Mike’s Top Ten of 1979

If I had an affinity for 1978 because it has two of my all-time favorite films, double down on that for 1979. I’ve got two top ten favorite films this year. And there’s a bunch of stuff I love down below the line too.

There’s just so much great stuff here. And, in a way, this is really the last of the auteur years. People often point to the 70s as being the best decade in American film. Typically what they mean is 1967-1976. That’s the decade. But even so, that ’70s’ mentality hung around for the last couple years after Star Wars, before it started getting phased out. This is the last year where it had a noticeable presence. 1980 was the year where it officially ‘ended’, before being turned over to big corporations and mainstream filmmaking. This year still feels like it has some freedom for the cool auteur stuff to come out. Though you can definitely see things coming to an end based on what we had five years before this.

Mike’s Top Ten of 1979


All That Jazz

Apocalypse Now

Being There

Breaking Away

Escape from Alcatraz

Kramer vs. Kramer

A Little Romance

Rocky II


11-20: The China Syndrome, The Great Santini, The In-Laws, The Jerk, Moonraker, Norma Rae, North Dallas Forty, Time After Time, The Villain, The Warriors

Tier two: 10, 1941, …And Justice for All, The Black Stallion, Caligula, The Castle of Cagliostro, The Champ, The Frisco Kid, Going in Style, Life of Brian, Mad Max, The Marriage of Maria Braun, The Muppet Movie, Quadrophenia, Real Life, Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, The Rose, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Starting Over

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1. Apocalypse Now

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

It’s Apocalypse Now. Of course it’s the #1.

The funny thing is that, for about five or six years, I had this, theoretically as my #2 for this year. Not that I was keeping score, but I was telling people that All That Jazz was in my top five of all time. Which would have put it above this, had I put together a list like this. But then I realized I was probably really just doing it because everyone knows this movie and it didn’t need to be in my top five. It didn’t need extra eyeballs from my saying that. And fortunately, I never had to make the decision between the two, because something else came in and took that last top five spot. So now that and this are safely just in the top ten, not jockeying for position. Which allowed me to be honest and admit… this is the movie I gravitate toward more often. It’s just perfect.

From the opening notes of “The End,” to the final moments, this movie is just utterly captivating to me. I can watch the theatrical version or the Redux version all the way through, every time. Just like I can with the Godfather movies, I can put this on at any point and just continue until it’s over. Every time. I can think about this movie on so many levels, too. From the directing, to the acting, to all the stuff that went into shooting, to all the different pieces of symbolism and the themes that went into it. I just love this movie so, so much.

How many movies are out there that spawned a documentary that is also considered one of the best of its kind as well?

2. All That Jazz

“It’s showtime, folks!”

I love this movie. This is one of those movies that just blew my mind the first time I saw it, and I’ve held it dearly ever since. Bob Fosse made a movie about himself and his own death. I’ve never seen someone so deeply put themselves on screen as much as I have here. Dude made a movie about himself. And he’s not kind, either. It’s utterly brilliant, from start to finish.

He talks about how he overworks himself, is a bad person, cheating on his wife and girlfriend, does too many drugs, openly doesn’t take care of himself, and he sets it to music. Insane. He’s the only person who could turn open heart surgery into a musical number.

If you haven’t seen this movie, you need to immediately, because it’s one of the greatest pieces of auteur filmmaking you will ever see. I know Cabaret is the one of Fosse’s everyone tends to go to, but this is his masterpiece. This is the one that epitomizes him in every way. Roy Scheider gives the performance of his career, and Fosse just tops himself on every single level. And he casts his own girlfriend in the movie as well, which is just… dude bared his soul on screen for this.

Truly one of the greatest films ever made, and one of the greatest endings you will ever see. The last ten minutes of this movie are perfect. This movie is so good that it’s basically a 1A with Apocalypse Now. It’s unfair that these two are both in this year

3. Kramer vs. Kramer

Yes, that is our third Best Picture nominee in a row. And this is your winner, too. Damn shame that it won. It’s great, and it would be a good winner in a lot of years. Just… those other two are just spectacular. And this is just very, very, very good. Still, though, on its own… incredible.

This is one of the most honest and straightforward movies about divorce there is. The key thing the movie does is not take sides. It doesn’t say either parent is right for the decisions they make, and doesn’t go out of its way to judge the other. Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep both won Oscars for it and both are incredible here. Justin Henry was nominated for an Oscar at 8, and he’s really good here too.

This is one of those movies just about everyone loves, because it’s just so honest, and it has that inarticulate quality that just keeps you watching and invested. Some movies just have those intangibles, and this is one of them.

4. Alien

“There is an explanation for this, you know.”

One of the greatest horror movies of all time. And one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time. Ridley Scott, in his second film, made one of the most iconic films of all time.

I’d say something about how just about no one doesn’t know all about this movie, but you know what? If you don’t know much of anything about this movie, just watch it. It’s almost a benefit if you know nothing. You’ll see just how great the movie is. If you think it won’t be for you (which I did before I saw it), trust me. Good movies find a way to win you over.

What I love about most this film is that it is, at its core, a horror movie. It doesn’t try to get much bigger than that. A monster is loose on the ship, and it’s killing people. It hints at bigger stuff, but it never goes there, and never tries to do too much. And all of the current ripoffs of this movie (which they are still making) are unable to make something as simple and pure as this.

5. Being There

” Life is a state of mind.”

Peter Sellers’ final (major) film. It’s his greatest achievement, which is saying something considering he had a lot of achievements.

The film is about Chance the Gardener, a an of limited intelligence who has lived basically all his life in the home of a rich man, tending to the garden. All he knows is gardening and watching television. When the man dies, he is cast out onto the street. And we watch as, by chance, he gets hit by a car which is carrying Shirley MacLaine, who is the wife of a dying businessman, who just happens to be a closer friend and advisor to the president. And Chance, this simple man, who speaks in either gardening terms or things he’s seen on television, soon becomes a close economic advisor and is thought of as a genius by the president and those around him.

It’s a great movie, with one of the most famous shots of all time (pictured above). It’s a perfect film, and it’s the kind of thing you can see why it was something Peter Sellers desperately wanted to make. Because it’s brilliant. And he’s brilliant in it.

6. Escape from Alcatraz

“Alcatraz was built to keep all the rotten eggs in one basket, and I was specially chosen to make sure that the stink from the basket does not escape. Since I’ve been warden, a few people have tried to escape. Most of them have been recaptured; those that haven’t have been killed or drowned in the bay. No one has ever escaped from Alcatraz. And no one ever will!”

One of my favorite films growing up. I caught this on cable once and just kept watching it every time it was on. I must have seen this movie a couple dozen times. It’s just great. It’s one of those movies… if you like prison movies like Shawshank and things of that sort, this is for you.

It’s loosely based on the most famous Alcatraz escape attempt. Clint Eastwood stars, and the film is partly about his life in the prison and then his attempts at crafting a perfect escape. The scenes of him doing something as simple as crafting a digging tool and slowly chipping away at the wall of his cell are just riveting.

I cannot recommend this movie highly enough. This is one of those movies you can just watch. Any time, anywhere, you just put it on and can watch it all the way through.

7. Stalker

“It is so quiet out here, it is the quietest place in the world.”

I love this movie. This is probably my favorite Tarkovsky film. I saw this in college and it just blew me away.

The interesting thing about this movie is how much it feels like Chernobyl even though Chernobyl wouldn’t happen for another 7 years after this. Tarkovsky had to shoot it twice, because the film stock they used was improperly developed and all the outdoor footage was lost. Plus, all the stuff before they get into the Zone is all sepia-colored and eerie. It’s so great on a technical level.

The film is… I think the film is whatever you want it to be, which is kind of the idea. A mysterious Zone exists that is cut off by the government, and what goes on there is unspecified, but it seems as if it is an alternate reality of sorts. Some men are led by a guide, known as Stalker, through the Zone, to a place in the center, which is said to be a room that grants wishes.

The film is gorgeous. Ethereal and just beautifully shot. Tarkovsky is one of those filmmakers who has varied reactions on people. But this is a movie that feels like it’s imitated quite often, even unintentionally. Hell, they turned this movie into a video game series!

8. Rocky II

“I just got one thing to say… to my wife at home: Yo, Adrian! I DID IT!”

Most people overlook this one. Everyone knows the first one, and everyone remembers Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago, but this one’s quite good too. It’s a direct sequel, taking place minutes after the first one ended, and it shows how Rocky’s life changes after that fight, culminating in the rematch Apollo said he wouldn’t get as the first bout was ending.

It continues the Rocky/Adrian romance, puts in some interesting commentary about the shady side of boxing and people looking to rip off celebrities, and has a really awesome final fight. It’s not as good as the original (because what could be?) but it’s really great. This franchise was always really solid.

9. A Little Romance

“There is a legend which says that if two lovers – kiss – in a gondola, under the Bridge of Sighs, at sunset, when the bells of the Campanile toll – they will love each other – forever.”

A late entry to this list. This was a movie I was tangentially aware of for years but never got around to. So when I was starting to make these lists, I made sure that when I got to this year I saw it just in case it would make me change my list. And here we are.

This is a delightful romance, directed by George Roy Hill. This was Diane Lane’s first movie. She was 14 at the time. She’s an American girl who goes to school in Paris and meets a French boy. They start a romance, and at one point run away to Venice, where it’s said that if a couple shares a kiss under a certain bridge, they will stay together forever. And along the way they pick up Laurence Olivier, a man who may or may not be a pickpocket, who decides to help the young lovers complete their quest.

It’s just a magical film. This is exactly what I want cinema to be. I’m so glad I didn’t wait any longer to see and to fall in love with this movie.

10. Breaking Away

“What are we gonna do about him”
“I don’t know dear. We could always strangle him while he’s asleep.”

I love this movie. It’s about bicycling, but essentially it’s just a hangout film. It’s like American Graffiti with bikes instead of 50s nostalgia. A bunch of kids come of age in the midwest. The main one is obsessed with the Italian cycling team and wants to be one of them. Meanwhile, the towns is split between the upper class and the ‘cutters’ (kids whose fathers work in the town quarry). So this all builds to a big bicycle race at the climax of the film, where the underdogs have to take down the rich kids. It’s thrilling. It’s such a likable movie on so many levels.

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The China Syndrome —  This just barely missed the top ten. The one thing I always say about this movie is that it made me angry. It’s about Jack Lemmon is a nuclear plant worker who sees that his bosses are hiding some structural problems, which is putting the plant in danger of a meltdown. He tries to go to the media — Jane Fonda, a reporter, and Michael Douglas, her camera man — but their superiors won’t let the story get out. So, with no other alternative, Lemmon takes the control room at the plant hostage, trying to get the story out there to prevent a nuclear disaster from happening. By the time the end credits roll in this movie, you’re just so pissed at all forms of authority, because you can just see something like this happening, and see all the parallels to any number of events that have or could happen nowadays. This is a solid thriller that is made better by the way they filmed it. It just works so well, and all the actors are very good. Both Fonda and Lemmon were nominated for Oscars for this. This is something that just barely missed the top ten.

The Great Santini — Great father/son movie with Robert Duvall and Michael O’Keefe. O’Keefe is nearing college age and Duvall is his overbearing, Marine father. Duvall’s the kinda guy who wakes his family up at 4am for reveille and completely dominates them in every way. But you get the sense… that’s just who he is. And he and O’Keefe butt heads a lot, especially since Duvall assumes O’Keefe is gonna join the military and O’Keefe wants nothing to do with it. It’s a film made up of character moments and not plot. And that’s what makes it so good.

The In-Laws — One of the great comedies of all time. Alan Arkin is a mild-mannered dentist whose daughter is about to be married. He meets his new in-law, Peter Falk, who he soon finds out is in the CIA. Naturally, the two end up on a globe-trotting adventure. It’s a perfect movie. It’s so good. Everyone needs to see this. And remember — SERPENTINE.

The Jerk — Another of the great comedies of all time. Steve Martin, directed by Carl Reiner, with one of the most famous opening lines of all time: “I was born a poor black child.” It’s a movie about a guy trying to make it on his own. That’s all you need. It’s incredible. Reminds you of how great Steve Martin was in his heyday, before most people started to know him for all the family films and banjo sets.

Moonraker — Bond film. Clearly influenced by Star Wars, as the final act takes place in space. It’s quite good though. From Shirley Bassey’s unforgettable theme song, to the gorgeous cinematography, to the return of fan-favorite Jaws (who gets a great send-off)… it’s a fun movie. Overall, not one of the franchise’s best, but still a worthy entry to the franchise, all things considered. That shot of Jaws in Rio is still one of the most frightening things I’ve seen on screen.

Norma Rae — One of the most iconic films and movie characters of all time. Sally Field’s defining role. It’s about a textile worker who urges her fellow workers to unionize, despite the pressure from management. This is an essential movie. And it’s great. It’s one of those movies you need to see and one you won’t feel bad about having to see because it’s just an amazing movie.

North Dallas Forty — One of the great sports movies. Loosely based on the Dallas Cowboys, it’s about what football was like in the 60s. All the guys do drugs and drink and take painkillers, all barely being paid enough to make a living doing what they do. Nick Nolte stars as the aging wide receiver of the team, and it’s just a great movie.

Time After Time — One of the great premises of all time. H.G. Wells invents a time machine, which Jack the Ripper uses to travel to present day San Francisco. So Wells must follow him and track him down. It’s part fish-out-of-water story, part murder mystery. Written and directed by Nicholas Meyer, who would later take the fish-out-of-water aspects and turn it into Star Trek IV, the one with the whales. It’s a really fascinating movie. Rather than give you Wells and Jack the Ripper, he brings them into present day, removing any of the boring tropes of Victorian society, and having them adapt to modern culture. It’s a really terrific film.

The Villain — One of those comedies that I fell in love with fairly young and started recommending to people as soon as they started listening to me. This is basically a live-action Road Runner cartoon. A complete parody of westerns, and one you have to realize is basically a cartoon in order to enjoy. Kirk Douglas plays Cactus Jack, who is essentially Wile E. Coyote. Meanwhile, Ann-Margret is Charming Jones, being escorted by Handsome Stranger (played hilariously by Arnold Schwarzenegger. They cast the Austrian who could barely be understood as the all-American cowboy) to inherit a bunch of money from her father, Parody Jones (Strother Martin). Meanwhile, Douglas is trying to stop them at any cost, which basically devolves into the equivalent of trying to drop anvils on their heads. It’s hilarious. I love this movie. So much fun. Also directed by Hal Needham!

The Warriors — I mean…

What else do you need than that? Walter Hill, man. Great movie. What I love about it is that it’s a universe all its own. You just buy it. Like Escape from New York. It is what it is and that’s what we’re dealing with. New York is overrun by gangs, and they fight for control. Eventually one, The Warriors, becomes the target of all the others, so they gotta get across town without getting killed. That’s it. Simple story. But awesome. It’s basically a comic book brought to life, in a way. One of those iconic movies everyone comes across. I love it.

– – – – – – – – – –

Tier two:

  • 10
  • 1941
  • …And Justice for All
  • The Black Stallion
  • Caligula
  • The Castle of Cagliostro
  • The Champ
  • The Frisco Kid
  • Going in Style
  • Life of Brian
  • Mad Max
  • The Marriage of Maria Braun
  • The Muppet Movie
  • Quadrophenia
  • Real Life
  • Richard Pryor: Live in Concert
  • Rock ‘n’ Roll High School
  • The Rose
  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture
  • Starting Over

Mad Max is the iconic film by George Miller. This is his franchise. I made this comparison in a recent year, but this and The Road Warrior are truly like El Mariachi and Desperado, with this being the low budget one that started it all and the followup being the film most people enjoy more that had more money and is generally better known. But both are great. And now more people are going back to this because of Fury Road. This film launched Mel Gibson’s career. He stars as a former cop in apocalyptic Australia who gets into a feud with a motorcycle gang. It’s a classic. One of the great action movies of all time. The Frisco Kid is a Robert Aldrich western comedy with Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford. Wilder is a rabbi making his way out west, who gets into all sorts of trouble. Ford plays a bank robber with a heart of gold who helps him. It’s a lot of fun. Quadrophenia is the Who’s follow up rock opera to Tommy. Not quite a musical, but loaded with their music. It’s about the Mods and the Rockers, motorcycle gangs, fighting… it’s about British youth in the 60s. It’s good.

…And Justice for All is a trial movie. Norman Jewison directs Al Pacino. Pacino is a lawyer who has to defend a judge he despises in a rape trial. It’s quite good. Great supporting performance by Jeffrey Tambor, and famous for Pacino’s line, “You’re out of order! You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order!” Rock ‘n Roll High School is the classic punk rock film. P.J. Soles is a huge Ramones fan and is constantly getting into trouble with the conservative teachers in her school, culminating in the students taking over the school. It’s awesome. The Castle of Cagliostro is Hayao Miyazaki’s first film. Not made for Studio Ghibli, it’s an Arsene Lupin film. Very different from all the other Miayzaki films, in both tone and animation, it’s still quite interesting and well made. Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the first film. Thirteen years after the TV show, they turned it into a movie. They got Robert Wise directed it, who made a very nice looking space movie, but didn’t quite get what the brand was all about, so we’re left with a decent movie, but one that’s not really as good as the later ones, just because it doesn’t feel quite like a Star Trek movie. But it’s good. I think Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home are the best of the franchise, but this one holds up just fine.

The Marriage of Maria Braun is Rainer Werner Fassbinder. I remember seeing this in college and being blown away by how good it was, having known nothing of it or of Fassbinder. It’s about a woman and how she makes her way through World War II and Post-War Germany. It’s quite the tale. Incredible movie. 10 is the iconic Dudley Moore/Julie Andrews comedy directed by Blake Edwards. A smash hit when it came out, the iconic image is Bo Derek, in dreadlocks, running up the beach. Moore is a man in a mid-life crisis who becomes infatuated with Derek, a newlywed. It’s funny. 1941 is Steven Spielberg’s war epic. Not well-received when it came out, it’s since achieved some cult status. The famous image from this is the ferris wheel rolling through the town. The film’s about panic in LA after Pearl Harbor. It’s a sort of west coast The Russians Are Coming. Loaded cast, including Dan Aykroyd, Ned Beatty, John Belushi, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Christopher Lee, Tim Matheson, Toshiro Mifune, Warren Oates, Robert Stack, Treat Williams, Nancy Allen, John Candy and Slim Pickens. It’s boated, but it’s fun.

Life of Brian is Monty Python’s film about the guy born on the same day, in the barn next door to Jesus, who keeps getting mistaken for him throughout his life. It’s so funny, as are all the Python films. This one gave us the iconic song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. Caligula is the notorious movie that just about every movie fan knows about. An epic about the roman emperor, the film was produced by Bob Guccione, founder of Penthouse. He took a Cleopatra type epic and added liberal amounts of sex and nudity throughout. So you have a movie that’s half porno, half movie. And the movie part is so over the top it’s incredible. You know how Showgirls is so campy it’s amazing? This one feels a bit like if Bette Davis from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane put on a performance of Julius Caesar while on ecstasy. It’s absolutely insane, and is almost a right of passage for every movie lover.

The Champ is a remake of the famous 1931 Wallace Beery film. Washed up boxer gets his act together to mount a comeback for his son. This one stars Jon Voight and Faye Dunaway, with Ricky Shroeder as the kid, who has the memorable final scene that most people know from it being parodied or copied in other things. It’s really good. I saw it much later than I should have, but it holds its own as a remake. Franco Zeffirelli directs, and that probably has something to do with it. The Black Stallion is kind of like National Velvet meets Cast Away. A boy ends up on a deserted island after a shipwreck with a beautiful stallion. Eventually they are discovered and the kid takes the horse back to be a prize race horse. Mickey Rooney (in some nice symmetry with National Velvet) plays a trainer who helps the kid train the horse. It’s a beautiful film.

Going in Style is a great crime movie that they just remake recently with Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin. The original is better, but it’s the same movie. Three old guys decide to rob a bank together. George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg star here, and it was directed by Martin Brest, his debut (starting a great run of films that sadly ended abruptly with Gigli. But everything in between is great).The Muppet Movie is the first one. This started it all, and gave us “The Rainbow Connection.” Everyone has that one Muppet Movie they saw first or the most as a kid that they hold dearly, and they’re all great. This one is about Kermit traveling out to Hollywood. The stars that are either in the movie or feature as cameos are Charles Durning, Melinda Dillon, Dom DeLuise, James Coburn, Madeline Kahn, Telly Savalas, Carol Kane, Paul Williams, Milton Berle, Elliott Gould, Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, Cloris Leachman and Orson Welles. It’s the Muppets. You know it’s good.

Real Life is an Albert Brooks film. His directorial debut. It’s a mockumentary about him as a director who wants to see what (insert title here) is all about. So he starts an experiment where they pick an average family and insert themselves into their lives for a year, documenting every waking moment on film. Of course, the cameras and the men following them around become obtrusive and completely ruin the family’s lives. It’s good. Brooks would reach greater heights with his later films, but this is a really great start for him. Starting Over is an Alan Pakula film with Burt Reynolds, Jill Clayburgh and Candice Bergen starring from a script by James L. Brooks. Reynolds divorces Bergen, who decides she wants to go become a singer. Newly divorced, he’s trying to navigate the waters, when he gets set up with Clayburgh, a local schoolteacher. They hit it off and things start to go well… until Bergen comes back and wants to rekindle things with Reynolds. It’s good. A nice rom com, with a great performance by Bergen, and a good one by Clayburgh. Definitely worth your time.

Richard Pryor: Live in Concert is one of Pryor’s legendary standup sets. The man was a genius, and, along with Lenny Bruce, is the most influential standup of all time. This one in particular is the one. This is the seminal performance. If you’re gonna show the greatest standup sets of all time, this one is in the conversation, and probably also has to be considered as part of the top five. The Rose is Bette Midler’s defining performance. She plays a rock star heavily influenced by Janis Joplin, who is about to have a concert back in her hometown. But in advance of that, she’s overly tired, drinking too much and doing too many drugs, and runs away from the pressures of her tour to have a fling with a limo driver. It’s… the whole movie is built around Midler’s charisma, both on the stage and off it. It’s the kind of movie that would have won her an Oscar had shot not gone up against Norma Rae. She’s incredible here. Sure, it’s in her wheelhouse, but that doesn’t diminish the work. Really strong film.

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