Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
Written by Brian De Palma and Paul Williams
Directed by Brian De Palma
The rock opera is primarily a 1970s film genre that is still around in some form, but certainly not at the cultural zenith it had fifty years or so earlier. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is arguably the queen of them all, but many others achieved their own levels of cult status. Among them is Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, a picture with a deceptive title because it is not a rock opera adaptation of Phantom of the OPera. Yes, elements of that story are here, but it’s a mishmash of so many other things that it can be muddled. However, the film is saved by the music of Paul Williams and some amusing & clever performances. It’s not always perfect, but it’s constantly entertaining.
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Blazing Saddles (1974)
Written by Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, and Al Uger
Directed by Mel Brooks
There is a statement on Twitter from right-wing ideologies that due to the fabricated idea of “cancel culture,” a film like Blazing Saddles couldn’t be made today. I am confident that anyone saying that hasn’t ever watched the movie or their viewing was when they were a child, and they’ve forgotten most of it. Blazing Saddles may not be able to be made today, not because we are more sensitive to racism, but rather because the system responsible for making movies doesn’t want to produce anything that will elicit genuine emotion from their audiences anymore. Blazing Saddles is one of the strongest anti-racist films I’ve ever seen, one that centers on the experiences of its Black protagonist and doesn’t pull punches on showing the white establishment as complete assholes.
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The Last Picture Show (1971)
Written by Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
We continue our “The World is Hell” series with this look at decaying rural life in an increasingly industrialized and inhuman America. Peter Bogdanovich has directed one movie, Targets (1966), and was searching for his next film. One day waiting in line at the grocery store checkout, he spied a paperback copy of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show. Reading the back cover, he noted it was kids growing up in Texas and didn’t really feel any immediate connection and put it back. Weeks later, actor Sal Mineo shared a copy of the book with Bogdanovich’s then-wife Polly Platt and the director wondered if he wasn’t being led to do something with this text. McMurtry would come on board to help with the screenplay, and the film was shot in his hometown of Archer City in north-central Texas. The combination of this profoundly New York filmmaker and a story of the loss of innocence in Texas would be a perfect match.
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Apocalypse Now (1979)
Written by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola’s final film of the 1970s was yet another brilliant piece of cinema. I first saw Apocalypse Now in college (the early 2000s) and was immediately blown away. I had never seen anything like this before in my life. It probably didn’t help that I was homeschooled, and there was pretty much a zero-tolerance policy on R-rated movies in my home. College opened my eyes to so many great films. While other movies have faded in their appeal in the time that’s passed, Apocalypse Now is still up there for me as one of the great pictures. With this recent rewatch, I was discovering connections I hadn’t made before, enriching my experience. I will note I went with the original theatrical cut as I am not a fan of the Redux. I don’t really think the additional material adds much to the spectacular experience of the original.
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The Godfather Part II (1974)
Written by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
It’s not a big surprise to say The Godfather Part II is a masterpiece of American cinema. It just simply is. This is a director doing the best work of his life surrounded by magnificent performers and working with a very literate & polished script. When you have these sorts of elements, you will end up with a movie that resonates with audiences. I don’t think it can be understated how thoroughly Coppola reshaped American film with his work in the 1970s. This is a template for movies still coming out today and the precursor to the prestige television that is so common on streaming platforms.
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The Conversation (1974)
Written & Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Privacy has become an essential topic of discussion in recent years. This is partly due to the profoundly invasive Patriot Act, passed under “fighting terrorism,” and how social media has convinced users to give up information and involuntarily spy on them as they use the internet. Some people have leaned into the seeming dissolution of privacy in modern life, becoming incredibly open about all aspects of their lives or creating a manufactured public face to create a particular narrative. Others have worked obsessively to “get off the grid” by refraining from using any internet connections they believe aren’t secure and certainly never joining social media. In the 1970s, privacy was not as big a concern among the majority of the population as it is now, but through his research, Francis Ford Coppola could see that it would be one day and was curious about how one of the voyeurs would handle the gaze of others on him.
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The Godfather (1972)
Written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
I would argue that Francis Ford Coppola is the most influential director of the last 20th century, not a giant leap to make, really. He pre-dated the breakout debuts of Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, De Palma, and more. Coppola also created a type of movie that had been endlessly mimicked and rarely matched. It’s an epic drama focused on characters and their relationships over long periods. Hollywood had been making epics for decades but not like what Coppola brought to the screen in The Godfather. This was also many people’s introduction to the specifics of the mafia. Like epics, Hollywood gave audiences gangster pictures for years but nothing that showcased the family dynamics and the importance of cultural heritage to these criminal organizations. The Godfather really does live up to its hype, unlike anything before.
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Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Written & Directed by Chantal Akerman
Our lives are made up of rituals. We wake up, get dressed, clean ourselves, make food, and overall prepare for our day. This is just the opening of a single morning. There is comfort in ritual; repetition provides security because we can easily predict what happens next. The disruption of these rituals can upend all peace we feel, throwing us into a realm of conflict and volatile emotion. From a filmmaker’s perspective, it’s relatively common to compress and delete chunks of time that don’t flow into a structured narrative. You don’t often see a character going through every step of that morning routine on film; only the pieces the director or screenwriter has decided provide shorthand to understand a character or jumpstart a plot. Chantal Akerman threw all of this out the window to present an almost four-hour picture that, by focusing on tedium, illuminates a kind of life often discounted in the medium.
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Days of Heaven (1978)
Written & Directed by Terrence Malick
When I was a child, my dad had a bookshelf in his home office. This was the place I first stumbled across the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I never finished (it took me a year to complete Fellowship, and admittedly I was ten years old, so maybe not quite old enough for Tolkien’s prose?). However, another book on this shelf highly interested me even though I didn’t have much context for it, The Good Old Days: They Were Terrible by Otto Bettmann.
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A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
Written & Directed by John Cassavetes
If you have never watched much outside of classic American cinema, even the supposedly envelope-pushing independent film industry that came to prominence in the 1990s, you will likely be turned off by A Woman Under the Influence at first. Writer-director-actor John Cassavetes broke the accepted forms & structures of filmmaking in ways that critics were highly divided at the time of their release. Some could see the brilliant mind at work while others became quickly frustrated at scenes that linger and editing that doesn’t follow the smooth narrative flow we have become accustomed to. I can imagine your average MCU stan wouldn’t know what to make of these pictures at all. They don’t provide easy morals, and their characters are so complex you find yourself always seesawing between frustration and sadness over them.
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