The Best Films of 1979

| December 31, 1979

This ten best list was fairly easy to make.  1979 was a good year at the movies, not just foreign films or documentaries but with American films, despite the constant safety nets of remakes and sequels

1. Being There was my favorite film of the year, a tricky and very insightful comedy about a man named Chance who has been sheltered away behind the walls of a mansion his whole life and knows only the tenets of his garden and what he sees on television.  Cast out into the world for the first time after the homeowner dies, Chance is at the whims of chance, and that chance puts him in the company of millionaires and politicians who mistake his limited knowledge for profundity and brilliance.  This is a wonderful movie, featuring the best performance of Sellers’ distinguished career and offering a wonderful commentary about how we, as Americans, never tend to take things at face value, we’re always looking for the deeper meaning.  And that extends to the much-discussed final shot, a piece of ethereal imagery that even I have struggled to explain.

2. Manhattan was Woody Allen’s brilliant successor to Annie Hall, continuing his mission to turn misery into the stuff of high comedy.  Here he pulls a two-handed trick, celebrating the great city that he loves while at the same time skewering the trendy up-scale phonies the inhabit its streets, inventing trivial issues to keep from dealing with larger ones.  It’s beautiful, it’s heartbreaking, it’s funny, it’s witty and it’s challenging – what movie about a relationship between a 42-year-old man and a 17-year-old girl wouldn’t be?

3. Apocalypse Now was Francis Ford Coppola’s nightmarish look into the frivolity and pointless nature of the war in Vietnam.  Prying its outward structure from Joseph Campbell’s “Heart of Darkness” the film is an upriver journey toward a jungle kingdom built by a celebrating Army colonel but it’s much more than that.  The movie sees the American involvement in the war as one of killing without purpose, of bombing and strafing a population for reasons that were difficult to define.  This is a harsh commentary on the war but at the same time was a portrait of the nature of the human animal.  It was extraordinary.

4. Best Boy was the year’s most heartbreaking film, a documentary about Philly Wohl, a 52-year-old intellectually disabled man facing a difficult transition from the home of his elderly parents and into a facility that will take care of him when they are gone.  The movie is a beautiful portrait of the bond between a mother and son and also a commentary on what exactly we are doing to ensure that our disabled citizens get the care that they need.  If we are our brothers keepers, then what are we doing about it.

5. North Dallas Forty was the year’s best sports movie in a year of more than two dozen post Rocky wannabes.  This one is a surprisingly intelligent look at professional football and the men who play it.  What happens to a player’s body over time?  What happens to them psychologically?  What comes of such a brutal sport in the onset of age?  Those are questions at the heart of this movie which stars Nick Nolte as Phil Elliott, the wide-receiver for the North Dallas Bulls.  Phil is not as young as he used to be and his body constantly reminds him of this.  He’s a functional player in that he is reliable at catches that equal victories and hangs on to this buddy, a good ‘ole boy quarter back named Seth Maxwell (Mac Davis).  What is so interesting about this movie is that it isn’t so much about the game of football but the reality of those who have to play it.

6. The China Syndrome, like North Dallas Forty, could have been just another genre piece.  In a year of so many hack-strung disaster pictures, was not only a great thriller but led to one of the most bizarre convergences of cinema and history that there has ever been. This is a movie about a near-catastrophe at a Los Angeles nuclear power plant in which the temperature levels almost reach point critical due to a lack of safety procedures and cheap gauges that keep the technicians thinking that the temperature levels are completely normal.  Yet, buy a strange coincidence, just 11 days after the film was released, the same thing nearly happened at a plant at Three-Mile Island.  In that way, The China Syndrome clearly sees a massive flaw in the mechanism of nuclear energy and how those flaws are covered up by men who routinely slap band aids on safety regulations in an effort to save money.  The desperation to expose such a potential crisis is seen through the most effective manner in which to tell this story in a fictional drama: a pulse-pounding thriller.

7. The Marriage of Maria Braun was the best film ever made by Rainer Werner Fassbender, the East German filmmaker who made nearly 40 films before his tragic death from a drug overdose in 1982.  This film is a great testament to the kind of work that he left behind and the great promise that would remain unfulfilled.  The film deals with Maria Braun, a German war bride who is married in the closing days of World War II, loses her new husband and then in the post-war fallout, works her way up the ladder of success by any means necessary.  She succeeds by being very smart, very sexy and very conniving.  It has been compared in its intimacy to Gone With the Wind, another film about a woman dealing with the post-war fallout who has to break social conventions in order to survive.  This is an extraordinary film.

8. Kramer vs. Kramer could have been just another sudsy melodramatic movie – after all it was based on a sudsy melodramatic best seller – but it was done with so much more heart, so much more human emotion then most films of this trek.  Kramer told the story of work-obsessed family man, Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) whose wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) suddenly walks out one day because she needs to find herself, leaving Ted to raise an eight-year-old son that he hardly knows.  The movie is really held up by two fine performances, first by Hoffman as a befuddled man who can work wonders on the job but is totally out to sea when it comes to dealing with the simplest domestic issue; and by Streep as a woman whose inward trajectory never really seemed prepared for motherhood.

9. Life of Brian was needlessly the year’s most controversial picture, a comedy condemned by a over-exposed intellectuals and know-nothing religious leaders who threw rocks at the film for making fun of the life of Jesus Christ.  But it was a controversy put forth by people who could not be bothered to see the film at all.  If they had, they would have noted that the film isn’t even about Jesus, it’s about the life of a poor schlub who has the misfortune to life in the same neighborhood at the same time that Jesus was living his extraordinary life.  That man is Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman), one of nature’s lesser creatures who manages to find himself in Jesus’ vicinity but through a massive misunderstanding manages to gain a group of followers that he doesn’t want.  The movie is very funny at skewering the pomposity of blind faith, mislaid obedience and silly dogmatic ideals.

10. Alien was the best of the year’s many post-Star Wars science fiction pictures, not by copying it but by taking the genre in a different direction.  In fact, this movie raises two worn-out genres to great art: science fiction and horror.  If 2001 was about white-collar workers in space, this one is about the blue collar, dealing with a crew in deep space who accidentally get an unwanted visitor aboard their ship after stopping off at an unexplored planet.  Yes, the movie is just another stalk-and-slash picture but it keeps raising the stakes by having the alien creature evolve as the movie progresses.  That way, we never know what it will do next, what form it will take, nor where it might be.


Just off the top (alphabetically):

• The Black Stallion was a surprisingly intelligent film, pried from the book by Walter Farley, about the relationship that develops between a lonely kid and a horse that he befriends when the two are shipwrecked together.

• Breaking Away was another great sports movie in a sea of pretenders.  This one dealt with the daily lives of a group of kids in Indiana who get involved in a major cycling competition.  But cycling is only the template.  We get involved in their lives, their personalities and their dreams.

• The Onion Field was a brilliant and insightful look into the hypocrisy of the criminal justice system brought to you by author Joseph Wambaugh who grew tired of his books being turned into trashy films and decided to write this one himself. 

• The In-Laws was another great comedy, this one in the tradition of the great screwball comedies of the 1930s, dealing with a dentist (Alan Arkin) who gets mixed up with the shenanigans of his in-law (Peter Falk) who get mixed up with the American government and a South American dictator.  This one was laughs throughout – and that was a difficult thing to pull off this year.  And I’m still rattling the words “Jose Greco de la Merta” in my mind.

• Peppermint Soda was a terrific coming of age movie, written and directed by Diane Kurys, about her own experiences as a 13-year-old Jewish girl growing up in France in 1963.  This isn’t an over-arching story of someone who moves the world, it’s a lovely portrait of an ordinary girl and the experiences that she has.

• Rocky II, many would argue, is not as good as the first film, but what movie could be.  The special quality of this film is the way in which it continues the story so beautifully that you almost can’t watch the first film without then moving into this one.  What makes it work is the love story between Rocky and Adrian as they move into marriage and parenthood and Rocky’s constant urging to get back in the ring.

• Saint Jack featured the best performance ever by Ben Gazzara as Jack Flowers an American hustler in Singapore in the early years of the decade whose fortunes lie in his dream of starting a brothel and then taking his earning back to the states to live in the lap of luxury.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1979) Filed in: Uncategorized