Monday, November 26, 2007

No. 43 - California Split

George Segal is Bill, an anal retentive, overly cautious magazine writer who has recently separated from his wife due to a gambling addiction. Elliott Gould is Charlie, a happy-go-lucky cardsharp who lives with two call girls. Bill and Charlie happen to occupy the same table at a Los Angeles poker club, and a brief but intense friendship begins. They win big at the track, blow it all at the poker tables, then split for Reno, where they pool their respective savings for a climactic high-stakes poker game. In the end, winning big turns out to be an empty experience.

Robert Altman's California Split expertly captures both the euphoria and the seediness of the professional gambler's lifestyle. Altman was known to gamble in his free time, and he understands the rush of taking crazy risks.

Altman refuses to ratchet up the tension in a conventional way. He simply kicks back and observes with an air of detachment and an eye for atmosphere and characterization. He is the master of the telling detail that is plucked out of a densely layered mise en scene. He also lets Segal and Gould fully explore their respective characters. Altman has always favored the details of characterization over the demands of dramaturgy. Even so, by the time the final poker match rolls around, we are drawn into the story and we feel the tension, the elation and the let-down of risking it all, playing and winning.

Fun fact: Steven Spielberg was attached to this film, before Altman came on board. Also, Jeff Goldblum made his film debut here (Goldblum is one of many noteworthy actors who were discovered by Altman).

The final poker match was filmed at the Mapes Hotel in my home town of Reno. The Mapes was imploded in 2000, so it's nice to see it captured on film.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

No. 42 - Cannonball

A year after his cult classic Death Race 2000, director Paul Bartel returned to the highway with his 1976 car-chase epic Cannonball. Once again, David Carradine returns to the driver's seat, and he's competing in a California to New York cross-country race. Carradine plays "Cannonball" Buckman, a fast driver who needs to win the prize money to get his brother out of hock with mobsters.

Bill McKinney, the hillbilly rapist in Deliverance, is Cade Redman, Carradine's venal arch-rival. Other racers are portrayed by Robert Carradine, Bartel veteran Mary Woronov, Gerritt Graham and Dick Miller. Martin Scorsese and Sylvester Stallone appear in a scene together playing goombah flunkies.

Cannonball was written by Don Simpson, who later attained fame co-producing Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop with Jerry Bruckheimer. Five years later, The Cannonball Run would use a very similar concept in depicting a coast-to-coast race. Another cross-country race film, The Gumball Rally, was released the same summer as Cannonball.

Sylvester Stallone sidebar: Stallone graduated from thug roles in Prisoner of Second Avenue, Farewell My Lovely and Bananas to become a huge star with Rocky, then he wrote, directed and starred in 1978's Paradise Alley, a movie about wrestlers in which Stallone warbled the theme song "Too Close To Paradise" over the opening credits (a song which he also wrote).

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

No. 41 - Bad Sequels

The 70's saw its share of sequels. After The Godfather Part II won the Best Picture Oscar, sequels were no longer considered disreputable. The floodgates were opened, and the deluge has yet to subside.

Here are some of the more noteworthy sequels:

The Trial of Billy Jack: Remember the famous book 50 Worst Films of All Time? This film made the list. Tom Laughlin also wrote, produced, directed and starred in Billy Jack Goes to Washington, which barely got released. Other Laughlin productions included The Master Gunfighter, in which Laughlin attempted to play a taciturn Eastwood type of anti-hero, with dismal results. Worst of all was Train Ride to Hollywood, one of the unfunniest comedies of the decade.

Beyond the Poseidon Adventure: Michael Caine began his habit of doing five movies a year just for the paycheck with this Irwin Allen disaster flick, a needless sequel to the classic Poseidon Adventure. Caine had previously starred in Allen's 1978 killer bee movie, The Swarm. He would go on to appear in one of the sequels to Jaws, and eventually won two Oscars. This was Sally Field's first movie after her Oscar-winning turn in Norma Rae.

Butch and Sundance: The Early Days: The characters were killed in the first one, and Redford and Newman were unavailable, so Fox invented the prequel with this Richard Lester film. William Kaat and Tom Berenger fill in for Newman and Redford. Years later, George Lucas took the prequel concept and gave us Episode I, featuring Jar Jar Binks.

Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat: Ralph Bakshi's lack of involvement in this sequel to Fritz the Cat didn't keep AIP from releasing it to drive-ins back in 1974.

Walking Tall Trilogy: The first Walking Tall was a crudely effective redneck classic. Joe Don Baker was great as tough Sheriff Buford Pusser. Then, the inevitable Part Two: Walking Tall was released, with Bo Svenson replacing Joe Don Baker. Pusser's demise at the end of the second film didn't prevent the production of a third installment, Final Chapter: Walking Tall. Then came the remake, Nine Lives of Buford.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

No. 40 - Sextette

Mae West was the Queen of Camp, and she went out with a bang in 1978's Sextette. Based upon West's original script, Sextette stars West as an aging sex siren loosely based on herself. She still enjoys the attention of numerous male admirers (including a pre-Bond Timothy Dalton). She still delivers sexually tinged zingers -- "It's not the men in my life, it's the life in my men."

My, what a cast. Dom DeLuise brings his own campy energy to the proceedings, as he sings The Beatles' Honey Pie. West and Dalton duet on the Captain and Tennille's Love Will Keep Us Together. 70's rock superstars Alice Cooper, Ringo Starr and Keith Moon pop up, along with such noteworthy names as George Hamilton, George Raft, Regis Philbin and gossip maven Rona Barrett. Tony Curtis, who has made several unwitting appearances in Damon Packard's films, is another Hollywood legend who shows up in Sextette.

Barely released in 1978, Sextette proved to be a difficult film to market. It survives today as a great camp artifact of the 70's.

For further Mae West campiness, rent 1970's Myra Breckenridge, which co-stars Raquel Welch, a camp icon in her own right.

No. 39 - Liza With a Z

Bob Fosse won an Oscar (for directing Cabaret), a Tony (for Pippin) and an Emmy, all in the same year, 1973. His Emmy was for directing the TV special Liza With a Z, a one-woman show featuring 70's icon Liza Minnelli.

Liza puts on quite a show, one hour's worth of song and dance routines. She belts out the blues standard God Bless The Child by herself, then is joined by a chorus of dancers for I Gotcha and Son of a Preacher Man. Fosse's flamboyant choreography and staging are complemented by Minnelli's live-wire energy level.

Minnelli would later camp it up in Stanley Donen's Lucky Lady, and then explore new emotional heights and depths in Martin Scorsese's depressing New York, New York. But Liza With a Z is the perfect 70's musical artifact.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

No. 38 - Breezy

Clint Eastwood's third film as a director defied all expectations. For one thing, he didn't appear in it. Second, it's a romantic drama, a genre he had never undertaken as an actor. Breezy belies Eastwood's macho image. It also reveals for the first time his ambition as a filmmaker to explore genres outside of his wheelhouse.

Breezy, like many 70's films, is a mid-life crisis movie. It's a May-December romance, with burned out real estate executive William Holden falling for hippie-chick Kay Lenz (in the titular role). Breezy brings our man back to life, and surprisingly, the relationship grows from one-night stand to something permanent.

It was a 70's convention to have 55 year old male protagonists boning 25 year old women (Holden peformed similar duties with Faye Dunaway in Network). While it might not sound promising on paper, Breezy works well on the screen. Eastwood allows Holden and Lenz to go through all the incremental phases that lovers go through -- from distrust to curiosity to bickering to a deeper bond. Eastwood returned to similar terrain with Bridges of Madison County twenty years later.

No. 37 - The Choirboys

Macho director Robert Aldrich (The Longest Yard, The Dirty Dozen) turned his attention to police officers in his 1977 film The Choirboys. Based upon Joseph Wambaugh's novel, The Choirboys shows how LAPD's finest blow off steam after a stressful day of keeping the streets safe. It's Animal House with a body count.

The great Charles Durning gets to play the lead in a talented ensemble of actors. Durning, who is usually relegated to supporting roles, makes the most of his part as a good cop trying to hang on to his sanity until he can retire. James Woods makes one of his first screen appearances (almost as great as his turn as a dweeby bank executive in The Gambler who gets strangled by James Caan). Perry King, who appeared in such critically lambasted 70's films as Lipstick and A Different Story, co-stars, along with Burt Young, Randy Quaid, Lou Gossett, and the brilliant Tim McIntire, who memorably plays a psychotic cop named Roscoe Rules.

Excoriated by critics at the time of its release in late 1977, and ignored by audiences who preferred softer fare such as The Turning Point and The Goodbye Girl, The Choirboys holds up today as a great study of hard-working men in an urban pressure cooker. Also, in true 70's fashion, uproarious comedy is interrupted by horrible tragedy.

No. 36 - The Mechanic

Charles Bronson was a true 70's icon. Two years before his huge breakthrough Death Wish, Bronson played a professional hit man who teaches the tricks of his trade to a willing young acolyte (Jan-Michael Vincent, fresh from Disney's World's Greatest Athlete).

In one memorable scene, Vincent returns home to find that his girlfriend has tried to commit suicide. Vincent throws her the car keys and tells her that if she hurries, she might make it to the Malibu Sheriff's Station in time to save her life. By comparison, Bronson's character is a lovable Care Bear of a guy. The ending is a hoot.

The Mechanic plays like a Tarantino film, with its focus on moral relativity in a criminal world. Michael Winner directed, and he would grace 70's cinema with such films as Death Wish, Won Ton Ton The Dog Who Saved Hollywood, The Sentinel, and Love and Bullets. Bronson subsequently contributed Mr. Majestyk, St. Ives and Telefon to 70's cinema.

No. 35 - The Wild Party

The Wild Party is the surreal shotgun marriage between arty Merchant/Ivory Productions and Samuel Z. Arkoff's American International Pictures. AIP, as it was fondly known, specialized in drive-in exploitation fare, with heavy portions of violence and nudity thrown in.

Director James Ivory has subsequently directed more genteel period pieces, such as Remains of the Day. In The Wild Party, Ivory re-creates the decadent Hollywood of the late 20's. A Fatty Arbuckle-esque performer, Jolly Grimm (James Coco), throws a lavish party at his estate in order to screen his latest silent comedy feature. Unfortunately, sound pictures have arrived, and made Grimm an instant anachronism.

Grimm's wife Queenie (played by the ultimate 70's sex symbol, Raquel Welch) hosts the party, which goes awry with the arrival of a Valentino-esque matinee idol, Dale Sword (Perry King, who also starred in the 70's camp classic Mandingo). When Dale seduces Queenie, murder is in store.

There is camp value aplenty in this unheralded classic from 1975. Raquel Welch shows off her singing and dancing chops in the elaborately staged musical numbers, with a score of original songs. Ivory supplies the requisite AIP nudity and violence, along with his attentive eye for period details in the decor and costuming. There is also the air of pure 70's decadence hovering over the entire enterprise, a sense of doom at the end of the orgy.

In the 90's, two Broadway musicals were staged using the same source material, a long narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March. Both productions flopped.

No. 34 - The Front Runner

Paul Newman plays a track coach who falls in love with one of his runners. The Front Runner would have been one of the first Hollywood films to deal with homosexuality, if it had actually been made. But Newman got cold feet, and did the decidedly macho Slap Shot instead. A Variety headline from 1976 summed it up: "Front Runner on back burner."

There are other lost films from the 70's. Steve McQueen starred in a cinematic version of Ibsen's Enemy of the People in 1978. It saw a very limited release, and was quickly withdrawn. I didn't even know this film existed until it happened to play on the late show a long time ago. If only McQueen had starred in The Driver in 1978 instead.

One other tantalizing title is These Bases Are Loaded, a comedy about drug abuse, groupies and gambling in major league baseball that was set to star Charles Durning, Richard Gere and Billy Dee Williams. Too bad the plug was pulled at the last minute.

No. 33 - Oates & Fonda Trilogy

Warren Oates and Peter Fonda must have enjoyed working together. They did three films during the 70's:

The Hired Hand: The sort of existential, laid-back Western that could only be made in the early 70's. Fonda directs, and shows the sort of sensitivity to natural beauty that director Dennis Hopper displayed in Easy Rider.

Race With The Devil: How 70's can you get? Oates and Fonda take their wives on vacation in an RV, and they are chased by Satan worshippers. One of the wives is played by Loretta Swit, Hot Lips on TV's MASH. This one is ripe for a remake.

92 in the Shade: Off-beat does not begin to describe this crime melodrama set in the Florida Keys, which was written and directed by noted author Thomas McGuane. Fonda plays a fledgling tour guide whose career aspirations disrupt the livelihoods of two old-school guides (Oates and the wonderful Harry Dean Stanton). Oates plays a semi-psychotic, hard-drinking ex-con who would not be out of place in a Warren Zevon or Jimmy Buffett song. Features such 70's stars as Margot Kidder and Elizabeth Ashley.

No. 32 - Real Life

Long before reality TV, Albert Brooks wrote, directed and starred in this mock-documentary about a slick Hollywood filmmaker who moves in with a typical American family in suburban Arizona. Brooks simply wants to record the family in its day to day existence, but the presence of Brooks and camera operators disrupts the family's routine, with hilarious results.

Brooks, who initially attained fame as a stand-up comic, made a series of short films for Saturday Night Live before graduating to features with Real Life. The mock-documentary approach would be often imitated, and Brooks' comic persona first took shape in this film. He would play a variation on this neurotic character in subsequent films like Modern Romance and Lost in America.

However, Real Life is stolen by Charles Grodin, who plays the put-upon family man perfectly.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

No. 31 - Sunn International Classics

Sunn International Classics specialized in documentaries about uncanny and mysterious subjects. Their first hit was the film version of Chariots of the Gods, which theorized that advanced civilizations from distant galaxies arrived on earth many centuries ago to help shape ancient human societies. In the 70's, public curiosity about UFO's, the occult and other unexplainable phenomena created a thriving market for Sunn's speculative documentaries.

Other big hits included In Search of Noah's Ark, The Lincoln Conspiracy, and Beyond and Back. The success of these films led to imitators, such as In Search Of... on TV, and other films such as The Late, Great Planet Earth and Outer Space Connection.

Sunn mastered the marketing tactic known as four-walling, in which theaters were rented by the week so that Sunn films could be screened "for one week only." Unlike the big studios, Sunn released films on a limited and regional basis. Their films were produced at a very low cost, and returned huge profits.

Sunn also turned out dramatic films such as Grizzly Adams, Frontier Fremont, Hangar 18 and The Boogens in the 80's.

No. 30 - Fantastic Planet

One of the trippiest films of the 70's, Fantastic Planet is a surreal, animated science-fiction parable set on a distant planet Ygam, which is ruled by the Traags, a race of blue-skinned giants. The Traags have enslaved and domesticated human-like creatures known as Oms. There are also untamed Oms lurking on the outskirts of civilization.

One day, a domesticated Om named Terr escapes and leads a rebellion of wild Oms to topple the Traag's tyrannical empire.

Director Rene Laloux creates a truly unique world, with strange landscapes, odd plant life and bizarre creatures. Best of all is the use of vibrant colors. Great stoner movie.

No. 29 - Sheba, Baby

No 70's list is complete without a Pam Grier film. She was the foremost female star to emerge from the blaxploitation movement, and she is still a busy actress.

Back in the day, nobody could kick butt like Pam. She was a beautiful as a fashion model, and as deadly as Dirty Harry. She could seduce a man and use a gun without blinking

Sheba, Baby finds Pam playing a cool Chicago private eye who heads down to Louisville, where toughs (led by that bad D'Urville Martin of Dolemite fame) threaten her dad's loan company. Needless to say, Pam gets to play her lethal game, in between the wardrobe changes.

According to some accounts, director William Girlder pitched this movie to American International, and they gave him the green light. There was just one slight problem -- there was no script. So, Girdler and another writer churned out a script literally overnight.

Girdler went on to direct the 70's cult classics Grizzly (a Jaws knock-off) and The Manitou. Tragically, Girdler died in a helicopter accident while scouting locations.

No. 28 - Sky Riders

Long before Homeland Security, a crack team of anti-terrorist operatives kept the world safe for democracy -- the Sky Riders!

The Sky Riders steer their hang gliders with Rogallo wing designs into a monastery perched among precipitous Grecian cliffs, where terrorists hold Susannah York and her children for ransom. James Coburn is at his best as a tough guy who leads the daring expedition, and he certainly has a solid motivation -- York is his ex-wife. Long before CGI effects, the airborne stunt flying is quite impressive.

In the 70's, hang gliding was a phenomenon, and Sky Riders enshrines this Ford Administration leisure activity forever on celluloid.

Co-written by Garry Michael White, who wrote Scarecrow.

No. 27 - Burt Reynolds Six-Pack

In 1975 alone, Burt Reynolds made no less than four films -- W.W. and The Dixie Dancekings (surprisingly good), At Long Last Love (execrable), Lucky Lady (underrated), and Hustle (don't do it). In other words, he churned out a lot of films in the 70's.

I would like to highlight Burt's best of the 70's:

Deliverance: Great banjo music, friendly locals and pristine Georgia wilderness lure four Atlanta men for a weekend they'll never forget.

White Lightning: Burt gets behind the wheel for the first of his classic redneck car chase flicks. This time, redneck sheriff Ned Beatty is on his tail.

The Longest Yard: So great they remade it with Adam Sandler.

W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings: Burt as a charming good-old-boy (did he play any other kind) who robs filing stations with a squirt gun. Director John Avildsen's next film was about a boxer from Philadelphia who has a girlfriend named Adrian.

Lucky Lady: Burt's first teaming with 70's icon Liza Minnelli. They would later do Rent-a-Cop in the 80's.

Starting Over: Burt should have been Oscar-nominated in this mid-life crisis classic from 1979 (the year that gave us those other great mid-life crisis movies, 10 and All That Jazz).

No. 26 - Play Misty for Me

Clint Eastwood made a fine debut as a director with Play Misty For Me. There is a laid-back quality to this film, which begins in a casual way, and then tightens the screws later as the stalking plot kicks in. The film beautifully captures the Edenic qualities of Carmel and Monterey, and Eastwood has a great eye for the particular scenic details of the Northern California coast. Most movies today have a "cut to the chase" mentality, in which everything has to move at warp speed, so it's refreshing to see a movie take its time to establish the setting and the characters.

It is also interesting to note that Eastwood went outside his comfort zone for his first film as a director. He gained fame in Westerns and cop movies, but Play Misty for Me is a Hitchcockian thriller. He also allows Jessica Walter to steal the movie as a woman who refuses to be cast aside after a one-night stand.

This film is an interesting rebuke to the sexual revolution of the late 60's and early 70's. Jessica Walter's character may be acting in an extreme way, but there is some justification for her rage -- Eastwood's character is a ladies' man who likes to rack up as many conquests as he can, and then move on, but here's one woman who refuses to be discarded. The point is, there are repercussions to all our acts. Also, being a public figure brings its share of grief and misery (just ask John Lennon).

Fatal Attraction in 1987 was a de facto remake of Play Misty for Me. Eastwood would also direct but not star in the under-appreciated Breezy in 1973.

No. 25 - Little Fauss and Big Halsy

This is the only time Robert Redford played a bad guy. He's Big Halsy, a charming rogue who races motorcycles, steals food, sleeps with various women, and drifts from one racetrack to the next. Little Fauss (the great Michael J. Pollard) is a mild-mannered, introverted mama's boy who tags along as Halsy's mechanic. Halsy is a bad influence, and soon gets Fauss into trouble. In one memorable sequence, Fauss and Halsy drive their motorcycles through a herd of sheep, and barely escape the shotgun blasts of some pickup driving rednecks.

Redford and Pollard make for an off-kilter pairing, even by the standards of 70's oddball buddy films (such as Scarecrow and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot).

Johnny Cash contributes a score of songs that comment troubadour-like on the events depicted, and director Sidney J. Furie's semi-documentary approach to the hardscrabble existence of motorcycle racers gives the film an effectively gritty feel. Screenwriter Charles Eastman depicts the lives of society's oddballs with affection and humor.

It is great to see Redford playing the bad guy with such relish. Halsy is really a cad, and Redford has fun with it. If you want to see a different facet of Redford's under-rated acting talent, Little Fauss and Big Halsy is must viewing. Sadly, the film has yet to be released on DVD. In fact, as far as I know, it was never even released on video.

No. 24 - Saturday Night Fever

Saturday Night Fever might not be the very best film of the 70's, but it is arguably the best film to put in a time capsule to represent its decade. It is the 70's, just as Easy Rider is the 60's in one film.

It is not merely the obvious trappings of Saturday Night Fever that make it so seminal. The Bee Gees, the Angel's Flight couture, the blow-dried hair, the colored lights that flash underneath the dance floor -- all of these details add to the overall impact. What I find significant watching this film 30 years later is how it charts the cultural sea-change that occurred in the 70's.

In sum, if Easy Rider was basically about hippies, Saturday Night Fever heralded the arrival of yuppies. The characters in Saturday Night Fever might use drugs, but they are just trying to escape from the harsh reality of their Brooklyn neighborhood -- there is no pretension to expanding consciousness as in the 60's. The 70's was about hedonism, not idealism. The kids of Fever are not politically minded, they are focused on the self. It was the Me Decade in full swing.

Stephanie (Karen Lynn Gorney), a local girl from Brooklyn who has moved across the river to Manhattan, is not a hippie chick. She cares about getting ahead and making money. She's a prototype of the 80's yuppie, and she motivates Tony (John Travolta) to get his act together and aspire to a similar escape from Brooklyn. The film doesn't condemn the characters for being shallow. But it struck me as interesting that the concerns of 60's characters (such as for expanded awareness, philosophical exploration, and political commitment) have all but disappeared.

Friday, November 2, 2007

No. 23 - Bad News Bears

Bad News Bears is noteworthy for two reasons. It was the first film I ever saw at the Chinese Theater (Black Sunday was the second, The Shining was the third). Also, Bad News Bears accomplished something that no film had previously achieved -- it told the truth about Little League.

Anyone who has survived Little League will relate to Bad News Bears. Writer Bill Lancaster and director Michael Ritchie get all the details right -- the obnoxious parents in the bleachers who take the games too seriously, the coaches who make the players' lives miserable, the conceit of sportsmanship that evaporates in the heat of competition. Best of all, the kids here are not the impossibly angelic cherubs of Disney films, but rather foul-mouthed punks who smoke and drink beer. The film even touches upon such un-Disney subjects as divorce and birth control.

Two sequels were produced, both without Walter Matthau and Tatum O'Neal -- Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, and Bad News Bears Go To Japan (with Tony Curtis, who "introduced" Damon Packard's Reflections of Evil). But the first Bears is the best.

No. 22 - Inserts

Before Boogie Nights, there was John Byrum's 1976 film Inserts. Byrum wrote the Diana Ross vehicle Mahogany, then turned to the bygone world of Hollywood film making in the 1930's for his directorial debut. In his first film since Jaws, Richard Dreyfuss is Boy Wonder, a wunderkind auteur from the silent era who has fallen upon hard times with the inception of sound. He churns out stag films in order to stay afloat in booze.

What is noteworthy about this film is that it's an X-rated film that was released by a major studio, United Artists. And it certainly deserves its classification. This is not a film that Michael Medved would want to show to his grandma.

There were a number of 70's films that were set in 30's Hollywood, including Day of the Locust, W.C. Fields and Me, Gable and Lombard and Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Save Hollywood. Perhaps the success of The Sting prompted this deluge of 30's-set films. Perhaps there was a feeling that the 70's had some sort of kinship with the 30's. In any event, this particular sub-genre came to a close by 1976. Inserts might be the last major studio film to carry the dreaded X, which was replaced by the equally dreaded NC-17.

No. 21 - One on One

I remember when One on One came out. I was still in high school, and I really hated basketball. I mean, really hated it. I hated playing it in P.E. I was terrible at it. So in the summer of 1977, the last thing I wanted to see was a basketball movie. Also, Robbie Benson not only starred in it, he wrote it. In the wake of Rocky, all of a sudden actors started writing their own movies (Burt Young's Uncle Joe Shannon in 1978 is an example). Even a positive review in Time from Richard Schickel, a critic I respected, didn't get me to the multiplex.

A year later, I watched One on One on HBO. Against Rocky-like million-to-one odds, I actually enjoyed it. Even though it was about basketball. But, you see, like most good sports movies, it's not really about sports.

It was directed by Lamont Johnson, who also directed the 70's racing classic Last American Hero. Benson gives a good performance, and his script is good. G.D. Spradlin, a classic 70's actor, is great as the coach. Annette O'Toole plays the love interest. The film explores the milieu of collegiate sports much like a Michael Ritchie movie. It is certainly a much better basketball movie than Drive, He Said. And to top of the 70's-ness of it all, Seals and Crofts warble the mellow theme song.

No. 20 - Roller Boogie III

Underground filmmaker Damon Packard is obsessed with the 70's. His Reflections of Evil intercuts footage of trailers from 70's films like White Line Fever with sequences of a mentally imbalanced, homeless watch salesman (played by Packard himself) roaming the mean streets of L.A. Packard's character flashes back to childhood memories of the 70's, and the juxtaposition of that seemingly more idealistic and innocent time with our current era is startling.

Roller Boogie III is one of Packard's shorter works. Packard takes the story of a young man who aspires to stardom as a roller skater and intercuts footage from the 70's cult classic Roller Boogie (which featured Linda Blair). Then, Packard overlays classic disco songs, such as Donna Summer's On The Radio, and inserts footage from The Exorcist. The end result is jarring, and hilarious, as we cut from Blair on roller skates to Blair possessed by the devil, spewing split-pea soup.

The roller disco movie was a short-lived sub-genre. Beyond Roller Boogie, there was Skatetown U.S.A., and Xanadu (or as I like to call it, Xana-don't). It would be decades before Roll Bounce revived the sub-genre.

No. 19 - All That Jazz

What could be more 70's than Bob Fosse's flamboyant semi-autobiographical All That Jazz? Only in the 70's could a musical feature a graphic open heart surgery sequence. Dig that Kiss makeup for the backing band that plays "Bye Bye Love" during the climactic dance number. The sequined costumes, the George Benson and Peter Allen songs, the Brooke Shields-clone daughter, the stylistic nicks from Fellini. Soundtrack on Casablanca Records (the folks who brought you Thank God It's Friday).

Like many 70's films, All That Jazz is a mid-life crisis movie. A middle-aged man takes stock of his life, has flings with much younger women and tries to come to terms with impending mortality (see 10 and Middle-Age Crazy for other examples). In Joe Gideon's case, death is welcomed, and choreographer/director Gideon envisions his own demise as an elaborate (and very 70's) musical finale.

As it turned out, All That Jazz represented the end of an era (and appropriately, was released in December of 1979, at the tail end of the 70's). 1980 gave us Can't Stop the Music and Xanadu, and the movie musical was dead, until Chicago (staged on Broadway by Fosse in 1975) hit the big screen.

No. 18 - Dazed and Confused

Dazed and Confused was released in 1993, but it is set in 1976. It captures the time period impeccably not only in terms of decor, clothing, cars and music, but also in its cinematic style. Dazed and Confused feels like a 70's film - it is an Altman-esque ensemble piece, and it has the languid, observational feel of a lot of 70's films. Best of all, unlike all the bad teen films of the 80's, Dazed and Confused does not present any obvious lessons for the drug-taking and beer-drinking characters to learn. No one is punished, there are no big epiphanies. It simply focuses on high school kids who are partying on the first night of summer. Director Richard Linklater deploys a kick-back style that refuses to overemphasize moments that lesser directors would milk for more humor or pathos. Events feel caught rather than staged.

I also admire Linklater's refusal to play the story for camp value. The characters do not have the self-awareness of posterity. They take themselves seriously, and we look beyond the 70's perms and flared jeans simply to see a universal experience -- this is what kids go through everywhere, in every decade. Dazed and Confused reminds me of Our Town, a play that was set in a specific place and time but ultimately transcended its origins. Dazed and Confused is timeless.

No. 17 - Straw Dogs

Sam Peckinpah's most intense film, and that's saying quite a lot. Dustin Hoffman is at his best as David Sumner, a timid American mathematician who moves to a small, quaint English village in order to escape the violent, chaotic culture in the U.S. Of course, mayhem eventually ensues, partly because of Sumner's tone-deafness to social mores in a tight-knit community. His English wife (Susan George) arouses the unwanted attention of some village roughs, which results in one of the most disturbing rape sequences ever filmed.

Peckinpah allows Straw Dogs to unfold slowly, and he tightens the screws on the audience until the tension becomes almost unbearable. The final siege of Sumner's house is one of the greatest action set-pieces ever filmed. Hoffman brilliantly charts Sumner's transformation into a violent man capable of tapping into primal survival skills he didn't realize he even had.

No. 16 - Five Easy Pieces

Jack Nicholson gives his best performance in this Bob Rafelson road picture/character study. Nicholson plays Bobby, a talented classical pianist who rebels against his culture vulture family by working on an oil rig and living in a trailer with a waitress (Karen Black). This is an incisive portrait of a difficult and demanding personality, and Nicholson superbly captures Bobby's mercurial mood changes. One of the best films ever made about a tormented, self-destructive artist.

Monday, October 29, 2007

No. 15 - Straight Time

Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman) has just been released from prison and is on parole. His parole officer (M. Emmett Walsh) has a sadistic streak and takes an instant dislike to Dembo. Dembo manages to rent a room in a flophouse and find a job on an assembly line. He wants to go straight, but his old prison buddy Gary Busey gets him into trouble. Dembo is arrested on trumped-up drug charges, and ends up returning to a life of violent crime. In other words, the system failed him.

Or did it? When Dembo was first released from prison, he failed to check into a half-way house. He visits his ex-felon friend (Busey). He violates many conditions of his parole. Then, he brutally assaults his parole officer. Dembo hits the streets, looks up his old crony Harry Dean Stanton, and embarks on a violent crime spree, starting with a liquor store hold-up, then ending up with a violent jewelry store heist that goes awry.

Dembo turns out to be a lifelong criminal, and it takes very little to lure him back to his old ways. His fate is determined by character, not by circumstance. Hoffman is superb as Dembo, a chronic criminal with the sporadic ability to appear civilized. Hoffman shows us the rage within Dembo, and we see how Dembo can never fit into polite society. The supporting cast is superb, with Theresa Russell as his straight-laced girlfriend, Walsh as the parole officer, Busey and Stanton as hapless criminals, and Kathy Bates plays Busey's wife. The scene in which she asks Dembo to stay away from her husband is heartbreaking. Even Gary Busey's son (a very young Jake Busey) gives a good performance. Credit this to Ulu Grosbard, a director who works very well with actors.

No. 14 - All The President's Men

Watching All The President's Men recently, I was struck by a number of things. For one, Woodward and Bernstein must gather information the old-fashioned way in the pre-digital era. The two intrepid reporters memorably flip through all the records of books borrowed from the Library of Congress. We also see Woodward thumbing through stacks of telephone directories from every city in the U.S. And then there are phone calls to make (on rotary dial phones) and doors to knock on.

I was also struck by the secretive nature of the Nixon White House. I was also reminded that some of Bush's top people, such as Cheney and Rumsfeld, got their start with Nixon. And these men learned a valuable lesson from Watergate -- be careful about talking to reporters, especially Bob Woodward. The thought occurred to me -- could something like Watergate happen again?

All The President's Men captures the exhausting daily routine of investigative journalism -- wearing out shoe leather, pursuing many dead-end leads, burning the midnight lamp in an apartment with stacks of newspaper spilling all over the floor. It's a seemingly thankless task, an exercise in futility in many cases -- except that in this case, a U.S. President was brought down.

The film expertly dramatizes how a seemingly unimportant burglary case led to a wider scandal. The plot is advanced in the build-up of quotidian details. There are no speeches about politics, there is no melodrama, no love interests for Woodward or Bernstein. The focus here is on the work.

A less confident filmmaker than Alan J. Pakula might have added a celebratory scene with Woodward and Bernstein having a drink and saying, "We did, man!" These guys are so busy they don't have time to celebrate. At the very end of the film, when the story starts to break open, Woodward and Bernstein are busy, typing away.

No. 13 - The Gambler

Karel Reisz's 1974 film is probably the most insightful portrait of compulsive gambling ever made. James Caan stars as Axel Freed, a schoolteacher in New York who quotes Dostoyevsky and racks up huge gambling debts. Whenever he manages to pay off his debts, either through family loans or a lucky bet, he puts his winnings on the line again.

What drives a man to live on the edge, to risk losing it all? Screenwriter James Toback creates a highly complex character with an unconscious desire to destroy himself. This becomes apparent at the end, after Axel talks one of his student's into shaving points in a basketball game. Fixing the game has erased Axel's biggest debt, and yet he does not feel relief or gratitude. He decides to walk through the streets of Harlem late at night, picks up a prostitute and then gets into a fight with a pimp. Axel exposes himself to the greatest risk of all, putting his life on the line.

Many viewers have expressed confusion over the final scene, because it has nothing to do with gambling. But it reveals what has been driving Axel all along -- a desire to destroy himself. It is the addict's unconscious desire to hit bottom. Axel comes from a wealthy background, and he has always been able to rely on his family to get him out of trouble. But Axel wants to test himself, to see if he can survive on his own. He does, but the price is steep.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

No. 12 - Blue Collar

Paul Schrader's 1978 directorial debut presents a much different view of unions than 1979's highly acclaimed Oscar-winner Norma Rae. In Norma Rae, the union represents (literally) the best hope for workers. The union in Blue Collar, on the other hand, is totally corrupt.

Schrader focuses on three workers in a Detroit auto plant. They are played by Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto. Desperate for money, they decide to rob union headquarters. The robbers don't find money when they break in at night, but they do stumble upon documents that could possibly be used for blackmail. Since this is a Paul Schrader film, their bold act turns out to be an exercise in futility.

Watching Blue Collar today, it is remarkable to see so many manufacturing jobs in the United States. This was the era before so many of these jobs were sent offshore to countries with a cheaper labor rates.

As he did with Taxi Driver, Schrader proved to be a prescient observer of cultural and political trends in Blue Collar. It went against Hollywood's conventional wisdom to portray labor unions in such an unfavorable light. It wasn't just management who was screwing over the workers.

Schrader presents a hopeless, almost nihilistic view of the plight of the American worker. The film perfectly reflects the bleakness of the Carter years, when inflation and unemployment rates skyrocketed. Audiences in 1978 preferred the escapism of Close Encounters and Saturday Night Fever, and had no desire to see Richard Pryor in a dour drama.

Two years later, Ronald Reagan attacked unions when he ran for the presidency. As the economy changed, unions became less powerful. To understand why, watch Blue Collar.

No. 11 - Stay Hungry

Stay Hungry defies easy categorization. It features Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first speaking role, but it's not an action film. Despite its humor, it's not a comedy. Despite the fact that co-stars Jeff Bridges and Sally Field meet cute, bicker and end up together, it's not a love story.

Bridges plays Craig Blake, a charming rich kid who gets involved with some shady real estate developers in Montgomery, Alabama. They want to build a high-rise, but a decrepit old gym stands in the way. Craig is dispatched to buy out the gym's owner, but he refuses to sell. Craig then finds himself drawn into the world of bodybuilders who work out at the gym, and he falls for poor girl Sally Field. Schwarzenegger plays Santos, a bodybuilder -- what a stretch. He provides Craig with bits of Yoda-like wisdom, such as "there's no growth without burning." Before long, Craig has switched sides.

Director Bob Rafelson's film is a coming of age story, a satire of ruthless businessmen, and an in-depth exploration of the sport of bodybuilding. It also captures the unique atmosphere of Alabama, from high society mansion soirees to tavern brawls to boardroom machinations and then back to the country club for club sandwiches and tennis.

Stay Hungry, like many 70's films, questions the American Dream of making a big score. Craig is a man who has more than he needs, and yet he's empty inside. How do you really make it? You learn to "stay hungry," as Santos suggests.

There are some wonderful performances in this film. Joe Spinell is wonderful as a scuzzy real estate developer, R.G. Armstrong is great as the voyeuristic gym owner, and Roger E. Moseley and Robert Englund are both great as oddball gym employees. This was also Sally Field's first major film role, and she does a great job. Bridges turns in his customary great performance. And Arnold acquits himself well.

No. 10 - Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

Michael Cimino's debut film is not just a great caper but it's also a perfect example of the buddy genre that was so prevalent in the 70's (see The Sting and Scarecrow from 1973).

Clint Eastwood is at his laconic best as a mysterious man known as the Thunderbolt. Jeff Bridges earned an Oscar nomination as Lightfoot, a carefree young man who enjoys stealing cars for fun. When these two meet up, they decide to knock off a bank.

What makes this film so special is not just the chemistry between Eastwood and Bridges, but also Cimino's affinity for nature on an epic scale. Filmed in Montana, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot captures the grandeur of the American landscape, with mountain ranges, unspoiled lakes and endless rolling plains.

There is also an affinity for the dropouts and eccentrics of society, people who are often ignored by Hollywood filmmakers. Eastwood would return to this sort of off-the-interstate milieu in Bronco Billy and Honkytonk Man, while Cimino brought his genuine love of grandiose natural mountain settings and respect for blue collar men to his next film, The Deer Hunter.

No. 9 - Performance

"The only performance that makes it, that really makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness," says reclusive rock star Turner (Mick Jagger) in the Nicolas Roeg-Donald Cammell head trip, Performance. This is a film that truly achieves madness.

Chaz (James Fox) is a tough London gangster who must hide out after running afoul of his boss. He takes refuge in a Notting Hill mansion inhabited by Turner, who attempts to regain his creative muse while indulging in hallucinogenic drugs with two live-in groupies. Chaz hates rock music and drugs, but he is soon lured into Turner's bizarre lifestyle. In time, Chaz takes some magic mushrooms and undergoes a personality transference with Turner. Or does he? There are as many questions as answers in Performance.

This film was way ahead of its time. It is stylistically daring, with jump cuts, flash-forwards, graphic sex scenes and even an MTV-style musical sequence by Jagger that verges on the surreal.

Roeg would go on to direct such 70's classics as Walkabout, Don't Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth. Roeg enjoyed using rock stars -- Jagger here, Bowie in Man Who Fell To Earth, and Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing (released in the 80's, but it feels like a 70's film).

Performance expertly captures the tough underworld of London gangsters and the indolent, decadent life of a has-been rock star. The two worlds collide, and identities converge and separate.

No. 8 - Semi Tough

Semi Tough was marketed as a football comedy in the vein of The Longest Yard, but football is merely a backdrop in this film. Semi Tough, much to the chagrin of fans of Dan Jenkins' best selling novel, focuses on the trappings of celebrity more than gridiron activities. It also explores some of the more dubious spiritual movements of the 70's, such as est and pyramid power.

Kris Kristofferson plays Shake Tiller, a wide receiver who undergoes a Cat Stevens-like conversion experience to become an adherent of the est-like BEAT movement. Burt Reynolds is Billy Clyde Pucket, a good old boy quarterback who is skeptical about the efficacy of BEAT. Billy Clyde attends the two-day BEAT seminar, in which potential adherents are verbally abused by founder Werner Erhart (Burt Convy, brilliant) and are prohibited from using restroom facilities (sample dialogue -- a woman stands up during the seminar and proudly says that she just peed in her pants). But Billy Clyde came prepared -- he has attached a "motorist's friend" to his ankle inside his pants. Billy Clyde's presence at the seminar, and his seeming conversion to BEAT, serve to disrupt Barbara Jane Bookman (Jill Clayburgh) from getting brainwashed during the seminar. Billy Clyde's fake conversion also serves to disrupt the upcoming marriage between Shake and Barbara Jane -- which is fine with Billy Clyde, because he wants Barbara Jane all to himself.

Alternative religious beliefs hover around Semi-Tough like dandelion dust. Even the team's profane owner, Big Ed (Robert Preston) is not immune to all this New Age quackery (and this is before the term "New Age" even existed). Big Ed is an adherent of "move-a-genics," which requires him to crawl around on his office floor like an infant.

Director Michael Ritchie, who previously poked fun at Little League in Bad News Bears, beauty pageants in Smile and politics in The Candidate, has lots of fun in Semi Tough with the celebrity culture of the 70's. The emphasis is not on football but on the power of celebrity. After all, Shake's fame is exploited by BEAT, just as Billy Clyde is paid big bucks to write a tell-all autobiography (the publisher tells him to focus on substantive issues, such as "whether there are more homosexuals on the offense or the defense").

After Semi Tough, mind control cults became more and more prevalent. In 1978, a year after Semi Tough came out, there was the tragic fiasco at Jonestown. The past 30 years have seen the rampant growth of New Age belief systems, with Scientology serving as the ultimate example (and they use celebrities to tout their religion, just like BEAT did with their celebrity members). What would Billy Clyde make of all this madness?

No. 7 - Thank God It's Friday

Altman's influence could be felt throughout the 70's in ensemble comedies like Car Wash (1976) and Animal House (1978), and also in this undervalued gem of the disco era.

Thank God It's Friday follows an Altman-like ensemble of characters as they converge on L.A.'s hottest disco. There's a staid insurance actuary and his prim wife who are out for adventure. There's a couple of horny guys trying to score. There's a nice girl (Debra Winger in her film debut) who just wants to meet a nice guy. There's the slick disco club owner (Jeff Goldblum) who juggles girlfriends but really wants to score with the prim wife -- who maybe isn't so prim after all. And then there's the sanitation worker who is set up on a computer date with a schoolteacher, with uproarious results -- a couple that seems ill-matched turns out to be made for each other.

Nicole (Donna Summer, in her film debut), is an aspiring singer who sneaks on stage to get her big break (much like Barbara Harris in Altman's Nashville). She belts out Last Dance, a disco classic that went on to win the Academy Award for Best Song. It is great to see the ultimate disco diva captured on film at the top of her game.

Thank God It's Friday is a fun, carefree breeze of a film that encapsulates a more innocent, and seemingly simpler, time. A co-production between disco label Casablanca Records and Motown Records, Thank God It's Friday brings back the music, the clothes, the decor, and the flashing strobe lights of the disco era. This is as 70's as you can get.

No. 6 - M*A*S*H

Robert Altman had kicked around Hollywood for two decades, directing low budget films and episodic television before he made M*A*S*H in 1970. Out of nowhere, the 45-year-old veteran became one of the top directors in American cinema. The high grosses of M*A*S*H allowed Altman to make a series of daring, cutting-edge films for the rest of the decade.

M*A*S*H broke ground in a lot of areas. The sound design was innovative, in which multiple, overlapping conversations created a more authentic atmosphere. The film also evinced a counter-cultural disdain for such notions as patriotism and official military procedure. There was also the stunning juxtaposition of bloody operating room sequences with broad comedy.

What I like about this film is its lack of overt sentimentality, and yet it delivers the emotional goods at the end. There are no speeches about friendship or about the madness of war. The surgeons at the M*A*S*H unit just go about their duties, and drink and carouse in their rare off-time simply to keep their sanity in an insane situation. There is one brief shot near the end, in which we flash-forward to an officer's homecoming at an airport landing strip. It goes by in an instant, but it shows what every soldier dreams about. Amidst the comedy and carnage, it is one of those great moments that puts a lump in your throat -- and shows that Altman is more than just a farceur or a political provocateur.

No. 5 - Shampoo

Shampoo begins with Beverly Hills hairdresser George (Warren Beatty) literally in the dark. We hear him having sex with someone, and then the phone rings. It's his regular girlfriend, Jill (Goldie Hawn), on the other end of the line. She wants him to come over. So George bids goodbye to the woman in his bed, Felicia (Lee Grant), and rides his motorcycle over to Jill's place.

Thus begins Hal Ashby's 1975 classic Shampoo, with a plot as complicated at George's love life. George wants to open his own salon. He seeks money from wealthy financier Lester (Jack Warden). What Lester doesn't realize is that George is sleeping with his wife Felicia, his daughter (Carrie Fisher) and his mistress, Jackie (Julie Christie) -- all in the course of 48 hours, during Election Day, 1968.

How does George manage to keep juggling all of these contradictory desires? He doesn't. The resulting farcical entanglements, evasions and revelations are brilliantly plotted by co-writers Beatty and Robert Towne. The plot hinges upon a series of interrupted sexual couplings. Even George's profession reinforces the narrative -- the plot strands will get entangled, combed out and then washed clean.

While Shampoo succeeds as a sex farce about a stud who can't turn off his magnetic allure to any woman, it also explores its characters and milieu with more depth than most dramatic films. In addition, Shampoo is a great time capsule of Beverly Hills in 1968, a city that has been overwhelmed by the sexual revolution but barely grazed by the Vietnam War. Near the end of the film, a Marine comes in to the posh salon to deliver the bad news that the salon owner's son has died in an accident. This is as close as the Vietnam War gets to the insulated lives of these pampered characters. The only other time Vietnam makes an appearance, it is in the form of a radio broadcast in Lester's Rolls Royce. Lester quickly turns the channel for news about the stock market. It is interesting to compare Shampoo to Ashby's later film, Coming Home, also set in 1968, but worlds away from the protected environs of Rodeo Drive.

The ensemble is superb. Goldie Hawn has never been better, Julie Christie is brilliant as a kept woman, Jack Warden captures the befuddlement of the cuckold with relish, Lee Grant won an Oscar for her performance as a long-suffering and long-ignored rich wife, and Tony Bill brings just the right tone of sardonic observation to his portrayal of a louche ad executive.

But the film belongs to Beatty. He not only co-wrote Shampoo but also produced it. And his performance showcases Beatty's considerable charisma and comedic talent. George is a well-intended bungler, a guy who is too good-natured to say no to anyone, and everyone wants something from him. Beatty captures George's disillusionment when his life finally collapses at the end. Jackie leaves him for a wealthier man, Lester, and George is left alone, on top of a hill overlooking the posh houses of Benedict Canyon. He is in the harsh morning light, all illusions stripped away.

No. 4 - Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon, like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, is a visually stunning journey into the past. Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film is arguably the most beautifully photographed film in cinema history. Kubrick’s penchant for perfectionism and detail pay off gloriously in this 18th Century period piece. Hand-sewn costumes, authentic locations and innovative use of candlelight to illuminate interior sets provide a palpable sense of reality. The use of period chamber music, from Mozart to Bach, adds another layer to the film.

Kubrick tells the picaresque story of an Irish rake's rise and fall with Olympian detachment. The film also has a deliberate pace, which some viewers have no patience for. But life was much slower in the 18th Century, and Kubrick's film reflects that. Some criticized Barry Lyndon for its pace, its three hour length, and its lack of emotional empathy. But I feel that it's a mesmerizing experience, if only you meet the director half-way.

One can certainly trace the influence of Barry Lyndon on Days of Heaven, The Duellists and countless period pieces that followed. But Barry Lyndon is much more than a series of pretty pictures. Despite the visual opulence, Kubrick ultimately emphasizes the emptiness of his character's regimented lives. Whether stuck in a military formation or trapped within the confines of the peerage, the characters in Barry Lyndon are hedged about by social conventions and by their own moral limitations. It is a pessimistic view of the human condition, and an undeniably powerful one. It is Stanley Kubrick at the height of his considerable powers.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

No. 3 - McCabe and Mrs. Miller

Robert Altman arguably had the most impressive output of any Hollywood director in the 1970's. He certainly directed more films than anyone else -- about a dozen or so between 1970 and 1979. Not all of his films were great, but even the least of them tried something new. And when Altman was at the top of his game, few filmmakers could match him.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller from 1971 is Altman at his very best. It is a Western set in the Pacific Northwest near the turn of the 20th century. McCabe, a small-time cardsharp (Warren Beatty) comes to a small mining town, and sets up shop -- a saloon with games of chance, and a house of prostitution. He takes on a hooker with a heart of brass named Mrs. Miller (the splendid, Oscar-nominated Julie Christie), and business booms. A large corporation wants to buy McCabe out, but he refuses to sell. So some hired killers soon arrive to do away with McCabe, in a memorable gunfight in a heavy blizzard.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller gives the viewer a palpable sense of escaping into the past. The mining town seems like a small niche carved out in an immense and forbidding wilderness. The streets are constantly muddy, wood frames are always going up. It is barely inhabitable. A cold wind always seems to be blowing through town. Altman's cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, beautifully captures the setting. We get a great feeling for nature -- the skies, the clouds, the trees, most significantly the weather. Never has rain and snow been used so effectively in a film. In the final gunfight, McCabe attempts to outgun his rivals while tramping through thigh-deep snowdrifts.

The film finishes in an opium den, with an extreme close up of Julie Christie. It's a daring way to end the film, but appropriate. McCabe and Mrs. Miller, above all, is a trip in the truest sense of the word.

No. 2 - Taxi Driver

After the seismic counter-cultural disruptions of the late 60's and early 70's, there was bound to be a backlash. And there was, by the late 70's and early 80's, in the form of Anita Bryant, the Moral Majority and Ronald Reagan. But Paul Schrader sensed this shift in American values well before anyone else in Hollywood.

Schrader, one of the top screenwriters in Hollywood in the mid-70's, was raised as a strict Calvinist. He may have abandoned the religion of his youth, but Calvinist notions of depravity and guilt continued to haunt him and his work. His Travis Bickle is a tortured soul, a loner in a crowded city who is sickened by the blight of New York City. "Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets," Travis says in disgust. His plan to assassinate a presidential candidate is foiled, so he decides to kill some pimps. By this quirk of fate, he is hailed as a hero.

Is Travis crazy, or is he just tuned in to his environment? After Taxi Driver was released, New York City got even worse. There were the blackouts and lootings of summer 1977, interspersed with a real-life Travis Bickle known as Son of Sam. Things got so bad that NYC declared bankruptcy. When Ronald Reagan ran for President in 1980, his criticisms of the rampant welfare state and sorry plight of the big cities had a Bickle-like tone of moral disapproval. The fact that Taxi Driver triggered John Hinkley to attempt to kill Reagan in emulation of his hero Travis shows that Hinkley didn't get the link between crazy prophet Travis and suave politician Reagan. There was an anger that Reagan tapped into in 1980, the disgust of the Bible Belt and the Midwest at the state of American culture, especially the culture of New York and Los Angeles. Schrader had figured this out long before Reagan was elected.

And then came Rudy Giuliani. After decades of uncontrolled crime, Rudy came in and cleaned up the city, like rain washing the scum off the streets.

No. 1 - Mean Streets

While Raging Bull received more acclaim, and GoodFellas made more money, and The Departed won more Oscars, Mean Streets remains Martin Scorsese's best film.

It is his most autobiographical film, set in the Little Italy neighborhood where he grew up. While Mean Streets was actually Scorsese's third feature film, it represents the first time Scorsese's signature style came into full flower -- the expressionistic lighting, the slow motion, the jump cuts, the use of rock music and opera, the profane and self-destructive characters. But all of these stylistic flourishes conjoined with the deeper, more spiritual exploration of the narrative, not to overwhelm but to buttress Scorsese's thematic concerns.

Scorsese famously considered the priesthood before choosing another vocation, cinema, but Catholic themes remained with him. Mean Streets is his most religious film, in the sense that religion actually plays a role in the main character's life. Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is working his way up the mob ladder, but he feels guilt. He obsesses about the pain of eternal hellfire, but he continues down a violent, self-destructive path. His own peculiar mode of penance entails helping out his crazy cousin Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro, in a star-making performance). But there is no help for Johnny Boy, an inveterate gambler who is always in debt. Before long, Johnny Boy will drag Charlie down with him into an urban version of perdition.

There is a wonderfully claustrophobic atmosphere in this film. One gets the sense that the characters are trapped within a few blocks, and that escape is impossible. I also enjoy the ensemble cast. Keitel and De Niro play off each other superbly -- Keitel is the harried straight man, De Niro is the wild card (he literally enters the film with a bang, as he places a package in a mail box that explodes as he walks away). But Richard Romanus and David Proval are equally superb as two other neighborhood friends. There is an organic quality to the interactions between Keitel, De Niro, Romanus and Proval. They get so far into their respective characters that it feels like these four have known each other since early childhood. There is a sense of intimacy between them, which causes as much conflict as camaraderie. The one main female character, Theresa (Amy Robinson), serves as ballast to all the macho posturing. She is the voice of reason, but her boyfriend Charlie doesn't want to listen.

70 Best Films of the 70's

The 1970's was the Golden Age for cinema. There were so many superb films. However, I've decided to limit myself to 70. It's a nice round number.

Think about it. Directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, George Lucas, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, Sam Peckinpah, Mike Nichols, John Cassavetes, Hal Ashby, Bob Fosse, Steven Spielberg, Ken Russell, Sidney Lumet, Jerry Schatzberg, Bob Rafelson, Karel Reisz, Woody Allen, Alan J. Pakula, Paul Mazursky, John Schlesinger, Michael Ritchie, William Friedkin, Peter Bogdanovich, Michael Cimino, John G. Avildsen and many more were doing their best work.

So what's the top film of the 70's? It was directed by Martin Scorsese, and it stars Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. No, it's not Taxi Driver (that's Number Two on the list). The best film of the 1970's is Mean Streets.