Top Ten Movies: 1971

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By 1971, the American New Wave brandished and wielded into an antithetical “screw you old-Hollywood” defiance that was as unshaken as it was uncompromising. Rage and gunfire superseded stealth, recklessly blowing the staunch lid off le cinéma de papa. Fists first in blind fury. Straw Dogs and rape warped. A Clockwork Orange and violence operatic. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song giving the finger to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? With a new administration at hand on this bleak inaugural day, this may be a Duel-induced ride we’re going to be shifting fast gear on. And so my number one, revisionist as all get out, plays for the team but on its own terms. How do you go about radicalizing the already violent? The Ballad of the Green Beret conservative call to action with combustion back? By placing a flower in the smoking barrel. McCabe and Mrs. Miller recedes the western into placidity. It disrobes the ideal to expose the human. It’s elegiac about the loss of battle rather than harboring on its gratified ferocity in victory. This mature sentiment has always kept it as my number one in a year unprecedented with quality, and I’ve no doubt it’ll stay that way for a very long time.

1. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman)
2. Out 1 (Jacques Rivette)
3. The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich)
4. The Go-Between (Joseph Losey) and Two English Girls (Francois Truffaut)
5. The Merchant of Four Seasons (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
6. Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman)
7. Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby)
8. The Ceremony (Nagisa Oshima)
9. The Devils (Ken Russell) and Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff)
10. WR: Mysteries of the Organism (Dušan Makavejev)

Up to this point, I’ve had a very difficult time omitting films with each and every entry. But this year here, this one takes the cake. There’s Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, a deeply fascinating portrayal about two driven-down souls meeting in the shadows of their own demons. Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout and Jan Troell’s The Emigrants, those movie rarities that miraculously manage to encompass their nations. Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, an admitted trudge that becomes part of its amplitude. Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand, another poem in the western prose. And while we’re at it, master poet Jean Renoir also had The Little Theater of Jean Renoir. Then there’s William Friedkin’s The French Connection, that surprising Oscar-baiter which would have been relegated to B status fifteen years before. The black-and-white forgotten anti-war Trumbo passion project Johnny Got His Gun. Elaine May establishing her own kind of humor in A New Leaf. But wait! It keeps going! Mike Hodges’ Get Carter, Miklós Jancsó’s Red Psalm, Duck, You Sucker!, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Trafic, Vanishing Point, Carnal Knowledge!

I would, however, like to give a special nod to Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood for elevating their own blend of the thriller genre to even greater heights with Dirty Harry, Play Misty for Me, and a personal favorite of mine, The Beguiled. Good job, guys! This was truly their year.

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Top Ten Movies: 1956

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When thinking of 1956 and all of the continuous, ceremonious even, praise for The Searchers, I almost hesitate to place it as my number one. Do I really love John Ford’s often cited magnum opus because of a lack of my own peripheral vision muddled with a sort of cinephile status quo? Or do I genuinely think of this film as, and here I go and say it, one of the greatest achievements in the cinema? The answer, of course, is listed below. If there is any indication of the “Great American Novel” transferred to film, my argument is that yes, it has already been achieved, and yes, it was done by the sanctified cinematic duo of John Ford and John Wayne. If you trace back Ford’s filmography, you can see him actually cover every groundbreaking moment in American history. From the War of Independence (Drums Along the Mohawk), to the Civil War (The Horse Soldiers), all the way up to the Great Depression (The Grapes of Wrath) and beyond. So it’s quite the statement to be made then when he introduced a staple in his mythology, in this case the All-American Hero, and stripped away the romantic varnish of its purity. Ethan Edwards is his protagonist but he’s hurdles away from being a saint. Ethan’s clung to all of the ugliness that has tinged the nation’s past and has displayed it for the Eisenhower generation to digest along with their popcorn and drinks. Here’s a genre historically steeped in controversy over its archaic racist depictions and overlooked misogyny. And here’s the flag-bearing director of said genre’s success forcing audiences to question their previous acceptance of the western’s conventions. That’s quite the pill to swallow but quite the courageous leap for Ford to make creatively. So at #1 The Searchers goes.

1. The Searchers (John Ford)
2. A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson)
3. Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk)
4. Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray)
5. Flowing (Mikio Naruse)
6. Seven Men from Now (Budd Boetticher)
7. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel) and Bob le flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville)
8. Street of Shame (Kenji Mizoguchi)
9. The Girl Can’t Help It (Frank Tashlin) and Baby Doll (Elia Kazan)
10. Calle Mayor (Juan Antonio Bardem)

1956 also happened to be a spectacular year for melodrama. Aside from the aforementioned Written on the Wind, Bigger Than Life, and Baby Doll, there was also Robert Aldrich’s Autumn Leaves and Douglas Sirk’s There’s Always Tomorrow; movies that really pulled away at the patterned curtains and into the American hypocrisy of its domestic complacency. And what an inspired momentum Sirk had with that! Melodrama overseas included Japan’s Flowing and Street of Shame, two wonderful and would-have-been labeled “woman’s pictures” that hold up beautifully today; the latter also the final outing by the ingenuously talented and deeply empathetic Kenji Mizoguchi. Spain had the Betsy Blair tug-at-your-heartstrings Calle Mayor, a gem desperate for rediscovery, and I almost gave the tenth spot to Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito, the second in his brilliant Apu Trilogy installment.

Others hovering near the end also include Kubrick’s first solid masterwork The Killing, Robert Aldrich’s biting and sneering war drama Attack!, Vadim and Bardot really digging each other in And God Created Woman, and Fritz Lang’s seething noir, as if he knew how to do anything else, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. Then there’s the colors in John Huston’s Moby Dick, and that and just about everything else in Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet. Oh! And Hitchcock had two perfect Hitchcock pictures in The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Wrong Man, warming up for the work he had in store ahead.