1979 – Top 10 Films
Truthfully, Being There is something of a one-joke movie, so something less than a razor-sharp satire in the final analysis: holy fool Chance the gardener is mistaken by the Washington social elite for a sage rather than a simpleton (or “dumb as a jackass”). And that’s it. Typically of Hal Ashby, the picture is invested with an air of immediacy and realism, such that it’s difficult to wholly embrace the heightened conceit (if it were accompanied by the manic buffoonery of The Party or The Pink Panther, the blithely dislocated Chance would seem right at home). Yet this slightly uneasy vying of aesthetics also gives the picture its unique flavour: it’s very much a ’70s beast, and would be entirely out of place if made this way only a few years later.
Most of all, Being There’s place on this list is down to Peter Sellers’ performance (it was a pet project, one that took him nearly a decade to make), underplaying to within an inch of his life (he strived for a placid monotone, which gives him a touch of the Hal 9000, appropriate since a disco version of Thus Spake Zarathustra is used at one point). Where the later Forrest Gump would adopt a not dissimilar approach in its depiction of an influential idiot, Chance’s gormlessness is disguised by his facility for repetition and habit of allowing sentences to hang, encouraging the receiver to dig their own hole as they project perceptiveness onto him.
Being There also offers a very different angle on the White House to the one we’re used to, where an idiot has the ear of the President, rather than straight up being the President. This was Seller’s penultimate film (the final being the best – and largely – forgotten The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu), and gained him his second-Best Actor Oscar nomination (the first being Dr. Strangelove, three standout performances for the price of one).
President: Mr Gardner, do you agree with Ben, or do you think that we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives?
Chance: As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.
President: In the garden.
Chance: Yes. In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.
President: Spring and summer.
President: Then fall and winter.
Benjamin Rand: I think what our insightful young friend is saying is that we welcome the inevitable seasons of nature, but we’re upset by the seasons of our economy.
Chance: Yes! There will be growth in the spring!
Benjamin Rand: Hmm!
President: Hmm. Well, Mr. Gardner, I must admit that is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I’ve heard in a very, very long time.
(Benjamin Rand applauds)
President: I admire your good, solid sense. That’s precisely what we lack on Capitol Hill.
One of the most maligned Bond films is, simply, also one of the most fun. Everyone wanted in on SF dollars post-Star Wars, so 007 with laser zap was fast tracked. The result? Lewis Gilbert camps up his sequel to the already-veering-that-way The Spy Who Loved Me (it has virtually the same plot, just in space rather than under the sea, features the return of Jaws, and includes a double-taking pigeon, although the latter isn’t vital to its follow-up status).
Hugo Drax is one of the best Bond villains, drily ticked off over 007’s inability to die, and for once, the spectacularly overblown climax is engaging rather than a snooze, structured around the latest biggest set ever built. Lois Chiles may not be in the top tier of Bond girls, but she’s better than those who would immediately follow, while the set-piece cable-car fight shows off its back-projection creakiness and stunt doubles off for all to see. And yet, there’s something irresistible about Moonraker’s cheerful indifference to anything approaching verisimilitude.
Bond would rein things back in subsequently, partly because it couldn’t get any costlier, partly because of the perceived criticisms of this instalment. Which is a great shame, as Moonraker turned out to be the Moore high water mark. It’s also, tangentially, one of the primary citations in extoling the veracity of the Mandela Effect: did Jaws’ girlfriend once, before reality started blinking on and off, have braces on her teeth?
Hugo Drax: Mr Bond, you defy all my attempts to plan an amusing death for you.
Escape from Alcatraz
Clint’s final teaming with Don Siegel, and one of his last pairings with a director who wasn’t either himself or a pal (Wolfgang Peterson calling the shots on In the Line of Fire being a notable exception) elicits slow-burn, gripping results, in a based-on-fact tale of the last and only successful(?) escape attempt from Alcatraz prison.
Eastwood’s teamed with Fred Ward and Jack Thibeau, and squared off against Patrick McGoohan at his most unflinching and imperious as the dastardly warden (now playing Number Two, so to speak). A persevering man, he digs his way out of his cell with a spoon. Filmed on the actual island, devoid of an upbeat ending or life-affirming dialogue and assurances, it’s the grim-faced, unrelenting flipside to The Shawshank Redemption. Did Eastwood’s character escape in real life? Anecdotal evidence suggests not, but after seeing this, you’ll certainly be willing him to have done.
Warden: Alcatraz was built to keep all the rotten eggs in one basket, and I was specially chosen to make sure that the stink from the basket does not escape. Since I’ve been warden, a few people have tried to escape. Most of them have been recaptured; those that haven’t have been killed or drowned in the bay. No one has ever escaped from Alcatraz. And no one ever will!
The China Syndrome
Possibly more famous for its prescience than its quality, having been released only a few weeks prior to the Three Mile Island incident, James Bridges’ film has Jane Fonda in warpath mode, preaching the dangers of nuclear power while Jack Lemmon’s foreman is on hand to sweat over a near meltdown (and engage in trademark tugging at his collar).* Michael Douglas lends support as Fonda’s cameraman (his ’70s movie roles carved him out a dependable niche in that regard, often more rewarding than his later star turns).
Coming at the tail end of a famously politicised decade for Hollywood, it turned out there would be a greater proliferation of nuclear menace movies in the one to come, thanks to Reaganite Red baiting and a resurgence of levels of fear of Armageddon not felt since the Cuban missile crisis. Bridges knows he has a powder-keg scenario, so he simply has to let it unfold, the ratcheting tension and innate terror telling themselves. He secured Oscar nominations for both his leads.
*Addendum 25/08/22: The prescience factor is always assuming we buy into the nuke deal – weapons and/or power – and if we don’t, The China Syndrome makes for a first-rate propaganda exercise. See also WarGames.
Jack Godell: What makes you think they’re looking for a scapegoat?
Ted Spindler: Tradition.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s pre-penultimate feature is set to be homaged (or ripped off) in this year’s Alex Garland sophomore effort Annihilation, which also features a venture into a mysterious, uninhabited zone (Jonathan Nolan has also cited Stalker as an influence on Westworld). Odds are, being Alex Garland, it won’t sustain the lingering metaphysical punch and eerie atmosphere of Tarkovsky’s picture.
Stalker takes as its premise a grail quest for an item of mythical importance; at the heart of the Zone (which it is illegal to enter) lies a room in which the wishes of the entrants are granted. It sounds like the stuff of fairy tales, yet Tarkvosky’s picture is tonally anything but, as the Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky), leads the Professor (Nikolai Grinko) and the Writer (Anatoli Solonitsyn) – archetypes all – into the enigmatic area. There they encounter the cryptic rather than revelatory. Like Solaris’ living planet, the Zone has a form of sentience, and per the tree in The Empire Strikes Back, the only thing to fear is what you take in with you. And beware, the black dog. Or not.
Tarkvosky designed the film to exert classical Aristotelian unities, a fancy way of saying it should eschew subplots (unity of action), take place in a compressed period of no more than a day (unity of time) and occur in a single space (unity of place), but its content is as elusive as that rhythm is pinned down. Stalker remains a fascinating picture, exploring themes of desire, fear and belief, but while it’s ripe for interpretation, Tarkovsky wasn’t one for symbolism, commenting “Many think of Stalker as a science fiction film. But this film is not based on fantasy, it is realism on film. Try to accept its content as a record of one day in the lives of three people, try to see it on this level and you’ll find nothing complex, mysterious, or symbolic in it”.
So, whether Stalker concludes on a positive or negative note is largely down to how complex, mysterious or symbolic you find it, which is likely to be considerably more than Tarkovsky himself. The shoot was not without its problems, with a year of footage deemed unusable and the original cinematographer sacked before a remount was staged. Filming took place downriver of a chemical planet, attributed to the ultimate deaths of several members of the production, including the director himself. As for the title, rather than Blade Runner-esque dislocation (it simply sounded cool), it references Kipling’s Stalky and Co., as used in Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, on which the film was based, describing illegal trading and smuggling.
Stalker: The Zone wants to be respected. Otherwise it will punish.
William Richert’s fictionalised take on the JFK assassination, based on Richard Condon’s novel, in which Jeff Bridges’ Kennedy clan substitute Nick Kegan investigates his brother’s assassination and uncovers an impenetrable mess of crossed wires and confusing leads, all of which seems to lead back to his tyrannical father (John Huston, as malevolently memorable, just with a wee bit more humour, as he was in Chinatown).
There were rumours of interference in the making of a picture financed by dope dealers (one of whom was on the receiving end of a mob hit only a couple of weeks prior to the premiere) and which experienced multiple shutdowns, budget problems and even saw another movie made with many of the cast and crew during one of the production’s fallow periods (The American Success Company). Condon believed the CIA and Kennedys tried to put a stop to it, and you might understandably conclude that, as broad, cynical and larger than life as it is, it perhaps didn’t merit such particular attention.* Nevertheless, it’s certainly the case that it began filming in 1976 and didn’t find a release in unexpurgated form until 1983.
Winter Kill is frequently very sharp, occasionally a little hamstrung by its own ambition, and features a memorably eclectic support cast including Elizabeth Taylor, Sterling Hayden and Eli Wallach. The standout is Anthony Perkins, however, as a highly-positioned puppet master (“Do you see what you’ve done, you idiot? You’ve broken my arm!”). As a less deferential double bill with JFK you’d surely have good conspiratorial night ahead of you, although I’d go for this one first – you’ll be exhausted after Stone’s feature.
*Addendum 25/08/22: Particularly if the JFK assassination is itself a hoax. On the other hand, the CIA and the Kennedys hassling you is exactly the kind of thing you’d expect, so as to underline the lie is “real”.
Dawson: I know why you’re here. You’re here because you think I had some part of a conspiracy to kill your brother. You and all the conspiracy lovers in this conspiracy-loving country.
Woody Allen’s films, like Roman Polanski’s are to some degree forever besmirched by the allegations against their makers. For some, that’s enough to swear off their oeuvres entirely. For the rest, it’s still difficult to avoid having their culpability lurking in the back of your mind while watching. Perhaps none more so than Manhattan.
Which can probably lay claim to the most famous sequence in any Allen film, as Gershwin-infused shots of Manhattan (courtesy of striking Gordon Willis cinematography) accompany Allen’s author Isaac Davis attempting to explain how his protagonist idolises the city of New York out of all proportion before deciding no, that isn’t very good, and running through a string of variants. Like Hannah and Her Sisters and Husbands and Wives, Manhattan is a perfect synthesis of “funny” Woody, and “depressive, despondent, brittle, so-damn-serious” Woody. Their fusion is perhaps best evidenced by Isaac’s fraught relationship with ex-wife Meryl Streep, whom he really didn’t try to run over. Diane Keaton is wonderful in her last regular Woody gig, while Michael Murphy takes the role usually earmarked for Tony Roberts. There’s also the great Wallace Shawn in an inconceivably small role.
The plotline that paints Manhattan in a particularly unsettling retrospective light is Isaac’s immature relationship with seventeen-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), which cannot help but be coloured by the strife transpiring more than a decade later when Mia Farrow learnt of Allen’s relationship with her adopted daughter (the other allegations are whole other kettle of fish). Not that Isaac’s selfish, manipulative behaviour is in any way intended to show him in a positive light, but it does rather paint an unsightly portrait of what was on the artist’s mind (and puts the lie to Allen’s assertions that his films aren’t autobiographical, even if, in this case, it’s prophetically so). It remains a bittersweet classic in spite of those misgivings, and one of Allen’s most insightful films.
Isaac: You honestly think that I tried to run you over?
Connie: You just happened to hit the gas as I walked in front of the car?
Isaac: Did I do it on purpose?
Jill: Well, what would Freud say?
Isaac: Freud would say I really wanted to run her over, that’s why he was a genius.
Monty Python’s Life of Brian
It’s a cliché to claim this as the best slice of Python, and also one of the best comedy films ever, but that doesn’t make it any less true. There’s little point anecdotalising Python’s best bits because they’ve been done ad nauseum in articles and on TV clips shows and down the pub (even in, good grief, Sliding Doors). So, suffice to say this is every bit as clever, witty and silly as its reputation suggests, from the People’s Front of Judea, to “Welease Woderwick” to “He’s not the Messiah…”, to the horribly-over-exposed-thanks-to-its-hit-single-status-but-still-quite-brilliantly-absurd Bright Side of Life.
Terry Gilliam, who mostly restricted himself to the role of art director, gave Life of Brian a backhanded compliment when he said that, although it wasn’t particularly well directed (meaning that Terry Jones shot it like a TV episode), the lack of craft probably ensured its success; he suspected the picture wouldn’t have been as funny if he’d been in charge. Not to do Gilliam down in any way, he’s probably right on that one (although, the sequence he did direct, with the Brian briefly abducted by aliens, is very funny).
Centurion: You know the penalty laid down by Roman law for harbouring a known criminal?
Centurion: Nasty, eh?
Matthais: Could be worse.
Centurion: What do you mean, “Could be worse”?
Matthais: Well, you could be stabbed.
Centurion: Stabbed? Takes a second. Crucifixion lasts hours. It’s a slow, horrible death.
Matthais: Well, at least it gets you out in the open air.
Centurion: You’re weird.
Picking a favourite between the picture in pole position and this one is nigh-on impossible; they’re both pinnacles of their genres and both transcend them, just in different ways. And, while it lost out – not without some serious mulling – Apocalypse Now arguably has much more going on under its equally visually-striking hood. It’s a hallucinatory meditation on the madness of war that knows the only way to deliver its sermon is to be slightly deranged itself. And so, its players follow suit.
From Francis Ford Coppola, attempting to oversee the escalating mayhem of the Philippines in a shoot that went on forever, to his cast, taking in Martin Sheen’s dark night of the soul, or heart, Dennis Hopper in ultimate off-his-tits mode and Marlon Brando adopting his increasingly predominate “don’t-give-a-shit, other than to make everyone else’s lives difficult” demeanour. The picture was Coppola’s peak moment, as if the act of extreme exertion took something fundamental out of him and he was never quite the same again (ironically, he said that during its making he realised he knew what he was doing as a filmmaker; then he went and directed One from the Heart).
One can only speculate at George Lucas’ version, but it definitely wouldn’t have been anything like this. The 2001 Redux is worth investigating as a curiosity, but that’s all it is, scenes like the French plantation disrupting the original’s inexorable descent into a maelstrom of oppressive otherness. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is frequently jaw dropping, while Robert Duvall’s crazy Lieutenant Colonel is magnificently maladjusted in a manner that’s just as nuts as, albeit slightly more on the reservation than, Brando’s Kurtz. Of course, The Deer Hunter had won the Vietnam flick Oscar a year earlier, so a repeat performance simply wasn’t going to happen (the same thing happened with Full Metal Jacket, the superior ’80s Nam picture to Platoon, albeit that didn’t even merit a Best Picture nod). Of course, scarcely anyone today would launch into a defence that Kramer vs. Kramer deserved to the top prize.
Kurtz: Did they say why, Willard, why they want to terminate my command?
Willard: I was sent on a classified mission, sir.
Kurtz: It’s no longer classified, is it? Did they tell you?
Willard: They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound.
Kurtz: Are my methods unsound?
Willard: I don’t see any methods at all, sir.
Ridley Scott’s peerless haunted house movie, just with “toothed vagina” rattling around a vast spaceship scaring the bejesus out of everyone rather than a guy in a white sheet. It’s a natural SF progression from Lucas’ Star Wars, adopting a not dissimilar approach to highly-designed futurism but with a jaded, blue-collar vibe. What both films exhibit par excellence, despite operating at opposite ends of the sci-fi spectrum tonally, is an aptitude for a completely immersive world.
Alien is an example of what you get when you have immensely talented technicians dressing up bare bones, which isn’t to say Dan O’Bannon’s straight-faced reworking of his and John Carpenter’s Dark Star isn’t tremendously effective, or that the additions of Ron Shusset (the birth) and David Giler (Ash, the android) aren’t enormously important to the impact of the piece. But it’s Scott’s vision that welds this all together, combined with the startling creature designs of HR Giger.
Sir Ridders would only come this close to a perfect cinematic organism once again, in his next feature. As for Alien’s legacy, no one, not Cameron with his increasingly-dated-looking follow up, and not Scott himself, with his (now series of) prequel(s) has come close. Alien is unique: raw, beautiful and uncanny. And I haven’t even mentioned its cast, troopers to a tee, from Sigourney Weaver in a star-making turn, to stalwarts John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton adding texture. Alien is ever more the masterpiece with each passing year.
Ash: You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.
Lambert: You admire it.
Ash: I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.
Parker: Look, I am… I’ve heard enough of this, and I’m asking you to pull the plug.
(Ripley is about to disconnect Ash.)
Ash: Last word.
Ash: I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies.
Best Picture Oscar
Kramer vs. Kramer
It has become fashionable to take a hefty dump on Kramer vs. Kramer, a picture whose subject matter felt far fresher and more relevant then than it does nearly forty years later. It’s certainly true that, from the beginning, sympathy is overtly tilted towards the man in the custody battle (Joanne’s motivation for leaving Ted, or more to the point, her son, needed greater underpinning), a decision that very much sets the film in a bygone Hollywood era. And yet, it can still boast powerhouse performances from Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman, both rewarded with statuettes for their pains: reportedly, far more pains in the former’s case.
I tend to see it as a case of a decent little drama being inflated beyond its worth by the awards ceremonies, which happens rather a lot. Of those nominated for Best Picture in ’79, though, Kramer vs. Kramer places a distant fourth in ranking. Robert Benton receiving Best Director was particularly undeserving; the film won five Oscars out of nine nominations, but really, it’s only the acting ones that make a lot of sense now. Still, can you imagine a divorce drama making the equivalent of nearly $400m at the US box office today? Or at any time in the interim?
All that Jazz
Bob Fosse’s autobiographical anti-musical is blessed with a sterling performance from Roy Scheider (I’d have gone with him or Sellers for Best Actor) and a commanding first half that rather falters with the shift to a fever-dream second, but it’s easy to see why it fostered such good will from voters. Nine nominations again, and winning in four categories (Art Direction, Costume Design, Film Editing and Original Song Score or Adaptation Score). In another year, All that Jazz might have warranted prizes for Cinematography and Director, but there was a hands-down more deserving contender…
Apocalypse Now’s only problem was The Deer Hunter. Two Nam pictures winning back to back just wasn’t going to happen, even though I’m sure few would argue Apocalypse Now isn’t the best of those that were up for the big prize in ‘79. It won two of its eight, for Cinematography and Sound, richly deserved, but it also richly deserved Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall), Adapted Screenplay (Milius and Coppola), Art Direction (yes, over All that Jazz) and Film Editing.
The least showy of the year’s nominees, but also a very solid coming-of-age picture that has aged well, with Peter Yates, a hit-and-miss director, delivering an increasingly rare hit. And, if its Original Screenplay win is eclipsed by quality of other nominees (Manhattan and The China Syndrome are both probably stronger on balance), it’s difficult to begrudge.
The ugly duckling of the five, Norma Rae is a slice of well-intentioned stodge, its four nods indirectly recognising that this was all about Sally Field and the inherent worthiness of the unionisation plotline, rather than anything of truly great merit in the picture itself. Besides Field’s Best Actress Oscar, it won for Best Song.
Also of note:
Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture was trounced by Georges Delerue’s A Little Romance, Meteor mustered a nomination for Best Sound Mixing, Alien missed out on Art Direction and didn’t even get nominated for Cinematography. The Black Hole got nominated, for Cinematography, as did 1941 (also for Sound Mixing). Butch and Sundance: The Early Years received a nod for Costume Design, and in a year of worthy contenders, The Black Hole, 1941, Moonraker and Star Trek: The Motion Picture lost Visual Effects, rightfully, to Alien. Oh, and 10 was nominated for Original Song and Score, while The Muppet Movie was in the final five for Original Song Score and Song.
Top 10 at the US Box Office
1. Kramer vs. Kramer $106.26m ($372.13m adjusted for inflation)
2. The Amityville Horror $86.43m ($297.86m adjusted)
3. Rocky II $85.18m ($293.56m adjusted)
4. Apocalypse Now $83.47m ($278.71m adjusted)
5. Star Trek: The Motion Picture $82.26m ($283.48m adjusted)
6. Alien $78.95m ($272.06m adjusted) Worldwide: $102.9m ($345.27m adjusted)
7. 10 $74.87m ($258m adjusted)
8. The Jerk $73.69m ($253.96m adjusted)
9. Moonraker $70.308m ($242.3m adjusted) WW: $210.3m ($705.64m adjusted)
10. The Muppet Movie $65.2m ($224.69m adjusted)
The China Syndrome $52.72m ($178.2m adjusted)
Love at First Bite $43.89m ($147.25m adjusted)
Escape from Alcatraz $43m ($144.28m adjusted)
Manhattan $39.95m ($137.67m adusted)
All That Jazz $37.82m ($126.92m adjusted)
The Black Hole $35.84m ($120.27m adjusted)
1941 $31.76m ($109.44m adjusted) WW: $92.46m ($310.23m adjusted)
Being There $30.18m ($101.26m adjusted)
Norma Rae $22.23m ($76.6m adjusted)
Monty Python’s Life of Brian $20.05m ($67.75m adjusted)
Breaking Away $16.43m ($56.6m adjusted)
Mad Max $8.75m ($28.14m adjusted)
Winter Kills $1.08m ($3.74m adjusted)