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Fetch him back! Let him not go!


Top 10 Films

1. Don’t Look Now

Nicolas Roeg’s haunted wake is a masterpiece of unease. Fractured glimpses of a hidden realm lurk beneath an already disquieting surface. The leading character, psychic-in-denial Donald Sutherland, resists the beckoning realisation of survival beyond death, taking refuge from grief in a superficial landscape of structure and repair. His wife, Julie Christie, more open about mourning the loss of their daughter, finds solace in messages from beyond. The Venice they have escaped to is a labyrinthine warren where one may lose oneself completely by choosing to ignore the proferred signs and synchronicities.

While Don’t Look Now lingers long in the mind, it holds two immediately potent and provocative sequences. The first is the justly feted “best ever” love scene between Sutherland and Christie (one that, if Peter Biskind is to be believed, ignited her paramour Warren Beatty’s ire). A masterful and evocative staging of bittersweet lovemaking, it is intercut with the couple’s post-coital dressing and preparation for dinner. Pino Donnagio’s accompanying score is both uplifting and melancholy. It’s that rare sex scene that advances the story and, despite the salacious gossip it invited, is the very antithesis of gratuitous. Then there’s the shocking climax, a twisted bad joke on the hopeful visions of a red-coated child that have been dogging Sutherland.

Elegiac best describes Don’t Look Now. Such is Nicolas Roeg’s approach to storytelling where, time and again, hapless victims are caught in the web of time itself, lacking full awareness of reason or destination. This tapestry unfolds through at-first strange marriages of disparate theme and scene and image. Rich and densely layered, his are films most rewarding of repeat viewing. He remains a director who stands apart in approach to narrative and paradigm. We glimpse the world in his films through a glass darkly, unable to comprehend its magnificent and terrible truths. Pauline Kael labelled the film trash, but reluctantly admitted to its effectiveness. Her disaffection for the horror genre fuelled her inability to recognise the picture’s beauty and resonance. But she also found fault with Roeg’s sensibility as a filmmaker. She regarded him to be a shallow manipulator, obsessed with chic, all technique and no feeling. Anyone who has followed his career would testify that nothing could be further from the truth. True, the director is not to everyone’s tastes. But those enjoying one encounter with the maestro will find further explorations irresistible and illuminating.


CHOICE LINES

Laura Baxter: This one who's blind. She's the one that can see.


2. The Wicker Man

The Wicker Man’s reputation continues to grow, and deservedly so, despite (whisper it) not really being very well directed. Robin Hardy’s approach is scrappy and make-do but, perversely, this lack of finesse and rawness has a positive effect. The proceedings are lent a vérité style. Consequently, there is sense of immediacy to Sergeant Howie’s sojourn on Summerisle in search of a missing girl. So much so that we too feel his unadulterated dread when the final, unthinkable reveal occurs.

Anthony Shaffer’s literate screenplay eschews the shock value of typical horror films, as it pits pagan cynicism against Christian hubris. Edward Woodward perfectly encapsulates Howie’s starchy rectitude while Christopher Lee is clearly enjoying himself immensely, discarding the count’s cloak and instead embracing a kind of louche intellectualism. There’s plenty of pulchritude among the supporting cast, with Britt Ekland (but not her buttocks), Ingrid Pitt and Diane Cilento adding exoticism to the Hebrides. Paul Giovanni’s soundtrack is immeasurably valuable, crucial to the overall tone, suggesting a place steeped in the old ways, swathed with occult enchantment and danger.


CHOICE LINES

Lord Summerisle: Come. It is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man.


3. The Long Goodbye

This might be my favourite Robert Altman film. It’s definitely my favourite Elliot Gould picture. The director is working from a script by Leigh Brackett, whose career spans The Big Sleep to The Empire Strikes Back, and the transplantation of Philip Marlowe to the 1970s, essentially as a man morally out of time (but played by Gould, so still very much contemporary), is a stroke of genius. Altman’s counterculture ethos here skews the detective genre as successfully asit did the the war picture in M*A*S*H . Marlowe’s nobility does not fit easy; he is ever the underdog, so we root for him even more. That’s also partly because Gould is so enormously likable in the role; he’s an up against it, down at heel hero who loves his cat. Raymond Chandler’s dense plot is carried over, but the world it inhabits is more violent and depraved than any Humphrey Bogart encountered. This and Chinatown provide the ‘70s take on the classic gumshoe, and I’d find it hard to choose between them.


CHOICE LINES

Detective Green: My, my, you are a pretty asshole.
Philip Marlowe: Yeah, my mother always tells me that.


4. The Exorcist

It seems that the only possible way to respond to The Exorcist is to admit that it is the best horror movie ever made; The Godfather of horror films. And I can’t deny its effectiveness, but I feel slightly as if I’m damning a resounding classic with faint praised by not going all Mark Kermode on its arse. Am I allowed to admit that I prefer Exorcist III: Legion? That I think William Peter Blatty had more interesting, philosophically challenging things to say about concepts of good and evil there than he does in William Friedkin's conceptually black and white furnace of chills? This is a Roman Catholic’s wet dream of a horror movie, following which they must contritely say five Hail Marys.

I’m not a huge fan of Friedkin’s aesthetic; particularly knowing he’s the kind of guy who so strains so hard for his peculiar brand of perfection that he’s willing to give one of his actors (Ellyn Burstyn) a permanent back injury. Yet both this and The French Connection stand the test of time. The director fell  swiftly  grace under the weight of a swollen ego (which appears to have also blighted his remastered mess-ups of Blu-ray editions and fan-pleasing – or not – spider walk director’s cuts). What’s interesting about this film is that it is equal parts dread atmosphere and cheap shock effects. I’m naturally more inclined to the former than the head-revolving antics of the latter, but in both regards Friedkin makes us feel that demonic possession is a part of the real world and intrudes upon daily lives. The use of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells is a sublime choice; it’s difficult not to conclude that John Carpenter took his minimalist musical cues from this horror titan.


CHOICE LINES

Father Karras: Where is Regan?
Demon: In here. With us.


5. Sleeper

One of Woody Allen’s early funny films, a science fiction comedy in which Miles Monroe (Allen), a jazz musician and health food store owner, awakes in 2173 after spending 200 years cryogenically frozen. A stream of swipes at 20th century mores follows, as we learn how silly we were to think that smoking and fatty foods were bad for you, and Woody makes up a load of junk to fill in the gaps of future peoples’ knowledge of our era. 

Allen’s affinity for slapstick is at its peak here, and the plot involving the overthrow of a repressive regime is little more than a peg to hang a series of very funny jokes on. Diane Keaton returns, as spoilt rich girl come rebel leader Luna (“Rebels are we! Born to be free! Just like the fish in the sea!”). Woody launches into a string of one-liners on familiar topics from psychoanalysis (“I haven't seen my analyst in 200 years. He was a strict Freudian. If I'd been going all this time, I'd probably almost be cured by now”) to sex (Luna: It's hard to believe that you haven't had sex for 200 years. Miles: 204, if you count my marriage). Then there’s Miles’ encounter with the orgasmatron whilst posing as a robot butler, a giant chicken (“That's a big chicken”), the movies’ biggest slipping on a banana skin gag, and a run of nose jokes.


CHOICE LINES

Rags: Woof woof. Hallo, I’m Rags. Woof woof.


6. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Sam Peckinpah has never been a director I can get fully on board with. He was clearly one to wrestle with his booze-soaked demons on screen, and the resultant explorations of the most unedifying extremes of masculine impulses are not always very comfortable to behold. I don’t think Pat Garrett, even in non-butchered form, is quite the defining Peckinpah masterpiece, but it is certainly an impressive and poetic picture, and you can quite see why the director saw it as his chance to make the definitive statement on the genre.

James Coburn can do no wrong in my book, and he makes a magnificent Pat Garrett (my favourite Peckinpah film is their later pairing on Cross of Iron). I’m less sure of pork belly-eyed Kris Kristofferson, who not only is a good 15 years too old for Billy but fails to exude the necessary charisma. Neither am I sold on Bob Dylan (nor was the director).

I’ve yet to see the 2005 special edition, so couldn’t comment on how it stands up (I’ve not heard great things), but since Peckinpah was happy enough with the preview version that’s good enough for me.


CHOICE LINES

Billy: You’re in poor company, Pat.
Pat Garret: Yeah, but I’m alive.
Billy: So am I…


7. The Legend of Hell House

In most years there won’t be a single horror movie in my Top 10 list, let alone four. I wouldn't attempt to argue that John Hough’s film, based on Richard Matheson’s novel (and screenplay), is in the same league as the other three scary pictures here but, for unabashed entertainment value, it’s hard to beat. Four psychic investigators descend on a famous haunted house with a terrible past, their objective to establish whether there is continued existence after the demise of the physical body. The conceit of factual reporting is adopted, with each new uncanny encounter introduced with date and time subtitles.

If the results are more post-Hammer theatricality, rather than the domestic terrors of The Exorcist, then that’s something to be embraced. In particular, Roddie McDowall’s tortured psychic brings just the right level of manic energy. Pamela Franklin is involved in the chilliest moments, her bouts of possession proving so effective that they inspired Orbital to sample her in “I Don’t Know You People”.


CHOICE LINES

Benjamin Fischer: I was the only one to make it out of here alive and sane in 1953, and I will be the only one to make it out of here alive and sane this time.


8. My Name is Nobody

Sergio Leone’s comedy-tinged spaghetti western was mostly directed by his assistant director on the first two Dollars movies, Tonino Valeril, but Leone took up the megaphone for a couple of scenes, including the opening and the final shoot-out. Consequently this doesn’t have the same visual flourish as the Eastwood/Bronson/Coburn classics. But it is blessed with an outrageously whacky Ennio Morricone score and similar thematic ideas about the passing of the old West as Once Upon A Time in the West.

Also from that movie comes Henry Fonda (starring in his last western) as a decidedly kindlier, mentor figure than Frank. The leading man, Nobody, is played by Terence Hill, cast as a result of his success as Trinity in two comedy spaghetti westerns a couple of years earlier. Hill makes for a goofier lead than we’re used to from Leone and he is, to be kind, an acquired taste. But, if his shortcomings as an actor and in the charisma stakes are more than evident in his scenes with Fonda, there is good-natured whimsy running through the picture that makes the Leone connection worth investigating.
   

CHOICE LINES

Jack Beauregard: Folks that throw dirt on you aren't always trying to hurt you, and folks that pull you out of a jam aren't always trying to help you. But the main point is when you're up to your nose in shit, keep your mouth shut.


9. Serpico

The one honest cop is a less-used trope in the current cinema environment; in the likes of Training Day and TV’s The Shield events instead revolved around a corrupt ones. Director Sidney Lumet would return to the territory of police corruption in Prince of the City and Q&A, but Serpico can claim to based on New York cop Frank Serpico’s actual experiences. 

Al Pacino capitalises on his The Godfather success, and his method actor reputation for diligent research and immersion in roles begins here (the real Serpico stayed with the actor for a time); he was rewarded with his first Best Actor Oscar nomination. If Serpico doesn’t hold up quite as well as the second pairing between Lumet and Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon, it remains a well-observed and impassioned character study.


CHOICE LINES

Tom Keough: Frank, let’s face it, who can trust a cop that won’t take money?


10. The Day of the Jackal

Fred Zinneman was a choice example of the journeyman studio director. Reliable across a selection of genres, and trusted with prestige projects, he took home two Oscars for Best Director (From Here to Eternity, A Man For All Seasons). Yet, you’d be hard pressed to identify stylistic trends across his work. The director had tackled suspense pictures before (High Noon) but nothing this taut and gritty. This is a very ‘70s movie, with an unapologetic levels of sex and violence. It shows Zinneman, who had been through a spell without work following the collapse of a project, responding to the changes in Hollywood and doing so with a vigour that belies a man in his mid-60s. 

Adapted from Frederick Forsyth’s novel, which presented a fictional assassination attempt on President De Gaulle,  Zinneman was intrigued by the challenge of making a thriller where the outcome was known (the assassination could not succeed) and whether he could make it suspenseful. He succeeds admirably, supported by a career-defining turn from Edward Fox as the Jackal and Michael Lonsdale (Drax) as his dogged pursuer.


CHOICE LINES

Minister: There is one thing; how did you know whose telephone to tap?
Lebel: I didn’t, so I tapped all of them.


And then there were...

Best Picture Oscar

The Sting

Entertaining, for sure, but Best Picture winner? Arguably, this picked up all the glory that the previous Newman/Redford/Hill teaming should have (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid).

American Graffiti

George Lucas’ first big success and, now the lustre has somewhat worn off Star Wars due to his passive-aggressive desire to desecrate the memory of the original trilogy, increasingly picked as his finest hour. It’s a good movie, but I’ve never been all that partial to it.

Cries and Whispers

If you want to emphasise your serious, intellectual film buff credentials you could do a lot worse that worship the films of Ingmar Bergman. See also; Woody Allen. I’ve seen this more than once, and can testify that it just gets funnier and funnier each time. Three of the nominees were box office smashes, so it was up to grumpy boots Bergman to wave the flag of artistic nourishment.

The Exorcist

If a horror film ever had a chance of winning the Oscar (The Silence of the Lambs is only borderline), it probably would have been The Exorcist. It could make a case for being more than just a lowest common denominator horror film (otherwise, even with the queues around the block, it would never have stood a chance of nomination), and was also made in the popular new Hollywood style. It would be my choice out of the quintet.

A Touch of Class

I might well have seen this, a “quality” ‘70s sex comedy concerning an adulterous affair between George Segal and Glenda Jackson (who took home the Best Actress Oscar), but it doesn’t stick in the mind. Another of those taboo-busting laughers of the period replete with “hilarious” rape jokes, which doesn’t date it all.


Top 10 US Box Office

1. The Sting
2. The Exorcist
3. American Graffiti
4. Papillon
5. The Way We Were
6. Magnum Force
7. Last Tango in Paris
8. Live and Let Die
9. Robin Hood
10. Paper Moon

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