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The best movies by decade, part 5: The 1970s (1-11)

27 Jul

You could call it the New York decade. No other city has been explored, exhumed, ravaged, and praised on celluloid as much as the Big Apple, and the 1970s were its best years. The greatest American city enthralled and horrified audiences, from the B-movie bonanzas set mostly in Harlem and Brooklyn, to the vigilante revenge sagas that seem to encapsulate the untidy crumble of the seventies so well.

You could also call it the New American cinema, for the 1970s was also an explosion of American filmmakers, young and old. The counterculture of the 1960s resulted in a Hollywood out of step with America’s youth. The success of Easy Rider, The Graduate (hardly a countercultural movie, in retrospect) and Bonnie and Clyde sent the movie producers scrounging around at the edges of things. The result was an enormous influx of new talent. It could be summed up as revenge of the nerds. The first generation of film students unleashed their knowledge, vision, and solipsism on the world.

Someone loosed artists in the banker’s retreat. The snake was free in the garden.

This was a good thing. The films as a whole are spectacular, moving and socially relevant. They are pungent, unpredictable, diverse. A number of personalities pushed their way into American cinema, vying for influence and control. Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino all produced their best work in this decade. Lesser figures snuck in with the greats: Brian De Palma, Hal Ashby, Alan Pakula and Bob Rafaelson among others. It was a blazing comet of talent, a cascade of writers, directors, actors and artists in a mad rush to immortalize their work. Many of these directors continue to work. Others flamed out in fantastic self-destruction.

A question emerged: what would American cinema look like, crowd-pleasing blockbusters or uncompromising works of art?

Heavy lies the crown

1. The Godfather 1 and 2—The greatest crime epic of all time and it’s really a film about the inner workings of a typical American family. The cast is superb, a combination of future stars, great character actors, and an aging Marlon Brando. The movie works because, as many critics have noted, outside or external morality is replaced with an insular code. The murder, dismemberment, and blackmail are only palatable inside the Corleone family. It’s what makes Michael a hero in the first film, and a villain in the second; he works for his family—basically revenging his father—in the first film, but in the second he turns on his family for himself. Together, it’s the best film ever made, and a scathing study of moral decay.

It's the news that's making us mad.

2. Network/Chinatown—Sidney Lumet had a great run in the ’70s. Working with screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky, he created the best film about media, manipulation, politics, money and madness utilizing an all-star cast: William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch and Robert Duvall. The screenplay is intricate, forceful, grim, cynical, and still humane. The story follows a low-rated news network that decides to keep Howard Beale, one of its anchors, on the air even after he has clearly lost his mind. The executives allow his derangement to develop on air, and soon he has a large following. It’s harrowing stuff, and often misunderstood. Beale is not some hero for the masses; he’s a sad, brow-beaten stooge, so pathologically disturbed that he can’t understand who’s pulling the strings. It’s a terrifying metaphor for the average citizen, and still a dark plunge into the abyss kind of movie. Chinatown: Jack Nicholson plays Jake Gittes, a private eye who wants to be liked and get along. Hired into an absurd missing persons case, he slowly descends into a horrid world of money and violence, where visionary land barons with terrifying power fight each other with the elements of the earth: land and water. John Huston delivers a great performance, as does Nicholson. Robert Towne wrote a great script, sticking to the hard-boiled conventions but elevating the concerns into political, social, and philosophical terrain. But it’s director Roman Polanski’s movie, a scathing indictment of the basest human desires to control, conform, and ruin any and everything that is wild or beautiful.

An immersion into the deranged, damaged mind of Travis Bickle.

3. Taxi Driver/Mean Streets—A total immersion into subjective experience and the purest exploration of the relentless savagery of urban disaffection. Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a taxi-driving Vietnam vet who, damaged from his war experiences and fragile to the hardness of the world, is sculpted by the vile late night excesses of the amoral denizens of a run amok city. Paul Shrader’s insane weirdness—his obsession with guns, his intense understanding of disaffection, his racism—combined with Scorsese’s talent with the camera result in a great film that is uncompromising, unyielding and vicious. The scaffolding of the film, and the source of its eerie, hypnotic power, is its potent, unspoken racism. The best scenes follow Bickle as he stares down the ethnic peoples who have taken over his city. A mind-bending journey into the dark. Mean Streets: Scorsese’s most personal film is also his richest. Lacking the hip distance or formalized aesthetic of Goodfellas and Casino, Mean Streets is a paean to young criminally minded misfits on the mean streets of New York. Harvey Keitel plays Charlie, a well-intentioned Catholic involved with up and coming gangsters. His best friends are reckless Johnny boy (played by De Niro) and self-serious Tony (played by David Proval). The best pieces involve petty crime; the film’s need to be serious (and strangely moralizing) tears at the movie’s best feature: Scorsese’s longing to return to the amoral rough housing of his youth.

Woody Allen moves away from slapstick and its wonderful.

4. Annie Hall/Manhattan/Interiors—As years pass, the 1970s were Woody Allen’s decade. He’s never really stopped making interesting movies, but these taken together these three comprise a high water mark for American filmmaking. Annie Hall is his most famous, and it’s easy to see why. The film is sneaky; the entire contents take place within the memory of Alvy Singer. This conceit allows Allen to shoot back and forth in time, push the conventional boundaries of a romantic comedy and even step outside the plot on comedic whims. Yet, the film has an insouciant grace, an ease of viewing that makes the watching of it pleasant and even restful. Manhattan is a different kind of movie, a beautiful and probing look at an active but self-destructive mind at work. Here Allen plays Isaac, a television writer and much more confident take on his nebbish persona. Startling and beautiful. Interiors is his first riff on his idol, Ingmar Bergman, and it’s a humorless foray into the nasty conflicts within a family. It’s a superb film, well paced and without an inch of fat. Made by any other filmmaker, this would be a flagship movie.

A great movie with great songs.

5. Nashville/ McCabe and Mrs. Miller —Robert Altman’s finest hour. A large cast of characters occlude, destruct, seduce, elide and collide over the course of a few days in the country music capital of the world. The musical numbers are great, and this despite my intolerance of country music. The movie is long and patient, but it contains multitudes, with commentary on politics, relationships, philosophy, psychology, popular culture, and is—and this is a kooky comparison—a southern La Dolce Vita. McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a Robert Altman western with a Leonard Cohen soundtrack, and if that doesn’t whet your appetite you don’t like movies. Warren Beatty plays McCabe, a down on his luck gambler who grabs a vision of building a whorehouse in a mining town. He meets Mrs. Miller, a madame from back east who guides his vision with her knowledgeable hand. The town builds up around them as their professional relationship deepens.  But when hard men come to town, the whole thing is endangered, leading to a nail-biting climax. When tethered to a story, Altman could work miracles. MASH is a good film, and so is Thieves Like Us, but these two are for the ages.

The 1960s in a nutshell: authority versus the individual in a psychic ward.

6. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest/The Conversation—Nicholson had a run in the ’70s unparalleled by any other actor. He made too many good films (Chinatown, The Last Detail, The King of Marvin Gardens, Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, and if you include the first two years of the 80s, you also get The Shining and Reds). Here he plays Randall McMurphy, perhaps his best role, a heedless whirlwind of a character who refuses to bow to any external authority. He falls under the control of Nurse Ratchett, a tight-fisted nurse who manipulates her wards chemically, physically and psychologically. McMurphy is uncontrollable, and brings to Ratchett’s tranquil Eden sex, drugs, and defiance. She’s America, he’s the 1960s. The movie works beyond its metaphor, however. It’s a harrowing drama with plenty of comedy and a great supporting cast. The Conversation: Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, an intensely private sound engineer who gathers information from the private lives of others for his profession. One conversation in particular—between the daughter of a wealthy businessman and her male friend—plays out throughout the film, as he listens to the nuances and particulars. The conversation at first sounds nonsensical, but as Caul listens to it over and over, alongside the audience, it becomes clear that something diabolical is taking place, and potentially murderous. A hypnotizing little movie, and an unforgettable exploration of our eroding privacy.

Robert Duvall as Kilgore, the insane commander obsessed with surfing and the smell of napalm.

7. Apocalypse Now/ The Passenger—The darkest, strangest, most disturbing vision of warfare ever made. Adapting Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to the Vietnam war, Coppola utilizes his vast filmmaking gifts. Martin Sheen plays a trained military killer sent upriver to remove a rogue C.I.A. colonel who has seduced a tribe of locals into thinking he’s a god. The movie works because it is non-literal; in the hands of another filmmaker, it would watch like Rambo II. During the filmmaking, actors died, Sheen had a heart attack and Coppola lost his mind. All of the background madness shows, reverberating on the screen with hypnotic power. The Passenger: Antonioni’s second best movie, and yes, Jack Nicholson stars. Nicholson plays a reporter in Africa who decides to impersonate the life of a man who dies in the hotel where he’s staying. Why he does this is unclear, but he soon becomes involved in international arms deals and a life of danger and intrigue. Antonioni’s skills with the camera, his patience and fortitude, work wonders in thrall to what is essentially a mystery-thriller. Like Blow-up, his slow pacing and scrutinizing visuals produce a different type of thriller. You sense a great but plodding mind at work. The final five minutes, a single take shot, tracking killers pursuing Nicholson through the dusty streets of Gibraltar is so calm, reassuring and beautiful you forget your watching a man being murdered.

A blazing hot day in the city and a bank robbery gone wrong.

8. Dog Day Afternoon/The Hospital—The best bank robbery movie ever made. The filmmaking is superb, immediate, gritty, a heightened realism. It is a study of a decent man, with decent values, making horrible mistakes. The two bank robbers aren’t villains, or even criminals. Why they’re doing what they’re doing is the key to the movie’s appeal, and why the fallout of their failures is so heartbreaking. Pacino’s performance is controlled, and watching him unfurl his character’s anxieties is a highlight in a decade of great American acting. The Hospital: George C. Scott plays a beleaguered doctor in the middle of a midlife crisis. When his doctors take a perfectly healthy man and through honest mistakes, bureaucratic complexity, and malpractice, put him into a coma, Scott faces a crisis of confidence in his profession, outlook, and way of life. Paddy Chayevsky wrote the script, and Scott falls into the character with heedless abandon. It’s a performance for the ages, in a movie that is funny and sad, a metaphor for the convoluted exigencies of American life.

Don't answer the phone!

9. Black Christmas/The Exorcist—A horror movie gem, and unparalleled in its ratcheting up of isolation and horror. A group of sorority sisters, staying in the house over Christmas break, receive a series of obscene phone calls that escalate in their violence. Meanwhile, a faceless killer moves through the sorority house, killing the coeds who wander into his (or her?) path. Bob Clark, who would later make A Christmas Story, creates unbearable suspense in what is, I would argue, the first modern horror movie. You won’t easily shake this one off.  The Exorcist: The gold standard of horror films, and an honest (if admittedly biased and strange) examination of faith in the face of evil. A young girl begins suffering from strange poltergeist phenomenon. Her mother, played by Ellen Bursteyn, investigates, as her daughter becomes a howling, scary maniac. Father Karras, struggling with a loss of faith, is brought in to exorcise the demon. It’s a tense, nail-biting affair, a disturbing portrayal of adolescent female sexuality, and a terse, pared down horror film.

The creepiest series of non-sequiturs you'll ever endure.

10. Eraserhead/Star Wars—David Lynch’s first feature is strange, haunting, scary as hell and sort of funny, too. The visuals follow a rigorous black and white gestalt, an exploration of the inner demons of a man facing fatherhood and it has these bizarre set pieces involving a woman in the radiator singing with a pancake face. It’s a telegram from the other side of the mirror, trafficking in dream logic, but Lynch’s devotion to his vision is so total, and strangely warm, that it works. Re-watch his movies and they begin to make a bit of sense. Take in his entire career and he seems a holistic visionary, with a wide enough philosophy to include the underrated Dune. Star Wars: You can’t get away from it and you shouldn’t even try. This original foray into science fiction mythology is also a pastiche of half a dozen different genres. Gunslinging cowboys, noble samurai, bomber pilots, damsels in distress and faceless grunts collide in this breathless adventure that is the natural culmination of merging the 1930s serials with advanced visual technology. The movie has a pop gravitas all its own, earned by Alec Guiness’s haunted performance and the movie’s zen-style philosophy.

Man versus man and nature in Deliverance. "The machines are going to fail."

11. The Last Detail/Deliverance—Robert Towne’s script is funny, vibrant, youthful and searing. Hal Ashby’s direction is calm, direct and elegant. (He misfired as often as he hit, but anyone who included Harold and Maude in his CV is a great director.) Two shore patrol sailors, played by Jack Nicholson and Otis Young, are instructed to carry a third young sailor (played by a young randy Quaid) to a naval prison in several days. The young sailor, convicted of petty theft, is going away for eight years, and his two guardians decide to give him a worthy sendoff, including booze, women, and good times. Their journey will take them across a number of big cities, including Philadelphia and New York. A fantastic little movie. Deliverance: A great film that is misunderstood, pigeonholed by a scene that is terrifying and, considering the subject matter, handled with subtlety. Four city men go out to the country to canoe down a river soon to be dammed. They encounter a strange, hostile cluster of freakish outsiders, as well as an untamable wilderness indifferent to the miseries of man. Burt Reynolds and John Voight were never better, and Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty make for strong supporting players. A great, if dark and disturbing, film.