My apologies for the lack of Wednesday Listicles in the past few months. I’ve been swamped with other projects, and quite frankly, these essays take time. It’s probably going to be at least another week before the next portion of the 100 Greatest Movies comes out. However, I don’t want to leave you all hanging, so I thought I’d give you this little mini-article to help you get by!
You see, you never stop watching and learning from movies, and no list is ever truly complete. There are movies that haven’t been made yet, and there are movies that you haven’t seen. In the past few weeks alone, I’ve seen two movies that have forced Brazil and Fantastic Mr. Fox (two wonderful films) out of the Top 100, and taken comfortable seats as the 99th and 80th Greatest Films of All Time. So, as a little tidbit to prepare you for films 70-61, here are the two newest additions to the 100 Greatest Films Ever Made.
99. Shaft (1971)
There are very few truly great “cool” films, which embody the rough-and-tough side of society that film manages to capture so brilliantly. There are also very few truly great “Important” films, the ones that capture a feeling and a movement in a very specific time in history. The middle portion of that Venn diagram is a barren wasteland that, in my experience, has only ever been occupied by one film: Shaft. Shaft is a film that captures a certain time in a certain place for an underrepresented group of people: the African-Americans. Long subjugated to background roles or villains in the film noir genre, Gordon Parks’ bold film not only changed the way they could be portrayed in film, it changed the game, period. Shaft is a tough, fun film with a great mystery at the center, a collection of entertaining characters, a hard look at the way society treated (treats?) black people, and above all, one of the greatest heroes in film history. Shaft is a flawed man, to be sure (he’s told as much by the women in his life, whom he treats with respect but never with decency), but we’re willing to overlook that because of how awesome he is. He’s tough, he’s smart, he’s sexy…he’s everything we want to be and more. He’s not against telling the mob-leaders in the area of his disdain for their dealing in heroin, which is killing their fellow African-Americans, but he knows that they’re trying to make the best of their lot in life. He’s willing to work with white men who treat him with general respect, like Lt. Androzzi, but he knows better than to give them too much trust, especially the higher ups who couldn’t care less about the suffering African-Americans in the city. He’s willing to work with the local chapter of the Panthers, who are portrayed as well-meaning but woefully inept in their efforts to clean up the streets (yet still emerge as the heroes, an interesting choice in the middle of 1971). Hell, he even has a gay friend. How many films can say that their symbol of ultimate machismo is willing to hangout with a homosexual? Richard Roundtree’s portrayal of John Shaft is the type of person we all want to, and should strive to be, infinitely more cool than even Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum, and the fact he’s an African-American makes this choice so much more subversive.
Of course, the reason this film feels so cool is because of the subversive choices it makes in its filming. Every decision feels like a buck against authority, from the mostly-unlicensed walk through the streets in the breathtaking, ultra-cool opening (more on that in a minute) to the brilliance of the fight scenes to the over-the-top but truly awesome finale. Every scene feels like the only thought crossing the director and the writer’s minds was “How do we make this movie cool?” It never feels shoddily made or amateur. It only feels like they wanted to make a film that was fun for everyone in the audience, and it works in abundance. In an era when authorities, and especially cops, couldn’t be trusted, it was nice to have a figure people could look up to, one who was on the outside of the corrupt government and could still work to protect the neighborhood. Where a normal film might tone down the violence, this film embraces it, albeit in an understated, respectable way. And where any other film noir would end in a small-scale shootout, mostly featuring three or four characters, Shaft chooses to go out with an action sequence straight out of a war film. Does it make sense to recreate The Dirty Dozen in the middle of New York City? Not at all. However, because it feels so new, so different, and so well-done, the audience doesn’t care. In fact, they embrace it. Watching a good plan come together is the pride of all great films, and this one is no exception.
Even the song challenges authority, flaunting its sexy extravagance in the face of traditional songwriting. While most songs feature lyrics and choruses, with some form of melody to the lyrics, Isaac Hayes talk-sings descriptors of the titular character, engaging in conversations with his background singers about how great our hero is. Taking place over one of the greatest hooks in all of music, everything about this song shouldn’t have worked in the most off-putting manner, and yet it not only does, it stands as one of the most important musical accomplishments of the past forty to fifty years. It’s the perfect representation for Shaft as a whole: loud, audacious, smart, fun, and cool, in all of the ways that film should be. I could go on talking about how great Shaft makes me feel, but at the end of the day, its accomplishments speak for themselves. It’s a great film with a groundbreaking lead that created its own genre. By definition, those are the criteria for the greatest films of all time.
80. Five Easy Pieces (1970)
We’re a few months out at the time of this article from Casey Affleck win for Manchester by the Sea, and it still feels like it deserves an asterisk. Yes, it was an incredibly emotional performance played entirely inward, but something about it didn’t feel new exactly. I realize now that the reason it lacked the euphoric release that it should have held is because the depiction of a put-upon grief-stricken blue-collar worker has been done before, and better. Actually, better is an understatement-it was done in a nearly perfect movie. Watching the character study Five Easy Pieces is one of the greater joys I’ve had when it comes to cinema. I’m pretty sure every arthouse movie that has come out in the past twenty years has, in one way or another, wanted to be this film: a simple story about a man and how he connects with people – how he connects with his family, how he connects with his friends, and how he connects with strangers. It’s a wonderful film, bolstered by great performances and a smart script that make this the film that ushered in a new era of Hollywood. It’s a film about a specific time in a specific place in America, both playing into and tearing down the myth of the Forgotten Man that was on everyone’s mind. It was a look at a changing America through the eyes of a man who wished to forego his privilege and live an ordinary life. The film contains criticisms of every aspect of America across every spectrum, but never in a flat-out negative way; rather, it turns its lens to every angle, simply portraying its country in the most honest terms possible. We see rednecks, the upper-middle class intellectuals, the poverty-ridden small towns, the last of the far-left hippies, gay culture, and the rise of the 70s “movements.” Every character has their positive traits, every character has their flaws. No one is great, no one is terrible. They are simply characters we meet on our hero’s journey to understand America in 1970, and more importantly, his place in it.
It is impossible to talk about this film without discussing Jack Nicholson. Make no mistake: Nicholson’s performance in this film changed the game for acting. Something of a cross between method acting and his natural charisma, Nicholson creates one of the screen’s most memorable characters in Bobby Dupea. In the course of 96 minutes, you feel like you’ve learned Bobby’s entire life story, where he comes from, where he’s going, why he’s there, and how he struggles to connect. While you never fully like him – he’s a drunk, he’s a philanderer, he’s emotionally unstable – you definitely sympathize with him. You understand why he never fit in with the rest of his family, and why his strained relationship with his father has pushed him away from the gifted life he was privileged into and into a blue-collar existence. By the end of the film, you completely forget that Nicholson even exists, as he disappears so far into Bobby you believe him to be a real person. This is because Nicholson plays Bobby in the most realistic way possible. Bobby is an everyman, keeping his emotions buried deep in his heart as he struggles to get by. You can see his anger and his sorrows bubble to the surface occasionally, but he carefully keeps them hidden until they burst out in a fiery display of emotion. This is seen in the films two best moments, the diner and the farewell. In the diner, we see a satire of a changing society, one that refuses people the freedom to make a simple request for a substituted lunch order. It’s a normal, everyday occurrence, but to an unstable individual, it’s enough to push him to the breaking point, and we the audience cheer his ability to say what we are too polite to allow ourselves to think. Meanwhile, in the film’s climactic finale, we get to see Dupea try to come to terms with his comatose father, and their broken relationship. It’s a powerful emotion, and watching our stoic hero break down during it is one of the cinema’s strongest calls to just feel. It’s been a few months since I saw this movie, and I still feel in awe of this performance.
However, while Nicholson’s performance towers over the rest of this film, I don’t want to make it sound like he’s the only great performance. An argument could be made that he wouldn’t be half as great without Karen Black at his side. I had never seen Black before this movie, but I walked away looking up her entire filmography. Her Rayette is funny, quirky, likable, obnoxious, dumb, smart, and more, all in one go. She’s an explosion of energy, a character unlike any we’ve seen before, and at many points almost steals the focus away from Bobby. There’s also Helna Kallianotes as lesbian Communist Palm, a woman obsessed with the “filth” destroying America and determined to hitchhike to Alaska. And while it’s a tiny role, Sally Ann Struthers makes a huge impact in her first major role as a woman Bobby picks up at the bowling alley for a fling, who delivers a nonsensical, yet oddly poignant monologue about existence. It doesn’t make much sense, but God, she knows exactly how to make you feel for her with just a few lines of dialogue, and that’s an impressive feat. Other great performances come from Susan Anspach as Catherine, the woman who may be Bobby’s soulmate, Lois Smith as Partita, Bobby’s sheltered sister, Toni Basil (yes, Toni Basil as in “Oh Mickey, you’re so fine…”) as Terry, Palm’s girlfriend and the quieter of the two, and Lorna Thayer as the off-putting waitress with whom Bobby fights. Five Easy Pieces may be the most American film ever made. It’s open, honest, smart, and emotional, all in one go. If you want to understand how to act, and why Nicholson is the greatest actor to ever live, this is his magnum opus.
I hope you enjoyed this little update to the 100 Greatest Films. You can see the updated list here, and check out the previous lists and essays below. The films that have been pushed off will be noted on that page as “Honorable Mentions.” See you all next time, which will hopefully be in the next week!