All That Jazz (1979)

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Starring: Roy Scheider, Leland Palmer (her final film), Ann Reinking, Jessica Lange, Erzsebet Foldi (her only film), Cliff Gorman, John Lithgow

Director: Bob Fosse

Summary: Bob Fosse tells his own life story as he details the sordid life of Joe Gideon, a womanizing, drug-using dancer

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Scheider), Original Screenplay, Song Score*, Art Direction*, Cinematography, Costume Design*, Film Editing*

Bob Fosse changed the movie musical with Cabaret by giving it a dose of reality that most usually lacked, and he ends up going even further with his highly-autobiographical All That Jazz that ultimately is his crowning achievement as a filmmaker. Roy Scheider gives a career performance as our Bob Fosse expy, tapping into something that I didn’t know existed from watching him in Jaws or The French Connection, never shying away from the character’s darker aspects (his womanizing, lack of care about himself or others) while somehow never becoming too unlikeable so that we lose investment with the character. This is an excellent, bold screenplay that takes tons of risks-mainly the frequent cuts to the internal thoughts of the main character that are done either as conversations between him and the angel of death (Lange), or as musical numbers-that end up working really well. It also is incredibly introspective, and details Fosse’s inability to have a meaningful relationship with his lovers or his daughter, him trying to prove his masculinity in a very gay business, his self-doubting, and how he’s slowly killing himself with drugs, cigarettes, alcohol and an insane schedule, an finally being simultaneously being obsessed with and trying to ignore his own mortality.

The editing is a strong point-among other things, the editing of his morning routine that we see a number of times in the movie is great, and the jarring last cut in the entire movie is perfect. Ironically however, the one thing that was a weaker link in the movie were the scenes involving the editing of “The Stand-up” (Lenny) which were far less interesting than seeing him stage a new show (which is this bizarre sex-airlines musical) or battling his personal issues.

Overall: Bob Fosse’s best work and probably my favorite musical from this project. It’s bold, introspective and Scheider’s lead performance is excellent.

Rating: A-

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Apocalypse Now (1979)

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Starring: Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Dennis Hopper, Harrison Ford

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Summary: An army captain travels to Cambodia during the Vietnam War to terminate a renegade officer

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (Duvall), Adapted Screenplay, Sound Mixing*, Art Direction, Cinematography*, Film Editing

*Note: I watched the theatrical cut (vs. Apocalypse Now Redux) as that’s what the voters would have seen*

Francis Ford Coppola closes out maybe the best decade for a director ever (at least in terms of sheer consistency) with the incredible Apocalypse Now, which feels like an end-all, be-all film on Vietnam; the only good reason I can think of for why it didn’t win Best Picture (especially considering what did win) is that 1978 was the Vietnam year at the Oscars (with The Deer Hunter and Coming Home), and voters didn’t want to have back-to-back winners on the same subject.

There’s three things that really stand out to me about the film. First, the sound design is incredible and it really emphasizes the foreignness of all the mechanical/technological aspects of the American war effort (helicopters and guns) in contrast to the technology employed by the Vietnamese. In a related note, the musical choices are consistently strong, with Ride of the Valkyries and The End being especially memorable. Second, the cinematography is excellent and deservedly won the Oscar. Finally, and most importantly, this is a fantastic screenplay that was produced from a collaboration between two of the best: Coppola and John Milius (Conan the Barbarian, Red Dawn, along with script-doctor work on Jaws and Dirty Harry). It perfectly captures the arrogance and unpreparedness of the Americans in Vietnam and pretty quickly you’re asking “why are we over here”? It questions what is going to far in a war and how do you even know what the right thing to do is, especially when there’s a lot of ambiguity between who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are. It doesn’t romanticize the soldier or the military and instead presents them as the realistically flawed people who are thrust into a situation they are absolutely not prepared to handle and, if they survive, will have an extremely difficult time reintegrating back into civilian life. Finally, on a structural level, it does a good job of progressively escalating everything until you hit a boiling point, and it does an amazing job of building up the mystique before finally meeting Col. Kurtz (it really doesn’t happen until an hour and 50 minutes into the movie), focusing on how one could end up like Kurtz and how one could, after experiencing the war, end up following someone like him.

Overall: A war film with a combination of both great intelligence and visceral impact is hard to come by, and it’s reputation as one of the great movies is richly deserved

Rating: A

Breaking Away (1979)

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Starring: Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern (his debut), Jackie Earle Haley, Paul Dooley, Barbara Barrie, Robyn Douglass (her film debut)

Director: Peter Yates

Summary: Working-class teens compete with a college cycling team from Indiana University

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actress (Barrie), Original Screenplay*, Song Score

In some ways, this is a very by-the-book kind of movie that has been done to death: we have a group of underdogs (this time working-class kids from a college town) who have been antagonized by the douchebag rich kids who look down on the poors and now a sporting event comes along that gives the underdogs the opportunity to show they’re just as good or better than the jerks who are the big favorites to win the event. This definitely hurts the movie, but it’s one of the better versions of this story that I’ve seen because the characters have some charm and there’s a little more under the hood than most. The movie focuses on this “end of high-school, will the main character become like his dad and work with his hands or will he go to college” storyline that works because the interactions between the son (Christopher) and father (Dooley) are very good and feel genuine, and the group dynamics between the working-class high school kids who have always stuck together but look like they might go their separate ways is well-done. Finally, as is crucial to any good sports movie, the end bike race is great and I loved how they did the final couple of laps of the race as a single unbroken take, as it made it feel more like you were watching something real vs. a movie and I got really into it.

Beyond the general premise being tired and every college kid being awful, preppy jerks (which would work better in a broad comedy than a film trying to take itself seriously), the main character for the first half of the film grated on me a bit because he’s obsessed with Italy and uses a fake Italian accent around everyone. I get why he did it (he wants to be someone else, not a simple kid from a working-class family), but he came off as really annoying for a while; that, and somehow his sort-of girlfriend actually thought he was Italian which was hilarious to me.

Overall: Even with its well-worn premise, it’s a solid movie that has some good character moments and a really good ending race

Rating: B-

*Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)*

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Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Justin Henry (his debut), Jane Alexander

Director: Robert Benton

Summary: When his wife leaves him, an ad exec gets a crash course in parenting

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Hoffman)*, Supporting Actor (Henry), Supporting Actress (Streep)*, Supporting Actress (Alexander), Adapted Screenplay*, Cinematography, Film Editing

I thought the performances all-around were really good, even if some of my Oscar choices would have been different. There’s definitely a lot of realism in the performances, especially Henry (with one of the most natural performances for an 8 year-old I’ve seen) and Streep (who’s great, but in no way is a supporting actress and shouldn’t have gotten nominated for the category). Hoffman is good too, and his average guy, unglamorous quality helps him here a lot.

As for the screenplay, I thought it was hit-or-miss and it feels very mechanical-everything is predictable (at least until the very end) and you can see what all the character arcs are going to be from the outset. With that said, I thought the execution was solid, with the character growth for both parents feeling well-done. The premise of a movie about a single-dad due to a divorce was novel back then and credit has to be given for that, and even now most movies about divorce and child custody usually focus on the mother.

The one thing people say about this movie is that it does a really good job of being balanced and fair to both parents without any obvious answers as to who’s right and wrong, and I would only sort of agree with that. The courtroom scenes help a lot to make Streep’s character much more sympathetic than the other scenes did, but she still wants custody of a child she abandoned, doesn’t seem reliable and her creepy stalker bit doesn’t help. The fact that the movie is told completely from Hoffman’s perspective also reinforces the idea that we’re much more likely to side with Hoffman.

Overall: Good performances and a then-novel premise made it a hit back in the day, but most of the story felt predictable and while it gave both parents depth, I didn’t feel like it was really that balanced.

Rating: B-

Norma Rae (1979)

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Starring: Sally Field, Ron Leibman, Beau Bridges

Director: Martin Ritt

Summary: A young single mother and her co-worker try to unionize the mill in small-town North Carolina

Other Nominations: Actress (Field)*, Adapted Screenplay, Original Song (“It Goes Like It Goes”)*

A bit of a throwback here-how many major movies these days are incredibly reverent about unions? Field is very good here as a working-class woman who’s finally had enough and has a lot of gumption, but sans the sassiness these kind of characters usually have. Her chemistry with Leibman is good (who plays a union organizer coming in from New York) and their relationship is arc escalates and resolves nicely, with the ending probably being the one more true to life than the alternative. I also liked the look of the film in general, as you immediately understand the characters through it-the tiny town in the middle of nowhere and the dirtiness and loudness of the mill make it easy to understand where all the characters are coming from.

With all that said, it sometimes delves into the kind of cliches you expect with these kind of “one man/woman who’s finally had enough vs. the evil corporation” movies. While it’s not a difficult watch or anything, I found it overly simplistic about its subject (and I’m a liberal) without even trying to set up any kind of two-sided argument-even one scene where some of the legitimate counterpoints to not unionizing would have been appreciated.

Overall: Field’s performance is the best thing about the movie and the characters are solid, but it’s too simplistic about whether it’s good to unionize or not to be effective as anything more than a pure “feel-good movie”

Rating: C+

1979 in Review

Other Notable Films from 1979

Alien: Basically a horror film set in space vs. being an outright sci-fi movie, the art direction is incredible from the set of the Nostromo to the legendary H.R. Giger alien design, as is the escalating suspense where we start to see more of the monster and the deaths get more violent and things fly off the rails. All-time classic that launched Sigourney Weaver’s career. In the National Film Registry.

Manhattan: After Annie Hall (and maybe Hannah and Her Sisters), it’s Woody Allen’s most acclaimed film (it won the BAFTA for Best Film) and once again pairs Allen with Diane Keaton. It was nominated for Screenplay and Supporting Actress, but surprisingly nothing else and feels like a snub. In the National Film Registry.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian: The premise back then was pretty shocking for a lot of audiences: a Jewish man named Brian Cohen is mistaken for the messiah when he is born on the same day as and next door to Jesus. The film was banned in parts of the UK and all of Ireland and Norway, but it was still a massive success and is now considered one of the great comedies of all time for it’s satire and intelligence.

The Jerk: Probably the best thing Steve Martin ever did, playing a naive white guy who is dumped into the harsh real world after growing up thinking he was black because his adopted parents were. Martin has a tour-de-force comedic performance here, playing a complete fool who stays consistently funny throughout the film, and the film itself is a well-done commentary on what matters in life and what money does to people.

Mad Max: The film that established the careers of Mel Gibson and director George Miller, it was made on a shoestring budget but managed to make $100 million and kicked off a hugely successful franchise that has culminated in one of the only action movies to ever get a BP nomination in 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. The first movie feels completely different than its 3 sequels and honestly, I think it’s for the worst. The movie is very slow (up until the very end) when it doesn’t need to be-the world is established pretty quickly and we never develop any of the characters besides Max (certainly not his wife), so why take your time? I’ve never liked it, but the sequels improved on the formula (or at least Road Warrior, the first half of Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road did).

1979 Nominees in Review

Apocalypse Now: A

All That Jazz: A-

Breaking Away: B-

Kramer vs. Kramer: B- (Won Best Picture)

Norma Rae: C+

Kramer vs. Kramer was #1 at the box office for 1979 (with Apocalypse Now being #4 and the other three not in the top 10), and was a hit with critics so I can understand why it won, but man Apocalypse Now has stood the test of time way better as an all-time classic and Kramer vs. Kramer is just pretty good. This is a case of the safer, everybody likes it kind of movie winning over the more divisive but better film that we see so often at the Oscars, and that’s fine, but history usually looks upon them as bad decisions for a good reason. All That Jazz was a great movie as well and was equally adventurous as Apocalypse Now in a completely different way and is my favorite musical so far.

For 1980: Sissy Spacek was deciding between which of two projects she wanted to star in, so she waited for a sign, which came with the song that gave the movie its title came on the radio; The movie that inspired the Academy to create an award for best Makeup and Hairstyling; Robert Redford’s directorial debut that won Best Picture over a movie now considered one of the greatest of all time and one of the worst BP decisions ever by most; and Roman Polanski’s first film after fleeing America to avoid further sentencing for statutory rape. It’s also the last year with two black and white films.