and Confused), following a group of high schoolers in one very important night of their lives. The best scenes balance nostalgia with world-weariness. And what scenes! When Richard Dreyfuss walks through his empty high school, knowing he’s never going to come back, it’s excellent. Lucas could have had a very different career, and it’s easy to see why his friends, including Spielberg, were disappointed when he went off on the Star Wars tangent. The Last Picture Show: Yearning and nostalgia of a different kind. Peter Bogdonavich’s ode to small-town life details the ups and downs, miseries and more miseries, of the low-down youth of a dying Texas village. The kids have three things to stave off the boredom: sex, booze and movies. The movie is excellent, made with skill and tender care, and its length does more to catalog the passage of time than any other film I’ve seen. Halloween: John Carpenter’s suburban horror flick about a depraved murderous genius and the sultry coeds who he stalks. First, it’s scary. Second, it dismisses its silly Freudian explanations while submitting psychosexual underpinnings to its murders. Meaning: Michael Myers cannot be explained. Horror cannot be explained. Evil cannot be explained. It can only be experienced, and if you’re lucky, survived.

You can walk all you want, but Buñuel will never let you get there.

18. Discreet Charm of the Bourgeouis/The Sting/Harold and Maude—Buñuel’s bizarre study of upper middle class weirdness, and besides Diary of a Chambermaid and Belle de Jour, probably his best film. (I despise many of his films, including The Milky Way, my vote for the most overrated film of all time.) A free-form film, where characters die and then come back to life, see ghosts, commit atrocities, all without consequences, the movie follows a group of wealthy people attempting to get together for a meal. Only, they are stymied at every attempt, by increasingly bizarre obstacles. I’m not sure what the movie is saying about humanity—are we too busy for the fundamental things?—but the watching of it is funny, enthralling, and unforgettable. (A counterpoint to The Exterminating Angel, where the dinner guests can’t seem to leave.) The Sting: A charming as hell movie, but a major step down from Butch Cassidy. The reason is simple: Newman and Redford aren’t together on screen enough, and the plot is convoluted and silly. Still, the period details are engaging, and the movie has a breezy confidence and swagger. This is also the film’s biggest problem; it wants to be liked. A superb supporting cast and excellent direction mark this an exercise in polished, professional entertainment. Harold and Maude: A stylized love story with a Cat Stevens’s soundtrack and strong principle leads that works best in dialogue with The Graduate. In this movie, the young man in question is disaffected to the point of continual suicide. He craves to be different. And unlike Dustin Hoffman, who is handsome in a boyish way, here we have Bud Cort, the alabaster-skinned reject who looked like a child until he was 40. His paramour isn’t the stunning Katherine Ross, but rather the aged Ruth Gordon. At times the movie pushes its cute weirdness a little too far, but the overall film is a powerful statement about love, life, and survival.

What's a little gunfire amidst so much sand blasted beauty?

19. Badlands/Days of Heaven/ Last Tango in Paris—The one-two punch from Terence Malik. He’s not for everyone; his films move from different character’s point of view through rambling voice-overs. But he’s an expert at crafting images. Badlands follows two young lovers as they murder their way through the southwest, all to a Karl Orff score. The Karl Orff music is child-like and happy. The narration is upbeat. The story is bleak and desperate. The dissonance works. Days of Heaven is a more meditative work, following Richard Gere and his girlfriend and her younger sister. Killing a factory boss in Chicago, Gere and company flee to the Midwest to thresh wheat for an austere wheat baron (played by Sam Shephard). Last Tango: Bertolucci’s most personal movie follows two damaged people who meet in an apartment for anonymous, desperate sex. Marlon Brando’s performance is as powerful as the critics have claimed; he’s cruel, vulnerable, and complex. Bertolucci made good, great and terrible movies. This is arguably his best.

Stupid and drunk and out of control.

20. Animal House/The Bad News Bears/Salo, or 120 days of Sodom—A comedy that’s aged well. The inebriated, morally challenged fraternity members approach life through a boozy, oversexed lens. The cast is hilarious: John Belushi, Karen Allen, Donald Sutherland, Tim Matheson, John Vernon and Mark Metcalf. The movie has problems, such as an inability to celebrate an unsustainable (and in reality accompanied by sexism, bullying and anti-intellectualism) lifestyle while also pointing out its inherent flaws. Doesn’t matter; the movie is funny, pleasurable and oddly decent, despite its rowdy exterior. The Bad News Bears: Walter Mathau gives a great performance as a drunken, used up rake who takes over coaching a little league baseball team. His inadequacies are on full display, and his partial transformation from inebriated failure to only slightly inebriated half-failure is the perfect metaphor for the sliding economic and moral malaise of 1970s America, as well as the scorched earth nastiness of a winner take all culture. The movie is funny, often emulated, and unflinching in its exploration of the losers, boozers, and dead-enders that bobble along at the edges of our great society. Salo: No laughter, but plenty of tears. Scrub your skin, rinse your mouth with soap, and rub turpentine in your eyes; Passolini’s adaptation of De Sade’s 120 of Sodom is as rough, disgusting and vile as they come. Like the novel, the film is an exercise in degradation and cruelty. Unlike the novel, Pasolini contextualizes the sadistic hedonism within the framework of the fascist mindset. Here, the four libertines who run amok among poor, nameless children and prostitutes are high ranking Italian fascists. Pasolini’s argument is simple and clear: allow man’s baser urges free reign—and he’s speaking politically, of course—and torture, slaughter will ensue. Not a movie to watch more than once, but an unforgettable descent into mankind’s madness.

I hope aliens are as pretty and strange as David Bowie.

21. The Man who Fell to Earth/Superman/Ali: Fear Eats the Soul—Nicolas Roeg’s foray into science fiction, and it’s a disconcerting mixed bag. David Bowie stars as an alien from a planet that has run out of water (the future?). He lands on earth, and attempts to carve out a place for himself in society so he can accomplish his lofty goals. Forces align against him, including his own burgeoning appetites for sex and drugs. It’s a very good, if uneven movie, with the added bonus of a fully naked David Bowie dancing his ivory, unblemished body on a bed. Superman: A noble take on the superman mythos. Christopher Reeve plays the last son of Krypton, stranded on our planet with only the trace conscience of his father as a guide. Gene Hackman plays Lex Luthor, the insane super genius out to entrap his alien enemy forever. The poor special effects don’t hinder the film at all, another example of good writing as the answer to everything. Ali: Fassbinder is a strident, powerful filmmaker but not to my liking. There’s something nasty and misanthropic in the background of his films. I don’t trust him. I often feel he is lying, misrepresenting himself. Here, he directs a very good movie about an aging German woman and her relationship with a much younger Turkish immigrant. The fallout of their romance is a tragedy, and a scathing indictment of German failings and human intolerance.

A not so innocent man in Cassavetes's take on the gangster film.

22. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie/The Outlaw Josey Wales—Cassavetes is important, but an acquired taste: the long rambling scenes; the spontaneous riffs; the lack of cohesion in theme or plot. But given a taste of his idiosyncratic style, it’s hard not to admire the man. His take on the crime movie is a bizarre sidestep. Ben Gazarra plays a burlesque club owner who falls into the clutches of the mob. They send him on a suicide mission, to kill a Chinese bookie who has moved his way up the underworld food chain and is threatening the mob bosses. The resulting movie is half-comedy, half-gangster movie, elongated through Cassavetes’s baroque style. The Outlaw Josey Wales: Only in the 1970s would a movie this good be this low on a best-of list. Clint Eastwood directs and stars as the title character in this post-Civil War revenge film about a decent man driven to murder and mayhem. Hunting down the men who killed his family, Wales picks up his own new family of misfits, and it is this balancing act of vengeance with love that makes this western one of the greats.

Elegant, subtle entertainment. With guns.

23. The Friends of Eddie Coyle/Dirty Harry/Young Frankenstein—A great crime movie that’s been forgotten. Robert Mitchum plays Coyle, an exhausted and not too bright low level criminal facing prison time. The only way out is to turn state’s evidence. This excellent bank robber movie—it’s sparse, tough, and unsparing—is also the best movie about Boston. Dirty Harry: Don Siegel’s hard-nosed cop thriller is elevated by Clint Eastwood’s wolfish smile and the on-location shooting of San Francisco. It’s a tough film, untouched by any niceties or desire to be liked, and is partially to blame for a slew of vigilante films that followed. But, it’s good; it’s visceral; it’s uncompromising; and it’s real. Harry Callahan is dangerous, true, but he’s also willing to make the hard moral choice of killing one person to save others. Young Frankenstein: Mel Brooks very funny riff on the Frankenstein movies. It’s attenuated nonsense, but hilarious and satisfying. Through his career, Mel Brooks was hit or miss, but with this and The Producers, he hit the bullseye. He liked Gene Wilder, and it’s easy to see why. Wilder is unstable, but kind, and the combination of the two is as good a springboard as any for comedy. Peter Boyle, who has parts in Eddie Coyle and Taxi Driver, co-stars.

Colorful, inspired anarchy.

24. The Muppet Movie/Klute/The Man Who Would Be King—The great children’s movie for adults. Loosed upon an avaricious world, the innocent muppets attempt to navigate their way across the country, while being pursued by a vengeful Charles Durning, who wants to eat Kermit! Anarchic silliness, double entendres and a enthusiastic madness combine with the cast of comedic actors, including Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, Cloris Leachman and Orson Welles for a great movie. Klute: There’s more than one movie sneaking around in this mystery thriller that also purports to be a feminist character study of a woman in control of her sexuality. The two movies never really become comfortable with each other, and the pulpy detective story wins out. Thank God. Donald Sutherland as the aghast, unsure detective in a seedy, barely recognizable world is the movie’s real heart, not Jane Fonda’s philosophizing call girl. The Man Who Would Be King: John Huston’s big buddy adventure movie, made the richer by John Huston’s masculine direction. Sean Connery and Michael Caine co-star as two British adventurers who take up the white man’s burden to become rich in the outlands of Afghanistan. Huston’s powers were on the wane for some time, and then he punched back with this and Fat City. This isn’t a subtle movie, it isn’t revolutionary, it breaks no new ground, but it’s good, good, good.

Honorable Mention: Le Samourai; Picnic at Hanging RockBarry Lyndon; Fiddler on the Roof; What’s Up, Doc?; Patton; All That Jazz; The Duelists; Three Days of the Condor; Mr. Klein; Marathon Man; Grease.

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