1979 Ten Best Movies

Much of 1979 is clearer to me than stuff that happened last week, so sorting through the movies of the year is easier than usual. Maybe it’s the influence of having just read David Thomson’s piece on movies that time forgot (a critic I first read in 1979, for a film class), but there’s a load of splendid 1979 films that have fallen off the grid, although they seemed really vital and important at the time: Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack (a warmer and more organic film than his official classics), Joan Micklin Silver’s Chilly Scenes of Winter (stupidly re-titled Head Over Heels but then re-discovered through some smart marketing), Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia, Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers.

Those were small movies, but even somewhat bigger titles such as John Badham’s Dracula (with Frank Langella) and Martin Brest’s Going in Style (a serious comedy about old age, despite a gimmicky-sounding premise) seem to be unmentioned now. For that matter, it’s odd to me that big hits of the year, Blake Edwards’ 10 and Don Siegel’s Escape from Alcatraz, aren’t considered classics.

For all that, it’s a nice year for movies. My #1 is Woody Allen’s best film, which meant a lot to me then and still does. But the other stuff is good, too: 10 is eminently civilized (and has Dudley Moore in his groove), The Marriage of Maria Braun is a feisty director working at full power, and Dawn of the Dead is monumental, and needs no apologies. And Life of Brian is sublime and scathing. The ten best movies of 1979:

1. Manhattan (Woody Allen)

2. 10 (Blake Edwards)

3. The Marriage of Maria Braun (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

4. Dawn of the Dead (George Romero)

5. Winter Kills (William Richert)

6. Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton)

7. Life of Brian (Terry Jones)

8. Ways in the Night (Krzysztof Zanussi) and Camera Buff (Krzysztof Kieslowski)

9. The Wanderers (Philip Kaufman)

We’ll play fair and keep it to ten titles this time, with the two Poles tying. Movies I like for #10: Escape from Alcatraz, Bertolucci’s Luna, Hal Ashby’s Being There, Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine, Cronenberg’s The Brood.

Where are Apocalypse Now (Coppola) and Alien (Ridley Scott)? Right here. Redux or otherwise, Coppola’s film is still a very confused (if undeniably spectacular) proposition, with some hypnotizing aspects; for Alien, I still think my opening-night disappointment holds, but credit to Scott for creating a scene that, on an opening night, rivaled the Psycho shower sequence for sheer chair-climbing surprise: John Hurt’s torso etc.

Other worthies: Time After Time (Nicholas Meyer), one of the many of this era’s films that seemed to get rescued in a theatrical-run second chance; The Tin Drum (Volker Schlondorff); Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (Raul Ruiz); Hair (Milos Forman), a nice match of material to a basically counterculture filmmaker; Breaking Away (Peter Yates); All That Jazz (Bob Fosse), which is one of those pretentious movies that manage to be hugely entertaining; The Human Factor (Otto Preminger); Real Life (Albert Brooks); North Dallas Forty (Ted Kotcheff); Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (Allan Arkush); Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (Richard Lester), which has much more grace than a cash-in movie ought to have; and the aforementioned Chilly Scenes and Quadrophenia. And of course there was the Roger Ebert-scripted Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (Russ Meyer), a career culmination for a director with a specific vision.

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2 Responses

  1. Wasn’t this a terrific year? I saw THE CHINA SYNDROME again about twelve months ago. It stood the test of time much better than I remembered
    . I also have a soft spot for FEDORA which is the best of Wilder’s last three films by a margin.
    And 1979 was probably the best year ever for Australian cinema.

  2. Breaking Away tops the year for me. I’m surprised at some of the unmentioned 1979 titles: The Great Train Robbery intriguingly feels like a modern, high-tech heist movie despite being set in the Victorian era. The China Syndrome is one of the great media movies in a decade noted for them. The Black Stallion is as poetic as movies get.

    Though it’s not technically a movie, there is also Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, a seven-part television adaptation of the John Le Carre spy novel. It’s very understated, very British, and contains a great latter-day performance by Alec Guinness.

    Despite the smattering of great movies, 1979 has always felt like a weak year to me (though a step up from 1978). I guess it’s because it was one of those awkward transition years, like 1929 and 1965, where a style of filmmaking was on its way out but the new one hadn’t really come in yet.

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