I really haven't seen very many 2012 releases yet so far so I figure that if I did a top five, it would be comprised of some very ordinary films. Instead I've decided to draw from a year that at this point I'm much more familiar with film-wise. Sadly, I was not yet walking on this planet in 1979 and never got to experience it firsthand. However movies give us a chance to experience a year in an indirect sort of way.
So what was going on in the world of movies in 1979? For starters, the second film in the Rocky series was released. At that point, I don't think anyone envisioned just how many Rockys there would be. Whatever the case, Rocky II never made much of an impact on me. Really, I prefer it only over the dreadful Rocky V.
One of the sillier entries in the James Bond canon, Moonraker, came to us in 1979. It was Roger Moore's fourth outing as the super spy and while enjoyable, nothing to really get excited over. Maybe it wasn't a banner year for sequels. Luckily, some excellent movies that would become the starting point of brand new series would come out. Two can be found on this list.
Also relevant, the slasher boom of the early eighties was just about to start and exploitative "grindhouse" movies were reaching their peak. While many of these movies were criticized for being sleazy, gratuitous and, in some cases, sadistic in their gleeful portrayals of sex, violence and sexualized violence, filmgoers were showing that there was certainly a wide audience for depravity. In fact 1979 saw the release of one of the more famous entries, Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2, which has remained a high watermark in the horror and zombie genres.
Sometime I'd like to delve into the grindhouse genre and maybe do a list dedicated to it but as for this one, no such movies come anywhere near it. Although for the record, as far as horror goes, Werner Herzog's remake Noserferatu The Vampyre, is quite possibly number six.
As the seventies came to a close, the genre that was really taking off besides slasher was action, which mostly only had existed as an offshoot of the more storydriven adventure movies. I believe it was 1981's Escape From New York and 82's First Blood that really got the genre off and running. But I don't think my five chosen favourites really reflect anything that significant about the times - they're all from different genres and have little in common with each other besides overall quality. So let's check them out.
5. The Warriors
Conceived and directed by Walter Hill, I love everything about this film. But I think it's its look that I like most of all. Set in New York City presumably sometime in the "near future", viewing it nowadays at least, it does seem very 1979. I look at it as more of an alternate version of 1979 than I do as possible 1990's. The way the characters dress (speaking relatively here as most characters actually sport rather flamboyant costumes that are their gang's colours) and speak like it's the seventies. You'll see afros and big sunglasses (the latter I realize has come back into style these days) and there's a scene that features some high school kids returning from their prom and their formal wear is totally seventies.
The first ninety percent of the movie takes place at night and it's very dark and threatening. The locations are all dirty and grimy and really reflect the urban decay that was affecting cities like New York in the seventies and eighties. But the bright attire of the gangs, along with an assortment of neon lights, really strikes a great contrast.
The soundtrack is also very distinct and memorable, adding to the surreal atmosphere. It's almost instantly recognizable to anyone who's heard it before and I guess it is sort of futuristic-sounding. But most importantly, it sounds very urban and edgy.
As for the plot, it's loosely based on an ancient Greek story about a small group of soldiers who are cut off from the rest of their forces far behind enemy lines and their dangerous journey back home. Here we have nine members of one of New York's many gangs, The Warriors, framed for a murder at a huge meeting of all the gangs at the Bronx Zoo. Their home base is in Coney Island and they're forced to make their way back while being hunted by nearly every other gang in the city.
The characters aren't particularly deep but I find them likeable and seeing all the crazy themes and costumes employed by the various gangs is a lot of fun. The movie also marks the debut of noted character actor David Patrick Kelly and not only is he great as the main antagonist, he also has the most memorable line, one that's gone down in quotable cinema history: "Warriors....come out and play - ee - ay!" Also look for the luscious lips of Lynne Thigpen, who serves as sort of the equivalent of a Greek chorus as the mysterious nameless radio DJ, recounting the movements of the Warriors. If the name doesn't ring a bell she would later play The Chief on nineties kids' gameshow Where In The World is Carmen Sandiego?.
To finish I'll just pose you one of the movie's other memorable lines: "Caaan yooouuu dig iittt?"
4. The China Syndrome
Probably the most interesting (and chilling) thing about The China Syndrome is just how firmly grounded in reality it is. Everything that takes place in the movie could actually happen. It's definitely the sort of story that makes you think.
Something I was reminded of when I was reading Shane's desert island list was just how good an actor Jack Lemmon was. In many of his roles, he just had a way of really getting and holding your attention. I can't say exactly why that is. The best I can come up with is that I at least find that he conveys a very strong sense of...earnestness. Everything he says and does just comes across as so genuine.
Lemmon's performance as nuclear plant shift supervisor Jack Godell has to be one of his very best. He really sells the idea of being an ordinary person caught in a complicated situation that tests one's morals as well as nerves. His crusade to make the public aware of the callously dangerous business practices of the plant as well as the construction company that built it makes for very engaging watching. Of course Jane Fonda and an almost unrecognizable (to me anyway) Michael Douglas are also present and they're pretty good too but I really feel this is Lemmon's show. His performance is what really sells it for me.
Stylistically, this film couldn't be more different from something like The Warriors - the visuals are very ordinary and there actually is no soundtrack - not even over the closing credits. The only music you will hear during the movie is from televisions and radios the characters come in contact with. This approach is actually highly effective and helps you simply focus on the characters and the situations they deal with.
It all builds to an extremely tense climax followed by a stark and abrupt ending. We're left with a lot of questions and misgivings that go beyond the movie itself to the world we actually live in.
An eerie coincidence is that The China Syndrome was released in theatres only several days before the Three Mile Island incident. It certainly helped sell some tickets.
3. The Muppet Movie
The first in a series of movies featuring Jim Henson's beloved muppets - loved the world over by children and adults alike - serves as a sort of origin story, showing us how they all came together.
The film's opening is still one of the most iconic in cinema, featuring Kermit in his swamp, playing banjo and singing "Rainbow Connection", which is without a doubt one of the greatest songs ever written for a movie. It's been favourably compared to "Over The Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz and earned its composers, Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher, an Oscar nomination. The pair also wrote most of the soundtrack's other songs and they're all very fun and catchy and undoubtedly, muppety.
If you're at all familiar with the muppets (and I hope you are), the movie gloriously celebrates everything they're about. It helped bring them and the talents of such performers as Henson and Frank Oz to a much larger audience and its critical and commercial success helped pave the way for many sequels - most of which are at least very good. My own personal favourite in the series is the little-talked-about The Great Muppet Caper from 1981. For some reason 1984's The Muppets Take Manhattan seems to get a lot more recognition - it's also on television pretty often.
Another element the movie possessed - something that would become a staple of the series - was lots of fun celebrity cameos. You can see Steve Martin, Dom Deluise, Milton Berle, Cloris Leachman and the great Orson Welles among others.
Because of its unique blend of music, humour and heart, The Muppet Movie is one of my favourite movies of 1979 and still ranks among my favourite movies of all time.
2. Apocalypse Now
If you're good at putting dates to movies like I am, I'm sure this one must have crossed your mind when you read this list's title. Francis Coppola's moody Heart of Darkness-esque story of an American soldier sent deep into Cambodia to assassinate a rogue American colonel during the Vietnam War has certainly won its fair share of acclaim. It's still my favourite war movie ever (narrowly edging out The Thin Red Line) and very nearly my favourite film of 1979.
In its presentation, I think Apocalypse Now must be one of the most authentic war movies out there. Coppola went to pretty extreme lengths to make the movie he wanted and it took about three years of work. It was shot principally in the Philippines after locations there had been scouted by George Lucas, who was slated to direct it himself before dropping out to focus on another project (three guesses what that was) and much of the action was shot in the jungle and rice fields.
As I've said, it's a pretty famous movie and it's easy to find all sorts of interesting info on it so I won't go into any more detail about it here. Instead I'll just try my best to explain why I like it so much.
I guess besides its overall presentation, what I like best about the film is the psychological aspect. Even besides main characters Willard and ultimately, Kurtz, we're given lots of different views of just how the insanity of war affects those involved in it. From soldiers who almost view it as a sort of game, to a French battalion not even directly involved who've been dug in to protect a plantation for years (Redux version only), to Willard's singular obsession with his mission to Kurtz's madness and the madness he inspires in those around him, there's a ton of variety and much of it is fascinating. Nothing strips a person's humanity away quite like war does and Apocalypse Now has to be one of the best movies out there that illustrates this. If you ask me (and you must have since you're reading this list) no other movie does it better.
I wish I could clearly remember the very first time I saw Alien but I can't. It's even possible that I saw its first sequel, Aliens, first. I just can't be sure. But either way, both movies had a huge effect on me and remain favourites to this day.
While seventies cinema was full of sci-fi, particularly the spacey kind, whenever I think of that era it all just blends into one movie - a longish, bleak affair with a depressing ending. This clip from Family Guy is so dead-on to what I've always imagined that it's actually a little scary:
But anyway, Alien totally broke away from that sort of stuff and practically invented the sub genre of sci-fi/horror. It's a symphony of atmosphere and suspense, with great acting, effects and music. If not for the perfection that is Blade Runner - another vastly influentual sci-fi film - it would be my favourite Ridley Scott movie. The monster was really unlike any other that had come before, particularly visually, and its nemesis - the gutsy and resourceful Ripley - was really unlike any previous female protagonist. She probably didn't know it at the time but actress Sigourney Weaver had blazed the trail as the first true female action star.
Maybe it's fair to say that it took the sequel - the more action-oriented Aliens - to really establish this, but Alien at least laid the groundwork. To this day the debate rages on regarding which is the better film. Maybe some other time in another forum I'll put in my two cents on the subject. But in the here and now I must simply declare Alien as my favourite movie of 1979 - a year that was quite good for cinema.