Why 1973 Was the Best Year in Movie History
All week our writers will debate: Which was the greatest film year of the past half century. Click here for a complete list of our essays.
It’s perhaps a little quaint to choose a year that I wasn’t even alive during to represent the best year of cinema. I was not there to observe how any of these films conversed with the culture around them when they were first screened. So, although I am choosing the glorious year of 1973, I am choosing not just due to a perusal of top ten lists that year—but because the films that were released that year greatly influenced how I engage with movies now, in 2015. Films speak to more than just the audiences that watch them—they speak to each other. Filmmakers inspire each other. Allusions are made. A patchwork begins. These are the movies of our lives.
Having grown up with cinema in the 90s, and becoming a full-fledged auteurist by the early aughts, I am choosing 1973 as the best year of cinema because it was a fascinatingly diverse year, in which different types of films spoke directly to the generation of auteurs who are working today. There’s a direct current from Robert Altman’s 1973 film to Paul Thomas Anderson’s most recent, Nicolas Roeg’s to Steven Soderbergh, Terrence Malick’s to—err—Terrence Malick, Larry Cohen to Quentin Tarantino, and Martin Scorsese’s to every filmmaker who came after him. I could get deep into many, many films released in 1973, but instead I’d like to roll up my sleeves and look at how the films of 1973 were the biggest year of influence—during the famed “decade under the influence.”. To me, that makes it the best (if you would like to read my more focused dissections, please check out Best Movie Ever, new entries every Wednesday).
ROCK AND ROLL
Rock and roll changed music forever in the 50s and 60s, but film was late in adapting. Sure you had The Yardbirds causing a riot in “Blowup,” and you had Little Richard as a wailing film prop in “The Girl Can’t Help It,” but—movies only used rock ‘n roll as a performance. In 1973 it was a spirit guide.
Enter Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets.” Scorsese uses the Rolling Stones soundtrack as a character association for his street fightin’ men. Robert De Niro’s entrance in Streets is iconic. In slow motion, super cool, De Niro owns the room, and Scorsese and the Stones move with him naturally, by the time De Niro has moved through the bar, we’re fully aware of his charisma, but are skeptical of his potential manipulation. This rock-music-introduction-shot has been done so many times since (by Scorsese, by Wes Anderson, by Sofia Coppola, by Richard Linklater, by Quentin Tarantino; name a great director and they have a great slow-mo song entrance somewhere post-‘73). It replaces old-school character introduction narration. We don’t need to know Johnny Boy’s story at that exact moment—we just met him in a very organic manner, similar to how we actually meet Johnny Boy’s in real life.
Music was also the road map in “Paper Moon” and “Badlands.” Although Peter Bogdanovich’s Depression-era Moon, wasn’t rock, the radio was what Addie (Tatum O’Neal) retreated to when she was lost; it was also all the teenagers needed to have a good night in George Lucas’ 1973 love letter, “American Graffiti.” And in my personal top film, all the happy moments between the on-the-lam couple (Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek) in Malick’s “Badlands” occur when they dance to Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love is Strange” outside their treefort of societal escape, or in the middle of a highway that they’ve made themselves. Malick uses narration, but not for the action, it’s the thoughts of a young girl trying to feel grown up. Such poetry and imagery directly inspired Bruce Springsteen to make his best record, the 8-track isolated wonder, Nebraska (the first track retells the entire story of “Badlands”). If it moved The Boss, it’ll move you.
The 60s and 70s saw directors play around with film noir, but while most updated the men as physical anti-heroes with questionable codes (see Lee Marvin in “Point Blank;” Warren Oates in “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”) Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” placed Philip Marlow (Elliott Gould) in a shifting landscape of big money California and the dissipating pockets of idealism. And while Philip has a crime to solve, he mostly just wants to take care of his cat, because his cat isn’t always seeking the new fad. The tracking introduction of Marlow, his cat, his nudie yoga neighbors, and the drive into town establishes multiple LA cultures within three minutes, very similarly to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice.
“Don’t Look Now”, Nicolas Roeg’s fever dream of grief, is well known for the sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie (can’t post here!) because audiences can’t tell if they’re having real intercourse or not—it looks that natural (and Sutherland and Christie were a couple at the time). But what makes that scene iconic isn’t just the 70s hairdos and a fondness for a couple—it’s how Roeg cut intercourse with shots of the couple dressing back up. Many of the sexiest scenes of recent memory—Soderbergh’s hotel-bar-to-bedroom scene in “Out of Sight”, for example—use a similar technique of splicing seductive conversation in between copulation. It’s always sexier when the filmmaker and performers are aware that the before and after of sex is just as sexy (if not sexier) than the actual sex.
1973 also gave us some genre gems. It was a peak year for horror with William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist”—which still holds the #1 flag as the best possession film of all time. But don’t forget “The Wicker Man” with its insanely fun virginal-horror story told through folk songs, nude dancing (NSFW), and sacrifice (and check out Christopher Lee as the cult leader—pretty sure that John Kerry’s style was directly influenced).
But while those films legitimized horror to non-horror fans, two other 1973 grindhouse films were also a huge influence to Quentin Tarantino. You can’t watch Toshiya Fujita’s “Lady Snowblood” without immediately thinking of the geyser blood-sprays and O-Ren Ishii’s entire backstory in “Kill Bill, Vol. 1.” And exploitation extraordinaire Larry Cohen remade a previous genre classic (1931’s “Little Caesar”; a gangster film) as a Blaxploitation film in the low budget, James Brown-powered “Black Caesar”—very similar to the grindhouse vein that the first-half of “Django Unchained” has (itself an update of a spaghetti western).
In addition to the films mentioned above, 1973 also was the year when Paul Morrissey released “Flesh For Frankenstein”, Malcolm McDowell sung picaresque tunes in the original Lindsay Anderson musical “O Lucky Man!”, Woody Allen made what I’d call his first great film (“Sleeper”), Ingmar Bergman released another great drama (“Scenes of a Marriage”), Brian De Palma found his own whacky groove in “Sisters”, Sidney Lumet made one of the best cop dramas (“Serpico”), Clint Eastwood put his first directorial stamp on a western (“High Plains Drifter”), Joe Don Baker took on all of Tennessee in “Walking Tall”, Hal Ashby added more evidence into his most-underrated-director-ever-folder with “The Last Detail”, and Alejandro Jodoworsky made one of the most original films (operas? art installations?) of all time with “Holy Mountain.”
My God, what a year for strange and classical films. And you can still feel all of them reverberate and inspire today.
Brian Formo is freelance critic and Community Manager at Collider.com
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