Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Year in Review: 1970

By 1970, the studio system had all but completely crumbled, and new, young daring filmmakers had taken over – something very much reflected on this list. 1970 was a strong year because it had a number of great films – narrowing it down to just 10 this year was hard for me. Many years of the 1970s were even better, but this year got the decade off to a wonderful start.

10. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyers)
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is a very strange, violent, sexual movie. It is a cross between a comedy, a satire, a melodrama, a soft core porn, a musical and a violent exploitation movie. It hits all of these notes pretty much perfectly, satirizing Hollywood’s formula “youth” movies of the time – especially Valley of the Dolls, a huge box office hit that was reviled by the critics. The movie is about three young women in a rock band – The Kelly Affair – who head to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune. They are soon introduced to Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell, a thinly veiled Phil Spector, who loves them, and promises them fame and fortune, much to the chagrin of the lead singer’s boyfriend, who is also their manager. Soon there are affairs, and revenge affairs, unwanted pregnancies, lesbian affairs, talk of abortion, lots of drug use and suicide attempts. Then, at the climax of the movie, Z-Man goes crazy at one of his drug parties, and in a scene inspired by the Manson murders, goes on a killing rampage. The movie then has a fake public service announcement, and ends happily with a triple marriage. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is one of those rare films that doesn’t seem to fit in with any real genre. The movie is hilarious at times, but the actors play every scene as if they were deadly serious – which adds to it. Some have questioned whether the filmmakers knew they were making a comedy – but I think it’s clear. The film mocks Hollywood conventions and stereotypes making them out to be truly ridiculous. At the end of the day, I’m not quite sure why the film works as well as it does – I just know that it is a true original.

9. The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci)
Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist is a film about a homosexual man in Fascist Italy during the 1930s – who simply wants to fit in. The movie opens in Paris as Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is preparing to assassinate his old college professor – an outspoken anti-fascist. The movie than flashes back to show us how Marcello got there. In one flashback, we see Marcello as a teenager, as another boy makes a sexual advance at him, which he responds to, before snapping and killing the other boy. From then on, Marcello tries everything he can to fit in – he goes to confession, even though he is atheist, he marries a beautiful young woman, he joins the fascists. When he is assigned to kill the professor he starts tracking him, and ends up falling in love with his young wife (Dominique Sanda), who he tries to save, but when it really matters, he does nothing. At the end of the film, when the fascist government has collapsed, Marcello once again tries to remake himself – conforming to the new society, by denouncing people as fascists. Marcello is a tragic figure – and yet he brings the tragedy onto himself, so he has no else to blame.

8. El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky)
El Topo is one of those films that seems to defy explanation. It seems to start out as a Western – but a strange one, as it contains a man dressed all in black, riding along on a horse with a naked child. Why is the child naked? I don’t know, perhaps because he represents more than just a child, and is perhaps The Child. El Topo is full of such symbols, but director Alejandro Jodorowsky doesn’t make it easy to figure what if anything these symbols mean. In the first part of the movie, the man is convinced by a woman (isn’t that always the way it goes?) to take on four legendary gunslingers – all of them are strange in their own unique way, to become the greatest in the land. The second half takes place years later, as El Topo gets involved with a group of underground dwellers, and is determined to help them dig their way out – only to have them massacred by a cult when they do, sending El Topo into a murderous rage, which will end after he kills the cult members, and then immolates himself. What does all of this mean? I don’t have the slightest clue. Jodorowsky fills the movie with Christian symbols, and ones from Eastern Philosophy, and probably other things I didn’t even spot. Perhaps the film is simply an exercise in surrealism, like some of Luis Bunuel’s film. What I do know is that El Topo is a fascinating film from beginning to end – it has such wonderful imagery, such beauty existing beside such brutality that the film remains haunting. Jodorowsky is an original, and El Topo is a one of a kind film.

7. Little Big Man (Arthur Penn)
Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man is a film that meanders through its story, rather than simply diving in head first. The film is told from the point of view of a 121 year old man – played by Dustin Hoffman – who tells his life story just like we would expect an old man to do so. Hoffman is mainly an observer to the action in the film though – he is a white man, who for a time lives with the Cheyenne Indians, and at other times is part of the Calvary led by General Custer, at other times is a gunfighter or involved in medicine shows to lives as a hermit – he needs to be all those things so he can observe everything that happens, and report to us what he saw. The key performance in the film is not Hoffman’s, but Chief Dan George’s, who has a dignity, power and authority about him when he speaks in this film about Indian life, and the difference between him and Custer. Penn is a terrific director of violence, as he proved with Bonnie and Clyde, and the massacre at the center of the film – that by Custer of the Indians – is another example of his power behind the camera. When the Cheyenne strike back at Custer, the violence is more subdued. There have been a lot of films since the days of the classic Western when Indians were portrayed as savages that have tried to show a different image of them. None of them are better than Little Big Man.

6. Tristana (Luis Bunuel)
Like Viridiana and Belle de Jour, Luis Bunuel’s Tristana focuses on sexual morals and religion. Catherine Denueve gives a wonderful performance as the title character – a virtuous young woman whose mother has just died, so she is sent to live with a wealthy family friend – Fernando Rey (in a role similar to what he played in Viridiana), who is supposed to be an upstanding, older man who will take on the role of father to the young woman. But Rey becomes obsessed with Denueve, with possessing her beauty for himself, and feels that he should have the rights not only as father, but as husband over Tristana – which virtually means complete control. At first, we feel that Rey has complete control over Tristana – but her experience with him has taught her a lesson – and made her slightly more jaded. When she takes up with a young artist (Franco Nero), Rey is devastated, but can do little to stop it. When she returns two years later, with an illness, Rey has grown older, greyer and lonelier – and when she asks for his help, and agrees to marry him, his fate is sealed. Tristana is not quite the film that Viridiana or Belle de Jour is – but is still a fascinating, brilliant study of religion and society repressing a woman’s sexuality – and how she claims it back.

5. Woodstock (Michael Weidleigh)
I’m sure that no film can ever come close to matching the experience of actually being at Woodstock in 1969. But Michael Weidleigh’s documentary gives you as good of an idea of what the concert is like as any film possibly could. Woodstock is, without a doubt, the greatest concert movie of all time. The cameras – and there were a lot of them – seem completely free to capture the performers from all angles, as well as the crowd, often at the same time. The editing of the movie – done with a team of editors including Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker- uses split screens better than any movie before or since – giving us different angles, different perspectives on the same events. The music is great – none better than Jimi Hendrix’s whose version of the Star Spangled Banner has become iconic because of this film. And yet, the music is only part of why the film is so great. The movie also captures the feeling of being there – little moments of people in the crowd – not just the hippies getting high, having sex and playing in the mud (which it includes), but of other moments about the townspeople, the farmers, the workers. Woodstock is ultimately a time capsule. No, you cannot say that you have truly experienced Woodstock simply by watching this movie. But there are few movies that I think better sum up 1960s like Woodstock does. It is a great concert film, a great documentary – and more, an important historical document of its time and place.

4. Le Boucher (Claude Chabrol)
Le Boucher is about a relationship between a school teacher and a butcher – two characters who should never be involved with each other – and how their seemingly normal relationship transforms both of them in horrid ways. It is a fascinating film about the butcher, a serial killer (Jean Yanne), and his relationship with a teacher (Stephane Audran). We know that he is the killer from the start of the movie, and I think so does Audran. But instead of this repelling her away from him, it only serves to draw her ever closer to him. Watch their first meeting when he watches intently how he carves the meat – she, who has basically been celibate for years, seems to be getting something sexual from his movements. Later, after we know that she knows he is the killer, she is continually drawn to him. Yet despite this movie being about a serial killer and beautiful woman, the film isn’t really a thriller. It’s something much deeper than that – it about their connection, which is largely left unsaid. Yanne is a murderer, there is no doubt about that, but the film almost sees him as a victim – driven by the brutality he witnessed in the army, and also by his relationship with Audran. Yanne knows that she knows he is the killer, and yet she continues to draw closer to him – although they never have sex – so he continues his crimes. There is a wonderful scene right near the end of the movie where we know precisely what he is thinking, but she remains an enigma. That shot of her face is the key to the film, and her character. She is, in many ways, much more screwed up than the serial killer, who she is fascinated with, and plays with in a merciless, wordless way.

3. MASH (Robert Altman)
I’m not sure that many people remember the movie MASH as much as they remember the TV show. Alan Alda and the rest became so iconic in their roles during that popular series’ run, that I suspect that many people watching Robert Altman’s film may find it a bit odd to see others in the roles. But Altman’s film is both funnier, and more serious, than the show ever dared to be. This movie about doctors during the Korean war is bloody in its surgical scenes, and then hilarious during much of the rest of it – these doctors are simply trying to retain their sanity. The thing that is often overlooked when talking about the movie is just how utterly cruel its characters are. Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould play practical jokes, as they would in the TV series, but here the jokes hurt, they sting. We laugh with sadistic pleasure when we play these jokes – but if they were done to us in real life, we would probably cry. Robert Altman is perhaps the only director who could make material like this work the way he does. He doesn’t direct like most people, and his movies have the chaotic feeling of real life. Gould and Sutherland are cruel because they have to be – they have to do something to maintain their sanity after seeing all the suffering they do. And Sally Kellerman as Hot Lips and Robert Duvall as her lover, don’t seem to feel anything – so Gould and Sutherland try to make them feel something, anything. Although MASH was set in Korea, everyone knew that the film was really about the ongoing war in Vietnam. That Altman and company made such a brazen comedy about it was daring – and the movie remains one of the best American comedies of the 1970s.

2. Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner)
Patton is perhaps the best “pro-War” film I have ever seen. I think that could be the reason why the film is not quite as adored by many film critics as it probably should be. George C. Scott gives one of the most legendary performances in screen history – he makes General George Patton into a larger than life character – the type of guy you would be horrified to spend any time with, but during wartime, you want on your side. The movie begins with the famous scene of Patton standing in front of a giant American flag, delivering his speech to the troops, who remains unseen. But that is just part of the movie. The film is wonderful in how it shows Patton’s masterful military strategy, and also his own special brand of insanity. Patton is as much of an actor as anything else – putting on a performance to gear up his troops, or browbeat them into doing what he wants them to do depending on the situation. Some of the time he means what he says, sometimes not – but only he knows the difference. Scott is amazing in the central role – ripping into Patton with all his contradictions, all his madness, his genius, his hatred and his patriotism and coming up with a fascinating character. Was the film made with a right wing agenda, trying to influence public opinion at the heart of an unpopular war? Perhaps. But it that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a wonderful film.

1. Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson)
Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces is one of the key films of the 1970s. It shows the influence of Cassevetes, but takes things in an even bolder direction. It is a movie with two halves – the first one a mystery, the second one that explains it. It is about Bobby Duprea (Jack Nicholson), a oil rigger with a trailer trash, pregnant girlfriend (Karen Black), who seems to look down at the people around him. At this point in the movie we do not know why. It is only when the second half of the movie begins – when Bobby goes home to his upper class family that the pieces start falling into place. Bobby feels that he has let everyone in his life down – including himself. His family forgives him his trespasses, as does Black, who is one of those women who is so desperate to hold onto her man that she doesn’t see him for who he truly is. In fact, no one sees Bobby for who is really is – not even Bobby. The movie has moments of shocking humor – everyone remembers the scene in the diner where Nicholson tells the waitress to hold the chicken “between her knees”. But mainly Five Easy Pieces is a character study about a man who doesn’t fit in, and spends his entire life running away. The end of the film is perfect, and haunting, because it remains loyal to its characters right down to the final moment. Nicholson has delivered many great performances in his career – including several that I would say were better than this one. But I’m not sure he has ever played such a realistic character before – a character so out of sorts with himself. Five Easy Pieces is a masterpiece of character development and insight. Unlike many films that seem like a product of their time and place, Five Easy Pieces is as relevant today as it was 40 years ago.

Just Missed The Top 10: Dodes’ka-den (Akira Kurosawa), Gimme Shelter (David & Albert Marsyles &Charlotte Zwerin), Goin' Down the Road (Donald Shebib), Hi Mom! (Brian DePalma), I Never Sang for My Father (Gilbert Gates), Joe (John G. Avildsen), Love Story (Arthur Hiller), Performance (Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg), Women in Love (Ken Russell).

Notable Films Missed: Airport (George Seaton), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (Sam Peckinpah), The Hart of London (Jack Chambers), Husbands (John Cassvetes), The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Billy Wilder), The Red Circle (Jean Pierre Melville), The Sorrow and the Pity (Marcel Ophuls), The Spider's Stratagem (Beranrdo Bertolucci), Zorn's Lemma (Hollis Frampton).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner)
I have a feeling that if Midnight Cowboy had not won the best picture Oscar in 1969, then a different film may have won the Oscar in 1970. That isn’t to say that Patton isn’t a great film – it was my second favorite of the year after all – but we have often seen this pattern emerge at the Academy awards. After a daring, smaller winner, the Academy goes back to what it feels more comfortable with – in this case and epic war movie. At the time, I know many younger critics and audiences thought that Patton was simply an attempt to drum up support for an unpopular war that was looking unwinnable at the time. Whether or not this is true, you cannot deny the skill involved with making the movie – the storytelling of Schaffner and his screenwriters (including Francis Ford Coppola), or the lead performance by George C. Scott. Yes, I would have voted for Five Easy Pieces, but I see nothing wrong with this win.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: George C. Scott, Patton
On a personal level, I find it very hard to choose my preference for the win in this category this year. On one level, Jack Nicholson gave one of his best, most humane performances of his career in the lead role of my favorite film of the year in Five Easy Pieces. Without Nicholson, that film doesn’t work at all. Having said that, George C. Scott is truly larger than life in Patton – capturing the ambition, the madness, the patriotism and the anger of Patton and turning him into a truly complex character. He commands your attention in every scene of the film – as he is practically the center of attention in every single scene. You cannot take your eyes off of him. This is basically a choice for two polar opposite, yet equally great, performances – a larger than life, over the top performance, and a subtle, more restrained one. You make the call – either would be worthy winners.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Glenda Jackson, Women in Love
Glenda Jackson is the best thing about Ken Russell’s film – a sort of battle of the sexes set in the 1920s which is about sexual freedom. She plays the “difficult” sister, whose love affair with Oliver Reed is doomed. Jackson makes the somewhat daring decision to embrace her unlikable character full on, and turns her into a predator, and far and away the most interesting character in the movie. The film has a little too much “avant garde” style for my liking – I felt it distracted from what was generally a very good story that was already more than enough to keep me interested. Out of the nominees, she is clearly the best – but I would have loved to have Stephan Audran’s difficult work in Le Boucher or Catherine Denueve’s brilliant turn in Tristana win instead – but of course, they didn’t nominated them.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: John Mills, Ryan’s Daughter
Ryan’s Daughter was a favorite whipping boy of critics back in 1970 – and to be honest it is easy to see why. The film is bloated and long and doesn’t have the epic feel of Lean’s previous films – although not for lacking of trying on Lean’s part. He tries to do the same thing he did in Doctor Zhivago – make an epic love story set against a revolutionary backdrop – but the IRA in this film doesn’t quite ring true. And a third of the love triangle at the center of the film – the British soldier – is the films dullest character who says nothing of interest throughout the whole film. Yet, there is greatness within Ryan’s Daughter as well. Robert Mitchum is in fine form as the older teacher who marries Sarah Myles – who is as good as the film allows her to be – only to see her have an affair with the British soldier. There is an epic storm sequence that is brilliant. In total, Ryan’s Daughter is not quite the failure that it was made out to be, although it is still Lean’s weakest effort. Unfortunately though, none of the good stuff in the movie involves John Mills performance as the mentally challenged village idiot. The performance is one note, and the character merely functions to keep the plot moving forward, as he always seems to be in the right place to hear things he wasn’t supposed to and then report it to everyone else. Mills, a fine actor, is simply not given anything of interest to do – it really isn’t his fault. But this is one the worst acting winners I can remember – another example of how if you want to win an Oscar, play a mentally challenged person. Chief Dan George was robbed.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Helen Hayes, Airport
Airport is one of those big budget movies that the Academy couldn’t help but nominate in the 1970s alongside some of the more daring choices. The public ate the film up, so it got a lot of Oscar nominations. I haven’t seen the film – I will at some point, but haven’t feel the need to yet – so I really cannot comment on whether Hayes’ performance in the film is any good or not. Roger Ebert, who generally disliked the film, praised Hayes’ performance as a stowaway saying that she milked the performance for all it was worth, and seemed to realize just how ridiculous the movie was. Since Hayes had already won an Oscar for 1931’s The Sin of Madeline Claudet (by the way, setting a record for the longest period between an Actor’s first and second Oscar wins), they couldn’t really have felt the need to award her again. Karen Black’s performance as the white trash girlfriend in Five Easy Pieces who is not as dumb as she looks gave a truly great performance – as did Sally Kellerman in MASH, but the Academy gave it here, and since I haven’t seen it, I cannot complain too loudly.

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