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’m 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.

When I mentioned Coppola on my top 100 directors of all-time countdown I talked about 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 leant more highly on the use of the dissolve edit.

the infinitely poetic marrying of two images via the dissolve edit

  • 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

Brando is an important piece of casting (despite the weight gain—which I think Coppola does a masterful job of shooting around—it may have even made these scenes more creative somehow- like he’s a disembodied head)—the role needs grandeur—magnitude —to a lesser extend the Brad Pitt character in The Asassination of Jesse James needs a star as well- Welles in The Third Man

  • 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, AguirreWizard 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.

the justifiably well-known finale in Hal Ashby’s Being There

 

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.

from Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum

 

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

from Woody Allen’s Manhattan– an enchanting use of Gershwin music and black and white photography

a jaw-dropping shot– full use of the wide 2.39 : 1 aspect ratio

over the years, probably because he has made so many mediocre movies, Allen has lost the reputation for being a brilliant visual filmmaker– but those in doubt of his talent should watch Manhattan

Woody shoots this sequence like Antonioni would (L’Eclisse) — there is a literal divide between the characters- utterly brilliant.

This is part of Allen at this point in 1979- he would shoot the ending of Annie Hall much in the same style  and shot choice

 

  • 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

from Tarkovsky’s Stalker

the formal/visual divide between the two worlds– I actually prefer the photography (I mean look at this) in the desaturated portion of the film that depicts  “the real world” over the  the more colorful “The Zone” sections.

part of Tarkovsky’s visual style is the repeated use of high angle to capture an inordinate amount of the ground as part of the frame– using the design of the ground as part of the sort of background mise-en-scene

…water, mud, distressed building design– meticulously constructed

stunning work- worthy of being called one of cinema’s greatest artist’s greatest film

from The Marriage of Maria Braun – RW Fassbinder is firing during this period in the late 1970’s.  It isn’t only that he’s prolific, he’s prolific and brilliant – with top 10 films in 1972, 1974, 1975, 1978 and 1979. He’s not done yet either. The Tin Drum is probably my #11 film below so that makes for three of the top 11 coming from Germany as well.

foreground/background focus in Fassbinder’s film- one of his strongest to date

…repetition used in the frame design

  • 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,

who can possibly doubt Coppola’s decision to reshoot much of the film with Martin Sheen in the lead?

Roy Scheider plays Joe Gideon- basically a stand-in figure for Fosse himself

Imamura captures Ken Ogata in his exactingly built frames here in Vengeance is Mine

 

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.

Hanna Schygulla in the finest acting performance in a Fassbinder film to date in 1979

Sigourney Weaver’s work in Ridley Scott’s Alien is one of the finest of the year

 

top 10

  1. Apocalypse Now
  2. Stalker
  3. Manhattan
  4. Alien
  5. All That Jazz
  6. The Marriage of Maria Braun
  7. Vengeance is Mine
  8. Nosferatu the Vampyre
  9. Life of Brian
  10. The Black Stallion

 

Carroll Ballard made beautifully photographed (the cinematographer is Caleb Deschanel here) films with animals playing a central role– this from The Black Stallion

from Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine– the mise-en-scene work is exceptional- better than almost everything out there but it is dialed back from The Pornographers, I’m guessing to make room for the procedural narrative (which is very engaging)

a beautiful dream-like sequence from again from Imamura’s work

from Fosse’s All That Jazz

a immaculately arranged shot here– strong lighting work

Ridley Scott’s patient masterpiece

few auteurs and films draw serious comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001 like Ridley Scott and Alien 

a sublime cast here to compliment Weaver– Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt

 

 

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
Hair- Forman R
Hardcore- Schrader R
Kramer Vs. Kramer- Benton R
Life of Brian- Jones HR
Love on the Run- Truffaut R
Mad Max- G. Miller R
Manhattan- Allen MP
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
Tess- Polanski 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