Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Sixteen


#16 — The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
One of the risks in indulging in this ongoing exercise in counting backwards is that all my various cineaste heresies will eventually be revealed. Certainly filmmakers will be underrepresented and specific titles that have earned consensus admiration among learned film viewers (or at least the cool kids among them) will be utterly absent. I think I ultimately have fairly conventional, time-tested tastes when it comes to my tallies, which makes the aberrations stand out all the more. Tracking through the seventies, for example, illustrates that I’m completely out of step with the canonical judgment on the most vital, pivotal works of director Francis Ford Coppola. I’ve already disclosed (or at least alluded to) the complete absence of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now from this list (the 1979 effort was the highest ranking Coppola effort in both the critics’ and directors’ lists in the recently released 2012 edition of the seminal Sight & Sound poll), and now I have to admit that The Godfather, one of the most revered and important films of the decade, is relegated to the teens.

The especially problematic aspect of this is that I get mired in mealy explication of the specific impulses behind the ranking, a undue focus on the mechanics of making the list and the vagaries of my ordering decisions that, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, I’m not especially interested in. I mean for these posts to be unabashed celebrations of each and every film, ultimately allowing–in the writing process anyway–very little difference in value between a film that sits in the forties and one that’s within a skipped frame of the top spot. In formulating the concept behind this ongoing (and ongoing) series, I decided I wasn’t going to dwell on why a film was better or worse than another in the list, focusing instead on why, for me, it is among the best I’ve seen. And yet I’m self-conscious enough about all this that I can’t help but think about that number in the lower left corner of the graphic above, filled with the certainty that conventional wisdom suggests that the 1 (or the 6, even) was mistakenly affixed to it.

Furthermore, I agree with just about every bit of praise heaped on the film. The Godfather is a triumph of cinematic formalism, demonstrating an absolute mastery of the both the bluntness and the nuance of traditional narrative. In fact, it achieves this to such a degree that even the remaining hints of pulpy hoariness from Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel that serves as source material–it wasn’t an especially well-regarded piece of literature before Coppola got his hands on it–are transformed into sun-dappled visual poetry. In the early seventies, the French New Wave was still coughing out the last of its closing arguments in the artistically audacious deconstruction of film technique, but Coppola offered up the thrilling, bracing counter-argument with a bravura three hours that pretty well won the case decisively for the lush traditionalism of Hollywood. Even as young gun filmmakers were pushing against boundaries, Coppola was, perhaps unwittingly, showing what could be accomplished through dedication to sturdy craft. The Godfather is certainly daring, but it’s also closer to John Ford than it is to Jean-Luc Godard.

In the end, I admire The Godfather more than I love it, and these lists are as much about love–the sort of wild enthrall that only a great movie can inspire–as anything. I still marvel at the winding journey of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone, the stunning cinematography of Gordon Willis, the blazing artistic reinvention of Marlon Brando, the brute force of the storytelling and the ruminative delicacy of Coppola’s direction. It’s share the certainty of others that it’s a great film, but I don’t necessarily buy into its occasional jockeying for consideration as the greatest of films. I don’t even find it to be Coppola’s artistic peak. In fact, that other film is the most compelling evidence I have for letting The Godfather sit right here. Terrific as it is, it resides in the dust kicked up from its sharper, fiercer, more beautifully cynical and paranoid cousin. We’re getting to that. I guess it will be part of my ongoing confession.

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