2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
2001 polarised critics initially, with some struggling to get on board with the unconventional narrative and dialogue, and probably just for being extremely difficult to follow. For years it was completely misunderstood, and I still don’t think I know exactly what’s going on. But, similarly to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), sometimes it’s refreshing to not be handed everything on a silver platter.
It’s the purist’s science fiction masterpiece, dealing with evolution, artificial intelligence, and the great questions of humanity. Kubrick, the consummate perfectionist, gives us some of his most beautiful images ever – to see the restored 70mm print would be the ideal way to experience this one-of-a-kind feature.
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
While director George A Romero is now well known as the godfather of modern zombie movies, his first entry into cinema Night of the Living Dead was not initially regarded with such reverence. Shot on a shoestring budget, substandard prints often circulated the horror film matinee circuit, causing it to often be mistaken as schlock played for laughs. In reality, and retrospectively regarded as so, it was a fiercely original vision from Romero, and hugely influential.
It’s strangely light in tone at the beginning, and might even seem cheap, but the power of the film is that at some stage during the second act it turns. The characters are holed up in a farmhouse and surrounded by “ghouls,” and all we can do is hold on for grim death while we witness their ill-fated attempts to survive the night.
Similarly to other genre-films like the western and science fiction, the horror film’s framework allows greater themes to be examined through symbolism and subtext. While the casting of African American actor Duane Jones (the first time a black actor had been the star of a horror film) was not a deliberate artistic choice, it nevertheless gives a chilling gravitas to the film’s final moments.
With zombie filmmaking reaching another resurgent peak, now’s the perfect time to go back and see the contemporary formula at its inception.
Wake in Fright (1971)
Debuting at the Cannes Film Festival, the film’s director Ted Kotcheff was distracted during the screening by a seemingly cocky youngster who was very vocal in his support. Kotcheff was later informed that the “boy” was a then little known Martin Scorcese. Fittingly, Scorcese’s first order of business when he became curator for Cannes Classics many years later was to help push along the restoration of Wake in Fright. It is courtesy of this 2009 print that the film is, thankfully, now widely available.
John Grant is a school teacher who has accepted an outback post, but is en route to the city to visit his girlfriend when he becomes stranded in a mining town known as “The Yabba.” The conditions he endures to live through a hellish ordeal take an immense psychological toll, forcing him to question his desire to live. The brutal realism of the many crafted set pieces must be seen to be believed. While the infamous kangaroo hunt scene would never be allowed to take place today, Wake in Fright comes across more a period piece than a dated film, having lost none of its original impact.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
A Clockwork Orange’s iconic “droogs,” fronted by Malcom McDowell’s sociopathic Alex, terrorise the locals and fight viciously amongst themselves in a dystopian near-future London. An investigation into totalitarianism, the film follows Alex as he rapes and murders, is imprisoned and then psychologically “rehabilitated” (read: tortured/reprogrammed). While often referred to as “banned” in the UK, it was actually withdrawn at director Stanley Kubrick’s request after two murders involving teenagers were linked to the film. This made it difficult to see A Clockwork Orange for many years, but has been widely available since Kubrick’s passing in 1999.
The Godfather (1972)
Powerful and compelling, The Godfather might be the great American film. Francis Ford Coppola’s reinvention of the mafia movie, using it as a metaphor for American capitalism, was both a blockbuster and a critical darling.
Deeply in debt with Warner Bros courtesy of flop production THX 1138 (Dir. George Lucas, 1971), Coppola was not Paramount’s first choice as director, and neither were many of his subsequent casting decisions. It seems ludicrous looking back at a cast like Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall and being anything but ecstatic at the prospect of this peerless collaboration.
An artist unparalleled, Coppola constantly fought with Paramount to attain creative control, nearly getting the sack on multiple occasions during production. Given Coppola was only 27 years old at the time, studio boss Robert Evans probably thought he could push the young director around. Seeing the dailies come in, Coppola was pressured to remove cinematographer Gordon Willis because the lighting was “too dim.” On this, and many other points of contention, Coppola flat out refused, and maintained his artistic vision. Had Evans gotten his way this masterpiece would never have eventuated. If you have not seen The Godfather in full, it should be moved directly to the top of your list.
The Exorcist (1973)
Directed by William Friedken at writer/producer William Peter Blatty’s behest, he was far from the studio’s first preference. They certainly wouldn’t have expected Friedken to chastise, slap, and borderline torture his cast…anything to get the right performance. There was obviously an unsettling energy on set, but through the horrendous conditions a truly amazing film came out, and audiences cued around the block to see it. The special effects were first-rate, used to frightening realism despite the occult setting, and caused some audience members to faint and even flee the cinema. Films that use quality practical effects tend to age well, and The Exorcist still comes across as a well-crafted movie that has an excellent balance between shock and suspense. Even by the so-called “torture porn” standards of the Saw and Hostel films, The Exorcist can still hold its own for shock value, but is a far more rewarding experience.
Star Wars (1977)
Fresh from a successful release of American Graffiti (1973), George Lucas was given carte blanche to produce pretty much whatever he wanted, borrowing heavily from Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) to create a film that was no guaranteed hit. Unaware of the film’s immense potential, the studio signed away merchandising rights to a deviously cunting…err…cunning Lucas.
The opening shot is one of the great images in cinema. The camera tilts down after the famous title crawl to reveal a huge spacecraft easily overpowering a dwarfed vessel that has seen better days. This simple visual cue establishes everything we need to know about this fictitious galaxy’s balance of power, and sets up the greatest Good versus Evil sci-fi western ever.
A flawlessly plotted film, it builds perfectly from slow character development early in the picture, gradually increasing in pace before hurtling towards the final battle. Practical effects and excellent casting have allowed this film to age well, with the original cut of Star Wars holding up far better than Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) whose tacky CGI creatures looked dated even at the time of its release.
Lucas will likely never allow a release of the original cinematic cut, so if you really want to experience this outstanding piece of history, you need to track down Harmy’s Despecialized Edition. Google it, torrent it, thank me later.
The Shining (1980)
Even when Stanely Kubrick doesn’t quite hit the mark, his films still beg to be seen, and The Shining definitely has that “imperfect masterpiece” quality. Starring Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrence, an author who takes his wife and son to a vacant hotel to look after it over the winter offseason, the combination of writer’s block and paranormal activity gradually send Jack over the edge. A psychological horror, it is often mentioned when talking about the scariest films of all time. Probably more creepy than scary, it nevertheless puts the audience right into the hotel with the characters for the film’s duration, making for intense viewing.
The way Kubrick sets the mood and tells a story is so fluidly visual, and his use of the Steadicam (a 1976 invention combining a handheld camera’s versatility with the stability of a standard tracking shot) represents this ideal perfectly. Now commonplace in a cinematographer’s arsenal, Kubrick wasn’t the first to use Steadicam in a film but he pushed the technology to new heights. The most famous use is the tracking shots that follow Jack’s son Danny as he rides around the hotel corridors on his three-wheeler. Kubrick’s incessant drive for perfection was at the forefront yet again, forcing his cast and crew to regularly do forty takes of a scene before he’d move on. Nicholson would do his takes quite differently each time, leaving Kubrick to craft a realistically manic performance during editing.
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Tied with The Godfather II as the best live-action sequel ever, The Empire Strikes Back takes what was a swashbuckling intergalactic adventure film into deeper thematic territory. Like any decent three act structure, the second film has its protagonists fighting against impossible odds while at their lowest point. Much of the credit must go to the writing of Lawrence Kasdan and brooding direction of Irvin Kershner for taking Lucas’s crafted galaxy and stripping it back to its fundamental basis – why we care about these characters. While a decent chunk of Return of the Jedi (1983) foreshadows the mindboggling stupidity of the “Special Edition” re-releases and the prequels, Empire transcends the greater Star Wars universe and its huge nerd following to be, simply, an unmissable piece of cinematic history.
Body Heat (1981)
Having enjoyed successful screenwriting campaigns on The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lawrence Kasdan revived film noir with his provocative directorial debut. Kathleen Turner apparently used to be a slammin’ hottie back in her day, and she is never more sexy than as the femme fatale to William Hurt’s womanising but otherwise well-meaning chump. The classic film noir conventions are adhered to but, courtesy of a more forgiving ratings system, they are pushed much further than in their previous incarnations. Gone is the implied sexuality familiar from classic noir, Body Heat’s steamy love scenes borderline on softcore pornography. It also features Mickey Rourke in his first significant film role.