Skip to main content

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

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

He's not in my pyjamas, is he?

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) (SPOILERS) By rights, Paul Mazursky’s swinging, post-flower-power-gen partner-swap movie ought to have aged terribly. So much of the era’s scene-specific fare has, particularly so when attempting to reflect its reverberations with any degree of serious intent. Perhaps it’s because Mazursky and co-writer Larry Tucker (also of The Monkees , Alex in Wonderland and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! ) maintain a wry distance from their characters’ endeavours, much more on the wavelength of Elliott Gould’s Ted than Robert Culp’s Bob; we know any pretensions towards uninhibited expression can’t end well, but we also know Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice have to learn the hard way.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998) An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar. Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins , and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch , in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whet

There is a war raging, and unless you pull your head out of the sand, you and I and about five billion other people are going to go the way of the dinosaur.

The X-Files 5.14: The Red and the Black The most noteworthy aspect of this two parter is that it almost – but not quite – causes me to reassess my previous position that the best arc episodes are those that avoid tackling the greater narrative head-on, attempting to advance the resistant behemoth. It may be less than scintillating as far as concepts go, but the alien resistance plot is set out quite clearly here, as are the responses to it from the main players.