Thursday, October 21, 2010

Year in Review: 1975

1975 is the only year in Oscar history where I agree that the five films nominated for best picture are actually the five best films of the year. But 1975 is such a rich cinematic year that I easily could have bumped up anything in the bottom five, and even some of the runners-up. Truly one of the best years in cinema history.

10. The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston)
The Man Who Would Be King is the type of old fashioned, adventure film that by the 1970s, Hollywood had pretty much forgotten how to make. Luckily, John Huston, a holdover from the studio era, knew just what to do in this great film. Sean Connery and Michael Caine play two former British soldiers in Indian, who decide to head over the mountains into a fictional Arab country, where they plan to rob the place blind, and come back rich as kings. After their treacherous journey, they arrive there, and the people end up mistaking Connery for a God – which is good for their plans, that is until Connery decides to take things just a little too far. But while the film is a thrilling, old fashioned adventure (right down to the characters politically incorrect attitudes), it is also a hard edged critique of imperialism – and certainly doesn’t glorify either the British nor the east, but sees them both as flawed. Yet what makes The Man Who Would Be King so memorable is that adventure story – told with a surefire hand of Huston, and brought thrillingly to life in the performances of Connery and Caine.

9. Jeanne Dielman: 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Ackerman)
There are probably only a small minority of movie watchers out there who would actually sit through Chantel Ackerman’s three hour and twenty minute Jeanne Dielman. It is a movie about repetition and routine, and how one woman (Delphine Seyrig) has structured her life so meticulously that one wrong move and her world comes crashing down. Her husband is dead, and left her with little money. She is trying to raise her teenage son by herself. She knows precisely what dinner she is going to make every night, and she prepares it in the same way. She is also a part time prostitute, welcoming middle aged men into her apartment during the slow time in the afternoon. She has her routines, and that is the way she gets through her days. Ackerman’s accomplishment with this film is to force the audience to watch – in detail and repeatedly – what she does on a daily basis. She shows us things that normally we do not see movie characters doing – cooking, cleaning, shopping, etc. When the routine changes late in the film – because of an orgasm – Dielman is not able to deal with them and strikes out violently. The film is a statement on women’s roles in society, and how we don’t really see what they do. Ackerman forces us to. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this film to a wide audience – it would certainly bore most cinema goers, even the most adventuresome, and I don’t think I’ll be revisiting it again anytime soon, but it is a great film, and a true accomplishment for Ackerman, and for Seyrig who takes on a nearly impossible role, and does great things with it.

8. The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni)
Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger is about a man who decides to become someone else. He is a reporter, played by Jack Nicholson, who is in the African desert to try and interview some guerillas. When he returns to his hotel, he talks to the only other guest, and then soon afterwards finds the man dead in his room. So Nicholson decides to abandon his life, and take over the strangers. He follows the appointments the dead man kept, and slowly discovers that the other man was a gun dealer. He meets a girl (Maria Schneider) who wants him to be someone he isn’t – someone with a purpose or a plan. Nicholson has neither. Like all of Antonioni’s best films, The Passenger is really about emptiness and purposelessness. People search for something (the girl in L’Aventurra, the body in the photos in Blowup, etc) without ever finding it – and it doesn’t really matter, because the purpose is really more in the search than in finding. In The Passenger, Nicholson isn’t even searching – he simply wants to disappear completely. And in one of the best, most intricate, most haunting closing shots in cinema history, he finally gets his wish.

7. Night Moves (Arthur Penn)
Night Moves is one of the strangest detective movies I have ever seen. It stars Gene Hackman is a great performance as a Private Eye who seems to have learned his craft from watching old film noir movies. He is hired by a former B movie starlet to track down her 16 year old daughter, who has seemingly run away. But the woman doesn’t seem all that concerned even as she hires Hackman, she seems to be trying to seduce him at the same time. Hackman takes the case, and it keeps on twisting and turning in front him, his search leading to one person after another, and each person he meets completely changes what he thinks has happened in the case. He will eventually wind up in Florida, where more beautiful girls seem to want to seduce him and by this point both Hackman, and the audience is completely confused by what the hell is happening, and then the movie makes it more complicated. I’ve seen the movie a number of times, and although I’m could piece everything together if I really tried, I don’t think I really want to. The joy in the movie is watching Hackman, playing a variation on his character in The Conversation, as a P.I. who is simply not smart enough to keep up with everything going on around him. The screenplay is full of great lines, and the supporting characters are a joy to watch, and Penn’s direction is excellent. What does it all mean? I don’t have a clue, and I don’t care.

6. Seven Beauties (Lina Wertmueller)
Seven Beauties is one of the strangest movies I have ever seen about WWII. It stars Giancarlo Gianni in a great performance as an absolutely worthless human being, who because he doesn’t see himself that way – in fact he sees himself in just the opposite way – is also a fool. He wanders through pre WWII Italy oblivious to what is going on around him, and obsessed with his own, and his family’s honor. When one of his sisters becomes a prostitute, he kills the pimp and chops up his body, and is sent to an insane asylum. When he is released, he is sent to the Italian army, and will eventually end up in a concentration camp, where he continues to preen and debase himself by trying, and eventually succeed, in seducing the surly female guard. But this wins him no favors either, and he is forced to make more morally reprehensible decisions, which he does. Lina Wertmueller was a daring filmmaker, and in Seven Beauties she takes huge risks. In a way, this is a black comedy, and in another way it is a film about cruelty and human debasement. It is impossible to feel sympathy towards Gianni, because he is such a lousy human being, a man obsessed with honor, who has absolutely none. Perhaps that’s the point, perhaps not, but whatever the reason why Wertmueller made this film were, it remains an absolutely fascinating movie.

5. Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet)
Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon is an extremely interesting, extremely strange story of a bank robbery gone horribly wrong. Al Pacino gives a commanding performance as a Vietnam vet, who along with two accomplices goes into a New York bank to rob it. Things go wrong almost immediately, as one of his accomplices flee. Then they discover they have arrive the day after a cash pickup, and there is hardly any money in the bank – they decide to steal traveler’s cheques, but when they burn to register to make them impossible to trace, it attracts outside attention, and soon the cops are there, and a hostage standoff has begun. It is only gradually that the reasons that Pacino was robbing the bank in the first place come out. The film is vibrant and alive – the performances by the entire cast, especially Pacino, are great and bring these larger than life characters back to reality. Lumet’s direction is crisp and clean and the movie is just pure joy to watch – and you may just find yourself completely in sympathy with Pacino’s loser of a character, who tries so hard, and gets nowhere.

4. Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick)
Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is one of his best films – a strange, cold costume drama about the rise and fall of a poor Irishman, born Redmond Barry, who will become Barry Lyndon (Ryan O’Neal). The film is told in two parts – the first about Barry’s slow rise in slow status, culminating in his marrying a wealthy countess (Maria Berenson) and the second half recounting his fall from grace. At the time of its release, many critics, while admiring the great care in which Kubrick assembled the movie – the cinematography by John Alcott is marvelous and groundbreaking in its use of lighting, the art direction and costume design are perfect – remarked that the film was too cold and distant. But I think it is that coldness that makes Barry Lyndon the masterpiece that it is. Ryan O’Neal was a seemingly strange choice to play the lead role, but he does a great job with it – yes he is kind of dull, but the character is, and we don’t feel sympathy for him, because we are not supposed to – he is a narcissist to the core. Kubrick’s film is haunting and mesmerizing – a film that stays with you long after it’s over, and invites you back for repeated viewings.

3. Nashville (Robert Altman)
Nashville is one of the greatest accomplishments in Robert Altman’s career – and considering how many great films he has made, that is saying something. It may be the first, but it certainly wasn’t the last, of his films that be painted on a huge canvas, with over 25 major speaking roles, of characters all in Nashville and their interlocking lives. In a way, it is a musical – there is a lot of singing in the film – but the musical numbers are not the polished ones we normally hear in movies, but have a raw authenticity to them (the actors who sing the songs also wrote them for the most part) – and the lyrics mean something to the characters who sing them. It is a political movie, in that there is a Presidential candidate coming to town, and there is an advance team there trying to work out the details. It is a movie about relationships and sex, about hopes and dreams, about corruption and finally life and death. If the film is messy, that’s because life is messy, and rarely happens the way we see it in the movies. This is a movie filled with great performances – Lily Tomlin as a long suffering wife and mother to a deaf child, Keith Carradine as a folk singing womanizer, Henry Gibson as a self important star, Ronee Blakeley a fragile star, Gwenn Welles as a woman who finally realizes her dream will never happen, Barbara Baxley as a tough mistress, Barabara Harris as a wife who has run away – and those are just the tip of the iceberg. The movie moves at a dizzying pace, and keeps us moving from one scene to the next with effortless grace. Altman was one of the best American directors of his generation – and Nashville is one of his very best.

2. Jaws (Steven Spielberg)
I’m not sure if Jaws is Spielberg’s best film – but for me it is certainly his most enjoyable, most rewatchable film. Jaws helped to forever change the landscape of American movies – it helped to usher in the age of the blockbuster, for good and bad – and it also changed the way monster movies were made. Forced to shoot around the shark for much of movie – because the mechanical shark was not working – Spielberg has essentially made an Hitchcockian thriller, where the villain is a shark. That masterful opening sequence with the woman swimming is still among the most intense openings ever filmed, and the entire second half of the movie – that consists of Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw on that small boat tracking the shark is masterfully directed (and acted I must say, as Shaw’s monologue about his previous experience with sharks is among the most memorable ever put to film). Jaws is a monster movie, a horror movie that still has the power to scare you. It forever altered my childhood and to this day, I am still terrified of sharks. Thanks Spielberg.

1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman)
Some movies seem to transcend the time period they were made in, and remain relevant forever. Milos Forman’s brilliant One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is such a movie. Although made in the 1970s, based on a novel and play from the 1960s, the movie remains fresh and alive all these years later. Jack Nicholson gives his best performance – one of the very best of all screen performances really – as R.P. McMurphy, a low level criminal who thinks he has found an easier way to do his time – fake being insane so he can go to a hospital instead. When he arrives though, he realizes that the hospital is if anything worse than jail. The mental ward is run with an iron fist by Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) who demands almost control over everyone there – and that includes McMurphy. The movie is brilliant for several reasons – Milos Forman’s direction, which somehow never feels inhibited by being mainly stuck in the mental ward (and when they do leave for the fishing trip, they probably should not have), the screenplay which draws such rich characters for the large ensemble to play. And the acting. There is hardly any movie ever made that boasts a better ensemble cast then this one – led by Nicholson as the rebel, and Fletcher as the hardass, but even the smallest roles for the patients are well drawn. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is at times funny, at times tragic and is one of my absolute favorite films ever.

Just Missed The Top 10: Dersu Uzala (Akira Kurosawa), Farewell My Lovely (Dick Richards), Love and Death (Woody Allen), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Jones & Terry Gilliam), Picnic in Hanging Rock (Peter Weir), Salo: Or The 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini), Shampoo (Hal Ashby), The Sunshine Boys (Herbert Ross).

Notable Films Missed: Grey Gardens (David & Albert Maysles & Ellen Hovde & Muffer Meyer), The Travelling Players (Theo Angelpolos).

Oscar Winner – Picture & Director: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman).
It is always satisfying when my favorite film of the year is the one that actually won the Best Picture Oscar – something that has only happened 12 times in their history). This year, the Academy couldn’t really go wrong with the films they nominated – any of them would have been worthy of the award. But I am happy that they went with Cuckoo’s Nest, which to me is much better than the other nominees, even though the other nominees are all masterworks in their own right. It is one of those rare films that everyone seems to love – high and low minded people alike. One of the best choices they ever made.

Oscar Winner – Actor: Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
It wasn’t a question of if Jack Nicholson was going to win an Oscar – simply a question of when. He was nominated in 1969 for Easy Rider, 1970 for Five Easy Pieces, 1974 for The Last Detail and 1974 for Chinatown and hadn’t won for any of them. So the Academy probably would have given Nicholson an Oscar this year regardless of what performance he won for, because his fifth nomination in 7 years made him well overdue. But it so happens that it was Nicholson’s good luck that he actually won for his best performance – something that cannot be said of his other two Oscar wins (for Terms of Endearment and As Good As It Gets). It is a great performance here, one of the best, ever, so the Academy made the right call for many reasons.

Oscar Winner – Actress: Louise Fletcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The 1974 Best Actress winner, Ellen Burstyn for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, was right to complain about the lack of great female leading roles in 1975. For the most part, women were shunted to supporting roles this year, which cleared the way for Fletcher – who really does have a glorified supporting role in Cuckoo’s Nest – to win this Oscar. But that doesn’t mean Fletcher didn’t deserve to win. She is pretty much perfect as a cold, heartless woman who rules the ward like a despot. It is a great turn, by an actress who would never really land a role this good again. But when she got a great role, she made the most of it.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actor: George Burns, The Sunshine Boys
I highly enjoyed George Burns in The Sunshine Boys – almost as much as I enjoyed Walter Matthau as his partner who is even better. The movie is fun and lightweight – a portrait of an aging comedy duo who have outlived their time, but are still funny. Out of the nominees, I would have been inclined to give it to Brad Dourif – so great in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – but he was a newcomer in a film that had already won a bunch of awards, and they thought Burns was close to death (who would have guessed he would have pulled through and lived another few decades). The Academy however did overlook the best performances in this category – Robert Shaw in Jaws and Henry Gibson in Nashville. I wouldn’t have voted for Burns, but I’m not that mad he won.

Oscar Winner – Supporting Actress: Lee Grant, Shampoo
In many other years, Hal Ashby’s hilarious satire about a man whore hairdresser (Warren Beatty) sleeping with all his clients would have easily made my top ten list. But this year was just too strong to find a spot for it. Lee Grant is great as one of his clients – a little older than he normally goes for, but with a lot of money that he needs. She is no fool about who or what Beatty is, but likes him anyway. Unlike the lead category, this category was stacked with contenders – who could come up with five great nominees from Nashville alone (the Academy only did two, Lily Tomlin and Ronnee Blakeley) and Syliva Miles was great in Farewell My Lovely (another film I wish I could have included but didn’t have room for). Grant is a deserving winner though, so no real complaints.

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