Official Nominations: A Clockwork Orange. The French Connection. The Last Picture Show. Fiddler On The Roof. Nicholas And Alexandra.
1971 was a great year for films and for the Oscars as they mostly got everything right. With so many strong films though, only a panel of comatose cyborgs would get it wrong. William Friedkin would come to popularity (after releasing a few art-house and small films) this year with the action-packed thriller The French Connection, highly regarded as one of the best cop films ever. As well as the perfect partnership between Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider the film is famous for its breathless car chase and for being the first R rated film to win Best Film. Unlike films of just a few years before this feels modern timeless, and the script, characterizations, and story don’t feel like they have aged at all. It would be difficult to argue against this film winning the main award, but the year had a couple of other masterpieces.
Stanley Kubrick returned after a three year hiatus bringing one of the most famously controversial films ever made to screen. He turned Anthony Burgess’s novel into a funny, scary, futuristic vision of the world and filling it with violence, bizarre imagery, sex, and some of the most famous scenes ever committed film. Not shying away from the argot which Burgess used in the novel, Kubrick creates a flawless social commentary on youth, on fear, on paranoia, on authority and any number of other subjects. The lack of redemption which appears in the movie serves Kubrick’s typically bleak style and sets up McDowell’s character Alex as an anti-hero for the ages. The film was banned in many countries including Britain for content, for its messages, yet today it stands as a powerful look at an extreme, yet not impossible future. The cast is uniformly brilliant, McDowell is never better, the classical score is used as a plot device rather than simply background noise, and everything moves at a sickening pace.
Just as famous and proof that the musical was still dragging its tippedy tappedy heels around is The Fiddler On The Roof. Unusual for a musical is that the story is mildly interesting, Williams’ score is decent, while the songs are bouncy enough but hardly memorable. Topol gives a good performance as the poor Jewish lead but the film is largely forgettable. Also forgettable is Schaffner’s Nicholas and Alexandra. It is epic, tragic, inspiring, but lacks the strength in its cast to make it as powerful as it could have been.
That leaves Bogdanovich’s smart coming of age drama The Last Picture Show to complete the roster. Featuring all round wonderful performances, particularly from Bridges, Johnson, and Bottoms and filmed in beautiful black and white it is probably the director’s best. It is a much more simple film than the two big ones here but equally as affecting. My winner is A Clockwork Orange for its daring, for its shocks, for the visual flare, and for an engaging story which forces your brain to tick rather than tide over, though either of the other two big boys would be a worthy winner.
My Winner: A Clockwork Orange
My Nominations: A Clockwork Orange. The French Connection. The Last Picture Show. The Big Boss. Wake In Fright. Get Carter. THX 1138. Walkabout. McCabe & Mrs Miller. The Devils.
As is generally the case I expand my search to the wider movie world, bringing in Britain, Hong Kong, and Hong Kong into the mix. The Big Boss is the first true Bruce Lee film and remains a startling introduction to his performing skills, and not just as a fighter. It’s a fairly straight film with Lee helping out his neverending group of cousins and investigating corruption and murder in a small town but it has an energy and inspired rebellious spirit like few other films. McCabe & Mrs Miller is another Robert Altman classic – he had a string of these all the way through this period – this seems just as worthy of a nomination as those which got one. With no chance of getting such honours, The Devils remains one of the most highly sought after and rarely seen controversial movies – certainly not an easy watch it nevertheless is one of a kind.
Get Carter is one of the finest British movies of the decade, and for my money one of the last truly great British films. Wake In Fright is equally one of Australia’s best – a biting satire with gripping action, machismo, violence, and a stark style while Walkabout is a joint venture between the two countries and offering a different but equally deadly glimpse of the outback. It features some gorgeous cinematography and haunting images. Finally, THX 1138 is an early George Lucas effort before he set his sights on a galaxy far, far away. His dystopian film is a world away from what we think of when we think of George Lucas movies – this is stark, cold, but bold and inventive in crafting an imaginary world. The film was dismissed upon release but has been re-evaluated over time as a near-classic, a sign of a young writer, director finding his feet, and a chilling vision of a future which seems increasingly plausible.
My Winner: A Clockwork Orange
Let us know in the comments which film of 1971 you would pick as winner of the Best Picture Oscar!