Thursday, August 12, 2010

Year in Review: 1977

To some, 1977 represents the official end of the decade of the director. The early 1970s was a time when American filmmakers had more freedom than ever before, and young exciting directors were being given free rein to do what they wanted to. Many blame George Lucas and Star Wars for ushering in the age of the blockbuster and ruining all that – but the process really started much earlier than people like to believe (for example The Godfather in 1972 was the first movie to open “nation wide” on the same day, a move that was followed the next year by The Exorcist). Lucas is too easy a target. But if 1977 represents the last gasp of dying era, or at best a mixture of the two, they sure did make a lot of great films that year.

10. 1900 (Bernardo Bertolucci)I cannot help but admire Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic 1900, even if at 311 minutes the film is overlong, and at times a narrative mess. The film opens on January 1st, 1900 with the birth of two boys – Alfredo, the son of the wealthy landowner Burt Lancaster, and Olmo, the son of a poor worker, Sterling Hayden. The two become childhood friends, and there is a wonderful innocence about these early scenes where neither cares who the others father is, or what social class they belong to. Thing change however during WWI, where Olmo (now played by Gerard Depardieu) joins the army to fight for his country, while Alfredo (now Robert DeNiro) learns how to run the plantation. After the war, with fascism on the rise, both men marry, and the plantation owned by DeNiro is run by Donald Sutherland – an ruthless, sadistic supporter of fascism, who treats the workers like slaves. Meanwhile, DeNiro is locked into a loveless marriage with Domnique Sanda, who grows suicidal because of their horrid relationship, and Depardieu’s beloved wife dies in childbirth. Yes, 1900 is overlong at five hours, and yes even at that length, the movie tries to cram too much into one movie. But there are scenes of such beauty in the film, and scenes of unforgettable savagery. Also the performances by DeNiro, Depardieau, Sanda, Lancaster, Hayden and Sutherland keep the movie interesting. 1900 is not a movie I love in spite of its excesses, it is a film I love because of them.

9. Opening Night (John Cassavetes)The films of John Cassavetes work best when they capture the messiness of life. His best film is A Woman Under the Influence, which starred Gena Rowlands as a woman who was constantly trying to fit in, to do the right thing, but never seemed to be able to – eventually leading her to a nervous breakdown. In Opening Night, Gena Rowlands once again plays a woman who is on her way to a breakdown – this one fuelled by alcohol, and enabled by everyone around her. She plays an actress who is starring in a new play about an aging woman, but she cannot seem to find her way into the character. They are trying the play out in New Haven before opening it in New York, but Rowlands is constantly drunk, forgets her lines and insults everyone around her. Ben Gazzara is the ever patient director, who tells Rowlands what she wants to hear, even if it isn’t the truth, Joan Blondell is the playwright, who is getting tired of Rowlands diva tactics, but tries to help anyway, and Cassavetes himself is the play’s leading man, and Rowlands former lover, who like everyone else is growing tired of her. Yet they all support her, the all feed into her ego, and above all, they all keep offering her a drink. Rowlands is just one step away from falling off the deep end – and that step may come early in the film, when a fan tries to run after her car after the performance, and ends up getting hit and killed. The girl, around 18, begins to haunt Rowlands – not is a ghost story sense, but rather that Rowlands keeps her around, perhaps because she is the only one who will tell her the truth. Opening Night is not one of Cassvetes very best films – it is too long, too ungainly and at times unfocused, and the ending confused me a little bit. Why does everyone seem so happy at the end? Is it because Rowlands has now turned everyone, even the audience, into her enablers? But the film is still alive, fresh and brilliantly well acted and directed, in a way that only Cassavetes could do.

8. Eraserheard (David Lynch)
What are we to make of David Lynch’s debut feature film Eraserhead? It is a film totally unlike anything you’ve ever seen – a sign that Lynch was an original talent. The film stars Jack Nance as Henry, who discovers that his estranged girlfriend has given birth to the most hideously deformed baby in human history. The two get married, but she cannot take like with him and his offspring for long, and leaves him to raise the baby on his own. What follows is a bizarre series of events, featuring the Woman in the Radiator, who literally lives in Henry radiator and sings and dances – crushing sperm shaped creatures as she does, the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, The Man in the Planet, and a dream sequence where Henry thinks his head is being turned into erasers – and finally Henry’s murder of his own child, which seems to have catastrophic effects. What does all of this mean? I don’t have a clue. What I do know is that Lynch’s dark twisted vision – his dystopian view of the world – wraps you in its grip from the opening scene and never lets you go. It is a marvel, especially considering how little money Lynch had to spend on the movie. After making Eraserhead, Lynch disappeared into the Hollywood system for a few years – making The Elephant Man and Dune, which to my mind are his two least interesting films – before deciding to stick to his own twisted vision from then on. And nothing is more twisted than Eraserhead.

7. That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Bunuel)Luis Bunuel was 77 when he directed That Obscure Object of Desire – his final film. And it must be said that right up until the end, Bunuel was pushing boundaries and not playing it safe. Has there ever been another director who has better captured the erotic power of women, and the games that men and women play together? He is known as a surrealist, a man who poked fun at Catholic and the bourgeoisie in equal measure. But when I think of his films, I think of the erotic power they have. As he did in Viridiana and Tristana, Fernardo Rey plays what could be called a dirty old man. He is rich, a widower, who lives a comfortable life, despite all the recent terrorist attacks around him. We first see him getting on a train, and when a beautiful young woman approaches the train, he bribes the conductor to allow him to get a bucket of water, and pours it over her head as she stands on the platform. The other people in his car see this, and wonder what could have driven this seemingly respectful man to do such a thing. So he tells them his story – and why pouring a bucket of water over the woman’s head is actually far less than she deserved. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of those other two Bunuel and Rey films, where he tried to possess a beautiful younger woman. In Viridiana, things do horribly wrong and he commits suicide. In Tristana, things go horribly wrong, and he ends up getting murdered. In That Obscure Object of Desire, although things go horribly wrong, I think by the end, he has got what he wanted – even as the world descends into chaos. The most daring thing about the film is that Bunuel cast two different women – Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina – to play the woman in the film. Oddly, this is not a distraction, but actually helps the film. It makes the woman more fluid, more mysterious, and provides Rey with the challenge of having to seduce both of them – something he can never quite do. Bunuel was playing with us right up until the end.

6. Rolling Thunder (John Flynn)Rolling Thunder is a mostly forgotten film written by Paul Schrader and directed by John Flynn. That’s a shame, because the film is one of the best, most violent revenge thrillers of the 1970s – and what’s more, it’s actually an intelligent movie as well. William Devane gives his best performance as a soldier who returns to his small Texas town after spending 7 years as a POW in Hanoi. He is given a hero’s welcome – a new Cadillac and 2,555 silver dollars, one for everyday he was kept prisoner. However, his wife has moved on – she is engaged to a police officer, and has no plans to break it off. His son doesn’t remember him. Devane takes this all in stride – seething underneath, but giving an appearance that it doesn’t bother him, and continuing the same routine he had in that prison camp. Things kick into high gear when he returns home one day to find four criminals waiting for him – they want those silver dollars, and torture Devane to try and get him to talk. He has a flashback to his time in the camp, but doesn’t talk. But then his wife and son return home, and give the criminals what they want – who shoot all three anyway, with Devane being the only one who survives. What follows is as violent as any movie by Sam Peckinpah, as Devane, and his old army buddy (Tommy Lee Jones), facing similar problems, go out for vengeance. Despite the films violence it never becomes just a series of violent showdowns and gunfights. Like Taxi Driver, which Schrader wrote the previous year, this is a film about a Vietnam veteran who finds he cannot fit in with society anymore, and takes out his vengeance on the people who have harmed him. Taxi Driver is rightly regarded as one of the best films of all time – Scorsese’s direction and DeNiro’s performance elevate it high beyond Rolling Thunder. But this is a great movie as well, and deserves to be rediscovered.

5. Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett)How many films have we know seen about life in the ghetto of L.A.? I can’t tell you the exact number, but I can tell you that almost all of them involve gangs, drugs, guns and death. Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep takes place in Watts during the 1970s, and shows us with an unblinking gaze the poverty that surrounds its character – but it never resorts to those kind of clichés. Instead, what it shows us is the portrait of a man (Henry G. Sanders) who has a horrible job at a slaughter house where he works himself ragged, and then comes home and works himself even harder. He is a good man who is trying to support his wife and his kids, but he’s just so damn tired. Every time it seems like he is going to get some relief – a day at the races, an new engine for his car – something comes along and ruins it. Offset against these scenes are scenes of his kids, and the others from the neighborhood, playing. These are on long, lazy, hot summer days. The kids don’t have any real toys, but kids often find a way to amuse themselves. Burnett’s film is really more about mood than anything else – there is no real plot to speak of – but it is about a time and place that Burnett knows well, and puts on the screen in all it details. The film reminded me of the Italian neo-realists after WWII, that simply liked to show their characters go about their daily routines surrounded by poverty. It is to Burnett’s credit that Killer of Sheep deserves to be mentioned alongside those film.

4. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg)Steven Spielberg has said he doesn’t think he could make Close Encounters of the Third Kind the same way today as he made it back in 1977. That after becoming a father, he finds Richard Dreyfuss’ decision to leave his family at the end to travel into space unjustifiable. Well, he’s wrong. Besides, that ending sequence, as magical as it is with the spaceship and the people on the ground exchanging musical cues before revealing it’s peaceful, waif like aliens that bring Dreyfuss aboard, is only the final in what is one of Spielberg’s greatest directorial achievements. The film captures the wonder, the almost childish glee of its characters when they realize that something bigger then themselves is going on – something beyond their world is visiting them. Dreyfuss carries the movie, and it’s to his credit that we feel sympathy with him the entire film – even when he seems to have completely lost, and yes, even in that final scene when he abandons his family to see what lies beyond the stars. The other performances in the movie, Melinda Dillon as a mother who wants her son back in particular, are also wonderful. Like Spielberg’s best films, the special effects are second to none – I’m sure that if the film were made today, there would be different special effects, but I’m not sure they would necessarily be better special effects. But like Spielberg has done time and again in his career, he uses the special effects not to replace the story, but to enhance it. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a magical movie.

3. Star Wars (George Lucas)What more can be said about Star Wars that has not already been said? I know a lot of people are down on the film, because along with Jaws, it helped to usher in the age of the blockbuster – and the personal filmmaking of the early 1970s became a thing of the past because of it. But that isn’t George Lucas’ fault. The original Star Wars is still one of the best, most entertaining space operas ever made. It presented us with so many characters – Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Han Salo, Obi Wan Kenobi, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, C3P0, R2D2, Jabba the Hut etc – that have become classic examples of their type. The special effects were groundbreaking at the time, and remain wonderful today (stop tinkering with them George!). The story is a classic battle between good and evil on a large scale, the action sequences are wonderful well staged. It is quite simply one of the most entertaining films ever made – and I really don’t think anything else needs to be said about it.

2. Annie Hall (Woody Allen)Woody Allen’s Annie Hall is the film that turned the filmmaker from a promising comedic filmmaker, into the real deal. I do love some of Allen’s early films – Bananas in particular I find hilarious – but it wasn’t really until Annie Hall that he pushed himself further, where he really made a film about modern relationships that was both hilarious, and yet bittersweet. Allen stars as Alvy Singer, a standup comedian who meets, falls in love with, lives with and then breaks up with the title character, played by Diane Keaton. The movie is all about the dialogue – the characters rarely do anything other than talk – and Allen’s experiments with his visual style, and storytelling techniques. A movie like this would be unthinkable today, with its mixture of tones, it intellectual dialogue that is actually about something other than driving the plot forward, its references to pop culture that sadly most audiences would no longer get (do people still know Groucho Marx? Fellini? McLuhan?). Allen uses every visual trick in the book to get his movie across – split screens, animation, fantasy sequences, scenes where Allen addresses the audience himself, or the wonderful sequence where he starts asking people on the street what they think (I love the man’s response about the giant vibrating egg). But above all it is about the performances – Allen, playing really for the first time, his sad sack persona, a man who turns everything into a joke, and screws everything up because of it, and Keaton as the neurotic Hall, who puts up with Alvy as long as she possibly can. I’m not sure that Annie Hall in Allen’s best film – my vote would probably be Manhattan – but it shows a filmmaker pushing himself, and his audience, beyond what they normally expect. It is a masterpiece.

1. Three Women (Robert Altman)For some reason, when the great films of Robert Altman – one of the best directors in history – are discussed, Three Women doesn’t get mentioned alongside the likes of Nashville or McCabe and Mrs. Miller. But for me, I think Three Women just maybe the best film Altman ever directed. Three Women is a film that came to Altman in a dream, and it plays like a dream as well. It does in fact revolve around three women – Shelley Duvall, constantly trying to make a good impression on everyone around her, yet seemingly unaware that everyone ignores her, Janice Rule as the pregnant wife of a drunken letch, who fills her days painting the bottom of the swimming pool at the apartment complex she and Duvall both live at, and young Sissy Spacek who still seems to be little more than a child. The film was inspired, in part, by Ingmar Bergman’s Persona – and we can certainly feel the echoes of that film in this one, especially when Spacek decides that she should steal Duvall’s identity. But Altman’s film is even better than Bergman’s – it is a deeper film, a film with many interpretations and hidden meanings, a film that drifts by us effortlessly, and yet hangs in your memory forever once you have seen it. Three Women is unlike most of Altman’s movies – he uses a much different style than his typical overlapping dialogue, observational style that captures the hum of life overheard. Here he does a better job than any film I can recall about creating a world that exists as it does in a dream. Three Women is a masterpiece.

Just Missed The Top 10: The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven), The Late Show (Robert Benton), Saturday Night Fever (John Badham), Slap Shot (George Roy Hill), Sorcerer (William Friedkin), Suspiria (Dario Argento).

Notable Films Missed: Hitler: A Film from Germany (Hans-Jürgen Syberberg), Providence (Alain Resnais),The Turning Point (Herbert Ross).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: Annie Hall (Woody Allen)
I know a lot of people are surprised when they look back at this year’s Oscar and realize that Star Wars did not actually win the Best Picture or Director Oscars. After all, it was clearly the biggest event in pop culture that year, and has become a film where you are hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t love. It never surprised me however. No matter how good films like Star Wars are, they never win the big Oscar – Avatar is the most recent example of this. What does surprise me is that Woody Allen’s Annie Hall won both prizes. Not only is it a romantic comedy – something that hadn’t really won the prize since Frank Capra’s It Happened Night in 1934, but is a rather daring, innovative one at that – and it was coming from a filmmaker that no one really took seriously before the film was released. But looking at things in another light – Annie Hall’s Oscar win actually makes sense. I mean, what else were they going to give the Oscar to out of the nominees? We already eliminated Star Wars, so what does that leave? Herbert Ross’ forgotten ballet film The Turning Point (which I have forgotten to see), another Herbert Ross film, the Neil Simon adaptation The Goodbye Girl, also a romantic comedy, but one nowhere near as good as Annie Hall, and Fred Zinneman’s dull “epic” Julia. So Annie Hall wins almost by default. Having said that, the Academy clearly made the right choice – they gave it to a great film, one of the best the genre has ever produced, and to a director who would go on to become one of America’s best. Good for them.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Richard Dreyfuss, The Goodbye Girl
I don’t much care for The Goodbye Girl, which is an average romantic comedy from Neil Simon, much like his The Odd Couple, except of course, this time the leads are of different genders so they can eventually fall for each other. Dreyfuss plays a struggling actor who, through a series of misunderstandings, comes to share an apartment with Marsha Mason, and her daughter Quinn Cummings. The two hate each other at first, but of course, will fall in love. I found the screenplay to be weak in places – and Mason’s character is extremely unlikable, so there’s a hole in the plot right there. Dreyfuss is fine in the lead role – particularly in the scenes where he plays Richard III as an over the top homosexual, but he has done much better work in his career – hell he did much better work this year in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Dreyfuss’ win was somewhat surprising – everyone assumed that Richard Burton would finally win an Oscar for his work in Equus (a film I have somehow never gotten around to seeing). The Academy has never been as fond of Woody Allen as an actor as they have as a director/writer – giving him his only acting nomination this year – and in my mind, he should have won (but since he won Director and Original Screenplay that year, we’ll let it pass).

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Diane Keaton, Annie Hall
1977 was a great year for actresses – but the Academy only nominated one of the great performances, leaving out the great Shelley Duvall in Three Women and Gena Rowlands in Opening Night. Still however, I have to say that Diane Keaton’s win for Annie Hall would have been my choice even if those two women were nominated. She has become the prototypical Woody Allen woman – a little younger, demanding, neurotic, but also sexy in an offbeat way. Diane Keaton has gone on to have a wonderful career – delivering many fine performances, but her work in Annie Hall remains her best, and one of the best Oscar wins for Best Actress ever.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Jason Robards, Julia
Jason Robards has a small role in Fred Zinneman’s Julia – and he is probably the best thing about the movie. Robards is the famed author Dashiell Hammett, who is a mentor and sometimes lover to the main character – Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda). When Lillian is enlisted by her childhood friend, she sets off on a journey across Europe – a dangerous trip for a Jewish intellectual when Nazi Germany was in power. Robards is essentially only in a few scenes at the beginning and end of the movie, but he leaves such an impression on the film, that I think the rest suffers as a result. We believe his relationship with Fonda – there seems to be a history there, and real feeling and emotion – something lacking in everything else in the movie. Given the crop of nominees this year, I can’t say this is a horrible choice – although Alec Guiness would have been mine from Star Wars – I just wish it had been in the service of a much better movie. Had all the scenes in the film been as good as the ones between Robards and Fonda, we would have had a great film. Because they aren’t, we have a mediocre one.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Vanessa Redgrave, Julia
I’d bet that more people remember Vanessa Redgrave’s Oscar acceptance speech for this award then remember her actual performance. She commended the Academy for not giving into “Zionist hoodlums” who criticized her and co-star Jane Fonda for their pro Palestinian views, even as they were both playing Jews fighting against the Nazis in the film. The reason why no one remembers the performance is because it wasn’t very good. To hear Jane Fonda’s Lillian Hellman describe her friend Julia, it makes her sound like a fascinating person – but whenever Vanessa Redgrave is on screen, she seems anything but. Their scenes together, which should be the heart of the film, somehow fall flat – especially when compared to the ones Fonda shares with Robards. Given the nominees, I can’t say that anyone was robbed – Melinda Dillon is the best of a very sorry bunch – but the Academy overlooked some great work – particularly Sissy Spacek in Three Women. Redgrave is a great actress, and she probably does deserve to have an Oscar on her shelf – but not for this movie.

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