‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

A powerhouse, electrifying [sic] performance at the centre of the film results in a visceral to-the-gut feature that jettisoned Jack Nicholson into the major A league.

Korean war veteran R.P.McMurphy (Jack Nicholson – Chinatown, The Departed) looks to an easier jail stretch by being admitted to a hospital for the mentally unstable. But he’s unprepared for the cruelty of domineering Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher – The Lady in Red, Flowers in the Attic). Rallying the bullied patients on his ward and providing a sense of purpose and fun, McMurphy falls foul of authority – and Ratched in particular.

With its commentary on mental health treatment an undoubted allegory of political totalitarianism, Czech New Wave director Milos Forman (Amadeus, Hair) expertly facilitates a gradual unfolding of the narrative, the control by the nursing staff slowly tightening as witnessed by a shocked (and sane) McMurphy. The result is brilliant cinema, an actor-driven feature anchored by Jack Nicholson’s finest hour.

Nominated for 9 Oscars in 1976 including best supporting actor (Brad Dourif – Halloween, Mississippi Burning), cinematography, score, editing – won 5 for best film, director, actor, actress and adapted screenplay.

Rating: 81%

‘The Deer Hunter’

A visceral engagement for its time of the American/Vietnam war, The Deer Hunter looks to the impact the war has on a migrant Polish blue-collar community in Pennsylvania.

With a narrative told over three parts of comparible length (before, during, after), director Michael Cimino (Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, The Sicilian) builds context as steel workers celebrate at the wedding of Steven (John Savage – The Thin Red Line, Hair) three of their own heading overseas. Life will never be the same for the three hunting buddies or those left behind.

Confronting, with brutal scenes of pyschological warfare (the Russian roulette scene indelible once seen) juxtaposed with post-war scenes in Saigon equally challenging, it’s a feature that also celebrates community, courage and friendship. Michael (Robert De Niro – The Godfather II, Silver Linings Playbook) refuses to give up on Steven or Nick (Christopher Walken – Hairspray, Catch Me If You Can): Linda (Meryl Streep in only her second film) and the boys’ friends await their return.

Muted tonality and (mostly) claustrophobic cinematography (Vilmos Zsigmond – Close Encounters, The Black Dahlia) add to its heightened sense of power that is simultaneously harrowing and engrossing. And the ending? Irony? Love of country? A communal coming together? It’s a hard call seeing the film 50 years later with the benefit of time – The Deer Hunter itself was released just three years after the American withdrawal from Vietnam with emotions raw…

Nominated for 9 Oscars in 1979 including best actor (De Niro), supporting actress (Streep), original screenplay, cinematography – won 5 for best film, director, supporting actor (Walken), sound, editing.

Rating: 81%

‘The Godfather Part II’

Arguably better than its predecessor, The Godfather II takes up the Corleone family story with Michael (Al Pacino – House of Gucci, Dog Day Afternoon) firmly ensconced at the head.

The mid 1950s has seen considerable change in the world of organised crime, with the dollars to be made in the casinos of Las Vegas along with the burgeoning drug trade. Along with the political minefields for the New York families setting up in California and Arizona, the Corleones main threat is from Miami-based Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg – …and justice for all, The Cassandra Crossing). With trusted advisor Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall – Tender Mercies, The Judge), Michael makes his move. Interspersed within the contemporary tale is that of the arrival of Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro – Taxi Driver, The Irishman) from Sicily to New York in the early 1900s.

A superb period piece from director Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) with the engrossing De Niro narrative adding depth and insight into the rise of the Corleone family, The Godfather II has depth and surprising humanity considering its violence-based subject matter.

Nominated for 11 Oscars in 1975 including best actor (Pacino), supporting actor x2 (Strasberg, Michael V. Gazzo), supporting actress (Talia Shire), costume design, won 6 – best film, director, supporting actor (De Niro), adapted screenplay, set design, soundtrack (Nino Rota).

Rating: 92%

‘The Godfather’

A landmark film for its genre, the sprawling mafia drama is one of the most influential films of all time. Not only was it a critical and commercial success on its release in 1972, The Godfather provided the breakout roles for the likes of Al Pacino, James Caan, Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, launched the career of director Francis Ford Coppola and revitalised a waning Marlon Brando.

Taking the unusual (for its time) step of seeing the action unfold from within the Corleone family rather than from the perspective of law enforcement or outsider seeking revenge, The Godfather became less about violent organised crime. Instead, we witness events from within the family and their impact: the murder of eldest son, the loose canon Sonny (James Caan); Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) playing in the garden with his grandson; youngest son Michael’s (Al Pacino) reluctance to become involved in the family business.

But violence is never far away. Post World War II sees drugs and gambling replacing the more traditional guns, alcohol and women as sources of income. The Corleone family are initially reluctant, putting them in conflict with the other New York families who need the Corleone political influences. Open warfare erupts with an assassination attempt on the Don’s life: Michael is packed off to Sicily, second son Fredo (John Cazale) to Las Vegas. A ceasefire is eventually negotiated and Michael returns to New York. With Sonny dead and his father weakened, the former American war hero takes on the role of head of the family – and proves to be far more ruthless than his father.

The Godfather is a tight, unfolding magnificence in its three hour running time as we are drawn into family life and the violence that surrounds them. Interspersed with the darkness of New York is sun drenched Sicily but where menace is always present.

Nominated for 11 Oscars in 1973 including best director, supporting actor (Al Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall), best soundtrack (Nino Rota), won 3 (best film, actor, adapted screenplay – Mario Puzo).

Rating: 92%

‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

Iconic space age feature from the 1960s, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a gloriously dated LSD-induced imaginative trip from director Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Open, Full Metal Jacket).

Ground-breaking it may have been on its release with its scientifically accurate depiction of space flight and pioneering special effects, yet Kubrick’s epic struggles by today’s comparisons. Avoidance of conventional cinematic and narrative techniques of the day (approaches which have become part of the everyday today) along with sparingly used dialogue result in the reliance on the visual narrative. The discovery of a monolith on Earth has resulted in a space race where a second monolith has been found on Jupiter. As Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea – David & Lisa, Infinitely Polar Bear) and Dr Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood – Splendour in the Grass, RPM) man the space station, so they must contend with the sentient supercomputer, HAL 9000.

Sketchy and ‘over worthy’, visually 2001: A Space Odyssey is a splendid, immersive experience. But it’s also extraordinarily dull.

Nominated for 4 Oscars in 1969 including best director, original screenplay and art direction, won 1 for special effects.

Rating: 58%

‘Taxi Driver’

It’s hard to believe Taxi Driver, a film that made the names of the dream team of director Martin Scorsese, actors Robert De Niro and a young Jodie Foster, and writer Paul Schrader, is almost 50 years old.

A true New York nightmare of a feature as unhinged veteran Travis Bickle (De Niro) becomes obsessed with a 12 year-old hooker, Iris (Foster) following the rejection of his advances towards Betsy (Cybill Shepherd – The Last Picture Show, TV’s Moonlighting). With the Democratic Party nomination for president as a backdrop, Taxi Driver sees Bickle look for a personal retribution against the sleaze of his city.

Unease percolates throughout this Scorsese masterpiece as, grainy and grim, Taxi Driver plumbs the underbelly of a claustrophobic Manhattan supported by a plaintive jazz-influenced soundtrack from Bernard Hermann.

Nominated for 4 Oscars in 1977 – best film, actor, supporting actress and soundtrack. Winner of the 1976 Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Rating: 92%

‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’

A rousing war tale based loosely on the novel by Pierre Boule, The Bridge on the River Kwai has vaguely uncomfortable undercurrents.

The historical setting of the construction of the Burma Railway may be based on facts, but the narrative of events and personnel is purely fiction. Enforced slave labour by the Japanese of POWs and locals and their inhumane treatment are well documented. But made just 12 years after the end of the war, director David Lean’s epic feature skirts over the starvation, sickness and deaths. Instead, we find Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness – The Lavendar Hill Mob, Star Wars), the British commander, feeling obliged to work with the Japanese commander, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa – Tokyo Joe, The Cheat), in the construction of the bridge to protect his men. This goes against British High Command as, following American Navy Commander Shears’ (William Holden – Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17) escape, the destruction of the bridge becomes a high priority.

Regarded as one of the finest war films of all time, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a gripping adventure tale of male bonding and peacockery (the scenes with Ann Sears as the Nurse were added at the insistence of the Studio). Full of strife in the making, the tension is palpable.

Nominated for 8 Oscars in 1958 including best supporting actor (Hayakawa), won 7 including best film, director, actor (Guinness), adapted screenplay, cinematography.

Rating: 75%

‘Bonnie & Clyde’

Once groundbreaking in normalising violence and glamourising the two true-life killers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, some 50 plus years later Bonnie & Clyde comes across as a brash, unsubtle, hysterical romp of a feature.

Bored small town waitress Bonnie (Faye Dunaway – Network, Chinatown) falls for the recently released Clyde (Warren Beatty – Reds, Shampoo) – and the two almost immediately go on a bankrobbing spree, building up their ‘team’ in the process. Keystone Kop-like scenes dashing through 1930s Middle America follow tempered with plenty of shootouts and bloodletting, normally in the presence of the hysterical Blanche (Estelle Parsons – Rachel Rachel, Dick Tracey), wife of Clyde’s brother, Buck (Gene Hackman – The French Connection, Unforgiven).

A touchstone film of its time, Bonnie & Clyde, with its inconsistency in presentation (director Arthur Penn – The Miracle Worker, Alice’s Restaurant), now presents as a cheap, dated frenzy of a feature with a heavy hillbilly soundtrack overlay.

Nominated for 10 Oscars in 1968 including best film, director, actor, actress, supporting actor (Gene Hackman AND Michael J Pollard), original screenplay – won 2 for best supporting actress and cinematography.

Rating: 43%

‘The Philadelphia Story’

An early rom-com and commentary on the intrusiveness of the gossip columnists/paparazzi, The Philadelphia Story is a fun ride that earned James Stewart (It’s a Wonderful Life, Harvey) his one Oscar.

As sharp-tongued socialite Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn – The African Queen, Adam’s Rib) looks to her forthcoming second marriage, Stewart is dispatched by the tabloid Spy magazine to get the inside story. His partner-in-crime is Lord’s first husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant – Charade, North By Northwest). Naturally, nothing quite goes to plan.

Fast-talking, wry dialogue of the privileged classes enjoying their privileges, The Philadelphia Story is not quite as funny as it thinks it is and is guilty of taking itself a little too seriously. But director George Cukor (Born Yesterday, My Fair Lady) teases out the humour with stellar performances, particularly from Grant and the deadpan Ruth Hussey (Flight Command, Our Wife) as the magazine’s photographer.

Nominated for 6 Oscars in 1941 including best film, director, actress, supporting actress, won 2 for best actor and adapted screenplay.

Rating: 64%

‘The Best Years of Our Lives’

Sober and well meaning but overly sentimental, director William Wyler (Ben Hur, Roman Holiday) explores the issues faced by three returning veterans immediately post World War II.

All traumatised, one severely disabled, the three have very different wartime experiences and homes to return to. In spite of this, on meeting on the journey home, they befriend each other. Al Stephenson (Fredric March – A Star is Born, Inherit the Wind) is a family man and successful banker whilst Homer Parrish (Harrold Russell) must deal with life without hands. Success in the military fails to translate at home as Fred Derry (Dana Andrews – Laura, The Ox-bow Incident) struggles to find work to keep his goodtime wife Marie (Virginia Mayo – White Heat, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) in the style she has become accustomed to in his absence. The lives of the three men continue to cross as they attempt to settle into their new normalities.

At almost three hours, The Best Years of Our Lives shows immense respect to the trials faced by returning servicemen. But it is also a little cloying in its patriotism and romanticised solutions of doing the decent thing for men who risked their lives.

Nominated for 9 Oscars in 1947 – won 8 including best film, director, actor (Fredric March), supporting actor (Harrold Russell), screenplay (Robert E Sherwood).

Rating: 67%