Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Year in Review: 1979

1979 contains my favorite film of all time – and yet that is still just a taste of what this last year of the 1970s has in store as far as cinematic treasures go. The tide had already well started to turn at this point – away from the more personal films of the 1970s, into the blockbusters of the 1980s and beyond – but this year still contains some great films by maverick filmmakers. In fact, I think that many of the films on the list represent the best work of some of the best directors of the era.

10. Hardcore (Paul Schrader)
For reasons that I have never understood, Paul Schrader’s Hardcore doesn’t seem to enjoy that much of a reputation among film critics. Dismissed when it was released, critics have yet to rediscover the film, which is a brilliant piece of filmmaking by Schrader and has connections to some of the other films he has been involved in – most notably Taxi Driver and Rolling Thunder. In the film George C. Scott gives an excellent performance as a strict, Christian Reform father, who goes looking for her daughter when she runs away. His investigation leads him into the world of underground porn films in LA, where his daughter has become involved with. This film is one of Schrader’s most personal films – raised by strict Christian Reform parents; he wasn’t even allowed to see a movie until he was in University. Schrader’s film – like Taxi Driver and The Searchers – is really about a man obsessive quest to save a woman who does not want to be saved. True, the end devolves a little bit into a series of car chases – but overall Hardcore is one of the best films Schrader has ever made as a director – and I hope that people soon realize this.

9. Wise Blood (John Huston)
John Huston’s Wise Blood is based on the very strange novel by Flannery O’Connor, and it makes for a very strange film as well. Brad Dourif plays a man who has just come out of the army, goes home to find it empty, and decides to head to “the city”. People their mistake him for a preacher – but he corrects them – “I ain’t no preacher”. But he is. He starts his own church – the Church Without Christ – where he preaches, well nothing really. There is no God, Jesus didn’t die for our sins, and everything is meaningless. Like the novel, the film can be read in any number of different ways – a story of loss and redemption, a portrait of the American south in spiritual crisis, or perhaps just a story of this man in crisis. Huston wisely never really comes down on one side or the other. Brad Dourif is a great actor – but a strange one, which is why he so often plays weird characters. In Hazel Motes he has found a character he is perfect for, and delivers the performance of his career. John Huston is one of those rare directors who seemed to never lose his ambition – and Wise Blood in one of his best late efforts.

8. Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)
As with all of the director’s film, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker should not be watched unless you are ready for a long, slow meditation on life and death. The film is a science fiction film, but it delves into deep human meaning in its story of a “Stalker” who brings a writer and a professor into the “zone” a mysterious area in Russian when some crashes two decade before, and is now off limits. There is a room in the zone where apparently your wildest dreams will come true if you enter it. The stark black and white photography in the beginning sequence gives way to bright color once inside the zone. The three men talk a lot throughout the film about what brought them to this place, and why. All this is fascinating, but I think it’s the ending sequence – once they return from the zone – that is truly fascinating, and delves into deeper territory. Tarkovsky is a master filmmaker, but one that I admire more than I love. Having said that, Stalker is one of his best films – a thoughtful, intelligent movie who meanings I can only begin to grasp.

7. Vengeance is Mine (Shohei Immamura)
Shohei Immamura’s Vengeance is Mine belongs in that rare category of true crime films that are not exploitative, but mesmerizing. It offers a portrait of pure evil with Ken Ogata’s brilliant performance as a serial killer. The film doesn’t try to explain away why this man feels the need to kill as much as he does. It just presents us with the man and his actions – and leaves us to try and decipher what it is we have seen. Ogata’s face in the movie is a marvel – he is capable of being so calm, so passive and yet at times charming as he lies his way out of his crimes, and then fills with rage when he is committing them. His face is a mask hiding his true self – and yet, what is his true self? Immamura doesn’t seem to know, and I think that even the character himself doesn’t know. He does what he does because he does it. Vengeance is Mine is a chilling film from beginning to end.

6. Alien (Ridley Scott)
Ridley Scott’s Alien is one of the best low budget horror movies ever made. Working with little money, Scott was still able to create one of the most terrifying creatures in screen history in his monstrous Alien who stalks the crew of a spaceship, and tries to knock them off one by one. The film is full of iconic moments – none more so than when the little Alien pops out of John Hurt’s chest and scampers off – a moment that still has the power to shock. Alien remains one of the scariest movies of all time – a masterpiece of film construction – editing, cinematography and art direction – that all goes to make it one of the most intense films ever made – and one of the best of Scott’s career.

5. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero)
George A. Romero has now made six zombies films, starting with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, and the most recent being the upcoming Survival of the Dead. But of them all – and they are all worthwhile films – none of them is better than Dawn of the Dead, which will go down as his masterpiece. A zombie outbreak has the entire country in a panic – a group of people end up at a shopping mall, where they dispose of the zombies inside, and lock it, allowing no one – living or undead – inside. While in the mall, they live like kings – they have everything they could have every wanted in there. But when a group of bikers show up, the two factions go to war with each other, which allows the zombies inside as well. The film is about consumerism (the brilliant, hilarious shot of zombies trying to up the down escalator makes the point clear), but also how the real monsters in the film are the humans. You cannot blame the zombies for being who they are – they are zombies through no fault of their own – but you can blame the humans. The nihilistic ending – which is still cheerier than what Romero envisioned – is chilling, but brilliant. The best zombie movie ever made.

4. All That Jazz (Bob Fosse)
Bob Fosse only directed a handful of films in his career – and none of them were greater than All That Jazz – which can really be seen as his own personal version of Fellini’s 8 ½. Roy Scheider gives a great performance as a thinly veiled Fosse surrogate – an egomaniacal theater director and choreographer who drinks too much, smokes too much and fucks too much – alienating the only people in his life that truly matter to him. The entire film is brilliant, but the finale is one of the all time great show stopping musical numbers – a dizzying, brilliant executed number that ends with Scheider being zipped into a body bag. Say what you want about Caberet, but All That Jazz is a much better, much more complex film. It could just be my favorite musical of all time.

3. Being There (Hal Ashby)
Hal Ashby’s Being There is one of the all time great political satires. A simple man named Chance (Peter Sellers) has spent his entire life being sheltered from the outside world, working as a gardener for a rich man and tending to his garden. When the man dies, Chance is put out on the street, and through a series of strange coincidences, becomes the toast of the town, and is hailed a political genius. His simple talks about how to tend to the garden are mistaken for complex political allegories. He is taken in by a powerful man (Melvyn Douglas) who wants Chance to run for office. Being There is a brilliant movie about our times – and it has not become less relevant in the years since its release, but more so – our television obsessed culture reducing everything to sound bites, and people becoming more and more stupid. Sellers is brilliant in the lead role – but then again everyone is brilliant in this movie. Ashby is one of those directors who only got a chance to make a handful of films – and in Being There he made the film he will always be remembered for.

2. Manhattan (Woody Allen)
Manhattan is my favorite Woody Allen movie of all time. It is the perfect combination of his funny side, and his more serious, introspective side. It doesn’t hurt to have Gordon Willis’ gorgeous black and white photography – which makes New York look more romantic than any film in history – on your side either. Allen is terrific in the lead role as a man who has lost his wife (Meryl Streep) to another woman. He is currently dating a teenager (the beautiful and great Muriel Hemingway), but then he falls for his best friends mistress (Diane Keaton). The film is brilliant in its exploration of Allen’s character. He feels Hemingway is too young for him, and throws himself whole heartedly at the other relationship – but when that goes wrong, all he wants is Hemingway back again. The last line in the movie “You’ve got to have faith in people” is a brilliant ending note – can Allen really have faith in people after everything that has happened? This is not a story of a dirty old man and young girl – but a more exploration of that relationship – even when the film is as hilarious as this one is.

1. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola)
I have seen thousands of films in my life, but Apocalypse Now remains my favorite of all time. How Coppola got away with making this violent, surrealistic epic set in the Vietnam war still boggles my mind. Given all the problems he had making the film, it amazes me that it came out as brilliant as it did – but he somehow pulled it off. The film stars Martin Sheen – in the best performance of his career – as a soldier sent up river into Cambodia during the war to confront and eliminate the mythical Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has gone mad with power, and has turned his compound into his own personal kingdom. For two hours, we are drawn up river with Sheen, seeing horror after horror, and right alongside him, we become fascinated by Kurtz. When we do finally meet him, Brando does not disappoint – giving one of the best performances of his career as the rambling madman Kurtz. The entire cast is brilliant – Robert Duvall is especially memorable as a surf obsessed Officer early in the film who says the films most iconic line “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”. Apocalypse Now is about the Vietnam war, but just barely. It is about the darkness, the horror, in men’s souls. And it is the best film I have ever seen in my life.

Just Missed The Top 10: Breaking Away (Peter Yates), The Brood (David Cronenberg), The China Syndrome (James Bridges), Escape for Alcatraz (Don Siegal), Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones & Terry Gilliam), Nosferatu: The Vampyre (Werner Herzog), The Onion Field (Harold Becker), Quintet (Robert Altman), Woyzeck (Werner Herzog).

Notable Films Missed: The Marriage of Maria Braun (Rainer Werner Fassbinder), Tale of Tales (Yuri Norstein), The Tin Drum (Volker Schlöndorff).

Oscar Winner – Picture & Director: Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton).
Do anyone else find it odd that Hollywood made a film about a custody battle, and made the bad guy the father? I mean, I’m sure there were other films that focuses on a child custody case before this – but I cannot think of one. And considering most of the time it seems to the be the father abandoning their children, you’d think that when they decided to tackle the subject they’d do it that way. It kind of reminds me of Disclosure (a far inferior film by the way), where Hollywood finally made a film about sexual harassment – and had it be poor Michael Douglas being harassed by Demi Moore. Anyhow, I don’t think the Academy was ready for Apocalypse Now, or even All That Jazz, in 1979, so you have to be glad they were nominated. And Kramer vs. Kramer is a superior film to Norma Rae – but I would have preferred Breaking Away as a better “safe” choice. Kramer vs. Kramer is by no means a bad film – it is intelligently written, directed and acted, but it’s a classic example of the Academy awarding something that must have seemed important at the time, but hasn’t aged all that well. A respectable choice, but hardly a stellar one.

Oscar Winner – Actor: Dustin Hoffman, Kramer vs. Kramer
Even though Dustin Hoffman had sounded off about his disdain for the Academy awards several times by this point in time, they pretty much had to give him an Oscar. After being nominated for The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy and Lenny, as well as being in several more truly great movies in the 1970s, he had become one of the best actors around without an Oscar. Hoffman certainly deserved to win at some point – hell he even deserves the two he has – but not for the roles he won them for. Is his work here the equal of The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Lenny, Straw Dogs, Little Big Man, All the President’s Men or Straight Time (to name only the film that came out before this one)? I don’t think so. Hoffman is good in Kramer vs. Kramer, but like the film itself he isn’t great. Compared to nominees like Peter Sellers and Roy Scheider, this performance just isn’t in the same league.

Oscar Winner – Actress: Sally Field, Norma Rae
Sally Field’s performance in Norma Rae is the exactly the type of performance that always wins Oscar. She plays a cute union organizer, who makes a lot of speeches, and fights for the little man in a movie that seems inspiring at the time, but fades the further away from the time it was made. Don’t get me wrong – Norma Rae is a good movie, and Sally Field is quite good in the lead role. But this is the type of film you see once and forget. Having said that, this wasn’t a really strong year for this category. I would have voted for Jane Fonda in The China Syndrome, but that’s a similar type role in a similar type movie, that I think is just a little bit better – and is far from Fonda’s best. When you don’t have a strong alternate selection, it’s tough to get too mad about the win.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actor: Melvyn Douglas, Being There
Melvyn Douglas’ win for Being There surprises me a little. Don’t get me wrong – I think Douglas is great as the old time political hand who takes in Peter Sellers’ dimwitted gardener and ends up turning him into a star politico. He certainly deserved to be nominated for his work in the movie. But Douglas had already won a supporting actor Oscar 16 years earlier in Hud – for another “old man” role no less, albeit a far different one. Considering that his competition included Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, who is extremely memorable in his brief scenes, and was an actor who had been nominated in the past and not won – not to mention Frederic Forrest who had not one but two acclaimed performances in 1979 (he was nominated for The Rose, but was also great in Apocalypse Now), a kid in Justin Henry for Kramer vs. Kramer and most tellingly a real old timer – Mickey Rooney for The Black Stallion, who is a Hollywood legend and never won an Oscar. I’m not complaining mind you, as I feel Douglas is better than everyone nominated other than Duvall – but we know what the best supporting performance of the year was. Marlon Brando, whose turn as Colonel Kurtz is iconic.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actress: Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer
Doesn’t it always seem to work out that the best actors and actresses win Oscars for roles that don’t show off anywhere near as much talent as their best work? Don’t get me wrong – Streep is in fine form as Hoffman’s selfish wife, who takes off on him and leaves their son, only to show up months later and want the kid back. But if you were to make a list of Streep’s best performances would this make the top 10? 20? Part of the win is because of the momentum of a best picture win – we’ve seen it happen quite often, especially in this category. And part of it is because Streep had shown off her talent quite a bit over the last two years – starting with her Oscar nomination for The Deer Hunter in 1978, and then following over in 1979 with great work in Manhattan and The Seduction of Joe Tynan along with this one. But really, don’t we all wish that Streep had won her first Oscar for one of her great performances? Streep’s Manhattan co-star Muriel Hemingway should have been the winner.

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