Harry only cares about technical results, suppressing his part in human consequences until guilt pushes him into a paranoia which renders him impotent. When Harry thinks he hears a murder behind a wall, he hides under the covers in the next room. Timeless and of the moment, The Conversation has one of the most surprising twists in film.
3. The Godfather, Part II (1974)
The Godfather, Part II was the first movie sequel to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Many film enthusiasts prefer it over The Godfather. For me, the reason it comes in lower is also the film’s greatest strength: Coppola’s artistic ambition. The sequel tells two semi-parallel stories, moving forward through two different timelines. Both succeed expertly, but it splits the focus. The Godfather tells one unified story, and what a story! It also carries more emotional impact because we are introduced to the Corleone family.
Opening about a decade after the conclusion of The Godfather, Part II finds Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) as the established family head, expanding the Corleone empire into Las Vegas, Florida, and Cuba. Details of his progress are interspersed with flashbacks to the early life of Vito Andolini (Robert De Niro) whose family is killed by a Mafia don in Sicily. He comes to America at the age of nine, settling in New York City. He takes the name of his town, Corleone, at Ellis Island and grows an empire. Michael, by contrast, loses his soul, sacrificing morality, his father’s values, and custody of his children. Still, he wins a senate hearing. Coppola maintains mood, atmosphere, period, and the subtext of William Shakespear’s King Lear.
2. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Physically damaging to make, Apocalypse Now is a perfect film experience. It is inspired by Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s novel about a former colonel named Kurtz who penetrates the free Congo and proclaims himself God. To bring this awesome presence to the war in Vietnam, the film needed “a poet-warrior in the classic sense,” as Dennis Hopper’s photojournalist describes. Coppola unleashed the full weight of Marlon Brando, an acting deity, to play Col. Kurtz. His mirror image, the assassin Capt. Willard, is played by Martin Sheen in one of the most tightly unhinged characterizations in film.
He’s got fierce competition in Laurence Fishburne’s jumpy teenaged machine-gunner, as well as the mango-loving/tiger-hating Chef (Fredric Forrest). But Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) liberates the most quotable moments: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” he says after a successful cluster-bombing; “Charlie don’t surf,” after clearing a beach of pesky enemies. His most eloquent roar comes as his choppers blare Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” on their descent on Vietnamese schoolchildren. Coppola is a master of emotional and intellectual storytelling. He sums up jungle warfare in one exchange: “Who’s the commanding officer here?” Willard asks a sniper, who counters, “Aren’t you?”
1. The Godfather (1972)
The Godfather is widely considered the greatest film of all time. Made under its $6 million budget and completed ahead of schedule, it was the first film to take in a million bucks a day. It was nominated for 11 Oscars and won three. Perfectly edited, immaculately acted with realistic warts intact, and expertly framed, it set high standards for a new Hollywood. It is the ultimate gangster movie, and the most loyal family film in cinema. But it is so much more. Based on Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather is a movie you can watch dozens of times and still find something as fresh as a sprig of basil in a sauce prepared by caporegime Peter Clemenza (Richard Castellano).