Honorable Mention – SCARECROW. Gene Hackman and Al Pacino in a flawed, but deeply felt “buddy” movie from a terrific director from that period, Jerry Schatzberg.
Honorable Mention. BARRY LYNDON. Kubrick’s overlooked masterpiece. Ryan O’Neal (in his finest and trickiest performance) plays the ultimate shallow cad who only deepens as the film progresses. And so does our emotional investment. This is perhaps the most touching and tender film of Kubrick’s career. Also hard to identify a film filled with more gorgeous visuals.
Honorable Mention – HARDCORE. As messy and unfocused as this film is at times, I find it irresistible. George C. Scott (at his most combustable) looks for his missing daughter in the world of underground pornography. A film from Paul Schrader.
Honorable Mention – FIVE EASY PIECES. I think Nicholson was THE premiere artist of the 1970;s, and most vividly articulated the complicated spirit of the anti-hero. This is the performance through which he ushered in the 70’s, and it goes a long way in defining the attitudes that would prevail particularly during the decade’s first half.
Honorable Mention. THE LONG GOODBYE. Robert Altman – the ultimate genre deconstructionist – gets hold of Los Angeles private eye Philip Marlowe and comes up with one of the most unique mystery noirs ever made. So many creative decisions in the film – from the casting, story beats and reoccurring John Williams theme – go against the grain of genre conventions, and all work beautifully.
#20 – INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. The themes of this disturbing, incredibly malleable sci-fi concept can speak so eloquently to the political and social climate of the day. And a large percentage of the truly great films from this period did just that. A great film made at a perfect time.
#19 – JAWS. I understand JAWS is a perfect movie, and as masterful an entertainment as any movie ever made. There just happen to be 18 films from the decade that mean more to me personally.
#18 – CRIES AND WHISPERS. This is the Bergman film I revisit most often. The use of light and color is extraordinary. As for it’s emotional pull, I can’t express it better than Roger Ebert when he said, “To see it is to touch the extremes of human feeling. It is so personal, so penetrating of privacy, we almost want to look away.”
#17 – SHAMPOO. Another very clever take on the social, sexual and political nuances of the time. Warren Beatty at the top of his game. And one of the great L.A. movies from the time (as is Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE).
#16 – NETWORK. An incredibly prophetic film with a script that’s become a standard teaching tool in screenwriting classrooms. The sharpest critique of the commercialization of our society that I can think of. As Pauline Kael observed (in her largely negative review), it is extremely didactic and out to teach you a lesson or two. The lessons it teaches us, though, are valuable and worth exploring. Her other big criticism – that the film has an increasingly flat and undistinguished look – REALLY missed the boat. That was the point – for the film to gradually mirror the potentially shallow and soul sucking format of television.
#15 – A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Like ‘Network’ and ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’, here is another film that explores the dangers in rendering individuality impotent. But, of course, it’s handled with Kubrick’s trademark ambivalence. A movie that has become more and more powerfully effective for me over the years. It’s a film – like all of his films – that does not reward passivity in the viewer. You must actively bring your own perceptions and views to the film, and in return, the film will challenge you in ways that few movies do.
#14 – BEING THERE. A completely enchanting movie that’s both deep and simple. The comedy in the film is congenial, but cuts close to the bone upon reflection, when the film’s gentle gaze begins to fade and its terrifying implications begin to come into focus.
#13 – DELIVERANCE. This is one of 2 films on my list that deal with lives that are irrevocably changed by a chance encounter with evil. Part survivalist adventure film, part all-out horror film, it retains its visceral power to this day.
#12 – CHINATOWN. A film that takes detective noir conventions and not only turns them on their head, but infuses them with deeper, hauntingly morose meaning. The movie’s power comes from the element of depravity, and cruel inevitability, over which Jack Nicholson’s Gittes has no control. All the planets aligned for this film and hit the zeitgeist, from the daring staging and direction of Polanski, the darkly nostalgic visuals of DP John Alonzo, the tight cutting of legendary editor Sam O’Steen, the evocative, mournful score by Jerry Goldsmith (completed in 9 days!), the masterfully structured screenplay by Robert Towne, and every performance right down to the smallest peripheral roles.
#11 – BADLANDS. What could have been a slam-bang ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ clone is rendered transcendent and lyrical under the direction of Terrence Malick. I still think this is his finest film. It contains such a palpable sense of time and place, and uncovers such poetry in the listlessness of youth, that it practically seeps into your marrow.
#10 – CARRIE. This twisted take on teen angst is a canvas of many colors – all painted with the visual vibrancy for which Brian De Palma is renowned. What’s most surprising about the film is its sensitivity. Propelled by Sissy Spacek’s Oscar-nominated work, CARRIE gets the torment of awkward adolescence just right, and it’s that truth that keeps the viewer fully invested even as her journey descends into hellish extremes. A few sequences (most notably the cheesy sped-up pre-prom sequence featuring William Katt) feel silly and antiquated, but those are minor quibbles when compared to the plethora of macabre, perverse, darkly comical and ultimately heartbreaking moments the film provides. Bold film making from a director who knows how to pull every string.
#9 – THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. It’s difficult to fully articulate the hold this movie has over me to this day. It remains the most visceral viewing experience of my life. There’s virtually no blood in the film, and certainly no gore. In this respect, the content is tame by today’s standards. But the overwhelming sense of genuine dread that coats every scene and the fury of its unrelenting pace are far from commonplace. I think the ultimate effectiveness of the film is partly accidental, and that the filmmakers didn’t quite know what they had achieved. Horror films have a knack for expressing subversive social commentary with more emotional clarity than any other genre. Perhaps the film is most revelatory when viewed through the prism of Vietnam, when kids were venturing out into an unknown land and coming back in body bags. I think the chaotic and uncertain climate of the times infused itself into the material as it did in so many films from this period; not in a literal sense, but certainly a strongly emotional one. As the years have passed, I’ve come to realize that the power of the film results from more than just an inadvertent capturing of this sinister mood. There’s a real artfulness to the way the film is made, and it’s actually an incredibly disciplined portrait of ever-increasing hysteria.
#8 – DOG DAY AFTERNOON. One of the most remarkable character studies from this period, and Pacino’s finest hour. One of the film’s greatest achievements lies in the fact that you learn so much about Pacino’s Sonny throughout the course of the story (every bit of it intriguing and unexpected), and yet you feel there is so much you have yet to learn about him by the film’s end. A character of this depth and surprise is so rare, and it’s a major reason why ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ lives on as it does. Pacino goes beyond mere performance here and tunes into something extremely raw and immediate. This is the actor’s definition of ‘living in the moment’. The ensemble surrounding Pacino is uniformly terrific, particularly the powerhouse John Cazale, and the direction by Sidney Lumet is never less than thrilling and clearly motivated, even though it’s set in the confines of a bank throughout most of its running time. And the larger setting – the gorgeously rambunctious spirit of New York – is always front and center.
#7 – ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. This is one of the best movies ever made about the process of people at work. That may sound like faint praise, but it’s the element that makes the film so riveting. After all, we already know the story of Watergate, and the aftermath that befell all of its players. We’re well aware of each revelation along the way, but the thrill is in the process of discovery. Redford and Hoffman make an unlikely pairing, but their opposing energies lend a supremely exciting quality to their shared quest for truth. These are characters, as portrayed in the film, who only reveal themselves in the way they go about doing their work. This is director Alan Pakula’s finest film. His work is patient, and reveals so much about this world in even the most mundane of details even while visualizing the David and Goliath nature of the story.
#6 – THE CONVERSATION. In the era of the paranoid thriller, this one is the best. Led by a career-best performance by Gene Hackman, Coppola’s intimate and personal character study establishes the isolated existence of an extremely guarded man, and chips away at him little by little. Technically and dramatically pristine in its approach, every directorial choice furthers our investment in Hackman’s Harry Caul, who stands as one of modern cinema’s most interesting and tragic characters.
#5 – MCCABE & MRS. MILLER. A transcendent experience. There’s an indefinable beautifully rendered melancholy that seeps into every faded frame of the film. The manifestation of the town feels so organic, because it was actually being built as they were shooting the film. This is perhaps the most authentic, yet poetic western I’ve ever seen. Altman’s unique approach has never been more on point, or more soul stirringly powerful.
#4 – TAXI DRIVER. Travis Bickle is one of the great characters, so riddled with disgust for the world around him, and from his inability to connect with anyone. It’s this desperate need for connection that we feel above all else as an audience. When Travis eventually gives into his most debased and violent instincts to fight against the loneliness in his soul, the effect is terrifyingly visceral, yet the audience never loses it’s identification with him. The look of the film – expressed through Scorsese’s tightly controlled camera – is lurid and hellish, and De Niro’s itchy ferocity is palpable in every frame.
#3 – LAST TANGO IN PARIS. The greatest film ever made about sex. The characters in the film express their truest selves through their sex – Brando gives physicality to his inner torment, while Maria Schneider gives expression to a fetchingly open and searching naivete. The scene where Brando speaks above his dead wife’s body – shouting the most vulgar obscenities before crumbling into tears – is the single greatest piece of acting I’ve ever witnessed. The fluid camera – soaring through the settings like it’s enraptured in its own tango – and the lushly romantic and piercing score also make this an incredibly sensual experience.
#2 – THE GODFATHER PART II. The first film would have to be 2 1/2 on my list, but this one takes those characters and themes and expands them into Shakesperean territory. The generational transitions are hauntingly visualized and create as vivid a portrait of family connections than has ever been committed to screen. Every performance in the film soars – led by a still, almost demonically brooding Pacino – and Gordon Willis’ visuals are a darkened, shadowy wonder. It’s hard to imagine a film more rich in texture, theme and character than this one.
#1 – ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. This is the one that first made me fall in love with movies. The beautiful sense of humanity, and the overwhelming efforts of the institution to suffocate it, has never been so deeply felt for me. Milos Forman’s smartest creative decision was setting the film in a real mental health facility, and having the actors live through the duration of the shoot within its walls. That gives the film a feeling of authenticity that borderlines on mythic. I weep more in this film than any other; it strikes such a primal chord within me.