In an effort to highlight older films, here are the best films I watched this year that were not released in 2017 or 2016. Entries are unranked and listed below by release date. Since this was the year I did a deep dive of the 1970s, most of the titles are from that decade. Enjoy.
Little Big Man (1970) - Easily the greatest of the revisionist westerns, and my favorite Arthur Penn film to date. It also features another great performance from Dustin Hoffman, and iconic work from Chief Dan George. Full of dark humor and surprisingly gentle humanism, it reminds me of nothing so much as "Forrest Gump." "Little Big Man," however, offers a far less compromised, whitewashed journey through America's eventful past.
The Emigrants (1971) - Jan Troell sends 19th century characters played by Sweden's most beloved actors, Liv Ullman and Max von Sydow, on a long and harrowing journey from a poor Swedish village to the unknown American frontier. It's a deeply affecting experience, and the way Troell presents it, an unusually immersive one. A sequel film, "The New Land," was also very good, but not quite as transcendent as "The Emigrants."
High Plains Drifter (1973) - Clint Eastwood directs and stars in a revenge tale wrapped up in a brutal western. It's the imagery that makes this one so memorable, particularly the painted town and the bleak, empty vistas. I also enjoy the way that the supernatural elements are handled, with a level of restraint it's hard to imagine anyone getting away with today. There are elements that haven't aged well, but far more that endure beautifully.
The Bad News Bears (1976) - A sports film that happily thumbs its nose at being a sports film. Full of cursing kids, an adult authority figure who loves his booze, and bads sportsmanship everywhere you look, there have rarely been such subversive films involving children. It may not be appropriate for kids, but it's an excellent film about kids, and all the little hypocrisies that they endure in the name of upholding the grown ups' status quo.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) - A shining example of the classic Chinese martial arts action film. Produced by Hong Kong's legendary Shaw Brothers' Studios, the film boasts elaborate training sequences, a charismatic leading man in Gordon Liu, and just a little bit of high-minded spirituality to give the story some extra oomph. It's a film largely built on spectacle, but the kind of spectacle that remains impressive to this day.
Tess (1979) - Roman Polanski's adaptation of "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" stars a young, intense Natassja Kinski. And she manages to enliven a long, slow-paced, and psychologically gruelling film that is as much about the harshness of life in Tess's world as it is about her tragic love story. Like Polanski's "Macbeth," the emotional reality of the characters' lives is mirrored by the cinematic depiction of surviving in gruelling, unfriendly environs to great effect.
Real Life (1979) - My favorite of Albert Brooks's comedies sees him playing himself trying to produce a documentary about an ordinary family, and the insane lengths he goes to in order to achieve this. Looking back, from a world now awash in "reality television," it's hysterical to see the concerns and dilemmas that Brooks and his cohorts come up with for their fictional counterparts. Mockumentaries have rarely been better conceived or executed.
Steel Magnolias (1989) - I love a film that can evoke a particular time and place and way of life, and nothing has come close to "Steel Magnolias" in capturing the contentious, dramatic world of a certain breed of Southern women. I love the whole cast, but especially Olympia Dukakis and Shirley MacLaine as duelling grand dames. It's no wonder this has been a cult classic for ages, much copied over the years, but never successfully duplicated.
White Men Can't Jump (1992) - This is such a smart film about race and relationships, following a pair of basketball hustlers who team up to play on the prejudices of their mostly African American marks. The way the characters talk and play ball certainly doesn't feel like anyone's faking, and pains were clearly made to pay respect to the LA street culture of the era. The movie's secret weapon, however, is Rosie Perez, in what may be her best role ever.
The Chaser (2008) - Director Na Hong-jin's debut feature is a nervy crime thriller that has so much impact because everything depicted feels so plausible. The whole situation is complicated, the frustrated hero has too much baggage, and poor timing and lack of information wind up being vital. Some elements, like the serial killer, are very familiar, but it's the way everything is grounded in the real world that makes him truly threatening