THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE (Luis Bunuel)
Luis Bunuel had been working up to this. Toward the end of his life and marvelous career, the great Spanish director returned to France, the home of his first bombshells (UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1928) and L’AGE D’OR (1930), both with Salvador Dali). Collaborating with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, Bunuel cooked up this masterpiece. True to his surrealist approach and always eager to skewer his favorite targets (religion, authority, politics), he enlisted some of the finest actors in France. The result is a wholly original, frequently hilarious classic. Provocative and entertaining, DISCREET CHARM might also be called the work of genius.
THE GODFATHER (Francis Ford Coppola)
The movie of the year, the movie of the decade, maybe the movie of this generation. Who hasn’t seen it? And what is there left to say? A commercial phenomenon and an artistic success. This one has it all. Decades after its release, THE GODFATHER has become almost the starting point for every young artist who wants to absorb, explore and even debate the meaning of cinema. The history of how it got this good and all the backstories that swirl around it are as absorbing as the film itself. THE GODFATHER is a supernova that illuminates the intersecting trajectories of the likes of Coppola, Brando, Pacino, Duvall, Caan, Evans, Rota, Keaton, Puzo, Tavoularis and everyone else connected with it.
LAST TANGO IN PARIS (Bernardo Bertolucci)
From the opening credits with Francis Bacon’s paintings of distorted and tortured figures, followed by the opening scene of Marlon Brando’s anguished exclamation of “F***ing God!” over the roaring sound of the Paris Metro overhead, you might get the clue that this will be a film about despair. The proceedings may not be perfectly tidy and the vision sometimes less than crystal clear, but when it’s all over and the dust has settled, you know that you’ve been somewhere. Just as I did when I first saw LAST TANGO (at 19 yrs old) and walked the long way home from the theater to my apartment in Portland, Oregon. I was transported, transfixed, enveloped in the elevated, unsettling air of a work of art.
LAST TANGO IN PARIS is the prime example of the special alchemy that can happen in the world of cinema. Bertolucci had originally cast Jean-Louis Trintignant and Dominique Sanda, but circumstances intervened. Enter Marlon Brando and 19-yr old newcomer Maria Schneider. Thanks to his then-recent turn as THE GODFATHER, Brando seems to have re-invested himself in his commitment as an actor. (He would deny it, of course, referring in typical fashion to LAST TANGO as his “fuck film”, much like GODFATHER was his “gangster film” and his under-appreciated masterpiece ONE-EYED JACKS as his “cowboy movie”.) Brando’s stunning performance galvanizes LAST TANGO. He bares his soul as if caught off guard, and in some sense he was, later retreating and claiming that he would never expose himself so much on film again.
Then there is Gato Barbieri’s terrific score, his saxophone conjuring up both weariness and romanticism. LAST TANGO is a drama played out in dark places, and Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography captures the blues and glowing embers of a soul (and a Paris?) in distress.
The sexual relationship between the main characters in LAST TANGO is central to the film, and the bold frankness of the sex scenes had a huge impact at the time of the film’s release. Reaction ran the gamut from being banned as smut to being hailed (by Pauline Kael) as the greatest breakthrough in art since Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”. More than 40 years later, it is more obvious than ever that the sex scenes are never gratuitous or sensational beyond their crucial relevance to the story unfolding.
Note: The #MeToo movement has put a new spotlight on the rape scene and the comments by Maria Schneider that she felt abused during its filming. Indeed, Bertolucci admitted that although the scene was in the script, the use of the butter was not. He and Brando had agreed not to tell Schneider beforehand, in order to get a “realistic” reaction. No doubt, we’ve come a long way since 1972 in handling sensitive scenes of a sexual nature. Brando got a pass from Schneider, and they remained friends throughout their lives. She has said that she thought Brando had been as much “raped” by Bertolucci as she had felt. However, the absurd notion that the sex was anything but simulated has been thoroughly refuted by everyone involved.
SOLARIS ( Andrei Tarkovsky)
Finding 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY to be “too cold”, the great Russian (then Soviet) film-maker Tarkovsky tried to go Kubrick one better. I don’t know about all that, but he did adapt Stanislaw Lem’s novel into an outer space think-piece like no other. The concept is fascinating (a planet’s surrounding gases able to alter human consciousness and memory the closer you get to it), and Tarkovsky takes it as a starting point for all types of intellectual inquiries. The images are stunning, and the results are unique and masterful.
AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (Werner Herzog)
It took decades for the German cinema to once again make its mark on the world stage since the glory days of UFA in the 20’s and early 30’s. By 1972, the German New Wave had begun. Leading the charge was the irrascible and prolific Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Werner Herzog was right in the mix, and this gave Klaus Kinski (a previously little-known character actor) international attention. Ambitious and somewhat reckless, this gem was an indication of what we would be getting from both of them in the future.
EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX (But Were Afraid to Ask) (Woody Allen)
When Woody Allen bought the rights to the best-selling sex education book of the day, you just knew that the movie he’d make would be more than educational. It turned out to be hilarious. Keeping true to the format of the book, each segment begins with a question (i.e. “What is a fetish?”) The answers are pure Woody Allen.
FAT CITY (John Huston)
The New Hollywood was ruling the day in 1972, but the best of the old was not done yet. John Huston had a few good films left in him, and this is one of the best. Huston’s affinity for the outsider (usually desperate) is all over this beautifully realized drama of the boxing game, just under the level of success. Huston is simply great with actors, and just the right notes are hit by everyone, including the young Jeff Bridges.
FELLINI ROMA (Federico Fellini)
Who better to pay tribute to the city he loves than Fellini himself? In a series of highly entertaining episodes, Fellini explores the city’s past, present and future in his own inimitable way. He even takes a devastating shot at the Vatican.
THE HARDER THEY COME (Pery Henzell)
The greatest reggae movie ever made. Wait, how many are there? Well, with THE HARDER THEY COME, you don’t need any more. Shot on the streets and in the neighborhoods of Kingston, Jamaica during the golden days of reggae music, this low-budget legend made Jimmy Cliff an international star. Cliff’s original songs and the other featured music made the soundtrack album one of the best ever produced. (Check out the recent Anniversary CD edition including more reggae tunes from the era). It’s the best stuff outside of Bob Marley. Cliff stars as “Ivanhoe” Ivan Martin, who just wants to get his song recorded. He eventually does, but not before fate and the harsh realities of living in Shanty Town take their toll.
Perry Henzell’s film is the epitome of what an indie film should be. A passion project, authentic from its concept to its completion. The scene of the recording of the title tune in the crude but adequate studio of real-life producer Leslie Kong electrifies. It is the best advertisement for the glories of independent cinema.
THE HEARTBREAK KID (Elaine May)
In the year before, Elaine May had proved her chops in her debut, directing and starring in the almost-classic A NEW LEAF. Here she enlists Neil Simon as screenwriter, and delivers a deadpan drop-dead near-masterpiece of a guy who just wants a little more for his life. Everybody is perfect, from Charles Grodin as the consummate heel to May’s daughter, Jeannie Berlin as the ultimate victim. There are no broad strokes, no easy laugh-clues. Just like the funniest things in life.