42 Since ’71 (Part 2)

Click here for Part 1.

Last week I covered the first ten of the list of my forty-two favorite movies made since the year of my birth, 1971. Here’s the next part of that list.

Raiders of the Lost Ark: I know this movie was meant to be an homage to the old chapter play movies from the pre-television era, but because I hadn’t seen those before catching Raiders, I didn’t relate to this movie that way. It was, instead, just pure action fun with the smart, determined, yet often bruised Indiana Jones pitted against his smoother, more cultured French rival and a battalion of Nazis. Once you start this movie, I defy you to stop watching it.

Saturday Night Fever: Thanks to the poster art, and the trailer, you’d assume this movie is a high spirited disco celebration, similar to the various 1980s Shabba Doo dance flicks. Instead, Saturday Night Fever a grim vision of economic desperation, bigotry, sexism, depression, and Tony Manero’s desire to find a way to transcend it all, not through dancing (which serves him primarily as a temporary escape from life’s darkness), but through his recognition of his (grievous) flaws, and his fumbling towards smarter choices.

Dog Day Afternoon: Ever had one of those days? You start out with a simple plan. You think things couldn’t possibly go wrong, much less spiral out of control. Sonny Wortzik has. His plan was to rob a bank to pay for his lover’s sex reassignment surgery. Unfortunately, he’s not a professional bank robber, so what plans he did make quickly go awry. When they do, Sonny’s predicament seems to draw every current of the 1970s toward it–television insta-fame, Vietnam, anger at authority, economic stress, worries about crime, the nascent LGBT liberation movement, Stockholm syndrome. With this movie and Network, Sidney Lumet joined Scorsese and Coppola as one of the most vital directors of the era.

Taxi Driver: Speaking of Scorsese, this is the movie where he introduced us to a character who’s become an archetype for alienated paranoia: Travis Bickle. As played by Robert De Niro, Bickle is a socially awkward ex-Veteran who, unable to find a place in normal society, becomes evermore attracted to extreme violence. He plans to unleash this on a political candidate, but, thwarted, instead attacks a pimp and achieve heroic status. Viewers were quick to imagine that the end of the movie was a kind of death-fantasy of Bickle’s, but no. He really did get those glowing press clippings for rescuing the prostitute played by Jodie Foster. What we’re left with is the question of how to feel about that, and I’m still not sure I know.

Moonstruck: Nicholas Cage and Cher are both widely known for the cheesier aspects of their performance careers, and that’s fair in a way. But we need to acknowledge the subtle, smart work they’re capable of in a movie like Moonstruck. At the center of a strong ensemble, Cage and Cher manage to take what could have been a broad ethnic romantic comedy and ground it in something stronger and more specific to their individual characters. In most romantic comedies, the would-be lovers have to overcome plot contrivances. In Moonstruck, they have to overcome a much tougher opponent: themselves.

Unforgiven: Clint Eastwood’s work has always been strongest for me when he’s taken his persona–a taciturn man who breaks whatever rules he wants–and questioned how much we should admire it. His Will Munny is an aging gunfighter who’s tried his best to repudiate his past as a drunken gunslinger, but his needs, and his incompetence as a pig farmer, lead him to chase a $1,000 dollar reward for killing a pair of farm hands who mutilated a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming. The moral code Munny’s been living by erodes as he approaches the town, and after he guns down five men avenging the murder of his friend and partner in crime, he uses the money to take his kids to San Francisco and open a prosperous dry goods store. As was the case with Travis Bickle’s happy ending, we’re left unsure how to feel about this.
Trainspotting: While Trainspotting spares us nothing when it comes to the ugly side of heroin addiction–withdrawl, death, and swimming in the filthiest toilet in Scotland–it also makes clear what its attractions are: friends, humor, fun times, amusingly aimless conversations, the thrill of chaos. I never want to live in that world–I recently lost a cousin to it–but Trainspotting makes it easy to understand why people enter it, and why–addictive properties of the drugs aside–they stay.

Pulp Fiction: Speaking of films about escaping the addictive lives its characters lead, here’s Pulp Fiction, a film that brilliantly essays both fun and attraction of the life of crime and the urgent need of some of its characters to find an escape from it. The film takes pains to paint its violent killer characters as cool, then questions how desirable it is to be cool. We don’t know if Jules ends up abandoning the role of hired killer and becomes like Kane in Kung Fu, but I’d like to think he does.

Do The Right Thing: Brooklyn on the hottest day of any year is probably enough to bring the asshole out of anyone, but on this day, in this time of already heightened racial tension, it lights a long slow fuse to an explosion. It starts over a seemingly small thing–the local pizzeria doesn’t have any pictures of black celebrities on its wall. Spike Lee brilliantly builds the tension through the next two hours as people react to the situation, then to each others’ reactions. Where it ends feeling painfully inevitable. If you haven’t seen it, see it. If you have, see it again.

Fargo: From the hottest day in Brooklyn to the perpetual cold of the Upper Midwest, Fargo is a film about the toxic combination of greed and stupidity, and how it poisons everyone it touches. There are so many brilliant performances here that I don’t have space to list them, but for me the film’s success comes down to two smiles, the simpering desperation of William H. Macy and the friendly grin of his nemesis, Frances McDormand.  Macy’s simper is a mask that keeps threatening to slip, and behind it is nothing but incompetence and the fear of being proven incompetent. The mask holds together during his first encounter with McDormand, but after McDormand meets an old classmate whose mask is revealed as a mask, she recognizes what Macy’s character is. She breaks him down until the mask slips, the simper fades, and what’s left is swearing anger and the need to run. I could watch Fargo all day.

That’s all for now. Next time: Schindler’s List, This is Spinal Tap, Goodfellas, Being There and six more.

 

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