It’s that time of year again when people start preparing their lists, tallying up the best films they saw over the course of the last 12 months and trying to work out which comes out on top. Of course, this being 2019, means that we’ll start seeing decade-best lists too, as critics begin the impossible task of picking out just a couple of handfuls of films to represent the best of the past ten years.
Looking back across a hundred years of cinema, there’s something to be said for the last year of any given decade when it comes to the quality of films being released. Perhaps it has something to do with filmmakers taking stock of an era? Take 1939, for instance, which saw Gone With the Wind competing with La Règle du jeu, The Wizard of Oz and Young Mr Lincoln for the top spot. Or 1959, even? Rio Bravo, North by Northwest, Imitation of Life, Hiroshima mon amour, Pickpocket… One hell of a year for film.
With the likes of The Irishman, Vitalina Varela, Uncut Gems, One Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Marriage Story and A Hidden Life likely to make their way onto many a list in the coming months, 2019 is looking like an end of decade bonanza for film too.
As the American Film Festival celebrates its own anniversary, ten years and counting, the Classics strand has taken the opportunity to programme some incredible restorations of all-time classics from the final year of their given decades. Are these the best films from their respective year? From their respective decade? They’re certainly in the running. Needless to say, an opportunity to revisit any of these of on the big screen is one to be grabbed at, and if you’re seeing any of them for the first time, well, you’re in for a treat and a half…
Ground zero and the key establishing text for the New Hollywood movement, Easy Rider began life in a Toronto hotel room, with Peter Fonda staring at a photograph of himself and Bruce Dern. He had an idea for a road movie, calling up Dennis Hopper to ask him to direct. Dern turned down the role that went to Jack Nicholson, who had introduced Fonda and Hopper to Bob Rafelson at BBS, where they found the money that Roger Corman was unwilling to invest. The rest is history, as a Cannes premiere led to a $40 million box office take. Soon, it was out with the old and in with the new, as the Young Turks began to take down the studio machines that were lumbering along, catering for a youth market the studio heads had all but ignored. If cinema, and especially the western, was the American myth-making machine, in 1969 it found that new myths were there for the making and the taking.
One of the great American films, recently recut by its director and restored in magnificent 4K. “The film Francis is making is a journey into self,” notes Eleanor Coppola at the start of her 1991 making-of documentary, Hearts of Darkness. “A metaphor for a journey into self… It’s scary to watch someone you love go into the centre of himself and confront his fears. Fear of failure, fear of death, fear of going insane. You have to fail a little, die a little, go insane a little to come out the other side.” Coppola himself was more blunt, calling Apocalypse Now his “Idiodyssey”. The Philippine production is the stuff of legend: cast replacements (Sheen for Keitel), sets destroyed, the whims of the army – all before Cyclone Marlon rolled into town. “My film is not about Vietnam,” Coppola said, “it is Vietnam.” A mad, visionary, unwieldy object he was still editing 40 years later.
Do the Right Thing (1989), dir. Spike Lee
If you’re pining for the summer heatwave, you can catch some rays from this dazzling restoration of Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece, Do the Right Thing. Set over the course of one sweltering day in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn, Lee’s film charts the simmering tensions within the mixed neighbourhood community. The 4K restoration punches out Lee’s schemes, while the new sound mix does wonders for Branford Marsalis and Bill Lee’s score. Still as confrontational and provocative as it was on release 30 years ago, it’s Lee’s best film, and one of the highlights of the Classics programme.
Stanley Kubrick’s final masterpiece, a film twelve years in the making – and two in the shooting – Eyes Wide Shut was massively misunderstood on release, and continues to find its detractors. It’s one of the master filmmaker’s greatest works, a pitch-black comedy of emasculation and bruised ego, largely played out at the expense of its leading man, Tom Cruise. This 20th anniversary release offers the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate this subtextually rich masterpiece, and on the big screen appreciate, if nothing else, its staggering approach to craft. With career best performances from its leading couple, and a hidden cameo from Cate Blanchett, who recently revealed herself as the master of ceremonies in the film’s orgiastic centrepiece, the film’s reputation will continue to rise.