Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Whether it was in the cosmos or just chance, once in awhile, it occurs that a string of great films are all released within the same year. It doesn’t happen as often as you think, and even though movies are all subjective, over time, certain films have gained a certain amount of fame or notoriety and have stuck in the subconscious of moviegoers everywhere. Here are five specific years (with a couple of others peppered throughout as well) that stand out as the most extraordinary years for the film going experience.

Many critics will tell you that the 1950s were largely responsible for the shift in cinema that has been ongoing ever since. Before the 50s, movies were typically produced by the five big studios; 20th Century Fox, RKO Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros., and MGM. But the 1950s brought one innumerable phenomenon that would change pop culture forever: television. Big studios struggled to find new ways to attract audiences to theaters, while changes occurred throughout the movie world. John Cassavetes was directing independent films in New York, and Francois Truffaut changed everything when The 400 Blows was released in the latter part of the decade. In America, movies were still clinging to their old-fashioned sensibilities while being challenged by new wave techniques. 1957 saw a host of great films being made including The Bridge on the River Kwai, 12 Angry Men, Paths of Glory, Witness For the Prosecution, and Sweet Smell of Success. It was a particularly amazing year for non-American filmmakers as well. The Cranes are Flying, Ingmar Bergman's phenomenal double whammy of The Seventh Seal & Wild Strawberries, Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria and Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood were all released that year.

1968 is probably the most memorable and infamous time in American history. It was a cultural, social and political landmark year. Both Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated that year. The U.S. continued its arduous fight in Vietnam. Richard Nixon began one of the most controversial presidency’s in history. And thanks to Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and Stanley Kubrick, pop culture would never be the same again. Notable films include Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, the Steve McQueen classic Bullitt, George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, Faces, The Producers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and The Planet of the Apes.

You can pick any year from the 1970s and you’ll find a host of extra special films that have held up as some of the best movies ever made. Take for example, 1973, which saw the release of Paper Moon, Mean Streets, Papillon, Serpico, The Sting, and The Exorcist. There’s also 1975, with movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Man Who Would Be King, Jaws, Barry Lyndon, Nashville and Dog Day Afternoon. 1979 was a brilliant year for movies with releases like Apocalypse Now, The Warriors, Kramer vs. Kramer, Breaking Away, All That Jazz, Being There, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Ridley Scott’s Alien, and Woody Allen’s Manhattan. But the year that stands out the most is 1976, which features a host of classics that have penetrated the heart of movie lovers and popular culture for decades. These movies are synonymous with cinematic success in every meaning of the word. 1976 was simply the apex of cinema with releases like Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, Carrie, Network, The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Omen, Rocky, The Front, The Last Tycoon, Marathon Man, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, Roman Polanski’s chiller The Tenant and finally Alfred Hitchcock’s last film before his death, Family Plot.

1980 was the last great year for the golden age of cinema that started in the 1960s. After the release of Star Wars in 1977, studios systematically took back control of their films from directors and gave it to the executives who were looking to repeat the success of the effects-heavy Star Wars series. This meant that the conscious heavy intellectuals who were given unprecedented freedom and creative control in the 60s and 70s either had to adapt to the enormous change in how movies were made or be shunned by critics and audiences. 1980 was headlined by Martin Scorsese's brilliant Raging Bull. Scorsese had made this picture after a three year break from movies. The film was meant to evoke the atmospheric, black & white style of the movies Scorsese grew up watching. It was to be his entry into the lore of great American cinema of the 20th Century. Scorsese hoped to pay homage to his childhood heroes--Huston, Ford, Welles, Kazan, Hitchcock--all masters of film directing. In doing so, he secured his place in movie history. At the Academy Awards that year however, the film, quite like its protagonist, went down losing. Despite Robert De Niro's triumph as Best Actor, Raging Bull lost the coveted Best Director and Best Picture categories to Robert Redford's directorial debut, Ordinary People. Also that year, William Friedkin made Cruising, a film about underground gay clubs in New York starring Al Pacino. John Landis directed The Blues Brothers. Stanley Kubrick did The Shining. David Lynch did The Elephant Man. Bruce Beresford scored an Oscar nod for his great Australian film Breaker Morant. There was Alan Parker’s Fame, Michael Cimino’s infamous Heaven’s Gate, Ken Russell’s Altered States, as well as other notable features like The Empire Strikes Back, Somewhere in Time, American Gigolo, The Big Red One, The Long Good Friday, Stardust Memories, and the Foreign Language Oscar Winner Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears.

Filmmakers spent the majority of the 90s paying homage to the films of the 70s. Independent cinema was gaining ground, and most filmmakers were attempting to revive the spirit of the 60s and 70s, and 1994 was the year when it all came together for many of the best filmmakers of the time. It was the year that saw the releases of movies like Forrest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction, The Lion King, Hoop Dreams, Nobody’s Fool, Quiz Show, Once Were Warriors, Luc Besson’s The Professional, James Cameron's True Lies, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Red, Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, Yimou Zhang’s To Live, Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun and Kevin Smith’s no-budget cult film Clerks.

There have been several other memorable years for film. No one can forget 1939, when The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington were all released. There was also 1950, with releases like All About Eve, Rashoman, and Sunset Blvd. More recently, 1999 was a huge year for films, which saw another shift after the release of The Matrix, in addition to American Beauty, Magnolia, Fight Club and The Green Mile. 2006 was a relatively great year for movies as well with releases like The Departed, The Lives of Others, The Prestige and Pan's Labyrinth. Forgive me if I've left out some of your favorite movies, and if I've missed anything that was released during any of these years, please make note of it.

Saturday, March 3, 2012


Scarecrow, USA, 1973
Dir: Jerry Schatzberg
Cast: Gene Hackman, Al Pacino

Ultimately, a film is considered a comedy or tragedy based on its conclusion. In the case of Scarecrow, it is a bittersweet tale of an unlikely friendship that stands out as one of the best buddy pictures ever. The film stars Gene Hackman and Al Pacino as two drifters who meet by the side of a road and form a connection that takes them through a journey across the U.S. Mr. Hackman portrays Max, an ex-con with a tough attitude who decides to partner up with Lionel, a former sailor, played by Mr. Pacino. The two are an odd couple in the classic sense. Max is a hard-nosed criminal with hopes of opening up his own business, while Lionel is gullible but friendly and eager to befriend Max. The two set out to find closure and sow up old ties—Max with his sister in Denver, and Lionel with his ex-girlfriend in Detroit.

Directed by Jerry Schatzberg, this was his second collaboration with Pacino. They first made The Panic in Needle Park in 1971, Pacino’s screen debut, which centered on a group of heroin addicts on the Upper West Side in New York who hung out in what was then known as Needle Park. Both men received attention after the film’s release, and Pacino was then hired to play Marlon Brando’s son in The Godfather.

Many critics dismissed the Scarecrow script as weak, but it’s the ups and downs of these two loners, the struggles that continue to derail their ultimate goal of cleaning up their act and opening up an honest business together that makes the film so interesting. It’s a movie about outsiders, so going down the straight and narrow path is not in the fortunes of these characters and first-time screenwriter Garry Michael White makes sure never to make the road to the straight life an easy one for them.

Also amazing is Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography, which is simply spellbinding and captures a slice of Americana on celluloid that was common during the period. Zsigmond was a relative unknown at the time, but he'd go on to lens other classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Deer Hunter.

Scarecrow is a film that has not aged well, and has been overshadowed by the more high profile films of Hackman and Pacino’s careers. Hackman had just won the Academy Award for Best Actor for The French Connection the year before, and Pacino was fresh off of The Godfather and Serpico and was getting ready to do The Godfather Part II and Dog Day Afternoon. It was the golden age of cinema, a time when movies didn't have the obligatory happy endings that Hollywood force feeds us today. It is also of no surprise that both lead actors give exceptional performances, and make for one of the best pairings in movie history.

is currently available on DVD from Warner Home Video. Don’t miss this one.