Great Years of Cinema: 1979
This is something I’ve always thought but never written about.
Well, when I say always, I don’t mean that I was considering the standing of Hal Ashby’s Being There’s among the pantheon of modern comedy classics on the way to primary school, but once I started troweling through the examinations of previous decades (and centuries) in film and thoroughly enjoying those with reputations that preceded them, it’s a year that stood out almost incidentally at first, with a rationale that soon became clear.
Knowing when a film was made can play an integral part in understanding its concepts and ethos. The ‘70’s in particular was a period of significance for renowned filmmakers in both their formative and golden years, and as the decade drew to a close the urgency of quality became more concentrated, culminating in the latter half of 1978 and the entirety of ’79. Some of the standout titles are meaningful in an evocative sense, while others are simply examples of writers and directors pouring energy and verve into creations they care about.
Below, I’ve highlighted by genre the films that make this such an incredible year:
All That Jazz
Directed by Bobb Fosse. Starring Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange
Bobb Fosse’s seemingly semi-autobiographical character study is a triumph of design and moral questioning, championed by Stanley Kubrick and bolstered by an unwavering performance from Scheider.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall
The most ambitious war film ever made, and arguably the best. Coppola’s thematic adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness grows in legend with each passing year, and both pays tribute to the effect of a devastating war and uses the setting to tell a classic tale of the human condition.
Kramer vs. Kramer
Directed by Robert Brenton. Starring Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep
The merits of this Best Picture winner are often deliberated, as it claimed the prestigious award in such a prolific year, but with strong performances from revered actors at the peak of their powers and an honest approach to a tough but common personal situation.
Directed by Woody Allen. Starring Woody Allen, Diane Keaton
Manhattan is seen by many as the pinnacle of Woody Allen’s career as writer and director, alongside the more renowned Annie Hall. Here, his regular neurosis and thesis’ on the complexity of relationships in contemporary, highly-populated American environments is outclassed only by the outstanding cinematography.
Directed by Philip Kaufman. Starring Ken Wahl, Karen Allen, John Friedrich
Coming of age films don’t come much more stirring and satisfying than Philip Kaufman’s cult classic The Wanderers: an oddity that combines the commonly used narrative of growing apart, with the action of a gang film and Vietnam war allegories.
Directed by Hal Ashby. Starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine
Being There is the most classic type of comedy, full of wit and precise social commentary on the perception of race, gender and assumed intelligence. Peter Seller’s performance as Chance the gardener is one for the ages.
Life of Brian
Directed by Terry Jones. Starring Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin
What can you say about Monty Python’s Life of Brian that hasn’t already been said? It’s a sprawling, dramatic epic of heightened emotional intelligence and powerful impact? Let me revise that, what can you say about it that hasn’t been said and is also accurate? It’s funny (note: that may’ve already been said).
Directed by Carl Reiner. Starring Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters
Steve Martin’s first lead role in a feature film and the beginning of his work with Carl Reiner is a decidedly silly affair, that also happens to be somewhat of a forgotten comedy gem. “I was born a poor black child…”
Castle of Cagliostro
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Hayao Miyazaki’s pre-Ghibli feature debut is a rollicking crime caper/adventure that never slows down, provides plenty of laughs and hosts memorable and beloved characters. Considering what lay ahead in his career, this remains one of the most important Japanese animations of the time.
Directed by George Miller. Starring Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel
An Australian post-apocalyptic revenge thriller, that introduced the world to a hero as rough as the terrain his V8 would cover in plume of dust, Mad Max is an iconic and influential cult favourite directed by one of the country’s finest.
Directed by Walter Hill. Starring Michael Beck, James Remar
Walter Hill hit a winning formula in the ’70’s and ’80’s, with his action films being equally tense, quotable and filled with memorable characters. That The Warriors is his finest hour is a testament to how giddily enjoyable it is, though slightly controversial for maybe glorifying gang culture.
Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Sigourney Weaver, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt
A perfect cast, dense atmosphere and H. R. Giger’s nightmarish creations brought to life combine to make Ridley Scott’s Alien a seminal horror film of the 20th century.
Dawn of the Dead
Directed by George A. Romero. Starring Ken Foree, David Emge,
Of all the film-makers responsible for re-defining the American horror genre during the ’60’s and ’70’s (Wes Craven, John Carpenter), the legendary George A. Romero could be said to have had the most profound impact, with Dawn of the Dead taking aim at consumerism culture run rampant and capturing a society literally devouring itself.
Nosferatu the Vampyre
Directed by Werner Herzog. Starring Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani
Few remakes can be cited as superior to their inspiration, and though Werner Herzog’s interpretation of the F. W. Murnau silent masterpiece doesn’t break this trend, it comes very close. Klaus Kinski portrays the terrifying creature with haunting naturalism.
Directed by Don Coscarelli. Starring Michael Baldwin, Angus Scrimm
Don Coscarelli still seems such a contemporary figure, so its quite strange to consider that his break-through hit is nearly 40 years old. The first of a surprisingly long list of titles in the series, Phantasm introduced the Tall Man and various other bizarre villainous creations, and kick-started the trend of the ’80’s.
Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar
Cronenberg and maternity. Motherhood and body horror. The Brood: intellectual, interesting and essential.