Freelance Writer / Editor @ reprobatepress.com
|Francis Ford Coppola
|Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
|The Exterminating Angel
|Last Year at Marienbad
|On Her Majesty's Secret Service
|The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
|Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
Francis Ford Coppola’s anti-war film feels epic in a way that few films do, yet also manages to be an intimate study of the madness of war and the madness it brings out in others. It’s a film that loses its grip on reality as slowly and completely as its characters do, becoming an acid-soaked bad trip into Hell that is never less than compelling. It’s audacious, indulgent, genre-defying and excessive. Of course, Coppola has continually re-edited it, and different cuts are more or less successful – but as a final gasp of unrestrained 1970s cinema, it remains unsurpassed.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
I’m forever torn between Russ Meyer’s two masterpieces; last time round, I picked Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, so this time I’m going with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a helter-skelter, acid-tongued satirical assault on Hollywood, pop culture, the 1960s and Jacqueline Susann’s overwrought soap opera to which it is ostensibly the sequel. Every line of dialogue is eminently quotable, the music is magnificent and Meyer seems to have perfected his visual style here. It's decades ahead of its time – perhaps still too innovative for some, as even now it is bafflingly dismissed by many who seem to miss the entire joke.
The spiritual sister to Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and Celine and Julie Go Boating (both of which deserve to be on this list), Věra Chytilová’s Daisies is a delicious, chaotic and wonderfully pointed study of freedom, anarchy and rebellion, with two teenage girls – both named Marie – who are dedicated to spoiling themselves, having reached the sound conclusion that as the world is spoiled, why shouldn’t they be? Chytilová weaves a gleefully surreal series of images – some improvised happenings, some bizarre examples of crude but highly effective camera trickery. There is a pointedly political, feminist undercurrent to their breaking free of the control, the conformity and the dourness of Soviet-dominated Czechoslavakia (as was). But you can also – if you wish – simply enjoy this movie as a happy, crazy, wild and irreverent film that, like its two heroines, just loves to misbehave and stick two fingers up to the establishment.
The Exterminating Angel
The characters in The Exterminating Angel, wealthy bourgeois elites immune to the world outside, suddenly find themselves unable to leave the dinner party they have attended and their sense of civilised self soon gives way to infighting, blame and counter-blame, and ultimately violence. Luis Buñuel’s study of the pressures of being trapped by social convention and how quickly people will revert to savagery when that breaks down seem more depressingly pertinent than ever now – I watch this film now and can’t help but think of the way people become trapped in unhealthy online conflicts, destroying friendships and relationships when they could just walk away. The film's final moments suggest a wider, perhaps apocalyptic collapse at work, but this is ultimately a look at people who are keeping themselves locked into a pattern of self-destruction.
Last Year at Marienbad
Alain Renais and writer Alain Robbe-Grillet’s study of unreliable memory and the slippery nature of truth is a frustrating (in the best sort of way) exploration of perception and reality that allows the viewer to search for the truth (if the truth actually really matters) alongside the main characters, toying with themes of time and place in a way that feels almost like science fiction – indeed, might be science fiction – all while being the most beautiful and stylish film you’ll ever see. This unsolvable puzzle lingers in the mind long after you see it and, like all the best films, reveals new details – but no more answers – on every viewing.
Jean-Luc Godard’s finest film is a deeply cynical study of the loss of artistic integrity and the loss of respect (for yourself, from those who love you) that comes from it, a warning to every artist who chooses to sell out for financial gain and clearly something that Godard – who seemed drawn to and repelled by mainstream cinema in equal measure at this point – fretted about, given the deeply personal nature of the film. It's perhaps ironic that this is probably his most commercial movie, though even the most purist New Wave enthusiast would struggle to call this a sell-out. Brigitte Bardot is the increasingly unobtainable object of desire, Jack Palance chews the scenery as the culturally ignorant film producer, and the sense of despair and tragedy is palpable.
On Her Majesty's Secret Service
It’s been gratifying, over the years, to see the reputation of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service grow to the point where many see it as the best of the Bond films. It still feels under-appreciated, though, if only because it is doomed to be forever seen within the context of the whole franchise. This is one of those films that gets better with each viewing, allowing you to distance it more and more from the whole 007 baggage and see it as a stand-alone film that could’ve pointed the way for the series during the 1970s (and arguably set the template for the more recent Bond films). In George Lazenby it has a Bond who feels like a human being – flawed, vulnerable but also genuinely dynamic; in Diana Rigg a Bond Girl who is every bit his equal; and the best action sequences of the whole series.
And that ending, no matter how often I see it, still cuts me up.
Yes, Paris, Texas is pure, manipulative melodrama – but within that, Wim Wenders and screenwriters Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson create an unusually off-centre study of madness, separation and redemption that takes us into very dark places along the way. It’s a film that takes its time and is built around a handful of lengthy and carefully crafted set pieces that allow Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski to deep-dive into their characters while exploring an intimate family break-up that is made to feel like a grand tragedy. Ry Cooder's music and Wenders' extraordinary outsider's eye for Americana are the icing on the cake. It’s a film that does what it sets out to do with perfection, and if you are not weeping by the end, I can't help but feel that you must be a little bit dead inside.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
I watch this movie every few years just to be sure that I don’t have rose-tinted memories of it as a seminal film of my youth and each time I’m floored by how perfectly constructed, delirious and intense it is. It remains a masterclass in controlled chaos, building the audience up to expect unspeakable horrors and then delivering something even wilder. The hot, sweaty claustrophobia of the final act remains the most intensely nightmarish thing I've ever seen and the palpable sense of menace from the start – helped immeasurably by Wayne Bell's industrial nightmare score – never fails to get under my skin.
Years of variable sequels, remakes and reboots have done nothing to diminish the quality of this film – if anything, all the imitators simply make the achievement here all the more impressive. Every aspect of this film is like a masterclass in horror cinema. Yet there is something here – some indefinable moment – that can’t be copied, which is why no one has come close to making anything like it since.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
David Lynch’s relentlessly grim film expansion of the original Twin Peaks TV series is darker, stranger and bleaker than the show that inspired it. Widely hated on its original release, its influence on the extraordinary Twin Peaks: The Return (which I strongly considered for inclusion here and which was unquestionably the television event of the century) should be enough to rehabilitate it, but even at the time, this felt audacious and brilliant, full of moments of devastating tragedy, fragile beauty and apocalyptic horror that expanded the narrative of the original show in ways that would never please the people who tuned in for the show's catchphrases and lighthearted 'weirdness' but tied everything into Lynch's own cinematic universe and paved the way for Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. I felt terrible not including this last time around, so here it is.
As ever, I wish I could add another ten (at least) films to this Sophie’s Choice of a list. Films that I included last time around and have omitted now – Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, The Killing of America, Woman in the Dunes, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders – still deserve a place, and one or two have possibly suffered from the fact that I simply haven't seen them for a long time and so can't be completely sure that they still stand up. There are some personal favourites missing here but you can't include everything. I'm sorry not to have space for Monty Python's Life of Brian, because comedy does seem to be under-appreciated in these polls. My list is lacking in anything pre-1960 or post-1992 and I regret that – but what can you do? And I still can’t quite believe that there is no Kubrick, Cronenberg or Borowczyk here.