Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number One

#1 — Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
According to Robert Towne, it was a vice cop who gave him the title Chinatown and the backstory of cynicism it conveys. He asked the officer what he did when he was stationed in Chinatown, and the man answered, “As little as possible,” an exchange that was eventually carried almost intact onto the screen. There were so many dueling dialects at play among the complicated gang alliances and conflicts, that it was extremely difficult for the police to sort out what was going on. The men on the force often didn’t know if their efforts were hindering the efforts of the criminals or actually smoothing the way of different factions, if they were actually being played as pawns by the community’s underworld. Standing back and letting it all play out often seemed the more prudent measure. To extrapolate it to the efforts of private detective Jake Gittes, sometimes the only wise thing one can do is walk away.

Jack Nicholson plays Jake, in what is as strong of evidence as any as to why he was the most vital actor of American cinema’s most daring decade. He plays the private eye with an appropriate level of world-weariness, a been-around-the-block certainty that nothing can faze him. Jake’s pushed enough steamy pictures of cheating spouses across his office desk over the years to give him a fairly dismal appraisal of human nature, and Nicholson shows how it’s simultaneously thickened his skin and sharpened his wit. The character exhibits plenty of Nicholson’s trademark devilish certainty, but, in this case, it’s largely in the service of showing how consistently comeuppance can be delivered on those who underestimate the world’s corruption, whether they pay for it through stark disillusionment or a slice out of their nose.

The brilliance of Towne’s screenplay is the way it takes the handy, familiar tropes of countless old Hollwyood film noirs with grizzled detectives and dangerously gorgeous dames and twists them into something decidedly modern in its broader commentary on the corruption of capitalism. There was always greed (usually mixed with lust) at the heart of those old crime stories, but it was almost always at the level of petty criminality, fortunes to be found in kidnapping, robbery, blackmail or even an inky black statue of a bird of prey. In Chinatown, it’s instead to be found in major machinations meant to corner the parched market in a commodity no less precious because it’s benign and familiar. There’s other ugliness around the periphery, but it all comes back to the insidious opportunity at the core of the film. Could there be a better way to get rich in a desert than cornering the market in oases?

If Towne crafts a fine screenplay by adopting and refining one of the signature genres of Hollywood’s past, director Roman Polanski definitely demonstrates how effectively he can update the moodiness, bleak humor and riveting style of films gone by. Beginning with opening credits that reach back to whichever Howard Hawks film anyone might choose, Polanski barely lets a frame of the film go by without some degree of evocative commentary on reference to classic film narrative. He even has some tacit blessing from the past in the form of one of the seasoned masters of such screen storytelling, director John Huston, on hand to play the odious Noah Cross, growling like a rocky crag come to life as he informs Jake that “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” Maybe the same is true of trashy detective stories, the sort that were once dismissed as a particularly sordid strain of film entertainment. One thing is certain, though: Chinatown is unforgettable.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Two

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#2 — Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
When Robert De Niro played Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, he borrowed the clothing of screenwriter Paul Schrader to start shaping the character. Schrader, putting it simply, was a twisted dude. He has a compulsion for guns and an inner monologue that had a lot in common with that of the lead character he penned. The character emerged from Schrader’s typewriter partially at the suggestion of De Niro, who noted he was interested in a story about a emotionally wounded man who walked the city streets with a concealed pistol at the ready, anxious to wreak vengeful havoc against the darker forces at work in the urban landscape. This was actually a familiar theme in the nineteen-seventies: angry men pushed to their limits by the corrosion of society and pushing back against the vile interlopers on civilized society, using a rain of bullets to wash all this scum off the streets. None of those other films was Taxi Driver, though.

Schrader’s howl of anguish and rage straight from the id met its perfect interpreter in director Martin Scorsese. Acclaimed for Mean Streets and boosted by a new cachet within the industry after shepherding Ellen Burstyn to an Oscar win for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the Italian-American director was given the opportunity to handle the prickly, dangerous script, helped by his friend De Niro’s support, which carried extra weight because of the shiny new Academy Award he had with his name etched across the base. (Skittish studio execs still only went forward after receiving the promise that Scorsese would be replaced by Steven Spielberg if the project started to go south.) Besides an ever-growing command of the mechanics of cinematic storytelling and a relentlessly inventive eye, Scorsese brought a fascination with knotty morality that complicated and deepened Schrader’s nihilistic fantasies. The one-time aspirational seminarian understood something that likely eluded Schrader: Travis was a far more interesting character if he was less a constant expression of damage than a man who believed he was saving people, who mistook his own corrosion for nobility.

Taxi Driver takes the simmering dissatisfaction of the time and fans it into an inferno. Travis is a direct witness to the ugliness of New York City from the front seat of his cab, listening to passengers vomit up their brutish viewpoints or even engage in full-scale illicit behavior in the back, sinning as the meter runs. Scorsese meets this existential tumult with a fiercely dynamic style, though not one that is overly showy or calls attention to itself. Instead, Scorsese’s direction fairly bristles with feverish energy and intellectual curiosity. The spirit of the piece has been scraped raw by Travis’s biting disdain for his surroundings, and the bitterness stirred to life by thwarted plans for redemption, for himself and others. Even before the eventual collapse of Travis’s psyche takes place, the character seems like his can crumble at any moment, and Scorsese’s film palpitates with that very tension. That can be attributed somewhat to the angst of Schrader’s screenplay, but it takes the genius of Scorsese to realize it for the screen.

The performance of De Niro in the leading role is rightly iconic. It somehow condenses an entirely nation adrift into a single disturbed character, and makes him equal parts frightening and sympathetic. It’s not just a tightrope act without a net, but also without any discernible wire. There’s not an ounce of safety to the performance, which is precisely what makes it so thrilling. Exceptional acting is found across the cast–Harvey Keitel, Peter Boyle, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks and teenaged Jodie Foster all merit the highest of praise–but everyone else still needs to stand in the long, heavy shadow of De Niro’s work. That he may have had an ideal model for the role in the man who penned the script is incidental. Finding his way to the truth of a character this complex is a compelling demonstration of exactly why De Niro remains an actor of reverence. No amount of drab, disinterested performances later in his career can erase what he achieves in Taxi Driver. It’s ferociousness rendered in tightly contained gestures and questing eyes, almost exhausting in its brilliance.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Three

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#3 — Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)
I can say with some certainty that Manhattan is home to my favorite film opening. Over cinematographer Gordon Willis’s gorgeous black-and-white shots of the borough that gives the film its title and accompanied by George Gershwin’s resplendent “Rhapsody in Blue,” Woody Allen’s character, Isaac Davis, takes a crack at the opening passage of a novel. He announces, “Chapter One,” and proceeds to try and describe the apparent lead character’s abounding affection for New York City. Several false starts later–rejected for reasons like “too corny” and “too angry”–Isaac finally finds his way to prose he likes, perhaps in part because of some “jungle cat” sexual potency attributed to this figure very much like himself, but more likely because of the succinct perfection of the final sentence he crafts before fireworks illuminate the sky: “New York was his town, and it always would be.”

The opening sequences may be the purest, most inspiring tribute to his defining city that Allen ever created, but the film is far more complex than a mere love letter. It is about the challenges of modern life, the merciless tangling of human relationships and the tense tug-of-war between sharply differing instincts. It is also Allen’s first, sharpest presentation of his career-long thesis–which would eventually come to haunt him when evidence of its power crept into his real life years later–arguing, “The heart wants what it wants.” Manhattan is satiric and deft, but also serious-minded and as emotionally honest as any film Allen ever made (and there is stiff competition in that final category). It’s as funny as any Allen film, while also leaving room for moving elements. Allen was in his early forties when he made the film, and the maturity shows. The whole thing feels like its developing wisdom frame by frame.

In the case of the similarly-aged character Allen plays in Manhattan, what the heart seems to want is a teenager named Tracy, played by Mariel Hemingway. The two are dating as the film begins, although Isaac continually expresses misgivings about it, noting that she should be with someone closer to her own age instead of someone actually older than her father. His opportunity to develop a more age-appropriate relationship comes when he meets a woman who typifies big city snobbery, taking great pleasure in sharing her cultural knowledge, even when it’s a little shaky. Initially put off by her, Isaac finds himself warming to the idea of a romance with her, perhaps because she represents a vision of who he’s supposed to be, someone in touch with the more refined corners of the urban mindscape. This is Mary, played by Diane Keaton, in a turn that’s the polar opposite of Annie Hall two years earlier: mentally probing where Annie was daffy, prickly where the earlier character was warm. This is a version of the city that Isaac feels he should have grown into, finding pleasure in pointed political magazine articles rather than the bygone accomplishments of Groucho Marx and Willie Mays. If this sort of emotional aspiration proves to be as false as Groucho’s greasepaint eyebrows, well, realizing that sort of thing is part of growing up too.

Everything Allen does here is absolutely pitch perfect. He began and is in the long process of ending his career with films that are somewhat tossed off from a directing standpoint, Allen’s conviction that he is a writer first and foremost occasionally causing even him to undervalue his skills as a visual artist. Manhattan, however, is made by someone with a marvelous eye and a brilliant sense of visual storytelling, knowing when to plant the camera at a distance to watch an emotional tableau reveal itself and when to press it, finding the heartbreak and shaky hope that can only be found in the mystery of a person’s eyes. Allen has other films that are funnier, bleaker, bolder, more inspiring and more devastating. I might even admit to designating a completely different effort as my favorite. Not a one of the others, though, is as perfectly calibrated as this. Manhattan is my pick for Woody Allen’s best movie, and it always will be.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Four

#4 — A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is widely considered a classic. I can’t think of another film in the same exalted status that is as brilliantly, exuberantly, comically savage. In adapted Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novella of the same name, Kubrick tore free the ferocious id of humanity and laid it bare, ultimately questioning whether the true problem was the roiling internal rage and impulsive hedonism of people or the cloying attempts of society to contain those instincts. Untamed passion may lead to random acts of violence and terror against innocent people, but isn’t that also the pathway to the thundering masterworks of Beethoven? Safer streets are nice, but what is free will is scrubbed away along with the crime? Acknowledging that humans are animals may be the vital first step towards accepting the astounding zoo that is the world. Sheets of chilling rain add darkness to existence, but there’s always still a chance to sing in it.

Set in London at some indeterminate point in the future, the film features Malcolm McDowell in a performance of exuberant malevolence as Alex DeLarge, the ostensible leader of a band of codpiece-adorned youths known as “droogs” who while away the hours creating random havoc. This is usually directed outwards, but occasionally includes a well-placed swing of a stick against the knee of one of their own. When the mayhem against others perpetrated by Alex escalates to murder, he’s institutionalized, eventually leading to the iconic image of his eyes pried open, kept moist by administered eye drops, as he’s forced to watch imagery specifically designed to reprogram him into crippling revulsion at the thought of violence. It’s an existential eye-for-an-eye, rendering him psychologically lifeless for the crime of taking a life. The film revels in its malicious impishness, absolutely refusing to allow for nobility or intellectual honesty in anyone’s actions.

Kubrick, always a maestro of the artful visual crescendo, reaches vertiginous new heights throughout A Clockwork Orange. It is sharply drawn and grandly enraptured with the static dynamics of physical spaces. The trademark chilliness of the director is in place, and it has arguably never had a more fitting outlet. The sterility of certain moments, images, techniques is stuck in a friction-filled duet with the messy, bloody pummeling of the story. Kubrick’s clinical eye exposes the spiritual agony at the heart of the whole endeavor in a way that a more empathetic director never could. That its further presented as the bleakest of satire, and is often shockingly funny, is one of Kubrick’s greatest, sickest jokes. The film shudders like a menacing chortle of virulent glee.

I’ve little doubt that A Clockwork Orange represents the clearest distillation of the director’s view of the world. From at least 1957’s grim war drama Paths of Glory onward, Kubrick kept reiterating a thesis of man’s willing destruction of self, a subsuming of the human spirit to forces destined, even designed, to tear it to ugly shreds. If A Clockwork Orange is his final full-fledged, unqualified masterwork, then it’s perhaps because he created a closing argument of sorts, a statement of assured belief so strong that it could hardly be refuted. All of society’s ills are met with the worst, most reactionary solutions, a thrilled welcoming of a wrecking ball in the guise of purifying salvation. That Kubrick could convincingly depict the tragic weight of all that misguided foolishness and still laugh–harshly and with pity, perhaps, but clearly laugh–is some of the clearest evidence he was operating on a totally different level of cinematic brilliance.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Five

#5 — The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
Through this process, I’ve already confessed to being out of step with the critical consensus on Francis Ford Coppola. While The Godfather showed up in this tally, other likely contenders–including its sequel and Apocalypse Now, which jumped past the mafia epics to become Coppola’s highest ranking film in the most recent Sight & Sound poll–were bypassed. The clearest statement I can give about my overall view of the director’s films is that The Conversation is far and away my favorite film to bear his cinematic signature. It is everything that Coppola’s more celebrated films are not: quiet instead of cacophonous, insular rather than expansive, lean instead of overstuffed, focused instead of sprawling. I don’t deny the command over the mechanics of the medium that Coppola regularly exhibits in his work, but I greatly prefer it when that skill is brought to bear on something small and thoughtful rather than a floridly beautiful tapestry that has no discernible edges.

The Conversation is about Harry Caul, a withdrawn surveillance expert played by Gene Hackman, in one of the most exceptional performances that can be found on film. Harry is highly skilled in his field and therefore sought after, but exudes no apparent pleasure in his success or esteem. Instead, like a master doctor petrified of illness, Harry is defined by an intense desire for privacy. He knows from his own experience, his own expertise, how easily the world can intrude on a person, especially surreptitiously. That has made him tense and guarded. It’s tempting to describe him as paranoid, but that does the character a disservice. He’s not fabricating an outside threat. He’s concerned about an encroachment on the hidden that is piercingly real, and he has boxes full of reel-to-reel tape to prove it.

Harry’s services are secured by a shadowy figure to record a couple, an assignment he fulfills as they walk through a park. Uncertain of the larger import of their cryptic conversation, Harry becomes increasingly fascinated by and then worried about what may be going on, what danger the couple may find themselves in, due in part, no doubt, to his complicity in handing over the personal, private talk they reasonably believed to by unheard by any figures other than one another. With measured intensity and agonizing patience, Coppola draws out Harry’s dilemma, which is only compounded by an uncharacteristic opening of the doors he’s built against society. If the film is like a noose tightening, then it is happening so slowly that the inward progress of the rope is barely noticeable, at least until it starts to become oddly difficult to breathe. This continues right to very end, when Harry tears his own world apart, quite literally, in order to protect it.

There are few actors more consistently marvelous than Hackman, and there are several performances that can be reasonably be pointed to as career peaks. Yet, I think all the others can aspire to nothing better than runners-up to his work here. Harry is deliberately inscrutable, a distance he has cultivated. Hackman shows how well the man has constructed emotional and psychological barriers against outside eyes (and, more importantly, ears) while also allowing that it is ultimately a facade that can’t be reliably maintained. He may be fearful of human interaction, but he also can’t help but crave it at times. Even his extraneous interest in the couple he’s recording betrays a desire for some level of connection. These are the internal parts of Harry that are at war with each other, and Hackman conveys that with cards pinned against his chest. There are no easy entryways into a character like this, no manner of signaling the audience as to the inner conflicts without betraying the truth of the man. With his tools naturally limited, Hackman still conveys the entirety of the character. Watching Hackman in The Conversation is like studying the DNA of acting itself.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Six

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#6 — McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971)
It’s routine to praise directors for their abilities to construct entire worlds, especially in the modern era of filmmaking which increasingly depends upon the startling efforts of creators who are freakishly adept at rendering imagery utilizing computer software. Too often, that celebrated world-building largely stops at the backgrounds, leaving the development of the characters moving through it as a secondary concern, leading to only the most superficial of conflicts playing out in front of the expensive walls of ones and zeroes. That’s because the filmmakers may be interested in worlds, but they’re not concerned with societies, and the correlating examination of how souls carrying their own personal sets of joys and troubles collide with each other. We are deep into the epoch of playset directors, many of whom must have once marveled over the intricacies of their miniature plastic Death Stars and Millenium Falcons, never putting all that much thought as to what the plastic figures that populated them might be feeling at any given moment.

Robert Altman was, of course, from an entirely different generation, but he also had a unique sensibility among his peers. While most films are built on plot and therefore incident, Altman’s movies–his best movies, anyway–were settled on a foundation of bustling humanity. No film exemplifies Altman’s startling skill at making masterpieces from such an approach than McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a film recognizable as a western from its milieu, but otherwise as far removed from the sturdy epics of John Ford and Howard Hawks as any cinematic offering could be. It isn’t about good guys and bad guys, but instead that vast terrain of ambiguity that exists between those two absolutes. It is about the necessarily corrupting influence of American capitalism in a community, settling its story on a time in the earliest years of the twentieth century to demonstrated that the pollution in the nation’s fiscal stream was there at the mouth.

John McCabe is played by Warren Beatty, in arguably the best performance of his career, largely because the role is perfectly suited to both his personal reputation of stealthy control and his unique muttering patter, the latter of which suggests a man anxiously attempting to turn his impulses into thoughts. McCabe comes to a blustery frontier mining town named for the church at its center (though definitely not at its heart) and begins exerting his influence over the citizenry, largely in pursuit of the almighty dollar. He establishes a brothel, the management of which he eventually turns over to another newcomer, Constance Miller, played by Julie Christie. The film traces their mutual ascent and then descent, and the title characters are undoubtedly the main drivers of the narrative. However, Altman’s concerns are simultaneously greater and more intricate, burrowing into the tenderized interpersonal mechanics of the entire town, not through an overburdening of subplot, but by simple, intense observation. Altman’s famed overlapping dialogue is in full evidence, paradoxically providing immense revelation by they way he allows things to be obscured. Other filmmakers spell things out with painstaking exposition, but Altman chooses to let life simply happen, which proves to be far more enlightening.

In addition to all the familiar Altman trademarks that make McCabe & Mrs. Miller extraordinary, this is surely the most beautiful film the director ever presided over. The cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond is a nonstop source of wonder, evoking a time when only candlelight offered illumination, and the descending blues of dusk could be the most imposing sight of all. These choices simply make the light of day, when it arrives, all the harsher, a fitting, metaphoric visual for the muted cacophony of a wounded, suspect nation taking its first furtive steps to becoming its truest self.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Seven

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#7 — Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)
I’ve loved Annie Hall for a long time, but I don’t think I understood the extent of its specialness until I saw the Woody Allen directorial effort that directly preceded it, 1975’s Love and Death. Despite its artier pretensions, manifested most clearly in the spoofing of heady fare such as Russian novels and Ingmar Bergman films, the movie is a modest, proudly simple comedy, reveling in an absurdity that dated back at least to the Marx Brothers and persists today is every brash punchline extravaganza featuring a Saturday Night Live alumnus. It’s not a stepping stone, as I had long assumed, from the straightforward gag-fests from earlier in Allen’s career. Instead, it is right in line with them. He didn’t evolve into Annie Hall gradually. He just suddenly landed there, intertwining a uniquely sophisticated and modern look at romantic relationships with extraordinarily free and casual experimentation (Annie Hall is so brisk, approachable and polished that the multitude of structural risks Allen engages in are easy to overlook or at least undervalue). Aside from perhaps Charlie Chaplin, I don’t know if there’s another example in cinematic history of a clown turning into full-fledged artist with the snap of a clapboard.

Annie Hall is, of course, about a romance, that of Alvy Singer, played by Allen, and the title character, played by Diane Keaton. Given the years of supporting evidence provided by Keaton is every interview and public appearance she’s ever done, it’s clear that the character she plays is a modified version of herself (Hall was the last name the actress was born with, and Annie was a common nickname for her at the time). That doesn’t diminish the value of her performance, which brims with invention, energy and daffy charm like few other comic turns given a home on screen. She won the Oscar for it, and it stands as one of the finest choices the Academy made across a decade when they had an abundance of great Hollywood films to celebrate. Effortless as the film plays, Allen had an exceedingly tough time finding his way to the final version that endures. There was an original cut that was almost two-and-a-half hours long and an early pass at the script (written by Allen with Marshall Brickman) focused more on a murder mystery with any relationship material crammed into a subplot (the whodunit plotline reemerged years later in 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, which fittingly reunited Allen with Keaton). Watching Keaton “Lah-de-dah” her way through this endlessly winning performance, it’s no wonder that Allen figured out that Alvy may be the central figure of the film, but he was orbiting around Annie Hall.

Great as that relationship is–and there are remarkably few romantic comedies in the decade since that don’t sport at least a little DNA inherited from Annie Hall–the film is elevated by the vestiges of everything else that it almost was. It is about Alvy’s childhood, his overstuffed quiver of insecurities and his prior attempts to forge meaningful relationships with women that amounted to little more than fender benders of the heart. Much of this was reportedly relegated to the trash bins in the editing room, but enough remains to give the film greater depth and insight. Before a shark dies, there are presumably symptoms of illness present for anyone brave enough to look. Annie Hall, for all its structural playfulness, is about people, and Allen sagely, subtly conveys the ways that those individuals carry their histories with them, letting the shadows they cast obscure what can be seen in the present. It’s remarkable that Allen retained his ingenious sense of humor (among other attributes, the argument could be made that Annie Hall is his funniest overall film) while still developing full-fledged characters rather than the easier comic figures he’d relied on before. He wasn’t a comedian making movies any longer; he was now clearly a filmmaker, with many masterworks to come.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Eight

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#8 — All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976)
All the President’s Men was released into theaters in the first week of April, 1976, less than two years after Richard Nixon’s resignation from the Office of the President of the United States on August 9, 1974. That’s astounding to me, that this film arrived when the emotions of the Watergate scandal were still so raw, the betrayal presided over by the person holding the highest elected post in the land still ringing like the shrill scream’s echo that just won’t fade. With a screenplay by William Goldman and expert, firmly patient directing by Alan J. Pakula, the film is unapologetically detail-oriented and low on manufactured drama. There’s the occasional fraught moment as the crack investigative reporters pursuing the case are concerned about their personal safety, but the vast majority of the film is about little more than the dogged pursuit of the truth. It is about phone calls and interviews, asking the right questions and sifting through the reluctant answers to find that sliver of revelation that will open a new door. It is about journalism as it was once practiced, when few things could do more damage, especially to a political figure, than a damning headline backed up by irrefutable facts on the front page of a major newspaper’s morning edition.

Tracking the progress of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, respectively) as they try to get to the bottom of this odd little burglary in the Watergate Hotel, unearthing more and more government corruption in the process, the film is meticulous and relentlessly intelligent. There are no grand revelations shouted out in the middle of an interrogation, but forward progress comes instead from the admissions of people who have grown weary of the secrets they’ve been burdened to carry. Part of the beauty of the film is the way it shows how theory can transform into certainty, sometimes after careful rerouting. Even then, the burden of making the story absolutely unassailable is only beginning. As Post executive editor Ben Bradlee calmly but firmly notes as the paper is working on a lead that will change the trajectory of the story, “Now hold it, hold it. We’re about to accuse Haldeman, who only happens to be the second most important man in this country, of conducting a criminal conspiracy from inside the White House. It would be nice if we were right.”

Bradlee is played by Jason Robards in a performance that won him the first of two consecutive Oscars, and he’s flat-out terrific, albeit in a way that seems apart from commonplace award fodder. The character is fully lived-in. Robards doesn’t play Bradlee as a crusader, but instead as a guy running a paper, a man doing a job. Maybe it’s a job with the highest of stakes, but it’s still first and foremost a job. That’s the prevailing spirit of the entire film. The history of the nation was being made in a way that left massive wounds on the society’s trust in authority, but there’s nothing pious about the film, nothing that overtly signals its heady importance. Pakula is measured and sober in his approach, perhaps because the production was mounted while the actual events were still a fairly fresh memory or, it’s entirely possible, for no other reason than that’s how Pakula made movies. Regardless, it’s the exact right approach, managing to make the simple yet profound act of diligent perseverance into incredible engrossing cinema.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Nine

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#9 — The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971)
There’s a beautiful desolation at the heart of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, a echoing ache that’s given physical form by the scorched, dusty streets of the dying nineteen-fifties Texas town in which the film is set. Adapted from Larry McMurtry’s semi-autobiographical novel from five years earlier by both the author and Bogdanovich, the film captures a sense of welling desperation that suited the times, rocked by protest, distrust in authority and a grinding, seemingly ceaseless war that completely upended the national sense of imperviousness. By reaching back a generation to a point when the country was being radically remade in a mindset that was both post-war and helplessly edging into permanent militarism and conflict, Bogdanovich found a existential state that was apt for the then-current era and, in turn, remarkably timeless. The film is populated by people who can’t exactly name the sorrow they feel and try to fill the void with anything they can think of, anything at their immediate disposal.

This was Bogdanovich’s third feature film, but he was a passionate and well-regarded scholar of cinema by this point in time. He’d programmed films for New York’s Museum of Modern Art, written extensively for publications such as Esquire and directed a retrospective documentary celebrating the career of director John Ford for the American Film Institute. Like Martin Scorsese and many of the other directors emerging at approximately the same time, Bogdanovich knew film because he’d gorged on it in his youth, absorbing every bit of it he could until it virtually saturated his psyche as if by osmosis. What’s most remarkable about Last Picture Show, given that context, is the way it feels like an utterly original work. It can maybe be superficially tied to something like Martin Ritt’s Hud or one of the other films from the nineteen-sixties that offered a disdainful modernist take on the distinct brand of Western film masculinity built on stoicism and gutty charm. But Last Picture Show is more complicated than that, more than a glib thesis statement refuting the fictional comforts of the past. It quietly, wisely considers the way a fracturing self-image can encroach upon an entire community, drawing everyone into a gloom that offers no apparent escape.

Across the next few years, Bogdanovich would essentially pastiche himself into insignificance, but here he was drawing on the colossal library of film history he housed in his brain to create his own astute cinematic language, one of understatement and emotional piquancy. This included a generosity with his actors, giving them the room to develop their characters into moving whole people. Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman both won richly deserved Oscars for their performances and Jeff Bridges and Ellen Burstyn well equally worthy nominees. There are also exceptional turns from Cybill Shepherd, Timothy Bottoms and really everyone in the cast, large and small roles. It’s truly one one of those films that has a documentary-like authenticity, largely because the history of these individuals’ shared, intersecting lives feels settled upon them like a heavy haze. Their stories are long and destined to collide. The film is never predictable, but it sometimes feels properly inevitable.

Bogdanovich chose to make the film in black-and-white, reportedly to accentuate the bleakness of the town. It also manages to both place it in the past and further solidify that sense of timelessness. The starkly lovely cinematography by the masterful Robert Surtees (a ten-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner before his similarly lauded work on this film) gives the film the deceptive authenticity of a old snapshot. What can be seen may be crisp, clear and well-defined, but there’s a ghostly certainty that there’s more outside the frame, extra tales that defied attempts to capture them. It’s perfect for The Last Picture Show, which offers so much, including the promises untold and unfulfilled.

Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Ten

#10 — Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976)
I don’t think it’s quite right to say that all great films are timeless. I do think there are broadly translatable qualities to the very best works–things such as wit, grace, intellectual heft and emotional piquancy–that can ensure an eternal appeal even when a film is wedded to the era in which it was made. That conviction makes me somewhat reluctant to contextualize a film on the basis of its copyright date. I’m not entirely adverse to the practice, of course, and it’s especially useful to measure the insights of Network against the state of the media landscape when Paddy Chayefsky wrote it and then Sidney Lumet directed it. This is typically done to excuse stodginess in the storytelling or misguided judgments of the characters, shaped by antiquated notions of the way the world works. That’s absolutely not the case with Network. Considering its context only serves to illuminate the film’s remarkable prescience.

When Network arrived in theaters in November of 1976, HBO had only been around for four years and was aspiring to be considering TV rather than claiming it had reached a transcendent state. CNN was almost four years from flickering to life, and even the existence of PBS was demarcated in single digits. National television was effectively three broadcasting institutions: ABC, CBS and NBC. It was in the aura of that environment that Network introduced the saga of Howard Beale, a veteran newsman played with ferocious authority by Peter Finch, who won a posthumous Oscar for his efforts. Beale is told that he’s losing his anchor position at the network due to dwindling ratings, which is turn leads him to announce on air that he will commit suicide while the cameras are sending out a live feed. The sensationalism of that promise leads to more viewers, and the audience only grows as Beale delivers increasingly unhinged rants on his program, inspiring legions of followers to shove open their windows and scream their satisfaction into the night. At the time Chayefsky wrote the screenplay, this was the height of bleak satire. Now, it’s roughly the Fox News programming model.

Chayefsky’s language, and the corresponding worldview it represents, are so dangerously sharp that it’s almost as if the sprocket holes in the celluloid were punctured into existence by barbed wire. Lumet is the ideal interpreter of Chayefsky’s words, investing the entire film with his keen craftsmanship and no-nonsense plainspoken certainty that’s equal parts urban and urbane. The script demands a director committed to honoring it rather than caving in a competitive instinct to try and upstage it. That doesn’t diminish the value that Lumet brings to film. Quite the contrary: he knows exactly how to burrow into the prickly story, the volatile interpersonal relationships, the psyches that have been scraped raw by a brutish business. If there’s a lack of flashiness, that’s only in the service of opening up the story for greater potency. In that, he has wondrous acting collaborators, led perhaps by Finch, but also including devastatingly insightful turns by Robert Duvall, William Holden and especially Faye Dunaway, who earned her own Oscar for playing cunning executive Diana Christensen. The third Academy-honored performance was delivered by Beatrice Straight, who stills hold the record for shortest amount of screen time in an Oscar-winning performance, a distinction that might inspire cynical scoffing, at least for anyone who hasn’t actually seen what she does with her five-and-a-half minutes.

Even if Network didn’t accurately forecast the dire path mass media careened down, it would still be one of the finest films of the nineteen-seventies. Its astuteness is a fine talking point, but its artistry is far more profound than that. Wise, wicked and a harshly funny, Network has a effortless cinematic majesty well beyond its cautionary notes.