best film: Apocalypse Now from Francis Ford Coppola
Apocalypse Now is second on my list of the greatest films of all-time so even in a year with Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, it is the best film of the year. The narrative, visual style, and audio design are all arguably the greatest in cinema history and every scene and set piece is tackled with unsurpassed ambition. I am blown away by something different every time I watch it, but currently I am caught up marveling at the use of editing dissolves and the doors musical bookends to the film—both the opening and finale could be the single greatest in cinema history (I think the only true rival is my actually #1 film- The Searchers).
- Coppola’s use of smoke as a visual device stuck out to me– so much dry ice/smoke is used in this movie. The colored usage during the Wagner score attack and used by the emcee after the Playboy bunnies’ dance. Atmospheric for sure. It seems like it’s the rare scene/set piece where it isn’t used.
- Synthesizer score. Of course, the film has a brilliant rock and roll soundtrack and I just mentioned the Wagner attack scene. You have Jim Morrison’s epic “The End” playing over the opening and finale. It’s devastating and, I think, the best two sequences of the film which would mean they rank amongst the greatest sequences in film history. You have the Stones “Satisfaction” and then “Susie Q” during the Bunnies’ dance. The simple guitar chord played while the boat finally arrives to Brando’s camp is tremendous as well. However, this time, I was blown away by the near Vangelis-like Blade Runner synthesizer score that plays in-between these other elements. It’s eerie and a splendid addition to the score/soundtrack and of course legendary sound mixing achievement.
- So successfully captures the lunacy of war
- Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro from The Conformist
- The opening sequence with the dissolves is really like montage that doesn’t fully cut. It so marvelously blends the helicopter and ceiling fan with the face of Sheen and the bombing of the jungle (which is either foreshadowing or a surrealism sequence—either way superb)
- It’s the greatest voice-over narration of all time with all due request to Taxi Driver, Clockwork Orange, Days of Heaven and Goodfellas amongst others – Sheen’s vocal work is so impressive- he’d do it again, albeit briefly, in the opening of 1991’s JFK from Oliver Stone
- No opening credits at all
- Duvall’s 11 minutes on screen (Oscar nom) are electric
- Alice in Wonderland similarities with set pieces, La Dolce Vita- the whole move is set piece to set piece) set up as well, Aguirre, Wizard of Oz
- The Madonna sequence in La Dolce Vita in comparison with the bunny sequence here. Lighting and spectacle while a criticism of those there
- Very, very busy sound design. The greatest sound design ever
- Frederick Forrest and Dennis Hopper are pitch perfect as well as the 4th and 5th best performances of the film
- The Do Lung bridge sequence… it’s an absolute visual jaw-dropping set piece
most underrated: Many are going to resent Herzog remaking a masterpiece in Nosfteratu – but if you can get past that- Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vamprye is the most underrated film of 1979. Kinski is the perfect actor to take on the eerie role of the vampire (Ebert famously said “to say of someone that they were born to play a vampire is a strange compliment…”- haha). Herzog’s work is a slow-burn take of unnerving and erotic beauty. I’m frankly blown away it still hasn’t found a home in the TSPDT consensus top 1000.
most overrated: The TSPDT consensus has done a fabulous job with their list for 1979- there isn’t much to complain about. I caught Hal Ashby’s Being There in early 2017 after many years since my list visit and wasn’t blown away by it. I admire it, the statement (it’s sort of an edgier, more politically aimed Forrest Gump) it’s making and the walking on water scene—but I’d be significantly lower than the #590 slot the TSPDT currently has it at so in a year when there really isn’t much to choose for this category- I’ll nitpick a little.
gems I want to spotlight: There are three here to single out—again, if you haven’t seen the films on the top 10 below- start there- but if you have, check out The Tin Drum, The Brood or Hardcore. For a generation of cinephiles a little older now, The Tin Drum is one of the first big foreign films they watched when getting into cinema. The Brood is Cronenberg still finding his footing but it is bizarre and lovely- it is his best film to date here in 1979. Lastly, Paul Schrader riffs on his Taxi Driver a little. He makes it even more personal setting it in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan with his Calvinist religious background.
trends and notables:
- 1979 may not have the depth some of the greatest years in cinema have- but the top three here can match any single year. It is the single best film from Coppola, Woody and Tarkovsky (my #7, #8 and #27 all-time directors).
- This is the peak period for Woody Allen- with Manhattan – this is three consecutive years with a top 10 film of the year
- Coppola is the leading story of the year- he faced financial ruin (and health issues) for this project and damn near lost his mind shooting in the jungle. After working quickly with The Godfather I and II in 1972 and 1974 and The Conversation in 1974 as well we had a five-year layoff— and he delivers with perhaps the greatest film of all-time
- Any year with a Tarkovsky film is a special year- event cinema
- George Miller has his first archiveable film with Mad Max. We talk about director’s debuts and peaks—well Miller’s best film would come in 2015— maybe you could look to like a Hitchcock or Ford for that happening where a director peaked that late. For Miller that’s 36 years after his debut. For Hitchcock his debut was 1925 so Vertigo is 33 years after. For Ford he was making films in 1917- and 1918 – silent films as Jack Ford so that’s 38 years after for The Searchers. I guess Terrence Malick is another one with 38 years between his debut and The Tree of Life. Still- very rare.
- For first timers in the archives as far as performances, with Mad Max we have Mel Gibson. Sigourney Weaver also counts here as well I think for Alien– she has a tiny, tiny, part in Annie Hall so I guess technically but this counts as her start here
- John Sayles’ Return of the Secaucus Seven is a noteworthy first archiveable film and debut behind the camera if you’re looking for another to add to Miller for 1979.
best performance male: Ok, so it’s not one of the best ten performances of all-time but Martin Sheen’s work in Apocalypse Now is more than just a vessel for the narrative and straight man for more colorful, talented, supporting actors from the great ensemble. Sheen should be praised for everything here from the physical stoic performance to the voice-over narrative work to the few scenes when he does emote. He is though, surrounded by a flurry of great supporting performance and here I’m going to mention on my list the work of Robert Duvall and Marlon Brando. Much has been made of the Brando performance for decades—some love it and some hate it (though I think there are fewer and fewer on this wrong side of the argument over time). It just think it’s just a mythic character and it requires such a presence and stature that you have to have Brando there and I personally think he knocks it out of the park. Another very easy choice for me is the work of Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy in Tarkovsky’s Stalker which I think is easily the best performance in the film. With all due respect to his work in Jaws, Roy Scheider’s work in All That Jazz stands above anything else he’s done in his career and deserves mention. Look at Scheider’s decade- he’s not De Niro, Pacino or Nicholson but he’s an important part of this movement. Lastly, Ken Ogata (later from Mishima) is haunting in Imaramu’s Vengeance is Mine as the lead Iwao Enokizuv.
best performance female: Mariel Hemingway is as good a place to start here as any for her work in Manhattan. She’s in two key scenes: the break-up scene—where you’re crushed for her—and the devastating finale. The great Fassbinder muse Hanna Schygulla has her finest hour on screen in The Marriage of Maria Braun. Sigourney Weaver’s breakout performance in Alien deserves a mention. Diane Keaton’s work in Manhattan is my fourth and final mention for this category in 1979. It is lesser than the other three mentioned previously but she also went without mention for her work in 1978’s Interiors so she is a little bit due here. Sadly, this would be her last collaboration with Woody until 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery.
- Apocalypse Now
- All That Jazz
- The Marriage of Maria Braun
- Vengeance is Mine
- Nosferatu the Vampyre
- Life of Brian
- The Black Stallion
Archives, Directors, and Grades
|Alien – R. Scott||MP|
|All the Jazz- Fosse||MS|
|And Justice For All- Jewison||R|
|Apocalypse Now – F. Coppola||MP|
|Being There- Ashby||HR|
|Breaking Away- Yates||R|
|Camera Buff – Kieslowski||R|
|Christ Stopped at Eboli – Rosi|
|Don Giovanni- Losey|
|Escape From Alcatraz- Siegel||R/HR|
|Kramer Vs. Kramer- Benton||R|
|Life of Brian- Jones||HR|
|Love on the Run- Truffaut||R|
|Mad Max- G. Miller||R|
|My Brilliant Career- Armstrong||R|
|Norma Rae- Ritt||R|
|North Dallas Forty- Kotcheff||R|
|Nosferatu the Vampyre – Herzog||HR|
|Phantasm – Coscarelli||R|
|Real Life- A. Brooks||R|
|Return of the Secaucus Seven- Sayles||R|
|Stalker – Tarkovsky||MP|
|Starting Over- Pakula||R|
|The Black Stallion- Ballard||HR|
|The Brood- Cronenberg||R|
|The China Syndrome-Bridges||R|
|The Europeans – Ivory||R|
|The Great Santini- Carlino||R|
|The Marriage of Maria Braun- Fassbinder||MS|
|The Tin Drum- Schlöndorff||R/HR|
|Vengeance Is Mine – Imamura||MS|
|Wise Blood- Huston||R|
|Woyzeck – Herzog|
*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
I’m glad you didn’t mention Streep and lowered your verdict on kramer vs. Kramer.
I knew, with time you’ll do this. On first viewing lt felt like a great movie but with further viewings I realized that there’s nothing much in it to appreciate other than fine screenplay and performances (Unlike marriage story which is visually ambitious and a supreme narrative achievement) .
A year where Stalker is only the 2nd best film😀
@James Trapp- haha seriously– two films from 1979. I’d be thrilled if we get one film the entire 2020’s decade as good.
I’m curious why Polanski’s Tess is only an R? It is full of breathtakingly beautiful shots, sort of a poor mans Barry Lyndon. It’s a sad tale and the narrative is painfully slow to develop at times but it’s an interesting performance from Nastassja Kinski who almost seems to underact at times but in a way that generally worked for me. It was photographed in France and is absolutely gorgeous. Definitely stands out as an odd duck in Polanski’s filmography but a lot to admire.
@James Trapp- Makes me excited to revisit Tess. I haven’t seen it in ages. I’ll try to prioritize it and seek it out.
I’ve been looking to do a Polanski study (though I’m not sure I’ll do him next) and Tess has been one I don’t think I’ll avoid whenever I do it, even though Drake has it as an R and TSPDT has it way back at like #5000. I remember Bong Joon-ho picked this up while he was in the Criterion Closet which started my interest in the film about a year-and-a-half ago, and I just wouldn’t be able to avoid it. What rating would you give it James?
@Zane – I gave it a 88/100 which probably translates to a HR maybe HR/MS by this sites grading system. I’ve only seen it once and am also looking to do a Polanski study soon as well. Just started Coppola so possibly after that. As for Tess, it’s an odd movie for Polanski, the atmosphere and setting is very different from any of his other films. But it’s absolutely gorgeous, amazing use of lighting, painterly images (a lesser Barry Lyndon). Very slow paced and a unique performance from Nastassja Kinski who seems to underact throughout but in a way that worked for me (hard to explain lol)
Some choice shots:
Looking at your best performance sections i wondered if you would ever make a 100 best performances list. Would love to know your picks
@Big chungus- That’s a good idea. Perhaps I’ll try to put something together after I finish the year by year archives
That would be awesome. I know youd probably have de niro in raging bull, ddl in there will be blood, emily watson and maria falconetti in top ten but i would love to know the rest. I would probably have brando in apocolypse now as a top 25 supporting performance by a male if i ever made a list
@Big chungus- a “supporting performance” list would be fun if it didn’t turn into a discussion about what is or isn’t supporting. That’s what makes it pretty much impossible
Thats true. I never thought about that. I guess something like ddl in gangs of new york walks a fine line between supporting and lead role. Nonetheless any best performance list you make would be solid. Just watched nights of cabiria for the first time and Giulietta Masinas performance in it is instantly one of my favourites. Loving the year by year archives though so keep up the good work 👍
@Big chungus- appreciate it, thank you!
Last Halloween I watched the original Nosferatu (1922) and Herzog’s version (1979) back to back. Loved both and made me wish Herzog had done more pure horror. Speaking of which what are some of the best horror films made by directors who don’t normally specialize in the genre? The most obvious example I can think of is The Shining.
@James Trapp- I could be wrong but I think The Exorcist is the only horror film made by William Friedkin.
Sheen is good but I think that Pacino would have smash this.
Apocalypse Now remains the best movie ever IMHO.
How do you evaluate Martin Sheen’s performance in Apocalypse Now in comparison to say De Niro in Deer Hunter Or Roy Scheider in All That Jazz?
Sheen is in a better film but De Niro and Scheider’s films are more dependent upon acting than Sheen’s film. Even Sheen’s other big film (Badlands) is more dependent on his acting than Apocalypse Now.
I personally think Sheen’s performance in Apocalypse Now is the single most underrated male performance in cinema history. Almost never gets talked about.
@M*A*S*H- Sheen is superb in Apocalypse Now – multiple viewings and close study reward it (there is just so much going on and so much to praise in those first viewings)