Thursday, November 4, 2010

Year in Review: 1972

1972 was a great year for movies. Hollywood was still in the midst of its upheaval, and the reins had been turned over to younger filmmakers with distinct visions. But despite what people tell you about how Steven Spielberg and George Lucas ruined this, and introduced the era of the blockbuster with Jaws and Star Wars a few years later, it actually started this year. The number one film on this list – one of the greatest of all time – was actually the first to go wide immediately – something that the later two films would copy.

10. Images (Robert Altman)
Images is perhaps easier to place in the Altman canon now than it was when it was first released, and seemed so unlike anything he had done before. Looking at it now, we see a filmmaker taking a first run at similar material that he would do a little better later on – most notably in his masterpiece Three Women from 1977. The film stars Susannah York in a brilliant performance about a housewife and the three men in her life – her clueless husband, her former French lover, now dead, who continues to haunt her, and her neighbor who thinks she shares his rape fantasies, and is perhaps right. The movie places us in her diseased mind, and plays tricks with us – we are never quite sure if what we are seeing is real or not, and although by the end, we know she has committed murder, it isn’t the one we think she did. The photography by Vilmos Zsigmond is great; the score by John Williams evocative, and Altman’s direction is superb, if not what we expect from him. Images deserves to be placed alongside the most interesting of Altman movies.

9. Chloe in the Afternoon (Eric Rohmer)
I wonder if more people have seen a Rohmer movie, or remember Gene Hackman’s line in Night Moves about them – where he said they were as exciting as watching paint dry. I have to admit, I need to delve deeper in Rohmer’s films, but this simple film is pretty much perfect for what it is – but yes, if you’re someone like Hackman in Night Moves, you may complain that nothing happens. It is a film about a office worker who likes to take late lunches – the crowds aren’t as bad, and he’s peaceful. Then he meets Chloe, and they spend their afternoons together – talking, laughing, flirting etc. It makes the executive feel good to know this beautiful young woman likes him – although he has a wife at home. He likes to daydream about the beautiful women in Paris, but now that he is presented with a real live one, he isn’t quite sure what he wants. The movie is about the games we play with each other – and how even something so seemingly innocent can blow up in our faces.

8. The King of Marvin Gardens (Bob Rafelson)
The King of Marvin Gardens is a very strange film. It stars Jack Nicholson, in a very un-Jack Nicholson role. He is quiet, only really letting out his feelings when he works as an all night DJ, when he is sure no one is listening to him. He travels to Atlantic City to see his brother (Bruce Dern) who has big deals cooking, and wants his help. When Nicholson gets there, it becomes clear that these big deals will probably never go through, and also finds Dern living with two women – Ellen Burstyn and her daughter Julie Ann Robinson – who seem to be in a game of sexual competition with each other. The movie is undeniable strange, but it is also completely unique. Bob Rafelson was a great director early in the 1970s – with Five Easy Pieces and this one, but his career for whatever reason was impossible to sustain. But he left us with two great films – and that is more than you can say for most filmmakers. The King of Marvin Gardens is completely, totally original.

7. Frenzy (Alfred Hitchcock)
Frenzy was Alfred Hitchcock’s second last film – but in many ways, it was the last time he would make one of his classic thrillers (his last film, Family Plot, unseen by me, is apparently more of a dark comedy). It isn’t quite as complex as his very best films, but it is much more violent and sexually explicit (what a difference the 12 years between Psycho and this film made to what you could show on screen). It is a classic Hitchcock setup, where an innocent man seems guilty of a series of brutal murders committed by someone only known as The Necktie Killer. We know he is innocent, because we know the identity of the killer from the start – in fact we often follow him along on his exploits, and Hitchcock does a masterful job at creating suspense in scene after scene as we watch him commit the crime, and then try to escape. The film is a throwback to his earlier work, with a level of violence. It isn’t one of his very best, but it’s better than just about any thriller made in recent memory.

6. Sleuth (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
Sleuth is an excellent two person movie starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine, each delivering one of their best performances. Olivier is an aging mystery writer, and Caine is his young, trophy wife’s lover. Caine comes to the house to tell Olivier that his marriage is over, and that he will be taking his wife. But Olivier doesn’t take this lying down – he loves games, and is an expert at them, and he decides to have some fun with Caine. The plot gets complicated as it moves along, and yet it is always buoyed by these two great performances, and the direction by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and old studio master who excelled in doing movies like this, where dialogue is everything. I doubt Anthony Schafer had to change a word of his play – they didn’t expand it like so many plays do, but the film doesn’t feel stage bound. It feels alive and fresh, witty and fun. Forget the remake, which had some marginal charms of its own – this is the version you need to see.

5. The Heartbreak Kid (Elaine May)
Elaine May made The Heartbreak Kid as a kid of opposite version of her old partner’s The Graduate (Nichols and May were a hit on Broadway before they had a falling out). The Heartbreak Kid is not as well known, or as well remembered as The Graduate (and the awful Ben Stiller remake didn’t help), but in my mind it is a better film – funnier, and yet more realistic, with an ending that is just about perfect. Charles Grodin gives the best performance of his career as a Jew who marries his girlfriend (the absolutely wonderfully Jeannie Berlin solely because she won’t sleep with him until they are married. But after the wedding night, she starts to drive him insane, and on the Honeymoon meet the shiksa goddess Cybil Sheppard and is instantly in love. She flirts back, and the two have chemistry together, but when she returns to college, he divorces his wife and goes to win her over for good. The performances by these three – not to mention Eddie Albert as Sheppard’s father – are wonderful, and the movie is hilarious, and yet also rather sad. The final scene in the movie has Grodin getting everything he wanted – and realizing that he is still a hollow shell of a man.

4. Cabaret (Bob Fosse)
Cabaret is one of my favorite movie musicals for a simple reason – it doesn’t feel the need to make us happy, but instead shows us a darker side of humanity. Bob Fosse specialized in this – how else can you explain All That Jazz, an even better film, that ends with his surrogate being zipped into a body bag? The film is anchored by Liza Minnelli’s stunning performance as Sally Bowles – who in Germany circa 1930 takes absolutely nothing seriously, not even the rising tide of Nazism. She is a nihilist in some ways, completely lost in the moment, and not caring about what happens. She is also a stunning musical performer – almost as good as her mother – and she delivers a knockout performance here. The title cabaret is overseen with exuberance by Joel Grey, who keeps the show going, no matter what. Cabaret is a sad movie, not one of happiness, but one of desperation. It plays like a musical version of Visconti’s The Damned, with all that exuberance, the sexuality and Nazis rising at the same time.

3. Deliverence (John Boorman)
John Boorman’s Deliverance is a nightmare of a film – a film that reminded me of the work of Sam Peckinpah, particularly Straw Dogs, where a seemingly civilized man is confronted by violence and is forced to act. The four men at the heart of Deliverance face the same choices. Sure, they are big on acting tough and macho, but when put to the test, only two of the four really have the instincts to survive. They are four city slickers (Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty) who head out on a rafting expedition in the middle of nowhere. And that’s when the hillbillies show up. If you can hear the phrase “I’m going make you squeal like a pig” and not squirm uncomfortably, then it’s because you haven’t seen this movie. The film is intense, violent, disturbing and ultimately quite challenging. The performances bring a degree of rawness, realism to the proceedings that is necessary, because we must believe these four guys – not just as men but as friends – for the film to work. All of the performances are great, but Ned Beatty gets the prize for the best one – and a brave performance it is at that. I guarantee that once you’ve seen Deliverance, you will never forget it.

2. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog)
No one makes films quite like Werner Herzog. This mad, German director has a huge resume of films, almost all of them unique and different not just from everything else, but from each other as well. But for me, the only time he ever got this perfect was this film. The great, and insane, Klaus Kinski gives his best performance as Aguirre, a European explorer leading an expedition up the river in the Amazon. They are completely unprepared for the climate – their bulky armor is unsuited for the environment – and as the expedition goes forward, violence erupts, and Aguirre goes almost completely insane. The movie reminded me of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and of course Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, but perhaps even more insane. Herzog’s direction is wonderful, weird and completely his own – and in Kinski he found the perfect Aguirre. A strange, one of a kind masterpiece.

1. The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola)
Does anything really need to be said about The Godfather? It is one of the few films in cinema history that you could describe as absolutely perfect. Francis Ford Coppola’s epic beginning to his series is the most entertaining entry in the series – pitch perfect casting of Marlon Brando as The Don, and Al Pacino, James Caan and John Cavazle as his three very different sons, and Robert Duvall as his adoptive son. A plot that moves relentlessly for nearly three hours, piling up body after body, and showing us Michael’s fall from grace – from an idealist who wants nothing to do with the family business, into a murderer and mobster (the second film will show just how far his descent goes). The direction is wonderful, the screenplay full of iconic lines that still have the ability to appear real. Yes, The Godfather is one of the very best films ever made.

Just Missed The Top 10: Across 110th Street (Barry Shear), Avanti! (Billy Wilder), The Candidate (Michael Ritchie), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Bunuel), Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex*(*but were afraid to ask) (Woody Allen), Fritz the Cat (Ralph Bakshi), The Getaway (Sam Peckinpah), Last House on the Left (Wes Craven).

Notable Films Missed: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder), Butterflies Are Free (Milton Katselas), The Emigrants (Jan Troell), Fat City (John Huston), Fellini's Roma (Federico Fellini), Out 1: Spectre (Jacques Rivette), Pakeezah (Kamal Amrohi), Pink Flamingos (John Waters), Rocker (Klaus Lemke), Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky), Sounder (Martin Ritt), Tout va bien (Jean Luc Godard & Jean Pierre Gorin), Two English Girls (Francois Truffaut).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture: The Godfather
Some choices for the Best Picture Oscar are obvious – and this is one of them. The Godfather was the perfect blend of old and new Hollywood – from its cast of veterans alongside newcomers, to its epic Hollywood feel, from fresh, exciting young director. It was also far and away the most popular film of the year – the biggest hit, an instantly iconic film that has come to define the gangster movie. No other choice really seemed to have these things going for it – and it’s why almost 40 years later it stands up as one of the best winners of all time.

Oscar Winner – Best Director: Bob Fosse, Cabaret
It’s easy to forget, since The Godfather won the Best Picture Oscar, that Bob Fosse’s Cabaret actually won the most Oscars this year – 8 compared to The Godfather’s 3. Fosse’s movie, which shows the moral decay in Germany on the eve of WWII, is one of the best known musicals of the 1970s. It contains some excellent songs, performances and a distinctive Fosse feel to it. It is a great achievement from a great director.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Marlon Brando, The Godfather
Much like the film itself, there should be little that needs to be said about what is perhaps the most iconic, the most imitated movie performance of all time. Considering this was Brando’s big comeback role, you’d think he’d give it his all – but while the performance remains one of the greatest in history, Brando hardly seemed to care. He didn’t bother to learn his lines, and instead had them written everywhere around him. He decided on the day of shooting his first scene that he wanted to pet a cat while doing it, so he did. And on and on. That Brando could simply toss off a performance this good is astounding – it truly is one of the best in history, from one of the great actors of all time.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Liza Minnelli, Cabaret
Liza Minelli’s performance in Cabaret is one of the great musical performances of all time. Some have complained over the years that she is too talented to play Sally Bowles – who is supposed to be only average. But to me, when I see a musical, and I want to see it done to the hilt. Minnelli proves a number of times in this movie that she is as good as her mother – had she been in the old studio age, she would have had even more success. It is a magnificent performance in a great film.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Joel Grey, Cabaret
Joel Grey looks and acts much like a sideshow freak through most of Cabaret. He is the Master of Ceremonies at the title club, and he keeps the show on stage no matter what. Perhaps Grey only won because the three Godfather boys – Pacino, Caan and Duvall split the vote – but I don’t think so (even if I would have voted for one of them). This is a cheerfully insane performance, one of the strangest of all time to win an Oscar, and sheer genius by a musical legend.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Eileen Heckart, Butterflies Are Free
I have never seen Butterflies Are Free, nor had any real desire to. The movie, about a blind man and his overbearing mother (Heckart) sounds kind of lame, and the only time anyone ever mentions it is when talking about Oscar winning performances – and even then they don’t sound too enthused. If it comes on TCM one day, I’ll watch it, but I’m certainly not going out of my way to see it.

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