Francis Ford Coppola. I have to go full-name here with the rise of Sofia in the last twenty years. There are only a total of 10 archiveable films for Coppola (which is low for this ranking) and 3 are simple “recommends” (not top 10 of the year worthy).  So, the case for Coppola isn’t his depth- the case for Coppola is his masterpieces, in particular, having freaking The Godfather Part II (my #24 of all-time) as his 3rd best film. Coppola owns the 70’s—the most artistically fertile decade for American films (the 60’s being that for foreign films). He has the #1, #3, #4 and #22 best films of the decade. He could never match his 70’s output but in the last decade I’ve discovered his 80’s films—One From the Heart, Rumble Fish and The Cotton Club in particular and they’re superb. For years I had the theory that he just died out there artistically in the jungle making his masterpiece Apocalypse Now but that theory flies out the window when his 80’s output includes 3 films that rank as the best 100 of the 1980’s- one more than either Spielberg and Scorsese. I’ll get to it below but between the parallel editing montages at the finales and the use of dissolves—he’s one of cinema’s greatest editors. His best films are both narratively and stylistically ambitious—operatic.

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imagery- camera position and devastating guitar score in one of Apocalypse Now’s greatest scenes

Best film:  Apocalypse Now. For years this was my #1 film of all-time and usually after I see it again, I think I should put it back there. It is slowly gaining traction amongst critics out there over the years as Coppola’s best film (sight and sound had it above The Godfather for the first time in their 2012 poll). Maybe there’s something in my brain that likes a search narrative for a person/man (The Searchers). Weird. The final bull slaughtering sequence and how I was one of the better editing sequences in cinema history. I think I’ll just have to add the entire film. Have you ever noticed just how many long dissolves there are in this film? I mean the opening has one, the finale has one, and there are just a ton in between. It’s extremely effective and beautiful and I wish more films used this. I can’t recall a film that leaned more highly on the use of the dissolve edit. The smoke as a visual is Coppola designing mise-en-scene like a painter—it’s incredibly prevalent here. So many singular images to capture- amongst the best of them are the creative ways he lights Brando

Brando’s weight may have been a blessing– Coppola lights him in creative ways– Coppola’s use of smoke throughout Apocalypse Now

total archiveable films: 10

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the doorway ending of The Godfather – perfection in framing and shot-reverse-shot
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use of sound design– accentuated train noise and a popped cork add to Pacino’s acting to make a perfect scene- the best in the Godfather

top 100 films: 3 (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II)

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creatively shot dialogue scene in The Godfather
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wall-art photography, framing, and background images

top 500 films:  6 (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Rumble Fish, One from the Heart)

In The Godfather Part II this scene, the end montage, and the roof stalking scene are the three best– but the runners-up are endless

top 100 films of the decade: 7 (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Rumble Fish, One from the Heart, The Cotton Club)

jaw-droppingly beautiful imagery

most overrated:  Nothing here on TSPDT— 5 films in the top 1000 and the placements are close to mine. There’s really only one in the context of ranking his oeuvre. TSPDT has The Godfather Part III as his 5th best film and that’s not correct—not to anyone who has put eyes on Rumble Fish.  

most underrated:  … it’s Rumble Fish. I can’t find 151 better films and it’s not on the TSPDT top 1000—that’s bull. This as his 5th best film is another strength of Coppola. Despite having less than half the archiveable films of Scorsese (22 to 10)— Coppola’s 5th best film is better Scorsese’s (Casino)—kind of Interesting. Rumble Fish is a 94-minute visual exercise.  Coppola’s imagery has never been avant-garde- a real treat to watch him push the envelope and create wall-art worthy images galore in crisp black and white.

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Coppola pairs crisp b/w photography with Wellesian angles and difference lenses– his most experimental work
a perfect highlight use of color a decade before Schindler’s List

gem I want to spotlight:  One From the Heart. It’s a very simple story (fatally so for many critics) told in pure style- extremely experimental visually—just like Rumble Fish (all hail Coppola’s 1980’s!). It’s a marvel of artificial lighting (set on the strip in Vegas) and sound-stage work—some great Venetian blinds scenes—it reminds me of the play scenes in Paul Schrader’s Mishima and some of the neon light work we’d see in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. One From the Heart is shot by Vittorio Storaro- one of the masters. The entire film is jaw-dropping oner long-takes and spectacular lighting. The whole movie seems to float like few films since or before it (perhaps La La Land, Birdman, Boogie Nights, Gravity, and a few before like Rules of the Game, The Shining, Rope– you lose yourself).

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One From the Heart — an essay on lighting and color

stylistic innovations/traits: Ambition—heightened visuals and audio design—I know that’s incredibly broad so let me try to break it down. First of all, like many of the other auteurs at this level, Coppola can do it all. He’s a great writer (The Godfather and Godfather Part II in particular are as well written as anything else in cinema history) but then he can turn around and make top 500 of all-time films like Rumble Fish and One From the Heart that aren’t particularly great screenplays—pure visual entries—fantastic. Parallel editing is what I think about first and foremost with Francis Ford.  He has great editing in parallel action sequences in his two big masterpieces. The killing of Brando in Apocalypse Now and the hits during the baptism in The Godfather are two of the best edited and wonderful scenes or film segments in the history of cinema. He mirrors those in the big unveil in The Conversation as the riddle is solved, as well as the Fredo/murder montage in Part II, and the conclusion of The Cotton Club- (the murder montage here is paired with a great musical performance in edit).  Coppola is the master of the dissolve edit—god I love it. How about his sound design work with the helicopter blending into the ceiling fan in Apocalypse Now or the elevated train noise and wine cork going off at the Italian restaurant when Pacino’s Michael murders Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) and McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) in The Godfather. The Conversation (that opening!) is an entire film about sound design. The photography in Rumble Fish and Apocalypse Now in particular—stunning-gorgeous imagery. The Godfather Part II is an epic—meticulous production design, sets, extras. One From the Heart is a tour-de-force of lighting—and you can’t mention lighting without mentioning what he and Gordon Willis did in The Godfather and Part II. Coppola’s narratives and themes play out almost like Greek tragedies- the Corleone family saga first and foremost. Certainly putting his own stamp on the material whether he’s adapting Conrad (Apocalypse Now) or Antonioni (The Conversation).

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mise-en-scene brilliance to create a paranoia effect in The Conversation
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the dissolve edit from Francis Ford Coppola

top 10

  1. Apocalypse Now
  2. The Godfather
  3. The Godfather Part II
  4. The Conversation
  5. Rumble Fish
  6. One from the Heart
  7. The Cotton Club
  8. The Godfather Part III
  9. Bram Stroker’s Dracula
  10. Tucker: A Man and His Dream
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metaphor in The Conversation– a man, and room, deconstructed

By year and grades

1972- The Godfather MP
1974- The Conversation MP
1974- The Godfather Part II MP
1979- Apocalypse Now MP
1981- One from the Heart MS
1983- Rumble Fish MP
1984- The Cotton Club HR
1988- Tucker: A Man and His Dream R
1990- The Godfather Part III R
1992- Bram Stroker’s Dracula R

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives