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Best Discoveries of 2021: The 1970s

After the 1940s, my favorite decade is the ‘70s. Although this is when I grew up, there are still many films from that decade I’ve yet to see. (Here’s my list from 2020.) Here’s what I encountered from the ‘70s in 2021:


Insiang (1976) Lino Brocka (Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project, No. 2 box set, Criterion)

A young woman named Insiang, who lives with her hateful mother in an impoverished Philippine village, is raped by the mother’s boyfriend. When Insiang’s cries for help to her own boyfriend fail, she decides to take matters into her own hands. Insiang is a powerful revenge story with tremendous characterization, a great way to kick off this second volume of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. Clearly I will have to get all three of these volumes.

Nashville (1975) Robert Altman (Library DVD)

About 20 minutes into Nashville, I told myself, “I know where this is going, I see what Altman is doing, and while it’s handled expertly, do I really need nearly three hours of this?” The answer is yes. Many viewers (including me) have focused on only a few of the aspects of Altman’s filmmaking, primarily his overlapping of dialogue, turning it into a device. It is a device, but it’s so much more than that. Life rarely comes at you scripted, and Altman’s genius is presenting that reality-based experience as a way to develop character. Who cares if the actors are improvising or delivering carefully-scripted lines? These characters’ stories weave in and out seemingly without effort, yet each character has some type of agenda, which creates several overarching themes: politics, government, the search for love, stardom, freedom, escape, and how all of those elements can lead to disgruntlement and despair. Tremendous.

The Astrologer (1975) Craig Denney (YouTube)

I think it's highly relevant that I watched this on April Fools Day. To be honest, I'm not sure what to make of the film, but I find it fascinating. Also fascinating is the fact that of the 24 actors listed in the film's Letterboxd entry, only three of them ever made another movie, and one of them (Joe Kaye) appeared in Star Wars.

Here’s the Letterboxd description: “Craig Alexander, a con-man ‘psychic’ on the carnival circuit, lucks into a criminal enterprise to pilfer some legendary rubies in Kenya. His luck holds and he winds up the sole beneficiary of the ill-gotten wealth, which he parlays into an astrological empire. But once he reaches the top, there’s only one direction he can go…”

This is a very conventional description of a very unconventional cult movie. Unfortunately, at least for now, this movie is no longer available on YouTube. (Thanks to my friend Michael C. for recommending this!) Seek it out. You'll thank/blame me forever.

The Ear (1970) Karel Kachyňa (Criterion Channel)

The Ear is a Czechoslovakian film that was suppressed as soon as it was completed, never seeing the light of day on a large scale until 20 years after its completion. Once you see it, you'll understand why. A high-ranking Communist official named Ludvík (Radoslav Brzobohatý) and his wife Anna (Jiřina Bohdalová) return home after a party to find their power and telephone are out. But their neighbors’ lights are on. A bit tipsy from the party, Anna is ready for a little husband-and-wife activity, but Ludvík suspects they’re under surveillance. The Ear is a marvelous political paranoia noir with just enough comedic moments that make the film even more frightening. If you have the Criterion Channel, you shouldn’t miss this one. It’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD (separately) from Second Run.

Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) Frank Perry (Kino Lorber Blu-ray)

If I ever write a post on “Movies I Wasn’t Allowed to See as a Kid,” Diary of a Mad Housewife will be high on the list. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t see it as an eight-year-old, but I’m glad I finally saw it. Carrie Snodgress plays Tina, a wife who’s not only dissatisfied, but overworked by her micromanaging, social-climbing husband Jonathan (Richard Benjamin). Seeking fulfillment, Tina relents to the advances of George (a young Frank Langella), a self-absorbed, cruel writer. At least he pays attention to her. Sort of. Everything converges on a massive dinner party that Jonathan believes will propel them (i.e. him) to the upper echelons of high society. This is a dark, dark comedy, often hilarious and sometimes compared to The Graduate. Some modern audiences may decide that the verbal and emotional abuse suffered by Tina is simply too much. Much has changed since then. Or has it? Carrie Snodgress earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her performance, but afterwards seldom landed roles worthy of her talent. She left acting for several years to live with musician Neil Young, then later film score composer Jack Nitzsche. Although she worked in theatre and television, Snodgress should’ve become a bigger star. See this film and you’ll understand why.

Cabaret (1972) Bob Fosse (Warner DVD)

Previously discussed here

California Split (1974) Robert Altman (Criterion Channel)

Seasoned (or might we say “addicted”) gambler Charlie Waters (Elliott Gould) strikes up a friendship with a casual gambler named Bill Denny (George Segal), creating an unlikely pair on an equally unlikely odyssey. This film deserves far more than the treatment I’m giving it here, but Altman’s small focus on two very different characters, their motivations, passions, fears, and destinies is pure ‘70s, pure Altman, pure brilliance. I hope we see this on a Criterion Blu-ray soon.

Across 110th Street (1972) Barry Shear (Kino Lorber DVD)

The ‘70s was a great era for crime movies, and it’s too bad Across 110th Street isn’t mentioned more frequently in discussions of that decade. Three small-time criminals (two posing as cops) rob $300,000 from the Italian mob. Big mistake, guys… The mob is hot on their trail, but so are genuine cops Capt. Mattelli (Anthony Quinn) and Lt. Pope (Yahpet Kotto), who have wildly differing philosophies on how to work a case, especially regarding interrogation. Gritty with a wonderful ‘70s NYC feel, Across 110th Street is a solid crime film.

The Watchmaker of St. Paul (1974) Bertrand Tavernier (Criterion Channel, now on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber)

Philippe Noiret plays Michel Descombes, a Lyon watchmaker whose teenage son has been arrested for murder. Police Inspector Guilboud (Jean Rochefort) doesn’t so much hound Michel for information as much as he tries to befriend him, while Michel constantly wonders what he did wrong as a father. There’s much going on here in this understated crime film, my first experience with filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, whom we lost earlier this year.

Images (1972) Robert Altman (Criterion Channel)

I’ll never completely figure Altman out, but it’s an absolute pleasure to watch him work. This thriller follows a troubled housewife and children’s picture book author (Susannah York) who sees unsettling apparitions - or are they real people?

The Gambler (1974) Karel Reisz (Criterion Channel)

Looking through Letterboxd, I discovered that there are far too many films titled “The Gambler.” I don’t know if Karel Reisz’s film is the only one you need, but you should definitely see it. To say that English professor Axel Freed (James Caan) is addicted to gambling is far too simple a description of the film, but it will get you started, and once you start, you can’t turn away. Sort of… like gambling, I suppose. Look for M. Emmet Walsh and James Woods in cameo appearances.

Paper Moon (1973) Peter Bogdanovich (Amazon Prime)

I almost feel as if I’m the last person in the world to watch this film, one I could’ve easily seen when it was released. Glad I finally got around to it. As most everyone knows, Ryan O’Neal plays Moses Pray, a Bible salesman/con artist who finds himself unavoidably responsible for a young girl named Addie (Tatum O’Neal, Ryan’s real-life daughter), who may or may not be Moses’s own daughter. The Depression-era Midwest and black-and-white cinematography make for a world that offers both humor and sadness. Tatum O’Neal is fantastic, still the youngest person ever to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Next time: The unpredictable 1980s.

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