20 Movies to Kill For

We know we should love Taxi Driver, but it's just like one of those people sleep with. At least not twice. Same goes for The Godfather. Apocalypse Now movies of the 70s. Some of our choices may be disreputable, but we do love you respect and don't and a lot of the "best" the following 20 movies.

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A CLOCKWORK ORANGE

Unlike Stanley Kubrick's earlier film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which seems far less revolutionary now than it felt upon release, A Clockwork Orange has gotten more radical over the years since it was first released. This adaptation of Anthony Burgess's novel about London in an overdecorated, undersensitized future was plenty shocking in 1971, but it was even more mind-boggling than shocking; its over-the-top choreographed "ultraviolence," so exuberantly shot to a score of exquisite Beethoven, set the degradations of the 20th century against the heights of the early 19th century in a way that popped one's circuit breakers and veiled the full force of horror.

In 1993, when Clockwork's prophetic accuracy is unmistakable--high-style gangs of serenely sociopathic, violence-addicted boys on drugs; tyrannized, impotent parents; systematically brutal, homosexually repressed legal authorities; arrogant, isolated rich people--the film is absolutely frightening. At the alarming heart of it all is the turn-of-the-millennium savage Alex, played by baby-faced, blue-eyed Malcolm McDowell, who delivers in full on Kubrick's stroke-of-genius casting decision. Alex and his "droogs" visit mayhem on the unprotected--that includes just about everyone--not with a mere lack of conscience, or with the anger of the misunderstood adolescent, but with a maniacal zest.

The thing is, he's the most attractive character in the movie. Everyone else is stupid, nasty, narrow or self-serving as they try to deal with Alex. Why watch a movie about this, you ask, especially when you might get carjacked on the way home from the video store?

First, because nowhere else can you experience all this awful truth unaccompanied by pieties, simplifications, melodrama, self-righteousness or false solutions. That freedom alone is dizzying. Second, Kubrick's filmmaking is deliberately, fabulously thrilling; it excites you while refraining from dictating your responses to its ideas. (Bad directors don't know how to make you feel anything; good directors can make you feel what they want you to feel; only great directors let you feel what you want to feel.) You need the exhilaration and dark laughter Clockwork provokes to deal with the quandary it paints for you. The same information is, after all, in the newspaper, where it is met with denial.

McCABE AND MRS. MILLER

Though the notion that the Wild West had been ruined by the coming of "progress" was pretty much old hat in 1971--Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch had already mined that ore--Robert Altman used just such a story line in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. But in combining that relatively new cliche with the oldest one known to Westerns--that of the dim yet amiable cowpoke and his sinful yet saintly saloon gal--Altman created a vision of the American frontier that was completely original.

Altman's West is filled with daydreamers who can't quite stay one step ahead of their fate, and drug addicts who've already met theirs. In short, McCabe was the first Western to say that life then was amazingly like life now. This was a daring stance for a commercial movie, especially one that was the eagerly anticipated vehicle for two of the biggest stars of the day, Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. Yet, no doubt responding to Altman's intimate, quirky approach, Beatty and Christie both worked at the top of their form, giving performances that are among their best.

Beatty is the small-time operator whose life is changed when Christie, a hooker with a cash register for a heart, blows into the tiny town he's building. Soon, despite their different styles--he's all charm, she's all business--they are partners, then lovers. This is not a match made in heaven, as Beatty and Christie's sparring duets make clear. Even so, as Christie witheringly puts down Beatty's dreams, she allows us to see that she's well aware she is becoming central to them. When "progress" eventually rears its ugly head, we know that dreamer Beatty will not adapt to it, as surely as we recognize that realist Christie will. The bittersweet tug-of-war between what we want to have happen, and what we know will doubtless occur, makes the film a haunting love story.

The finale, in which the two characters demonstrate their respective ability to deal with change--Beatty staggers slowly around in the snow in a gun fight he cannot hope to win while Christie withdraws from the world into opium hallucinations--is one of the greatest, and saddest, closing sequences in movie history.

THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH

If you imagine space aliens to be bald, wrinkled, long-necked, benevolent creatures who like to hang out with pudgy children, then go watch E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial again. It's a fine film. But if the projection of your particular alienation (isn't that what aliens are?) is a pale, starving, neurasthenic loner who watches too much television, then perhaps The Man Who Fell to Earth is more your speed. The public at large hadn't the faintest idea what to make of this film when it was released in 1976. That bogglement might have been explained by the fact that 20 minutes were chopped from director Nicolas Roeg's film, except that it turns out the missing footage (now restored on the great Criterion laserdisc) involves a scene in which an aged, barely-clothed Candy Clark and a full-frontally-nude David Bowie bounce up and down on a bed drunkenly firing a gun.

Needless to say, that doesn't clarify much. Which is okay, because the dislocations and ambiguities of The Man Who Fell to Earth that seemed so weird in the '70s were all deliberately architected by Roeg to parallel the enormous inner queasiness that had overtaken our existence. Now that we as a culture have fallen as surely as Bowie's alien Thomas Newton--whose problems include anorexia, separation from nuclear family, alcoholism, workaholism, media saturation, agoraphobia, big government, technological betrayal and dyed hair--The Man Who Fell to Earth reads pretty clearly.

The film is remarkable for the way it, unlike almost all science fiction, has not dated, which is partly because of its intelligent design. The throwaway cameras that were such a cool idea in '76 have been a reality for years now; Newton's mode of dress--plain suits with buttoned collars and no tie--became David Lynch's and then much of Hollywood's late '80s style; the techno-Southwestern-Oriental style of Newton's life combined looks that dominate now.

Ultimately, though, the quality that will keep The Man Who Fell to Earth timely for a long time is its view of what ails us: Newton comes to Earth on his mysterious mission (never fully explained), armed with his own civilization's advanced technologies, many of them for devices that enhance perception--telescopes, microscopes, cameras, etc.--and he ends up getting betrayed by one of his own instruments, which is now being wielded by earthlings who are blinder than ever.

FIVE EASY PIECES

As is always the case in road movies, Jack Nicholson's Bobby Dupea travels many a mile in Five Easy Pieces, but director Bob Rafelson's 1970 film is one of those rare road movies which delivers on the genre's promise of movement over emotional topography, too. Screenwriter Carole Eastman, using the pen name Adrien Joyce, was a longtime friend of Nicholson's, and her creation for him--the freewheeling, yet joyless, Bobby--gave the actor ample room to demonstrate his formidable chops as a brilliant pianist who has tried, but failed, to drop out of the genteel society in which he was raised.

As Nicholson and his blue-collar waitress girlfriend, Karen Black, head north to visit the damaged family from which Nicholson is estranged, they pick up a pair of cleanliness-obsessed female hitchhikers, which leads to the film's justly famous sequence in which Nicholson lays into a hash-house waitress who gives him a hard time. But that's just one of many droll scenes in the sad, funny screenplay that is the solid foundation for the greatness of Five Easy Pieces. For example, in just one sentence, Nicholson makes mincemeat of haughty, humorless Susan Anspach after she's all but swooned upon hearing him play the piano: "I faked a little Chopin," he snarls, "you faked a big response."

In point of fact, Nicholson's character knows a great deal about faking it; the problem of lying-- to others, but especially to oneself--is at the heart of Eastman's portrait of this disaffected contemporary everyman. Although Bobby finds he's unable to run away from his past, his heritage, or his obligations, he remains nevertheless hellbent on trying, again and again. ("My character in Five Easy Pieces was written by a woman who knew me very well," Nicholson once said.) Five Easy Pieces stands as a testimony to the enormous talents of Eastman, Nicholson and director Bob Rafelson; and the movie that this trio created last year, Man Trouble, reminds us how fragile such talent is, or perhaps how special the '70s were for talented filmmakers, or both.

THE DEER HUNTER

This film was a bombshell when it was released in 1978. Up until then, the national self-hatred over the debacle of Vietnam had resulted in a political correctness code, expressed in popular media, that suggested that the United States as a whole might be considered something of an Evil Empire pursuing colonialism in Southeast Asia, that Ho Chi Minh could be regarded as a heroic freedom fighter, and that the U.S. soldiers who willingly volunteered could be thought of as grimly unenlightened, if not bloodthirsty.

The Deer Hunter presented a passionately divergent view with its story of what happens to three friends from an immigrant Russian community in Pennsylvania who go to Vietnam out of a basic sense of duty. John Savage, as the weakest of the group, is physically ravaged; Christopher Walken, as the most sensitive, is psychologically destroyed; and Robert De Niro, as the most controlled and naturally heroic, survives.

When the community of friends gathers at the end after a funeral and sings a sad, but un-ironic, "God Bless America," some critics of the late '70s were genuinely shocked: that's how little understanding of veterans and of the broader national experience was in the media consciousness of the day. Since Cimino went on to Olympian hubris with Heaven's Gate, and was unlucky enough to have his exploits detailed in an extremely well-written and popular book called Final Cut, and, worse, failed to ever again suggest the vision that fueled the Oscar-winning Deer Hunter, it's easy to look back on this film ungenerously. And its story always did suffer from notable strains of coincidence and improbability. But the performances, by De Niro, Walken, Savage and a virtually unknown Meryl Streep, are lit up with conviction, and Cimino's radical story structure, which dawdles lovingly over life in the steel mill town and jump-cuts through the horror of Vietnam, still surprises purposefully.

The famous, hair-raising torture scene in which the Vietcong force American soldiers to play Russian roulette (back when the film was released, there was a lot of criticism that nothing like this ever actually happened), remains a potent metaphor for the whole Vietnam experience. Is this film as great today as it seemed to many in '78? Maybe not. It's still very good, and still important.

BADLANDS

Producer/director/writer Terrence Malick is a master ironist, and though he has only directed two films, Badlands and Days of Heaven, both rely heavily on the same timeworn, and essentially literary, device that lesser filmmakers cannot pull off successfully: an expressionless voice reads dead-on narration of the very events we're watching. This is the key to how Malick manages to distance the viewer from the hyped-up, borderline cornball melodramatics of his story lines.

Though Badlands is the horrifying saga of a pair of misfits who go on a cross-country killing spree, the 1973 film takes on a cooly comical tone thanks to Sissy Spacek's line readings on the soundtrack of such asides as: "We had our bad moments, like any couple. Kit accused me of only being along for the ride, while at times I wished he'd fall in the river and drown, so I could watch." Spacek's character is both romantic and stupid; Badlands is neither. As entertaining as it is bleak, the movie clearly expresses Malick's frightening worldview--average Americans are capable of, literally, anything--and the filmmaker underscores the fear behind the notion that teenager Spacek has run off with psycho Martin Sheen because there's nothing better to do by laying the thinnest veneer of "normal" behavior over the pair's later, monstrous acts. In one of the many wry, yet nightmarish scenes in the film, when Sheen shoots a good friend and the man is dying, Spacek asks, "Is he upset?" This will make you shiver, if you don't burst out laughing.

HAIR

Milos Forman's imaginative, smart and sweet-spirited Hair bombed at the box office in 1979. The disinterest with which it was greeted might have been a problem of timing: by 1979 the high hopes and ecstatic exuberance of the '60s, of which the 1968 Broadway production Hair was a signal expression, had been so thoroughly eviscerated that looking backward was just too galling and depressing for most people to handle.

Too bad, because Forman came up with a terrific strategy for adapting the stage musical, giving it a simple, effective little plot and a corps of endearing main characters, as well as bringing in the brilliant Twyla Tharp to choreograph the hippies through the trippy tumblings and fallings and wheelings of the revivified musical numbers. As someone whose own country, Czechoslovakia, had experienced a period of liberation that was brought to an end by a Soviet invasion in 1968, Forman was able to invest his telling of the complicated popular/political/spiritual uprising of the '60s in the United States with far more perspective, insight, and moral authority than any American filmmaker could have.

Ultimately, Hair succeeds on its visual magic, which conveys the great joy that allowed everybody to get so fatuous and caring and narcissistic and selfless in the '60s. The zingy dada of the lyrics to Hair's addictive score is supported by such memorable images as police horses breaking into dance in Central Park, lead hippie Treat Williams swinging on the chandelier at a stuffy Connecticut debutante party, and pregnant bride Beverly D'Angelo walking on air in country boy John Savage's first acid trip. Best of all is the exquisite, heartbreaking rendition of "Easy To Be Hard" by Cheryl Barnes, a solo that points up the pain that was caused when hippies skipped out on their responsibilities in pursuit of "fun."

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Comments

  • Terry says:

    Enjoyable read. Interesting, as always, to see how younger generations react to films of the past. The comment on Sunday Bloody Sunday (no comma) was exceptionally well-written, as were the comments on A Clockwork Orange. Will we ever see their likes again? I so wish younger people would give foreign films more of a look: there are gems out there, they just don't seem to get made in this country right now.

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