Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Year in Review: 1976

1976 is one of my favorite movie years ever. All you have to do is look at the films that DID NOT make my list to tell you just how strong a year this really was for movies. Filmmakers ranging from Martin Scorsese to Sidney Lumet to Brian DePalma to John Cassavetes to Roman Polanski all made great films this year. So with that, let’s get to the top 10.

10. Rocky (John G. Avildsen)
It is easy to make fun of Rocky now. Sylvester Stallone has essentially become a parody of himself, and he pretty much pissed on the films legacy by making five sequels – none of which were really necessary, even if I have to admit the rest do function well as guilty pleasures. But try going back and watching the film again with a fresh perspective. Yes, the story was old and well worn by the time Stallone and company got there. But rarely has it been this well executed. Stallone is really quite great in the lead role – a mumbling, has been given his one shot at redemption. Talia Shire is also wonderful as his shy love interest, and in Burgess Meredith, Burt Young and Carl Weathers, they have cast the perfect old grizzled coach, lunk head best friend and fierce rival that a film like this needs. The direction by John G. Avildsen is crisp and clean – nothing fancy, but beautifully executed. Yes, the shine has worn off the movie a little because of all the sequels and copycats that have come in the years since. But you know what? Rocky is still a great movie.

9. Marathon Man (John Scheslinger)
John Scheslinger’s Marathon Man is a brilliant exercise is thriller filmmaker. In the film, Dustin Hoffman stars as an innocent man, who get sucked into a complex web of lies and corruption because his brother (Ray Schneider) is a government agent who knows things he should. At the heart of the film is the brilliant, and justly famous, sequence when Laurence Oliver’s Nazi dentist drills into Hoffman’s teeth all the while asking “Is it safe?”, a reference to whether or not it would be safe for Oliver to pick up a cache of diamonds stolen from the Jews at Auschwitz. Hoffman has no idea what Oliver is talking about, but since he cannot get out of the game, he is stuck trying to play along. Hoffman is wonderful in the role – paranoid, fearful and intense. But this really is Oliver’s showcase, and he delivers one of the most iconic screen villains in history, and in my mind his best performance (I have never been as impressed with Oliver as many others seem to have been). The ending of the film is a little weak (according to screenwriting William Goldman it was changed because Hoffman didn’t like his ending), but overall, Marathon Man is a great example of the thriller genre.

8. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes)
John Cassavetes is one of the most important filmmakers in history – essentially founding the independent film movement decades before it really took off. This film is one of his best. Ben Gazzara gives an amazing performance as a strip club owner who, in the opening of the film, is finally able to pay off his long standing debt. He goes out to celebrate, and ends up right back in debt after losing a card game. The Mafia who owns his debt, convinces him to perform a hit on a major Chinese mafia figure, in order to square the debt. Gazzara reluctantly agrees. If this sounds like a typical crime movie, it isn’t. Cassavetes camera moves into the world, and fixes its gaze directly on Gazzara, and rarely leaves him for the entire running time of the movie. We get inside the world, get to know Gazzara. This is crime filmmaking that is intimate and real. No matter which version of the film you see (the original 135 minute version, or Cassvetes re-edited 108 minute version), you will see one of Cassvetes greatest achievements.

7. The Tenant (Roman Polanski)
Bizarre doesn’t begin to describe this film. Roman Polanski cast himself in the lead role in this film, where he plays a man who moves into an apartment where the last resident killed herself by jumping out the window. He moves in, and almost immediately, strange things begin to happen all around him. The neighbors constantly complain about the noise he makes – even when he isn’t making any. He begins to see the former tenant’s best friend (Isabelle Adjani), and their relationship becomes strange. Weirder yet, he starts to believe that HE IS the former tenant. Polanski’s film was critically drubbed upon initial release, and while it’s easy to see why a lot of critics found the film outlandish, I cannot deny its strange impact. Count me as a member of the strange cult of film fans who love this one.

6. Small Change (Francois Truffaut)
Francois Truffaut’s Small Change is a really simple movie that is also quietly beautiful and profound. There really is no story in the movie to speak of. It is just an assembly of scenes – some funny, some happy, some sad – that make up the lives of the children in the movie. It recreates childhood so perfectly that you cannot help but smile at some of the moments. The class clown waiting on the clock to tick down and bell to ring so he can get out of answering a question he doesn’t know. The painful longing of a first crush. Telling dirty jokes you don’t quite understand. It is moments like this, along with a masterful and hilarious sequence when a little girl takes her dad’s megaphone and announces to the world the indignity of her punishment – that has stayed with in the time since I first saw the film. It is almost a shame that Truffaut has to had a more serious plot near the end of the film – about an abused boy – but even that is handled with grace and simplicity. This is one of the best film ever made about children – by one of the best filmmakers in history.

5. Assault on Precinct 13 (John Carpenter)
Two years before John Carpenter truly broke through with Halloween, he made this brilliant B-film. Inspired in part by Howard Hawkes Rio Bravo and George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Assault on Precinct 13 is a movie about a cop and a criminal who have to team up as they hide in a nearly abandoned police station, with a heavily armed gang of streets thugs outside who want to get to someone inside. This is B- filmmaking at its best – extremely violent (that shot of the little girl being shot through her ice cream cone haunts me), depending more on character types then on real people. With the group inside the police station, you see the influence of Hawks’ film, where people who normally would not be on the same side have to team up to save themselves. With the marauding gang on the outside, you see the influence of Romero’s zombie – a faceless horde of violent intruders. Carpenter has made a lot of films in his career – some of them great – but for me, Assault on Precinct 13 will always be my favorite.

4. All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula)
Until David Fincher’s Zodiac in 2007, All the President’s Men was probably the most realistic, most penetrating movie ever made about the inner workings of a newspaper. Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford both give excellent performances as crusading Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein, the reporters who would eventually break the Watergate Scandal. The pieces of the puzzle come in slowly – informants who stay in the shadows (Hal Holbrook is great as Deep Throat), and story meetings eventually start to involve legal teams, and the whole Watergate scandal starts getting bigger and bigger. Meticulously directed by Pakula, the film feels authentic in even the smallest of details. The supporting cast, including Jason Robards who would win an Oscar for his performance as the editor of the Post are all brilliant – even in the roles that only have a scene or two in the movie. Often, movies like this that are timely when they are made age poorly as the years go by – All the President’s Men doesn’t. It gets even more relevant.

3. Carrie (Brian DePalma)
Carrie is the best film that Brian DePalma has ever made, and one of the few adaptations of a Stephen King book to get everything exactly right. This is a horrifying movie, full of violent imagery and intense sequences that more than any movie I have ever seen gets the pain of high school, and the urge to lash out, just right. I have a feeling many school shooters would relate to Carrie. Sissy Spacek delivers one of the best performances of her career in the title role – a painfully shy and awkward teenager, who is teased mercilessly at school (the chants of “Plug it up” as she is assaulted by the other girl in her gym class throwing tampons at her is chilling), and tormented at home by her strict, religiously fanatical mother (the great Piper Laurie, playing perhaps the worst mother in movie history) who locks Carrie in a closet for hours on end when she is “evil”. Unbeknownst to anyone though, Carrie has supernatural powers that she is finding more and more difficult to control. When the final humiliation comes at the prom, Carrie simply loses it. This is DePalma at his bloody best. The film is full of brilliant imagery – perhaps none more so than the dance between Carrie and her date, with the camera circling them, which starts off nice and romantic, and then slowly starts spinning out of control. This is masterful filmmaking that goes beyond its horror genre to become something much more.

2. Network (Sidney Lumet)
One of the greatest satires ever made. What must have looked ridiculous and outlandish in 1976 now almost looks realistic, and that realization is simply sad. Peter Finch, in his final screen performance, is Howard Beale a network news anchor who is being fired because his ratings are too low. He announces, on air, that the next day he will kill himself live on television. Thus begins a strange journey when the news becomes entertainment – a circus – and the crazed Beale is its ringmaster. Behind the scenes, Faye Dunaway, the producer, is pulling the strings all the to get better ratings, where veteran newsman William Holden thinks the whole thing is simply sad. The network executives (represented by Ned Beatty is a brilliant, one scene performance) are holed up in dark offices. The news doesn’t matter anymore – just ratings, just money. In 1976, Network played as a warning of things to come. Now, in 2010, with Fox News claiming to be fair and balanced, while putting on the air a bunch of angry blowhards, and the other networks trying to keep up (yes, Keith Olberman is as ridiculous as anyone on Fox) it plays like what the news has become. Network is still a brilliantly acted, merciless, funny, sad satire. It just doesn’t seem so farfetched anymore.

1. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese)
Is there anything left to say about Taxi Driver that I, and others, have not already said? Taxi Driver is one of the greatest of all films (it ranks second, only behind Apocalypse Now on my all time top 10 list) and is the greatest achievement by Martin Scorsese – my favorite filmmaker of all time. Robert DeNiro is simply amazing as Travis Bickle – a troubled Vietnam veteran who comes home from the war, and cannot deal with reality. He takes a job driving as taxi at night in New York, and only frequents the worst areas – the areas infected by drug, gangs and prostitutes. He tries to hold onto something good in his life, but there is nothing to hold on to. He sets his sights on two “angels” – first Cybil Shepherd as a campaign worker he dates, but screws up by taking her to a porn theater, then Jodie Foster as a child hooker he wants to save – even if she does not want to be saved. Scorsese’s camera captures New York at its ugliest, it’s most vile. The people Bickle meets just reinforces his worldview – that everything is sick and perverse, which leads to the films violent climax. Taxi Driver is a masterpiece, pure and simple. If you haven’t seen it, then you are missing one of the greatest films in history.

Just Missed the Top 10: Bound for Glory (Hal Ashby), The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood), Obsession (Brian DePalma), The Seven Per Cent Solution (Herbert Ross), The Shootist (Don Siegal), The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg), The Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky)

Notable Films Missed: In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima), Kings of the Road (Wim Wenders), Casanova (Federico Fellini), Ceddo (Ousame Sembene), The Marquise of O (Erich Rohmer), A Slave of Love (Nikita Milkhalov).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture and Director: Rocky (John G. Avildsen).
Obviously, I think Taxi Driver deserved to win this award out of the nominees (and I guess Lumet for director, since they stupidly DID NOT NOMINATE Scorsese for director). I can see why they went with Rocky – it was a dark year in movies, and Rocky was the lighter, more fun choice. In many years, I wouldn’t say they embarrassed themselves too badly, but this year they got it really wrong.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Peter Finch, Network
Again, I think DeNiro’s performance could be the best in cinema history, so it should have won (and I would have loved to see Gazzara nominated for Chinese Bookie). But Finch’s crazed performance is utterly brilliant as well – and considering DeNiro had just won an Oscar two years before, and Finch had just died, it is easy to see why they went this way.

Oscar Winner – Actress: Faye Dunaway, Network
I have no problem with Dunaway winning this award. It is one of her best performances, for a great movie no less. Personally, I think that Sissy Spacek delivered the best performance in this category this year – but it was a weak year for actresses.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actor: Jason Robards, All the Presidents Men
Out of the nominees, I would have gone with Oliver’s brilliant portrayal of the Nazi dentist, and perhaps even would have been tempted to give it to Beatty as the Network executive. But Robards is brilliant as well in the film. I really do wish Harvey Keitel’s work in Taxi Driver had have been recognized though.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actress: Beatrice Straight, Network
The love of the acting in Network was so strong, that Straight won this award despite having only 8 minutes of screen time all in one scene, where he confronts her husband (Holden) about his infidelity. It is a perfect example of how a one scene performance can stay with you after the movie ends. However, I still would have given it to Jodie Foster for Taxi Driver, or even Piper Laurie from Carrie.


  1. I completely agree with you about 1976 being an extraordinary year in film. I remember it well, one great film after the other. And you were right to put TAXI DRIVER as # 1 and Deniro's portrayal of Travis Bickle as one of the all time great performances. I was also glad to see you included THE TENANT, a great film, I would have ranked it a bit higher than you did.

  2. Hold on,Dave,you "forgot" one of the all time great movies which was released in January,1976, Lina Wertmuller's SEVEN BEAUTIES. No matter that it was a foreign film, Italian, it deserves to be right up there with TAXI DRIVER.

  3. @dankprofessor "SEVEN BEAUTIES" was released in its native Italy in '75; that's why Dave put it in that year in review