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I used to believe in many things, all of it! Now, I believe only in dynamite.

Top 10 Films

Favourite films lists are inevitably slightly arbitrary. Even your best-est film ever can be revisited so many times that fatigue sets in, and it begins to lose its lustre. Or, a picture you once loved no longer seems all that. And vice versa. I thought I’d kick-off a run of annual Top 10s by beginning with the year I winked into existence. Of course, this means that most of those named from this decade will have been retrospectively seen. And the selection process will also rely on recall of a number of pictures I may not have looked at in two decades or more. It’s all very fallible. But also part of the fun. I’ve been reading some of Pauline Kael’s reviews from the period lately, and one refreshing thing is seeing her mauling of some films that are now sacred cows (and bestowing honours on others that have been all-but forgotten). Certain acclaimed movies will have failed to impress me, which may explain glaring omissions from my list.  Alternatively, I simply might not have seen the thing.


1. A Fistful of Dynamite (AKA Duck! You Sucker)

The story goes that Sergio Leone approved Giancarlo Santi, his assistant director, to helm A Fistful of Dynamite but stars James Coburn and Rod Steiger, who signed on believing the maestro would be calling the shots, demanded he take charge. Whatever the precise nature of the circumstances (it is also said the Peter Bogdanovich was first choice), this might be the director’s most giddily enjoyable movie. Coburn is certainly the most charismatic of Leone heroes, and Steiger’s Mexican bandit ploughs a furrow that Eli Wallach trod before him (Wallach was offered Steiger’s role first). Coburn’s IRA explosives expert is caught up in the Mexican Revolution but ends up learning a thing or two from Steiger’s simple peasant. It’s a very funny (the initial duelling between Coburn and Steiger recalls Eastwood and van Cleef street gunplay in For a Few Dollars More) and very sad picture, and a sterling buddy movie. It is also blessed with a hilarious Ennio Morricone score (“Shon shon shon shon”), interminable yet sublime slow motion flashbacks, and Antoine Saint-John as a fearsome egg-sucking general.


CHOICE LINES

Juan Miranda: I know what I am talking about when I am talking about the revolutions. The people who read the books go to the people who can't read the books, the poor people, and say, "We have to have a change." So, the poor people make the change, ah? And then, the people who read the books, they all sit around the big polished tables, and they talk and talk and talk and eat and eat and eat, eh? But what has happened to the poor people? They're dead! That's your revolution. Shhh... So, please, don't tell me about revolutions! And what happens afterwards? The same fucking thing starts all over again!


2. Silent Running

Douglas Trumbull, the special effects star of 2001: A Space Odyssey, delivers his directorial debut. It’s a humanist/environmentalist message movie that couldn’t be further from Kubrick’s clinical, impersonal vision. Bruce Dern, deservedly rising to the status of leading man, is hippy gardener Freeman. He works in vast space greenhouses that preserve the last of the Earth’s plant life. When the orders come to extinguish even these preserves, Freeman takes drastic action. The film is steeped in the era of its making, with Joan Baez’s mournful dirges straining over shots of Bruce attuning with nature and attending the flora. But for all the earnestness, the script pulls no punches in showing the fall-out of Freeman’s choices on his mental health (which must have really messed with his diagnostic abilities, as a two-year old could have solve the problem with his garden more quickly). Made on a low budget, Silent Running continues to impress visually, although some find its overt proselytising slightly off-putting. Robot drones Huey, Dewey and Louie, are adorable, forerunners to the mechanised anthropomorphism of R2D2 and Wall-E.


CHOICE LINES

Freeman Lowell: On Earth, everywhere you go, the temperature is 75 degrees. Everything is the same; all the people are exactly the same. Now what kind of life is that?


3. Play It Again, Sam

This may be the only Woody Allen classic he stars in but does not direct. And that’s because he wrote the play on which his screenplay is based. Herbert Ross handles megaphone duties competently (lest we forget, this is the man who served up My Blue Heaven), but it’s Allen’s words and scenarios that deliver. This is Woody’s prototypical relationship comedy, in which his hapless film critic, marooned by his departed wife, attempts to make a go of the dating circuit. Combating his neuroses (Woody and neuroses go together like peaches and cream) is his imaginary tutor in the ways of women; Humphrey Bogart (a note-perfect, lip-clenching Jerry Lacy). There’s much amusement as Allen (playing Allan) embarks on doomed meet-cutes (“Yeah, I’m fine. I snapped my chin down onto some guy’s fist and hit another one in the nose with my knee”), but it’s when he falls for best friend Dick’s (Tony Roberts) wife Linda (Diane Keaton) that the plot finds focus and the Casablanca referencing asserts itself. This is the first screen collaboration between the Allen/Keaton/Roberts trio, although they had appeared in the stage version together. The piss-take of the hard womanising Bogart persona is spot-on (“I never saw a dame yet that didn’t understand a good slap in the mouth or a slug from a .45”) but elsewhere the film shows its age with uncomfortable rape gags. Nevertheless, it’s one of Allen’s most consistently funny affairs, filled with fantasy sequences and quotable lines (“You have the most… eyes I’ve ever seen”).


CHOICE LINES

Allan: She was a lovely thing. I used to lay in bed at night and watch her sleep. Once in a while she would wake up and catch me. She would let out a scream.


4. The Godfather

An unassailable classic, such that there seems little point trying to say anything brief but meaningful about it. I mean it in a good way when I say that the film never seems quite as unsurpassable in my memory as does when I actually revisit it. The Godfather is one of a handful of the films that redefined popular cinema during the surrounding decade (a process that had been gathering momentum since the release of Bonnie and Clyde five years earlier). It momentarily made the gangster movie poetic and elegant, elevated Al Pacino to stardom, was nearly the last time Brando could be bothered, and featured the most memorable equine appearance since Mister Ed. And, for a brief period, Francis Ford Coppola was the hottest director in Hollywood.


CHOICE LINES

Don Vito Corleone: A friend should always underestimate your virtues and an enemy overestimate your faults.


5. The Offence

Sidney Lumet’s most feted films during the ‘70s saw him pair with The Godfather’s crown prince, Al Pacino. But before that he made a trio of features with one-time, two-time, three-time 007 Sean Connery. Two of those are under seen gems. The Hill, released at the height of his Bond-dom, saw the Scot endure the punishments of a military prison. In The Offence he is a detective sergeant who tips over the edge while interrogating Ian Bannen’s suspected child molester. It’s a gruelling experience, much of it a two-hander between the actors, and it might be the best performance of Connery’s career (his work during the early to mid-‘70s is generally much underrated) as we realise the rage he reserves for Howard is a reflection of the dark thoughts he nurses within. I’ve seen it suggested that Lumet somewhat overcooks the imagery, but I ‘d argue that he renders the stark grey environment and fractured mind-sets with consummate skill.


CHOICE LINES

Kenneth Baxter: Nothing I have done can be one half as bad as the thoughts in your head.


6. Sleuth

There isn’t a whole lot of levity on this list, but Joseph L Manckiewicz’s big screen version of Anthony Schaffer’s play is the closest thing. Both a class comedy and a dissection of the crime thriller genre, it’s also a highly enjoyable clash between two wildly different acting styles; ultimate ham Laurence Olivier, fittingly required to behave like an ultimate ham, and naturalistic Michael Caine, called on to represent working class stock (less said about his likeliness as the son of an Italian immigrant the better). Both actors received Best Actor Oscar nominations for their troubles. Manckiewicz does nothing to supress the theatrical tone, and accompanies it with a larky score from John Addison. But this seems altogether appropriate to the knowing, playful plot of deadly games as it self-consciously ensnares the viewer in multiple twists and reveals.


CHOICE LINES

Andrew Wyke: There's nothing like a little bit of mayhem to cheer one up.


7. Deliverance

John Boorman’s survival movie is embedded in moviegoer consciousness by the sequence that triggers events; Ned Beatty’s traumatic bout of pig-squealing (one need only glance at the imdb boards to witness the way in which this has become a celebrated cause of defensive knee-jerk male jokery). Even before that, the Duelling Banjos is more discussed than the main thrust of the piece. Boorman inverts assumed roles as Burt Reynold’s Alpha-Male finds himself incapacitated, leaving unlikely fellow businessman Jon Voight to lead. It’s a claustrophobic movie, a horror film in all but genre category, and one that preys on metropolitan fears of the depraved lawlessness lurking in the wilds (Peckinpah was in territory not very far from this with Straw Dogs). There is a dread of unseen, uncivilised forces poised to dispatch our protagonists at any moment. Boorman revels in the ambiguity of these primal forces, such that the vow of the survivors to keep events a secret cannot disguise that none of them have a full picture of what happened. It also inspired every movie ending Brian De Palma ever (there is only one).

 

CHOICE LINES

Lewis: Sometimes you have to lose yourself 'fore you can find anything.


8. Aguirre Wrath of God

Mad Werner Herzog and madder Klaus Kinski team for the first time in this, loosely based on fact, tale of incipient madness on a trip down the Amazon river. Ostensibly we follows 16th century Spaniards on a quest for El Dorado, but the focus quickly settles on the destructiveness of unrestrained power and obsession. If Kinski’s Aguirre is compellingly deranged, this is simply because Kinski himself is compellingly deranged. Herzog’s imagery is striking and hallucinatory and feeds directly in another waterborne journey into insanity, Apocalypse Now.


CHOICE LINES

Aguirre: That man is a head taller than me. That may change.

  
9. The Candidate

An early demonstration of Robert Redford’s political facility (he was an uncredited producer on the project), The Candidate finds his would-be senator transition from idealism to cynical electioneering as the race for votes hots up. And then flips the perspective again. Another 35 years would pass before a mainstream Hollywood satire tackled party politics so shrewdly (Warren Beatty’s Bulworth, with which this makes a fine double bill). It was written by political speechwriter Jeremy Larner (he won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar); director Michael Ritchie had also worked on campaigns, so the insights into the marketing machine and malleability of scruples are likely all first-hand. For a while there it seemed that Redford would be making a sequel (during the late ‘90s) but it seems to have got away from him.


CHOICE LINES

Bill McKay: So vote once, vote tuh-wice, for Bill McKay... you middle-class honkies.


Solaris

Soviet science fiction isn’t an especially prolific movie genre, but Andrei Tarkovsky’s languorous epic is undoubtedly its foremost specimen (ironically, as the director reportedly wasn’t that keen on the genre). It is oft lazily labelled the Russian 2001. A psychologist travels to a space station orbiting the titular ocean planet to investigate the mental aberrations experienced by its crew. Less sci-fi-ey than the Stanislav Lem novel on which it is based, Solaris preoccupies itself with the human condition; it explores themes of perception, memory, grief and the very philosophical underpinnings of our existence and reality. If Tarkovsky could occasionally have done with an editor, crossing the line from meditatory to bloated, Steven Soderbergh’s unnecessary remake accelerates in the opposite direction and eschews the nuance and atmosphere. I’d more vigorously recommend the director’s later return to the genre, Stalker, but if you have three hours and concentration to spare this is well worth discovering.


CHOICE LINES

Dr. Snaut: We don't want to conquer space at all. We want to expand Earth endlessly. We don't want other worlds; we want a mirror. We seek contact and will never achieve it. We are in the foolish position of a man striving for a goal he fears and doesn't want. Man needs man!


And then there were...

Best Picture Oscar

The Godfather

It won, of course. 10 nominations and three wins (Picture, Brando, Adapted Screenplay).

Deliverance

Three nominations (Picture, Direction, Film Editing), but it went home empty-handed.

Cabaret

The big winner, Bob Fosse’s musical has always left me a little cold. Out of 10 nominations, it won eight (Director, Liza Minnelli as Actress, Joel Grey as Supporting Actor, Adapted Score, Sound Mixing, Cinematography, Film Editing).

Sounder

One I haven’t seen; a Depression-era drama starring Paul Winfield and directed by Martin Ritt.

The Emigrants

Another that has passed me by; also a period drama, a Swedish picture about émigrés to US in the 19th century. Curiously, it was nominated as Best Foreign Language Film the year before (imagine the stink that would cause now).


Top 10 US Box Office

(Before the '80s, the numbers can be a bit variable, but the Top 5-6 are a fairly safe bet.)

1. The Godfather
2. The Poseidon Adventure
3. What’s Up, Doc?
4. Deliverance
5. Jeremiah Johnson
6. Cabaret
7. The Getaway
8. Lady Sings the Blues
9. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)
10. The Valachi Papers

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