Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Very Best Films of the 70's

The 1970s were an intense decade - modern terrorism reared its ugly head, the disastrous war in Vietnam came to an end, Iran had a revolution, and thirty five nations signed the Helsinki Accords, an agreement guaranteeing human rights and freedoms. The cinema was no less troubled. The notorious Hays Code was replaced in 1968 by a form of the ratings system that we still use today and the years following were ones of cataclysmic change. Though many filmmakers, particularly in Europe, had been pushing the limitations imposed by censorship for a long time, the 70s were a time of intense and graphic exploration of adult themes, particularly sex and violence, in the cinema. Since I couldn't manage to restrict myself to just one choice per year, I've included some runners-up.

1970 - Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion
Elio Petri's satire of police corruption stars Gian Maria Volonte' in one of his finest performances as a respected police inspector who murders his mistress so that he can see if his colleagues will actually charge him for it, becoming increasingly desperate as the investigation founders. The combination of Dostoyevskian drama, blistering satire, and the turbulent politics of the time make for a potent viewing experience. A perfect example of the scathing political commentary many Italian filmmakers have integrated into their work.

Runners-up: Deep End, Little Big Man

1971 - Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Gene Wilder's iconic performance as Willy Wonka, a witty and sophisticated script by the novel's author, Roald Dahl, and David Seltzer, and fabulous songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley are just a few of the reasons this film is a masterpiece of the grotesquerie and the joy of childhood. Without pandering to more comfortable conceptions of innocence and wish-fulfillment, the film explores the disgusting effects of the materialistic consumerism and greed the parents teach their children, the exception being the charming and unselfish Charlie Bucket, played by non-professional actor Peter Ostrum.

Runners-up: A Clockwork Orange, The Sorrow and the Pity, Harold and Maude

1972 - Sleuth
Tour-de-force performances from Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine (who both received Oscar nominations) and a mind-bogglingly unpredictable plot make this superb film a classic. Andrew Wyke (Olivier), an aristocratic and eccentric writer of crime novels, has discovered that his wife is having an affair with Milo Tindle (Caine), a hairdresser and self-made man, and he invites him to his estate where they become involved in a tense competitive game, humiliating each other as more entangled secrets come to light.

Runners-up: Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Solaris, Cries and Whispers

1973 - Amarcord
Fellini's semi-autobiographical surrealist film recounts the coming of age of Titta during the Fascist regime. The comedic antics of Titta and his compatriots are punctuated with moments of nostalgic poignancy and an affection for the vagaries and perverse innocence of adolescence. The funniest scenes involve a parade of ecstatic jogging Fascists ("Mussolini has got balls this big!"), a madman who refuses to climb down from a tree unless he's brought a woman, and the most dangerous pair of breasts in movie history.

Runners-up: The Long Goodbye, Fantastic Planet

1974 - Young Frankenstein
Mel Brooks directed and Gene Wilder wrote and starred in this hilarious and yet emotionally dramatic send-up of classic monster movies, with a fabulous supporting cast including Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Madeleine Kahn, Marty Feldman, and Peter Boyle. Frankenstein's scientist grandson returns to the castle, where he decides to recreate his grandfather's experiments in reanimation. Unfortunately his assistant has stolen him a brain belonging to one "Abby Normal." The score by John Morris is lush and romantic, underpinning the sincere drama underneath the comedic routines.

Runners-up: Chinatown, Blazing Saddles, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

1975 - Picnic at Hanging Rock
In this suspenseful film by Peter Weir that offers no simple explanations, several schoolgirls and their teacher disappear into a recess at Hanging Rock while on a school outing, leaving their companions devastated and bewildered. The question of what has happened to them accrues ever more complex spiritual and psychological dimensions as the film progresses, with the haunting music of Gheorghe Zamfir and the delicate cinematography by Russell Boyd (achieved by stretching a bridal veil over the camera lens) deepening an already fraught atmosphere. 

Runners-up: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Barry Lyndon, The Magic Flute

1976 - Carrie
Brian De Palma's adaptation of the Stephen King novel has made an indelible mark on pop culture and continues to have a major influence on horror films (a remake directed by Kimberly Pierce comes out this week). When a group of girls in Carrie's gym class bully her after she gets her first period, the gym teacher punishes them so severely that it inspires a sadistic prank at the prom. The supernatural elements are largely peripheral until Carrie hits her breaking point, but, after, all this isn't so much a film about the horror of supernatural powers as it is about the horror of high school. 

A caveat: I haven't yet seen Taxi Driver, The Ascent, or 1900, all films that are likely to supersede Carrie.

1977 - The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
This is the finest film that the Disney studio produced between Walt's death in 1967 and the Disney Renaissance that began with The Little Mermaid in 1989. Based on A. A. Milne's beloved stories for children, the film is comprised of three linked episodes, centered around Pooh's adoration of "hunny," Eeyore's dogged attempts to find a house for Owl, and Tigger's acrimonious relationship with Rabbit. Though undeniably a children's movie, the voice performances are brilliant, the animation is top-notch, and the dialogue doesn't reveal the full extent of its wittiness until you're an adult.

1978 - La Cage aux folles
The owner of a drag nightclub (Ugo Tognazzi) has his life turned upside down when his son asks him to meet his potential and very conservative in-laws, while his long-time partner and star attraction (Michel Serrault) decides to take his role as substitute mother very seriously indeed. The radicalism of this early depiction of a fulfilling and happy (if flawed) gay "marriage" is easy to miss today, but the unpretentious and warm humor hasn't aged at all. The American remake doesn't hold candle to the original.

Runner-up: Days of Heaven

1979 - My Brilliant Career
One of my all-time favorite films and a feminist masterpiece, Gillian Armstrong's feature debut is based on a landmark Australian novel by Miles Franklin. Judy Davis plays Sybylla, a headstrong young woman determined to have a brilliant career, despite the limits of her 19th century world and provincial upbringing, who meets the wealthy and debonair Harry Beecham (Sam Neill). Her romance with him is soon in conflict with her artistic and professional ambitions. Historically accurate and yet still painfully relevant today, My Brilliant Career examines the decisions women face when they are not willing to be submerged in roles defined by the people around them, rather than by themselves.

Runners-up: Breaking Away, Being There, The Muppet Movie


  1. At this point in time, my list would go as follows:
    1970: Deep End
    1971: Same choices, minus The Sorrow and the Pity (because I haven't seen it, and I don't want to!)
    1972: I've only seen about 2 movies from 1972, so I guess I'll pick Solaris, too
    1973: Badlands (despite the presence of Sissy Spacek), with runners-up The Wicker Man and Robin Hood (Disney!)
    1974: Blazing Saddles, followed closely by The Conversation, with runners-up Young Frankenstein, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and Chinatown
    1975: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (obviously), but also Barry Lyndon and Dog Day Afternoon
    1976: First of all, Sissy Spacek, blech! Cria Cuervos, with runner-up The Man Who Fell to Earth
    1977: The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh! Runner-up Saturday Night Fever
    1978: I think I have to go with Grease, but I am ashamed
    1979: Autumn Marathon, with runners-up The Muppet Movie, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, and maybe Alien
    The end

  2. Good God, did Mel Brooks really make "Young Frankenstein" and "Blazing Saddles" in the same year? What an outpouring of comic genius!