Directorial Debuts: Part II (1970’s)

The 1970’s is my favorite decade of cinema by far. Most of my most admired directors had their heyday during this ten-year period, and the majority of films I consider my all-time favorites came out here as well. In Part I of this series, I concentrated on the dearth of great film debuts since 2000 and I suppose there are a few reasons for this. And though the 1970’s brought us the debuts from the likes of Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott, Wim Wenders, Ron Howard, Adrian Lyne, Catherine Breillat, and a host of other notable talents, I wouldn’t necessarily classify their first efforts as being overly impressive. Here are my Top 5 Directorial Debuts from the 1970’s. Again, this is surely not a list of who I believe the best directors are to come out of the decade…I’m just judging first films here and the impact it had on cinema and the rest of their careers. As always, I’d love to see who you might include.

5. Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974)

One of the most influential horror films in cinema history, without question. And a film that will always freak me the fuck out. I’m not sure if it’s because Hooper’s film is so low budget (less than $300,000), but the quality of it gives the feeling of a snuff film that only adds to the fright factor. The aesthetic quality of the film is impressive and he does manage to get solid performances from a cast of complete unknowns. The irony with this horror flick is that it got an R-rating (though Hooper was fighting for a PG) and even Roger Ebert cited the movie “as violent and gruesome and blood-soaked as the title promises,” when in fact, there is very little blood or gore at all. A testament to the power of the mind and Hooper’s strong work here. Leatherface, inspired by real-life serial killer Ed Gein, is without a doubt, one of the most terrifying and haunting figures in movies, as he waits for his prey in his dilapidated home in the middle of nowhere. Hooper would go on to direct the ill-fated sequel and a host of other horror flicks, but has never managed to outdo this first grand effort.

4. David Lynch (Eraserhead, 1977)

Um…yeah. Not really sure what to say here. Perhaps Entertainment Weekly said it best when they wrote, “Eraserhead is about that which can’t be described.” I could not have put it better myself. Since its initial release, the film has become one of the all-time great cult classics and is the epitome of “the midnight movie.”  Those familiar with the extraordinarily remarkable resume of Lynch, will surely be able to see a number of his favorite themes being introduced here for the first time. Lynch started work on the film when he was given a small grant by the AFI Conservatory, but the money of course ran out and it took him over 5 years to shoot — in spurts. Eraserhead is certainly not for everyone…in fact, it’s not for most. However, you can surely see the singular artistic vision that is David Lynch’s — his style, pacing, use of music, visuals, are all on display, and if not for this work, Mel Brooks would have had nothing to be so impressed by to hire him to helm The Elephant Man.  One significant sidenote – the US Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2004. So there’s that…

3. Clint Eastwood (Play Misty for Me, 1971)

The Oscar-winning director behind such mighty works as Mystic River, Million Dollar BabyUnforgiven, and A Perfect World began his filmmaking career with this gripping psychological thriller. here, Eastwood plays a late-night disc jockey who has a brief fling with Evelyn Draper (a frightening Jessica Walter), an obsessed fan of his. It doesn’t take long for Draper to become more than a little obsessed with the DJ and eventually becomes quite the deranged stalker. The film was released before many stalker films of its kind began to come out, and, rarely seen, showcased a psychotic female villain. Fatal Attraction, anyone? After years and years of working in front of the camera, it is clear that Eastwood picked up a lot from working with great (and not-so-great) directors and puts that knowledge to most impressive use here. A sign of wondrous things to come from this mighty artist.

2. Erroll Morris (Gates of Heaven, 1978)

The movie that launched the career of one of America’s premier documentarians. Of course, the main focus of the film is about the pet cemetery business, but the way Morris frames the work, it becomes about so much more than that. Themes of the afterlife, the inevitability of one’s own mortality, what pets mean in our everyday lives seep through and stay with you long after the film ends. There is no narration at all — unlike some of today’s “documentary” filmmakers, Morris refuses to editorialize for us and tell us what to think. It’s a fascinating film that many — most notably Werner Herzog — thought would never see the light of day. Herzog famously wagered that he would eat his own shoe if the movie was ever completed. True to his word, the great director consumed his own footwear, and became the subject of the delightful short 20-minute film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. The score…Morris 1, Herzog 0.

1. Terrence Malick (Badlands, 1973)

Not simply a magnificent directorial debut, but one of the best movies to come out of the 1970’s, period.  Made for around $300,000, Malick began working on Badlands after his 2nd year at AFI. The film revolves around the cross-country killing spree of sociopathic Kit (Martin Sheen) and young Holly (Sissy Spacek), after he charms her away from her dead-end South Dakota town.   The film managed to steal the limelight from Scorsese’s Mean Streets when it played at the New York Film Festival and critics were unanimous in their praise for the new filmmaker who depicted the violence in a very cold and remorseless way rather than with brutality and gore. Using America’s Midwest as the backdrop, Badlands plays a bit like Bonnie and Clyde (and perhaps a forerunner to Stone’s NBK), but the characters seem more real and the acts, more haunting than Penn’s piece. This film will surely be on any “Best Debut” list, but there is surely a reason for that. Malick, one of cinema’s most visionary directors with a painstaking eye for detail, cemented his reputation at the onset here, prompting his star Spacek to say (after working with him), “The artist rules. Nothing else matters.” Amen.

NEXT UP: ‘DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS PART III’ will give us the best from the 1960’s. 

10 Movies To Get Excited About for the 2nd Half of 2010!

So we are well past the halfway point of 2010, and I can say with all sincerity that I have sadly seen only one truly great movie so far. By leaps and bounds, Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo stands, in my opinion, as the best film of the year thus far (perhaps Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard was great too, so, ok…two movies) . But we still have five months left and you know those “Oscar-type” films will start creeping into theatres come October, which is always something to look forward to. With the summer lackbuster season headed into its final stretch, I thought I’d highlight ten movies to look forward to for the second half of this year. They are in no particular order — just ten movies to get excited about.

#1. Conviction (dir. Tony Goldwyn)

I caught this trailer in the theatres a couple of weeks ago and it screamed Oscar buzz, especially for its two leading actors – Sam Rockwell and Hilary Swank. Rockwell (Choke, Snow Angels, Moon) may very well be his generation’s most underrated actor and it is high time this man starts getting his due. Here, Swank plays a high school dropout and single mother who spends two decades putting herself through law school in order to overturn her brother’s murder conviction. The rest of the cast ain’t so shabby either — Minnie Driver, Peter Gallagher, Juliette Lewis and the always strong Melissa Leo round out what looks to be one of the highlights of the latter part of the year.

#2. Secretariat (dir. Randall Wallace)

Walt Disney Pictures releases this film which tells the rousing story of Penny Chenery (Diane Lane), whose freak of a horse, Secretariat won the ever-elusive Triple Crown in 1973. Taking over for her ailing father, Chenery enters into the male-dominated world of horse racing and fights against all odds to produce one of the most successful champions of the 20th century. This marks the first film Wallace has helmed since 2002’s We Were Soldiers and looks to be a very heartwarming and inspiring film. John Malkovich, Scott Glenn and James Cromwell co-star in this true story. I was a tremendous fan of the wonderful Seabiscuit and though this is an altogether different tale, I remain hopeful that it is just as good.

#3. Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (dir. Oliver Stone)

I’m usually not one for sequels, but this one just looks too damned good. The trailer, played to the backdrop of the classic “Sympathy for the Devil,” had me right away and thankfully, Stone, one of America’s most powerful directors, is behind it all. And he could use a rebound after a few clunkers in recent years – fingers crossed, this one looks like the real deal, despite the presence of Shia LaBeouf.  The disgraced Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas, reprising his Oscar-winning performance) is out of prison and back on the stockmarket scene. Considering the state of our nation’s current economy woes, the film couldn’t have better timing. Jacob Moore (LaBeouf) is a young trader who teams up with Gekko to alert the financial world of its impending troubles — and also to seek out the murderer of his mentor. Eli Wallach, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, Susan Sarandon — and yes, Charlie Sheen, round out the cast. Ah, greed….

#4. Megamind (dir. Tom McGrath)

This one, from Dreamworks Animation, sets up the ultra heavyweight match we’ve all been waiting for — Ferrell vs. Pitt, and looks like a lot of fun for moviegoers of all ages. Will Ferrell lends the voice for the title character, a super-evil villain who becomes quite bored after killing his arch enemy. Since there is no one left to fight, he creates a new rival in Titan (Jonah Hill). But things don’t really go Megamind’s way once Titan sets out to destroy the world instead! Brad Pitt is the voice of Metro Man and Tina Fey also provides some vocal work to what looks to be a very humorous satire on what we have come to expect of the superhero genre.

#5. Jack Goes Boating (dir. Philip Seymour Hoffman)

This strikes me as being a sleeper hit of the Fall season. Hoffman makes his directorial debut with this film, based on the Robert Glaudini play that Hoffman starred in and helped develop off-Broadway. John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega are also back, reprising their stage roles. Set in New York City, Hoffman plays Jack, a socially challenged hermit who spends the better part of a year preparing for a blind date. Based on the trailer, this looks like a wonderfully quirky, charming and romantic film and you can see that Hoffman is ideal for this eccentric role. This looks like the kind of movie I always embrace, and of all the films on this list, this may be the one I am most looking forward to.

#6. The Fighter (dir. David O. Russell)

Darren Aronofsky was slated to direct this one, but got caught up in his fantastic film, The Wrestler. Enter hothead director, David O. Russell (Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees) who is looking to make a comeback. The film stars Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg (who was brilliant in “Huckabees“), Amy Adams, and Melissa Leo (that’s two on this list and I’m so excited she is getting a lot of work). The film focuses on the boxer “Irish” Micky Ward (Wahlberg) and his rise to the world light welterweight title. His climb to the top is propelled by his half-brother Dicky (Bale), a former boxer turned trainer with a seedy history of crime and drugs. I’m a fan of sports flicks and Wahlberg has shown himself to be a very gifted actor. From the looks of it, there seems to be a Rocky-like feel to it, not just because it is set in the world of boxing, but in its heart and spirit.

#7. You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger (dir. Woody Allen)

OK, if you’re a reader of the Magic Lantern Film Blog, you know that this is a pro-Woody site. Deal with it — I love Woody Allen, despite the fact that his recent films (Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream, Whatever Works) have been pretty good at best. But with the approach of each new Allen project, I remain ever-hopeful that this will be his “comeback film.” The movie had its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and stars Anthony Hopkins (in the surrogate Woody character), Naomi Watts, Antonio Banderas, Lucy Punch, and Josh Brolin. Set in London, the word is that this is a romantic farce where Hopkins plays an old crumudgeon who tries to cheat death by leaving his wife and falling for a much younger prostitute (Punch). Watts plays Hopkins’ daughter who is unhappily married (it’s a Woody film, remember?) and has a crush on her boss (Banderas). I’m just glad that I don’t have to sit and watch Nicole Kidman, who was originally slated to play the part played by Punch. I’m sure all of the themes that Allen loves to explore will be prominently displayed here — I’m just hoping for a funny and smart film that can hopefully rank among the better works of this legendary filmmaker.

#8. The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick)

Maverick director Terrence Malick brings this period piece to life, examining the lives of a family with three boys set in the 1950’s. It tells the tale of one boy in particular and his journey from childhood innocence to his disillusionment as an adult, struggling as a “lost soul in the modern world.” He sets out on a search to to find the true meaning of life. Knowing Malick’s work, this promises to be a visually stunning film with great characters and rich, lavish designs. After taking twenty years to come out with The Thin Red Line (1998), it’s great to see Malick coming out with this one only five years after his under-appreciated The New World. Details have been a bit hard to find on this one (no surprise), but the movie stars Sean Penn and Brad Pitt, so that’s a pretty good start and reason enough to be excited.

#9. Hereafter (dir. Clint Eastwood)

It’s Clint – what the hell more do you want?! This time, he takes on a supernatural element from a script written by Peter Morgan (The Queen) that focuses on three people from different parts of the world who are touched by death in very different ways. Like most Eastwood projects, there isn’t very much information being released on this thriller, but the man’s resume the past few years is simply indisputable. Matt Damon plays George, a soft-spoken factory worker who has the ability to talk to the dead, but chooses not to. His story, along with two others intersect as the characters search for answers about what lies in store for us after we are gone. Bryce Dallas Howard, Cecile De France, and Richard Kind co-star in what could be another very busy awards season for Mr. Eastwood.

#10. True Grit (dir. The Coen Brothers)

I know that movie purists and John Wayne enthusiasts are ‘gritting’ their teeth at the fact that this classic 1969 film has been remade. I’m not a fan of remakes at all and there are very few that have ever been any good, but three words give me tremendous hope that this will stand out among the others — the Coen Brothers. That’s really all I need to hear and with their ever-impressive body of work since 1984, I fully trust that they would never have set out to make this film if they didn’t think it was going to be terrific. In my opinion, they’ve made one bad film (Intolerable Cruelty) among an abundance of brilliant works that include Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, A Serious Man, Fargo and The Big Lebowski. Their other remake (The Ladykillers) wasn’t such a great movie at all, which gives me some pause, but just look at who is playing Marshal Cogburn, the role that won Wayne his “Best Actor” Oscar — the Dude himself, Jeff Bridges! That’s reason for excitement in itself. 14-year old Mattie Ross looks to hire the toughest marshal she can find to help her seek out the man who murdered her father and she ends up with Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn. I can’t wait to see Bridges in that eye-patch in this ever-slothful, no-good role. Comes out on Christmas Day — a real present for movie lovers, one and all!

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