Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Best of the Year: The 1970s

My Picks of the 1970s
(in alphabetical order)
Alien (1979)
Each Alien movie has its own mood, tone, and style, all of which I admired in varying degrees. The second was the most thrilling; the third was the moodiest; the fourth was the funniest (however unintentional); and this Alien is easily the scariest. Ridley Scott brilliantly restrains from showing much and just lets the setting, the dialogue and the accomplished actors tell us a little monster story. 

All the President's Men (1976)
Blistering, edge-of-your-seat political thriller with Redford and Hoffman as journalists Woodward and Bernstein, two men responsible for uncovering the Watergate scandal. You can’t go wrong here. You’ve got ace director Alan Pakula at the helm, William Goldman penning a biting script, Jason Robards deservedly picking up an Oscar for playing editor Ben Bradlee, and Jack Warden, Jane Alexander, Ned Beatty, Martin Balsam, Hal Holbrook (need I go on?) filling out the rest of this amazingly prolific cast.

Being There (1979)
Ah, how I wish I were there when Peter Sellers was enjoying his amazingly prolific career span throughout the sixties and seventies. From what I gather, this was the most significant role of his lifetime (or was it Dr. Strangelove?). Either way, I can see the reason for his accolades. This is such a wonderful film, so eerily like a 70's companion of “Forrest Gump.” Injected with political witticisms, magical whimsy and the game of chance, Being There is a smile-inducing satire about a simple gardener who is mistaken for a genius. Make no mistake here -- this one is a true 70's classic.

Carnal Knowledge (1971)
Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel lead a wonderful ensemble, which also includes Ann-Margret and Candice Bergen, in Mike Nichols' insightful dramedy about the friendship between two men in their college years and then later in middle-age. Nichols and his screenwriter frankly focus on sex and tumultuous relationships, and the men's vastly different takes on the opposite sex. What's so fascinating about this refreshingly adult and finely detailed study is the gradual change in perspective these men go through as they get older. This is crisp, intelligent filmmaking with entertaining dialogue and memorable performances all around.

Chinatown (1974)
"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." The always prolific Nicholson headlines Roman Polanski's stark, thrilling detective drama in which he plays, infamously, Jake Gittes, a nose-bandaged P.I. investigating a seedy case involving adultery, murder and….water. Faye Dunaway is brilliantly seductive as the woman who hires him, whose character has many tricks up her sleeve, and John Huston is the creepy subject in which Jake is hired to investigate. Chinatown is a skilled, unpredictable noir thriller and it's very easy to see why this is hailed as a masterpiece of any year, any genre.

The China Syndrome (1979)
A great powerful cast elevates this intense drama from being the obligatory ripped-from-the-headlines TV movie of the week (though ironically -- and eerily -- it was the event that followed the movie). I still cannot shake off the riveting finale in which the plant melts down and Jack Lemmon, helplessly trying to stop it, gets shot down. I remember a bearded, young Michael Douglas pounding on the glass during the spectacle. Several alarms are sounding and it serves as a powerful score. It's a brilliant climax in this fine drama featuring a timely, intelligent subject matter.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
In Steven Spielberg's first genuinely great film, Richard Dreyfuss plays a family man who has a "close encounter" with a UFO and is eventually drawn into an elaborate secret plan hatched by the government to communicate with the extra-terrestrials. This is a terrific family picture, filmed with a wide-eyed, childlike wonder by Spielberg and is thoroughly engrossing and even frightening (by PG standards). The unforgettable climax, with the abduction of Dreyfuss' kid and the landing of the spaceship, is awe-inspiring and emotionally soaring.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
I wrote a paper on this film in college and the assignment was pure pleasure. Dog Day Afternoon is a wonderful character study underneath the guise of a taut hostage-thriller scenario. Al Pacino, in one of his very best performances, plays Sonny, a married family man who makes a compulsive decision to rob a bank to get money for his gay lover's sex change operation. He's got a buddy, Sal, along the ride with him, who knows nothing about Sonny's secret relationship. After the robbery goes wrong, the media and cops are surrounding the place and his entire private life is out in the open for the public to see. At turns, this film is hilarious and intense, as we joyously watch Sonny go through what is easily the worst day of his life.

Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
There’s something to be said about my affection for prison films and I haven’t quite pinpointed the reasoning behind it yet. Escape from Alcatraz is yet another classic in the incarceration genre, this time featuring Clint Eastwood, in his prime, as a rebellious convict (is there any other kind in Hollywood?) who is determined to break out of Alcatraz. Don Siegel directs this heavily cinematic film, filled with scenes of sheer tension without a word ever being uttered.

Halloween (1978)
John Carpenter created the best of the original slasher films with Halloween, a dark, quiet thriller about a psychopath in a hockey mask who terrorizes Jamie Lee Curtis. Carpenter has three things going for him with this film: 1) It's scary, not gross. By keeping the violence and bloodshed to a minimum (compared to Freddy and Jason), the film doesn't make you queasy. He smartly relies on tone. 2) His brilliantly simplistic score sets up that tone wonderfully and it captures the true sound of fear and paranoia. And 3) the introduction of the lovely miss Curtis, who went on to become an underrated (and sadly under-utilized) actress. H2O is the best of all of its sequels, but make no mistake -- this one is the real thing.

Heaven Can Wait (1978)
Warren Beatty made this studio film so that he can get financing for Reds, and for a throw-away audience pleaser, Heaven Can Wait is a delightful charmer. Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon get big, big laughs here as scheming lovers, while Jack Warden, James Mason and Julie Christie round out a terrific ensemble as Beatty’s close friend, guardian angel and paramour, respectively. The ending feels a bit like a cheat, but Beatty turns on the charm all the way and makes the film very easy to swallow.

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
The most well-acted, emotionally wrenching film of the 70's. I've always admired the way director Robert Benton handled his characters in such notable films as Places in the Heart and Nobody's Fool, and here, there's no exception. Divorce was only growing during the time of its release, but even today, the film is not in the least bit dated. I've never seen Dustin Hoffman better than I've seen him here and Justin Henry played his son without being too cutesy like you see in Chris Columbus's movies. The five major Oscars the film won were most deserving.

Lenny (1974)
Is there really a better actor than Dustin Hoffman? Again, he impresses the hell out of me with a searing performance as Lenny Bruce, an edgy, trailblazing comic who used his comedy routine to air his blistering social commentary and political beliefs. Bob Fosse, a musical auteur and stage genius, is an unlikely choice here as director and some of his artful techniques didn't always work for me (the lingering camerawork in the opening act, for one, was too pretentious). What did work was his decision to film in crisp black-and-white and guiding Hoffman and Valerie Perrine in delivering some of the finest work of their careers. It's an absorbing, mesmerizing piece of work.

Little Big Man (1970)
The great Dustin Hoffman is a revelation in this hilariously entertaining dramedy about a young man taken in by Native Americans. He's captured and raised by the Indians and eventually grows up to become one. It's not necessarily a comedy, but it's filled with funny, human moments with very different characters trying to relate to one another. It could also be characterized as a coming-of-age drama, or even a war film, as Custer and his bloody massacres make a crucial appearance in the film. Some may say it's historically inaccurate, but under the helm of Arthur Penn, it's undeniably great filmmaking.

Night Moves (1975)
This is another Arthur Penn classic in which he re-teams with his Bonnie & Clyde actor Gene Hackman. It's a slow burn thriller about a private detective (Hackman) who takes on a standard kidnapping case that turns strange and baffling as he digs himself deeper. The enigmatic ending, widely debated and discussed upon its release, is a stroke of genius. It makes you second-guess the entire film long after it ends. It's one of Hackman's best roles and features great early performances by Melanie Griffith and James Woods. Definitely worth multiple viewings.

Norma Rae (1979)
Sally Field won a very well-deserved Oscar as Norma Rae, a spunky, single mother who takes on the task of unionizing her town's textile factory. You've seen similar-themed films -- lone woman tackles blue-collar top brass -- with Silkwood and North Country, but this one started them all. The men are well-cast; Beau Bridges as her boyfriend and Ron Liebman as the labor organizer she falls for. It's a moving, uplifting film.

North Dallas Forty (1979)
What Any Given Sunday tried to be and failed. This one is a bold, uncompromising, daring pro-football dramedy about the players (and owners) succumbing to the dangers of success (or achieving thereof), dealing with such issues as retirement, drugs, illegal gambling, and sex. Nick Nolte, like he did so well in Affliction, commands your attention by merely breathing. One of the very best of sports dramas.

Paper Moon (1973)
What a charming little road movie! Peter Bogdanovich elegantly directed this spry and funny comedy about a con man who accidentally meets up with a little girl (who may or may not be his daughter) and takes her along with him on the road to thievery. Real-life father-daughter team Ryan and Tatum O’Neal are a perfectly matched on-screen duo. Their chemistry was revelatory; I still remember vividly their conversations, their bickering and their little con games. Paper Moon is good, clean, honest fun, a terrific piece of family entertainment.

Star Wars (1977)
It ain’t no Empire Strikes Back, that’s for sure. But believe me, it'll do. First, the 20th Century Fox theme hums along and the Lucasfilm banner glistens on the screen. Then John Williams' memorable theme blasts through the speakers and the famous scroll begins the story of Chapter 4, A New Hope. It’s all orgasmic and wonderful. The newer Star Wars films do not have nearly same impact as this one and the last two chapters; chalk it up to nostalgia reasons and the freshness and inventiveness of the older material. And of course, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness and James Earl Jones - they have a lot to do with it, too. A classic in every sense of the word.

The Sting (1973)
And there they are again, Redford and Newman, post-Butch and Sundance, two of the most charismatic and entertaining movie stars of their time. They reunited with Butch director George Roy Hill in this fabulously constructed con artist comedy that piles one smart con after another. The two leads are having a ball and the supporting cast – Robert Shaw, Eileen Brennan, Charles Durning, Ray Walston – is top notch. What makes this one even more remarkable is that once it’s over, you want to watch it all over again.

Superman (1978)
Richard Donner directed this classic superhero drama that proudly builds depth and character in the first hour and subsequently takes off from there. Christopher Reeve is remarkably believable and engaging as both Clark Kent and his emotionally conflicted alter-ego. Gene Hackman has a ball as Lex Luthor, who is better explored in the more action-oriented Superman II. This outing, though, features one of the most memorable endings in a superhero movie -- Superman circling the globe, literally, to turn back time. Cool stuff!

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)
Old-fashioned, though edgy, police drama features Walter Matthau as a gruff lieutenant who sets out to stop a group of hijackers, led by Robert Shaw, aboard a New York subway car. It’s clearly low-budget, which you can tell by the lack of explosions and high speed chases. However, the film manages to move at an incredible clip and is vastly entertaining. Pelham is also as New York as you can get, featuring gritty city locations, accents across the five boroughs, and Matthau in a very funny New York cop performance that is far from typical.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
If I were to give out an award for the most gleefully twisted, insanely playful, most adorably sweet performance in the history of movies, it would belong to the beloved Gene Wilder. His Willy Wonka character is one of the most memorable in film history (and I don’t care if your name is Johnny Depp). The songs are tuneful, the set pieces magnificently colorful and the kids lovably annoying brats. The plot may not be much, but the film’s visual and aural styles are unforgettable. Even if you tune into this wonderful fantasy for less than two seconds, you are instantly seduced by its otherworldly charms.

Honorable Mention
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974); Badlands (1973); The Conversation (1974); The Deer Hunter (1978); Deliverance (1972); Five Easy Pieces (1970); Jaws (1975); The Last Detail (1973); One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975); Papillon (1973); Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975); Play Misty for Me (1971); Rocky (1976); Slap Shot (1977); Young Frankenstein (1974)

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