Julia Sweeney, she of Saturday Night Live and Letting Go Of God, describes a fun idea for a best movie list in her latest blog post:
I went on a Mike Leigh bender during May – I’ve seen all those films before, but it was lovely to see them again. Topsy Turvy is one of my all-time favorite films. The audio commentary by Leigh is just delightful, almost as compelling as the film itself. Nakedis so dark, so disturbing, and so beautifully shot – it’s such a mind-blower. Topsy Turvy – is this my favorite modern film? It might be.
When I say modern, to me that means a film made after 1959, the year of my birth. I have a plan that I hope to execute in the next months, on this website. I want to list and describe my favorite 59 films made before 1959. My favorite films made in 1959 (which happened to have been a spectacular year for film: North by Northwest, Anatomy of a Murder, Rio Bravo, Some Like it Hot, Floating Weeds – to just name a few! Then I was going to do this too: My Favorite 54 Films made after 1959. (Why 54? Because I’m 54. Then I’d add one every year…) And then a few top-top-top lists and a favorite. I’ve been noodling with my choices for over a year, but I haven’t organized them to post – yet…
In a comment, I told Julia I’d have to steal her idea and do my 42 favorite films since 1971 (the year of my birth). I’ll follow this with my favorite 42 films made prior to 1971, and my five favorite films of 1971. (Even in Hollywood’s best year, I’m not likely to find more than five to ten films I can classify as favorites.) Julia encouraged this theft, so here we go.
My favorite 42 films made after 1971 (in no particular order, in case you were wondering):
1. The Godfather
We almost have to begin here. There’s no way to talk about the last half century of cinema without talking about The Godfather and its sequel, The Godfather Part II. It’s a family saga, an immigrant’s epic, a meditation on the morality of capitalism, and a playground for the best American actors of their generation. It resurrected the moribund career of Marlon Brando, and it introduced us to Al Pacino. It even changed the way mobsters talk. Not bad for a pitch Mario Puzo gave to Robert Evans so Evans could justify giving Puzo $10,000 to pay off his gambling debts. Most important to all of us, three hours with this film feels like thirty minutes of most others (or 1.37 seconds of any given Michael Bay flick). That’s how entertaining The Godfather is.
I debated whether I should go with this one or Nicholson’s other post 1971 triumph, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But even though I admire that picture, it comes in second behind Roman Polanski’s tale of corruption and greed in ’30s era Los Angeles. All mysteries end with the villain unmasked and order restored, but few have the guts to leave the unmasked villain in charge of that order.
3. The Conversation
When Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather proved to be an unexpected smash hit, Paramount wanted a sequel. So Coppola made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. In addition to a car and a pile of money, Coppola wanted financing to do any movie he wanted. The movie he wanted to do: The Conversation. It’s a thrilling story of paranoia and surveillance all based on a seemingly simple question. Did the people that Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul was bugging say “If he knew, he’d kill us” or “If he knew, he’d kill us.”? Is Caul listening to potential murderers or potential victims, and is his wealthy client either their target or their hunter?
4. The Godfather Part II
Often called the best sequel of all time, The Godfather Part II deepens and broadens the story of the Corleone family, linking the tale of Don Corleone’s rise in America to his son Michael’s efforts to keep the family business strong fifty years later. Most movies have two or three good scenes. This movie has dozens, from the kiss of death to Kay’s abortion revelation, from Senator Gehry’s extortion threats to Fredo’s last trip in the boat, from the first shot of the empty chair to the last shot of Michael, graying, sitting alone in wintry desolation. The movie is an extraordinary look at how the system that fueled Don Corleone’s rise and sustained his wealth also led to the physical and/or moral destruction of his sons. The price of The Family is his family.
To watch Network is to watch a work of supremely gifted comic insight. Paddy Chayefsky, the peerless satirical mind behind The Americanization of Emily, wasn’t a prophet, but he could certainly see what television was becoming, and how it could serve the interests of soulless hustlers whose only skill was taking any genuine emotion and molding it into something that can turn a quick buck. A key quote:
Diana Christensen: Look, we’ve got a bunch of hobgoblin radicals called the Ecumenical Liberation Army who go around taking home movies of themselves robbing banks. Now, maybe they’ll take movies of themselves kidnapping heiresses, hijacking 747s, bombing bridges, assassinating ambassadors. We’d open each week’s segment with their authentic footage, hire a couple of writers to write a story behind that footage, and we’ve got ourselves a series.
This was satire. Now, in TV, we do it for real.
6. Superman: The Movie
Much as I adore the cynical, satirical films of the 1970s, I also love Hollywood’s attempts to repackage a feeling of innocence and common purpose for an audience jaded by Vietnam, the Kennedy and King assassinations, and Watergate. Star Wars was one example of this, but though I look upon that movie fondly, as time has passed I’ve grown to like Superman better. Of the two, Superman has the more literate script, the deeper emotion, and a star in Christopher Reeve who truly commanded the screen. The part of the Man of Steel was thought to be impossible to cast, but in Reeve they found someone who could not only recreate the icon, but making him modern and relatable. That no one has really pulled this off since in live action is a testament to Reeve’s performance.
7. The Spy Who Loved Me
The best of the Roger Moore Bond pictures and still my favorite of the Bond movies made in my lifetime, The Spy Who Loved Me was, like Superman and Star Wars, an attempt to repackage the idea of a common purpose during a divisive time. James Bond has to team up with a Soviet agent and the U.S. Navy to stop a rich lunatic from using captured nuclear submarines to ignite World War III. The movie boasts the best opening Bond stunt (the ski jump off a cliff), the best villain lairs (Atlantis and the Liparus), one of the best cars (the Lotus Esprit submarine), and the best villain’s henchman (Jaws).
How do I love this movie? Let me count the ways. I love the scene where Bill Murray’s playwright character spouts drunken pretentious bullshit at a party: “I don’t like it when people come up to me after my plays and say, ‘I really dug your message, man.’ Or, ‘I really dug your play, man, I cried.’ You know. I like it when people come up to me the next day, or a week later, and they say, ‘I saw your play. What happened?'” I love Michael Dorsey’s arguments with his increasingly impatient agent, (played by Dustin Hoffman and Sydney Pollack) “You were a tomato! A tomato doesn’t have logic! A tomato can’t move!” “That’s what I said! So how can a tomato sit down, George?” I love how when Michael Dorsey becomes Dorothy Michaels, he not only learns how much bullshit women have to put up with just to get through the day, but he realizes just how much bullshit he’s put women through. And I love the reveal. It’s magic.
9. The Shining
The Shining is one of the rare horror movies that scares you more the second time you see it than the first, and even more each subsequent time. I can understand why Stephen King didn’t care for Kubrick’s adaptation. King looked at the story of Jack, Wendy, and Danny and saw a metaphor for alcohol’s corrosive effects on the family. Kubrick was more interested in examining a man whose desire to lose himself in the past compels him to try to murder his present. In Kubrick’s formulation, that Jack seems mentally unbalanced from the beginning is beside the point. In the early scenes, Jack seems to fit life poorly because he’s trying to be something he isn’t–a decent modern man. The hotel seduces Jack into murder by offering him the prize of the life he really wants, one where, yes, he’s a servant of the toffs in the tuxes, but he can still swill free whiskey, abuse his wife and kid, boink the occasional guest, and use all the racial slurs he likes without consequences. Booze isn’t the real intoxicant offered to Jack Torrance in The Shining; it’s white male privilege.
10. The Empire Strikes Back
Of the six current Star Wars pictures, only this one gets my unreserved admiration. Star Wars was a triumph of production design and special effects, and the charm of its lead actors managed to elevate Lucas’s often incredibly corny dialog. (Honestly, a cocky pilot who insists on calling the movie’s only woman “Sister”? No one had done that in a movie in 30 years, for good reason.) Still, it wasn’t Empire, which brought much better writing (thank you, Lawrence Kasdan) and a much more interesting approach to Darth Vader to the proceedings. (Even Han Solo’s sobriquets for Leia got an upgrade. He stopped calling her “sister” and instead referred to her by the wittier nicknames “Your Highnessness” and “Your Worship”.) Kasdan and Irvin Kershner fill Empire with thrilling set pieces which tie together into a narrative that enriches the Star Wars universe without ever bogging it down in exposition. (I’m looking at you, prequels.)
11. Raiders of the Lost Ark
When it comes to wish fulfillment fantasy, it’s hard to beat one that ends with the Nazis getting their faces melted off by the Ark of the Covenant. Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas teamed up with Lawrence Kasdan to both pay homage to and hugely surpass the adventure serials of the 1930s with Indiana Jones, a character who is compelling at least in part because he is a spectacular failure. Unlike 007, who always wins and gets the girl without sustaining so much as a bruise, Indiana Jones takes endless, cut opening, skin bruising, bone crunching beatings in his efforts to grab or hold on to objects that are constantly slipping from his grasp. In Raiders, Indy never actually wins the Ark of the Covenant. Once he finds it, the Nazis take it from him. He chases after it and gets it again. Then he loses it, again. He chases, tries to bluff the Nazis out of it, and fails. Finally, after the Ark kills the Nazis off, we think he’s got it, but he loses it again, this time to Army Intelligence, who lock it up in one of the most famous parting shots of the 1980s. Harrison Ford’s Indy may be a loser, but he’s a brilliant, indefatigable loser whose defeats I never tire of watching.
That’s it for part 1. Part 2 will be all about disco, lonely gunmen, heroin, hot Brooklyn days, and the Holocaust.
UPDATE (8/2/2014): Here are links to the other three parts.