1973 Ten Best Movies

patgarrett4I watched Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid a couple of times and liked it just fine but couldn’t quite tell how it worked, exactly, as it didn’t seem to have the usual three-act structure. Then I realized: it’s a ballad, a series of stanzas in a song out of a folk tradition – that’s how it lives and breathes. Which is why the casting of two singer-songwriters (Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan) in significant roles is crucial; Dylan’s fantastic soundtrack music emphasizes it even more.

Pat Garrett came along at a time when American movies were busy revising and sometimes trashing the old myths (see also my #2 choice for the year), but Sam Peckinpah had too much battered romanticism to make a simple anti-Western. So he made a movie about landscape and time and trust, and about the way grubby reality might pass into the stuff of legend. (This is the kind of thing I’ll be talking about in a lecture called “Revising the Western: Peckinpah, Altman, and Spaghetti,” on Oct. 4 in Seattle; details here.)

It tops the list for this year – not a year crowded with classics, but some really interesting titles. Ten best of 1973:

1. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah)

2. The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman)

3. The Mother and the Whore (Jean Eustache)

4. Scenes from a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman)

5. The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice)

6. O Lucky Man! (Lindsay Anderson)

7. Day for Night (Francois Truffaut)

8. American Grafitti (George Lucas)

9. Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese)

10. Amarcord (Federico Fellini)

Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers movies, which are just as scathing as they are fun, are up there too. Many decent American films crowding around those last couple of rungs: Charley Varrick and The Day of the Jackal (two old-pro movies made by old-pro directors), De Palma’s Sisters (which I like better than The Exorcist), Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, which provided an awful lot of pleasure when I was 14 years old, Mazursky’s Blume in Love.

It was a year in which everybody seemed to be looking to nostalgia and the past, either as an escape (Best Picture Oscar went to The Sting) or because it might offer some clue about how to come to terms with the prevailing mess of the era. Just look at how many of those titles are set in the past, and how the good ones use that backward-looking lens as a way of conjuring both magic and hard truths (the Peckinpah and Erice films especially). The Long Goodbye (my favorite Altman picture, which is not the same as considering it his best) is set in the present, but evokes a potentially nostalgic Raymond Chandler novel – then seamlessly morphs it into something completely of the 1973 moment, an astonishing piece of adaptation.

The Mother and the Whore is the culmination of and eulogy for the French New Wave, an amazing epic (and just as searing as Bergman’s unflinching made-for-TV opus). O Lucky Man! is a crazy one-off, and, incidentally, another ballad picture that hums along to song.

Next week: 1947.