McCabe and Mrs. Miller (directed by Robert Altman)
Robert Altman is one of my all-time favorites, and it’s a shame this movie doesn’t come up more often in discussions about westerns. It isn’t a cowboys vs. Indians shoot ’em up. Instead, it’s a bleak & hopeful melancholy love story. John McCabe (Warren Beatty) is a gambler that stumbles into a small Western Washington town. He quickly takes a position of prominence and control in a place populated mainly by lethargic miners. To keep control, he builds a brothel and pays for three sex workers from a few towns over to live there. One of them, Constance Miller (Julie Christie), has excellent business acumen, and the two become partners in building up the town. Unfortunately, their business decisions make them a target of more prominent, more powerful men, which can only lead to tragedy. In addition, opium comes to their home, and that serves to further complicate things. Altman referred to the picture as an anti-Western, and it’s clear because it completely subverts all the tropes you expect from such a movie.
A Clockwork Orange (directed by Stanley Kubrick)
From my full review:
Kubrick refuses to let us off that easily, though, so, in A Clockwork Orange, he asks the same questions, but this time using a protagonist who he even admits is irredeemably monstrous. Does someone like Alex deserve to be brutalized into civility by the society he was born into? How can we expect someone like Alex to exist when he never really holds a desire to not hurt his fellow human beings? Which is worse: the violence of the individual or the violence of the institution? […]I love how Kubrick remains neutral on the matter. While Alex is our protagonist, he isn’t sympathetic. You might feel slightly bad for him when the treatment ends up turning classical music into a poison that makes him want to die, but you never dismiss his crimes. The adults that operate in Alex’s world aren’t much different from him; they have badges and titles that allow them to be cruel with impunity. The irony when Alex encounters two former droogs turned police bobbies is an obvious point that so many of our officers of the law are state-sanctioned sadists. His probation officer, Mr. Deltoid, is a creepy, predatory fiend who has no interest in setting Alex on the “right path.” Deltoid revels in Alex’s apprehension for murder and the thought of the youth being sexually brutalized in prison. Deltoid doesn’t seem much different from Alex.
The Last Picture Show (directed by Peter Bogdanovich)
There is something that pulls you in about the desolate, dust-swirled town of Anarene, Texas. This feels like the beginning of the end of something. A trio of teenagers, our characters are navigating the collapse of their way of life, more so their parents’ and grandparents’ choices, which led to this failure. These young people are obsessed with sex but have no adult to guide them on how to avoid making mistakes, and so they fumble and try to play at being grown-ups without really knowing what they are doing. Finally, when they make drastic decisions, only then do adults make some effort to intervene, but every action is colored by melancholy. Peter Bogdanovich made his name with this film and then didn’t really produce a decent follow-up. However, this is one of the great American films focused on the decline, and it remains all too relevant, especially in the face of the country’s current predicament.
The French Connection (directed by William Friedkin)
William Friedkin exploded into movies with this massively successful picture. He’d been making movies previously, but nothing garnered the public’s attention like The French Connection. There was seemingly a hunger in the 1970s for gritty crime films, and Friedkin brought a documentary-like aesthetic that really put the audience in the middle of it. The infamous car chase scene under the elevated train was inspired by harsh critiques from Howard Hawks, whose daughter lived with Friedkin at the time. The French Connection is full of great chases and action pieces, a crime film with deep roots in noir. Its imperfect protagonist Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman), is the type of character who has shaped the crime genre ever since. I’ve always felt the ending of this picture felt like a horror movie. The immediate events are left unresolved, but it’s haunting the way Popeye runs off into the guts of the warehouse pursuing his target, the music underlining the descent into obsession.
Harold and Maude (directed by Hal Ashby)
From my full review:
This is the movie that established Hal Ashby and remains the first film most people think of when they hear his name. Its basic plot has been mimicked by dozens of independent films since yet none of them seem to recapture the magic of the original. It’s inspired many filmmakers since, especially Wes Anderson. You could argue that it reinvented the concept of the manic pixie dream girl who serves to enlighten the male protagonist. There is a lot that begins with Harold and Maude […] Harold Chasen is a young man obsessed with death. He simulates suicide many times, an act that has become an annoyance to his mother. While attending a stranger’s funeral, Harold meets Maude, a 79-year-old who is brimming over with love for life. Harold is attracted to Maude and embarks on several escapades with her, which involve stealing cars and replanting trees in the woods. Eventually, the young man falls in love with Maude, which draws ill feelings from his conservative mother and uncle.
Walkabout (directed by Nicholas Roeg)
In the mid-2000s, I went through a Nicholas Roeg period, obsessed with his films and his still very unique editing style. This was his second feature after the surreal & metaphysical Performance. It was based on a story he’d wanted to film about survival in the Australian outback. The main characters, never named, are Girl (Jenny Agutter) & her little brother aided by Black Boy (David Gulpili), an aborigine. The white children become stranded in the wilderness after their father suffers a mental breakdown and tries to kill them but fails. He commits suicide, and the children are confused and lost. Black Boy crosses paths with them and is rightfully distrustful at first. However, he relents and begins to bond with the pair and tries to help bring them back to the world they know. The film is like a dream, as is a lot of Roeg’s work, an exploration of the clash between modern life and the natural world as well as focusing on themes of the loss of innocence. It’s a fantastic picture if you are in the mood for something dense and challenging.
Fiddler on the Roof (directed by Norman Jewison)
From my full review:
The crux of the movie is summed up in Tevye’s monologue about the fiddler on the roof. He uses this as a metaphor to describe himself and his fellow villagers. They balance precariously between the needs of themselves & others and the cultural traditions that bind them together. This means that when the matchmaking process of marriage is challenged, Tevye has to go through some problematic thinking. While centered on a Jewish community, Fiddler’s story doesn’t necessarily have to be tied to Judaism. This is an experience that happens in all communities when the norms are challenged. In an updated version of this story, one of the daughters would come out as a bisexual or a lesbian, and it would have the same impact on people steeped in tradition. The story isn’t so cavalier as to say throw out all these traditions because it’s evident traditions have been an element that has bonded these people through centuries of persecution.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (directed by Mel Stuart)
This is by no means a masterpiece of cinema, but to children who saw it from its release to the present day, it is such a fun adventure to go on. As an adult, I pick up on some of the more subtle jokes and humor in the first half, often seen as “the boring part” by kids. The whole picture started as an expensive advertisement for real-life Wonka Bars that failed when they arrived at stores melted. Instead, the cursed candy venture was quickly forgotten. What is remembered is the fantastic performance from Gene Wilder, which is clearly going to be something fawned over from his very first appearance on screen. The songs are also an element audiences remember especially those Oompa Loompa numbers. As evidence that this movie has staying power fifty years later, my five-year-old niece requested to be an Oompa Loompa for Halloween a few years ago and was delighted to be walking around in her overalls and green wig.