Thursday, November 11, 2010

Year in Review: 1971

1971 is one of my favorite movie years for many reasons – one is that any of the top 3 films could easily be the number one film of the year, it really is that close. But there is a lot of great work throughout this year.

10. The Hospital (Arthur Hiller)
The Hospital is a very strange film indeed. It starts out as a farce, with George C. Scott as the Chief of Staff of a hospital where his staff start dying because of the incompetence of the other staff, and the only person who seems to take their job seriously is the woman who has to collect all the insurance information from the patients. Scott hardly cares – he’s left his wife, hates his son, and is planning on committing suicide as soon as he sobers up enough to actually go through with it. The film starts out at such a madcap pace, you wonder how it can possibly sustain it – and of course it doesn’t. Halfway through the film Diana Rigg shows up – an eccentric younger woman who is there with her father, but she wants to check him out so they can return to the desert. The sequence that makes the film so good is the long, dark, lonely night the two of them spend together, telling each other their stories which contains some of Paddy Chayevsky’s best writing. Yes, the film is admittedly uneven, and the ending, although kind of inspired and unexpected, doesn’t quite work, but The Hospital is a daring little film and one of the more interesting ones of this year.

9. Little Murders (Alan Arkin)
Little Murders is a pretty much forgotten film – I would never have even heard of it if Roger Ebert had not featured it on his website as an “Overlooked DVD of the Week”. It is a sad, tragic, violent little film about people driven to insanity simply because they live in New York. Elliot Gould gives one of his best performances as a photographer who gets beat up a lot. He meets and marries Marcia Rodd, the woman who saves him from muggers, and is introduced to her eccentric family. The film is a satire, but a dark one – one that never really lets loose, but remains contained, trapping its characters, and by extension the audience, in its insular, violent little world. Eventually, the film will erupt into violence, but most of its movie is low key mayhem. The acting is inspired – not just by the leads but by the entire cast, including Donald Sutherland’s hilarious cameo as a new age preacher, and Arkin’s own cameo as a cop. Little Murders is a one of a kind film – entirely self contained, and sad, tragic and hilarious.

8. Dirty Harry (Don Siegal)
Dirty Harry was heavily criticized when it came out as being a fascist film. Led by Pauline Kael, many critics deplored what the film stood for – essentially that it is a film that glamorized a violent, perhaps even sociopathic cop, who tortures criminals to get a confession, all wrapped up in a thriller package to satisfy the public’s bloodlust. I’m not really going to argue against that (she did kind of have a point), but I will say that I love Dirty Harry just the same. It is one of Clint Eastwood’s most iconic roles – and set the standard for cop movies (and later TV shows, especially something like The Shield) for decades to come. The film reflects a certain attitude in America – that the Bill of Rights is used by the most sick, twisted individuals to get away with anything and people are tired of it. That’s why we admire Dirty Harry – even if he is a violent sociopath – because on a certain level we agree with him. This is intense, gritty filmmaking, exciting as a thriller, and thought provoking as a film about violence.

7. Klute (Alan J. Pakula)
Klute is a thriller, but what I admire about it isn’t so much of the thriller elements, but the performance and the character that Jane Fonda plays. In fact, I’m not sure I could outline the plot in any detail, but I will never forget her performance. It is tough, cynical, intelligent performance where Fonda plays Bree, a prostitute who is being targeted by some sort of madman. Donald Sutherland plays the cop who is trying to solve the case. Fonda’s Bree does not have a heart of gold, and she is not really portrayed as a victim either – she is, in fact, very proud of the work she does meeting the needs of her clients. The relationship between Fonda and Sutherland, who plays a square, suburban cop, out of his depth, and yet caring towards her, is what makes the film as good as it is. Sure, the thriller elements are there, but it is Sutherland, and especially Fonda that make Klute a classic.

6. Carnal Knowledge (Mike Nichols)
Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge is about two men who find that the real women in their lives cannot match the fantasy women who exist only in their heads. I think many men, and women for that matter, go through this early in their life – they have an idealized version of the opposite sex in their heads, and when the person that they’re with turns out to be, well human, they are disappointed. The tragedy of the movie is that unlike many people, the two men at the center of this movie never outgrow this. They continue trying to find the woman they have in their head. Jack Nicholson gives one of his great performances here as one of the men – the smoother of the two, who can talk women into anything. His scenes with Ann-Margaret, which at times verges on downright cruelty on his part, are the best in the film. He ends up impotent, trying in vein with a prostitute (Rita Moreno). Art Garfunkel is not quite up to his level – how could he be – but he is quite good as well, and a man who deludes himself well into middle age (when he starts dating a 17 year old, and says “in many ways, she’s older than me”, he’s not wrong, but that’s only because he still acts like a teenager). Candice Bergen gives the other fine performance in the film – of Garnfunkel’s first wife, who finally has enough of him. Carnal Knowledge is a painful film, but that pain comes from a place that is all too real.

5. The French Connection (William Friedkin)
Along with Dirty Harry, The French Connection really did set the modern standard for cop movies. Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) is a little like Dirty Harry – on that he is capable of great violence, becomes obsessed with his case, and is perhaps a little crazy himself. He is also what centers this movie – as he really is the only three dimensional character in it. It is a great performance by Hackman – gritty, realistic, intense, violent, a man of action who will do whatever it takes to win. The storyline about a drug dealer (Fernando Rey) is almost besides the point – what matters is the action, masterfully filmed by William Friedkin, including one of the best car chases of all time – and Hackman’s intensity in the lead role. To a certain extent, time has dulled some of the impact the film must have had at the time – after all, isn’t Andy Sipowitz from NYPD Blue at least a little like Doyle – but the film remains an exciting, tense action thriller with just a little bit more going on than we normally see.

4. Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah)
Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs was incredibly controversial when it was released, and remains so today. It is, to me anyway, along with The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, one of the three movies that makes Peckinpah a master filmmaker dealing with violence. The film stars Dustin Hoffman as an American intellectual who moves with his new wife (Susan George) to her small, British hometown. They have a house out in the country, and Hoffman immediately runs afoul of the more rough men in town – including his wife’s ex-boyfriend. The most controversial scene in the film, is also one of the best – most complex. In it, George’s ex breaks into the house with the intention of raping her – she puts up resistance, but as the scene progresses, it really does seem like she’s enjoying it. It is mark of how great George’s performance is that she is able to convey such complex emotions during a rape sequence – which is the films hardest scene to watch, even harder than the orgy of blood that ends the film. I don’t necessarily agree with much of what the film is saying about violence, but the film works because it forces the audience to confront that violence head on – in a way to participate in the violence in a way that left me shaken and disturbed. Straw Dogs is certainly not an easy move to watch – but to me it is a vital, courageous and endlessly thought provoking one.

3. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick)
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is a violent masterpiece – a film that presents us with a teenager named Alex (Malcolm McDowell) who is pretty much pure evil and leaves us with no hope that he’ll ever get any better. When we first meet him, he is beating and raping his way through a futuristic London along with his droogs. But he’s soon captured and sent to prison – where he undergoes a new brainwashing technique meant to “cure” him. But he can’t really be cured and still be human – or as human as Alex is at any rate. This is exciting, visual, visceral filmmaking by Kubrick – one of his most daring accomplishments. In eliminating the original ending of the Anthony Burgress novel (much to the author’s dismay), Kubrick has ultimately made a bleak, perhaps even nihilistic film. While to some, that nihilism is deplorable, to me it fits the material. This is a masterpiece by one of the greatest filmmakers in history.

2. The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich)
Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show is a sad movie, about a small Texas town that is pretty much dead, and its inhabitants who will be if they do not get out. The adults in the movie all seem beaten down by life – the look back fondly at their previous lives (like in the unforgettable scene where Ben Johnson recalls how he was once in love), which was probably not that great, but sure beats the hell out of life now. But the film doesn’t much concentrate on the adults, but rather on the teenagers. Sam Bottoms and Jeff Bridges are both excellent as high school kids curious, and somewhat desperate, about sex. Bottoms fumbles his way into an affair with the football coach’s wife (Cloris Leachman), while Bridges struggles with the town beauty (Cybil Sheppard). All the characters in the film are sharply drawn – Bottoms as kid who wants more, but can’t get it, Bridges trying to live up to the pressure of his girlfriend, Sheppard, coldly using sex to get what she wants, Ellen Burstyn as her callous mother, hating life beside her TV zombielike husband, Leachman, who provides just a little warmth, Johnson as the last standard bearer left in town. The film is all about tone and mood – about a town that is dying right alongside its movie theater. It is a sad, tragic film, brilliantly filmed in black and white. It breaks your heart to watch it, and remains one of the most timeless films of the 1970s.

1. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman)
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is perhaps Robert Altman’s most influential and best film. It is about a gambler named McCabe (Warren Beatty) who rides into the small town of Presbyterian Church, wins some quick money and invests it in starting his own brothel. Then Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) arrives and quickly talks him into letting her be his partner – they will do better together than apart. And they do. Whatever happened to these characters in the years before they entered this town doesn’t matter – they are here now, and that’s all that does. McCabe is a dreamer who believes he “has poetry” in him, and Mrs. Miller is a strict business women – she charges even McCabe for her services. The town is a sad little place, where is constantly cold, the town remains half built, and once the sun goes down everyone huddles together into dark, little rooms drinking by lantern light. The film is a Western, but not a classically structure one – but one that is much sadder in its tone. The rules of the Western don’t apply in this film – Beatty hardly makes a Western hero, and Christie is hardly the hooker with a heart of gold. The ending of the film is inevitable – we know it before the characters do, but they suspect it as well. Life doesn’t end well in Presbyterian Church for men like McCabe. This truly is a masterpiece.

Just Missed The Top 10: Bananas (Woody Allen), The Garden of the Fitzi-Continis (Vittorio DeSica), MacBeth (Roman Polanski), Play Misty for Me (Clint Eastwood), Shaft (Gordon Parks), Sunday, Bloody, Sunday (John Scheslinger), Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles), THX 1138 (George Lucas),Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Mel Stuart).

Notable Films Missed: The Ceremony (Nagisa Oshima), Claire's Knee (Erich Rohmer), Death in Venice (Luchino Visconti), The Devils (Ken Russell), Fiddler on the Roof (Norman Jewison), Get Carter (Mike Hodges), Johnny Got His Gun (Dalton Trumbo), Nicholas and Alexandra (Franklin Scaffner), La Région centrale (Michael Snow),Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman),Walkabout (Nicholas Roeg), W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (Dusan Makavejev).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: The French Connection (William Friedkin)
William Friedkin’s The French Connection is perhaps best remembered now for the car chase, and little else. Watching the film today, you could be forgiven for thinking it is very much like dozens if not hundreds of other cop movies and TV shows of the past four decades. Yet, without The French Connection, those other movies would be different. Everything about this movie remains a little tougher, a little rougher, and better than what has come in its wake – and Hackman’s performance elevates the entire film. It would not have been my choice, but it’s a fine one.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Gene Hackman, The French Connection
Gene Hackman was due an Oscar by 1971. He had already been nominated for two very different performances in Bonnie and Clyde and I Never Sang for My Father. The French Connection was yet another completely different performance – although it is one that is probably more associated with Hackman today than the others. He nails the tough cop, utterly obsessed with cracking the case and bringing the bad guys to justice. He does a remarkable job of keeping his character even in the midst of action sequences, and there are some excellent moments when he seems to have lost his mind (“Did you ever pick your toes in Poughkeepsie?”). This isn’t Hackman’s best performance, but it’s damn close.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Jane Fonda, Klute
Most movie hookers have a heart of gold – they really are nice girls just waiting for the right man to come along and save them from themselves. Jane Fonda’s Bree in Klute then breaks the mold – she doesn’t want or need anyone to save her. She is a hooker, and proud of what she does. She views it more as acting, and likes that she can be different things to different people. Fonda makes the movie work, even with its creaky thriller plot, because we cannot take our eyes off of her – and its not just because in 1971 she was at the height of her beauty. This is one of the best performances ever to win the Best Actress Oscar.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Ben Johnson, The Last Picture Show
Ben Johnson spent much of his career as stock player in John Ford Westerns, which pretty much made him the perfect actor to play Sam the Lion in Peter Bogdanovich’s sad masterpiece. He embodied the old Texas. He won his Oscar mainly, I think, for his long, sad monologue about lost love that he tells to the boys out by the reservoir. And it is a masterful performance. I have always been torn between who should have won – Johnson or his co-star Jeff Bridges who embodies the young stud just as perfectly, but I will not complain.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Cloris Leachman, The Last Picture Show
Like her co-star Johnson, Leachman won her Oscar pretty much for one scene, although her whole performance is wonderful. After her young lover, Sam Bottoms, comes back to her after his brief fling with Cybil Shepard, she flings a coffee pot across the room in a scene that is unforgettable – and she did it in one take, no rehearsals. Leachman is the kindest character, and she really does a great job with the role. Much like in Supporting Actor, I am torn between her, and the much harsher performance by the great Ellen Burstyn who cynically informs her daughter to sleep with Jeff Bridges so she will stop thinking sex is going to be so fantastic.

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