Friday, May 28, 2010

Year in Review: 1973

1973 is one of those years that I simply have trouble making up my mind. There are so many great films from this year, that 10 hardly seems enough to contain them all – and I have still missed a few films that I wish I had seen. Ask me on another day, and you may get another list – I have certainly gone back and forth between the top four films on this list as to which one is truly the best, and still I am not sure I got it right.

10. Amarcord (Federico Fellini)
Federico Fellini’s Amarcord is perhaps his last masterpiece – a loving, nostalgic look back at his childhood, which he has, of course, heavily romanticized – as many people do when thinking back to those carefree days when they were children. There is no real plot to speak of in the film – it is simply a constant flow of memory, spanning a year in the life of a strange family, in an even stranger town in Italy, during the rise of fascism. This isn’t portrayed as a great tragedy, but almost as a farce – the fascists were not dangerous yet, but looked ridiculous, and the people take pleasure in mocking them. The film is about the dawning of adolescence, the thrill and guilt that comes along with discovering masturbation, the craziness of the young boy’s family life and the seemingly never ending days of childhood. This is Fellini at his most nostalgic, his most wondrous. He has made greater films, but somehow I feel he probably liked Amarcord more than most of them. Like all his films, he’s putting himself on the screen with this one – and he created another masterwork.

9. Day for Night (Francois Truffaut)
Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night is about the joys, and pain, of filmmaking. It follows a director (Truffaut himself) making a movie that sounds utterly terrible, yet to the people making it, it seems so important at the time. The film has an aging star (Jean-Pierre Aumont), a diva (Valentina Cortese), a British actress on loan (Jacqueline Bissett) and a rising heartthrob (Jean-Pierre Leaud) all working for Truffaut to make a movie that they know will suck. Why do they do it? Because they are in love with the process of making a movie. The film is about those days on set when a family is formed, and the outside world seems to crazy to everyone on set – while everyone on the outside doesn’t understand what’s going on in the inside. This is a film for, by and about people who love movies – for people, who as Pauline Kael wrote in her review “would rather see a movie than do anything else”. You know who you are.

8. Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman)
Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers is one of the most beautiful films about death ever made. Set in a mansion in the late 19th Century, two sisters watch their other sister as she lies on her deathbed, slowly giving into the inevitably of her fate. The healthy sisters are scared of her dying, but also want her to as well – so the suffering will be over. Harriett Anderson is wonderful as the dying sister and she is matched by Liv Ullman and Ingrid Thulin as the healthy ones. The film, like much of Bergman’s work, is about the scars of family life, the past coming back to haunt the present and religion and fate. Highlighted by the absolutely brilliant cinematography by Sven Nykvist, Cries and Whispers is a powerful, emotionally draining film for the master.

7. Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg)
A married couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) are reeling from the death of their daughter, and decide to head to Venice for a “working vacation”. While there, the meet a pair of odd sisters – one of whom says that she is clairvoyant and shares a connection with their dead daughter. Meanwhile, a serial killer is haunting the city, and Sutherland is constantly drawn to a strange, small childlike figure in red, who looks like his daughter, although he can never catch up with her. The film is famous for its graphic sex scene between the two – which frank and erotic – and for its twist ending. But the film, to me anyway, isn’t really about solving the mystery. Brilliantly shot by Roeg, the film is a visual marvel from beginning to end. The performances are strong, and the whole movie is really about its wonderful atmosphere than the resolution of the plot. Like many great thrillers and horror films, this one plays well even after you know its secrets.

6. Badlands (Terence Malick)
The first film of Malick’s career marked him immediately as one of the most interesting directors anywhere. Loosely based on the crime spree of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Martin Sheen gives an excellent performance as Kit – a drifter who picks up Holly (Sissy Spacek) and takes her along for the ride as he kills a lot of people. The most interesting thing about the movie is the difference between the narration by Holly, who talks about how loving Kit is and is filled with the musing of a teenage girl – and the stark violence committed by Kit that we actually see. Although Badlands is about a cross country killing spree, it isn’t a brutally graphic film like Bonnie and Clyde or Natural Born Killers, but like all of Malick’s films more meditative. This at times almost seems like a fairy tale or children’s tale, which makes the action all the more shocking. Malick would go on to make even greater films in his career, but Badlands remains a masterful debut.

5. The Exorcist (William Friedkin)
The Exorcist shocked audiences in 1973 and was proclaimed at the time “the scariest movie ever made”, a title it still holds on several lists. I’m not sure about that, but The Exorcist is a great horror movie – and not just because it is grizzly and gruesome and shocking, but also because it is intelligent, well acted and directed. Ellen Burstyn is great as the harried mother of a little girl (Linda Blair, also great) who seems to be possessed by the devil. Jason Miller is the friendly priest who she calls on for help – and who will eventually turn to the more experienced Max von Sydow to do the exorcism itself. The film is full of great iconic moments of horror – the masturbation with a crucifix, the vomit, the head spinning – but when I think of The Exorcist, I think of a film about good vs. evil – how faith will win out in the end. While that may not be my world view, it is brilliantly realized in this film, that yes, still has the power to shock and scare you.

4. Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese)
If you were so inclined you could argue that although Martin Scorsese has made greater films than Mean Streets, that he has never made a more influential one. Every time we see a movie about two childhood friends who get involved in petty crime, where one tries to pull away, and the other gets in deeper – and there are seemingly many of these every year, the film owes a debt to this film. Starring Harvey Keitel as Charlie – who works for his uncle collecting money and Robert DeNiro as Johnny Boy, his hot headed friend always in debt, Scorsese was in a way putting what he saw on the streets growing up on screen. Keitel is the centre of the movie – falling in love with Johnny Boy’s cousin and going to church to confess his sins, whereas Johnny wants to become an even bigger thug. Never mind that he has seemingly pissed everyone off. Keitel is great, but DeNiro is brilliant – it was this role that got him the part in The Godfather Part II (or his audition for The Godfather which got him this role depending on how you look at it) and he delivers an amazing performance. The film is a little rough around the edges – and yet that only adds to the authenticity of the movie. This is the movie where Scorsese went from a director with potential, to a genuinely great talent.

3. The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Peter Yates)
For years, The Friends of Eddie Coyle was unavailable for viewing on DVD or even VHS. Luckily, Criterion changed that last year, and gave us one of the best crime films of the 1970s. Robert Mitchum gives a great performance as Eddie Coyle, a low level gunrunner with a crime outfit in Boston. Facing yet another prison term, he is given an option to get out jail free – turn snitch. He agrees – up to a point – but things do not go as planned. The title of the movie is meant ironically – as none of the people in the movie are really Eddie’s friends. The ATF agent (Richard Jordan) lies to him to get what he wants and the seemingly friendly bartender, who is also a crime associate (Peter Boyle) is the man who will set Coyle up to take the fall – and later do much worse to him. The direction by Peter Yates is superb – capturing Boston wonderfully well, and giving the entire film a feel like violence could erupt at any moment. But the movie belongs to Mitchum as this man who has been beat down by life, but continues on somehow anyway. His tragic final scenes – especially at a Bruins game – break your heart while watching them. Mitchum always one of the best actors in the world – and The Friends of Eddie Coyle is one of his best performances.

2. Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci)
Last Tango in Paris is one of the most infamous movies of the 1970s because of its graphic depiction of sex caused controversy when the film was made. But looking back at the film all these years later, with the controversy pretty much forgotten, what stands out about the film is how powerful it is in its depiction of inner turmoil and sexuality. Marlon Brando gives one of the best performances of his career as a recent widower haunted by his wife’s suicide. In Paris, he meets Maria Schneider, in an apartment they both want to rent. They begin an anonymous sexual affair, until he just up and leaves one day. Meeting again, he wants to start the affair all over again – but this time, he wants emotions involved as well – he wants to know her. Yes, the sex in the movie is graphic, and offers sights that have never really been put into a mainstream film since (anal sex, featuring butter as a lubricant is probably the most infamous example, but at least he used more than spit a la Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain). And yet, Bertolucci’s film is about much more than simply sex. Last Tango in Paris was supposed to be the big breakthrough movie for exploring sexuality, ushering in a new era of movies. That didn’t happen. But Last Tango in Paris is an utterly fascinating film from beginning to end. Yes, Marlon Brando is amazing in the film – it is one of the best performances of all time – but Maria Schneider’s role has always been unappreciated. With almost no acting experience, having to play the role naked throughout much of the running time, she holds her own against Brando at his peak. Brando’s role is better because it is more defined, but Schneider daringly keeps her character an enigma. Last Tango in Paris is the best film ever made by Bernardo Bertolucci, who has been trying, in one way or another, to match it ever since. He can’t do it, because this film is so raw, so brilliant.

1. The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman)
Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye may not the best movie to feature Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow – but it certainly is the strangest. From the casting of Elliot Gould in the lead role, to the decision to set the movie in the 1970s instead of when the novel is set, The Long Goodbye plays like a reluctant film noir. Gould is younger, and shaggier, than we picture Marlow but he is essentially the same guy from the novel – its everything around that has changed. He is a 1950s character, who wants to play by the rules and have others do the same, but stuck in the ‘70s which is awash with hippies, sex, drugs, crooks and liars none of whom seem to have any honor left. Gould is excellent in the lead role, and you could have filled the Supporting Actor category with the performances here – Sterling Hayden as the drunken writer, Mary Rydell as the fast talking Jewish gangster (who Roger Ebert correctly points out sounds a lot like Martin Scorsese, which if true, would be an inside joke since hardly anyone knew Scorsese at the time) and Henry Gibson as a corrupt doctor are all excellent in their roles. And Nina Van Pallandt is the personification of a type of woman – the young, trophy wife of an older, domineering male who is sick of her husband, but stuck because he has all the money. Altman makes the film in his trademark style – overlapping dialogue and all – and the film plays at times like a black comedy. But when the violence starts in – in one of the more shocking, out of nowhere violent acts I can remember in a movie – the film becomes darker, and more somber. The Long Goodbye works as a detective movie if you want it to – although I don’t think in resolution of the mystery was really important to Altman. Rather, The Long Goodbye is an excellent portrait of L.A. in the excess of the 1970s, with Gould’s Marlow perhaps the last sane man. He doesn’t seem to realize, at least until the end of the movie, that he is the only one still playing by the rules, the only one that cares about something larger than himself. In that regard, The Long Goodbye, despite all its humor, approaches something much more somber and complex.

Just Missed The Top 10: American Graffitti (George Lucas), The Day of the Jackal (Fred Zinneman), High Plains Drifter (Clint Eastwood), Jesus Christ Superstar (Norman Jewison), The Last Detail (Hal Ashby), Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah) Save the Tiger (John G. Avilden), Scarecrow (Jerry Schatzberg), Serpico (Sidney Lumet),Sisters (Brian DePalma), Sleeper (Woody Allen), The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Eric), The Sting (George Roy Hill), The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy), The Yakuza Papers (Kinki Fukasaku).

Notable Films Missed: A Touch of Class, The Mother and the Whore (Jean Eustache), Ludwig (Luchino Visconti), O Lucky Man! (Lindsay Anderson), Touki Bouki (Djibril Diop Mamb├ęty), The Night Porter (Liliana Calvani).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: The Sting (George Roy Hill)
The Sting is a highly enjoyable little crime caper. Robert Redford and Paul Newman are excellent as the con men, and Robert Shaw is great as the one being conned. It is enjoyable fluff, with excellent period detail – it is also a hell of a lot of fun. Obviously, I did not find any room on my top ten list for it – but this was an excellent year. Out of the nominees, I would have preferred The Exorcist or Cries and Whispers, but this isn’t a bad choice at all.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger
1973 contained some excellent performances by lead actors – and the Academy did well to nominate some of them – Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino (in Serpico, another excellent film there was no room for on this list), even Robert Redford were all better than Lemmon – as were non-nominees Robert Mitchum, Elliot Gould and James Coburn. On the other hand, Save the Tiger is an all but forgotten film – notable pretty much only because Lemmon won the Oscar. Having said all of that, I feel the need to defend Lemmon’s win here. Surely, the Academy wasn’t going to give this to the truly best performance nominated – Marlon Brando’s because of all the sex in the movie, and the fact that the previous year he made an ass out of them all by letting a porn actress posing as a Native American to chastise them when accepting his award for The Godfather. And Lemmon is excellent in this movie as an executive who longs to give up his complex life for the simplicity of his childhood. No, he didn’t deserve this award – but Lemmon does deserve at least the two Oscars – which he did win for his career. So no complaints.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Glenda Jackson, A Touch of Class
I have to admit that I never did see this film. I like Glenda Jackson well enough, as well as her co-star George Segal, but something has always prevented me from renting this one. So no comment on whether she actually deserved it or not – but this was a weak year for this category – at least you would think so by looking at the nominees, of which Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist is my favorite.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: John Houseman, The Paper Chase
To me, when I hear the name John Houseman, I think of his work with Orson Welles helping to get Citizen Kane made, as well as his stage productions. A fine producer in his own right, he didn’t really come to the attention of anyone as actor until this movie where he was quite good as the stuffy law professor putting his students through hell – a roll he would reprise on TV later this decade. Houseman is fine in the role, but like the character a little dull. Considering however that none of my choices were nominated – DeNiro, Hayden, Rydell, Boyle and Von Sydow – it’s hard to get too mad about it.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Tatum O’Neil, Paper Moon
Tatum O’Neal surely benefitted from the unwritten Hollywood rule that kids are always put in the supporting category. Good god, she is in practically every frame of the movie! Yet her performance in Peter Bogdanovich’s film is absolutely wonderful – she carries the film much more than her father Ryan does. It is too bad that she couldn’t maintain this much talent and charisma in later year, but this is a performance for the ages.

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